Harry ran into Millicent Bulstrode as he was hurrying down the passage to the Slytherin dorms. He was running late; a trip to the team broomshed to check on his Firebolt, plus the necessity of collecting his abandoned Herbology equipment, had made him late for dinner and now he was late for a Charms revision session in Professor Flitwick's classroom. The necessity of maintaining those small alliances he had made in Slytherin made him slow down when he saw his Housemate though.
Millicent was not a girl nature had been kind to. Facially she resembled an overbred bulldog and as she was also a big, square-set girl, the combination was rather unfortunate. Appearances could be deceptive, though. While her personality was anything but warm and she had the reputation of being unpleasantly taciturn, she had a long memory. For example, she remembered that during her first year at Hogwarts Draco Malfoy had been extremely spiteful to her, while Harry Potter had taken the time to help her correct her broomstick technique after a particularly disastrous first flying lesson.
It couldn't be called an alliance as such, but since then the two of them had got into the habit of helping each other out once in a while, in particular warning each other when Malfoy and his cronies were on the prowl. It was valuable information for them both.
"He's on the rampage again," she muttered, as Harry politely held the hidden door open for her to pass. "Been up to something. I don't know what. Watch your back, Potter."
"Thanks," he muttered back.
He saw almost at once what she was referring to. Malfoy was huddled in a corner with Crabbe, Goyle, his girlfriend Pansy Parkinson and a couple of seventh and fifth years who collectively formed his personal court. They were whispering among themselves and every so often Pansy would let out a little high-pitched giggle.
Harry was used to this behaviour and his only concern was that he should get to his dorm without having to hex any of them in the process. He walked past briskly, but just as he reached the stairs leading down to the dorms Malfoy looked up and shouted, "Alright there, scar-head?"
This was a name Malfoy had been calling Harry since their first year, along with 'Potty Potter', 'The Boy Who Lived To Regret It', and a number of other unimaginative titles. None of them ever failed to produce a guffaw of apparently genuine laughter from the blond boy's followers, and after nearly six years of this Harry was beginning to question the pureblood policy of interbreeding exclusively with each other, since their behaviour seemed to suggest a terminal slide in intelligence among purebloods in general.
Then he remembered that both of his godfathers and his own father were purebloods as, indeed, was Ron Weasley. Which led him to the depressing conclusion that it had something to do with being a Slytherin. Or maybe it was simply contamination by Malfoy.
At any rate, Harry had perfected a response to this and most other comments Malfoy flung his way. He would look at the blond youth with a feigned lack of recognition, then produce a vague frown which suggested that he couldn't imagine why this lowly stranger might be addressing him. Then he would shrug slightly and continue with whatever he was doing. It rarely failed to provoke a response from the other boy, even if it was only another insult, but the fact that he had not reacted was subtly satisfying to him.
Nor did it fail today, although Malfoy sounded far too happy for Harry's liking. He preferred the blond youth to be sullen or short-tempered, as annoying and unpleasant things tended to happen when he was in a good mood.
"Good news about the Gryffindor team, isn't it?" Malfoy said, sauntering over.
Harry sighed inwardly and turned back to face him. "What is?"
"They've conceded tomorrow's match. Wonder what could have happened to cause that?"
Harry stared at him blankly for a moment. The phrasing alone told him that Malfoy knew precisely what had happened and was waiting for Harry to ask, but experience also told him that asking for anything from him was a bad idea.
But what the hell could have caused Gryffindor to concede? They were doing too well in the school league tables to do something so stupid at this crucial time.
So to Malfoy's evident amusement he merely shrugged and continued to run down the stairs to the dorm, so that he could worry over the problem in private. Or as near to private as it could get in a dorm shared with three other boys. A shuffling noise told him that either Crabbe or Goyle had been delegated to follow and probably spy upon him. Harry's lips tightened with annoyance, but he had one consolation; it wouldn't be difficult to find out what had happened to Gryffindor, now that he was on speaking terms with Ron Weasley.
