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the dogfather

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1.

To begin with: this is a version of events where, on the morning of November 1st, 1981, the police are called to a house in Surrey.

When they arrive, a large man with a red face and a moustache is waiting for them, brandishing a baby. To be more accurate: he is brandishing a basket. The basket contains a baby.

He tells the police that his wife found the basket on their doorstep that morning. “Gave her the shock of her life,” he says, with a chuckle that does not seem the least bit sincere.

The police officers have a lot of questions about this, but the man does not have any useful answers. His wife, he tells them, is not in any shape to be interviewed.

“She’s been poorly,” he says, “and we’ve got a baby of our own to worry about, keeping us up at all hours.”

The baby in the basket seems to be about a year old. He is cheerful, seems healthy aside from a cut on his forehead, with a crooked sticking plaster on it. He has startlingly green eyes. There is no identifying information in the basket, except for a torn scrap of paper with his name is Harry on it in a delicate hand.

There is nothing else to be done, it seems. The officers take baby Harry, and leave.

One of them comes back a few days later for a follow-up interview with the woman who found the baby. She seems a little fragile, and her own baby, in the next room, keeps up a constant shrieking tantrum the whole time the officer is there. “I’m sorry,” the woman says, with a brittle smile. “This has all been a bit much. I recently lost my sister, you see.”

So: that’s all for the Dursleys.

Baby Harry, on the bright side, is a sweet-tempered infant in good health, with no known legal claimants to custody. He is adopted very quickly, by a family who has had a nursery standing empty for some time, and for whom he is the fulfillment of a long-awaited dream.

So, rather than a cupboard under the stairs, Harry has a cozy bedroom with a window seat, a heap of stuffed animals, a rocking chair where his mother sings him lullabies that are really her favorite poems set to made-up tunes. He has a father who already owned a whole shelf of cookbooks the day they brought him home, and promptly starts filling a second shelf with South Asian cookbooks because he has read that children of color adopted by white parents should be encouraged to maintain links to their culture of origin.

He is not, from this point, Harry Potter. He is, perhaps, Harry Jones or MacIntyre or Lee; more importantly, he is happy and loved.

When Harry is two or three, something terrible happens that he knows nothing about. It does not make the Muggle papers, but it does, to Dumbledore’s dismay, make the Daily Prophet.

There is a great deal of upset, and a number of people want to know why no one noticed, before now, that the Boy Who Lived has gone missing. The question of why no one noticed the murder of his aunt and uncle is quite secondary.

Dumbledore has no good answers, and no luck at all in finding any. The problem of public attention, at least, solves itself when Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban, and captures the Daily Prophet’s front page for a good long while.

It would be nice to think that whichever Death Eater tracked down and murdered Vernon and Petunia did not bother to murder Dudley.

I am not sure I can offer you that comfort, sadly.

They left without what they came for, at least: even if they had been able to find the police officers (they weren’t, as Vernon had long since forgotten their names), or the social worker who handled Harry’s case (who had changed jobs six months ago), they would never have been able to navigate Muggle bureaucracy well enough to find Harry himself.

Some people are more determined, though, and have better motivations.

When Harry is six, a dog follows him home from school.

In fact, the dog had also followed him to school that morning, waited patiently by the gate to the playground until recess, allowed innumerable children to pet him and tug his ears, and consented to play fetch only when it was Harry throwing the ball. His parents are surprised, but not dismayed, when their son comes home with an extremely large and exceptionally well-behaved black dog, and begs to keep him.

“He looks just like that stuffed toy you loved when you were a baby,” his mother says. “Remember?”

The dog is christened Padfoot, after the toy, which name had been his parents’ best guess at what baby Harry called it. Luckily, they were good guessers.

Padfoot is a very good dog. He does not chew things that ought not be chewed, he is wonderfully protective of Harry, he sheds much less than you would expect. He does, however, have a strange knack for removing every dog collar Harry’s parents buy for him within twenty-four hours. Eventually, Harry goes out to the shed, locates a length of curb chain as thick as his thumb and a small carabiner, and attaches Padfoot’s tags and license to it. It ought to slip off right away, as it is far too loose to be called a collar, but to everyone but Harry’s surprise Padfoot tolerates it with perfect equanimity.

It’s not like he ever actually needs a leash, anyway: it was already clear that taking Padfoot for a walk meant that both parties agreed to the polite fiction that the leash meant anything at all. He is an extremely smart dog. It’s a little uncanny.

Harry’s parents never know that their dog’s original plan had been to kidnap their son, or that he changed his mind when he saw their cheerful, bright house, the shelves of cookbooks and the wall of strangely frozen family photos, the rocking chair where Harry’s mother sings come away, o human child to him at bedtime. Padfoot has lived with much worse. For Harry’s sake, he would again, but he’s glad he doesn’t have to.

When Harry is nearly eight, a number of extraordinary things happen:

First of all, Harry and his dad decide to repaint Harry’s room.

(This is not one of the extraordinary things.)

That night, Harry sleeps on the downstairs sofa, as his room still smells of wet paint a bit too much.

(Neither is this.)

He has a harder time falling asleep than usual: the sofa is a little too soft, and he is used to Padfoot sleeping on top of his feet, but there isn’t enough room so Padfoot is sleeping on the floor beside him instead. This is why Harry is still just barely awake when the extraordinary thing happens.

(Here it is:)

Harry hears a strange sound, a sort of fluttering, scratching noise, and cracks open one eye. The living room is not quite dark, so he can see Padfoot get up and go silently over to the window.

Padfoot noses the curtain aside. There is an owl outside the window, hooting urgently. Harry is now wide awake, but keeping perfectly still in case this turns out to be a dream after all. He doesn’t want to wake up in the middle of whatever this is.

He watches as his dog opens the window, and wonders how he manages it with paws. The owl flies inside, swooping over the sofa towards the kitchen. Padfoot follows it.

Very carefully, as quietly as he can, Harry levers himself up enough to peer over the back of the sofa. He can see into the kitchen, where the owl has just landed on the table. Padfoot and the owl regard each other silently for a moment. Then Padfoot lets out a doggy huff– a sort of ‘well, all right’ sound– and turns into a human being.

This is too astonishing for Harry to even gasp at.

The owl hoots softly at Padfoot, who is now a human person. “All right, all right,” grumbles Padfoot, formerly Harry’s dog, now a man with tangled black hair and ragged clothes. The man, who was until very recently a dog, takes a folded piece of paper from the owl. The owl hoots again, impatiently.

“Give me a moment, all right?” says the man who is also Harry’s dog, Padfoot. He opens the fridge and takes out the other half of the sandwich Harry’s dad had for lunch. He taps it with a wooden stick, and quite suddenly there are two identical sandwiches, one of which the man-who-is-Padfoot puts back.

The second one he eats. Just sits down at Harry’s kitchen table like he wasn’t a dog a minute ago, pulls up a chair, and eats the sandwich, while unfolding and reading the piece of paper that the owl gave him. He gives some bits of sandwich to the owl, too.

After he’s eaten, he takes a biro out of the jam jar in the middle of the table and writes something on the back of the paper, folds it back up, and gives it to the owl. The owl takes the paper in its talons, and swoops back out of the kitchen, over the sofa, and through the window.

Harry watches it go, still astonished. Then he turns back to the kitchen, where Padfoot, who is still a human and not at all a dog, is staring at him.

Harry stares back.

“Damn,” says the man. “I suppose you have some questions.”

“Are you magic?” asks Harry.

“Yes,” says the man. He is wearing Padfoot’s tags and license on a necklace.

“Are you a werewolf?” asks Harry.

“What? No,” says the man. “Why would I– that’s not how werewolves work.”

“Well, no,” says Harry, who has now had a second to think about it and feels a little foolish. “I suppose you’d have to be, like, a reverse werewolf, right? Because you’re a dog all month and now you’re a man.”

“I’m not a reverse werewolf either,” says the man. “I’m your godfather.”

“My fairy godfather?” Harry asks, because his mother reads him a lot of Brothers Grimm.

“Not -– in that sense, no,” says the man. “Just your regular godfather.”

“My regular godfather, who is magic,” says Harry.

“Yes,” says Padfoot, who has lived in Harry’s house for more than a year now, and read most of the books on its shelves in the middle of the night, including the ones with titles like The Adoptive Parent’s Toolkit and My Family, My Journey.

He says, “Your birth dad was my best friend.”

“Was he magic too?” asks Harry.

“Yes,” says Padfoot. “And so was your mum. And so are you.”

“What?” says Harry, who had not been expecting this turn of events in the least.

“You’re a wizard, Harry,” says Padfoot. “And so am I.”

 

2.

For obvious reasons, Harry does not get a lot of sleep that night. He wants the whole story, and Sirius -- without quite meaning to -- tells it to him. In another life, he might not have done so. In another life, there might have been things he’d been told that Harry shouldn't know, and things that he’d simply forgotten over the years, and things that still hurt too much to talk about.

But in this place, and at this time, none of those things are true. Sirius spent two awful years in Azkaban, and four years free. Since the day he found Harry, he has been saving up all the things he wants to tell his godson. So he starts at the beginning:

“I met James and Lily on the train to Hogwarts, when we were eleven. That's the school for witches and wizards; you'll go there too, when you're older.”

For the rest of his life, Harry will remember how his first impression of the wizarding world was formed: his godfather’s hoarse voice, full of affection for the dead, the only sound in the silent house. The darkened kitchen, the wandlight Padfoot casts throwing his too-thin face into sharp relief. That light and that warmth, keeping the dark at bay.

When he gets to the part about Harry’s aunt and uncle, Padfoot hesitates. He’s plowed through the telling of the awful night that James and Lily died, Wormtail’s betrayal, his own mad grief, and it’s only now occurring to him that much of it was not a story a small boy ought to hear. No matter how much of a right he has to hear it.

So he says, “You were supposed to go to live with your mother’s sister. I don’t know why, exactly, but you ended up here instead. No one in the wizarding world knew how to find you.”

(This is only very slightly a lie: some time ago, he and Remus tracked down the police report filed by the officers who took Harry away from the Dursleys. Then they destroyed it, so that no one else could follow the same trail to Harry.)

He tells Harry, “In Azkaban, four years ago, a visitor let me have a newspaper. I saw that your aunt and uncle had died, but you were missing. So I escaped, and I found you.”

Harry asks, “But what happened to them?”

Sirius says “I don’t know. Not for certain.”

(This is rather more of a lie. He has some very good guesses.)

This is clearly not enough of an answer for Harry, but he is not quite eight years old and it has been a very eventful night. He’s yawning, his eyes drooping shut.

“I’ll tell you the rest, but not tonight,” Sirius says. “Can you sleep on the sofa?”

Harry makes a face. “It’s too squashy,” he says.

So his godfather transfigures the sofa into a decent approximation of Harry’s bed upstairs, and tucks Harry in. He turns back into Padfoot and flops down across Harry’s feet.

Just before he falls asleep, Harry murmurs “You’re my godfather, and you’re a dog. You’re my dogfather.”

This is the funniest joke in the history of not-quite-eight-year-olds, and Harry falls asleep mid-giggle.

In the morning, Harry wakes up to find the sofa has gone back to being a sofa and his dog has gone back to being a dog. His mum is putting her earrings on in the hall mirror, and whistling to herself. His dad is making breakfast noises in the kitchen.

But: there is a large tawny feather on the end table. Harry recalls, vividly, watching the owl preen itself while Padfoot read his letter at the kitchen table.

He looks at Padfoot. Padfoot holds his gaze for a long, deliberate moment, and then he winks.

That whole day, Harry is full of restless energy. He and his dad finish painting the spots they missed the day before, and put his furniture back where it belongs, but his heart’s not in it. All day he is wondering: Am I really magic? What does that mean? What kind of magic can I do? Do I need to have a magic wand? How do i get a magic wand? Will Padfoot let me borrow his? Can I do magic without it?

His parents notice his distraction, of course, but they let it pass. Harry will tell him what's wrong when he’s ready to. He always has before.

By bedtime, Harry is practically vibrating. Padfoot flops down across the end of the bed with a little more force than usual, and fixes Harry with a doggy glare until Harry settles. His mum reads him a chapter of The Sword in the Stone, and Harry lets her sing him a lullabye even though he’s started saying, lately, that he’s too old for lullabies.

She sings, to the tune she made up when Harry was a baby, come away, o human child, to the waters and the wild, and Harry does his best to act sleepy as she goes through the verses.

When the house is finally silent, Harry sits up in bed.

“Now?” he asks. Padfoot sighs and grumbles and jumps down from the bed and turns into a human being again.

“Try not to explode,” says Sirius, and Harry’s eyes get very big.

“Can that happen? To wizards?” he asks, and Sirius has his first really good belly laugh in about six and a half years.

Once they have both calmed down a little, Sirius answers as many of Harry’s questions as he can. He tells Harry that, yes, most wizards need a wand to do most magic, but that children sometime will do wandless magic by accident. That there are wizarding banks and shops and bureaucrats. That there is owl post and order-by-floo. That there are wizarding towns and secret magical neighborhoods hidden all over the world. That while werewolves are real, reverse werewolves are not.

Harry remembers to ask, then: “Who sent you the owl last night?”

So Sirius explains that there is one other wizard in the world who knows where Harry is, and who knows that Sirius was wrongfully convicted, and that he is using the Fidelius charm to protect them.

Sirius has hardly seen Moony in person, not wolf-shaped, for the better part of a year. He misses him like hell. At the full moons, Sirius usually arrives after Harry goes to sleep and leaves just after sunrise.

The last time they spent any proper time together, both human-shaped, had been when Harry and his parents went to visit a family friend with very bad allergies, and been out of the house long enough that Sirius could Apparate away.

The flat where Moony was staying was shabby and awful, of course. Even though, years ago, Sirius had given Moony the key to his bank vault and all but ordered him to use it.

The shabby, awful flat had not actually mattered very much to either of them. It had a table where they sat side-by-side for an hour or so, shoulders pressed together, and went over what Remus had found in the course of hunting for Wormtail. It also contained a bed, where they spent the rest of the day. And that was all, really, for months.

Writing letters helps, a little. Their two-way mirrors help, a little. A very little.

(None of the above is included in Padfoot’s explanation. That is most definitely a conversation for the future, when Harry has known his dog is a wizard for more than twenty-four hours and Sirius has worked out what to say without using horrible euphemisms or embarrassing them both to death.)

Once Harry has run out of questions, or at least paused to pick out the next set, Sirius says, “We should talk about your mum and dad. What are you going to tell them?”

(He’s read all the parenting books in the house. They mostly recommend that parents should do the exact opposite of whatever his own parents would have done, so he thinks the Muggles might have the right idea on this particular front. And they’re all very big on honesty and communication.)

“Well,” says Harry, and falls silent, thinking. “Should I tell them I’m magic?”

“That’s up to you,” says Padfoot. “I think you’ll want to, sooner or later. And you’ll have to, before you go to Hogwarts.”

“Wait,” says Harry, “if no wizards know where I am, how can I go--”

“Don’t worry about it,” says Sirius. “Moony and I are working on that. We’ll sort it out.”

(This is not a lie because they are, in fact, working on it. They just haven’t actually had any success yet.)

“Okay,” says Harry. “Then I want to tell them soon. And they should meet you. But, um. You should get some not-magic clothes?”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” asks Sirius, who is fully aware that they are basically rags. But he spends ninety percent of the time as a dog, nine percent alone, and one percent with Moony. So he only really wears clothes at all for that nine percent.

(Sometimes, as Padfoot, he condescends to wear a red bandanna.)

“They’re a bit, um.” says Harry. His trying-not-to-disapprove-and-failing look is so perfectly Lily’s that Sirius cannot bring himself to disagree.

“All right, all right, I’ll smarten up a bit,” says Sirius. “Think about how you want to break the news, eh?”

Harry agrees, and the day’s nervous energy is quite entirely gone, so he is asleep before Sirius has even changed back to Padfoot.

Before he does, Sirius nicks some of Harry’s dad’s clothes from the laundry and charms them to a) fit and b) not look obviously stolen. Also he cuts his hair. It makes his ears feel cold but he does look less like a crazed escaped wizard murderer, so ten points to Harry on that one.

The next night Harry says “Oh, that’s much better,” in deeply relieved and deeply Evans-esque tones, the moment Padfoot turns into Sirius.

Sirius is too happy to be insulted, much.

 

3.

The next week of Harry’s life is very strange.

Up to this point, the biggest secret he’s ever kept from his parents was that his mum had bought his dad a stand mixer for Christmas last year. And that was only keeping a secret from one parent! This is at least twice as hard as that.

Luckily for Harry, painting his room has given Harry’s dad what his mum calls “a case of the DIYs,” so both his parents are a little preoccupied: his dad with pulling up old carpet and repainting cabinets; his mum with finding places to put the furniture and dishes until he’s done.

Then Harry’s dad decides it is Time To Re-Roof The Shed. Harry’s dad has claimed it was Time To Re-Roof The Shed at least once a year for as long as Harry can remember. It’s the first time it has seemed at all likely that it will actually happen. This is what leads to the following:

Harry’s dad is on top of a ladder, tugging old pieces of tar paper off the shed roof. His mum is holding the ladder. Harry is holding a ball, which Padfoot is waiting patiently for him to throw. Harry sees the following happen, in what seems like slow motion:

His dad pulls a little too hard at a stuck piece of tar paper. It comes loose abruptly. He loses his balance, and goes toppling backwards off the ladder with a shout. Harry’s heart, it seems, makes a valiant attempt at leaping out of his mouth --

And then his dad, rather than falling to the ground with a bone-rattling thud, floats softly as a soap bubble to the ground. He sits up, bewildered but unharmed, and looks to Harry.

Harry remembers it later, very vividly. The first thing his mum and dad did was look at him.

Then their gazes slide past him, going from startled to outright astonished. Harry turns to see that, behind him, Padfoot is human-shaped and brandishing his wand.

“Um,” says Harry.

“Hell,” says Padfoot.

“Language!” says Harry’s dad.

“Oh, honestly," says Harry’s mum, and helps Harry’s dad to his feet.

When they all go inside to have a very long and awkward conversation, they are brought up short when they remember that the the living room carpet has recently been torn up and there is not really anywhere to sit. There are only three chairs for the kitchen table. Everyone looks at each other for a moment, a bit helplessly. Harry tries and fails to stifle a giggle.

Padfoot sighs and points his wand at the pile of torn-up carpet bits and mutters something that turns it into a chair. He drags it behind him, into the kitchen, and Harry and his parents follow.

“Right,” says Padfoot, and plonks the chair down at the kitchen table. It is almost but not quite a match for the other three: the spindles are the wrong shape and the seat has a slightly different print.

“Padfoot’s my godfather!” Harry says brightly, climbing into the next chair. “He’s magic! He says my first mum and dad were magic too!”

Harry’s mum and dad exchange a look that Harry cannot interpret in the slightest, and sit down.

“So are you… I don’t know, some kind of werewolf?” Harry’s mum asks.

“Where are Muggles getting these ideas -- no. Sorry, let’s start over.”

Padfoot tells them a heavily edited-down version of the story he told Harry, doing his best to elide over the ‘technically an escaped convict’ and ‘evil wizards want Harry dead’ bits. They are surprised by this, but not… quite as surprised as Sirius expected them to be.

“When Harry was a baby, he had a mobile,” his mum says, slowly, considering. “Over his crib. It used to spin on its own, all the time.”

“D’you remember -- the courgettes,” Harry’s dad says, and his mum nods.

Harry makes a face. “I hate courgettes!” he says.

“We know,” says his mum.

“When you were two, all of the courgettes in the house disappeared,” says his dad. “For a month, every time we tried to bring any home, they would vanish again. We gave up buying any for a year!”

“This is why we always had snakes at the back of the garden at our old house!” says his mum. “Harry, you made friends with them. I'd be hanging out the washing, and you'd toddle over with half a dozen snakes wrapped ‘round your arms, wanting to introduce me.”

“So you knew I was magic?” Harry says.

His mum makes a face. “We didn’t know what to think. It seemed impossible.”

“But we thought you were -- special, somehow,” says his dad.

Sirius feels as if he has lost control of this conversation, a bit.

(It occurs to him that perhaps there was a reason, beyond Muggle silliness and superstition, that Harry’s parents have gone to such lengths to fill their son’s head with stories about Muggle myths and Muggle magic: with fairy godmothers and wise sorcerers and noble quests. They were trying, as best they could, to give their adopted son a sense of connection to the culture of his birth -- without knowing what it was.)

(Harry is an adult before he works this out for himself. He is grateful for it, and realizes that he has been grateful for it, all along.)

“All right, let’s leave that aside for now. We’ve got off track,” says Harry’s dad. “You’ve been hanging around here for over a year, pretending to be a dog. Why not just tell us?”

“The fewer people know, the safer Harry will be,” says Sirius. “I promised James and Lily I’d keep him safe. That’s all I care about.”

There is a short, uncomfortable silence, broken by Harry when he tugs at Padfoot’s sleeve and hisses, “Tell them about the wizard school!”

 

4.

For the first few months there is an uneasy sort of detente between Sirius and Harry’s parents.

They’re afraid, but he expected that. All his life, Sirius was told that Muggles would be afraid of wizards, if they knew about them. But he realizes, very quickly, that they are not afraid of but afraid for: afraid for Harry, for his safety, for how he will fit into a world he only knows from Sirius’ descriptions. Afraid for themselves a little too, for what their warm, bright house will feel like when Harry leaves it for some impossible-seeming school that they can’t ever see for themselves. For what might happen, if he chooses to leave them behind for good.

They’re afraid for Sirius too, though that takes the longest for him to see. Afraid he won’t be able to clear his name, that he’ll be sent back to Azkaban, that their son will lose his godfather so soon after finding him.

(It never occurs to him that he is, to their eyes, still so very young. He isn’t even thirty, and they waited a long time before Harry came to them. They’re old enough that he could be their son, if things were otherwise.)

So: things are weird.

But there are consolations.

Harry is brilliantly, incandescently happy. He loved Padfoot when Padfoot was his weirdly clever dog, but that is nothing next to how he feels now that Padfoot is his secret magical godfather in disguise as a weirdly clever dog.

Over dinner every night Harry has a new list of questions: about magic, about Hogwarts, about his birth parents.

(His parents insist that Padfoot be human-shaped for dinner and eat at the table, which is funny because when he was dog-shaped he was very strictly Not Allowed on or at the table.)

When they can get a word in edgewise, Harry’s mum and dad have questions too. To start with, things like Harry’s medical history (a work in progress; Moony will have the records soon), his real birthday (a month later than his social worker’s best guess), if there are other Potters or Evanses somewhere in the world (no. Not so far as Sirius knows.)

They loosen up, in time. It helps when Sirius recounts his schoolboy mischief, the summer he spent with James’ family, the time Lily hexed James’ hair bright blue, so comprehensively that he had to let it grow out.

“We were idiots,” Sirius admits, but Harry’s mum and dad look at each other across the table, and both are thinking no. You were children.

That makes it all easier for them, somehow. More comprehensible. Children with magic wands are still children. Children who have to choose sides in a war, who sign up to fight it before they’ve lived any kind of life, are still children.

As for Sirius, even one dinner at that table would have been worth the years before it, but he gets to sit there every night.

(Not every night. He can go to Remus openly for the full moons, now, even take the afternoon before and the morning after. The house is warded to the gills and he's left emergency portkeys in every room. He makes Remus teach him how to use a telephone so he can call and check in as soon as the sun rises, just in case.)

So this is how the days pass:

Harry’s dad teaches Sirius to cook Muggle-style, not that he’d ever learned to cook any other way. Harry’s mum writes back and forth with Remus, long letters that often aren’t about magic at all, but about the books they’re reading, the funny things Harry did that day, Remus grumbling about his current dreadful job. Padfoot walks Harry to school every morning, and waits for him at the gate after class every day.

Remus doesn’t visit. He and Sirius aren’t quite sure enough that it would be safe, not absolutely certain that he wouldn’t lead anyone to Harry. By now they would just as soon keep all of wizardkind from Harry’s door, Death Eater or no. It was Dumbledore who lost him, after all.

And Sirius is still a fugitive, though Remus says that no one is looking all that hard anymore, given how thoroughly he’s vanished. So none of Harry’s grown-ups entirely trust that he wouldn’t be taken away, ‘for his own protection’ from Muggles or murderers or some other flimsy excuse.

But there are letters going back and forth constantly, gifts at Christmas and birthdays and just because. Harry’s dad sends Sirius off at the full moon with a hot meal, packed up, and Harry’s mum tucks a book she thought Remus might like into the top of the bag. All of them are happier than they ever could have expected to be.

Except for Harry, of course, who is just as happy as he ought to be. Why should he ever expect to be otherwise?

One thing that Sirius relearns, in those years, is that time passes faster when you’re happy. Maybe that’s why his school years go by in a blink, in his memory, and Azkaban stretches out far past its rightful span. So it seems to be no time at all before Harry is ten, and Sirius comes back from a full-moon night at the beginning of summer, and says:

“Right. We’re going to need to figure out Hogwarts.”

 

5.

The trouble is, there are a few too many variables. Sirius is trying, though.

Moony, to start with, is conducting a stealth information-gathering campaign by way of getting his few remaining Muggle-born school friends drunk and nostalgic, so as to find out how they got their Hogwarts letters.

“You mean you don’t know?” asks Harry’s mum.

“It never came up,” says Sirius.

What he means is, at Hogwarts in those days Muggleborns didn’t advertise the fact if they could help it. They laughed along with jokes they didn’t understand, nodded at references to Beedle the Bard and Martin Miggs. They tried not to talk about television or Muggle film. If everyone assumed they were half-bloods or just not from a very old family, so much the better.

Evans was the rare exception. She was the one who never made a secret of it, who hung posters of Muggle musicians on the walls of Gryffindor Tower and dared anyone to say a word. She started defying Voldemort long before she ever knew his name.

Sirius doesn’t know it, but he’s worrying for nothing. Even as he and Remus and Harry’s parents fret, Minerva McGonagall is climbing the stairs of a tower in Hogwarts castle. In the room at the top of the stairs, she sits down to copy out names and addresses from the Book of Admittance.

(There are names without addresses, some years. Children who have left the country, usually. There are more such names from the war years than before or after. Some of them are living somewhere else in the world. Some of them are not living at all. Minerva doesn’t know which category Harry Potter fits into, and has tried not to let the thought haunt her.)

So: Minerva copies down her list of names. They’re in order by when the child first showed signs of magic, so there is a bit of skipping around. She’s always careful to check for late bloomers.

Ah, she thinks, another Weasley. Last but one, if she remembers correctly.

The Granger girl and the Finch-Fletchley boy will need someone sent to the house -- she makes a note of it.

Oh dear, the Malfoy boy. As if she didn’t get enough condescending owls from his father already.

Another Muggleborn boy, and his first name is Harry. Poor thing , Minerva thinks. He won’t even know what the fuss is about. She takes down the address, resolves to make that visit herself.

She’s relieved to see Neville Longbottom, a full three pages later than the rest of his year-mates. But not surprised, not really -- as she recalls, Alice was a late bloomer too, and a wonderfully talented witch when she was grown.

Weeks later, she Apparates to a small park a short walk from her destination. The house, when she arrives, is snug and well-kept. There is a bicycle propped by the gate, a swing hung from a sturdy tree branch, a large black dog napping in a patch of sunlight.

It is also heavily, heavily warded. And warded well: Minerva doesn’t sense magic at all until she steps through the gate, and if she didn’t consider Alastor Moody a close personal friend she might not have thought to look closer at the faint buzz of magic she can sense. When she does, it becomes clear: whoever protected this house was operating on Moody-level paranoia.

This is... concerning. And puzzling. But Minerva has a job to do. She strides up to the door and knocks firmly, but no one answers.

Well, it is a weekday. If the parents are at work, and their son is being looked after somewhere else...

(Some family friend, perhaps? There were those who’d hidden in the Muggle world, during the war, and never came back. That would explain the wards. It’s not unheard of.)

Minerva considers her options. There had been a little café around the corner. She’ll have a coffee -- the Muggles really have done better at coffee than wizards -- and try again at dinnertime.

Minerva sits, and enjoys her coffee, and is thinking seriously about ordering another when Remus Lupin sits down in front of her.

“Hello, Professor,” he says.

She hasn’t seen him in -- years, now she thinks about it. Four or five at least. Could that be right?

He looks wonderfully well, by Lupin standards. Too much grey in his hair, perhaps. But not nearly so thin and hollow-eyed as he was, in the days after the war. And if the clothes he wear are Muggle, at least they don’t look like he bought them third-hand.

“Remus, what on Earth,” she begins.

“I can’t tell you, he says. “Or, I could, but -- this is not a spell I am willing to take risks with. Not again.”

And the pieces fall in place. “Oh, Remus,” says Minerva. “Fidelius?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t say,” says Remus.

“I see,” says Minerva. “So the name in the register--”

“Is his name,” says Remus. “He was adopted, entirely legally. He had been turned over to the Muggle police as a foundling.”

“Oh,” says Minerva, “how could they! Albus warned her, he said they’d only have the blood protection if she kept him--”

“Well, she didn’t,” Remus says. “And I won’t blame her. She’s dead, and he’s been safe and happy.”

