Harry Potter was eight years old, and he had a wonderful secret.
Harry had a lot of secrets: that his hair, even when freshly cut, grew so fast it was always unruly the next morning...or that sometimes he seemed to make things happen without meaning to...or that he swore sometimes he could understand what snakes were thinking.
But this was the best secret, especially because it involved doing something that was Against The Rules, and any eight-year-old knows that Against The Rules is more fun than anything.
It had to do with the house on the corner, and the Sandust Books shop on High Street.
Sandust Books was the shop that he and Dudley were never allowed to go into, the one that Aunt Petunia always dragged them past with a tightly-set frown on her face and her considerable jaw jutting out. It was strange, too, because it wasn't like Woman's Intuition, the bookshop a few doors down. All the children were banned from that bookshop, but nobody else was forbidden to go to Sandust Books.
Dudley didn't like books, and so didn't care, but Harry had once stopped to press his nose to the glass of the front display and seen all sorts of wonderful, colourful books in it, and instantly his heart was set.
He had to get into Sandust Books.
Perhaps he and Dudley weren't allowed in because, it was rumoured, the bookshop belonged to the strange man who lived on the corner of Privet Drive, the only one on the whole block who didn't own a car or have gnomes in his front yard. Instead his yard was overgrown with rows of strange herbs, and he owned -- this was the most brilliant part -- he owned a motorbike.
Harry didn't see why sharing a street with strange Mr. Black should mean he couldn't go into the bookshop. After all, nobody actually knew that he owned it, and he had it on good authority that the shop itself was mostly run by another man named Moony. Harry reasoned that anyone named Moony could hardly be a bad person. And he'd often seen a great black dog lazing on the doorstep, its coat dark and sleek in the afternoon sun. It had a collar that read "Padfoot" and all the children said it was a brilliant smart dog who would fetch books if Moony told him to, or do tricks or watch little children while their parents browsed.
Harry thought Sandust Books might just be the best place on Earth, especially since it was Forbidden.
So today he'd crept away from Aunt Petunia while she was doing some shopping -- knowing that, having met one of her friends in the market, she could gossip for hours -- and sidled along the alley next to the bookshop, and peeped in the back door.
Inside it was dim, but he could see shelves and shelves of books crammed together, and tables, and large wing-chairs.
And two giant glowing yellow eyes.
He yelped and tumbled backwards, and saw teeth flash --
The enormous black dog, Padfoot, was gripping him by the shirt with his teeth, preventing him from tumbling off the back step. The dog gave a little growl and tugged him forward, and Harry realised Padfoot probably didn't want to eat him.
Once he was inside, the dog let him go, and he put his hand on one of the tables for balance, pulling his shirt straight. The dog whined, almost apologetically, and nudged him with his nose.
"Padfoot, what are you doing back here? I thought I heard someone -- "
Harry looked up as a tall, well-dressed man appeared, towering over him. He was thin, with a strange face and brown hair; Harry thought he looked older than he really was, somehow. At the moment he was frowning, perplexed. Padfoot whined again and moved to stand behind the tall man's legs, staring up at him.
"Pads, what did you do?" the man asked quietly, entirely as if the dog could answer.
"He caught me," Harry said. "Don't hit him."
"Hit him?" The man asked. "I'd as soon hit a child. Caught you from what?"
"Falling," Harry said, gesturing to the back step, then to his shirt, which was stretched slightly. "I got scared...he was just guard-dogging."
"Yes, well, I'll deal with Padfoot later. Are you all right?" the tall man asked. Harry nodded. "Not scared, are you?"
"Course not," Harry said scornfully. Padfoot slunk out from behind the man's legs and nudged him again. "Hey, stop that!"
"I think he likes you, Harry," the man said with a smile.
"How'd you know my name?" Harry asked curiously.
"That's not important. My name's Moony," he said, holding out his hand. Harry took it, feeling very grown up.