So it came as something of a surprise to discover that Professor Snape was waiting impatiently beside his bed when he walked into the dormitory he shared with Crabbe, Goyle and Zabini.
"Do take your time, Potter. I exist merely to serve your convenience, after all," was the Potions Master's sharp opening comment.
"I'm sorry, Sir, I was checking my broom before tomorrow's match." You never told Snape that you were late because of something as trivial as a meal.
"Well I'm sure you have already been informed that there will be no match now," Snape cut in impatiently. "I'm not here to discuss Quidditch. You're to accompany me to the Headmaster's office at once. And you may inform Mr. Malfoy, Goyle, that should I ever require an audience I will be sure to advise him of that fact in advance!"
Gregory Goyle, caught on the hop, gaped uselessly over Harry's shoulder and in the end Harry had to push him out of the way to let himself and Snape out of the room. But he was in shock. Summoned to the headmaster? What on earth for?
Snape always moved at an uncommonly swift pace, with a motion that was somewhere between a glide and a run. Harry, who was much shorter, was hard put to keep up with him without trotting along at his side like a small child. He had neither time nor breath to question his Head of House, even had he been foolish enough to try.
They were in front of the gargoyles that guarded Dumbledore's suite of rooms in no time at all and Snape snapped out the password – "Ice Mice!" – that made the stone figures leap aside. Nothing was said as the two of them stepped onto the ascending staircase and when they reached the top, Snape pointed one bony finger at a cushioned bench outside the door.
And he disappeared inside the office in a flick of black robes. Harry waited.
And waited. And waited, until the door suddenly opened and the Head Girl, Belinda Prewett, emerged escorting a plump, red-headed woman. The two of them walked past Harry without seeing him and took the staircase down.
Harry blinked. But wasn't that Ron's mother - ?
Snape's sharp, impatient voice made his head jerk around and he stood up quickly. The Potions Master gestured curtly and Harry followed him nervously into Dumbledore's office.
This was familiar territory for Harry; he'd had any number of reasons to be in the Headmaster's offices over the years. But this was the first time since Sirius's retrial that anyone other than another teacher had been present.
Three other people were sitting with Dumbledore when Snape led Harry inside. The Transfiguration teacher and Head of Gryffindor House, Professor McGonagall, sat to one side of the Headmaster's desk. A thin man with premature grey hair and quiet eyes was one of Harry's godparents and his former DADA teacher, Remus Lupin. And the third ....
Shoulder-length black hair, fierce dark eyes, handsome features and a tall, restless frame - this third man was Sirius Black, Harry's guardian and his father's closest friend. Thirteen years in Azkaban had not aged him as obviously as years of being a penniless werewolf had done to Lupin, but he was not the laughing care-for-nobody in James and Lily Potter's wedding photographs either. Something inside him had been hardened; the same something, perhaps, that had been hardened inside Harry as a result of being Sorted into Slytherin, although in all honesty the teenager had no idea. He and Sirius didn't have what could be called entirely open lines of communication; there was too much wariness, disappointment and misunderstanding on both sides.
Harry's stomach dropped like a stone as his guardian's eyes did their usual assessing flick over him before coming to rest, for one pained split-second, on the Slytherin badge on his robes. Then the dark eyes returned to his face and one brow quirked upwards questioningly. Harry felt a twinge of annoyance. Okay, it was an old robe worn over jeans and a t-shirt that were stained with compost, plant massage oil, broom oil and a few other things. So what? It was Saturday.
"Come in, Harry," Professor Dumbledore said kindly. "Have a seat."
There was an empty chair right in front of the broad desk, but Harry didn't want to sit down. This had the look of a kangaroo court to him and if he was facing accusations of some kind, he would far rather face them on his feet. So after a moment's hesitation he did exactly that, resting his hands on the back of the empty armchair instead.
"The Headmaster told you to sit down, Potter," Snape snapped as he took his own seat to one side of Dumbledore.
Harry stiffened and sensed rather than felt Sirius's angry twitch at his House Head's command. The loathing between the two men, which had been festering ever since they were at school together, was so palpable that it was almost like an extra person in the room with them.
