Remus gaped at him for the few moments it took Florean to get him his ice cream. He had to place it in Remus's frozen hands, which finally brought him out of his stunned state. His fingers curled around the bowl, and he looked down at it, the shock running through his system keeping him from truly seeing the bowl for a moment.
'Shall we?' the man said with a smile, gesturing back to the table he had been seated at.
They wandered over to the table and Remus took the chair opposite.
‘How do you know that name?’ Remus finally asked softly, trying to ignore the increasing tension of his shoulders. It had been almost a decade since he’d been called that; the last time he had visited Sirius Black in Azkaban. Remus felt anger begin to roil in his stomach; the prickle of anxiety tickling down his spine. This man knew his name. He had a maddeningly familiar face. He had information about Peter’s murder. Remus felt his palms getting uncomfortably slick. The man across looked concerned. His eyes followed the stiff movements of Remus’s shoulders as he wiped his hands off on his knees under the table.
'I... was given instructions to address you in a way that would identify me as the letter-writer,' he said, his tone regretful. 'Let me introduce myself. I am Harper Pratt.'
'Who do you work for?' Remus asked sharply. He still had not touched his ice cream. The idea of having such a serious conversation over ice cream suddenly seemed ridiculous.
Harper swirled his spoon around in his own dish.
'My employer has directed me not-'
'I'll leave then,' Remus said suddenly, standing up, his chair screeching loudly in the quiet. Faces turned their way. Harper reached for his arm, but stopped short of touching him. Remus could see the calculations in his eyes that most people made when they knew he was a werewolf and were about to touch him. Would he bite them? Would they catch it from him?
He saved the man the conflict and flinched away from Harper's hand and sneered.
'Thank you for the ice cream,' he bit out.
'Remus!' Harper hissed, grabbing Remus's hand before he could move away from the table. Remus froze. Harper threaded his fingers into Remus's, tugging lightly. 'Please.'
The contact felt embarrassingly good. It had been at least a year since someone had touched him, and even longer since it had been with such familiarity and boldness. Slowly, Remus sunk back down into his chair, throwing Harper's hand back to him.
'Who do you work for?' he demanded again.
'The situation is complicated.'
Remus got ready to bolt again, so Harper continued quickly, leaning in to speak under his breath.
'But... I am here representing Harry Potter.'
'Harry?' Remus said, incredulously, also in a whisper as he leaned in. 'What would Harry have to do with any of this?'
'It’s… a long story. Harry is... very studious,' Harper said, his eyes shuttering. 'He has done a lot of research about that night, and has unanswered questions about it.'
'Such as?' Remus pressed. Harry Potter had been one of the last names he had been expecting the man to say. It changed the very nature of the exchange. Imagining this confident, imposing man working for a young child suddenly made Remus relax. Harper took out a small piece of folded parchment, well-creased and wrinkled, from an inner pocket of his robes. He unfolded it slowly, deliberately careful about not showing what was written on it. He inspected it closely.
'Why haven't you contacted him before this?' Harper recited. He looked up at Remus, bright blue eyes searching, a hint of something more than just professional inquiry in their depths.
'You were one of his father's best friends, were you not?' Harper asked evenly, referring to the parchment. 'Why did you never contact his son?'
Remus grasped weakly at his faculties, feeling completely out of sorts at this turn of questioning. It had turned from the criminal to the personal.
'I... feel like that is something I should discuss directly with Harry, should he choose to pursue the answer,' he said.
'I understand,' Harper said, clearing his throat.
'Perhaps we could discuss Sirius Black?' Remus prompted. If he could avoid whatever other deeply private questions were on that scrap of parchment, he would.
Harper nodded, folding the scrap back up, and placing his hands on top of it.
'Sirius Black is innocent.' His tone left no room for interpretation.
'Sirius is in Azkaban,' Remus said flatly. 'He murdered dozens of muggles!'
'Sirius didn't' murder those people,' Harper said quietly. 'And he certainly didn't betray the Potters.'
'But then who?'
Remus looked horrified.
'No!' he blurted, leaning back. He looked around, feeling eyes turning their way, and leaned back in, compensating with a whisper. 'Peter's dead!'