"I know. Everyone talks about you."
Moony smiled. "Does your aunt know you're here?"
"How do you know -- "
The man waved a hand. "That doesn't matter."
"She's in the market. She won't be done for hours," Harry said expressively. Padfoot nosed under his hand, begging to be petted, and he skritched behind his ears.
"You'd best come in now, it can't be helped," Moony said with a sigh. Harry wasn't sure he understood, but he followed Moony through the shelves to the front of the store. Padfoot followed too, head nuzzling under Harry's arm.
"What can't be helped?" Harry asked, when they reached the front of the store. Padfoot sat next to him, tongue lolling out.
"Oh -- I was just talking to myself," Moony replied. "You like to read, Harry?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Pads, what sort of book do you think Harry would like?" Moony asked the dog. Padfoot's tail thumped on the floor. "You find something," he said finally, and Padfoot, to Harry's amazement, rose and trotted away.
"He's a smart dog," Harry observed.
"A little too smart for his own good," Moony said cryptically. He reached behind the counter and located a jar of yellow humbugs, popping one in his mouth before offering them to Harry, whose eyes went wide.
"How'd you know I like humbugs?" he asked. Moony winked.
"Magic," he said. Harry took one, carefully, and crunched up the peppermint outside until he could taste the caramel in the centre.
"Aunt Petunia never lets me have humbugs," Harry said, around the caramel in his mouth.
"I reckon there's a lot of things Aunt Petunia doesn't let you do," Moony said sadly.
"I get by."
"Yes, Harry, I'm sure you do. Ah, here we are," Moony continued, as Padfoot returned, pushing a book with his nose. "Oh, excellent. Pads has very good taste in books," he added.
"Good dog," Harry said dutifully, patting Padfoot on the head. "Can he read?" he asked, impressed. Padfoot yawned.
"Well, Padfoot's literacy is neither here nor there, at the moment," Moony answered. "Can I trust you to keep a secret, Harry?"
"Course," Harry answered stoutly.
"You know you're not supposed to be in here. So when you leave, you can't tell your aunt you've been, or else you'll get Pads and me in trouble."
"I won't tell," Harry said fervently. Padfoot whined.
"And you can't show anyone this," Moony continued gravely. "It's a book just for you, Harry, and you're not to even show Dudley or anyone at school, or tell anyone where you got it."
Harry didn't even think to ask how Moony knew who Dudley was. He was quite sure that Moony knew the secrets of the universe and if Moony couldn't answer a question, Padfoot could.
"I promise," Harry answered. "Cross my heart."
Moony smiled and reached out, lifting up the hair on Harry's forehead. Harry felt him touch the odd-shaped scar there gently.
"Boy's as good as his word, you think?" he asked, turning to Padfoot. The dog's tail thumped again. "Right then," he said. "Here you are, Harry. A present from Padfoot."
Harry accepted the book, looking down at the cover.
"The Magician's Nephew," he read aloud. He looked from Padfoot to Moony and back. "What's it about?" he asked. Padfoot regarded him solemnly.
"If we told you, it'd spoil it," Moony said. "There, will it fit in your pocket?"
Harry nodded and shoved it in the front pocket of his oversized, hand-me-down coat.
"You should get back to your aunt," Moony said with a small frown. "She'll be looking for you soon. Wait..."
Harry had turned to go, but Padfoot put out his head, blocking the boy from moving. Moony scrabbled behind the counter for a small paper bag and poured some of the humbugs into it.
"There. Don't tell," he said, with a grin. Harry grinned back and scratched Padfoot under his collar. The dog's tail swung wildly against a bookshelf.
"Off you go, then. Padfoot'll go with you as far as the market," he said. Harry, proud master of a sack of his favourite candy and a new book all his own, put one hand on Padfoot's broad back and followed the dog out of the shop.
"Oh, bugger," Remus Lupin said softly, when they'd gone.