“And you’ve been... keeping watch,” says Minerva.

“Exactly so,” says Remus.

“All alone,” says Minerva, but that can’t be right. He couldn’t have cast Fidelius by himself--

“Not quite,” says Remus. “There’s something else you need to know. I didn’t know it myself, at the time, but -- Peter was their Secret-Keeper. They switched, at the last minute.”

This is a great deal more world-shattering revelation than Minerva had been planning on today.

“So he was the one who--”

“Yes,” says Remus.

“And he didn’t really--”

“No,” says Remus. “He’s an animagus. He transformed and ran. I’ve looked for him, on and off, but lately I’ve had -- other priorities.”

“An animagus,” says Minerva.

“Yes. Not just him,” says Remus.

There had been a black dog, napping in the yard. “Ah,” says Minerva. “So the two of you found him.”

“Yes,” says Remus. “We weren’t... inclined to trust anyone else, when we did.”

“I don’t think I can blame you,” says Minerva. Two years in Azkaban! she thinks. “And you’re completely certain?”

“When he first found me, I didn’t really believe him until he’d got down about a gallon of Veritaserum,” Remus said.

“Wise of you. Speaking of which,” Minerva says. She pulls a small glass vial out of her sleeve.

“Fair enough,” says Remus, and orders a coffee.

 

6.

Harry knows that Padfoot and his parents are worried, but very little of it trickles down to him. It can’t: he’s too excited.

His letter comes in the post, in July, a little after what he has started to think of as his old birthday. Technically it is the newer of the two, but he didn’t know his original birthday until Padfoot told him, so now he has the birthday he was used to, at the beginning of July, and the one he apparently had all along but didn’t know, at the end.

The letter is just like Padfoot said it would be: his name in bright green ink, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed--

But now he needs all sorts of things! Robes, and a cauldron, and books with titles that sound a lot like some of the books he already has, except those books are just stories and these ones will be real. And, best of all: a magic wand. So he and his mum and his dad and his Padfoot are going to Diagon Alley, in London, and they are meeting Moony in person, for real.

Harry has been trying to act a little more grown-up, now that he’s a wizard and nearly eleven, but it’s extremely difficult when he is this excited. He does his best, though.

When the day arrives (ages later, all the way at the end of the month on his new birthday), they take the train to London (Padfoot gets his own ticket, since he’s too big to stand in the aisle) and then the Tube to Tottenham Court Road (as dogs aren’t allowed on the escalators). When they emerge into the daylight, Harry’s dad says, “Right, this way!” He leads them a block and a half in the wrong direction before Padfoot barks exasperatedly and takes them back the other way, to a pub with outdoor seating where Moony is waiting to meet them.

Harry knows what Moony looks like, of course, but most of the pictures Padfoot’s showed him are from when they were at Hogwarts together, so it’s not until Moony stands and Padfoot lets out a joyous yelp, and yanks the lead out of Harry’s hand to run to him, that Harry recognizes him. But it’s definitely him: Moony the Marauder of Padfoot’s stories, the valiant fighter of Death Eaters, the only other person who knew Harry’s first mum and dad as well as Padfoot did, the only other person besides them who really knew him when he was still Harry Potter.

Harry thought he’d be a little taller. But that’s all right. Harry runs after Padfoot, and waits until Moony has shoved Padfoot off him.

(He jumped up, a paw on each of Moony’s shoulders, to lick his face, while Moony laughed and said “honestly, stop, that, Padfoot, where’s your sense of propriety--”)

(Which is silly. Harry hasn’t known Padfoot nearly as long as Moony, and he knows perfectly well that Padfoot doesn’t have one.)

Once Padfoot has subsided, Moony turns to Harry and offers him a hand to shake, very solemn.

“Hello, Harry,” he says. “It’s very good to see you again.”

And then Harry’s mum and dad catch up to them. Their response to Moony’s offered handshake is an incredulous look and a hug, so that means Harry gets a hug too after all, which he was secretly hoping for.

Then, bafflingly, they all sit down and have lunch.

Harry spends most of lunch wondering if sheer impatience can cause accidental magic, and also whether there is any magic that makes time go faster. He only half-listens to the grown-ups. They spend the first ten minutes being grateful at each other, anyway, and the next twenty on boring stuff.

(”I thought it best we skip Gringotts. James and Lily had a vault that should be Harry’s, but Padfoot’s hardly touched his family’s money so that can wait. I’ve already withdrawn enough for everything, I think--”)

Because Harry is secretly famous and no-one is sure who might recognize him, his mum and dad agree that they should try to get in and out of Diagon as quickly as possible. Harry does understand why -- they just don’t know if it’s safe for anyone else to know that Harry’s going to Hogwarts, and they don’t want the wrong people to find out before he gets there. But he is, he has to admit, more than a little disappointed.

The plan is this: Moony and Harry’s mum will get the books and the Potions supplies, while Harry gets fitted for school robes with his dad and Padfoot. They’ll regroup at Ollivander’s for Harry’s wand, and leave straightaway after that.

So off they go. The Leaky Cauldron doesn’t look very impressive to Harry, but he sees his mum and dad react when Remus flicks his wand, surreptitiously, and they can suddenly see it too. They look wonderfully surprised, but also... sad, a little, when they don’t know Harry’s looking.

(They still, both of them, had some small back-of-the-mind stubborn disbelief that all this could really be real. Yes, they’ve been exchanging letters by owl with a werewolf for some years now, and sitting down to dinner every evening with their dog, who turns into a man for meals and special occasions. But they’d never seen the larger world that all the magic in their lives had come from, until a pub appears from thin air, and that is that.)

(Their son really will be leaving, very soon. He’ll come back, but they’d never planned to send him away at all. They waited for him for a very long time, and expected to have him for longer.)

Inside, the Cauldron is smaller and shabbier than Harry was expecting. It is appropriately weird, though: there are people in the strangest clothes Harry’s ever seen, a woman (a witch!) feeding her sandwich crusts to the owl perched on the back of her chair, a man in a vivid silk turban sitting at the bar, chatting with another man who must be at least eight feet tall.

All of these people are magic, just like Harry. The thought gives him chills, just a bit, as they pass the giant and the turbaned man at the bar.

(Had things been otherwise, Harry might have drawn a great deal of unwanted attention before he could get anywhere. Perhaps if there had been articles in the Daily Prophet every year or so, with pictures of the poor doomed Potters, or if unscrupulous wizarding paparazzi had been able to take surreptitious snapshots of him as he grew up, his face would be better-known. But here and now, there are precious few people in the world who remember what James Potter looked like at the age of eleven, and so Harry goes unrecognized.)

(A Saviour of the Wizarding World whom wizards can look in on every now and again, to reassure themselves that he’s still there in case a Saviour is needed, is very different from a Saviour of the Wizarding World who vanishes due to wizards not looking in on him quite often enough. No one wants regular reminders of the latter, really.)

(Anyway.)

In the courtyard behind the Leaky Cauldron, Remus taps at the brick wall with his wand, and a doorway blooms like a flower. Harry stares, his eyes wide, until Padfoot tugs impatiently at the lead.

Harry is too old to hold his dad’s hand, but from the look on his face his dad would feel much better if Harry held his hand. So he does. It’s not too far to Madam Malkin’s, anyway.

Inside the shop, a woman in mauve robes with a kind face says “Hogwarts, dear?”

She leads him over to a footstool, where another woman (another witch!) helps him into a set of long, black robes and starts pinning up the bottom. Harry is not sure how he feels about spending the next seven years of his life dressed like a judge in the kind of legal drama his mum likes to watch on the telly when she’s had a long day. But he supposes it’s worth it, if he gets to learn magic.

He’s nearly done when he hears the shop door open again. After a moment, Madam Malkin leads another boy over to his own footstool, next to Harry.

“Hello,” says the boy. “Hogwarts too?”

“Yes,” says Harry. He’s never met another wizard his own age before. He’s thought about it: Padfoot and Moony and Prongs met at Hogwarts. His birth parents met at Hogwarts.

“Was that your father, back there by the door with the dog?” the boy says. He’s very pale, with fair hair and a pointed face. He doesn’t sound like he has a very high opinion of dogs, or of Harry’s dad.

“Yes,” says Harry. Padfoot and Moony and Prongs and his birth mum also met most of their mortal enemies at Hogwarts, he recalls.

My father’s next door buying my books, and Mother’s up the street looking at wands,” says the boy, as though the very idea bores him. It has not occurred to Harry, before now, that anyone could be bored by magic.

“Then I’m going to drag them off to look at racing brooms. I don’t see why first years can’t have their own,” the boy continues, oblivious to Harry’s rapidly-forming first impressions. “I think I’ll bully Father into getting me one and I’ll smuggle it in somehow. Have you got your own broom?”

“No,” says Harry.

“Play Quidditch at all?”

“Not yet,” says Harry. “But I plan to.”

(For some time, there has been a quiet but protracted battle ongoing between his dad and Padfoot. Both have taken notice of Harry’s hand-eye coordination and athletic ability, and are determined to claim him for, respectively, cricket and Quidditch. Padfoot has tried to give him a broom for Christmas for three years running, and thus far been thwarted.)

“My!” says the boy. “Confident, aren’t we? I’m sure I’ll be picked for my house, Father says it’s a crime if I’m not. Do you know, when I came in I thought for a moment your father was a Muggle? I ought to have known better, I do apologize.”

Harry is acutely aware that he is nearly done with his fitting and that he is also nearly ready to renew the family tradition of making mortal enemies at Hogwarts. He says, “He is, actually. My godfather’s a wizard, but my parents aren’t magic at all. See you at Hogwarts,” and doesn’t add, I'm tremendously looking forward to beating you at Quidditch now.

This is, thankfully, the worst of it. Padfoot leads the way once they’re out of the shop, and to Harry’s surprise, he leads them not to Ollivanders, but to Eeylops Owl Emporium, where his mum is waiting with Moony and a large birdcage containing a beautiful snowy owl.

"Happy birthday, dear,” says his mum. “What do you think we should call her?”

When there is a quiet moment, a little later, Harry’s mum whispers to him that the owl had been Moony’s idea and that it was really a present from him, and Harry had better remember to thank him because magic is no substitute for manners.

They make their way to Ollivander’s as a group, laden with shopping bags that Moony charms feather-light. There is a bit of a tense moment, when they run into the giant man from the Leaky Cauldron, and he greets Moony like an old friend. But Moony smoothly lies that Professor McGonagall has asked him to help out with the new Muggleborn families this year, as she knows he’s been hoping for a crack at the Defense position.

“Oh, aye,” says the huge man. Moony introduces him as Hagrid, the Hogwarts groundskeeper, and manages to avoid introducing Harry or his parents. “It’d be my job ordinarily, showin’ ye around, but I’ve got quite an important errand at Gringotts today, for Dumbledore. Great man, Dumbledore. But you’ll see for yourself soon enough, eh, lad?”

He ruffles Harry’s hair as he says this. Harry likes him, but he could do without the hair-ruffling.

(Harry has been growing his hair out all summer. He usually likes it shorter, because it gets messy so easily, but at this length it hides the faint scar on his forehead. Really it only shows when his hair is short and he’s been in the sun a lot more than usual, but it’s not something he thinks about much. Why would he?)

(Of course it’s faint. When the wound was new, the doctor who looked him over at the hospital dressed and bandaged it, after the police took him away from Privet Drive. When his parents brought him home, they had strict instructions to clean it and change the bandage regularly. For six months after that, his mum carefully applied smelly scar-reducing ointment every night before she put him to bed, until she read that scar-reducing ointment wasn’t all that much more effective than plain petroleum jelly, and then she switched to an ointment that smelled nicer.)

Ollivander’s is -– weird.

It’s tiny and narrow, so small that Moony and Padfoot opt to stay outside. Harry and his parents crowd in, and stare at all the long narrow boxes piled nearly up to the ceiling. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around, until Harry glances over his shoulder, out the grubby window, to reassure himself that Moony and Padfoot are still there.

“Good afternoon,” says a soft voice. Harry jumps, startled, and turns back from the window.

Mr. Ollivander is a little old man with huge pale eyes that are a bit too bright for the dim shop. He seems as otherworldly as his surroundings, which are otherworldly even for Diagon Alley: in here, even the dust in the air tastes of magic.

That doesn’t stop Harry’s dad from stepping forward and introducing himself, or offering a handshake. Mr. Ollivander does not seem to have expected this. He takes Harry’s dad’s hand as if he thinks it might react badly to sudden movements.

“No wands for you two, then, I expect,” says Mr. Ollivander.

“I’m afraid not,” Harry’s mum says. “We’re very proud, though. We’re told this is an important moment.”

“Oh yes,” says Mr. Ollivander. He pauses. “Ahem. I, ah…”

“Dad put the camera away I told you not to bring it-–” Harry says.

“Why don’t we get started,” Mr. Ollivander says. He takes out a silvery tape measure and lets it start to measure Harry, all on its own. “Was that Remus Lupin I saw at the door, just now? He has a cypress wand, if I recall. Ten and a quarter inches. Pliable.”

“That’s very nice,” says Harry’s mum, gamely. The tape measure is making a bigger mess of Harry’s hair than Hagrid did.

“I remember every wand I’ve ever sold, madam. Every one,” says Mr. Ollivander. “Now, let’s see–-”

Harry proves to be a tricky customer. He isn’t sure what will happen when he does get the right one, but Mr. Ollivander seems to know what he’s waiting for. Wands and their boxes pile up on the counter: beechwood and dragon heartstring, maple and phoenix feather, ebony and unicorn hair…

And then Mr. Ollivander hands him a holly and phoenix feather wand (”eleven inches, nice and supple–”) and when Harry takes it the wand feels warm and alive in his hand. He waves it through the air, and it sends up red and gold sparks like a firework.

His dad claps. Mr. Ollivander cries “Oh, bravo!” and his mum just cries.

They pay Mr. Ollivander, and his mum and dad begin to gather their things and make their way out of the shop, to where Moony and Padfoot are waiting. Harry is the last one out the door.

Before he goes, Mr Ollivander stops him. “Young man, I ought to tell you,” he says, “that the wand chooses the wizard, and it is rather curious that this wand in particular should choose you.”

He says, “I remember every wand I’ve ever sold, young man. It just so happens that the phoenix whose tail feather is in your wand, gave another feather– just one other. It is very curious indeed that you should be destined for this wand when its brother -– why, its brother gave you that scar.”

He points at Harry’s forehead, at the scar that’s just visible under his mussed-up hair.

“Darling,” says Harry’s mum, leaning back in the door to the shop, “It’s time to go!”

They make their way out of Diagon Alley. Harry had been expecting to drag his feet, to want to stay, but he finds he’s glad when it’s just him and his family on the ordinary streets of London again. He only has a few more weeks 'til Hogwarts– he wants to spend them here, in the world he’s known as long as he can remember.

Anyway, then his dad announces that they’re going to spend the rest of the day at the Natural History Museum, since it would be a shame to come all the way to London and go right home.

Harry gasps. “Can we see the dinosaurs?”

So that’s all right. When Harry remembers that day, he’ll remember Diagon, yes, and Ollivander’s words -– but he’ll also remember the dinosaurs.

 

7.

The next few weeks pass too quickly and too slowly, all at once. Harry knows there is a lot of frantic planning going on, all around him: Hedwig comes and goes with letters almost daily. Padfoot goes back and forth nearly as much. Everyone seems to be planning his trip to Hogwarts with the sort of grim determination Harry usually associates with films about the invasion of Normandy.

But there are too many pleasant distractions for him to be very worried. He makes a valiant attempt at reading his schoolbooks, and gets at least a few chapters into each before he gives them up in favor of the large stack of wizard novels his mum brought back from Diagon Alley.

(“Well, they’re not exactly Wodehouse,” is his mum’s considered opinion, “but they’re not bad.”)

Anyway, he doesn’t really think anything bad could happen. Padfoot has explained how the Fidelius Charm works, and Harry doesn’t see how there’s any way around it.

(He is not exactly right. The secret Remus keeps for him is this: that the boy who lives at Harry’s address was once known as Harry Potter. It will keep Death Eaters from his door, but will not prevent the observant from drawing their own conclusions, in the world outside the safety of his home.)

So Harry spends the end of his summer lying on the window seat with a book, and his mum in the armchair behind him with her own book, and the radio on. He lets his dad live his dreams of all-England cricket vicariously through Harry, and goes for long walks with Padfoot. He pages through the photo albums Moony gave him, which are full of laughing strangers with Harry’s eyes or face or smile. He learns to make crepes with his dad. He sits through yet another of Padfoot’s lengthy lists of Things He Needs To Know About Hogwarts.

“Let’s see, that’s all the secret corridors but one,” says Padfoot. Throughout this recitation, he paces back and forth, from kitchen to living room and back again. “Damn, I wish I still had the Map--”

“You’re coming with me, you know,” says Harry.

“Yes, but I’ll have to be a dog all the time, so I’ve got to make sure I tell you everything important now,” says Padfoot, very reasonably. “I can’t turn into a wanted criminal in the middle of Gryffindor Tower just to tell you I remembered where the last secret corridor is.”

“You might have to turn into a wanted criminal in the middle of Ravenclaw Tower, you know,” points out Harry’s mum, who has been watching this from the armchair with some amusement. “Or -- what’s the other one called? Oh no, there’s two more, aren’t there--”

“I shan’t turn into a wanted criminal anywhere, because they won’t like it any better in the Ravenclaw common room,” says Padfoot. “Or in Hufflepuff. If it was Slytherin I’d probably earn you the House Cup, but if you’re sorted into Slytherin I want you to know in advance that you’re disowned.”

“I don’t think you can disown godsons,” says Harry, who knows that Padfoot doesn’t really mean it.

“Well, there’s an easy way to find out,” says Harry’s mum.

“Don’t encourage him!” says Padfoot.

 

8.

On the morning of September first, Harry and his dad wake up extra early and make a huge, elaborate breakfast.

Harry had hardly slept in any case: he was already awake to watch the sun come up. He doesn’t know it, but his parents and Padfoot only went to sleep themselves a little while before that. They stayed up late, working out the next day’s plan yet again, trying to think of anything they’d missed, reminiscing about Harry’s childhood and listening to Padfoot reminisce about Hogwarts.

“He’ll be all right there, won’t he?” Harry’s dad asks.

“He’ll love it,” Sirius promises.

And, because they have welcomed him into their home and treated him like family, for years now, he adds: “But he won’t be like I was. I’d never have left again, if they’d let me. He’ll be like James. James loved Hogwarts, but he was always happy to go home again, too.”

After Harry and his dad have made piles of eggs and bacon and rolls and fried tomatoes and the whole house smells wonderful, Sirius pads downstairs on human feet, a little bleary-eyed, and sits down for one last breakfast with Harry’s family. Before they go outside to get in the car, Sirius gives his godson a bone-cracking hug. They aren’t sure yet if Padfoot will have to stay dog-shaped the whole time they’re at Hogwarts, so he wants to make it count.

Elsewhere, other families are preparing for the day:

At the Grangers, Hermione is checking over her list one last time. Her mum slips a couple of extra toothbrushes into her trunk, just in case. Her dad will do the same, in about half an hour. When she arrives, Hermione will find she has enough toothbrushes for half of Gryffindor.

The Longbottoms are having breakfast, though Neville is fretting more than eating. “What if the Hat says I’m not magic enough?” he asks his gran.

“It will do no such thing,” says his gran, in tones that imply that if it did, she would give it a stern talking-to. This is very reassuring for Neville. “Now,” says his gran, “where did you leave Trevor?”

At Malfoy Manor, Draco’s parents are quietly reading their respective sections of the Prophet, over tea and a light breakfast. The house-elf fetches Draco some more jam, without having to be told.

At the Burrow, Ron and Percy are having a disagreement over a rat.

Percy decided, when he got his prefect’s letter, that he would be too busy to look after his pet rat, and anyway he was getting too old for such things. He (very generously, he felt) offered custodianship of the rat to Ron, and spent quite a bit of his valuable time instructing his youngest brother on the finer points of rat care.

Ron has proved to be a very ungrateful and inattentive student. “You needn’t act so high and mighty about it,” George says when Percy complains.

Adds Fred, “You did manage to lose the last one.”

“I did not,” Percy says. This is still a sore point.

The previous rat, a fat and lazy gray creature named Scabbers, vanished some months ago, when someone -- certainly not Percy -- left his cage door open overnight. His replacement is brown and white and rather livelier than her predecessor, and was dubbed ‘Whiskers’ by Ginny.

Anyway, it is Percy’s considered opinion that if Ron is going to be so cavalier about rat care, perhaps he ought to reconsider allowing his brother to look after his rat. This, naturally, leads to a blazing row that still has Ron and Percy muttering sullenly at one another over the breakfast table.

Their mother glares at them. “That’s enough, the both of you. Percy, I told you -- a gift is a gift, you can’t take it back. Ron, you’re going to take good care of Whiskers, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” says Ron. Before they leave for the train, Percy catches Ron offering Whiskers a small dish of carefully cut-up grapes, and is appeased.

At the station, Ron and his family head for the platform. They nearly cause a small pile-up just on the other side of the barrier, where a very obviously Muggle family has stopped dead at the sight of the train.

Molly takes them under her wing more or less instantly. “First time at Hogwarts, dear? Ron’s new, too.”

The Muggles look rather relieved. Their son, who doesn’t really look anything like his parents, has an enormous black dog and a nervous expression. They introduce themselves: Timothy and Caroline MacIntyre, and their son Harry.

“And this is Padfoot,” Harry adds. Padfoot barks, and allows Ginny to scratch his chin.

(The whole Weasley family carefully does not wince at Harry’s name. Poor thing, he wasn’t to know. And this the year that Harry Potter would have gone to Hogwarts, too! Bad luck, all around.)

Having absorbed the family into the general mass of Weasleys, Molly tells Fred and George to help Harry with his trunk, while Arthur asks Harry’s mother if she knows much about these ‘radio waves’ he’s been reading about. Harry’s father has some surprisingly thoughtful questions about magical cookery, and Molly finds herself writing out a few recipes for him with a funny self-inking Muggle quill that he produces from a pocket.

“Well I do work for Radio 4, but not on that side of things,” Harry’s mum says, just audible over Ginny complaining that she wants to go to Hogwarts now and Ron protesting Molly’s attempt to clean a smudge off the end of his nose and Percy bickering with the twins.

Eventually, all the children are on board (except Ginny, despite her best attempts) and the train begins to pull away from the station. Ron and Harry lean out the window of their compartment, waving. Harry’s dad alternates between snapping photos and waving back frantically. His mother looks distinctly teary-eyed.

“Don’t worry, dear, he’ll be just fine.” Molly tells her. “There’s no safer place than Hogwarts, and I’ll ask Percy to keep an eye out, make sure he’s settling in. We were rather a wreck when we sent our eldest off, weren’t we Arthur?”

“Oh, I cried buckets, I’m sure,” Arthur says cheerfully. “Harry’s your eldest, I suppose?”

“Our only,” says his mother.

“Any magic in the family tree?” asks Arthur. “It’s quite common for Muggle-borns to have a witch or wizard they didn’t know about, or even a Squib, somewhere in the family.”

“Er, no,” says Harry’s dad. “But we met some friends of his birth parents, a few years ago, who told us they were a witch and a wizard.”

Ah. The war, of course. Molly does wonder, but she elbows Arthur into dropping that line of inquiry: there’s no need to go poking at old wounds.

Before they part ways, Caroline writes down their address and a few book recommendations for Arthur, and lets him keep the pen.

“What a lovely family,” Molly remarks, as they make their way back out of the station.

“Oh yes,” Arthur agrees. He stops short. “Hang on, though -- didn’t they have a dog when they arrived?”

 

9.

On the train, Harry is relieved to have a compartment nearly to himself. He’s in with Padfoot and the youngest of that big noisy family from the platform -– Ron, who also seems quite glad for a bit of quiet, and space to catch his breath. Two of his brothers invite them to see someone’s giant tarantula, but Ron doesn’t seem to like spiders any better than Harry does.

They subside, for a bit, into the slightly awkward silence of two strangers whose parents clearly expected them to befriend one another. Padfoot flops over onto his side, puts his head on Harry’s shoes, and goes to sleep.

Ron makes the first overture. “Are you allowed dogs at Hogwarts? I thought it was only cats, rats and toads.”

“If anyone asks, I’m going to say he’s a very large cat,” Harry says.

Ron laughs, and the ice is broken. “D’you want to play Exploding Snap?” he asks Harry. “Or -– sorry, I guess you’ve never played it, it’s a wizarding game.”

“No, I have,” says Harry. “But I’m not very good. My godfather taught me.”

“That’s lucky,” says Ron. “There’s loads of people from Muggle families, and they all learn everything quick enough, once they get to Hogwarts. But it does make things a bit easier, doesn’t it?”

“I hope so,” says Harry. “My godfather says that my birth parents were really clever and got really good marks, when they were there.”

Now Ron has a slightly pained expression that Harry has grown to know well, from a lifetime of having parents who don’t look anything like him: that trying-to-make-the-math-add-up-without-being-rude look.

“Adoption’s not all that common for wizards, I guess,” Harry says, and Ron brightens, having been given the bit he needed to make the math come out right.

“Not really, no,” says Ron. “So your Muggle parents raised you? What are they like?”

Harry shrugs. How to answer that? They’re his parents. They do all the things parents do: they look after him and they love him and they don’t let him stay up til midnight on a school night, even though Padfoot had never seen Star Wars before and he missed watching Padfoot watch the end of the second one.

“Dunno,” says Harry. “What are wizard parents like?”

Ron considers this, and seems to come to the same impasse as Harry.

“Funny how you’ve got wizard parents and Muggle parents and a godfather,” he says. “You’ve got as many parents as I’ve got brothers.”

“I only saw three,” says Harry. “Are the others younger than your sister?”

“All older,” says Ron, suddenly gloomy. “I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to.”

He sighs, and reels off the next bit as if he’s practiced it: “Bill and Charlie have already left– Bill was head boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first. You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand, and Percy’s old rat.“

At the word “rat” Padfoot surges suddenly to his feet, ears flattened, growling. Ron, who has produced a perfectly innocent brown-and-white rat from the inside pocket of his jacket, freezes. The rat, on the other hand, stands up on her hind legs in Ron’s hand to get a better look at Padfoot. She’s surprisingly fearless, given that Padfoot is big enough to eat her without chewing.

“Padfoot!” Harry says, startled. But Padfoot is already subsiding. His ears go back up, and he carefully leans in close enough to satisfy the rat’s curiosity. They very nearly touch noses. And then Padfoot lies back down and puts his head back on Harry’s feet and, to all appearances, falls dead asleep again.

“Er,” says Ron. “Her name is Whiskers?”

Thankfully, there is a clattering in the corridor outside that forestalls the need for any further explanations. A smiling, dimpled woman slides back their door and says, "Anything off the cart, dears?”

Harry had an enormous breakfast, but he also has spending money and, before today, very limited access to wizarding sweets. He wants to see what he’s been missing. He gets a few chocolate frogs, and a couple of all the things he’s never tried before: pumpkin pasties, cauldron cakes, a licorice wand on the off chance that wizard licorice is better than the regular kind. He learned his lesson about Every Flavor Beans years ago, and skips them.

(Harry still has not really gotten used to calling non-magical things “Muggle.” Padfoot still does it sometimes, but less and less as Harry got older, and so he’s not used to hearing it very often. He thinks of ‘candy’ and ‘wizard candy,’ not ‘Muggle candy’ and ‘candy.’)

(He thinks of ‘his parents’ and ‘his wizard parents,’ too.)

“Hungry, are you?” Ron asks, when Harry tips his armful of sweets onto the seat beside him.

“I’ve never tried these,” Harry says. “And I didn’t pack a lunch.”

At Harry’s feet, Padfoot barks– not loud, just enough to get Harry’s attention– and paws at Harry’s knapsack. As it turns out, he did pack a lunch: his dad has bundled a lot of the leftover bacon and eggs into rolls and wrapped them in foil.

“Ta, Pads,” says Harry, and, turning to Ron: “Want one? There’s enough to share.”

Ron takes out a lumpy package and unwraps it, revealing four sandwiches inside. They looks a bit dry. He pulls one of them apart and says, "She always forgets I don’t like corned beef.”

Padfoot barks again, a little louder.

“He loves corned beef,” says Harry. “Have one of mine instead.”

It’s nice, sitting with Ron and Padfoot and working their way through the pile of food. It’s much harder to worry about what might be waiting for him at Hogwarts (Where will he be sorted? Will Padfoot get sent home? Will anyone find out who his wizard parents were? Will they let him try out for Quidditch?) when he’s warm and full and no longer has to wonder if he’ll make any friends at Hogwarts.

Harry looks out the window as the countryside grows wilder, and tries to picture what they’re doing at Hogwarts right now.

At Hogwarts, everyone is busy.

There are flurries of frantic house-elf activity everywhere you look: preparing for the evening’s feast, lighting the candles, turning down the linens in all the dormitories, currying the thestrals, a thousand little tasks.