'Actually, he's not,' Harper said lightly, not meeting his eyes, his fingers smoothing the parchment on the table. 'Peter Pettigrew was the unsuspecting choice. The obvious pick for Secret Keeper was Sirius Black.'
Remus felt his mouth go dry. Who had James and Lily discussed this with? Sirius? Dumbledore? Where had Harry gotten this information?
'But Peter sold them out,' Harper continued, his expression hardening. 'When Sirius pursued him, he killed a street full of Muggles, cut off his finger, and disappeared into the underground as...'
Remus' jaw fell open. Of course.
'Wormtail,' he hissed.
Harper nodded slowly, once.
Remus let out the breath he was holding, slowly, as he leaned back in his chair. Harper carefully ate his melting ice cream as he waited for this information to sink in.
'What's your proof?' Remus said at last, and Harper froze, spoon halfway to his mouth.
'Your proof,' Remus hissed, leaning in again, scowling. Was this man an idiot? 'Proof that Sirius is innocent.'
'Pettigrew is alive,' Harper insisted.
'And I'm just supposed to believe you because you work for Harry Potter? If that is even true?'
Harper looked stunned, as if he hadn't expected to not be taken simply on his word. But his expression shifted then.
'You remember what he looked like as Wormtail?' he asked softly.
'Like it was yesterday,' Remus answered firmly.
Harper scooped up the last of his ice cream.
'I'll get you your proof.'
With one last nod to Remus, he got up and swept out of the shop. His small scrap of folded parchment remained, though, and Remus seized it instantly. He unfolded it, feeling heat prick his cheeks as deeply personal imagined questions flashed through his mind. But the parchment was entirely blank. Not even the first question, why haven’t you contacted him before this? was written. And by the time Remus turned around in his chair, Harper was long gone.
Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at Number Four, Privet Drive. Vernon had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud screeching noise from Harry's room. His visions of her freedom had been cut short after his visit with Remus, when she had glided down into the backyard where he snuck through the hedge after Apparating back into the neighborhood. He had wanted her to stay away, but she was fiercely loyal. Unfortunately, that meant Vernon padlocked her into her cage the moment they returned together.
'Third time this week!' Vernon roared across the table. 'If you can't control that owl, it'll have to go!'
Harry took a deep breath, as he felt rage build quickly inside of him. It heated him like a furnace, and he found it difficult to calm down. He was so tired. He recalled the small hours of that morning. His own screams from his nightmare mixing with – almost indistinguishable from – Hedwig's screeches.
'She's bored,' he snapped. 'She's used to flying around outside. She's a f-' He took another deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. 'If I could just let her out at night...'
'Do I look stupid?' Vernon snarled, and Harry breathed deeply again. 'I know what'll happen if that owl's let out.'
He exchanged dark looks with Petunia, and Harry rolled his eyes, swallowing his groan.
'Impudence!' Vernon said meaningfully, pointing his fork at Harry. Harry took a deep, dramatic breath, and all three of them froze for a moment. Harry tightened his lips to keep from smirking, and sighed gently. Vernon and Petunia exchanged glances. Dudley relaxed first, belching loudly.
'I want more bacon.'
'There's more in the frying pan, sweetums,' Petunia said, without skipping a beat, melting back into motion as if nothing had happened. 'We must feed you up while we've got the chance... I don't like the sound of that school food...'
'Nonsense, Petunia, I never went hungry when I was at Smeltings,' Vernon said heartily, with one last threatening glance in Harry's direction. 'Dudley gets enough, don't you, son?'
Dudley grinned at his father and turned to Harry. He clearly hadn't learned the wariness of his parents yet.
'Pass the frying pan.'
'You've forgotten the magic word,' Harry said irritably. He remembered the response he had gotten the first time, and it was absolutely worth it.
Dudley gasped and fell off his chair with a crash that shook the whole kitchen; Petunia gave a small scream and clapped her hands to her mouth, and Vernon jumped to his feet, veins throbbing in his temples.
Harry merely quirked an eyebrow at him.
'WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU,' Vernon thundered, spraying spit all over the table, 'ABOUT SAYING THE M-WORD IN OUR HOUSE?'
'What, magic?' Harry asked dumbly.
Vernon roared wordlessly.