He walked around the counter and found a scrap of parchment and a ballpoint pen, writing quickly and neatly before folding it and crossing to a window that opened into a side-alley. Outside, perched on a potted tree, an owl was sleeping, head under wing. He poked it.
"Claw, please take this to Dumbledore," he said, holding out the letter. Claw -- Sirius had been allowed to name her, a mistake Remus would never again make -- hooted irritably, accepted the letter, and flapped off.
He had barely turned around again before Padfoot returned, heaved a doggy sigh, and trotted into the back office where they kept the books-to-be-shelved, the books-we-can't-show-the-Muggles, and the ancient electric teakettle. There was a soft noise, like an exhalation of breath, and Sirius Black walked out of the office, head bowed, face grave. He shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the counter thoughtfully.
"You tell Dumbledore?" he asked.
"Just got through," Remus answered quietly.
"I couldn't help it."
"Wasn't your fault," Remus replied without looking at him. He picked up the jar of humbugs and turned it over in his hands thoughtfully. "He came looking for us, not the other way around."
"I didn't mean to scare him."
"I don't think you did."
"He'll like the book."
"Course he will."
"Think he'll tell?"
Remus glanced at Sirius then, shaking his head. "I think Harry keeps too many secrets already to go blurting this one out to that odious aunt of his." He turned the jar again. The remaining humbugs rattled. "You know when I found out he liked these, I started keeping them in the shop, they're a special kind...I'm not sure if I was trying to lure him in, or just waiting so that when he did come -- "
"I know." Sirius took his hands out of his pockets, crossing his arms. "I put the book aside for him. I thought about Tolkien, but he's too young -- I thought, you know, he ought to be reading about magic and that..."
"We're pathetic, aren't we?"
"We're looking out for the boy." Sirius shrugged. "It's my job. Merlin, but he looks like James."
"That he does. Smart as a whip, too. You saw. He's got Lily's eyes."
"Wish I could've seen him in colour," Sirius mumbled.
"Well, I sent you off so that you could Change if you wanted. I thought you would."
"Of course you..." Remus trailed off. He set the humbugs back on the counter slowly. "Oh."
"If I could talk to him I wouldn't have been able to keep myself from blurting the whole thing out. If I'd had arms to -- to hug him -- nobody thinks it's weird if a strange black dog wants to be petted, but god forbid his own damn godfather should want to..." he put a hand over his face, composing himself. Remus waited patiently. "It would have scared the boy."
"He liked you."
Sirius met Remus' eyes, and a smile spread slowly across his face. "He did, didn't he? He liked me. He wasn't even scared at all, was he?"
"Did you see the way he looked at us?"
"Like we were...magic."
They shared a happy grin, before Remus' fingers plucked nervously at the bookmarks sitting near the cash register.
"He'll come back, you know," he said. "It's dangerous. If That Woman finds out...or his uncle..."
"Well." Sirius looked grave. "We'll just have to make sure that he doesn't get caught."
"Which means...?" Remus lifted an eyebrow.
"Which means that next time, we find him."
"Sirius, you know what Moody and Dumbledore will say about that."
"Moody and Dumbledore don't have to know."
"We promised we wouldn't make trouble for Harry. We swore up and down and on Moody's disgusting removable eye that we would keep our distance."
"Well, we did, didn't we? It's not our fault That Woman wouldn't let him in our shop. He was bound to want to see what all the fuss was about, sooner or later."
"It's not right, Sirius."
Sirius gave a dramatic groan and flopped into one of the wing-chairs nearby. "Listen, all right, here's what we'll do. The next time his aunt brings him along shopping, I'll follow around. If I see him sneaking away, I'll make sure she's occupied. By force, if necessary," he said with a toothy grin. Remus smiled. "Woman's Intuition has a dog, he's unusually bright and I'm sure I could show him what he needs to watch for."
"Right. Somehow you'd think they'd own a cat, really."