Dumbledore seemed unconcerned. "If Harry prefers to stand, I see no reason why he shouldn't."
Snape's expression soured even more than usual, but he said no more.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you here, Harry," Dumbledore continued after a moment.
"Have I done something wrong, Sir?" Harry asked him abruptly. If he had, he wanted to get it out and dealt with as soon as possible.
The elderly professor peered at Harry over the top of his spectacles. "I don't know, my boy. Have you something you wish to tell me?"
This question seemed fraught with significance but for the life of him Harry couldn't think of anything that would merit dragging his guardians into the matter. There was the usual stuff with Malfoy, of course, but that was hardly worth mentioning as it went on all the time. And okay, there had been that incident after Charms ... but Adrian Pucey's leg had been re-attached without any problems, which was hardly worse than Ernie Macmillan's horns and he'd had those for nearly a week. And why was Professor McGonagall here, unless it was something to do with ….
Gryffindor had conceded the Quidditch match. It had to be something to do with that.
"I haven't done anything," he said, but his voice sounded stiff and unnatural in his own ears. He hadn't done anything ... had he?
Dumbledore looked at him narrowly for a moment or two longer, then sighed softly.
"I imagine you will already know, Harry, that the Gryffindor Quidditch team have been forced to concede tomorrow's match with Slytherin. Their captain and Keeper, Ron Weasley, suffered an accident just before dinner and as the team currently have no reserve players they had no option but to back out of the league."
Something inside Harry went very cold and quiet. An accident. Ron had had an accident that put him out of the game completely.
"What happened to him?"
Dumbledore was still watching his face. So, for that matter, was everyone else in the tiny office, including most of the portraits of former headmasters and headmistresses hanging on the walls.
"He took a fall from the top of the staircase outside the kitchens," the Headmaster said softly. "He hit his head on the wall at the bottom and is currently very ill indeed in the infirmary."
There was a pause.
"But it was an accident," said Harry.
"Unfortunately not, Potter," Professor Snape put in rather dryly. "It would appear that someone placed an Interruptus hex on the handrail and top steps of the staircase. Given that Weasley takes all staircases at a headlong run, the result would inevitably be a dangerous fall. In fact, the wonder is that he didn't break his neck outright."
"Thank you, Severus," Professor McGonagall said sharply. She was white and pinched about the mouth.
"He'll be all right, won't he?" It was pure reflex that made the words come out with a typical Slytherin intonation, but the look the adults gave him at his apparent unconcern made Harry's stomach churn.
"We hope so," Dumbledore said, and the look he was giving the teenager now was very searching indeed, "but we really won't know for sure until he regains consciousness. In the meantime, Harry, I have to ask you if you know anything about this incident?"
Harry stared at him. "Why would I?"
"Because you were seen talking to Weasley before the accident," Snape put in smoothly. "Indeed, apart from the House-elves you appear to have been the last person to see him or speak to him. Witnesses say that you had a lengthy conversation with him this afternoon."
"There is something of a history of sabotage between the two particular Quidditch teams involved, Mr. Potter," Professor McGonagall added, giving him a very beady look.
Harry felt himself go cold. He hadn't been on speaking terms with Ron for nearly six years and they were in Houses that had a long history of mutual animosity. No one was going to believe that he was chatting with the redhead simply because they had suddenly become friends.
And it would be a cold day in hell before he sat down and poured out his heart to this group of people the reasons behind that new friendship.
Sirius was giving him a narrow sideways look. "Well? Did you?"
"We talked." More than that Harry was determined not to say.
"And what did you talk about?"
Harry's curled his fingers into the soft upholstery of the chair back, hating Sirius's tone. "That's none of your business."
He felt the older man bristle at this and saw the sharp curl of Snape's lip, but it was Lupin who quickly stepped into the breach.
"Harry, no one wants to invade your privacy," he said kindly. "But you must see what a difficult situation this is. It isn't as if you and young Ron threw a few jinxes at each other in the corridor after an argument. He could have died."