'HOW DARE YOU! HOW DARE YOU THREATEN DUDLEY, HOW DARE YOU THREATEN ME!' Vernon roared, pounding the table with his fist.
'You're taking it out of context-' Harry began reasonably, feeling his own rage lower as Vernon's skyrocketed.
'I WARNED YOU!' he continued, 'I WILL NOT TOLERATE MENTION OF YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER THIS ROOF!'
Petunia was trying to help Dudley to his feet, but was struggling, and Harry was tempted to laugh, but he knew it would push his uncle over the edge.
'All right,' Harry said, 'all right...'
Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros and watching Harry closely out of the corners of his small, sharp eyes.
Harry had thankfully stowed his wand, a few phials of potion, and a handful of coins in his jeans pockets under his shirt on the train back to London, but all his things otherwise had been locked away in his old cupboard the moment they had arrived home. It had allowed him to go to Diagon Alley to meet Remus, but little else, once his potion and funds had been tapped out.
Vernon cleared his throat importantly.
Ah yes, Harry thought. Today was the day.
'Now, as we all know, today is a very important day.'
Harry focused on the dry toast in front of him. He remembered how, despite the fact that his entire childhood had given him no reason to, he had still hoped that they had decided to surprise him on his twelfth birthday. Happy Birthday, Harry! He felt himself flush with embarrassment at the memory.
'This could well be the day I make the biggest deal of my career,' Vernon went on. 'I think we should run through the schedule one more time. We should all be in position at eight o'clock. Petunia, you will be-?'
'In the lounge,' Petunia said promptly, 'waiting to welcome them graciously to our home.'
'Good, good. And Dudley?'
'I'll be waiting to open the door.' Dudley put on a foul, simpering smile. 'May I take your coats, Mr and Mrs Mason?'
'They'll love him!' Petunia cried, rapturously. Harry wrinkled his nose when Vernon wasn't looking. Even the Dudley he knew would be embarrassed if he'd been forced to relive this scene.
'Excellent, Dudley,' Vernon said. Then he rounded on Harry. 'And you?'
'I'll be in my bedroom, making no noise and pretending I'm not there,' Harry said tonelessly. There was no point fighting them. This day was already going to be a disaster, even if he could avoid Dobby spoiling it. Which, given that he was unable to do magic in the house, was quite unlikely.
'Exactly,' Vernon said nastily. 'I will lead them into the lounge, introduce you, Petunia, and pour them drinks. At eight fifteen-'
'I'll announce dinner,' said Petunia.
Harry tuned them out. He hadn't received any letters. Not even the promised owl from Draco. He wondered how Dobby was getting away with stopping even his master's mail. He hated to think of the punishments Dobby was serving himself.
'You will pay attention to me when I speak to you, boy!'
Vernon's sharp voice cut through Harry's thoughts.
'You're speaking at me, not to me,' Harry snapped back.
'It sounds like you'd like to be in your bedroom, making no noise and pretending you're not there, already,' Vernon said viciously. 'The Masons don't know anything about you and it's going to stay that way.' He turned back to his wife.
'When dinner's over, you take Mrs Mason back to the lounge for coffee, Petunia, and I'll bring the subject round to drills. With any luck, I'll have the deal signed before the News at Ten. We'll be shopping for a holiday home in Majorca this time tomorrow.'
Not if I have anything to do about it, Harry thought, resignedly.
'Right – I'm off into town to pick up the dinner jackets for Dudley and me. And you,' he snarled at Harry, 'you stay out of your aunt's way while she's cleaning.'
Harry left through the back door before anyone could bring up the subject of him staying in his bedroom for the rest of the day. It was a brilliant, sunny day, and he wondered vaguely if he could sneak away to Apparate somewhere else. Anywhere else.
He hadn't had such a wretched birthday in quite some time. At least not since he left the Dursleys for the last time. It was part of the reason his birthday was still such a big deal for him. It had never been celebrated, and rarely even acknowledged, during his childhood. Not until he met Hagrid and was introduced to the wizarding world – and friends, and a chosen family – did he truly know the magic of a birthday.
Now here he was, no cards, no presents, and he would spend the evening pretending not to exist. He knew it was because of Dobby. He knew it would get better, and that there were people who genuinely cared for him, if not in this world, then certainly in his own. His first post-Hogwarts birthday had definitely been worse the first time around. But despite knowing it was manufactured, he could not help feeling lonely.