Sirius shrugged. "Anyhow, he can keep a lookout and if we see That Woman coming, we can hustle Harry out the back door and claim ignorance complete."
"You know after seven years at school and ten years out in the world, I ought to be able to say no to you, once in a while."
"Thwack me with a newspaper," Sirius grinned. He stretched, and Remus pushed away from the counter as a customer entered, fluidly transitioning into his professional, bookish 'shopkeeper' demeanour. Sirius, who had never mastered the art of politeness to strangers, left him to it.
Aunt Petunia hadn't even noticed he was gone, but Dudley had; Harry had to bribe him with a handful of the precious yellow sweets before he'd keep mum about it, but there were still three or four left after Dudley's cut.
Moony was a magician. Harry was sure of it. You didn't get giant black dogs who could read if you were just a regular old bookstore owner. Moony was a magician and the reason Harry wasn't allowed in the store was because Aunt Petunia didn't hold with any fantastical nonsense.
When they got home he wanted to go straight to his cupboard and look at his book some more, but he had to help put the groceries away, and then clean up after Dudley dug a hole in the flower bed, and then he had to help cook dinner. He wasn't able to get away from the Dursleys until after dinner.
He picked up his coat and pulled the book out of the pocket with some difficulty. It was a small, cheap paperback, with a yellow cover and a picture of a forest on the front. He curled up on his bed, back to the door so that even if someone did open it unexpectedly he'd have time to shove the book under his pillow. It looked exactly the sort of book Uncle Vernon would take away from him if he was caught, and then what would he say when he went back to Sandust Books?
Of course he was going back! A real live Magician was not the sort of thing you ignored, once you knew about it!
Eventually Aunt Petunia did thump on his door and tell him to turn out the lights, and he pulled the chain that would turn off the one bare overhead bulb. After waiting to a count of four hundred, just to be safe, he fumbled under the bed for an old battery-powered torch he'd salvaged from the garage. The glow was dim and the batteries dying, but it was enough to read by.
He read through the night, fascinated. Evil magicians and good boy heroes and witches and lions, and animals that talked, and good magicians too. Maybe Moony was from Narnia, and Padfoot was a talking dog. Harry hoped he'd talk to him next time.
Across town, Remus stood on the front step of Sandust Books and locked the door, checking the knob as he had every day for nearly seven years. Padfoot sat on the step patiently. Remus waved to a couple of fellow shopkeepers, shouldered a battered satchel, and began the walk down the street to the bakery, Padfoot at his heels. He always bought an apple turnover or a muffin for himself, and usually they had some treat or other for Pads as well; three years ago the big dog had run down a thief who'd made off with most of their till money, and Moony'd had to pull him bodily off the man -- who by that time was gibbering in fear.
Everyone agreed that Moony was nice chap, a bit odd, but his dog was all right.
At the end of the street, they ducked into an alley briefly; Moony emerged on the other side alone, walking towards his flat. After a pause, a black-haired man in a leather coat walked out of the alley, got onto the motorbike that was always parked nearby, and drove off.
It was fully a week before Harry got another opportunity to go near Sandust Books, and even then he couldn't get away from Aunt Petunia -- she was taking Dudley to get his hair cut, and made Harry sit next to her the whole time. He gazed longingly across the street at the dusty-windowed bookstore and the glossy black dog who was delightedly eating ice cream off of the fingers of a couple of children. Moony emerged and seated himself on the broad front step, obviously basking in the late-afternoon sunlight; he noticed Harry and reached out to nudge Padfoot, pointing and waving. Harry very carefully waved back.
Padfoot bounded up and dashed across the street, wriggling with excitement, but noticed Aunt Petunia at the last minute and stopped short of putting his paws up on the window. His lips pulled back, teeth showing. Harry grinned and made a shushing gesture; Padfoot backed away, tail between legs, and trotted dejectedly back to Moony, who rubbed behind his ears and made a scowl of disappointment.
