* * *
The island fortress of Azkaban is, by all accounts, impossible to escape from. In all the centuries since the prison first came into use, no prisoner has ever left its walls except at the end of their sentence-- or as a corpse, to be buried in one of the lonely cold graves that line the outer courtyard. There are a lot of graves, unmarked and unvisited, the remains of once-notorious magical criminals left mouldering beneath the stones. No one can say that Azkaban is not highly effective in serving its purpose.
Of course, there are some who would argue that deliberately subjecting a person to dementors is nothing short of torture, that such methods are outdated and have no place in Modern Wizarding Society-- but even the most well-meaning and kind-hearted Reformists can do little in the face of so perfect a record. The Ministry of Magic maintains that the dementors are an integral part of the prison's defenses (it's often been said that Azkaban hardly needs the walls or the sea, not when the prisoners are all trapped in their own minds) and without its guards the risk of an escape would be far too great.
And, really, there are so many prisoners within those walls whom no one in their right mind wants to take any risks with-- the ones serving life sentences for unspeakable crimes, the kiss-row inmates. In the end, it's easier to say that all of those sadistic Death Eaters and horrible mass-murderers deserve to live out the rest of their days in misery and despair, and the Reformists all find other less complicated injustices to speak out against. Easier to put the prison out of mind entirely as they go about their daily lives, leaving the convicts to their miserable fates.
On that small barren island somewhere in the North Sea, within Azkaban's high cold walls, Sirius Black knows he has no right to be happy.
The constant presence of the dementors serves as an inescapable reminder of all his most costly and unforgivable mistakes, everything he's ever done wrong-- the death of a friend who once embraced him as a brother, his subsequent failure to commit the murder he's been convicted of, another friend left month after month to face the rising moon alone. He's got no shortage of guilt, blood on his hands and the sort of regrets that threaten to devour him alive-- so he has no doubt that he deserves all of this.
Spending every waking moment being assaulted by your worst memories can easily drive a person to insanity-- and for nearly all of Azkaban's inmates, it does exactly that. Sirius Black listens to his neighbours lose themselves to it, their screams and cries ringing against the unforgiving walls as they devolve into gibbering wrecks and hollow husks, as one by one they go silent. He watches when, occasionally, the bodies are carried out (it's starvation that gets them, usually, the ones who so thoroughly lose the will to live that they stop eating and waste away). Sirius endures it all, as uncountable days drag past, as the despair and self-loathing run endless circles about his mind, but he never forgets who he is or why he's there. The slow creeping insanity takes the Death Eaters and war criminals and cold-blooded murderers, but it can't get a hold on him.
Here's the simple truth: dementors devour happiness and hope, but they can't touch the anger, the white-hot burning rage that simmers deep inside him and refuses to be stamped out. The aurors and the Ministry officials whisper that it's some Dark Sorcery that allows him to resist the dementors, some proof of a deeply evil nature, but there's no trick to it.
He's furious, with himself and with the world, but that's nothing new-- it's the same fury that carried him through the war, drove him forward and ground itself into his bones. Too many times he wasn't fast or clever enough, too many former classmates found dead or worse, too many innocents who were never given a chance to fight back (some hunted down like prey, others simply in the wrong place at the wrong time). Even in those days, they stalked his nightmares, Bella's wild laughter and Cissy's icy disdain, Reg's quiet clever competence overlaying that unshakeable pride-- Sirius fought with all he had, running at the robed and hooded figures with curses flying from his lips like venom (the first thing they tell you about curses is that intent is vital-- you need to want it, and he did, with every fibre of his being) but it was never enough.
Sirius knows that he was a bloody conceited fool, guilty of the mistake that cost Lily and James Potter their lives, guilty of being taken in by the Rat and not reading the signs-- but at least he's not a Death Eater or a slimy backstabbing traitor; at least he never killed those muggles or sold his friends to Voldemort. For whatever it's worth (not very much, but it's something) at least he's innocent of the very worst things he's been accused of. Sirius Black has made a lot of disastrously stupid mistakes in his short and profoundly useless life, but he'd sooner kiss a dementor than betray a friend's trust.