In their offices, professors check over syllabi; in their classrooms, they do last-minute inventories. Are there enough quills? Rolls of parchment? Fire-proof gloves? Have all the broomstick bristles been trimmed, all the cauldrons scrubbed clean, all the portraits given their yearly stern talking-to about Not Swearing In Front Of The Children?

In the infirmary, Madame Pomfrey makes ready for the yearly wave of stomach bugs and colds, the inevitable result of hundreds of children bringing their germs along from all over the country.

In the Divinations classroom, Professor Trelawney is stacking teacups just so.

In his office, Albus Dumbledore is having the shock of his life.

“My goodness, Minerva,” he says. “You certainly have a flair for dramatic timing.”

“Lupin was adamant that I keep silent on the matter,” says Professor McGonagall. “At least until he and Black got the boy safely on his way to Hogwarts. It’s a miracle, honestly, that they’ve gone this long without anyone finding out; it’s not as if there aren’t still Death Eaters at large.”

“I suppose it helped matters that his staunchest protector is an unregistered Animagus,” says Dumbledore. He had gone quite pale when Minerva told him about Black.

Not that it had ever been far from Minerva’s thoughts, this last month. They sent Black to Azkaban, and did their best to never think of him again. Albus took it very hard, at the time -– that betrayal. But Black was the one betrayed, all along.

(Dumbledore would never say it -– he’d never even let the thought form fully -– but back before the war ended, he sometimes looked at Lupin and Black and saw two other young men. He saw how Black became the center of any room he entered; the way Lupin orbited him, too enthralled to ever want to break away. It was familiar.)

(He hoped, back then, that their version of the tale would end happily, but he was not surprised when it ended instead in death and betrayal and heartbreak. Perhaps if he’d looked closer, he might have seen through his own ghosts, superimposed on the living, and prevented a terrible mistake.)

Anyway. They agree to keep their new student’s identity to themselves, for now, though they both expect the truth will out. “Lupin tells me he looks remarkably like James,” says Minerva. “Someone will make the connection.”

“With any luck, by the time they do we’ll have ensured his adoptive parents’ safety,” says Dumbledore. “And Black’s, and Lupin’s.”

“Lupin’s keeping watch already,” says Minerva. “And as for Black -– well. We always say there’s no safer place than Hogwarts.”

The train arrives that evening, just as it ought to. They change into their school robes before they disembark, having been warned by a bossy girl with lots of hair. Before they leave the compartment -– Padfoot has to stay behind, which makes Harry a little anxious– Ron stops him.

“Listen, mate,” he says. “There’s something you ought to know. There’s a famous wizard named Harry who’d be about our age, except he went missing, so some people might be a little odd when you introduce yourself. Don’t worry, though. If anyone gives you any trouble, let me know, and I’ll set them right.”

This is an extremely kind gesture but it does not make Harry any less anxious.

But never mind that -– Harry has to get off the train, and follow the giant man he met in Diagon down a narrow path through a dark forest. He can only just see Hagrid’s bobbing, dancing lantern light, and he’s not sure where Ron went, and he’s concentrating so hard on his footing that he only half hears what Hagrid’s saying.

And then the path goes round a bend. Suddenly they are standing at the edge of a great black lake, and the lights that shimmer on the surface of the lake are beaming out of the windows of a castle, bright against the starry sky behind it-–

And Harry falls in love.

 

10.

While they wait to be Sorted, Ron gets more and more nervous.

Harry nudges him and asks, quietly, “All right?”

“Mm-hm,” says Ron. “Just. I dunno what we’re going to have to do, for the Sorting. Fred said it hurts a lot, but I think he was joking.”

“Oh!” says Harry. “No, it’s fine. My godfather told me. We just have to wear a hat.”

“A hat?” says Ron, but the sudden appearance of the school ghosts -- and Professor McGonagall -- cut off any further conversation. They don’t make Ron any less nervous, either.

Harry’s nervous too. Not about the Sorting, so much, but everything else.

He knows that some of his teachers will be people who knew his wizard parents. He wants to ask about them, ask for stories that Moony and Padfoot might not know, but he also isn’t sure yet if he want people to know that he used to be called Harry Potter. The more time he spends in the wizarding world, the more he thinks that people are probably going to be weird about it.

(He’s not wrong. People are definitely going to be weird about it.)

Harry thinks about this while the Hat sings a song, while the older students whisper and giggle to each other, waving to the first-years they know, staring at the ones they don’t. He thinks about it while he looks up at the star-strewn ceiling, up above the floating, flickering candles, and resolves to ask the bossy girl from the train about the ceiling later, since she seems to know all about it. He thinks about it while “Abbot, Hannah!” and “Bones, Susan!” become Hufflepuffs, and “Boot, Terry!” becomes a Ravenclaw.

He decides to put it out of his mind, as best he can, shortly after the bossy girl, or rather “Granger, Hermione!” becomes a Gryffindor.

The line of first-years has gotten shorter as the names are called, and they’ve bunched up, scooting sideways as kids step forward to try on the Hat. Harry finds himself standing between Ron and the snobby boy from the robe shop in Diagon Alley.

The boy gives Harry a dirty look, which seems uncalled for. “Hello again,” says Harry quietly, doing his best impression of what his mum calls her ‘being polite to utter knobs’ voice. “Did you get that broom after all?”

“Shan’t matter to you,” the boy mutters at him. “It’s not as though a Muggle-born has any chance of playing proper Quidditch.”

He says ‘Muggle-born’ as if there is a different, much ruder word he would rather use. This makes Harry feel unaccountably cheerful: that’s his nemesis sorted, and he can now be rude back with some impunity. The best kind of rude, according to his mum, is the kind that sounds almost perfectly polite.

“I said my dad’s a Muggle, not that I’m Muggle-born,” Harry points out, in his mildest tones. “Have you never heard of adoption, or are you just a bit dim?”

And then Profesor McGonagall calls for “MacIntyre, Harry!” so he gets to step forward out of the line before the boy can muster a response. He hears Ron snicker, behind him.

As he sits down on the stool and the hat drops over his eyes, Harry remembers to be nervous again. He waits, looking at the black inside of the hat.

“Hmm," says a small voice in his ear. "Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There's talent, my goodness, yes -- and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting… so where shall I put you?"

Gryffindor would be nice, Harry thinks, and I’d be all right with Ravenclaw. Hufflepuff doesn’t sound bad. Not Slytherin, though, if you don’t mind.

"Not Slytherin, eh?" says the small voice. "Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that -- no?”

No, thank you, Harry thinks firmly. Padfoot would be upset, and even once he got over it they’d have to spend all their time in the Slytherin common room, which is underground. Harry doesn’t like the idea of spending years and years in a cold stone cellar, and he dislikes the idea of Padfoot having to even more.

“Well, if you're sure -- better be GRYFFINDOR!"

There’s a bit of applause from the Gryffindor table as Harry makes his way over, and Ron’s brothers cheer, which is nice of them. By the time Harry finds a seat, the snobby boy, now known as “Malfoy, Draco!” has already been declared a Slytherin, which only makes Harry more relieved he’d turned the Hat down.

He can see the high table properly now that he’s sitting down, and a few familiar faces on it. Hagrid’s there, and the man in the purple turban from the Leaky Cauldron as well. That’s Professor McGonagall, there, and a tiny little man who, from Padfoot’s descriptions, is probably Professor Flitwick. He doesn’t recognize most of the others, except for one. Professor Dumbledore looks exactly like his chocolate frog card.

More importantly, though, the Sorting’s almost done. Ron is nearly last of all.

“GRYFFINDOR!” the Hat declares. Harry cheers and claps as loud as he can, along with Ron’s brothers, until Ron collapses with relief onto the seat next to him.

“Not so bad, right?” Harry asks.

“Yeah,” says Ron. “I’m going to kill Fred, though.”

Harry laughs, and then stops because the whole hall falls silent, when Albus Dumbledore gets to his feet.

"Welcome," he says, beaming happily down at them. "Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!"

He sits back down.

Everyone claps and cheers as if this is a normal sort of thing to do. Harry feels like Padfoot should have mentioned it, if it is.

"Is he -- a bit mad?" he asks Percy uncertainly.

"Mad?" says Percy. "He's a genius! Best wizard in the world! But he is a bit mad, yes. Potatoes, Harry?"

Well, all right. That does sound a bit more in keeping with Padfoot’s stories. And anyway, there is, very suddenly, too much food in front of him for Harry to think about anything else. So much, in fact, that he doesn’t notice when Dumbledore and a few other teachers slip away from the high table for a little while.

Chapter Text

1.

This is what an ordinary start-of-term Sorting is like:

The first-years, first glimpsed as the backs of a long row of heads, are not and never have been particularly interesting. Severus listens with half an ear, notes the new Slytherins and any likely troublemakers, and never worries about learning the rest of the names until he has a set of atrocious study habits to attach to them.

This year seems much the same. The first-years fidget ‘til their names are called. At least one student forgets to take off the Hat. The Weasley boys make an undignified display of themselves. So, nothing remarkable at all.

The Malfoy boy approaches the Hat. Severus wonders if he’ll be as tedious and uninspired as his father. The previous boy, a newly-minted Gryffindor with a Scottish surname whom Minerva will no doubt favor outrageously, takes a seat. Severus glances over at him.

And then time rewinds for twenty years, and stops.

Sitting at the Gryffindor table is a ghost: a slight, black-haired boy in spectacles, a veritable Polyjuice copy of James Potter, aged eleven, in every detail. Right down to the indefinable air of having been well-cared-for, even adored, that the original had worn so easily, and so thoughtlessly.

Just when Severus is working up a good head of steam about this, the boy glances up-- and his eyes are a vivid green that Severus knows all too well, even now. This is so distracting that he nearly fails to notice Albus and Minerva attempting to slip away from the table unobserved.

Like hell, Severus thinks, and follows.

While Harry is busy wondering about his headmaster’s sanity and, subsequently, eating too much roast beef, one of his professors is attempting to start a row with the other two. Albus and Minerva will not be distracted, though.

“Why was I not told--” is all Severus manages to get out, before Dumbledore cuts him off.

“I know,” he says. “I apologize. There’s a great deal you ought to be informed of. Most of it, I only learned this morning.”

(Minerva does not look the least bit contrite about this. The boy got to Hogwarts safely, which is all that matters as far as she’s concerned.)

“We’ll share the whole sorry tale tonight, never fear,” says Minerva. “But Albus and I have an urgent errand, and it ought to be done before the children finish eating.”

This is not the least bit satisfactory.

“Come now, Severus,” says Dumbledore. “This is happy news, is it not? Lily Evans’ son is alive, despite all our worst fears.”

And they leave. Just-- leave! Scurry off to whatever it is that’s more important than what just happened.

Severus ought to go back into the Hall, but he doesn’t. He paces, instead, outside the doors, muttering to himself. The boy will be his father all over again, no doubt. That ridiculous fig leaf of a surname won’t last; either some bright student will work it out, or Potter himself will grow impatient with the lack of attention, and announce it himself. Either way it will be distracting, unseemly, and vulgar, which is about par for the course with Severus’ prior experience of the elder Potter.

It doesn’t take long at all for Severus to work himself into a temper. He’s furious at the thought of enduring another seven years of a Potter playing glory hound, bully, braggart, and knight in shining armor. The fact that he is thirty-one years old, and the Potter in question is eleven, does not cross his mind.

While Severus Snape stews in twenty-year-old grudges, Sirius Black is doing his best to assuage ten-year-old guilts.

“I don’t know what you think you could have done, Headmaster,” he says. “I wasn’t in my right mind. If anyone had bothered with Veritaserum, or anything else, it might not have done much good, and it’s not as though the entire Wizengamot would have reconsidered on your say-so alone.”

(Sirius has practiced this speech a few times. He really is trying to mean it.)

If Dumbledore still seems troubled, at least it’s not by Sirius himself. He’s relieved, in all honesty: he expected a man who’s been a dog for most of the last ten years to be… well. A little fragile, at least. But Sirius Black looks better, if anything, than he did in the last days of the war: calmer, steadier. The frantic edge is gone, replaced by certainty. He’s settled in himself, at long last.

Dumbledore would be glad, if only the cost hadn’t been so high.

(Remember, Sirius has read every book in Harry’s house, down to the old textbooks in boxes in the attic. The Muggles really have worked out some things that wizardkind could do with, starting with all of Caro’s assigned reading for the psychology class she took in her first year of uni.)

(Sirius feels much more self-actualized than he ever used to.)

So Sirius stands before his old professors and insists that he ought to stay with Harry, at least for this first year.

“It’ll come out, sooner or later,” he says. “It only takes a student noticing the wrong thing, writing home to the wrong parent. Then the Prophet gets hold of the story, and everyone goes mad. You know it’ll happen.”

“And you really think he’ll need-- what, a bodyguard?” Minerva asks. “Here, of all places?”

“Someone will come after him,” says Sirius. “If it’s some random nutter or washed-up Death Eater, Hogwarts might be enough to protect him. But I don’t think that’s who we have to worry about.”

“You think it will be Pettigrew,” says Dumbledore.

“Yes,” says Sirius. “And if it is Wormtail that comes after Harry, I need to be here.”

Harry, of course, never learns the full details of this conversation. Neither does Snape, who gets an edited version that makes him absolutely incandescent with rage.

What Harry knows is that after the feast-- after one of his professors spent the evening glaring at Harry so hard it actually gave him a headache-- he makes his way with the other first-years, up through the many winding stairways of Hogwarts castle, to a talking portrait who ushers him into Gryffindor Tower. He climbs yet another stair, dragging his feet by the end of it, with Ron and Neville and Seamus and Dean, who he is relieved to like already. Finally, at the top of the stair, they are greeted by a cosy room, where their trunks are waiting, where five four-poster beds are hung with heavy red velvet curtains.

And there, curled up with his head on his paws at the foot of one of the beds, is his Padfoot.

 

2.

Let’s pause for a moment, and talk about kindness. There are three ways, in the main, that people learn to be kind, and one is rather easier than the others.

Harry, as we know him here, has been fortunate, and learned kindness by example: from his parents, from his godfather, from most of people he encounters. He has been treated with kindness by these people, and offered in it turn, whether or not it was expected, or even warranted. He understands kindness instinctively, knows cruelty to be unfair and wrong, does not see why people should be unkind when they could choose better. Harry has known a great deal of kindness, and so kindness comes easily to him.

Had his life been different, he might have had to learn kindness by a different path. This is the path with a less certain outcome. He might have been denied kindness, for much of his young life. He might have only known its worth, upon encountering it, for the relief it offered. People raised in deserts know the value of water.

But for some, cruelty teaches them that kindness is a thing they can live without-- something they cannot afford to value, or practice. A weakness, to be stamped out. A vulnerability, to armor against exploitation. Such people are contemptuous of kindness. They have never needed it, they insist, and have precious little to spare. Why should they offer it to anyone else?

(There is a third way. We’ll get to that later.)

At the end of Harry’s first full week at Hogwarts, Hedwig brings him his mail at breakfast. There’s a nice long letter from his mum, full of news about Harry’s primary school friends, with notes in his dad’s handwriting added on around the edges. And there is a shorter note, much more excitingly, from Moony.

I’m visiting Hagrid today, it says, and since you’ve got Friday afternoon off, why don’t you come and meet us for tea at three o’clock? Send Padfoot over before you go to class, we’ve got some catching up to do.

Harry tries to show Padfoot the note as surreptitiously as possible. Hermione Granger, sitting halfway down the long table from Harry, notices this, and frowns.

(Hermione is not very impressed by Padfoot. “Dogs are against the rules,” she notes, their very first morning of classes.)

(“He’s half Scottish wildcat and a quarter jaguar,” Ron says loyally. “Stop making him feel self-conscious.”)

Anyway. Padfoot finishes the bacon Seamus has been slipping him under the table, and trots off to Hagrid’s cottage.

This gives Harry a chance to do something he’s wanted to do since he got to Hogwarts. There’s still quite a bit of time before their double Potions class with the Slytherins, but Harry gets his things together and arrives nearly half an hour early.

The door to the Potions classroom is ajar. Harry knocks on the doorframe, and pushes it open. “Um. Professor?”

At the front of the room, Professor Snape is sitting at his desk, head bowed over a stack of parchment. The classroom itself, Harry notices, is chilly, a bit damp, and he’s not sure he likes all the pickled things floating in jars on the shelves all round the room.

“Class begins in twenty-five minutes,” says Professor Snape, without looking up. “Don’t expect me to reward keenness.”

“It’s not class-related, sir,” says Harry.

Professor Snape looks up. His eyes are sharp and black, though at least he’s not glaring as hard as he did after the Sorting.

“Ah, yes,” he says. “Harry Potter. Our new… celebrity.”

“It’s MacIntyre actually,” says Harry.

This is not, apparently, what Professor Snape expected Harry to say. There is a very long and awkward silence.

Harry, despite himself, sometimes falls into his dad’s habit of filling awkward silences with nervous chatter. Unfortunately, this is one of those times.

“I mean, my parents changed it, when they adopted me. And we didn’t even know I was ever a Potter until I was almost eight, so it’s not really… my name. That I use. And also my godfather says that people might be a bit weird about it, if I used that name, so I’d rather not if it’s all right with you. Sir. Um.”

Professor Snape does not have a ready response to this.

“My mum says that if I want to I can add it back as a middle name,” Harry says, “But I’m not sure because then I’d have two middle names, and that seems like a lot. I’d be Harry Potter Bennet MacIntyre. But Tolkien had two middle names, didn’t he, and he turned out all right, so--”

“What do you want,” says Professor Snape, having apparently reached some sort of internal limit.

“Well,” says Harry, “I was wondering if you knew anyone who was good friends with my mum. My birth mum, I mean.”

There is another silence, nearly as long as the first. Harry fights the urge to babble.

“Why would you ask me that,” says Professor Snape.

“Well, my godfather said you were at school with them,” says Harry.

“Oh, did he? And what else did he say about me,” says Professor Snape.

“Not very much,” says Harry, blithely unaware that this is a far deeper cut than if he had said oh, he complains about you constantly, hates you like anything, never shuts up about it.

In fact, on one of the few occasions Snape’s name did come up, all Sirius said in Harry’s hearing was “I don’t know how Lily put up with him for as long as she did.” Harry does not feel terribly comfortable repeating this sentiment to a teacher, though.

(Sirius has tried terribly hard to put his old grudges aside, at least far enough that they don’t touch Harry. The schoolboy ones, anyway. The wartime ones are permanent, but he doesn’t talk about those in front of Harry either.)

“The thing is,” says Harry, “he was only really friends with her once they were seventh-years, so I was hoping to find someone who knew her earlier than that. Because my godfather has lots of stories about my birth dad when he was my age, but not really very many about my mum.”

“...I’ll look into it,” says Professor Snape, after another silence. “Leave. Class begins promptly on the hour.”

“Thank you, Professor,” says Harry. “And, um, you won’t use my old name in class, will you?”

“I should think you’d enjoy the attention,” says Snape, a little of the usual mean glare returning.

But Harry wrinkles his nose at that. “For something I did when I was a baby? I didn’t even do it on purpose. That wouldn’t be fair.”

Once again, Harry feels as though he has said the wrong thing. He seems to keep knocking the conversation off-balance, without meaning to. He hopes it won’t make Potions class too uncomfortable.

“Very well,” says Professor Snape. “Now. Leave.”

“Right,” says Harry. He flees.

(Potions class is not awkward, as such, but only because Professor Snape studiously ignores Harry the entire time, even when he raises his hand. But perhaps it’s for the best. Neville Longbottom loses a point for Gryffindor, for incompetence, and Hermione Granger another for showing off. Perhaps Professor Snape’s attention might be something best avoided.)

 

3.

On the other side of the Hogwarts grounds, Remus Lupin has just made Hagrid cry. He really didn't mean to. But Hagrid is a sensitive soul, and he’d spent a decade thinking he’d failed, somehow, when the tiny baby he carried away from Godric’s Hollow had vanished so completely. On top of which, there is the Padfoot situation.

Sirius very patiently endures being cried on for as long as he can possibly stand it, and then turns back into Padfoot and goes to sit by Remus.

“Sorry,” says Hagrid, mopping his face with an enormous handkerchief. “Didn’t mean to do that. We all took it hard, thinkin’ you'd gone over to You-Know-Who, and to find out we'd been wrong, and you’d been sittin’ in a cell in Azkaban for no good reason--!”

His face threatens more tears. Padfoot gives Remus a look of mute pleading. Remus returns a look that says, very clearly, that Sirius had better get used to other people and their feelings if he ever wants to be part of wizarding society again.

Fortunately for all three of them, this is when Harry arrives, with another student in tow.

Harry’s a bit taken aback when Hagrid answers the door with red eyes and the overlarge hanky still clutched in one hand. Ron is rather more taken aback than Harry.

Remus introduces himself as an old friend of Harry’s godfather, which is technically true.

“I'm sorry,” says Remus, “but I just delivered some rather upsetting news about a mutual friend.”

(This is also technically true.)

Ron, showing tact beyond his years, remembers something he urgently needs to go and get from Gryffindor Tower, and excuses himself.

“Right,” says Sirius as soon as he turns back to human, “tell me how Potions went. Am I going to have to earn my murder conviction after all?”

Harry is used to Padfoot making jokes like this, but from the way Hagrid reacts it might have gone a bit far.

“It was fine, I promise,” Harry says. He doesn’t mention the bit before class started, when he asked about his birth mum. Harry is not a very secretive person, but this is one of the rare things he wants to keep for himself for a little while.

“I missed you,” Harry tells Padfoot, after they have all settled down with tea and inedible rock cakes. “I mean, you’ve been here, but not-- it’s weird acting like you’re a regular dog, and not talking to you properly.”

“So ye haven’t just been a dog this whole time?” says Hagrid. “Bit of a relief, that. From the way Lupin made it sound--”

“Oh, no. Only out in public, really, anymore,” says Sirius.

“Y’know,” says Hagrid, “when Dumbledore clears yer name, ye’ll be able to go anywhere ye like.”

“On two legs, even,” notes Remus.

From the look on Sirius’ face, he doesn’t seem to have thought of that, or even know what to think of it. Remus, mercifully, changes the subject.

“Your parents send their love, Harry,” he says.

“Send mine back to them, thanks,” says Harry. “Are they doing all right?”

“I think they’re feeling the empty nest a bit,” says Remus. “You know I'd been planning to get a flat nearby, just in case? Well, they wouldn’t hear of it. Insisted I take the guest room, at least while I look for something a bit more permanent.”

The look that Harry and Sirius exchange is frankly conspiratorial.

“Oh good, it worked,” says Harry.

“Wait,” says Remus.

“Sorry,” says Sirius, who is not even slightly sorry. “Tim and Caro need someone to look after, and you’ve been volunteered.”

“I am a grown man,” says Remus. “I'm meant to be looking after them.”

“Best of luck with that,” says Sirius. “A word of advice: if Tim says he needs a bit of help with a small project, just write off the rest of the day and don’t wear anything you don't want ruined.”

Moony looks betrayed.

(But not, really, all that upset about it.)

The rest of the afternoon is nice. Hagrid tells Harry stories about his wizard parents, about himself as a baby, about the trouble Padfoot and Moony got up to at Hogwarts. Harry works out how to soften his rock cake a bit with his tea.

When Hagrid starts telling the story of the night the Potters died, though, Sirius cuts him off. “You know, there’s something I've been meaning to ask you about that, Hagrid,” he says. “Something rather important, actually.”

“When the time comes, I’ll speak up for you before the Wizengamot,” Hagrid says. “Of course I will. Ye don't even need to ask.”

There is a pause.

“...that's not what I meant. But thank you,” says Sirius. “I suppose it’s a bit, well, frivolous of me, but I’ve always wondered. Do you know what happened to my motorbike?”

“Know?” says Hagrid, delighted to have happy news. “Why, it’s parked round the back!”

“Can I ride it?” says Harry.

“Absolutely not,” says Sirius, so reflexively that even he looks a little surprised.

They all troop outside to look it over, and back inside so that Sirius can give Hagrid a long list of recommendations for repairs and grill him about the maintenance he’s been doing. While Hagrid looks for a quill to take notes, Harry notices a newspaper clipping tucked under the tea cozy.

GRINGOTTS BREAK-IN LATEST, it says.

Apparently, there was an attempted robbery the same day Harry went to Diagon to get his wand. Moony notices what Harry’s looking at, and Harry hands him the clipping to read. He gets a very thoughtful look.

“Sirius,” he says. “Leave off, your bike’s been fine for ten years and I've no doubt it will be for ten more. Harry, when do you have to be back?”

When it’s time for Harry and Padfoot to go, Harry gets a big hug from Padfoot, an enormous hug from Hagrid, and a rather more decorous one from Moony.

“Don't let mum and dad boss you around too much,” Harry tells him.

“But let them boss your around a bit,” says Padfoot. “It'll make them feel better.”

“Come back whenever ye like,” Hagrid tells Harry. “And Black, when ye need to stretch yer legs a bit--”

“Oh, that will help, thanks,” says Padfoot. “I'll take you up on that.”

Hagrid and Harry go outside first, giving Moony and Padfoot a moment to talk between themselves.

“Yer a good lad, Harry,” Hagrid tells him. “Ye’ve done well, looking after Sirius.”

“What do you mean?” Harry says. After all, Padfoot is his godfather. He’s always looked after Harry, not the other way round. But before he gets an answer, the door opens behind them. Padfoot is dog-shaped again, and Moony looks a bit rumpled.

“I'll try to come back soon,” says Moony.

“In a month or so?” asks Harry, who knows perfectly well what he means,

“In all likelihood, yes,” says Moony, with a wry look at Padfoot. “You’ll look after him ‘til then, won’t you?”

It’s not until later, after Harry is back in his dormitory, that he wonders which of them Remus had meant.

 

4.

In the week before his first flying lesson, Harry comes to an important decision. He concludes, after some deliberation, that Draco Malfoy is a horrible little bully and he, Harry, will find a way to show him up or die trying.

He does not arrive at this conclusion lightly. Malfoy is consistently nasty to just about everyone outside his own small clique of Slytherins. Harry has heard him call a Hufflepuff first-year an ‘embarrassment to wizardkind,’ a Ravenclaw study group 'too busy reading books to ever do anything useful,’ and Hermione Granger 'a jumped-up Muggle trying too hard to act like a real witch.’ The fact that all of this unpleasantness has a slightly rote quality, as if Malfoy is repeating someone else’s ugly opinions in lieu of forming his own, does not make him any less obnoxious.

Padfoot doesn’t like him either. Harry can tell by the way his ears go flat whenever Malfoy is nearby.

(He tends to do that around Professor Snape, too, but he’s a little more subtle about it, and avoids the Potions professor as much as he can in any case.)

Malfoy is also a show-off, to make matters worse. He crows about the constant stream of letters and packages his owl brings him in the mornings, and then turns around to call other students babyish for getting too many letters from home.

“Honestly, MacIntyre, you ought to be able to do without your Muggles by now,” he tells Harry one morning. “Would you need your real parents to write you so often?”

“They are my real parents,” says Harry. It’s something he’s had to say before, but never to someone who was being so nasty about it.

“Not by blood,” says Malfoy, rolling his eyes.

“What does blood have to do with anything? They’re my parents,” says Harry. He’ll never understand why that’s so confusing to some people.

It certainly is confusing to Malfoy. He sputters for a moment, trying to come up with a suitably mean-spirited reply, until Padfoot growls at him from under the table and scares him off.

“Forget about Malfoy, he’s a git,” says Ron.

“Easy for you to say, he doesn’t go after you all the time,” says Harry.

Ron’s shoulders hunch. “No, he does, sometimes,” he says, and doesn’t elaborate.

Harry doesn’t know what Malfoy said to Ron, but he can make an educated guess. Malfoy thinks the only people worth knowing are rich snobby pureblood wizards who hate Muggles, and the Weasleys aren’t rich or snobby or hateful.

So by the morning of their first flying lesson, when Malfoy first tries to steal Neville’s Remembrall, Harry is wholly determined to puncture Malfoy’s ego by any available means.

But Harry has never been on a broomstick before, despite Padfoot’s ardent hopes. For obvious reasons, his house does not have the sorts of spells on it that would keep Muggles from noticing the neighbor’s son flying around in the backyard. His parents and Moony agreed ages ago that the risks weren’t worth it, and anyway he’d learn as soon as he got to Hogwarts. Harry, not knowing what he was missing, has never been terribly upset about this, until now.

At least he’s not the only one who’s worried. Although he could do without Hermione Granger reading aloud from Quidditch Through the Ages, since the flying tips she chooses don’t seem very helpful and tend to contradict each other. Fortunately, when Ron points this out to her, she scowls at him and switches to taking notes instead.

By three-thirty that afternoon, Harry is both nervous and determined. The lesson starts well, at least. His broom jumps into his hand as if it’s eager to be in the air. Unfortunately, things do not improve from there.

After Neville breaks his wrist, Malfoy quickly finds an opportunity to be awful. Harry, who has reached his limit on Malfoy being awful, sees an opportunity of his own, and seizes it.