Harry watched as people came up to talk to Moony and pet Padfoot; children came and went and Moony occasionally followed a customer inside to help them find books.
Behind him, Dudley wailed in the chair that he didn't want to get his hair cut, that he wouldn't hold still, and that they were going to cut his ears and head and, though this did not seem logical to Harry, his nose. But on the other side of the glass, across the narrow street, Moony made faces at him and Padfoot did silly doggy acrobatics.
Harry decided he had to go back to the bookshop. And there was only one way he was ever going to.
He'd have to talk to Mr. Black, who owned the shop.
He resolved to do it that day, but three days later he still hadn't had his chance. He had to do it when Aunt Petunia wouldn't be watching, and when Dudley wouldn't follow him, and when Mr. Black was at home.
So Harry watched, and waited, and invented his excuse, and finally, after school one day, he got his chance. Aunt Petunia was having tea with one of her friends, and Dudley was upstairs playing video games. Harry heard the motorbike roll down the street, heard it cut off, and thought he could even hear the faint sounds of the garage being opened.
He very quietly put on his coat, tucked the book into the pocket again, and crept out the back door. He circled around the house, down the street, and behind a hedge. He peered through the branches at Mr. Black, who had rolled his motorbike into the garage and was lying underneath it, tinkering with something.
He glanced around, made his decision, and dashed madly across the street, ducking behind the edge of the garage. Mr. Black, hearing his footsteps, slid out from under the bike and propped himself up on his elbows. Harry dashed inside the garage and hid himself to one side of a tool rack.
When Mr. Black saw Harry, he blinked and turned pale.
"Hello," Harry said, quickly. "Do you own the bookstore?"
Mr. Black continued to stare at him, open-mouthed.
"Only I'm a...I'm a friend of Moony and Padfoot and they gave me this book -- " Harry held out the book, " -- and I really liked it but it says there're a bunch of others and I wanted to see if I gave this one back maybe Padfoot would let me have another one...but I can't go to the bookshop, see, because my aunt won't let me...and she says you own it..."
He trailed off. Mr. Black's unblinking stare was beginning to make him anxious.
"No, no no...stay right there," Mr. Black said. He pushed himself to his feet gracefully and backed away, eyes never leaving Harry's face, until he was standing next to a sink. Slowly he turned to wash his hands and wipe the grease off his fingers. When he finally turned back, Harry was trembling with nervousness.
"Don't be afraid," the tall man said gently. He walked forward again and knelt to take the book from Harry's hands.
"I own the bookshop," he said. He thumbed through the book. "You read the whole thing?"
"It was brilliant," Harry answered. Mr. Black looked up sharply, and Harry wondered if he'd said something wrong. "Padfoot said I could have it," he added.
"Padfoot doesn't talk."
"Yes he does. I bet you anything he does. Cos Moony's a magician," Harry added. Mr. Black smiled.
"My name is Sirius Black," he said. "Like the star. You can call me Sirius."
"That's a funny name."
"I suppose so," Sirius said, turning the book in his hands. "You should keep this, Harry. Padfoot gave it to you. I'll give you the next one, if you like."
"I can't anyway," Harry said gloomily. "Aunt Petunia almost found it. If she gets hold of it she'll wreck it, and I'll get Moony and Padfoot in trouble."
"Ah, I see," Sirius said gravely. Something in his look reminded Harry of Padfoot's sober doggy gaze. "Well. In that case, I'll keep it safe for you."
"So...does Moony work for you?" Harry asked, as Sirius put the book in his back pocket.
"In a manner of speaking. I own the shop, and he runs it so that I don't have to."
"Are you a magician too?"
"No, I'm a talking dog."
Harry scowled. Sirius grinned.
"As for being a magician..."
Both of them looked up. Harry beamed.
"Moony!" he said, excitedly, but the brown-haired man standing in the drive was glaring at Sirius.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
"Lad wanted to return the book," Sirius answered.