The bitter anger and spite are an anchor, a lifeline (and sometimes the small lingering corner of his mind that sounds a bit like Moony tells him that's not healthy but he ignores it because thinking about Moony hurts far too much). Sirius isn't sure there's any point to it, but he holds on anyway, if only because giving up was never in his nature-- and when it feels like too much, when the walls are closing in on him and he's quite sure he can't take any more, he curls up in the corner as a dog (for whatever obscure magical reason, the dementors have less of an effect on his animagus form) and it's just enough to keep him sane. He's lucky, in some sense-- lucky dementors are blind, lucky that he was just the right combination of stupid and talented to pull off a secret animagus transformation at age fifteen, lucky it's a permanent sort of magic he doesn't need a wand for...
Azkaban doesn't get many visitors, especially not in the top security wing where dementors linger outside every cell door at all times-- but every so often some ministry lackey will pass by with an escort of aurors and patronuses to ward off the worst of the creatures' influence. Sirius can always tell when they're coming (the dementors get antsy, eager at the prospect of lively new minds to feed on) so he's always alert and human-shaped when the visitors pass by his door-- he unsettles them, he can tell, more than any of the other prisoners.
'You finished with that?' he croaks on one such visit, pointing a bony finger at a copy of the Prophet tucked under the arm of some thin twitchy fellow (who squeaks and jumps at the words). 'I miss doing the crosswords, you see,' Sirius adds with an air of idle boredom, as though he's actually capable of remembering anything he once enjoyed (which he's not, really, but no one else has to know that).
The pair of aurors glare at him and the ministry lackey sweats and cringes like Sirius is some sort of ghastly diseased thing, but the man is startled enough at being addressed that he hastily throws the paper over (as though he no longer wants anything to do with it now that Convicted Murderer Sirius Black has expressed an interest in it) and then the aurors hurry him along on his way.
Sirius shrugs and picks the paper up. Whether or not he used to enjoy crosswords is a moot point anyway (he's got nothing to write with, after all) but it's more the novelty he's after, anything to break up the monotony of the prison... or if nothing else, he figures he can crumple it up for bedding, some meagre buffer between his bony sides and the cold damp stones of Azkaban. But in the meantime, he retreats to the least drafty back corner of his cell and flips the newspaper open-- and that's when he sees it.
The photograph is blurry and grainy, a paparazzo's snapshot enlarged too many times over, printed alongside a tacky headline and sensationalised article-- but Sirius hardly glances at the words, has eyes only for the photo. There's a bony horsey woman with a long neck and shrewd suspicious gaze, and two boys of about four or five; the fat blond one clings to the woman's hand and appears to be loudly carrying on about something or other, but it's the skinny and dark one Sirius stares at like he's seen a ghost-- a boy trailing after the two blondes like a little shadow, draped in patchy hand-me-downs that could have fit three of him, and even in grainy black-and-white his unruly haircut is unmistakable, achingly familiar--
A Rare Glimpse of Harry Potter, Saviour of the Wizarding World, the headline reads, as if Sirius needed any further confirmation.
...They're both out there, Sirius realises, feeling sick and cold in a way that (for once) has nothing to do with the dementors. The spineless traitor Rat, whom everyone conveniently thinks is dead, and little Harry, sent to live with Lily's muggle sister and her family (or at least that's what Hagrid had said, that awful predawn morning in Godric's Hollow before Sirius ran off to find the Rat). Muggles, who stand no chance of protecting him if the Rat decides to go after the last of the Potters, finish what he started... not that aurors would be much use either, as they'll be on the lookout for Dark Wizards, not one fat grey rodent with a missing finger.
Sirius has always been reckless and impulsive at the best of times, often to the point of idiocy, and after years in Azkaban he's hardly at the best of anything. There's no real plan, nothing past get out-- but his mind is clearer than it's been in years, his newfound Purpose burning away the haze.
He's not a traitor, and he's the only one who knows-- the only one who might be able to stop Peter Pettigrew before it's too late.
He couldn't save James and Lily, but he still has a chance to save their son.
So Sirius watches with burning intensity as the days pass, as another moon comes and goes, and waits for an opening, the barest sliver of opportunity-- he's skin and bone, and even though Padfoot is quite a large dog he's slimmer than Sirius is as a man, just thin enough to slip out of his cell, past the hems of the dementors' swirling cloaks (lucky, once again, that they have trouble sensing him as a dog). Azkaban was built as a fortress, yet it's surprisingly easy to creep through the dank chilly corridors, past cell doors and vacant eyes whose owners are too incoherent to fully remember the skeletal black dog passing like some sort of ill omen (when questioned later, some will whisper Grim, and the aurors will click their tongues and shake their heads at what, surely, is no more than a delusion-- but Sirius isn't to know that, at least not until much later).