"You think I did it, then?" Harry shot at him angrily.
Lupin blinked. "No, I don't," he replied quietly. "But if you did, I would far rather you admitted it here and now, rather than trying to cover it up and making matters worse."
"And make no mistake, Potter, we will find out who did this," Snape finished coolly, "and when we find out, it will go very badly for them indeed."
Lupin gave the Potions Master an exasperated look, for this totally altered the tone of his own statement, but Dumbledore intervened once more.
"Thank you, Severus," he said, and there was the tiniest note of rebuke in the words. He turned back to Harry, studying his face for a moment. "Harry," he said gravely, "I must ask you most solemnly – did you place the hex on the staircase that caused Ron Weasley to fall?"
"No, Sir." Harry's face was flushed with anger and agitation, but his tone was firm.
"Are you sure?" Sirius asked him sharply, and Lupin briefly closed his eyes in frustration.
Harry lost his temper. "No!" he snapped, slapping one hand on the back of the chair and swinging around to face his guardian squarely. "No, actually I lied! I put the hex on the stairs and I lured Ron there to try and kill him, and then I lied to you and Professor Dumbledore about it, because that's what Slytherins do! Isn't that right, Sirius? We're all born bad and just waiting for the opportunity to kill someone – "
"That is quite enough, Harry."
Dumbledore's calm, measured tones cut through the boy's rage and briefly silenced him. To his shame he could feel his hands shaking, but he was so tired of walking this tightrope with his godfather, of dealing with the constant distance and wariness because he had somehow failed to live up to expectations he had never even known existed before they met. And now he didn't know what angered him more, the shuttered look on Sirius's face in response to his rant, the sardonic amusement on Snape's, the look of appraisal from Professor McGonagall, or the dismay and sympathy from Lupin. Dammit, he didn't need anyone's sympathy.
It was all too much. Once again he was being accused of someone's murder and this time it was Ron, and he wanted, needed to know that Ron would be all right because he couldn't stand it if someone else died because they got too close to Harry bloody Potter. But it seemed that no one was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, because of one stupid, stupid mistake he'd made six years ago.
Harry needed to get out of this room and its suffocating atmosphere, with Snape's smugness, Lupin's unwanted empathy and, most of all, Sirius's aura of pained suspicion, before he really lost his temper and things started to break under the force of his feelings.
"You should have left me with the Dursleys," he told his guardian coldly, and was furious when a tiny quiver escaped his control. "They thought I was evil incarnate too, but at least I always knew where I stood with them."
Then he turned and stormed to the door, muttering the password that caused it to fly open and snap shut again after he had passed.
"Potter!" Snape began to rise, but Dumbledore raised one hand.
"No, Severus, let him go. There is no purpose to be served in upsetting him further."
The Headmaster gave his Potions Master a look and Snape subsided, looking angry. Dumbledore looked away and raised his voice slightly. "Arthur?"
The door to his inner rooms, which was standing just the tiniest bit ajar, swung open and Ron's father Arthur Weasley stepped through. His thin, tired face was sporting a rather wry expression as he looked across at Sirius.
"Sirius, you have a lot to learn about handling teenagers."
"Harry isn't the easiest person to deal with at the best of times," Lupin put in diplomatically, but then he looked at Sirius and shook his head. "It would help, you know, if you didn't treat every conversation with him like a battle to be won. Is it any surprise that he reacts so badly?"
"Thank you, Remus," Sirius said through gritted teeth. "I'm well aware that every time I speak to Harry I manage to put my foot in my mouth."
"Be that as it may," Dumbledore said, "we have other concerns at present."
"Was he telling the truth about the hex?" Arthur asked the Headmaster.
"Oh yes!" the elderly professor replied, causing some surprise among the others. He looked at them over the top of his spectacles. "Gentlemen, Minerva, while I have no doubt that Harry will lie when he deems the situation to merit it, I have never yet known him to lie to me in response to a direct question."
"Somehow I don't find that very reassuring," Sirius muttered.