The good news is: flying is wonderful. With the wind whipping through his hair, he hardly notices the other students shouting up at him from the ground. If not for Malfoy, Harry thinks he might just fly circles around the castle until nightfall, delighting in how easy and natural it felt to be in the air.

But the bad news, of course, is Malfoy. “Give it here,” Harry calls to him, but Malfoy sneers.

“You haven’t got your guard dog up here,” he says. “Think I’m scared of you?”

“I don’t need Padfoot’s help to knock you off your broom,” Harry says. “Think you can stay on it without Crabbe and Goyle to save your neck?”

“I don’t need them to handle the likes of you,” Malfoy spits back at him. “You don’t know how proper wizards should act, you don’t care a jot about your own blood-- d’you even know who your real parents are?”

“Yes,” says Harry. “I do. And I know who my birth parents were. And they didn’t like bullies any better.” He spurs his broom into a lunge at Malfoy, who only just manages to dodge.

“Fine,” says Malfoy. “Catch it if you can, then!” He throws the Remembrall into the air, high as he can, and flees.

Harry can’t make Malfoy be decent, but he can catch that Remembrall.

The world below him seems to fade from view, narrowing to the air and the broom and the arcing parth of the glass ball, flashing red in the afternoon light. He dives, certain that he can catch it. Everything makes sense, somehow. He knows how fast to fly, and at what angle; when to stretch out his hand, and when to pull up from his plummet so that he topples gently from his broom to the grass, Remembrall clutched safely in his fist.

And then, very suddenly, Professor McGonagall is shouting at him, and the world snaps back into existence.

He does appreciate Ron and Parvati’s attempts to defend him, but he doesn’t make any protest himself. They’d been told to stay on the ground. Frankly, any amount of detention would be worth the look on Malfoy’s face when he realized Harry could hold his own on a broom.

As they approach the castle, Padfoot peels out from behind a tree and joins them, trotting along beside Harry.

Harry gives him a reproachful look. “I told you not to watch!” he hisses. He’d been nervous enough without knowing his godfather was spectating.

Padfoot gives him a look which says, very plainly, that Harry should have known full well that he, Padfoot, would not have missed this for the world.

Professor McGonagall, meanwhile, has not said a word since they entered the castle. She leads Harry to a classroom and ushers him in. To his surprise, Padfoot, who is not ordinarily allowed in the classrooms, follows him. Another surprise: the classroom is quite empty.

The moment the door is shut and locked, Padfoot turns into Sirius. “Did you see that!” he cries joyfully. He seizes Harry in a hug that nearly lifts him off his feet. “I knew it!”

“The boy’s a natural,” says Professor McGonagall, whose usual stern expression has vanished. “I've never seen anything like it. Was that your first time on a broomstick, Potter?”

“It’s MacIntyre,” Harry says automatically.

But Sirius is already talking over him. “Not for lack of trying on my part, that’s for certain. And if I’d known he could do that-- !”

“He caught that thing in his hand after a fifty-foot dive,” says Professor McGonagall, nodding at the Remembrall Harry is still holding. “Didn't even scratch himself. Charlie Weasley couldn't have done it.”

“A born Seeker,” says Sirius, still in raptures. “Who’s Quidditch captain, anyway? You’d better fetch him.”

“In a moment,” says Professor McGonagall. “And I’ll have to speak to Professor Dumbledore, and see if we can't bend the first-year rule. Heaven knows, we need a better team than last year. Flattened in that last match by Slytherin--”

“Excuse me,” says Harry. “am I in trouble?”

There is a pause.

“Not at present,” says Professor McGonagall. She attempts to paste the stern look back onto her face. “But I want to hear you're training hard, or I may change my mind."

The stern look doesn’t last long, though. It vanishes when she looks at Sirius, and says “James would have been proud, I think.”

“He’d be over the bloody moon,” says Sirius.

 

5.

To Draco’s surprise and displeasure, MacIntyre is at dinner that evening, looking offensively cheerful. Draco assumed he’d at least get detention, though expulsion was probably too much to hope for. but apparently neither one is in the offing. it only goes to show, he thinks, how outrageously lenient the school is towards the Muggleborn, just like his father always says.

And MacIntyre isn’t really Muggleborn, if he’s telling the truth. He shouldn’t even have ignorance as an excuse.

Well, he won’t stand for it. If MacIntyre won’t show the slightest bit of proper wizarding feeling, then he, Draco Malfoy, will have to hold the line for Standards, and Traditions, and so on.

(And with any luck, get MacIntyre into the trouble he deserves, in the process.)

Once he’s challenged MacIntyre, though, Draco begins to have second thoughts. After all, it’s not really becoming of a Malfoy to sneak off to brawl with blood traitors in the middle of the night. And yes, MacIntyre promised to leave his dog behind, though he shouldn’t have been allowed to bring the beast to Hogwarts at all-- blatant favoritism, again!

But can Draco really trust him to keep his word, when he clearly doesn’t know the first thing about how honorable wizards behave? Honestly, more likely than not MacIntyre will get cold feet and stay in bed, or Weasley will talk him out of it. Draco wouldn’t even put it past them to tell Professor McGonagall, and get him in trouble instead! For all that Gryffindors talk about bravery, they never show it when it really matters. That’s what Father always says.

Two can play at that game, Draco decides. And with any luck, MacIntyre will learn what happens when you throw your lot in with blood traitors and Muggles.

Draco sleeps soundly that night, with a perfectly clear conscience. And why shouldn’t he?

 

6.

Harry, of course, very sternly forbids Padfoot to come along with him and Ron to the wizard’s duel.

Padfoot, of course, ignores this. He hangs back in the shadow of the doorway until Ron and Harry have left the common room, and emerges to find Hermione Granger in the throes of indecision.

She glares at him. “You could have at least tried to stop them,” she says.

Stopping Harry when his mind’s really set on something is only slightly easier than stopping James, and rather more difficult than stopping the Hogwarts Express under full steam. This isn’t something one can easily convey as a dog, though.

So when Granger makes an indignant noise and goes after Ron and Harry, Padfoot just follows.

They pick up another kid on their way to the trophy room, but that’s all right. Padfoot got into significantly worse trouble at Hogwarts than this without anyone getting hurt, and a couple of firsties flinging jinxes at each other won’t be the end of the world.

Hell, if they all get detention together, they might get along better at the end of it.

And that’s assuming the Malfoy kid even shows up; from what Padfoot remembers of his father, that’s not too likely. Not exactly a battlefield general, was the elder Malfoy. Much more the sort to lead from the rear. First in line for praise, last in line for blame.

The trophy room’s empty when they arrive. The kids cool their heels for a little while. Padfoot tries to get at the itch behind his ear, but can’t quite manage it. He trots out from behind his hiding spot amongst the trophy cases, and flops down next to Harry.

“I told you to stay behind,” Harry says, but his heart’s not in it. Padfoot can tell.

Ron, who is a good lad, scoots closer to Harry so he can scratch Padfoot’s ears.

And then they hear Filch in the next room.

The kids all jump like they’ve been set upon by boggarts, poor things. Padfoot can only vaguely remember a time when something like this was actually worth being scared of. He barks, softly as he can, to get Harry’s attention.

“Can you draw him off, Pads?” Harry asks him, and he barks again.

“That dog of yours is a lifesaver,” he hears Longbottom say on his way out. I’m really not, he thinks to himself, but he’s got enough years and enough distance that it’s more wry than anguished. But I intend to be, if it comes to it .

It doesn’t, of course. Not this time. He leads Filch and Mrs. Norris on a merry chase. Once he’s shaken them, he settles down for a nap in one of the secret tunnels. In the morning, he rejoins Harry for breakfast in the Great Hall, eyes bright and tail wagging, just in time for Harry’s new broom to arrive.

This, Padfoot decides, settling under the table within bacon-tossing range of Seamus Finnegan, is what Hogwarts ought to be. Not what it was in his last years here, with the war looming over them all. Not a fortress, or a seething cauldron of alliances and recruitment. But this: nothing worse than mischief, once in a while, with plenty of time to stockpile good memories in between.

Seamus tosses him half a sausage. Lovely, thinks Padfoot, and snaps it neatly out of the air.

 

 

 

7.

In the days leading up to Halloween, Harry worries about Padfoot, a bit. At home, Padfoot would sometimes spend the day avoiding everyone, curled up at the back of the shed or in a corner of the attic. Some years, he’d stick to Harry’s side like glue, not wanting Harry out of his sight for a moment. Knowing what he now knows, Harry understands it, and his mum and dad have told him to give Padfoot space when he needs it.

But he still worries, just a bit.

He leaves it be, anyway. On Halloween, he tries not to wonder what Padfoot’s doing when he doesn’t see so much as a hair of him all day. He’s got enough to worry about on his own, really: he’s busy all the time, between Quidditch and lessons and homework.

Not to mention the small issue of the huge monster in the third floor corridor, and whatever it’s guarding. He’s got a lot going on, does Harry, without even taking Padfoot into account.

When he and Ron accidentally lock Hermione Granger in with a mountain troll, though, Harry does take a moment to fervently wish that Padfoot could be clingy this year.

They manage to knock out the troll, somehow. Once it’s stopped moving, Harry and Hermione climb to their feet, and Ron stands there frozen, still clutching his wand.

It’s Hermione who speaks first.

"is it -- dead?"

And then the door slams open. It’s Padfoot, at a dead run. He turns into Sirius without breaking stride, and then skids to a halt, wand upraised, and takes in the scene before him.

“We’re all right!” says Harry.

“I knew it,” says Hermione.

“Hang on,” says Ron.

“Oh, fuck,” says Sirius, very heartfelt, but he has to turn back into Padfoot when the rest of the grown-ups flood in.

Hermione, to Harry’s surprise, takes the blame, and the scolding from Professor McGonagall, and the five lost points. She leaves without a word of protest, which isn’t like her at all. As for Harry and Ron, they get much less of a scolding and five points apiece for Gryffindor, so it certainly could have been worse. Even leaving aside the near-death by troll.

Professor McGonagall sends them back to Gryffindor Tower, with Padfoot for an escort. As they go, Ron shoots baffled looks at Padfoot and at Harry in turns, not knowing what to ask first. Before they get very far, though, Hermione steps out from behind a statue.

“Er,” she says. “Thanks. For-- you know.”

“Thanks for not ratting us out,” says Ron, and Harry nods in agreement. He never liked Hermione all that much, before, but he thinks they’re probably going to be friends from now on. Knocking out a mountain troll together is the sort of thing that means you have to be friends afterwards. He’s pretty sure.

“Right,” Hermione says, and draws herself up, pulling on an approximation of her usual know-it-all haughtiness. It reminds Harry of Professor McGonagall trying to muster her stern look. He likes her better now that he knows who she is underneath it.

“I want to know what’s really going on,” Hermione says. “There’s an empty classroom here, we’ve a few minutes before anyone will miss us.”

“Wow,” says Ron. “Once you break a rule you don’t look back, do you?”

“Only when it’s really important,” says Hermione.

Ron shrugs. “Fair enough,” he says. “Sorry, Harry, but I’ve got some questions too, starting with our sixth secret dorm-mate.”

He levels a look at Padfoot, who gives the doggy equivalent of a shrug and trots into the empty classroom.

Once the door is shut and locked, Padfoot changes into Sirius. He seizes Harry in a hug that turns, halfway through, into shaking some sense into him.

“I’m never leaving you alone on Halloween again, you little maniac,” he tells Harry. “Not for a bloody minute.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Harry says. He pries himself free with as much dignity as he can manage, which isn’t much. “Anyway, we’d better tell Ron and Hermione.”

“All right,” Sirius says. He makes a visible effort to settle himself. “But I want to know what they’ve worked out on their own, first.”

Hermione bites her lip. “Well,” she says. “I thought-- Harry. You’re here to protect him, right?”

“Right,” says Sirius.

She turns to Harry, and says “Because you’re not really Harry MacIntyre, are you?”

“Yes I am,” says Harry. Hermione’s Muggleborn, and should know better.

She makes a ‘fair enough’ sort of face, and says, “I mean, you weren’t always. Not originally.”

“Well, yes,” says Harry.

“That’s what I thought!” says Hermione. “Because you're in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century, aren’t you? And I saw your scar at our first flying lesson. And these old pictures I saw in the trophy room, you look just like -- and, well-- it all made sense, when I put the pieces together.”

“Well done,” says Sirius. “I think you must be the cleverest witch in your year.”

Hermione grins, pleased by the compliment.

“Well, I’m not the cleverest witch in our year,” says Ron. “So could someone please just tell me what’s going on?”

“Sorry,” says Harry. He flounders, for a moment, looking for the right way to explain it.

“Remember right before we got off the train,” he says, “when you told me there was a famous wizard named Harry, and people might be a bit weird to me about it?”

“Yeah,” says Ron.

“Well… they wouldn’t be wrong to,” says Harry. “Even if I’d rather they didn’t.”

“... oh,” says Ron.

“Please don’t be weird about it,” says Harry.

“I won’t!” says Ron. “I just need a minute. Hang on, though-- that doesn’t explain him.” He points at Sirius.

“I thought maybe you were an Auror,” says Hermione. “Sent by the Ministry as a bodyguard. But that’s not right, is it?”

“No,” says Padfoot. “I’m Harry’s godfather. My name is Sirius Black.”

Ron goes white under his freckles.

Harry says, all in a rush, “And he was framed for murder and wrongfully convicted and he’s been protecting me from You-Know-Who’s people since I was six but it’s a very long story and we need to get back but I promise I’ll explain all of it and everything you’ve heard is probably wrong.”

“...All right,” says Ron. “I’m taking a lot on faith here, mate.”

“I know,” says Harry.

He explains as much as he can on the walk back up to the Gryffindor common room, but once they go in there’s too many people and too much commotion. And anyway, once he sees all the food, Harry suddenly realizes that he’s ravenously hungry.

So does Ron, by the look of the plate he piles up. At first Harry thinks Hermione must be even hungrier, until he catches her setting her second heaping plate on the floor under an out-of-the-way table. He and Padfoot go over to join her, Ron trailing behind.

“I have so many questions,” says Hermione.

“I can’t believe you’re secretly famous,” says Ron.

“I’m glad you’re the first ones to know,” says Harry.

They both look a little startled by this, but also pleased.

“Don’t worry, mate,” says Ron, “you can trust us.”

“Of course!” says Hermione. “I’d never betray a confidence.”

“I know,” says Harry. “Just-- thanks.”

 

8.

Over the course of the fall, despite his best intentions, Remus finds himself being kindly, thoughtfully, relentlessly parented.

He had planned to take a flat near Harry’s parents, and keep watch without interfering in their lives. Instead, he’s living in their spare room, and every time he isn’t home for dinner they look disappointed.

He spends a weekend up a ladder, pruning trees with Tim shouting encouragingly at him from the ground. Caro keeps giving him books and asking him thoughtful questions about them. They fuss over him when he come home from the full moon. He can’t quite bring himself to complain.

It’s strange, is all. Remus has been living on his own since he left school; he hasn’t spoken to his father in years. There had been a little while, in the brief golden years after Hogwarts, when he and his friends had lived out of each other’s pockets, when the contents of their various kitchen cupboards had been communal property and they’d slept on each others’ sofas as often as their own beds. It was even odds, back then, whether on any given morning he’d wake up in his own flat with his face mashed into the back of Sirius’s neck, or on the lumpy hide-a-bed at Peter’s, or in James’ spare room to the sound of Lily whistling while she brewed a hangover cure and James made breakfast.

(Remus knew, at the time, that there was a quiet conspiracy amongst his friends to look after him. He always seemed to have more groceries on hand than he could remember paying for, and they kept giving him unwanted sweaters and robes, supposedly gifted from from their least favorite relatives, that fit him suspiciously well.)

But he learned, in the two awful years when Sirius was in Azkaban, to look after himself, and Remus has never liked to be coddled. After Sirius came back, he was the one who needed looking after, for a long time, and that suited Remus better than the other way around.

So: it’s strange. He’s an adult. He gets on very well without anyone but Sirius to care for him, on the rare occasions he really needs it. But Harry’s parents miss Harry, and Sirius, dreadfully, and having someone to care for seems to help.

And he owes them, anyway.

They’ve raised James and Lily’s son. They love Harry as much as James and Lily did, and kept him safe while Remus and Sirius looked for him. They don’t seem to hold a grudge about the year and change that Sirius pretended to be their dog. No, they treat Sirius like family, and Remus too. And he’s just about sure they know what he and Sirius are to each other, without forcing him to have a hideously awkward conversation about it.

Having said that, they’re not by any means perfect.

Caro rarely outright disapproves of anything, but by the third or fourth time she asks if he’s really sure about that, dear, Remus generally just gives in. When Remus is working on anything non-magical, Tim has a habit of hovering nearby and offering not-actually-helpful advice until he makes Remus snappish. If he comes downstairs one more time to find the Muggle newspaper lying open on the table, with the employment section face-up and listings helpfully circled, he might be forced to Incendio the stupid thing right there in the kitchen.

So it’s with some relief that Remus decamps to Hogwarts for Harry’s first Quidditch game. He even takes the packed lunch from Harry’s dad.

He and Sirius had agreed to watch from a distance with Hagrid, but they decide it’s just not the same after about three minutes of play. So Sirius turns into Padfoot and they go up into the stands together, finding seats with the rest of the Gryffindor first years.

Ron Weasley frowns at him, trying to work out why Remus looks familiar.

“Hello again,” Remus says. “I think we met at Hagrid’s a few weeks ago? I’m an old friend of Harry’s godfather.”

The girl sitting next to him looks up sharply at that, and then sharper still at Padfoot. Hagrid introduces her as Hermione Granger.

“Ah, then I suppose we have a mutual friend,” says Remus.

Because Padfoot is considerably more soppy than Sirius ever is in human form, Padfoot wags his tail at Hermione, and puts his head on Remus’ knee.

“So you, er, know Padfoot too, then?” Ron asks.

“Oh yes,” says Remus. “Even longer than I’ve known Harry.”

But the game distracts the children from what might otherwise have been a long list of questions. It distracts Remus too, for that matter. He hasn’t been to a Quidditch game in years, and for a little while he’s simply having too nice a time to think of anything else. The thermos Harry’s dad packed even turns out to be heavily spiked with whisky.

But then Harry’s broom makes a spirited attempt to throw him off it.

Remus leaps to his feet. Beside him Padfoot does the same, about to change shape, but there are too many people here. Even for Harry, it’s not worth it, not when Remus can do something instead.

Remus grabs Padfoot by the scruff and hisses “Not here!” before starting up a litany of every countercurse he knows.

He’s vaguely aware of his surroundings. The children whisper urgently to each other. Hermione goes hurtling down the stands, knocking people over in her wake. But Remus doesn’t pay attention to much of anything else until Harry gets his broom back under control, and then, quite unexpectedly, produces the Snitch.

Harry and his friends are herded off to the safety of Hagrid’s, with Padfoot playing sheepdog, but Remus doesn’t follow. “I’ll be along,” he tells Padfoot, and goes to find Severus Snape.

 

9.

When Remus finds him, Snape is glaring at a pile of un-graded essays in his office. It’s the first time he’s seen the man in over a decade. Judging by Harry’s letters and what Sirius says, he hasn’t changed all that much.

Remus has, though. “Hello Severus,” he says. “I wanted--”

“To gloat, I suppose?” says Snape. He marks a grade with a particularly savage flourish before he looks up. “Oughtn’t you bring Black along for that?”

“I wanted to thank you, actually,” says Remus. “And to see if you’re all right.”

Snape’s expression goes peculiarly fixed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The countercurse you performed,” Remus says. “I don’t think I could have kept Harry on his broom by myself. And it looked like you were limping, as you left the stadium. Did something happen?”

“Not there. I was bitten, earlier,” says Snape.

(He doesn’t mean to give an honest answer, but Lupin startles it out of him.)

“Oh, for the love of-- I’ll drag Padfoot down here to apologize,” says Remus. “He said he’d try to leave you alone. I don’t know what got into him--”

And then Snape startles them both by laughing. Not much of a laugh, really, in the scheme of things: a short, sharp bark of amusement. It’s not quite as unpleasant as the last time Remus heard Snape laugh, at least.

(He and James had been about to start a fight with a pack of seventh-year Slytherins who’d surrounded a Muggleborn first-year. Remus emerged with a black eye and a week’s detention, and considered it a price worth paying. Snape spent a night in the infirmary, if he remembers right.)

“It wasn’t Black,” Snape says.

“Well, that’s a relief,” says Lupin.

“Yes,” says Snape. “Now you won’t have to bother trying to extract an apology. A hopeless cause, if ever I heard one.”

“You think so?” says Remus “I suppose Sirius really has been avoiding you, then.”

Snape doesn’t have an answer for that.

“Here, give me some of those,” says Remus.

When Snape only stares at him, Remus sighs and takes a stack of essays anyway. “If you’ll at least accept my thanks for the countercurse,” he says, “I’ll do some grading for you.”

“You’d have to know the material for that,” says Snape. He seems happier on the firmer ground of insulting Remus’ intelligence.

“These are second years; I think I can manage,” says Remus. He settles into the armchair, conjures himself a lap desk, and produces a biro from his pocket. “I have marked essays before, you know.”

“When?” asks Snape. “If Durmstrang or Beauxbatons was desperate enough to hire you, I’d have heard.”

“Nothing like that,” Remus says. Before he starts on the first essay, he taps the pen against the arm of the chair a few times, until the ink turns red.

“I’ve been tutoring, off and on, for a few years now,” he says. “Muggle students, for their A-levels. Latin and French, composition, some history. I’m still rubbish at maths, and Muggle science is a bit beyond me, of course. Caro’s been on at me to get a teaching certificate, but I like the flexible schedule.”

He finishes marking his current essay before he looks up. Snape is staring at him, but quickly glances away. The sit in silence for a little while. Remus hasn’t had to correct so much spelling in ages.

“If you’re claiming that Black’s a changed man--” Snape says abruptly.

“Of course he is,” says Remus. “We all are. I should hope so, anyway, after all this time.”

“He was a preening, arrogant bully,” says Snape. “Potter was a glory hound. If you expect me to think the boy is any less of an attention-seeking, disruptive boor, you will be sorely disappointed.”

Now it’s Remus’ turn to stare. “Harry hates attention,” he says, honestly baffled. “Unless he thinks he’s done something to earn it, and even then he doesn’t like it when people fuss. He’s much more like Lily that way.”

“He’s nothing like Lily,” says Snape, with sudden venom is his voice.

Remus isn’t interested in the fight that Snape seems to be spoiling for. He sits in silence for another little while, trying to choose his words carefully.

“The thing I remember about Lily,” he says eventually, “is that she liked it when the people whose opinions she valued thought well of her. The rest of the world could go hang. Maybe she was different when she was younger, before I knew her well.”

“...no,” says Snape. “She was always like that.”

“Harry’s a bit more of a people-pleaser, I think,” says Remus. “But not nearly as much as James. Really he’s got Tim’s temperament more than anything, and Caro’s sense of humor. You’d see it, if you met them.”

“Oh yes,” says Snape. “What an excellent idea. I do so enjoy being introduced to strange Muggles.”

“You know, I asked Lily once about you,” says Remus. “She said that scorn and grudge-holding made for an excellent shared pastime, right up until it didn’t.”

“As if she ever stopped holding grudges,” said Snape.

“I think she was trying to,” says Remus. “I wish she'd had more time.”

Snape doesn’t reply-- just tears into the next essay with renewed fury. Remus sighs, and turns back to his own dwindling stack.

Near the end, he says, “I do apologize. I meant to do you a favor, and instead I’ve been dredging up things best left behind us. Being here, seeing Harry here, it brings it all up again, doesn’t it? I think of James and Lily all the time, but they feel a lot closer lately.”

“If you meant to do me a favor, you’d stop talking,” says Snape. But he looks less savage, and more pained.

“Quite,” says Remus. He finishes the rest in silence.

 

10.

Remus walks down to Hogsmeade at twilight, and takes a room at the Three Broomsticks. It has a private Floo, which is lucky. He pats his pockets, looking for his two-way mirror.

A few minutes later, Sirius comes tumbling out of the fireplace, and only barely sticks the landing. “Haven’t done that in a while,” he says cheerfully. His face is flushed, and he’s listing a little to the right. When he kisses Remus, he tastes like tea-flavored whisky.

“Hagrid kept topping up the thermos,” he admits, by way of explanation. “But it was worth it. Did you find out anything useful?”

“Severus doesn’t know who tried to curse Harry’s broom,” Remus says. “He didn’t see anything more than we did. And he’s only slightly less awful, as a person.”

“I told you,” says Sirius.

He’s sweet and handsy when he’s drunk, so he keeps interrupting himself to kiss Remus and fumble with his clothes. “I searched the whole stadium, once Harry and his friends were back at Gryffindor. Didn’t smell a rat, or anything else out of the ordinary.”

“And then you let Hagrid get you drunk,” says Remus.

“I was only keeping up with him!” Sirius insists. “For a big man, he’s a lightweight. And terrible at holding his tongue.”

Of the two of them, Remus is the sober one, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Sirius shifts his weight and tips Remus back onto the bed. Honestly, though, he doesn’t mind it in the least.

“Hang on, hang on,” he says, laughing. “What did he tell you?”

“Well, that big three-headed fellow on the third floor is his,” says Sirius.

“I could have guessed that,” says Remus.

“The kids were pestering him about it, too,” says Sirius. He gets Remus’ shirt unbuttoned, and makes a triumphant noise. “At least he didn’t tell them what Fluffy’s guarding.”

“He named it Fluffy?”

“Of course he did.” Sirus levers himself up on his elbows, far enough to grin at Remus. “Apparently Fluffy’s a big softy, really, when you get to know him.”

Remus can’t help but laugh. “That big softy took a chunk out of Severus’ leg. For a minute I thought I’d have to make you apologize.”

“I would never,” Sirius says, affronted. “Think of the taste!”

They snicker like idiots at each other. It’s a mix of giddy relief that Harry’s safe, and alcohol, and the rare delight of an evening alone together without an impending full moon. Remus knows there are things they ought to be worried about, but just for now he’s enjoying the chance to set them aside.

He lets Sirius crowd him back further onto the bed. For a time they stay like that: Remus sitting up with his back against the headboard and one shoe still on, Sirius astride his lap, the two of them necking like the teenagers they used to be.

“We really ought to do this more often,” Remus mutters, mostly to himself.

“Mm-hm,” Sirius agrees absently, busy giving him a conspicuous love bite. Remus has one hand in Sirius’ hair and the other down the back of his trousers. He fleetingly considers moving to Hogsmeade permanently, and then stops thinking at all when Sirius grinds his hips down against him.

Later, after Remus has removed his remaining shoe and everything else besides, Sirius casts a clean-up charm and pulls the blanket over them. “I still can’t believe Harry caught the Snitch, after all that,” he says.

“Glad to see you’ve still got your priorities in order, Padfoot,” Remus says. “Up Gryffindor, eh?”

“I’ll up Gryffindor you,” Sirius says nonsensically.

“I think we already did that,” says Remus. Sirius laughs, and drapes himself more thoroughly over Remus. They fall quiet for a while, warm and drifting.

“Do you think we ought to tell Harry?” asks Sirius eventually. “He and his friends seem keen to work it out for themselves, and they know about Flamel now.”

“Maybe,” says Remus. “Dumbledore usually has a reason for the secrets he keeps, though.”

“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Sirius says. “Hermione's convinced that Snape jinxed Harry’s broom, no matter what I said. Harry was trying to talk her down when I left them.”

“He’ll tell you if there’s a problem, I think,” says Remus.

“Mm,” says Sirius. “He’s a good lad.”

They’re both quiet for another little while. “You know, I met Flamel once,” Remus says.

Sirius makes an inquiring noise.

“I was seven or eight. My father was still casting about for a cure, and took me to see him. I remember helping his wife chop potions ingredients in their kitchen, while he talked to my parents. They were both very kind.”

Sirius lifts his head. “You never told me that.”

It’s a bit difficult to shrug, but Remus lifts the shoulder that Sirius isn’t cuddled up on top of. “I haven’t thought about it in years.”

“It’s being back at Hogwarts,” Sirius says. “Makes you nostalgic.”

“Verging on maudlin, I’m afraid,” says Remus.

“s’all right,” says Sirius. “You know I don’t mind.”

“Because I’ve put up with maudlin and worse, you mean,” says Remus.

“Well, yeah,” says Sirius. “Least I can do. God knows I see ghosts ‘round every corner here.”

“You can just tell Nick to shove off, you know,” says Remus.

Sirius laughs. “You know what I mean. I keep expecting the Prewetts to come barreling past, plotting something. Or that I’ll catch Frank and Alice snogging, in that little nook behind the suit of armor. And then I don’t see Snape skulking after Lily and her friends, half as tall as he is now, or James with Peter tagging along behind. And I remember.”

“Severus seems to have a similar problem,” says Remus. “He thinks Harry is James all over again.”

“This is not the time or place to bring him up,” Sirius says. “Ugh. Anyway, that’s nonsense. I know they look rather alike, but anyone who knew James ought to see the differences.”

“I did try to point that out,” says Remus. “But as long as he doesn’t make trouble for Harry, I don’t think he’s either of our concern.”