"Where's Padfoot?" Harry asked, looking around for the big black dog.
"Padfoot's in the doghouse," Moony answered. Sirius grinned.
"Harry thinks that The Magician's Nephew was brilliant, and he wants the next in the series," he said, standing and tousling Harry's hair. His hand was big enough to cover the whole top of Harry's head.
"Harry, you run along back to your aunt and uncle before they catch you," Moony said. Harry's disappointment must have showed on his face, because the older man sighed.
"I don't want you getting into trouble," he said. "I'm not mad at you, Harry, I'm mad at Sirius. Go on, run on, and I'll make sure you get your book, all right?"
Harry, still not understanding what was going on, nodded and ran down the drive, nearly tripping on the sidewalk. As he left, he heard Moony say to Sirius, "You managed to restrain yourself, I see."
"I had to."
"You can't just talk to him about magic like that, he's only eight years old."
And he thought he heard Sirius reply, "Well, he's got to find out sooner or later, and he thinks you're a magician, Remus."
Then Uncle Vernon's car roared by, and Harry ran to be home in time for dinner. It wouldn't do to be late -- there would be Questions, and then the whole thing might come out.
"You can't send him that one, Moony, he's a kid."
"Sirius, this book was written for kids. You're just upset because I'm sending him your copy."
"Well, it's mine!"
"He'll give it back, don't worry."
"He's a kid. He'll spill something on it."
"You own a bookstore. It's not as if this is the only copy of the book in existence. Don't you want your godson to read it?"
"Well, that's settled then."
"I wanted to read it to him. I was saving it in case."
"Once he turns eleven you can visit him at Hogwarts and read to him all you like."
"He'll be too old, then."
"He's nearly too old now."
"I hate the Dursleys."
"The Dursleys protect him."
"Hell of a job they do of it. You know he goes about in The Piglet's castoffs, don't you?"
"His name is Dudley."
"I don't care."
"My, we are petulant this afternoon, aren't we?"
"It's not right."
"Listen, this is dangerous enough as it is. I know Moody yelled at you once already. If we get caught sending him things -- "
"What? What exactly are they going to do to us? I'd like to know. They can't lock us up for wanting to look after the boy. It's not a crime, you know."
"Dumbledore has friends at the Ministry. Arthur Weasley could make life really miserable for us."
"Arthur Weasley? You must be joking. The man doesn't swat flies, let alone make trouble for other people."
"Well, Sirius, you have a lot less to hide than I do, don't you?"
"Dumbledore wouldn't do that. He wouldn't, would he?"
"The point is, we're endangering Harry as well. If he leaves the Dursleys, he'll be a lot harder to protect."
"Fine. Fine, fine. I'll keep quiet. But if he comes to talk to me again I'm not going to throw him out of my garage."
Harry waited patiently for the rest of the week, wondering how Moony would get the book to him. He didn't have another chance to nip down and talk to Mr. Bla -- to Sirius -- though he kept a careful eye on the house. The only people who visited Sirius were Moony, once, and an old man with a peg-leg and a bowler hat tipped low over one eye.
He was sitting out in the backyard, hiding from Dudley, when the book arrived. He'd been behind a rosebush, studying history, and a package literally fell into his lap.
He looked up. A tawny, vicious-looking owl sat above him, clicking its beak.
He tore open the brown-wrapped package. Another yellow book fell out, and a battered second book, and a piece of strange cream-coloured paper.
When you're done with the books, bring them back to Sirius.
PS: If you want to write back, write on this paper and give it to the owl. He's trained to take letters for me.
There was an inky pawprint, too.
Harry excitedly pulled out his pencil and wrote a thank-you note and a promise not to tell. The owl accepted it, nipped him on the finger, and flew off.
Harry turned the books over and over in his hands, grinning. Another one by C.S. Lewis -- The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe -- as well as one called Truckers, by a man named Pratchett.