Harry suddenly sat bolt upright on the garden bench. He had been staring absent-mindedly into the hedge – and the hedge was staring back. Dobby's enormous green eyes had appeared among the leaves. He almost blurted something out, but a jeering voice floating across the lawn stopped him.
'I know what day it is,' sand Dudley, waddling towards him.
Dobby blinked and vanished. Harry sighed sadly, turning to his cousin.
'What do you want?'
'I know what day it is,' Dudley repeated, coming right up to him.
'Well done,' Harry said. 'So you've finally learned the days of the week.'
'Today's your birthday,' sneered Dudley. 'How come you haven't got any cards? Haven't you even got friends at that freak place?'
'Better not let your mum hear you talking about my school,' Harry said coolly, but he was considering Dudley at that moment. He had come all the way across the yard – something he was not known to do – just to poke fun at Harry. Was he really that keen on bullying, or was he, himself, lonely too? Did he require a break from his parents' machinations?
Harry scooted over on the bench, wordlessly leaving space for Dudley.
'Why're you staring at the hedge?' Dudley asked suspiciously, hitching up his trousers.
'Because I don't have any cards,' Harry said acidly. 'You can look at things other than the telly, you know.'
Dudley huffed, but then sat down next to Harry.
'I got loads of cards on my birthday,' he bragged.
'And what did that get you,' Harry asked, 'other than extra recycling?'
Dudley huffed again.
'Your parents are not your friends, Dudley,' Harry said. 'Try to remember that.'
Giving him a perplexed look, Dudley slowly got up from the bench and waddled back to the house, leaving Harry in blessed silence.
Petunia screamed at him for tracking in dirt the moment he set foot back inside, trying to escape the warming sun. It seemed that playing it safe was still not safe, as she loaded him down with a list of chores and gave Dudley an ice cream. Of course she was using any excuse, for who would have done that list if not him?
He set to the work without complaint, glad to be doing something, even if a little bitter that Dudley did nothing but watch and eat ice creams as he sweated in the sun. He cleaned the windows, washed the car, mowed the lawn, trimmed the flowerbeds, pruned and watered the roses, and repainted the garden bench, though he was certain it was too hot and the paint would peel. A sunburn was developing on his neck, and he longed for a cooling serum, or a pain potion, or a burn salve – anything magical that used to be at his fingertips. Even some Muggle sunblock.
Stomach growling as he spread manure on the flowerbeds, Harry wondered vaguely when Draco had intended for him to visit. If it was before this time, shouldn't Draco have become worried? Would Lucius Malfoy show up on the doorstep, demanding to take Harry away? He snorted to himself at the unlikely fantasy.
It was half past seven in the evening when at last, exhausted, he heard Petunia calling him. His back ached, and his hands shook harder than usual. His nerve tonic was still locked in his trunk.
'Get in here! And walk on the newspaper!'
Harry moved gladly into the shade of the gleaming kitchen. On top of the fridge stood tonight's pudding: a huge mound of whipped cream and sugared violets. A joint of roast pork was sizzling in the oven, and Harry felt his mouth water at the smell.
'Eat quickly! The Masons will be here soon!' Petunia snapped, pointing to two slices of bread and a lump of cheese on the kitchen table. She was already wearing a salmon-pink cocktail dress.
Harry washed his hands and bolted down his pitiful supper.
'So generous,' he muttered as Petunia whisked away his plate. She was too preoccupied to either hear him, or to act on it.
'Upstairs!' she commanded. 'Hurry!'
As he passed the door to the living room, Harry caught a glimpse of Vernon and Dudley in bow ties and dinner jackets, vaguely reminiscent of Dudley's wedding day. Harry had somehow, thankfully, been able to avoid Vernon that whole day.
He had only reached the upstairs landing when the doorbell rang and Vernon's furious face appeared at the foot of the stairs.
'Remember boy, one sound...'
Sighing, Harry resigned himself to the evening he faced. How could he change it? He crossed to his bedroom on tiptoe, slipped inside, closed the door, and went to collapse on the bed.
The trouble was, Dobby was already sitting on it.