“And thank goodness,” says Sirius.

Eventually, they rearrange themselves so that no one will wake up with any limbs entirely numb.

“G‘night, Moony,” Sirius murmurs.”

Remus mm-hmms back, already fading. In very little time at all, he drops off into a dreamless sleep.

He wakes, briefly, shortly after dawn. Sirius is getting out of bed. “Going back up to the castle,” he whispers. “Go back to sleep, it’s all right.”

“Stay,” says Remus, tugging him back down. “Til it’s properly morning, at least.”

He hesitates, but after a moment he gives in. The next time Remus wakes it’s broad daylight, and Sirius is gone, but he’s left a note.

Going to have a word with Dumbledore-- wish me luck. I’ll be home for Christmas. Love, Padfoot.

Chapter Text

1.

"I do feel so sorry," says Draco Malfoy, one Potions class, "for all those people who have to stay at Hogwarts for Christmas because they're not wanted at home."

He’s looking at Ron as he speaks. Crabbe and Goyle chuckle. Ron turns a dull shade of red that clashes with his hair.

“Help me with this, will you?” Harry says, and shoves the jar of powdered lionfish scales into Ron’s hands. He gives Hermione, on Ron’s other side, a meaningful look, and she launches into an impromptu lecture on the magical properties of the ingredients they’re using. It’s very nearly loud enough to drown out Malfoy’s ugly jokes, and the snickering from the Slytherin side of the classroom. 

Malfoy is much worse than he was before the Quidditch game: bad enough that Harry can’t even properly enjoy disliking him. At first, Harry cheerfully ignores Malfoy’s jokes about Harry being bad at Quidditch, because everyone else does, too. And when Malfoy insults Harry’s parents, it’s surprisingly easy to throw him off by asking him things like “Do you really think people’s parents only love them for being related by blood? What on earth have yours been telling you?”

Or, with a look of great concern, “Well, I do know my parents wanted me before they knew I was a wizard, but I suppose not everyone’s so lucky. Is that what you’re worried about?”

But instead of leaving off like a reasonable person, Malfoy just turns his focus to Ron and Hermione. Which is, frankly, unforgivable.

After class, Malfoy nearly goads Ron into a fight, right in front of Hagrid. When Ron lunges, he’s only stopped by Padfoot catching the back of Ron’s robes in his teeth, and Professor Snape still takes five points from Gryffindor for making the attempt.

“And control that beast, MacIntyre,” he adds, leveling a truly venomous glare at Padfoot. “Move along, all of you."

"I'll get him," says Ron, glaring nearly as hard after Malfoy, "one of these days, I'll get him --"

“I don’t know why they both have to be so awful,” says Harry. “Malfoy and Snape. What good does it do?”

Padfoot grumbles, a sound that Harry knows means I’d tell you, at length, if I were human-shaped right now.

Hagrid, trying to cheer them all up, takes them down to the Great Hall to see the decorations. They don’t stay long, though. Hermione reminds them: they need to get to the library, to look for Nicholas Flamel.

"Unless you'd like to tell us and save us the trouble?" Harry asks.

This time, Harry interprets Padfoot’s grumble to mean would you leave off, already?

"I'm sayin' nothin,” says Hagrid flatly.

"Just have to find out for ourselves, then," says Ron. They leave Padfoot and Hagrid looking disgruntled, and hurry off to the library.

They don’t have any more luck in the library, unfortunately. But Harry does get to deliver some good news.

“Ron, how d’you feel about surprises?” Harry asks.

Ron looks warily at him. “Like, the ‘I’ve won a prize’ kind, or the ‘your dog’s an escaped convict’ kind?”

“The good kind,” Harry says.

“You’ve got some funny ideas about which surprises are the good kind, though,” says Ron. “Like, just for an example, your dog being an escaped convict--”

Hermione tries to shush them both, but it doesn’t work very well because she’s giggling too. They only just avoid getting tossed out of the library altogether.

“Really, though,” says Harry. “It’s a good surprise, I promise.”

“We’re going to meet in London over the holidays!” exclaims Hermione. Then she turns pink and says, “I’m sorry! I’ve been waiting for days to say that.”

Ron doesn’t look nearly as happy as Harry expected, though. “Well, I hope you have fun,” he says. “Send a postcard, or something.”

“You’re coming too, silly,” says Hermione. “It’s all sorted out, right Harry?”

“Padfoot owled my mum and dad, and they’ve owled your mum and dad, and they said you can come stay with me over Christmas,” says Harry. “If you want to.”

Ron looks both delighted and slightly bowled over. “Blimey,” he says. “Of course I do! But-- what about Fred and George and Percy?”

“I asked Fred and George at Quidditch practice, and they said they didn’t mind,” Harry says. “And they asked Percy for me. And, well, they don’t know about Padfoot.”

“Oh, yeah,” says Ron. “Well, too bad for them. I dunno that your parents deserve Fred and George, anyway.”

Harry does a brief mental tally of the number of explosions Fred and George cause in an average week at Hogwarts, and has to agree.

Over lunch, Hermione rattles off the list of things she wants to do in London. “There’s a magical wing at the Portrait Gallery, of course, and everything I’ve read about the the Invisible Archive at the Guildhall Library is simply fascinating. I wouldn’t mind a stop at Flourish and Blotts either.”

“What do you want to do, Ron?” asks Harry.

“Dunno,” Ron says. “Gambol and Japes, maybe?”

“I think we should go to the Natural History Museum,” says Harry.

Hermione looks confused. “But they haven’t got any magical exhibits at all,” she says. 

“They’ve got a penguin egg from the Scott expedition,” counters Harry. “And an archaeopteryx.” 

Hermione concedes that these are very good reasons, and pulls out her itinerary and a quill. Harry spends the rest of lunch explaining the Scott expedition to Ron. 

The next day feels oddly like the first day at Hogwarts played backwards. Harry and Ron pack their things, and pile into a compartment on the Hogwarts Express with Hermione and Padfoot, and they get sweets from the trolley witch, and Neville has to go up and down the train looking for his toad again, and eventually they chug back into King’s Cross, where Harry’s parents are waiting on the platform. 

“See you after Christmas!” Hermione calls to them before she leaves with her own parents, who are apparently both Dr. Granger and have, unbeknownst to Harry, become fast friends with his own mum and dad. 

“If I hear one more word about flossing from either of them, though--” says Harry’s dad. 

“Oh hush,” says Harry’s mum. “It’s lovely to meet you, Ron.”

“Let’s go home ,” says Harry.

“Have you gotten taller?” asks his dad.

“No, but I do need a haircut,” says Harry.

“I was going to say,” says his mum. “But I didn’t want to presume.”

“I just figured you didn’t care how it looked,” says Ron. “Thought it was quite brave of you, really.”

“Hey!” says Harry, but he’s laughing as he says it.

2. 

Moony is waiting just on the other side of the barrier. He only accompanies them as far as the car, though, and casts a few discreet spells over it while he thinks no one is looking. It’s not any kind of magic he’s seen at Hogwarts yet, but Harry thinks they might be protection charms. He’d never noticed it before, or thought to wonder, but it occurs to Harry that Moony and Padfoot must do this sort of thing all the time, and have done for nearly half his life. Little bits of magic to keep him safe, whenever they get the chance. 

Before they set out, Remus tells them “We’ll see you back at the house-- oof, you ridiculous creature, get down-- ”  but as they drive away, he’s still trying to get Padfoot to stop jumping up and licking his face. Ron is too excited about riding in a car to notice, though.

Harry’s mum and dad have loads of questions, the whole way home. How are their classes, their teachers, the other students, that nice Hermione girl, her parents are so lovely, was Padfoot keeping them out of trouble?

“He does his best,” says Harry.

“That’s not a yes,” notes Harry’s mum.

“Whatever you’ve heard, Malfoy probably started it,” says Ron.

“He’s awful,” says Harry. “I wrote you about it, remember?”

“I knew boys like that, when I was a lad. Horrible little bullies, every one,” says Harry’s dad. “I don’t like to think about his home life, though, if he’s bringing that sort of behavior to school with him.”

Ron frowns. “His family’s really old and rich, though. He’s always on about Malfoy Manor this and pureblood that.”

“You’d be amazed at the way rich old families behave when they’re at home,” says Harry’s mum, quietly. “Some of them, anyway.”

Harry’s dad lets go of the gearshift, to take his mum’s hand for a moment. Harry knows his mum doesn’t talk to her family much, and sometimes she gets a bit sad about it ‘round the holidays.

(Most of the year, Caroline can say ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ and mean it. It just sneaks up on her, every once in a while.)

(There was never any big falling out, really. Just a series of straws that piled up: the uncles who sneered at her for not voting Tory, the beloved cousin whose funeral she alone attended, the remarks she wasn’t meant to hear about who was and was not our sort . When she imagined the way they’d look at her son, what they’d say about him when she was out of earshot, she found that she could live without them very happily.)

(Tim’s father died in the war. His mother lived to see them bring Harry home, and was delighted enough that it more than made up for the silence on Caroline’s side. Harry only just remembers her-- she passed when he was three. They’ve never been a large family, but in Caro’s estimation they have always been more than enough.)

(Anyway.)

“WE’RE HOME!” Harry shouts, as soon as he’s through his front door. From upstairs, he hears a startled sound and a thump, and after a few minutes Remus and Sirius, who Apparated back from King’s Cross, come clattering down the stairs.

“How was the car ride?” Sirius asks Ron.

“Bit weird,” Ron says. “Sort of like the Hogwarts Express, except that goes the same speed the whole way. Harry made it sound worse than it was.”

“I just wanted to warn you, in case you got carsick! Dad gets carsick if he isn’t driving,” says Harry.

“That happened once ,” says Harry’s dad.

“Because you always drive, ever since,” Harry says serenely. 

“I just stick my head out the window if I start feeling ill,” says Sirius.

 “I think that only works if you’re a dog,” says Harry.

“All right, boys,” says Harry’s mum. “Go put your things away, and we can get started on the tree after we eat.”

While Harry and Ron unpack, and Harry introduces Ron to fascinating novelties like light switches and Nintendo and his mum’s hairdryer, the adults have a conference in the kitchen. 

“Now,” says Caroline, once they’re settled and everyone has a mug. “What have you been leaving out of your letters?” 

Sirius sputters, but she fixes him with a knowing look. “There’s something, I can tell.”

“Don’t look at me,” says Remus, when Sirius appeals to him for aid. “I haven’t said a word.”

“Yes, that’s why we’re asking,” says Tim.

“It’s really not ours to tell,” says Sirius.

He folds quickly, though, in the face of a matched set of stern looks. “All right! There’s a magical artifact that’s being kept at the school. But it’s nothing to do with Harry.”

“You said someone tried to curse his broom,” says Tim. 

“Yes,” says Remus. “But someone also tested the protections around the artifact that night, while everyone was distracted. So it might not have been about Harry at all. The trouble on Halloween wasn’t targeted, either, so far as we can tell.”

“There’s something off about the new Defense professor,” says Sirius. “But that’s not terribly unusual, in that job, and Dumbledore says it’s being handled.”

They’re interrupted, then, by the sound of someone trying to start the lawnmower in the back yard. By the time Harry and Ron have been retrieved, lectured, and sent upstairs to change into clothes that aren’t covered in grass stains, it’s time for supper.

It’s a little crowded in the kitchen. Once Remus charms the table longer and Sirius conjures extra chairs, they only just fit in the room. But that hardly matters. There’s plenty of food, wine for the grown-ups, an elaborate pudding waiting in the fridge. Stories about their first term come tumbling out of Ron and Harry, talking over each other in their excitement. Harry coaxes Moony and Padfoot into retelling a few of their Marauder exploits, since Ron has never heard them. Harry’s parents have news about family friends and Harry’s primary school friends. Caroline and Harry argue about the merits of the last book she sent him, while Tim attempts to explain the internal combustion engine to Ron. 

After dinner, they hang stockings and trim the tree. There are new stockings, for Ron and for Remus, which makes them both go pink and quietly pleased. Sirius still insists on using the stocking they bought him his first Christmas with the MacIntyres, which says PADFOOT and has a fire hydrant appliquéd on. 

Harry and Ron are assigned popcorn-stringing duty, and Ron complains it’s much easier with magic. They’re allowed to practice their levitation on the non-breakable ornaments, though. The tree is done nearly as quickly as it usually is, when they don’t use magic. 

Tim goes to fetch his camera “All right,” he says. “Time for The Picture.”

“Da-ad,” Harry complains. “Really? Again?”

“Yes,” he says, as sternly as he can manage. “Again, and always, unto the end of time.”

“Best to humor him on this one, dear,” says Caroline. “I’ll get the bows.”

While Harry protests this indignity, Sirius explains, quietly, to Ron:

When Harry’s parents first brought him home, it was nearly Christmas, and there were a great many jokes about Christmas miracles and surprise Christmas gifts from everyone who heard the happy news. So Caroline bought some oversized gift bows, and they took a family picture with an enormous red bow on each of their heads, and have done so every year since.

“For our Christmas cards, y’see,” says Tim.

“Mum says she’ll start sending Christmas cards again when Ginny’s done at Hogwarts or when we all stop trying her patience,” says Ron. “Whichever comes first.”

“Well, there’s seven of you, that seems fair,” says Remus.

Tim fusses over his camera settings until he pronounces them acceptable. He hands over photography duty to Remus with some ceremony, before he and Harry and Caroline arrange themselves in front of the tree.

Remus takes one version without the bows and one with them on -- one with Harry looking very put-upon at the hat-sized mass of red velvet ribbon, and one smiling -- Sirius changes into Padfoot and sits besides Harry, and Caroline produces an additional bow -- and then Harry says “Change back, Padfoot, and let’s do one with everyone!”

“Oh, I don’t need to--” says Remus.

“I mean, I’m not really--” says Ron.

“Nonsense,” says Caroline. “I’ve got more bows, come on--”

“But who’ll take the picture?” asks Ron.

“It’s got a timer, don’t be silly,” says Tim.

Ron is very impressed by this bit of Muggle ingenuity.

(Much later, after Harry goes back to Hogwarts, Remus gets grudging permission to use the Hogwarts potions supplies to develop this last photo. Severus Snape finds it hanging up to dry the next morning, when he arrives to collect the ingredients with which the fourth-year Hufflepuffs will no doubt disgrace themselves.)

(This is what he sees: six people, in front of a mantel crammed with stockings and a tree trimmed a little lopsidedly. They look wholly, improbably, unselfconsciously happy. One of the two boys sitting on the floor has his arm round the other’s shoulders. They’re sitting in front of a settee, occupied by a man and a woman in their early fifties, no one Severus recognizes. The man turns, periodically, to kiss the woman on the cheek. One of the two men standing behind the settee appears to have just told the other an excellent joke. Each time they finish laughing, they sling their arms around each other again with easy affection.)

(They all have enormous red velvet bows on their heads.)

(Snape will never, under pain of death, admit to having looked at the photo for more than a glancing, contemptuous moment.)

The days before Christmas are quiet. Harry’s parents still have to go to work, the first few days. So Harry and Ron stay home with Moony and Padfoot, playing wizard chess, teaching Ron the intricacies and arcane lore of the Super Mario Brothers. Padfoot accompanies them to play pick-up football with Harry’s primary school friends, who greet him gladly and only tease him a little for now being the shortest one in the group.

Not only is Xia a half-inch taller than him, she scores two goals and is totally insufferable about  both achievements.

“I am invincible!” she crows after the game, brandishing the football like a trophy while Jason and Omar and Katie chase her round the pitch. When they finally catch her, they have to give the ball to Malcolm for safekeeping, as he’s still half a foot taller than anyone else and can just hold it above his head.

After the game, Harry walks home with Ron and Padfoot in the twilight, their breath puffing out in clouds in the cold air. “They’re all right, your Muggles,” says Ron.

“They’re not my Muggles,” says Harry. “They’re my friends, same as you and Hermione.”

Ron concedes the point. “D’you think Hermione’s seeing her friends at home, too?”

“Well, she’s probably not playing football with them,” says Harry.

(He’s not wrong. Hermione never had a lot of friends, before she went to Hogwarts. Even then, she had trouble finding other children who saw her for what she was, who understood her when her clever mind went skipping ahead of her peers. There were a few, though, who shared her fiercely-held enthusiasms and her drive to know more, no matter the subject.)

(But they’re full of chatter about the things they’re studying in their own new schools: maths, not Arithmancy, and history without any magic at all. Composition and chemistry, not Defense Against Dark Arts, or Potions, or Herbology. For the first time in her life, Hermione has to hold her tongue about the things she’s learning. She’s counting the days til London.)

On Christmas Day, Ron wakes up first, and he and Harry creep downstairs before the sun is fully up. By the time any bleary-eyed adults stumble into the living room, they’ve sorted out the pile beneath the tree by recipient, and are near to vibrating with impatience.

Once all the grown-ups are more or less vertical and clutching a mug, they can start in on the presents.

Harry and Ron have whittled wooden flutes from Hagrid. They hoot delightedly at each other while Remus unwraps a fountain pen, and Sirius models a new jumper. Harry and Ron have jumpers, too, these from Ron’s mum, along with a tin of homemade fudge.

“I always get maroon,” Ron says, holding up his jumper.

“Swap with me?” offers Harry. “It’ll match my Gryffindor scarf.”

With a bit of charmwork to adjust the sleeve length, the exchange is pronounced acceptable by both boys. Harry’s dad confiscates the remaining fudge for after breakfast, though, along with the wizarding candy from Hermione.

Tim gets a new slow-cooker, and his mum gets new earrings and another old copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, which is an obscure joke between Harry’s parents that he has long since stopped paying attention to. There are more presents for him and for Ron, anyway: broom-care supplies from Padfoot and Moony, and a massive book called The Way Things Work for Ron.

“Look, it’s got all sorts of things,” says Ron, showing Harry an exploded diagram of a pencil sharpener. Flipping to the index, he says, “Hang on, what’s a space shuttle?”

There’s even a present for Whiskers: a clear plastic ball that she can run around inside, rolling happily down canyons of discarded wrapping paper and weaving between the chair legs.

It’s a lovely day. Everyone agrees. It stays lovely all the way through, all through dinner, at which Tim outdoes himself; through the Christmas crackers supplied by Remus, which play extremely loud brass-band fanfares and produce billowing clouds of colored smoke. After dinner Harry loses repeatedly to Ron at wizard chess. It snows just enough to justify bundling up again and going outside to romp around with Padfoot. By nightfall, there’s a fire in the hearth and the grown-ups are all sprawled on various pieces of furniture, wine glasses in hand. It’s one of the best Christmases Harry can remember having.

In the morning, Harry wakes with a start, not sure of what roused him. Ron, on the trundle bed, is awake too, if only just. “whazzat,” he says, blinking slowly.

“Dunno,” says Harry. And then he hears a loud thump, like someone slamming a door.

Harry pads downstairs, barefoot, Ron trailing behind him, and finds that his parents and Moony and Padfoot are all gathered in the kitchen, and they all look upset. Padfoot looks thunderous.

“What’s wrong?” asks Harry.

“It’s not as bad as all that,” says Harry’s dad, trying to muster a smile. “Just a wee bit of an unpleasant surprise.”

On the kitchen table is a copy of the Daily Prophet. On its front page, a rather blurry picture, cropped and enlarged from the Gryffindor Quidditch team photo Harry posed for just a few short weeks ago. And above it, in enormous letters, filling nearly half the page:

THE BOY WHO LIVES!

 

3.

Eight years ago, it was discovered that Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, only known survivor of the Killing Curse, had vanished. Though the Department of Magical Law Enforcement has remained tight-lipped about the circumstances of his disappearance, it was widely believed that rogue Death Eaters were the likely culprits. The case has gone unsolved, drawing harsh criticism of the Aurors from numerous Ministry officials-- until now.

Following a lead from an anonymous source, the Daily Prophet has learned that in fact Harry Potter has been living under an assumed name, among Muggles, and is currently a first-year student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While no Hogwarts staff could be reached for comment--

The phone rings, and Harry jumps, looking up from the newspaper. Everyone else is nervy, too: Ron looks around wildly for the source of the noise, and Moony and Padfoot are trying to hide the fact that they both went for their wands.

“Hello?” Harry’s mum says. “Oh. No, dear, it’s fine, it’s not too early. Harry’s just here.”

She waves him over, and hands him the phone.

“Harry, have you seen the newspaper this morning?” Hermione asks.

He has-- and yes, he’s all right-- and no, of course he knows she didn't tell anyone-- and really, it could have been anyone-- and hang on, what did Hermione mean about London?

“Well, we can’t go now, can we?” says Hermione.

“Of course we can,” says Harry.

He realizes, suddenly, that the kitchen has gone very quiet.

“Hermione? I'll call you back,” says Harry.

What follows is not technically a row, because everyone involved is trying very hard not to shout.

“You can’t go wandering London with a target on your back,” Padfoot insists.

“You and Moony will be with us,” Harry says.

“Hate to say it, but Diagon Alley will be a madhouse,” says Ron.

“Then we won’t go to Diagon,” Harry says.

“We ought to wait until things calm down,” says Harry’s mum.

“But then Ron and Hermione won’t be able to come with us,” says Harry. “And that’s not fair.”

“We ought to talk to Dumbledore,” says Remus. “And Molly and Arthur, if we can reach them in time.”

Harry sets his jaw in a way that is breathtakingly familiar to half the adults in the room. “We can ask Ron’s mum and dad if it’s okay. But I don’t care if a bunch of people want to make a fuss about Harry Potter. I’m not doing anything differently.”

“Quite right,” says Harry’s dad.

(Tim and Caro have rarely given their sweet-natured son much cause to really dig his heels in. They know he’s only stubborn about the things that truly matter.)

(Later, Remus says “He could have been Lily, just then,” and Sirius nods.)

So Harry calls Hermione back, and Ron owls his parents, and Sirius re-casts half the house’s wards in a fit of paranoia.

But once they winnow down the itinerary to only the places they’re least likely to meet any wizards, and Ron points out that the Prophet might not have gotten as far as Romania yet, let alone an owl, and Dumbledore benignly stonewalls the Aurors into submission—

They go to London, just as they should.

 

4.

Even with her original plans scaled back, Hermione has a very nice time in London. The penguin egg and the archaeopteryx are everything Harry had promised. The V&A is fascinating. Her parents and Harry’s seem to be getting along swimmingly, although they seem a bit confused by Harry’s godfather and his friend.

(Since dogs are not allowed in museums, Mr. Black has his hair charmed reddish-brown, a tweed cap, large glasses, and a bushy false moustache. Harry can hardly look at him without laughing.)

But everyone’s a little tense, except for Hermione’s parents, who don’t know what all the fuss is about, and Harry, who determinedly refuses to be tense. This has rather the same effect as actually being tense, in the end.

(It’s not his first time out and about in disguise, but it takes Sirius most of the morning to stop feeling exposed. There’s just too many strangers around, and he’s not used to dealing with them on two legs anymore.)

Still. It’s such a relief to be able to talk about magic, about Hogwarts, and be understood. She and Mr. Lupin argue about which houses various medieval kings might have been sorted into, had they been wizards. Mr. Black pronounces the mummy portraits “interesting, but it’s creepy that they just hold still like that.” Ron actually asks her to explain some of the exhibits.

They don’t just go to museums, either. After lunch they go down to the Thames, where the tide has gone out and the foreshore is a long stretch of mud and rubble.

“Now,” says Mrs. MacIntyre, “we’ve got a permit, but not for digging more than a few inches.”

“What are you looking at me like that for?” asks Mr. Black.

But after he ducks into the shadow of a pier and comes back out as Padfoot, he seems happy to search by eye with everyone else. Especially since he and Mr. Lupin had first cast some warming charms, to keep back the chill coming off the river. When Hermione asks, Mr. Lupin shows her how his version of the charm is a little different from the one they teach at Hogwarts.

Harry and Ron quickly begin competing to find the most glass marbles, and Hermione’s parents turn up an old silver shilling with a name carved on it.

“A love token, most likely,” says Mrs. MacIntyre.

Hermione herself finds a few coins, some reddish stones that are apparently real rough garnets, and a silver ring that fits perfectly on the first finger of her right hand. They all turn up broken pottery and pipe stems, pins and nails and other odd bits.

Mr. Lupin wins the day, though, with a Roman coin. He insists he didn’t cheat, but Hermione has her suspicions.

So Hermione has no complaints, not really. She would have liked to go to the Portrait Gallery with Harry and Ron (she has an extensive list of questions for the portrait of Kit Marlowe), but it can wait. When Harry and his family and Ron leave, Flourish and Blotts still has an hour before closing, so in the end Hermione doesn’t have to miss anything important.

Although she rather wishes she had, once she gets there. It’s nearly impossible to keep Hermione from enjoying a bookstore, but it’s a close-run thing. Everyone is talking about Harry Potter, everywhere she goes, and most of the rumors she hears are so absurd that it’s difficult to bite her tongue and let them go uncorrected.

“I heard the Muggles are just a cover story,” says a man in the leaky Cauldron. “Really he’s been in training with a crack squad of Aurors.”

“They say they’ve doubled the guard at Azkaban,” says a woman in the next aisle of the bookshop.

“Do you think it’s true, what they say about him?” asks a woman in the queue behind them.

“It’s all nonsense,” says someone in the street. “The real Harry Potter’s been dead for years. This one’s clearly an imposter.”

Hermione can’t bear to bite her tongue any longer. So she unwraps a Chocolate Frog, and bites that instead, and tries not to listen to the rumors swirling around her.

“Poor lad,” says someone else. Hermione stares down at her Chocolate Frog card, and tries to shut her ears off. Headmaster Dumbledore winks up at her from the card.

“I don’t suppose you’d mind setting the record straight?” she asks him, but of course he doesn’t answer. Hermione sighs, and puts the card in her pocket. She can’t help but feel relieved when they emerge from the Leaky Cauldron back into Muggle London, where none of the secrets she’s keeping matter a whit to anyone.

 

5.

The Daily Prophet does takes a little while to get to Romania, so Molly and Arthur don’t hear the news right away. When they do, though, they’re in immediate agreement.

“They can’t possibly take the train back to Hogwarts,” Molly says.

“Of course not,” Arthur says. He thinks of the wall-full of faded WANTED posters he has to pass on his way to the tearoom at work every day: every one of them, a Death Eater still at large. “But I’m sure the Ministry’s sent someone already. Some Aurors, at least, to stand guard.”

“I’ll feel better when I know that for certain,” says Molly. “Do you think his parents knew?"

Arthur can vaguely recall some small talk to that effect, back in September. But the Muggle couple hadn’t given any indication that they knew their son was someone extraordinary-- at least, no more than any parent does. “They can’t have known what it really meant, that they’d adopted Harry Potter.”

So they leave for England, with Charlie’s encouragement, and eventually reach what Arthur insists is the correct street in the correct Muggle neighborhood. “It ought to be here,” he says, frowning at the house numbers. “You don’t think Ron could have put the address down wrong, do you?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Molly says. She’s been tense and fretful the whole way there, imagining the worst: the house besieged by You-Know-Who’s people (or worse, reporters) and Ron trapped inside with Harry. She’s been so relieved, until now, that her youngest boy has made such a fast friend so quickly. And a sweet, polite child, too, who even Percy has nothing to complain of in his letters.

Only now it appears that he’s also in quite a lot of danger, and Ron with him. “He would do, at a time like this--!”

Arthur is on the verge of sending a Patronus to someone from the Order-- will Dumbledore need to bring the Order back together now, he wonders-- when, quite suddenly, he hears Ron’s voice. He turns, and there Ron stands, on the pavement by the gate to one of the houses.

“Dad! What are you and mum doing here?” He looks perfectly all right: a bit annoyed, if anything.

Molly answers, at some length: they had seen the Daily Prophet, is everything all right, how is Harry handling the news, how is Ron handling the news, why on earth aren’t the Aurors here, what could the Ministry be thinking, what could Dumbledore be thinking--

“Er, Mrs. Weasley?” Harry, standing quite suddenly by the gate with Ron, breaks into this monologue. “Would you like to come in? My mum and dad aren’t home yet, but I think I can explain things, or if I can’t-- well. You’d better come inside, first of all.”

“Of course, dear,” says Molly. She pauses. “Er. Which house is yours, exactly?”

“Oh! Right, sorry. I live at number seventeen,” says Harry.

And there, just where it ought to be, is the house, slotted neatly between fifteen and nineteen. Under Fidelius, Arthur realizes. Which is fitting, in its way.

Inside, the house seems comfortable, full of bookshelves and only a little clutter. There’s a table with mismatched chairs crowded round it in the kitchen, and all sorts of mysterious Muggle appliances. The Christmas tree is still up, and it’s covered in the most interesting little lights. Arthur fairly itches to take a closer look at them, but there are more important things to do, first.

“I know this must be a bit of a shock,” he says to Harry.

“Well,” he says. “only sort of. I mean, I already knew about my birth parents, and all of that.”

“Really?” says Molly. “Did they tell you at Hogwarts, in September?”

“Oh no, I’ve known since I was seven,” Harry says. “It’s just going to be a bit weird, having everyone else know.”