It took Harry three nights and two lunch periods at school to finish the second Narnia book; it wasn't as interesting as the last one. He went through Truckers almost as fast as he had The Magician's Nephew, and then -- since he didn't know when he'd get to return the books -- he read it again.
Sirius spent almost the entire next Saturday with the garage open, pretending to work on his motorbike, but Harry was trapped inside helping Aunt Petunia clean, and couldn't get away.
On Monday, however, something brilliant happened.
Just before lunch, Harry happened to glance up from his math problems and see a blur of black through the window. Sitting on the schoolyard grass was Padfoot, tongue lolling, ears perked towards the classroom. Harry's world brightened. Padfoot must be here to see him. Padfoot had come all the way from Sandust Books to see him, Harry Potter.
It seemed to take forever for the bell to ring; Harry gathered up his backpack (threadbare, falling apart, and covered with insane cartoon characters -- it had been Dudley's) and ran outside to throw his arms around Padfoot's neck. The dog whined with excitement. Harry threw himself down in the grass and pulled a somewhat smashed ham sandwich out of his pocket, offering half to Padfoot, who took it with grace and shredded it before devouring it.
"I saw Moony again. He gave me two new books. Did you pick them out?" Harry asked. Padfoot, mouth full of ham sandwich, whined. "I thought so. I met Sirius too. He said you couldn't talk, but I bet you can. You can around me, you know. I'd never tell."
Harry waited, entirely expecting that Padfoot would open his mouth to tell a joke, but instead he saw that the dog was looking past him.
Dudley and his gang.
"Look, ickle Harrykins has a new best friend," Dudley said, stopping to put his hands on his hips. "Better make sure you don't give him fleas, Harry."
"Shut up, Dudley," Harry answered. There was a soft growl from Padfoot.
"Ooooh, what're you gonna do, sic a big stupid mutt on me?"
"He's not stupid," Harry answered. "He's the smartest dog ever, like movie dogs."
"He looks dumb to me," said one of the other boys.
Padfoot, very slowly, rose from his reclining position. Standing, he was as tall as Dudley. His lips were drawn back over sharp white teeth.
"Nyah, big dumb dog," Dudley said, throwing a wad of paper at him. Padfoot didn't even flinch, didn't track the paper with his eyes; instead he lunged for Dudley, and caught him by the waistband, ripping his trousers apart before flinging the boy to the ground.
"I'll tell!" Dudley screamed as he fled, the other boys already having deserted him. Padfoot snorted and trotted back to Harry.
"You should go," Harry said. "You'll get in trouble."
Padfoot whined and nudged him with his great doggy head.
"Go on, go find Moony before a teacher shows up," Harry said. "Go on, Padfoot."
The big black dog huffed, but turned and ambled away reluctantly.
Harry faced the schoolyard again and composed himself to tell a lie about a stray mutt wandering through.
"That's it. That is the ultimate end."
Remus looked up from the counter of Sandust Books. It was late afternoon, a time when business was always at a low ebb; the only people in the store were the Baker brothers, ages five and two, whose mother was next door shopping for shoes.
"Surely not," he said. "I was certain that the sun had at least another few billion years before the ultimate end. And you know the universe might go on quite a bit longer after that, even."
"Do you know where I was at lunch, Moony?"
"Yes, getting us into trouble," Remus replied, making a note in a ledger. "And then I have it on good report you went down to Diagon Alley and sulked for hours on end. Listen, we could have Pratchett in for a signing on the twelfth, but it's a full moon so you'd have to handle everything and I know you hate that."
"I went to his school. I waited for him to come out. I was going to spend lunch sharing his sandwich and having my ears skritched," Sirius stormed.
"You were also going to pick up the books from him. I see you got distracted."
"The Piglet won't even let the poor lad alone when he's just sitting on the grass minding his own business. I mean really. And have you seen how he looks in those old clothes? No wonder he hasn't got any school friends."