Dumbledore considered him for a moment, then sighed and sat back in his chair. "Sirius, you have to bear in mind that Harry's formative years were spent with people whose greater concern was to install a warped form discipline in him, not moral guidance. He was left to form his own moral code – one which, I might add, he applies quite consistently no matter how distressing some aspects of it are to those of us concerned with his welfare. Harry does not trust adults. Why should he? Those adults in whose care he was placed took no interest in his wellbeing. Consequently, he treats all of us with an understandable wariness. He lies when he deems it necessary to do so, he conceals aspects of his character that he feels are weaknesses and might be used against him, and when he finds himself in difficulties the last people he would dream of turning to are those of us who are best situated to help him. In short, he is a Slytherin.
"He is not a bad person. But his values are not your values or mine, and the things that motivate him are equally different. And if you ever wish to find common ground with him, you will have to stop hoping that he will suddenly turn into James, and instead concentrate on understanding who Harry is." Dumbledore paused and looked at Sirius over the top of his spectacles. "It needn't be as hard as you think, my boy. You and he have far more in common than you ever shared with his father."
"This is all very well, Albus," Professor McGonagall interrupted impatiently, "but none of this answers who did place the hex on the staircase."
"There was no signature?" Lupin asked.
"It had been removed," Snape said acidly. "None too expertly, it's true, but effectively enough to prevent us identifying the caster."
"That's very advanced magic," Arthur Weasley said, surprised. "How many of the students could do that?"
"A small handful of the seventh years and even less of the sixth years," McGonagall replied. "Unfortunately, that doesn't help us much. Potter is one of the few, but so are three of my Gryffindors - "
There was a sudden interruption as someone knocked at the door.
"Enter!" Dumbledore called.
The Head Girl put her head around the door. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Professor, but I have Hermione Granger here, insisting on speaking to Professor McGonagall."
The Transfiguration teacher shot a quick glance at the Headmaster, then nodded. "Send her in, Miss Prewett."
Hermione slipped around the edge of the door, her mouth forming a sudden "O" of surprise when she saw the gathering.
"Oh Professor, I'm so sorry - "
"Not at all, Miss Granger," Dumbledore said kindly. "Do you wish to speak to Professor McGonagall in private?"
Hermione looked a little doubtful, then she spied Mr. Weasley and this seemed to decide her. "Well, Sir, it's just … well, it's about Ron's accident."
"Go on," he encouraged her.
"Well .... some people have been saying that Harry Potter caused it because he was seen talking to Ron this afternoon. But I don't think it could be, because … well, because Ron told me last night that he had arranged to meet him. It was - it was quite friendly. They were talking in the library yesterday."
She winced a little under the sudden stares of the adults.
"But what were they meeting to talk about, Miss Granger?" Professor McGonagall demanded.
Hermione gave her an anguished look. "That's the problem, Professor. I promised Ron I wouldn't tell anyone."
Snape made a disgusted sound in his throat. "This is hardly a moment for childish games of secrets, Miss Granger!"
Her face settled into stubborn, angry lines at this, but Arthur Weasley stepped in.
"I wouldn't ask you to betray a confidence, Hermione, but it's very important that we should establish what really happened between Ron and Harry Potter. Is there nothing you can tell us?"
She looked at him helplessly. "It wasn't unfriendly," she insisted after a moment. "Last night, Ron made a point of talking to Harry because - because Harry gave him the kitten for his birthday."
There was a startled silence, and Dumbledore in particular was suddenly looking at Hermione with great interest.
"Kitten?" Arthur Weasley echoed.
"A Kneazle kitten," Professor McGonagall elaborated dryly, looking at Hermione. "A very fine pedigree specimen named Rosebud, much given to disrupting classes by all accounts. Indeed, I believe she is currently disrupting Madam Pomfrey's infirmary."
Snape snorted witheringly.
"But why on earth would he do that?" Arthur asked, bemused. "They're not friends, are they?" He looked across at Sirius as he said this, but the other man looked equally blank.