Ron, Arthur realizes, is being suspiciously quiet.

“Ronald,” he says, “did you know?”

“Er,” says Ron.

“Ronald Weasley!” says Molly.

“Just since Halloween!” says Ron.

“Since Halloween!” says Molly.

“I promised I’d keep it a secret!” says Ron.

“You promised--” begins Molly but Arthur cuts in.

“As well you should have,” he says. “Now, I wish you’d told us, but I do understand.”

He and Molly have a brief conversation, conducted entirely in exasperated glances, but after a minute she concedes the point. “Oh, fine,” she says. “I suppose I ought to expect it, raising so many Gryffindors. It was very honorable of you, dear, and very brave, and very foolish.”

Harry comes to Ron’s defense. “Our professors know, and Headmaster Dumbledore,” he says. “And, well-- that’s the other thing I ought to tell you.”

“You might want to sit down,” says Ron.

And then Arthur hears someone on the stairs, and a voice, calling down to them.

“Harry, are you and Ron ready yet? If we’re going to the cinema, we ought to leave soon--”

The man who comes down the stairs is tallish and dark-haired, and Arthur has passed his WANTED poster on the way to the tearoom every day for eight years. He draws his wand on pure reflex.

Stupefy!”

Sirius Black dodges, but only just.

“Arthur, what on earth-- ” says Molly.

The boys leap to their feet. To Arthur’s horror, they throw themselves between him and Black. They’re both shouting, and Black is saying something too, but Arthur can scarcely make a word out over the roaring in his ears.

“That’s Sirius Black,” he hisses at Molly. She goes fear-white with recognition.

“Ron, get away from him!” she says, but he won’t budge.

“Mum, you’ve got it all wrong, listen--” he starts to say.

And then Remus Lupin, of all people, comes down the stairs.

“What the hell is going on?” he says, loud enough to startle everyone else into a moment of silence.

Black is the one who breaks it. “My fault,” he says. “I surprised them. Bloody hell, Arthur, you haven’t lost your reflexes, have you?”

Get away from my son,” Arthur fairly spits. To his shock, Black actually puts his hands up, and takes a step back. Harry moves to stand in front of him again.

“I think we all ought to calm down a bit,” says Lupin. “Molly, Arthur, there’s a great deal you don’t know. I’d hoped to tell you in a rather quieter setting, but this will have to do.”

“We tried to tell them,” says Harry.

“I’m sure you did,” says Lupin. “Now, Sirius, why don’t you go wait in the study, and we’ll all sit down, and I’ll explain everything properly.”

“Right,” says Black, and goes.

“Do you know what he did?” Arthur demands, the moment Black is out of sight. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. It can’t be Imperius, not with one Death Eater and a whole house-full of people. But he hasn’t seen Lupin in years, and he and Black were so close before the war--

“I know what he did,” says Lupin evenly. “And it’s not what you think, I promise you. It’s all right, Arthur, sit down and I’ll explain it.”

Arthur looks at the boys, a bit helplessly. It’s not a story children ought to hear, the version Arthur knows. But Harry only glares at Arthur, and Ron looks exasperated.

“Just listen to Moony, would you?” Harry says. He throws himself down onto the sofa, and after a moment Lupin sits beside him. “And you’d better not try to hex Padfoot again.”

“It really is all right, I promise,” says Ron.

Arthur tries to have another exasperated-glance conversation with Molly, but she’s as bewildered as he is.

“Let’s hear it, then,” Molly says, and they sit down.

 

6.

Coming back to Hogwarts is a relief and a worry, all at once. They have a few days before most of the students arrive, and Harry’s looking forward to a bit of quiet before, as Padfoot puts it, “all hell breaks loose.”

Even now, though, he and Ron have a challenge to face, in the form of Ron’s brothers in the Gryffindor common room.

“So you’re really Harry Potter?” says Fred, who is wearing George’s Christmas jumper. George is wearing Percy’s, and Percy is wearing his school robes and a frown. He’d met them at the castle doors, and escorted them up to Gryffindor tower. The handful of students they passed on the way all stared openly at Harry, and Harry thinks they would have asked the same question if Percy hadn’t glared them into silence.

“No,” says Harry. He’s going to have to get used to having this conversation, he knows. “I’m really Harry MacIntyre, and also I used to be called Harry Potter.”

“It’s not as complicated as all that,” says Ron.

“Hang on,” says George. “You already knew, didn’t you?”

“Er, well,” says Ron.

“It’s all right,” Harry tells him, and then, to George: “Yeah, he did. I asked him not to say anything.”

“And you weren’t even tempted?” says George. “Well done, you.”

“I never suspected a thing,” says Fred. “Lucky thing, too, I’d have been bursting to tell someone.”

“Nah,” says Ron, who has in fact been bursting to tell someone for weeks. He glows with pride a little at Fred and George’s approval, anyway. “Wouldn’t have dreamed of it.”

“All right, that’s enough,” says Percy. “It’s late enough already. Let them up to their dormitory, you two.”

But Percy does stop Ron on his way out, just to make sure that he hadn’t been feeding Whiskers anything too rich over the holidays.

Harry has never been more relieved to reach the top of his dormitory stairs. None of the other first-year boys are back yet, so Padfoot changes briefly into Sirius, has a stretch, and tells Harry he’s going to go talk to the Headmaster.

“The Ministry’s going to try to stick their nose in, I expect,” he says. “And I want to know who the Prophet’s source was.”

“All right,” says Harry. “I may be asleep, by the time you get back.”

Sirius ruffles his hair, changes back to Padfoot, and goes.

There are still a few surprises left, though. When Harry and Ron draw back the curtains on their beds, there’s a wrapped parcel at the foot of each.

Ron eyes his warily. It’s wrapped in old comic-book pages, and bears a card labeled TO RONNIEKINS in what is almost certainly Fred’s handwriting.

Ron sighs. “Bet you a Sickle that’s booby-trapped,” he says. “I’ll open it later. Or take the card off and give it to Percy. What’d you get?”

“Dunno,” says Harry. He picks it up and feels it: something very light, and very soft. When he unwraps it, something fluid and silvery gray goes slithering to the floor, where it lies in gleaming folds. Ron gasps.

"I've heard of those," he says in a hushed voice, and gives up on his attempt to nudge the present from Fred and George off the end of his bed. "If that's what I think it is -- they're really rare, and really valuable."

"What is it?" When Harry picks it up, it feels like water woven into material. It’s shining, and metallic, and light as air, and reminds him of nothing so much as the mithril-coat in The Hobbit. He thinks, for a moment, of the kinds of magic he grew up with. Of the stories his parents told him, before he knew about the magic he’d been born with.

"It's an invisibility cloak," said Ron, a look of awe on his face. "I'm sure it is -- try it on."

Harry throws the cloak around his shoulders, and Ron shouts "It is! Look down!"

Sure enough, he’s vanished from the neck down. In the mirror, with the cloak pulled over his head, there’s no one visible but Ron. For a shivery instant, Harry thinks instead of how the Ring made Bilbo invisible.

"There's a note!" says Ron. "A note fell out of it!"

Harry pulls off the cloak, with some relief, and seizes the letter. Written in narrow, loopy, unfamiliar handwriting are the following words:

Your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well. A Very Merry Christmas to you.

It isn’t signed, and stays that way no matter how long Harry stares at it.

"I'd give anything for one of these," Ron says, admiring the cloak "Anything. What's the matter?"

"I don’t know," says Harry. He feels very strange: unmoored, suddenly, and full of urgent questions. Who had sent the cloak? Had it really once belonged to James Potter?

Harry has never had anything that belonged to his birth parents before. Not like this. He has pictures, and countless stories; Padfoot has a pocketwatch that James gave him, but when Padfoot tried to give it to Harry he refused. Moony, over the years, has hunted down all the Muggle albums he could remember Lily owning, though her own copies were destroyed with their house in Godric’s Hollow, along with most everything else. Whatever else was left of James’ was lost when Sirius went to Azkaban. If his aunt kept anything of Lily’s, it went when she and his uncle died.

There are a scant handful of objects left in the world that his birth parents ever touched, and none of them are properly Harry’s. Not in the way that this cloak, apparently, now is.

So Harry is in a strange, quiet mood as he changes into pyjamas and brushes his teeth. Ron notices it, and it’s enough to stop him singing the cloak’s praises and start darting little worried glances at Harry, right up until Harry pulls the curtains of his bed shut around him.

Harry sits up in bed for a little while, the dark red cavern of his bed lit by a Lumos , and studies his birth dad’s invisibility cloak. It doesn’t tell him anything more, and neither does the note. But when he finally gives up, and flops back against the pillow in exasperation, he realizes that he is lying on top of something oblong. It makes a rustling-paper noise when he moves.

Harry sits up.

He hadn’t noticed it before, because the envelope’s age-faded paper is a near match for the cream-colored pillowcase. But there is a fat squarish envelope, much creased, resting on his bed. It lies half under his pillow, as if someone had tossed it at the bed and not bothered to see where it landed. There’s nothing written on it. Nor, when Harry opens it, is anything written on the sheet of parchment folded carefully round the contents of the envelope.

The photos, though-- some of the photos have been written on.

They’re Muggle snapshots, unmoving, each a single instant preserved in golden light. Some were obviously taken by an old-fashioned Polaroid, like the one Harry’s dad keeps on a shelf in the study. A few are black-and-white. In most of them, the colors are warm-toned, yellowy greens and oranges, like the ones Harry’s seen from early in his parents’ marriage.

And, in fact, one of them has Lily and Tuney, August 1968 written on it in round, careful little-girl handwriting. In the picture, a girl with red hair has flung her arms round the neck of another girl, a few years older, who is laughing in protest.

Harry leafs through the pictures. There’s twenty or so. Most are of the same two girls, and the red-haired girl is in all of them. A few times, an older woman is visible in the background. In one, a man with a cheerful, laughing face holds up a speck of white with a string trailing from it; next to him, the red-haired girl beams at the camera, showing off the fresh gap in her teeth. Dad “helps” Lily with her loose tooth is written on the back.

There’s a birthday party, a picnic, the two girls in frilly dresses looking pleased with themselves. In one, the red-haired girl is trying to tug someone in a beige jacket into the frame, without success. She’s nearly always smiling, and in close-ups, her green eyes are just the same as Harry’s.

A few of the photos look like they’ve been crumpled up, then carefully smoothed out again. One was torn entirely in half and taped back together. Harry studies it closely. The red-haired girl-- Lily, Harry thinks, that’s Lily Evans, that’s my birth mum-- is a little older, maybe even the same age as Harry. She looks annoyed about something. Next to her, the fair-haired older girl who must be Petunia Evans has her mouth pressed shut like she’s trying not to laugh.

Harry doesn’t really look like either of them, aside from Lily’s eyes. But he can see how Lily and Petunia have the same stubborn chins, the same long necks, how Petunia’s blue eyes are very much like Lily’s green.

There are only a couple of pictures where Lily looks older than Harry. In one, she’s sitting on a window seat, reading, oblivious. She’s wearing jeans and a loose peasant-y shirt, her hair in a messy braid. Harry squints down at her, trying to make out the cover of the book; he thinks it might be The Once and Future King. On the back of the photo it says Home from Hogwarts, Christmas 1974 -- but someone has scratched out the word Hogwarts in heavy strokes of black pen.

Harry sits in the dark, with James’ cloak in his lap and Lily’s childhood in his hands. The dormitory is silent, but for Ron’s slightly wheezy breathing.

Harry flings himself out of bed. He wraps the cloak around himself, and clutches the photos to his chest, and goes looking for Padfoot.

 

7.

The trouble, Harry rapidly discovers, is that he doesn’t have the slightest idea where Padfoot is. He doesn’t actually know where the Headmaster’s office is, either. He knows all the hiding spots from Padfoot’s stories, in theory, but hasn’t yet had cause to seek them out. For all Harry knows, Padfoot could be in any of Hogwarts’ many classrooms, or on the grounds, or in the library, or in the one secret corridor Harry can never remember how to find.

But Harry is still burning up with questions, with wanting to know, and Padfoot is the only person he knows who might have answers. Harry roams the silent halls, pads past the shut doors of the Great Hall, peeks nervously at the massive bulk of Fluffy in the third-floor corridor, sound asleep atop his trapdoor.

Well. It occurs to Harry that, even if he can’t get the answers he wants from Padfoot tonight, there are other questions he’d still like answers to. And there’s no one to keep me out of the Restricted Section at this hour, Harry thinks, and heads for the library. Nicholas Flamel makes a poor substitute for Harry’s wizard parents, but he’s better than nothing.

This turns out, regrettably, to be untrue.

Harry avoids Filch and Snape by the skin of his teeth, even with his cloak, and only manages to evade them by ducking into an unused classroom. By the time the hall outside goes silent, and the pounding of Harry’s own heartbeat fades from his hearing, he thoroughly regrets leaving his dormitory at all. He’s just relieved he didn’t drop the envelope of photos in his panic.

And then he sees the massive mirror in its golden frame, propped up against the wall in the corner of the room.

Harry expects to see nothing but the empty classroom reflected in it, with the cloak still on. But when he steps in front of it, the mirror reflects him as if the cloak were gone. And more than that-- he sees not only himself in the mirror, but a whole crowd of people standing right behind him.

Harry has to clap his hands to his mouth to stop himself from screaming. But when he whirls around, the room is empty, and silent but for Harry’s own too-fast breathing. He turns back to the mirror.

The people are all still there, in the glass, standing so close that Harry ought to be able to touch them. But when he reaches out behind him, there’s nothing but air-- so they must only exist in the mirror.

Now that he knows the room is probably not full of other invisible people, Harry calms down enough to look closely. The people just behind him are a man and a woman, standing close together, and Harry realizes suddenly that he knows them.

“Oh,” he says. “It’s you.”

James and Lily Potter look out at him from within the mirror, with their arms around each other, and wave at him, and smile through their tears.

Harry knows the other people in the mirror too, he realizes. His Potter grandparents look just like they do in the handful of pictures he’s seen. And there’s his nan MacIntyre, with a younger man beside her in the same old-fashioned uniform that Harry’s dad keeps carefully packed away in the attic. There are two young men, barely out of their teens, elbowing each other; one looks just like Caroline’s favorite cousin, who died young, and the other-- the other must be Regulus Black.

There are other pairs of green eyes like his, other noses like his, even a little old man who looks as though he has Harry's knobbly knees. There are people Harry has only ever seen in pictures: that woman once held Harry’s dad, toddler-aged, on her hip. That man once held Lily’s tooth on a string. They once laughed and smiled, from the back row of a crowd of otherwise-serious faces in Auror’s uniforms.

Near the back there’s a little fair-haired family, a thin woman and a stout man and a boy just Harry’s age. He recognizes the woman, even grown-up, from the photos he’s still clutching: his Aunt Petunia, and what must be her husband and son. The uncle and cousin Harry never knew.

Harry has never wanted more family than he has, not really. He doesn’t feel the absence of these people the way that Padfoot does, the way his mum does at certain times of year. He never knew them, not enough to miss them so powerfully, to ache at the lack of their presence or resent not knowing more about them. What he knows, what he has, has always been enough, or nearly.

Harry stands there for a long time with his hands pressed flat against the glass, full of joy and sadness and confusion. Padfoot needs to see this , he thinks, and that’s what lets him pull away. He steps back, for one last longing look.

“I’ll come back,” he whispers. In the mirror, Lily nods and smiles and wipes her eyes. Harry hurries from the room. 

8.

The thing is, Sirius knows better.

He knows. He does. The mirror isn’t showing him anything real, anything he could make real; he knows it can’t. If they’re real-- if that’s really James, really Lily, standing on the other side of the glass. If that’s really Regulus, if those are really the Prewetts, if that really is old Uncle Alphard, leaning on his walking stick there at the back behind Marlene and Benjy. If they’re real, they should do more than just stand there, smiling uselessly at him. They should try to help Sirius get them out: hold up notes, or mime instructions, or breathe on the glass to write to him in backwards letters.

And Reg should have picked a fight with someone by now, if nothing else. So they aren’t real.

But even knowing that, Sirius finds himself pulled back to the empty classroom, again and again. After Harry goes to sleep, he slips away through the silent corridors, and spends the night sitting before the glass, looking at all the people he misses most. Closer to any of them than he’s been in over a decade.

Sirius knows better. But since when has that ever stopped him?

(If the mirror were meant as a trap, they’d tell Sirius the things they never said in life. Reg would say, you picked the right side. Uncle Alphard would say, well done, my boy. you showed ‘em, eh? Lily would say it wasn’t your fault and James would say no one could have done better for Harry than you have. )

So he spends the next few days distracted, half-asleep and half-present. He ought to be minding Harry better: classes start soon, and the weight of Harry Potter’s fame is about to come crashing down on his godson. Harry shouldn’t have to worry about Sirius, on top of that, and Sirius knows that Harry is worried, that he wishes he’d never shown Sirius the mirror at all.

(Sirius had only just got back from talking to Dumbledore and McGonagall, and found Harry missing. He’d been about to wake Ron when he heard Harry’s tread on the stair.)

(When Harry pulled off the cloak, Sirius’ heart nearly stopped. He’d seen James emerge from it just the same way, more times than he could count: flushed with excitement, eyes bright, ready to invite him into some new adventure.)

Sirius slips away that night, and promises himself: just this one more time. But he said that the night before, too.

When he arrives, though, he finds that the decision has been taken out of his hands.

“So -- back again, Sirius?”

Sirius startles, turning from the mirror with his wand already out, but Dumbledore only smiles patiently at him.

"I don't need a cloak to become invisible," he says, and glances pointedly at a spot on the wall by the door.

“Sorry, Headmaster,” says Sirius. He feels about fourteen again, a foot shorter and ten times as stupid. “I know I shouldn’t-- but I couldn’t seem to--”

“I understand,” Dumbledore says. “You are not the first to discover the delights of the Mirror of Erised."

“Delights,” says Sirius. The name rings a vague sort of bell in the back of his mind, but he can’t quite place it. “If you say so.”

“To some, at least,” says Dumbledore. "But I expect you've realized by now what it does?"

“Harry and I saw-- similar things,” says Sirius. “People we’ve lost. But Ron saw his future-- or some possible future, I suppose.”

Dumbledore nods. “And the happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror; that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?"

Sirius feels very tired, and very foolish. “It just shows us what we want,” he says. “Nothing real at all.”

"Yes and no," says Dumbledore quietly. "It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. And that is something very real, I should say.”

“You know what I meant,” says Sirius. “Harry saw all the family he never had a chance to know. Ron saw himself in the spotlight, instead of his brothers. And I saw-- but it’s just an image. There’s no way to make it real, is there?”

“Not in the way we might wish for,” says Dumbledore. “This mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”

“Stupid of them,” says Sirius.

“Not at all,” says Dumbledore. “It is a very human failing, to desire the return of what we have lost, or to long for what we do not yet have. But it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

“I know,” says Sirius. He does. All too well, and yet--

"The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow,” Dumbledore says, “and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. And I expect your godson must be wondering where you are, back in his dormitory.”

Sirius hears a soft intake of breath, from the empty patch of wall by the door, and then a few quick, careful footsteps. He’ll have to teach Harry the trick of walking silently with the cloak on. It took James ages to get right.

Sirius glances back at the mirror one last time. They’re all still there, just as they were in life. Just as unreachable as they’ve always been. James waves to him, smiling, as if nothing at all is wrong.

But James is dead, and always will be. Sirius turns his back on the mirror.

“Right,” he says. “Thank you, Headmaster.”

“You are very welcome, Mr. Black,” says Dumbledore. “But as I said, you are not the first to be ensnared by the Mirror.” He glances over Sirius’ shoulder, at the glass, and something about his expression makes Sirius wonder.

“"What do you see in it?" he asks.

"I?” Dumbledore’s face smooths out, back to its usual unreadable geniality. “I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks."

Sirius can’t help but laugh.

"One can never have enough socks," says Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books."

“All right,” says Sirius. He doesn’t really believe it. But fair enough. It’s an awfully personal question, and not everyone’s regrets are as easy to guess as Sirius’.

 

Chapter Text

1.

Ron and Harry are playing Exploding Snap in their dormitory when Seamus and Neville and Dean get back. Seamus bursts in first, saying “Ron! Can you believe--”

Without looking up from his cards, Ron says “Told you.”

Harry groans, digs a Sickle out of his pocket, and hands it over.

Neither Dean nor Neville, who barreled in only seconds after Seamus, seems to know what to make of this.

“I bet Ron that Dean would beat you up the stairs,” Harry explains, and adds, to Dean, “I hope you’re happy, he’d have done my Charms homework for a week if you were a bit faster.”

There is a brief silence, as Dean and Neville and Seamus recall that Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, Savior of the Wizarding World, et cetera, is also Harry, the boy who corrects their spelling and stubbornly sides with Ron in arguments about Quidditch despite all evidence to the contrary.

“Well,” says Dean. “I’m Muggle-born, so I suppose the news wasn’t quite as exciting as it was for these two.”

Once Hogwarts is full of students again, Harry’s world gets very loud. Or rather-- there is loudness happening everywhere, except for wherever Harry happens to be, because he seems to travel in his own little bubble of quiet. No matter where he goes, there are people whispering to one another, closest in, and they get louder as they get farther away from Harry.

Ron and Hermione and Padfoot, at least, aren’t any different. And thank goodness, because nearly everyone else is being tremendously weird. The whispering is bad enough. The people who get up the nerve to actually ask him things are usually worse. Harry keeps catching people staring at his scar, and resolves to grow his hair back out. He already regrets getting a haircut before Christmas.

The revelation that Harry is the Boy Who Lived is so surprising that it even shocks Malfoy out of being unpleasant for a little while. The first time Harry crosses paths with him, the day before before classes start, Harry is on his way down to the Great Hall for breakfast, hurrying to catch up. He’s carrying his new broom-care kit, so he can go straight out to the Quidditch pitch after he eats. Malfoy, apparently an earlier riser than Harry, plows into him as Harry rounds a corner, nearly knocking them both off their feet.

But once they pick themselves back up, Malfoy doesn’t have a cutting remark ready. He just-- stares at Harry, for slightly too long to be comfortable.

“What?” says Harry.

“You’re Harry Potter,” says Malfoy. He sounds... Harry doesn’t quite know how he sounds. Shaken, perhaps. Off-balance, and not just from nearly falling over.

“Well, not currently,” says Harry. It’s one of a handful of responses he’s found himself repeating, these last few days, along with “If you insist,” and “Only technically,” and a few others.

“What do you mean, not-- you defeated the Dark Lord!”

“I was a baby,” says Harry. He’s had versions of this conversation a dozen times already. “I didn’t do it on purpose, I don’t think. What does it matter to you, anyway?”

Malfoy seems genuinely baffled, like it should matter, like the front page of the Daily Prophet has somehow changed who Harry is. “You’re supposed to be-- and you’re just, just running round with Muggles, and Weasleys, and Granger as if you don’t know any better!”

“What else would I be doing?” Harry asks. He suspects he knows the answer, and that it’s some version of “be snobby and mean to everyone but other purebloods,” but he’s a bit curious to see if Malfoy can make it sound nicer than that.

“You know,” says Malfoy, gesturing vaguely. “Meeting the right sort of people. Our sort.”

He says “our sort” with almost precisely the same tone that Harry’s mum uses to imitate someone she disagrees with.

“I think I’ve already worked out who the right sort of people are, thanks,” says Harry. “Mostly they’re the ones who don’t say awful things about my mum and dad all the time.”

“But they’re not even your real mum and dad!” says Malfoy.

Now it’s Harry turn to stare for slightly too long to be comfortable, long enough that Malfoy looks like he might actually have something like a sense of shame.

Harry says, “If you still think that, you’re definitely not the right sort,” and accidentally-on-purpose whacks Malfoy with his shoulder as he marches past him to breakfast. He doesn’t bother to look back.

 

2.

Dear Mum,

We found Nicholas Flamel!! Not in a book, though. On a Chocolate Frog card, which is so silly it’s almost annoying. I know you said I shouldn’t worry about it, but it’s been bothering me all year, and it’s such a relief to have the answer. And it’s really interesting, too: Nicholas Flamel is the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone! Remember, I told you about the theory behind it when I was reading Advances in Modern Alchemy last summer, but it didn’t mention Flamel, which is a dreadful oversight, don’t you think?

Hogwarts is rather quiet otherwise. Most people have stopped making a fuss about Harry, although I do catch the Ravenclaws staring once in a while. I was a little afraid that the girls in my dormitory would get standoffish again when they found out that I knew, like they were at the start of the year. Instead they’re all very impressed that I’m friends with someone famous. Thank goodness Ron knew, too, or I wouldn’t have anyone sensible to talk to right now! But Harry’s the same person he was before, of course, and I think everyone will get used to it eventually.

I’ve read all the books I brought back with me. Please send A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet as soon as possible! Parvati wants to read them when I’m done. Also please ask Miss Howell at the bookshop whether she’s set anything aside for me.

Yes, I am remembering to floss.

Love,

Hermione Jean Granger

 

Dear Mum and Dad,

I finished reading Diggers and I liked it a lot. It’s very funny. It says in the back cover that there’s a third book, so please send it soon. Until then Dean lent me A Wizard of Earthsea , so I’m going to read that next.

Things are mostly back to normal, except I keep catching people staring and Draco Malfoy is still being strange. I told Neville what you said about him, Dad, and I think it helped, because at the Quidditch game last week he gave Vincent Crabbe a bloody nose. If it were anyone else I would agree with you that fighting isn’t any way to solve problems, but Ron told me what Malfoy said to start the fight and honestly you’d have hit him too.

You can tell Moony that Padfoot is okay. I know I sounded a bit worried in my last letter, but the Headmaster sorted everything out. Also, Hermione wants to know if he has any recommendations for good Defense books for beginners, because Professor Quirrell is rather useless. Most of the stuff he’s taught us I knew from Padfoot or Moony already, but Padfoot says that Moony was the only one who ever wrote anything down so we’d better ask him.

We beat Hufflepuff! I caught the Snitch really fast, everyone said they’d never seen anything like it. The whole team was really nervous because Professor Snape was the referee. I don’t know why everyone thinks he’s so scary. It didn’t even matter, though, because the game was over so quickly.

I have Herbology soon, so I’m going to give this letter to Hedwig on my way to the greenhouse. Don’t let her fly back here if it’s snowing, even if she acts like she wants to.

Love,

Harry

 

Padfoot,

I wish you’d said something to me sooner about the Mirror. I understand, I do, but I’d have told you what it was and why you oughtn’t let it draw you in.

And I’d have liked to see them too, in all honesty.

I’ve enclosed a list of books for Harry and Hermione, and a second list of books that you should definitely confiscate if you see any of the kids reading them. It sounds like Quirrell’s doing slightly worse than average for a Hogwarts Defense teacher. Considering how bad the average is, they could use the extra help.

The lead on Wormtail didn’t pan out-- nothing worth missing the Quidditch game for, even a game as short as that. Can you imagine how insufferable Prongs would have been, if he’d ever caught a Snitch that fast?

I’m going to come up a day or two early for the next moon. I miss you.

Love,

Moony

 

Moony,

I know. I’m sorry. I was being an idiot, and I knew I was being an idiot while I did it. Part of me wishes I had told you, and given you the chance. The rest is relieved I didn’t, because it certainly didn’t do me any good. Harry, either; I think he’s been having nightmares ever since, though he’s trying to be very grown-up and insists it’s nothing to be concerned about.

I’ll pass the first list on, and guard the second with my life. I like Harry’s friends, but they’re much too smart for their own good, and the rank hypocrisy of that statement isn’t lost on me. Honestly, though! They worked out what Fluffy’s guarding, entirely on their own. Now Ron and Hermione are convinced that Snape is after it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they had some compelling evidence-- he isn’t working very hard to look innocent. Harry’s not had an easy time talking them down.

Harry hasn’t let fame go to his head, thank goodness. Prongs would have such an inflated ego by now, he’d be bobbing around near the ceiling of the Great Hall. Harry just seems annoyed by the attention, and determined to wait it out. I’m afraid he might be waiting some time, though: I’ve heard most of his teachers call him “Mr. Potter” by mistake, even McGonagall. Binns hasn’t, because he thinks all his students are people who’ve been dead for eighty years, and I suppose Snape would prefer it if the name “Potter” never passed anyone’s lips ever again.

When you get here, can you have a talk with Hagrid? He’s been acting very odd.

I miss you. Love,

Padfoot

 

Dear Mother and Father,

Thank you for the cashmere gloves you sent, and for the sweets. The shop in Hogsmeade still refuses to stock anything I’ve asked for. You ought to write to them. Professor Snape also sends his thanks, and his compliments to Mother for her charmwork keeping the pastries so fresh.

I am fully recovered from the injuries inflicted by Weasley, and Crabbe and Goyle are as well. You were right, Father, brawling is beneath my dignity as a Malfoy and it’s no wonder that common, low-class Gryffindors resort to it so often. Perhaps one day they will learn the value of self-control.

It is outrageous how much the teachers favor them. Even Professor Snape cannot speak his mind on the subject, or I am sure that he would be much more severe towards Potter Macinty Potter in his classes. Some of the Gryffindors even go visit the groundskeeper in his horrid little hut, at all hours! Someone ought to catch them at it. It would serve them right.