Remus looked up. "Dudley bothers him at school?"
"Not today," Sirius said, a trifle smugly. "I broke his trousers."
"Well. Ripped 'em. Reckon that'll show him. Wouldn't mind seeing that one sing falsetto if you get my drift."
Remus took his glasses off and folded them carefully. "Sirius, getting your drift is not difficult. It's really more of a projectile than a drift. You attacked Dudley Dursley?"
"He was picking on Harry!"
"We are in so much trouble," Remus murmured.
"No, I'll tell you who's in trouble. Petunia Dursley is in trouble. Vernon Dursley is in trouble. Dudley Dursley is in for a world of trouble as soon as I can arrange a pack of wild dogs to rend him limb from limb. We? We are not in trouble. We are going to storm that house and -- "
Sirius subsided, when Remus indicated the two small boys in the corner, watching him rave.
"I mean it this time," Sirius continued, in a lower voice. "He's getting old enough that it's starting to affect him. I'm not going to stand for it. I'm his godfather. I have a right to make sure the boy's happy."
"I think all we can hope for is that he's not dead," Remus murmured softly. "He's got to stay with his family. Dumbledore said so."
"I'm his family!"
"Not his blood."
"You're his blood!"
Remus lifted an eyebrow. "I'm a second-cousin of James' mother, once removed. Petunia is Lily's sister. There's a difference."
"James and Lily would be furious if they knew -- "
" -- but they don't know, Sirius, because James and Lily are dead," Remus snapped. There was a gasp from behind them, and Sirius whirled.
"Harry," the men said in unison.
Harry Potter was standing by one of the bookshelves, clutching his backpack in his hands, staring wide-eyed at them.
"How long have you been there?" Sirius demanded.
"Where's your aunt?" Remus said, cutting him off.
"We just...she wanted to buy...Dudley...new trousers..." Harry said, eyes still wide as saucers, staring at Sirius. "I..."
He let his backpack fall, and Sirius saw he was holding the books they'd sent him.
"I came to give back the books," he said, in a small voice. Sirius put out his hand to accept them, and Harry flinched back. "You were talking about my parents," he whispered.
Sirius glanced at Remus, who laid down his pen and rubbed his eyes. Finally, he sighed.
"Yes, Harry, we were," he answered.
"You knew my parents," Harry said.
"Yes," Remus continued. Sirius seemed dumbfounded.
"You said you're my godfather," Harry continued, as if processing the information. Sirius made a strangled noise.
"Do you remember your parents at all, Harry?" Remus asked gently. Harry shook his head.
"Got a picture of them in my cupboard..." he said, eyes never leaving Sirius' face.
"In your bedroom?"
"Where I sleep," Harry said helpfully. Remus saw Sirius' fists clench.
Just then there was a shriek from next door, Aunt Petunia calling his name, and Harry gathered up his backpack and fled, dropping the books where he'd stood. They watched him go.
"Did you hear that, Moony?" Sirius said hoarsely.
"Well." Remus closed his notebook and tossed it on the counter. "Might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, as my dad used to say."
"What the hell has -- "
"I think we ought to pay the Dursleys a visit tomorrow afternoon."
Sirius glanced at him. There was something strange in Remus' eyes, something he didn't think he'd ever seen before. A mixture of pity and rage that perfectly echoed what he himself was feeling.
"I'm leaving in two days for India," Remus continued. "Apparently there's a cult in one of the northeastern provinces that worships the rat. That sort of thing would be very attractive to Peter, you know, and I think he may have gone to ground there. But I see no reason not to put the fear of God, not to mention Moony and Padfoot, into the Dursleys before I leave." He pointed at Sirius. "You will stay very quiet, and look menacing, and let me do the talking."
"Can I menace them? Physically?"
"If you behave yourself I might let you give Dudley a clip round the ear."