"I can't explain," Hermione said miserably, and there was a pause.
"In that case, I believe it is clear what must be done," Dumbledore said unexpectedly, and the lurking twinkle was back in his eyes as he looked at the assembled group. "Miss Granger, you have been most helpful. Don't worry about Mr. Weasley - we will take the matter from here. I'm sure you have homework or revision you would rather being doing."
It was a clear dismissal and Hermione reluctantly left, an anxious crease still prominent between her brows. When she was gone, the Headmaster turned to Professor McGonagall.
"Minerva, I will need a list by tomorrow morning of all the students currently capable of magically erasing their wand signatures. I don't suppose there will be more than a dozen or so."
"Of course, Albus …."
Dumbledore turned then to Sirius. "Before then, Sirius, I rely upon you to discover from Harry precisely what passed between himself and Mr. Weasley this afternoon, as it may shed light upon why Ronald was attacked and Harry himself implicated."
Sirius stared at him, dismayed. "Dumbledore, you've seen just how well Harry and I get along! The likelihood of him telling me anything - "
"I rely upon you, Sirius," Dumbledore interrupted firmly. "I appreciate that Harry is a complicated young man, but if you do not mend fences with him now, you may not have another opportunity to do so. He will be seventeen in July and legally entitled to leave your household and make his own way in the world. Given the burdens Harry already carries – the risks he lives with – I cannot feel this would be a wise course for him."
Sirius didn't look happy, but he nodded reluctantly and got to his feet. "I don't even know where to start looking for him," he remarked rather sourly.
The amusement returned to Dumbledore's eyes and he reached into one of his desk drawers, extracting a folded sheet of parchment. "Perhaps this would be of some assistance."
Sirius and Lupin both stared.
"Where - ?"
"Last year I was forced to have a little discussion with Harry about some of his nocturnal excursions," the Headmaster said reminiscently. "He was eventually persuaded to give this intriguing document into my keeping. Rather enlightening, I must say ... it certainly shed some light upon one or two incidents dating back to his father's schooldays."
He looked at the two men over the top of his spectacles and was amused to see that neither of them had entirely lost the ability to blush.
"I wondered what had happened to this," Sirius commented, in the small anti-room outside Dumbledore's office. He looked at the tatty sheet of parchment for a moment, then tapped it lightly with his wand. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."
Lines blossomed across the stained surface, spreading rapidly like a spider's web; lines that formed a tiny, moving, changing map of the school, complete with dots that followed every occupant as they moved around the building.
"I thought Filch would burn it after he confiscated it," he added.
"Harry had it in his third year," Lupin said unexpectedly. "Severus nearly took it from him, but fortunately I managed to finagle it away. I gave it back to Harry at the end of the year, before I left, but I have no idea where he got it from originally, any more than I can tell you where he got James's invisibility cloak."
"I suppose I could ask him," Sirius said unenthusiastically, and his friend looked at him.
"No, I won't do it for you."
Sirius glared. "I wasn't going to ask!"
Lupin grinned. "Are you sure about that?" His smile faded. "No, Sirius – you have to do this yourself. Just ... try not to compound the original mistake, for heaven's sake! Harry has enough problems without carrying guilt for supposedly being Sorted into the wrong House."
"He is in the wrong House," grunted Sirius.
Lupin sighed. "No – he isn't. The Sorting Hat doesn't make mistakes like that. The fact that you insist on assuming that it does is a failing in you, not Harry. Harry is what he is. He's not James! He's an entirely different person in his own right, and one who can very easily be hurt, despite appearances. Whether the two of you are prepared to admit it or not, he desperately wants your approval. Not mine, mark you, Sirius! Yours." He gave his old friend a speaking look. "You wouldn't be able to hurt him as much as you do, if he didn't care so much about your opinion of him."
Sirius looked uncomfortable. "I don't want to hurt him, Moony ...."
"Then for God's sake stop trying to find something in him that isn't there. I know it hurts to look at him and see James standing there – do you think it didn't punch me in the gut when I first clapped eyes on him? But you've got to try and see an ordinary teenager instead. A teenager who, incidentally, is still subconsciously looking for a father."