Have you made any progress in repealing the rule against first-years bringing their own brooms? In your last letter, it sounded like you might have. I promise that my grades will not suffer in the least if the ban is lifted.

Your son,

Draco Malfoy

 

Dear Charlie,

Do you know anyone who’d like a baby Norwegian Ridgeback? Please reply at once, it’s sort of urgent because I don’t know how fast they grow. Asking for a friend.

Love,

Ron

 

3.

Harry does feel guilty about losing so many points for Gryffindor. It seems as though the whole of Hogwarts is angry at them, not just his own house. Hermione can hardly summon the enthusiasm to raise her hand in class, and the burst of self-confidence Neville got from fighting Crabbe and Goyle at the Quidditch game seems to have evaporated entirely.

Padfoot is in disgrace, too. Apparently his idea of what counts as “harmless youthful hijinks” doesn’t match up with Professor McGonagall’s at all.

And there’s still a detention to serve. Harry spends a few days dreading it. Ron tries to cheer him up by telling him about some of the detentions the twins have had, but that really only makes things worse.

Harry expects an evening spent cleaning out the Owlery, or chopping potions ingredients til his eyes water, or something else tedious and bad-smelling. He could manage that, he thinks, if not enjoy it. Though when he remembers that Malfoy will be there too, he resigns himself to an even-less-pleasant time.

Instead, to his surprise, Filch leads them out onto the grounds, down to Hagrid’s hut, where Hagrid is waiting with Fang and Padfoot at his heels. They’re going into the Forbidden Forest, it seems.

Neville and Hermione are nervous, and Malfoy outright panicked, but Harry has to fight back a smile. Padfoot has told him lots of stories about the Forest. There are dangerous things, to be sure, but known dangers aren’t nearly as frightening, especially with someone along who’s already faced them. And since Padfoot will be there, Harry’s detention suddenly feels more like an adventure than a punishment. Even if there is something in the Forest hurting unicorns.

Malfoy makes a dreadful fuss about werewolves, and refuses to be left alone with only Fang for protection, which is just typical. So Hagrid sends Harry and Hermione and Padfoot off in one direction, and goes the other way with Neville and Malfoy and Fang.

After they’ve gone far enough, Padfoot turns into Sirius, which seems to make Hermione feel better.

“You’re really not worried?” she asks him. “Draco seemed positive we were all about to be savaged by werewolves.”

“Nah,” Sirius says shortly. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“It’s waxing gibbous, anyway, look,” Harry points out.

Hermione cranes her neck up at the sky, at the bright moon beaming down at them through the branches. “Oh!” she says. “Of course it is. I’m being silly.”

“You’ll hear a lot of nonsense about werewolves from kids like Malfoy,” Sirius says. “They’re a useful sort of bogeyman in some pureblood families.”

This has a bit of an edge to it, which Hermione misses entirely. “Draco ought to know better,” she says. “It’s in the Defense textbook! Werewolves only transform at the full moon.”

“We haven’t got that far in the book yet, have we?” asks Harry.

“Well, I did read ahead,” she concedes.

There’s a strange noise up ahead, then: a dragging, slithering sound.

“Hush a moment,” Sirius says, putting a hand up to stop them, but it’s gone. They all stand there, straining to hear in the silent forest.

“Padfoot has better ears,” says Sirius, and transforms.

He leads them on a little farther. The next noise is loud enough for Harry and Hermione to hear just fine on their own, though, and Harry thinks he sees something moving, in the trees up ahead. Hermione gasps, and freezes beside him.

“It’s all right,” Harry says. Padfoot’s tail is wagging.

It’s quite exciting, to meet a centaur.

“It’s Ronan, isn’t it?” Sirius asks, having transformed again. “We met a few months ago, I think-- I was with Hagrid.”

“Good evening to you,” says Ronan.

“This is my godson Harry, and his friend Hermione,” says Sirius, in much the same way that Harry’s mum might introduce Harry to one of her colleagues from work. “They’re both students up at Hogwarts.”

"Good evening," says Ronan. "Students, are you? And do you learn much, up at the school?"

“Er,” says Harry.

“A bit,” says Hermione, very faintly.

If this were one of Harry’s mum’s colleagues, he’d be in for a pop quiz right about now. Really, if more of his mum’s colleagues were centaurs, Harry doesn’t think he’d mind the pop quizzes very much.

But Ronan just says, “A bit. Well, that's something,” and turns his face up towards the sky. “Mars is bright tonight,” he says. “But the Dog Star is hidden.”

“There’s an injured unicorn,” says Sirius. “Hagrid’s following the other end of the trail. Have you seen anything?”

Ronan goes on staring at the sky. "Always the innocent are the first victims," he says, after a while. "So it has been for ages past, so it is now."

“You’re not wrong,” says Sirius, “but I meant in a more specific sense.”

“Mars is bright tonight,” Ronan says again. When Sirius makes a yes, and? sort of expression, Ronan only adds, “Unusually bright.”

“So nothing strictly unicorn-related, then,” says Harry.

The only answer Ronan gives, after a bit of a wait, is that “the forest hides many secrets.”

There’s movement in the trees. Another centaur, wilder-looking, with black hair on his horse half and darker skin than Ronan on his human half, joins them in the clearing.

“Do you know that one?” Hermione whispers to Sirius.

“Don’t think so,” Sirius replies.

“Good evening,” the second centaur says. “It’s been some time since I saw you last.”

Sirius frowns “It’s… Bane, then, right?” he asks.

“You had more legs, then,” Bane says. “And less good sense.”

“Sounds about right,” says Sirius. “Listen, we’re trying to find an injured unicorn. Do you know anything?”

Bane nods. “The Dog Star is hidden still,” he says. To Ronan, he adds, “and Mars is bright tonight.”

“Right,” says Sirius. “Thanks.”

 

4.

Of course, Malfoy has to ruin things for everyone. Hagrid’s so annoyed that he sends Harry and Padfoot off with him instead of Neville. He apologizes for it, in a whisper that’s much too loud for Harry to hope no one else can hear it. “But he'll have a harder time frightenin' the two of you, an' we've gotta get this done," he says.

So Harry sets off into the heart of the forest with Padfoot and Malfoy and Fang. Without Hagrid to protect him or Neville to frighten, Malfoy starts to get nervous again. He keeps wittering on about werewolves, and what they ought to do if they run across one.

“I dunno,” mutters Harry, too low for anyone but Padfoot to hear, “offer him a cup of tea and a chocolate bar? Ask if he’s read any good books lately?”

Padfoot can’t laugh, exactly, when he’s dog-shaped, but Harry knows his I’d-be-laughing-if-I-were-the-right-species-for-it bark very well. Malfoy doesn’t, and it makes him even more skittish.

But the trail is easier to follow the further they they go, even as the forest grows thicker and harder to push through. Harry starts walking directly behind Padfoot, who’s big enough to trample down the undergrowth a little. He considers suggesting that Malfoy do the same with Fang, but decides against it.

It looks like there might be a clearing up ahead. Harry sees something bright white through the trees, gleaming on the ground. Malfoy swats a branch out of his face, grumbling, and then notices that Padfoot-- and Harry, behind him-- have gone absolutely still.

It is the unicorn, and it’s dead. Harry doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything so beautiful, or so sad. It lies as if it’s only just fallen, unexpectedly, its legs at odd angles. Harry feels as though he ought to do something-- turn it properly onto its side, arrange the shining mane so it’s not tangled about the poor thing’s face. He’s never seen something dead like this before, that he can remember. Goldfish don’t count.

Harry takes a step forward, and then freezes again. Padfoot is growling, very low, just loud enough to hear. And there’s something else, too, some other noise-- a slithering, dragging sound.

Out of the shadows, a hooded shape comes crawling across the ground. It’s like something out of a horror film, the kind Harry’s not supposed to watch til he’s older. When the cloaked figure reaches the unicorn, it lowers its head over the wound in the animal's side, and begins to drink its blood.

Everything is so quiet that the next sound Harry hears nearly frightens him out of his skin. It’s Malfoy, of course.

“AAAA--mmph!”

Sirius claps his hand over Malfoy’s mouth before he gets most of the way through screaming, but it’s already too late. Harry turns back to the clearing to see the hooded figure raise its head and rise to its feet. It has unicorn blood all down its front, Harry notices, in a cold, removed sort of way. He feels frozen to the spot. Fang has already bolted.

“Both of you, run,” says Sirius. “I’m right behind you. Go!”

He gives Harry a shove, not hard but enough to jolt him into action. His head hurts like it’s splitting in half. Harry grabs Malfoy’s arm, and starts to run.

They don’t get far before Harry hears something trampling through the forest towards them. For a heart-stopping moment, Harry thinks that the hooded figure has got ahead of them somehow, but then a centaur comes crashing through the trees, and leaps clean over Harry and Malfoy both.

“Aaaaah!” Malfoy yells again, and stumbles. Harry still feels like his head is on fire, and finds that he can’t keep his feet either. But Sirius is there, helping Harry up, patting at him to make sure he isn’t injured.

“Are you all right?” the centaur asks. He looks younger than the other two, palomino with fair hair and bright blue eyes.

“Yes -- thank you -- stop fussing ,” Harry says, this last to Sirius.

“What was that?” Malfoy demands, his voice too high and too loud. “Who are you? What’s going on ?”

This centaur doesn’t seem any keener to answer questions than the other ones had been. "You are the Potter boy," he says. "You had better get back to Hagrid. The forest is not safe at this time -- especially for you. Can you ride? It will be quicker this way.”

He adds, frowning at Sirius, “Best you keep close, Animagus.”

“Right,” Sirius says. “Up you get. You too, Draco,” he adds, helping them both up onto the centaur’s back. Malfoy looks as though he’d like to protest, but he’s still too frightened. A distant part of Harry wants to point out that he’s the MacIntyre boy, actually, but the rest of him hasn’t yet caught up.

“My name is Firenze,” the centaur says. Sirius nods, and changes back into Padfoot.

Before they can go far, though, Harry hears the sound of more galloping from somewhere past the trees behind them. In what seems like the blink of an eye, Ronan and Bane are flanking them, and both centaurs look furious. Padfoot growls at them, his ears flat and his hackles up, but they hardly pay him any notice.

Harry doesn’t understand what the centaurs are shouting at each other about, and he’s too distracted to make sense of it. Padfoot is too close for comfort to their great heavy hooves, and Malfoy, sitting behind him, is clutching Harry’s middle tight enough to hurt. His head throbs, and his thoughts are fuzzy.

The argument doesn’t last long, anyway. Firenze gives up on shouting at the other two, and takes off into the forest at a gallop, Padfoot racing along behind them. Ronan and Bane don’t follow. After a little while, Firenze slows to a walk, and warns Harry and Malfoy to look out for low-hanging branches.

For the first time since they found the clearing, Harry’s heart stops pounding quite so fast. Malfoy must calm down a little as well, because he stops trying to squeeze all the air out of Harry.

He’s the first one to find his voice again, too. “I want to know what’s going on,” he says. It sounds like a bad impression of his normal voice: like he’s trying to be proud and imperious, and failing.

It’s a question worth asking, anyway. “So do I,” says Harry. “What was that thing? What were Ronan and Bane so upset about?”

“What?” says Malfoy. “Who are Ronan and --”

“The other centaurs,” Harry says.

“How do you -- no. No!” Malfoy says. He pushes away from Harry, and clambers ungracefully down from Firenze’s back. “I am not going anywhere with you lot until someone tells me what just happened!”

“Do you know what unicorn blood is used for?" Firenze says.

“Nothing good,” says Sirius. He goes to Harry, to help him down, but Harry shakes his head and climbs to the ground himself. He still feels a little wobbly on his feet, but Sirius is right there with a hand on his shoulder, steadying him.

Malfoy seems to be knocked even farther off-kilter by this, though. “Your dog’s an Animagus,” he says faintly.

“It is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn," said Firenze. "Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."

Malfoy, already paler than usual, goes paler still, almost greeny-white. Sirius looks grim.

"But who'd be that desperate?" Harry asks. "If you're going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn't it?"

"It is," Firenze agrees, "unless all you need is to stay alive long enough to drink something else -- something that will bring you back to full strength and power -- something that will mean you can never die. Do any of you know what is hidden in the school at this very moment?"

“Yes,” says Sirius.

“Of course,” says Harry.

“No!” says Malfoy.

Firenze goes on ignoring Malfoy. Centaurs are very single-minded, Harry decides.

"Can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power,” Firenze says, “who has clung to life, awaiting their chance?"

Everything goes cold again. Harry feels as if someone has replaced his heart with a ball of ice.

“No,” says Sirius. Harry has never seen him look afraid before, not really. Not like this. “You can’t mean -- he’s dead. He’s dead, it’s over --”

“What is he talking about?” Malfoy says. He looks to Harry, pleadingly, as if Harry is the only person around who might make the least bit of sense.

“He means,” Harry croaks, “that was Vol --”

"Harry! Harry, are you all right?"

Hermione comes running toward them down the path, Hagrid puffing along behind her. Sirius changes into Padfoot and goes to sit at Harry’s side, leaning into him.

“We’re fine,” Harry says. “I think. The unicorn’s dead, Hagrid, it's in that clearing back there."

"This is where I leave you," Firenze says. He nods at Padfoot. "You are safe now. The skies are clearing.”

“Thank you,” says Harry. He elbows Malfoy, and after a confused moment Malfoy stammers a thank-you as well.

"Good luck, Harry Potter,” Firenze says. “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times."

After Firenze canters off into the forest, Harry remembers to shout after him, uselessly, “It’s MacIntyre, actually!”

All Harry wants to do is trudge back up to the castle and fall over in his own bed. But Hermione is staring at him, and Malfoy is staring at Padfoot, both of them full of questions about to spill out into the air.

Hermione puts the pieces together first, quick as ever. “Neville’s gone back already,” she says. She glances sidelong at Malfoy. “Did he...?”

“Yeah,” says Harry.

Granger knows about all this?” Malfoy says.

Hermione draws herself up into her most heavily inflated state of self-righteous know-it-all-ness. Harry has never been more grateful to have her for a friend.

Some people can be trusted with important secrets,” she says. “Can you?”

“Of course I can!” Malfoy says, too angry at the insult to be afraid, or even to remember how he normally treats Hermione.

“Then prove it,” Harry says. “If you want to know what’s happening, prove we can trust you with it.”

“My word of honor as a Malfoy,” he says, without hesitation. He holds his hand out, and looks expectant. There is a long, silent moment. Padfoot’s tail thumps in the dirt behind Harry -- once, twice.

“All right,” Harry says. He shakes Malfoy’s hand. “But -- in the morning, yeah?”

All three of them remember, at more or less the same time, that it is extremely late at night, and they’ve all spent quite a lot of time running around frightened out of their wits.

“...Fine,” says Draco, and fights back a yawn.

 

5.

For all that he’s exhausted, Draco doesn’t sleep very well that night. Every time he manages to drift off, even a bit, he sees that awful thing in the Forest, coming towards him across the clearing, lurching like its knees are on backwards and dripping with unicorn blood.

Eventually he gives up on sleep entirely. Draco stares at the ceiling to wait for dawn, with nothing but his thoughts and Goyle’s snoring for company. Granger’s voice keeps playing itself on a loop in his head, over and over, which he would ordinarily find intolerable.

Some people can be trusted with important secrets -- can you?

But everything else he can think of is just as bad, or worse: the hooded figure hunched over the unicorn. That centaur -- can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power? The Animagus, appearing out of nowhere -- both of you, run. I’m right behind you. Go! And Potter -- MacIntyre -- Harry looking as if he might faint, his scar standing out pale against his forehead, saying he means, that was Vol --

It’s nonsense. Has to be. The Dark Lord is dead; Harry ought to know, of all people.

Anyway, the Dark Lord would never lower himself to tramping around in the woods, looking for unicorns to kill.That doesn’t sound anything like the Voldemort Draco’s heard stories about, the nights his father’s friends stayed late after dinner, and he listened at the door when he was meant to be in bed.

Father doesn’t talk about the war very much. Draco’s asked, a few times, when he was younger, but Father usually just says something about Imperius muddling his memory, and changes the subject.

“He was a very powerful and charismatic wizard,” he told Draco, once, the most he’s ever said on the matter. “It is... regrettable, I would say, that a handful of extremists have tarnished his name so badly. Now, of course, anyone who does not repudiate his ideas is treated with suspicion.”

Which can’t at all be reconciled with the shambling creature Draco saw. Even the centaur had more dignity that that. Even Hagrid has more dignity than that.

There must be some mistake, that’s all.

Though that still leaves the matter of the Animagus.

When it’s finally technically very early in the morning, rather than very late at night, Draco gets up and dresses and makes his way up to the Great Hall. None of his dormitory mates so much as stir. The Hall is nearly empty, when he arrives for breakfast: no teachers, just a few frazzled Ravenclaws squabbling over their exam notes in the corner.

Draco sit down to eggs and toast. He feels a bit more like himself by the time Harry and Granger and Weasley arrive, Harry’s black dog trailing behind him. None of them look like they slept well, either, which Draco finds obscurely pleasing.

He studiously ignores them, though it’s hard to miss the significant looks they keep aiming in his direction. They bolt their breakfasts -- no manners at all -- and as they pass him on their way out, Granger whispers, “Fourth floor, east corridor, third door on the left.”

“Knock twice!” Weasley adds, a little too loud. Granger shushes him.

Draco has to exert a truly phenomenal amount of self-control to stay in his seat and finish his breakfast at his normal, leisurely pace, rather than sprinting after them the moment they’re through the door. He manages it, but only just.

When he does leave, it must be said: he sets a brisker pace than usual.

He finds the door, knocks twice, and after a moment and some muffled whispering, it opens to admit him.

Weasley looks wary. Granger looks keen, but it’s a more nervous keenness than usual. Harry is sitting on the floor by the window, half leaned up against his dog. His Animagus dog, which Draco has a great many questions about.

They look rather awful, boy and dog both.

“Well,” says Granger. She’s clutching a notebook. “I’m sure you have some questions.”

“Not for you ,” Draco says. Trust Granger to put herself in charge, even at a time like this!

“Ron and Hermione know everything I’d tell you,” says Harry. “And if you can’t be decent to them, you can go on not knowing.”

Draco wants to protest, but he wants to know even more.

“I made up -- well, a sort of dossier, I suppose,” Granger says. “After Halloween. The Daily Prophet made the first ten pages rather obsolete, though.”

“Thank goodness for small mercies,” says Weasley, which gets a weak laugh from Harry and an “Honestly, Ron!” from Granger. The Animagus perks up a bit, even.

“Hang on,” says Draco, “you’ve both known about all this since Halloween?”

“Only the Harry and Padfoot parts,” says Weasley. “The You-Know-Who stuff is new.”

Draco’s memory helpfully provides yet another play-through of the hooded creature and the dead unicorn, which he does not need or appreciate. He shivers without meaning to, and says “That’s not -- that can’t really have been the Dark Lord. It’s nonsense. He’s dead.”

“I think it was him,” Harry says.

Suddenly the dog turns back into a man, sitting next to Harry on the floor. “It’s not. It isn’t possible,” he says.

“Oh good, the argument were were up half the night with,” says Granger. “I so hoped we’d have another go-round.”

Now that it’s daylight and Draco isn’t terrified out of his wits, the Animagus is just a man, a lanky black-haired wizard in Muggle clothes, with dark circles under his eyes.

“My scar hurt when he looked at me,” Harry says.

“You’ve been having headaches all year, don’t think I haven’t noticed,” says the Animagus. “Your mum wants to send you to a migraine clinic when you get home, she’s that worried.”

“But Firenze said -- ”

“Centaurs talk all sorts of nonsense, and most of it only makes any sense to other centaurs,” says the Animagus.

Weasley says, “I still think we should -- ”

“I’ve written Moony and I’ll speak to the Headmaster,” says the Animagus. “We’re not involving the Ministry, with no proof of anything.”

Granger says “But what if -- ” and Harry and the Animagus cut her off in unison.

“It’s not Snape!”

“Will someone,” says Draco, “please tell me what on earth is happening?”

They all look a bit startled, as if they’d forgotten he was there.

The Animagus sighs, and heaves himself up to his feet. “Right,” he says. “Hello Draco, I’m your cousin. Don’t worry, the murder charges were a frame-up, but if you tell anyone you’ll probably get me killed, so I hope you’re more trustworthy than your father.”

“Padfoot!” Harry says, glaring, and swats him on the arm. “Don’t make things worse!”

 

6.

The talk with Draco doesn’t go as badly as it could have, in that Sirius doesn't think he’s going to go running to tell the nearest Death Eater right away. He goes very pale and set for most of it, visibly struggling to keep his expression from giving away too much. He blanches, though, when the matter of Azkaban comes up.

Well, fair enough. Sirius doesn’t like talking about it any better. There’s a reason he foists the job off on Remus, when he can. But he can’t fall to pieces, not now, even when most of him is roiling with panic and unease. Harry doesn’t need him unraveling, on top of everything else. No matter how little he likes talking about Azkaban.

“But -- how could anyone get sent there by mistake?” Draco asks. “There were trials, and things, weren’t there?”

“Not for me,” Sirius says. This part is easier, somehow: it’s not down to anything he did, or didn’t do. “Suppose they didn't think they needed to bother. Open and shut case, on the face of it, and by the time I came to my senses at all I was already locked away.”

“I didn't know that part,” says Hermione, frowning. “Were there a lot of people sentenced without trial? That's horribly illegal, it contravenes all sorts of statutes--”

“As far as I know, there were only a handful, and the rest really were Death Eaters,” Sirius says. “Don't let it worry you too much.”

From the way Hermione frowns, and starts scribbling in her notebook, Sirius suspects she is going to let it worry her, a bit. Bless her tender heart, Caro would say. If you think it’s wrong, do something, Lily would say. Don’t dither.

“So you escaped,” Draco says, “because you're an Animagus, and you went and found Harry and rescued him from the Muggles?”

Sirius can’t help but laugh. “Other way round, I'm afraid,” he says. There’s no explaining it, to someone whose whole world fits neatly into only the places where Muggles aren’t.

“Mum and Dad were a bit put out at first, that he hadn’t told them the truth from the start,” Harry says, “but they came round really quickly. Mum says Padfoot’s more than paid for himself in babysitting by now.”

Draco clearly has no idea how to respond to that. He’s saved by Hermione, who reminds Harry and Ron that they’ve got class in ten minutes and chivvies them out the door. Leaving Sirius and Draco, staring at each other from either end of the empty classroom.

“You’re sure it wasn't really him, right?” Draco says.

Sirius doesn’t want to scare the boy -- or, rather, he doesn’t want to scare him so much that he fucks everything up for everyone else. “In my experience, anyone who tells you they're sure of anything, isn’t.”

That's no help at all, of course, so he amends this with “I don't think it’s him, and I’m hoping the Headmaster will agree with me. But I don't like lying, so I won't tell you I'm certain when I'm not.”

Draco shudders. “But it was so… messy. I though the Dark Lord was supposed to be, you know. Lordly.”

Sirius hesitates. He knows what he wants to say on the matter of Voldemort, which is mostly vocabulary Draco shouldn’t know yet. And he knows what it would sound like if he tried to put the way things really felt, back in wartime, into words. But he’s had ten years or so to think about what he might have said to Regulus, if he’d ever had the chance, so he’s not flying entirely blind.

“He liked for people to think so, I know that. But maybe I'm the wrong person to ask,” he says. “Every time I ever saw him he was trying to kill someone I cared about.”

“But,” Draco says. “I mean. If you hadn’t.”

“Hadn’t what?” Sirius asks. “Been a blood traitor? Cared about people who weren’t purebloods?” He doesn’t quite shout. He’s trying not to, anyway. Draco doesn’t know , he reminds himself. He’s a child, same as Harry, and he’s been kept in the dark.

“Well,” Sirius says, and thinks about it. Gets up, paces a bit, sits back down next to Draco. He searches for the lightest way he can manage to say it. God, but he wishes that Remus were here; he does a poor impression on his own. “I wasn't much for all the noble and most ancient business, really, and oh, didn't my parents let me know it. But I've never once regretted the side I chose. Does your mum talk about her family, much?”

Draco shakes his head.

“Let’s see,” Sirius says. “Bella’s in Azkaban, and more than earned her place. Regulus did believe in blood, honor, dulce et decorum est, all that nonsense. I still don’t know how he died, only that he did. Your mum stayed out of it, and Andromeda ran off with a Muggle-born. From what I hear, they're happy enough. And I’m a fugitive.”

“Couldn't you have stayed out of it, too?” Draco asks.

Sirius wants to say -- oh, all sorts of things.

Of course I fucking couldn’t, you pampered, coddled   -- no.

Sure, so long as I never looked myself in the mirror again for the rest of my life.

Well, everyone else was doing it, and we hadn’t learnt about peer pressure yet in those days.

You little idiot, staying out of it was choosing a side, too.

He settles, after some thought and a few deep breaths, on, “When everyone around you is in danger, standing aside means you can’t do anything to protect the people you care about.”

Not that he did much protecting, when it counted.

He looks at Draco, steady as he can, and hopes like hell his words are sinking in. “I don’t want any of you, ever, to have to know what that feels like.”

Draco still doesn’t look like he understands, not really, but he sets his sharp little chin and nods. “All right,” he says. “I won’t tell about that thing in the forest, or -- you. I can keep a secret.”

“Thank you,” Sirius says. “Do you want me or Harry to tell you, if we ever do find out what it was?”

“Yes please,” says Draco. He looks surprised, for a moment, at his own unexpected politeness.

Maybe Harry’s being a good influence already. Sirius can hope.

 

7.

For those who know the more tragic histories of the wizarding world in any detail, there are certain patterns that emerge to the discerning eye. Again and again, it seems, young witches and wizards are abandoned, betrayed, even doomed by their elders, for reasons that seem petty or perverse with the clarity of hindsight.

Young Ariana Dumbledore, long forgotten, was cut down through no fault of her own. Eileen Prince raised her son in a cold and loveless house, where he learned that he could not expect affection or kindness, nor entrust them to anyone else. The elder Evanses, for all that theirs was a happier home, failed to recognize the growing rift between their daughters; if they saw it, they could not patch it well enough to hold. The noble and most ancient house of Black, of course, provides a great many instructive examples. Even Tom Riddle was a child, once, consigned to a miserable, neglected youth by mere accidents of birth.

In all such cases, over and over again, the same question arises: why wasn’t anyone paying attention?

Why was there no adult, no sober, responsible, caring person, who saw the suffering children in their midst, and intervened? It seems so clear, after the fact, that such and such a sequence of events would lead inevitably to disaster. Why was it not prevented?

A villain is sought. Perhaps there is someone to blame. Someone with authority, someone who could have changed things, and chose not to. Perhaps someone wanted these tragedies to happen. Perhaps some intricate plot required them, to achieve some obscure and lofty greater good.

Here is a terrible secret:

Sometimes, even with all the will in the world, with sober, caring, responsible people on every side, the disaster happens anyway. Sometimes adults are not nearly so wise and capable as they seem, in the eyes of a child, no matter how hard they try. Sometimes all it takes is a blind spot, a misstep, a momentary lapse in one’s constant vigilance.

Later, it will seem obvious. If only someone had been looking a little closer! If only someone had listened a little better. It would have been so easy to change things, they will say.

But in the moment, there are only ever ordinary people, trying to make the right choices. Still feeling like children doing their best impressions of grown-ups, no matter how old they grow.

For what it’s worth, the adults in question will certainly blame themselves, after the fact. But their sins are not unreasonable ones.

To answer the first and most obvious question: when the moment arrives, Harry’s godfather is not there. It’s been two days since the full moon, and Remus is having a worse time of it than usual. Harry’s parents ask Sirius to stay a little longer. They hardly see him anymore, after all. He lets himself be persuaded. All perfectly unremarkable things, in the moment.

“See Professor Dumbledore?” Professor McGonagall repeated, as though this was a very fishy thing to want to do. “Why?”

Albus Dumbledore underestimates his bright and resourceful students. He set a trap for Quirrell, left it baited all year, knowing he was mixed up in something Dark. Dumbledore fears that the ghost of Tom Riddle might show himself, and hopes for some other explanation. It never occurs to him that Harry and his young friends could not only uncover but solve a puzzle intended for someone else entirely. Until they do it, of course.

“Professor Dumbledore is a very great wizard, Potter, he has many demands on his time –”

“But this is important – and it’s MacIntyre, actually–”

In the ordinary way of things, Minerva McGonagall knows that when children seem truly distressed they almost certainly have a good reason. They shouldn’t be shooed away from the grown-up concerns they already know too much about. But she has worries of her own. There is Quirrell, of course, and the way that Albus grows increasingly tight-lipped and inscrutable over the course of the year. The fear that You-Know-Who might return plagues her. So many of her students are living reminders of what the last war cost.

"MacIntyre, I know what I’m talking about,” she said shortly. She bent down and gathered up the fallen books. “I suggest you all go back outside and enjoy the sunshine.“

(In her fleeting moments of free time, Minerva has been sounding out Ministry officials, hoping to find one who might be convinced that a notorious, long-vanished convict deserves the fair trial he never got in the first place. It hasn’t been a success.)