Lupin stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets and looked at the floor for a moment. "Dumbledore's right," he continued abruptly. "If the situation doesn't change soon, we're going to lose Harry. Some things he said to me at Christmas make me think he's already got it planned out – if not for this year, then as soon as he leaves school. I don't suppose I have to spell out for you how dangerous that could be for him."
Sirius winced. A boy like Harry, who was in search of something – someone, anyone, a father figure or mentor – was desperately vulnerable to Voldemort and his followers. It didn't have to be Voldemort himself, or even one of his immediate circle – the Dark Lord had followers the Order of the Phoenix and even their spy, Snape, had no knowledge of. It would be pathetically easy for a newly fledged wizard like Harry to fall into their hands and he would never even know it was happening until it was too late.
But Lupin was still speaking.
"I do my best, Sirius, but it's not me he wants. For some reason probably even he doesn't understand, he wants you but you let him down and he's been let down so many times in his life that there's no way he's going to make the first move again now. You've got to do that, and don't kid yourself that he's going to make it easy for you."
"Of course not," Sirius muttered. "When have things ever been easy between Harry and me?" But that wasn't entirely honest, and he knew it. There had been a brief space, during those few hours in Dumbledore's office after the unmasking of Pettigrew, when they had been able to talk – not, perhaps, entirely naturally but without the barriers that had emerged after his retrial. Strange that it should have been easier to talk to the boy when he himself was shaggy-headed, bearded and covered in the accumulated filth of thirteen years in Azkaban.
But perhaps that was the key to everything. He hadn't seemed threatening then; had not, at that point, been in any position of power over the boy, but had rather been a pathetic relic of himself. By the time they met again shortly after Harry's fourteenth birthday, Sirius was cleaned up and fresh from his exoneration by the Wizengamot. He had been a different man; and so, ironically, had Harry. Instead of the scruffy urchin who had chased off the pack of Dementors hounding Sirius with a Patronus worthy of a man three times his age, Dumbledore and Lupin brought him to the final day of the hearing cleaned up and dressed in his school robes.
Harry had been confronted by a man who might as well have been a complete stranger, and whose first words had been a demand to know what the hell he was doing in a Slytherin uniform.
The odd thing was that Sirius had known almost as soon as he opened his mouth that it would be the wrong thing to say, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. It was the surprise, perhaps. But he had known instinctively that he had no right to say it and that Harry would not take it kindly, and everything he said after that somehow managed to come out the wrong way too. It had been a disaster that he simply hadn't known how to fix, for it had quickly become obvious that Harry was nothing like his father or his mother either for that matter. In the end Sirius had clammed up and so had Harry, and the pattern for their relationship was set; stilted, wary silences punctuated by bewildering and infuriating confrontations where Sirius was certain that they never touched upon the real issues. Quite possibly Harry's outburst in Dumbledore's office earlier was the most honest they had ever been with each other.
Which didn't bode well for any conversation Sirius would have with Harry now.
Dragging a hand through his hair, he ignored the look of wary sympathy Lupin was giving him and looked down at the map. And sighed in exasperation.
"What the hell is he doing with Flitwick at this time of night?"
"Advanced Charms Group," Lupin said promptly, raising a brow. "Do you ever bother to take an interest in the classes he takes?"
"Not since he jumped down my throat for suggesting that we discuss his NEWTs choices," Sirius retorted irritably. "I swear to God I don't understand him! How can he throw a wobbler like he just did and then coolly go off to a Charms class as though nothing happened? It's not normal! James would have been tearing up the Quidditch pitch after an argument like that – " He caught sight of his friend's expression. "Yeah, yeah, I know – he's not James!"
He stuffed the map into his pocket and jerked his robe straight.
"Good luck," Lupin said softly.
"Luck!" Sirius snorted. "I'll need a talisman the size of Central Africa to deal with this!"
And he stepped onto the revolving staircase resolutely.
End Part 5/7