As for Severus Snape, well. There is one student in particular who reminds him, very painfully, of what the war cost, and he has done his level best to pretend as though that student does not exist. This determined blindness extends, unfortunately, to the student’s closest friends, and so he does not notice when their suspicions of him reach a tipping point, and spur them into action.

"It’s tonight,” said Harry, once he was sure Professor McGonagall was out of earshot.

This is how it happens. It’s no one’s fault, not really. The adults will look back, later, and see all the places where they could have done something else, something better. Paid more attention, been more responsible. The children, left to their own devices, will triumph or fall on their own, and it will not occur to them to wonder why no one stopped them.

In this case, all ends happily enough. The children are clever, brave, resourceful and kind, exactly the sort of young wizards (and witch) that Hogwarts always hopes to produce. They solve the puzzles. They stop the villain. No one important dies.

But they should not have been left to do it alone.

 

8.

Harry spends three days in the infirmary, but he doesn’t remember them. If he really works at it, he has a vague recollection of being carried, held carefully and close; of lights going on and off, and grown-up voices murmuring around him in low, worried tones.

He thinks he might hear the lullabye his mother used to sing to him, when he was smaller: come away, o human child / to the waters and the wild / with a fairy, hand in hand / for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

It sounds like Padfoot singing it, almost, but his voice is hoarse and cracked.

When Harry does wake up properly, it takes him a moment to get his bearings. He looks around wildly: he’s in the hospital wing. Sirius is asleep sitting up in a chair against the wall, next to an enormous pile of sweets and fruit and flowers. And Albus Dumbledore stands at the foot of his bed, smiling kindly at him.

“Good afternoon, Harry,” he says, very softly, so as not to wake Sirius.

Harry and Dumbledore talk, but the conversation leaves Harry nearly as confused as he’d started. Just thinking about it makes him tired. He drifts off again for a bit, the Headmaster’s words rattling around in his head: to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure -- fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself -- why, he may never return to power -- it was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.

The next time Harry wakes up, Padfoot is dog-shaped and curled up at the foot of the bed. He doesn’t change back, even after Harry convinces Madame Pomfrey to let Ron and Hermione in for a few minutes. When Harry tells the story of what happened in front of the Mirror of Erised, Ron and Hermione gasp in all the right places, but Padfoot sets his ears back and growls.

"So what happened to you two?" Harry asks, at the end of the tale.

"Well, I got back all right," says Hermione. "I brought Ron round -- that took a while -- and we’d hardly left the third floor before we nearly collided with Malfoy and Professor Snape.”

“Malfoy and Snape!” Harry can hardly believe it.

“Guess Malfoy’d been keeping an eye on Snape after all,” says Ron. “He said he heard Dumbledore had gone and thought the same thing we did. So Malfoy got nervous and decided to sneak out and find us, and when he found Neville Petrified instead he ran off to owl Padfoot.”

Padfoot makes an assenting noise at this, but he still doesn’t change shape.

“But on the way back down he got caught,” says Hermione, “by Professor Snape, which I suppose is lucky because we were wrong about that part. And Malfoy told him everything. And thank goodness, because Snape sent word to Professor Dumbledore on the spot! He was dragging Malfoy up to the Headmaster’s office to explain himself when they ran into us.”

“So we got dragged along. Could have been worse, I suppose,” Ron says philosophically. “I think Malfoy’s had the bullying frightened out of him.”

“We only saw Dumbledore for a moment,” says Hermione.  “He just said, 'Harry's gone after him, hasn't he?' and hurtled off to the third floor.”

They talk for a little while longer, until Madame Pomfrey shoos Ron and Hermione out. Padfoot gets up then, too, hops down from the bed and stretches, but doesn’t change back. He just helps Madame Pomfrey herd Ron and Hermione the rest of the way out into the hall. He hasn’t come back yet when Harry falls asleep.

Harry’s alone when he wakes, but he can hear voices close by, trying to keep quiet: Sirius, human again, and Hagrid. It’s dark, though Harry’s still too tired and too muddled to know whether that means it’s night-time or if the lights are just out.

“-- ruddy fault!” Hagrid says, nearly at full volume, but he drops back to a whisper after Sirius shushes him. “It was the only thing he didn't know, an' I told him! He could've died! All fer a dragon egg!”

“You couldn’t have known,” says Sirius. “Not when I wasn’t even--”

“I’ll never drink again!” says Hagrid. “I should be chucked out an' made ter live as a Muggle!"

“No,” says Sirius, “but even if you were, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Harry’s parents--”

Their voices drop lower, or they move towards the door, away from Harry.

The last thing Harry makes out properly is Hagrid, saying “I’ll make it up to him. To both of yer. I’ll go right now--”

A few minutes later, Padfoot jumps back up onto the foot of the bed. Harry pretends to be more asleep than he is, at first, and soon he’s not pretending at all.

When he wakes, in the morning, Harry feels nearly back to normal. But he doesn’t get up right away: he knows that if he does, Padfoot will get up too, and he’ll have to ask why Padfoot doesn’t want to talk to him. Harry has a pretty good guess at what the answer is.

But then Madame Pomfrey bustles in. “You have visitors, Mr. Potter!”

Harry’s eyes pop open, and “It’s MacIntyre, actually,” falls out of his mouth more or less automatically. He sits up in bed. He can hear the rumble of Hagrid’s voice in the corridor, and other voices with him.

Padfoot’s ears are pricked up for the first time since Harry woke in the infirmary, and his tail thumps against the coverlet. He jumps down, and changes back to Sirius a moment before Madame Pomfrey draws back the curtain round Harry’s bed.

Hagrid is there, and Remus, who’s a bit too worn and weary for Harry’s liking. But Harry’s attention is only on them for a moment. Because behind them, looking bewildered but relieved, are Harry’s mum and dad.

“Oh, darling ,” says Caroline, and she rushes towards him, with Tim a step behind.

Harry is much too old to cry, but then again practically all of the grown-ups around him are crying too. So that must be all right.

(somewhere on the other side of the comforting wall Harry’s parents have formed around him, after everyone has calmed down a bit, Sirius says, “But I thought that Muggles couldn’t--”

“Ask Hagrid,” says Remus. “He worked it out.”

“I’m not groundskeeper fer nothin’,” Hagrid says. “And I said I’d make it up to yer.”)

 

9.

“To Mr. Draco Malfoy, for having the good sense to ask for help when he needed it, I award ten points,” Dumbledore begins, nodding vaguely in the direction of not blatantly favoring Gryffindor in all things. He promptly gives up the pretense, and drags Gryffindor up from dead last to a first-place tie on the flimsiest of excuses.

Throughout all this, Severus is forced to sit at the high table and maintain a calm demeanor, while the Headmaster upends the point totals with total disregard for fairness or tradition. He is, therefore, in a foul mood by the end of the leaving feast, fleeing the Great Hall and its clashing decorations of red, gold, silver and green as soon as he can manage a decorous exit.

On his way to the dungeons, he has a brief but wildly unpleasant run-in with Black (who is at least dog-shaped for the duration), Lupin, Hagrid, and a pair of Muggles. They ought not be anywhere near Hogwarts at all, let alone be introduced to him with careful politeness, or shake his hand, or thank him for helping to look after their son with entirely too much heartfelt sincerity. By the time Severus manages to extract himself from the pleasantries, he’s sure Lupin is laughing at him from behind his mild expression.

Severus keeps to himself for the last few days of term, rarely venturing far from his rooms or office. He’s rewarded with blessedly little interaction with his students or colleagues. Having received their exam results, the children are too busy celebrating their mediocre achievements to notice the absence of a teacher. As for the adults, he supposes that planning for the reemergence of the Dark Lord is a higher priority than their usual time-wasting efforts at pretending to enjoy his company.

It can’t last, of course. The evening before the students depart, there is a knock at Severus’ door.

Sirius Black is standing in the corridor.

“What do you want,” says Severus. Black looks like he’d rather be absolutely anywhere else, and Severus doesn’t like the twinge of fellow-feeling this inspires.

“I need -- can I talk to you, for a moment?” Black asks. He adds, with apparent difficulty, “Please.”

It’s not as though he’d leave if Severus said “no.” He turns away from the door, leaving it open, and after a moment Black follows him in. Severus sits, and regards the stack of potions journals that had been his original plan for the evening a trifle wistfully.

“Well?” Severus says.

There’s a reason Severus only has one armchair in his private sitting-room, but Black just conjures another and flings himself down into it. “Right,” he says. “Look. I wanted to thank you.”

Severus freezes.

Black is staring down at his hands, and doesn’t notice. “I wasn’t here,” he says. “I wasn’t here, and Harry was in danger. You listened to Draco and you sent for the Headmaster, and if you hadn’t Harry might have died.”

Severus also accompanied Albus down through the trap-maze, and helped him to separate Quirrell from the boy, and carried him back up to the infirmary while Albus tried and failed to save what was left of their former colleague. Unconscious, the boy looked even more like his father than he did awake. But more than even that, he looked horrifically young.

In the days since, Severus found himself revisiting the memories of his benighted childhood with adult eyes. Without the vivid sting of rage and humiliation they carried at the time, everyone looks just as young. As unformed and foolish as his current students, who even now are preparing to leave the castle for a summer of poor decisions and minimal revising.

He can’t say he likes it any better.

Not that he would say as much, and certainly not to Black. “Very well,” he says, as levelly as he can. “Is that all? Your gratitude is very touching, I’m sure.”

“Hah,” says Black, perfectly toneless. “I expect you want my gratitude -- oh, about as much as the invitation to dinner with Harry’s parents I’m meant to pass on.”

Severus genuinely isn’t sure which of those he wants less.

Black reads it off his face, of course. “Yeah. I’ll tell them you politely declined.”

“You needn’t do me any favors,” says Severus.

This time, the sound Black makes is very nearly a real laugh. “I think I’d better, actually.” He stops staring at his hands, and looks up at Severus.

In Severus’ memories, Black never looks at him without some mixture of scorn, contempt, and incipient devilry. This -- is not that.

“Look,” Black says. “The Ministry’s finally remembered that they lost track of Harry once, and got his aunt and uncle killed. They didn’t bother doing anything to protect Tim and Caro while he was at Hogwarts, of course, but now that he’s going home they’ve decided to give a damn about his safety. So Remus and I can’t stay close, the way we ought to.”

Severus fails to see how this is his concern, and says so.

“We’re going after Peter,” Black says. “Properly, this time, not stealing away for a day or two to follow a lead. If I can’t be Harry’s last line of defense, I’m damn well going to go out and find the biggest threat to his safety.”

“Wouldn’t that be the Dark Lord?” Severus asks.

“Dumbledore says he’s not strong enough, without followers,” says Black. “That if he’s just a scrap of disembodied spirit, he can’t hurt Harry.”

“Dumbledore has been wrong before,” says Severus.

“Which is why I’m asking you this,” says Black. “If we can’t finish it before Harry comes back to Hogwarts, I want to know you’re looking out for his safety.”

Ah. There it is. Black does want something from him, though Severus can’t imagine why it’s this, in particular.

“Why ask that of me, of all people?” Severus says. “Your godson thought I was the one after the Stone.”

“His friends did,” says Black, “and he panicked when I wasn’t there and they were sure it was you and not Quirrell. But you’ve been ignoring him all year, when I know damn well you look at him and see James standing there instead. Anyway. Dumbledore trusts you.”

Too close to the mark, on that shot about Potter. If it were Lupin, Severus might not be quite as surprised by that sort of insight, but from Black it feels unprecedented. Perhaps spending all that time as a dog has, somehow, rendered him less self-centered.

“And that’s all the recommendation you need?”

“No,” says Black. “Look. I know you and Lily cared about each other, once.”

Severus says nothing; there is nothing to say to that.

Black carries on talking. He does still love the sound of his own voice, it seems, so not everything has changed.

“It was my idea to switch Secret-Keepers at the last minute, you know. If I hadn’t been so impressed with my own cleverness, James and Lily might still be alive.” He looks up at Severus again, clear and level, nothing in it but but excruciating sincerity. “Do you really think I don’t know what guilt looks like?”

That is beyond the pale, entirely. Severus springs to his feet. “I have work to do,” he says, and immediately regrets it: he does not need to make excuses for himself. He has every right to order Black out if he wants to, which he very much does.

But Black is already retreating. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. It’s none of of my business.”

“I don’t need platitudes,” Severus spits out. Black has him off-balance, and scrambling for firmer ground. He dislikes it immensely. “Just because you think you’ve learned to act contrite -- I suppose Lupin’s managed to house-train you a bit over the years -- ”

Black’s expression hardens for the first time, a little of the old familiar anger appearing. “Leave him out of this,” he says. “Hate me all you like, but he never did anything to you.”

“I can think of one time he did,” says Severus. “Rather memorably.”

But the outburst Severus expects doesn’t come. Instead Black heaves a sigh, and the anger drains away. “Oh, all right,” he says. “We’re having this out, are we?”

“Oh, by all means,” says Severus. He feels foolish, standing there, and turns away to pace; at least if he’s moving he has an excuse to look at anything but Black. “Do you have a speech prepared? You will excuse me for my lack of counter-remarks, I hope.”

Rather than rise to the bait, Black very nearly smiles. “I do, I’m afraid,” he says. “Or something like one.”

“Plenty of time to rehearse in Azkaban, I suppose,” Severus says.

“Oh, no,” says Black. “That’s not a place you can string a sentence together, much less remember it later. I already had most of it before then, though, and worked the rest out after.”

“Well?” says Severus. “It had better be good, in that case, with so much practice.”

There’s that sincere look again. Severus doesn’t like it any better. “I was selfish, at fifteen,” Black says. “Selfish and short-sighted and impulsive. I very nearly hurt you and Remus both, very badly, and I’ve regretted it since about ten minutes after I did it. But you know all of that.”

“Well before you ever did, I expect,” says Severus.

“Probably, yeah,” says Black. “So I’m sorry for it, and I’ve tried to be better than I was. You’re welcome to hate me, though, as long as you leave Remus and Harry out of it.”

This implies that Severus is also welcome to hate Potter. It’s intriguing, in a way, although it’s not as though he needs anyone’s permission to hate James Potter. Least of all Sirius Black’s.

Black never had any talent for Legilimency that Severus can recall, which makes it all the more disconcerting when he says, “And if you’ve got to hate James, go ahead; it can’t hurt him. But Harry isn’t James. You’ll need to remember that, if you’re willing to help protect him, because he’s not going to do the things that James would do.”

Severus has yet to see much evidence of that. But it’s true that he hasn’t been looking.

“Fine,” he says. “It’s not as though I would let any of my students wander into harm’s way, if I could help it. You needn’t have come begging a favor. Don’t you Gryffindors have a bit more dignity than this, anyway?”

That attempt at a blow slides off, too. Black used to be much thinner-skinned, Severus is sure.

“I made James and Lily a promise, when they made me Harry’s godfather,” Black says. “It’s my job to keep him safe. It doesn’t matter if I have to do things I don’t like.”

He adds, as if it doesn’t cost him anything to say it, “I spent my first year with the MacIntyres pretending to be a dog. It’s a bit late to put my dignity ahead of Harry’s safety, don’t you think?”

Severus gives up. If nothing else, Black has apparently learned to hold his temper, and Severus is hardly going to let Black goad him into an outburst of his own.

“Oh, fine,” he says. “Very well. Consider it done.” He sits back down. There follows a long and very uncomfortable silence.

Severus isn’t fifteen anymore, either. He can manage a peace offering, even for the likes of Black.

Severus pulls a journal out of his stack and offers it to Black. “Damocles Belby thinks he’s close to perfecting his formula,” he says. “I expect he’ll have it within the year, if these results are accurate.”

Black takes it cautiously, as if it might bite. “He’s been saying that for well over a decade. You really think so?”

“Yes,” says Severus, and waits for the snide remark about his presumption of expertise.

It doesn’t come. Black flips to the relevant article, brow furrowed. “I’ve had to talk Remus out of joining the patient trials half a dozen times,” he says. “Told him to wait until they’d ironed out the side effects.”

“That… may have been for the best,” Severus admits. There were several fatalities in the early trials, he’s heard, though the details went unpublished.

“I hope so,” Black says. “A year, though. That’s something.”

Silence falls again, as Black puzzles over the article. It’s not anything you could call companionable, but the lack of overt hostility, in itself, is notable.

“You know, Lily was going to do her apprenticeship with him,” Black says. “Belby, I mean. After the war.”

Severus does know. He hadn’t realized anyone else did. He would rather face a phalanx of Death Eaters, wandless, than talk about it.

Mercifully, Black doesn’t press the issue. “I’d better go,” he says. “Thank you, Severus. I’ll owe you for this.”

He doesn’t even appear to be gritting his teeth as he says it. It’s fascinating, and a bit eerie. For a moment Severus suspects Polyjuice.

But Black changes into his Animagus form, which rules that out.

Before he can leave, though, Severus has a thought. “Wait.”

Black changes form again, and looks surprised once his shape settles back to human. “Yes?”

“Draco Malfoy sent for you, when he needed help,” Severus says. “If possible, you ought to encourage that tendency.”

“Offer him a sympathetic ear?” Black says.

“Certainly not. His parents already do that, and indulge all his worst impulses,” says Severus. “But the elder Malfoy is highly placed among the surviving Death Eaters. There may be some strategic value in showing his son an alternative path.”

Lucius has been one of Severus’ oldest and most loyal friends, in his way. He won’t be grateful if his son is turned against him. But it would be fitting, perhaps, if Severus has a hand in ensuring that Draco grows to be a better man than his father.

Given Black’s own family history, it’s not surprising that he seems to understand. “I’d be happy to,” he says.

“Very well,” says Severus. There. A favor for a favor, and nothing owed in any direction. He dislikes loose ends at the best of times, which this decidedly isn’t.

On his way out the door, Black says, “Oh, and by the way — thank you for giving Harry those photos. I won’t ask how you got them; I’m sure I don’t want to know.”

He leaves without waiting for a reply.

Severus remains ill at ease long after Black is gone. He feels better after Banishing the extra armchair with extreme prejudice, if only a very little.

But the students are leaving in the morning. He can regain his equilibrium far more easily in an empty castle, he’s sure. And Black won’t be coming back in the fall, in all likelihood. The thought is cheering.

Severus settles back into his reading, and doesn’t think of anything but potionmaking techniques and ingredient comparisons for the rest of the night. Anyone trying to prove otherwise would be unlikely to survive the Occlumentic backlash.

 

10.

Some time ago, the matter of kindness was raised. Three kinds of kindness, and this is the third: the kindness practiced by those who would not be kind by instinct. It is deliberate, every time, and does not come naturally or easily.

This is not to say that a person who is not naturally kind is bad, by any means. Inconsiderate, perhaps, or unpracticed in acknowledging that those outside their chosen circle are as deserving of kindness as those within it. They are loyal friends, they are generous to a fault with the people they love, and they can turn and deal out breathless cruelty to those they have no reason to care for. Such people can learn, and choose better.

Lily Evans, who grew up sparring with her sharp-tongued sister, was not kind by nature. She was fierce, and her kindness was fiercely chosen in the face of a world that was not kind.

James, by contrast, found kindness easy, and needed to do only a very little bit of growing up to understand that when he laughed, not everyone laughed with him. His son understands that lesson already, though it will be years before he grows into Lily’s fierceness.

For now, he is only eleven, and worried.

Harry’s mum and dad can’t stay at Hogwarts for long, and Harry insists that he wants to go home with everyone else, on the train. So Harry goes to the Leaving Feast, and he and Ron and Hermione and Neville are awarded enough points that Gryffindor ties with Slytherin, and between that and saving the Stone from Professor Quirrell the other Gryffindors all seem to forgive them for losing so many points in the first place.

The Slytherins don’t like it very much, of course, but that’s just too bad. Draco, whose ten points prevented them from dropping to second place, is made much of at his house’s table for the rest of the evening, so he doesn’t seem terribly upset when he catches Harry alone the next morning.

“Granger and Weasley told me,” he says. “About, you know.” He gestures vaguely at the back of his head. “Is it true?”

“Yeah, says Harry. That part of the story isn’t common knowledge, though the fast-growing Hogwarts gossip tree seems to know the rest of it. “Thanks for owling Padfoot, and telling Professor Snape.”

“I think if I hadn’t, Professor Snape would have used Veritaserum to get it out of me,” says Draco. “Or the Imperius Curse. He was even angrier than he was when Goyle melted three cauldrons in one class.”

Harry winces; he remembers that class vividly. “I might have had the easier job, taking on Voldemort.”

Draco flinches a little when Harry says the name, he notices. Then something seems to occur to him. “So it really was him in the Forest, wasn’t it?”

“Oh,” says Harry. “I guess so.” Padfoot had been so sure that it wasn’t.

“That explains why he -- it -- looked like that, doesn’t it?” says Draco. “I remember thinking it, that night, that it walked like its knees were on backwards. Because they were.”

“Eugh,” says Harry. “I suppose you’re right.”

“And he’s just -- been there, all year. In our Defense classes, everywhere Professor Quirrell went.” Draco gives a little shudder. “It’s hard to believe. The Dark Lord, going around backwards with a turban over his face.”

Harry find himself, very abruptly, trying not to laugh at the perfectly absurd thought that strikes him. Draco looks puzzled, and annoyed.

Harry manages to gasp out, “Sorry -- I just thought -- I always get so sweaty when I wear a hat, under my hair, and I couldn’t help but imagine -- “

Draco’s mouth twitches, and then he too bursts out laughing. Soon it’s the sort of laughter that bubbles up again every time they look at one another, and neither one of them can catch their breath. They both have to sit down on the floor until they subside.

“Did Professor Quirrell still have any hair?” Draco asks.

“No,” says Harry, “he was bald. But it was an awfully big turban, and it gets really warm in the Defense classroom on sunny days,” and the two of them are off again, laughing until they can hardly breathe.

Ron and Hermione find them like that, sitting on the floor giggling like they’ve both been chugging Elixir to Induce Euphoria.

Draco scrambles to his feet, suddenly conscious of his dignity again. Harry likes him better without it. It reminds him, of all things, of Hermione -- of the difference in her before Halloween, when she still spent all her time trying to act bossy and grown-up, and after, once they were friends.

“What’s so funny?” Ron asks. Harry does his best to explain, but somehow that takes all the air out of the joke.

“If you say so, mate,” says Ron. “C’mon, we’ve got to finish packing. Weren’t you going to fetch Hedwig?”

“Right, sorry,” says Harry. “Want to come with me?”

“Better not, I’ve got Whiskers with me and the Owlery makes her nervous.” His rat, who is peeping out of Ron’s shirt pocket, squeaks as if in agreement. “I’ll tell Padfoot you’ll be along in a bit.”

“Can I come with you?” says Draco abruptly. He goes a little red in the face when they all three stare at him. “I wanted to talk to -- er -- Padfoot. If that’s all right.” Draco looks at Harry, as if he’s asking for permission.

Harry shrugs. The leaden feeling he’d managed to laugh away comes back, all in a rush. “He’s your cousin, I can’t tell you what to do. He’s not in a very talkative mood, though.”

Everyone frowns at that, but Ron and Draco do go off together, each looking a little suspicious of the other but not actually hostile. Hermione tags along with Harry to the Owlery.

She notices Harry’s change of mood, of course. “Is everything all right?” she asks.

This time, Harry doesn’t so much shrug as hunch his shoulders, and keep them there. “I dunno.”

Hermione nods. “It was all rather a lot, wasn’t it? I’m still a bit shaky, and I didn’t have to face You-Know-Who.”

Technically I had to back-of-the-face him, Harry thinks, which is still funny. “No, it’s not that. Um. I think Padfoot’s angry with me. He won’t talk to me.”

“But he’s been around practically every minute,” says Hermione. “Honestly, I was surprised to find you without him in arm’s reach.”

“Yeah,” says Harry. “So long as there’s people around and he has an excuse to stay dog-shaped. But any time it’s just us, and he could change, he’s vanished.”

“Oh,” says Hermione. “You know, you’re right. I hadn’t noticed.”

Harry nods, glumly.

“I think he’s angry that we went running off without him,” Harry says. “And didn’t get help first. We should have, he’s only told me about a hundred times -- “

“Well, I think he’s being ridiculous!” Hermione says. “We did try, we went to Professor McGonagall. And Ron and I were just as determined as you were, he ought to be angry at us as well.”

“He’s not your godfather, though,” says Harry. “Or Ron’s.”

“Still,” says Hermione. “That’s not fair at all.” Harry shrugs. He doesn’t know what there is to be done about it.

Hermione gets a thoughtful, determined look on her face, though, and it stays there all the way back from the Owlery.

Later, on the train, Hermione gets that look again once she’s settled into a compartment with Harry, Ron and Padfoot. They’ve only just left Hogwarts when she announces, “I’m going to look for the trolley witch. Come with me, Ron?”

“Nah, I’m all right,” says Ron.

Hermione gives him a pointed glare, and kicks him on the ankle.

“Ow!” says Ron. “I mean, yes, I would like to come with you, Hermione.”

Padfoot gets up to follow them out, but is brought up short when Hermione very deliberately slides the door shut in his face.

(If you think it’s wrong, do something. Don’t dither.)

So it’s just Harry and Padfoot, alone. Harry isn’t sure whether he’s grateful to Hermione or not.

But she’s given him the chance he wanted, he supposes. So he takes a deep breath, and says “I’m sorry, Padfoot.”

Padfoot looks up at him quizzically.

“I shouldn’t have gone after the Stone by myself,” he says. “I promised I wouldn’t do things like that, after Halloween. I know you’re angry with me -- “

He is interrupted when Padfoot changes into Sirius. He looks stricken. “Harry, no,” he says, and sits down next to him to gather Harry up in a hug. “That’s not it at all.”

“But you wouldn’t talk to me,” Harry says. His eyes feel hot. He doesn’t sound the least bit grown-up. “And you’re not staying this summer, and I thought -- “

“I’m angry that I wasn’t there to protect you,” Sirius says. “I’m angry that I broke my promise. And I’m bloody furious at the Ministry, because if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere. But I’m not the least bit angry at you.”

He lets Harry go enough to see his face, which is nearly as watery and red-eyed as Harry’s. “All right?”

Harry nods. “Yeah,” he says.

They manage to talk a little more before Hermione and Ron come back. She knocks first, to give Sirius time to change into Padfoot, but he changes back again as soon as they’ve come inside and shut the door. “I hope we aren’t interrupting,” she says.

“No,” says Harry. “Perfect timing. What did you get from the trolley?”

“Nothing, because apparently everything they have is bad for your teeth,” says Ron. “Which, I’m sorry, is the entire point of sweets.”

“Honestly, Ron, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they offered something marginally healthy,” says Hermione. They bicker companionably about this for the next little while, but eventually talk turns to plans for the summer.

“We should meet up in London again,” says Ron. “That museum was good fun. I’d like to see more of those dragon bones.”

“They’re not dragons, they’re dinosaurs,” says Harry. “Well, and some are fossil mammals.”

He and Hermione do their best to explain the difference, but they leave Ron more confused than when they started.

“Moony and I will have chances to get away,” Sirius says. “We’ll work something out, even with the Aurors hanging around making nuisances of themselves. I promise.”

“Good,” Harry says. He’ll miss Sirius awfully, of course, but he can bear it better knowing it’s not because his godfather is upset with him. And it’ll be nice for Padfoot to have more time with Moony, for a change. Harry knows it’s a bit unfair, how little they got to see each other this year.

When they arrive at King’s Cross, it takes quite a while for them to get off the platform. As the guard lets students out a few at a time, so as not to alarm the Muggles, other students call out their goodbyes. Harry only has to correct them on his name a couple of times.

“You’ll to have to get used to being famous,” says Ron, grinning at him.

“Not where I’m going, thank goodness,” Harry says.

When he, Ron, and Hermione pass through the barrier, Ron’s mum and younger sister are waiting just on the other side. “There he is, Mum, there he is, look! Harry Potter!”

“It’s MacIntyre, actually,” Ron corrects her, half a second before Harry can do it himself.

“And it’s rude to point,” Mrs. Weasley says. She smiles at them. “Busy year?”

"Very," says Harry. Over her shoulder, he can see his mum and dad, with Remus trailing behind; they break into a run when they see him.

The grown-ups spend a little while exchanging pleasantries, while Harry and his friends say their good-byes. “Have a good holiday,” Hermione says. “I’ll see you both soon!”

“I’ll ask Mum if you can come visit,” says Ron. “And we can have Padfoot and Mr. Lupin over.”

“Thanks,” says Harry, brightening up a bit.

“And look on the bright side,” says Ron. “Your parents might not know you’re not supposed to use magic outside of school, yet.”

“No, they do,” says Harry. An idea occurs to him, and a grin spreads over his face. “But Moony and Padfoot put all sorts of wards and protections on the house. And Mum and Dad won’t mind if I do a bit of extra revising over the summer...”

“Darling, are you ready?” asks Harry’s mum.

“Yeah,” says Harry, still smiling. “Let’s go home.”