Azkaban is surrounded by the North Sea, but Sirius has had a lot of practise swimming as a dog (used to love playing chicken with the giant squid in the Great Lake) and in any case it's not like he's going to let a little bit of ocean stand in his way. Later, he'll probably wonder how he managed it without drowning his idiot malnourished self (there's the Moony-voice again) but in the moment he doesn't give a flying fuck about his own safety, and the single-minded determination keeps him going long past the time when his body probably should have given out. Like a wraith, some ghoulish spectre, hovering between the living and the dead...
He makes it, but only just-- all but collapses the moment he hits land, drags himself up on the shore and makes only the most feeble attempt at shaking the water from his fur. He crawls into a tiny muggle fishing village (he's somewhere in the north of England, he thinks) and follows his nose to some bins at the back of a shitty pub, eats things he can only barely identify-- but he's starving, and it's not much worse than prison food anyway, and the dog part of him has never cared about that sort of thing. Being an animagus does that to you, they'd all found; it's easy to start thinking a bit like your animal, to let it creep over even when you're not transformed. So of course he'd been the butt of many a joke about pissing on trees and sniffing arses, fetch this or that, come now Pads it's not nice to bite people-- they'd all have a good laugh to see him now, digging scraps out of bins like any common stray--
Sirius whines, pushes those thoughts away as he curls up in the best bit of half-shelter he can find. Lily and James are dead, Wormtail's a spineless murdering weevil of a man, and Moony-- Moony surely hates his guts, thinks he's responsible for killing all three. It hurts, and the thought of Moony enduring his transformations month after month with no one to help ease the pain is an added layer of guilt on top of everything else... but Moony wouldn't thank him for trying to come back. He's sorry, so sorry, but he doesn't deserve forgiveness, never will...
Usually, being Padfoot has helped calm him when he's upset-- makes everything feel simpler-- but it's not working this time. Maybe the wounds are too deep, too grievous, or maybe betrayal and rejection just aren't the sorts of things a dog could cope with any better (dogs do tend to be loyal and eager to please, after all).
But there's no time to lie about feeling sorry for himself, no point, and he moves on soon as he has enough energy to stand, to walk-- he doesn't know how long he's got before word of his escape gets out, and even if his animagus form is still a secret he can't risk staying in one place... and in any case, he's got a Rat to hunt and a godson to watch over. As long as he's following his purpose, he can ignore all the rest.
Sirius heads inland, and south, since between the two of them Harry will be much easier to find-- any trail Pettigrew might have left has long since gone cold by now, and Sirius can hardly check the front paws of every single rat in England for missing fingers (assuming Peter stayed in the country at all). But he remembers that Lily's sister lives in Surrey, so that's enough to give him a direction to start with, and he travels as swiftly as he can, to get as much distance as possible before news of his escape becomes public.
Of course Sirius expected it would be front-page news across every reputable wizarding publication in the country (and most of the gossip rags too) but he never thought he'd see his name in a muggle newspaper. So he gets a bit of a nasty shock (less than a week after his escape, in a small Yorkshire town, before he's even managed to find a copy of the Prophet); he's minding his own business and nosing around in a bin after something that smells only recently discarded (not even a little bit rotten, for once) when he finds himself staring at an eerily static image of-- himself, it takes a moment to realise-- what he might've imagined he'd look like as a vampire, some nightmarish variation on his features with waxy skin and sunken eyes and hollowed cheeks and a mass of ragged tangled dark hair that somehow makes his skeletal face even gaunter.
In short, he looks exactly like the sort of deranged mass murderer he's accused of being. Sirius hasn't seen his reflection since before That Night (has hardly turned human-shaped at all since leaving his cell, only a couple very brief instances to pick up small useful items dropped in the street) but he can't say it surprises him, and can't bring himself to care (for all that he was once a bit vain). No, he's more concerned with the fact that the muggles are apparently looking for him too, which will make this even harder...
He tugs the paper down off the bin, flipping it open with a shake of his head, and peers down at the text. Sirius Black, Murderer At Large, it says, going on to mention the thirteen deaths and that he's supposedly 'armed and extremely dangerous', carrying something called a 'gun' (a sort of muggle weapon that shoots small projectiles, if he's remembering his Muggle Studies right). He's not armed, of course (fuck, he wishes he had a wand, or failing that he'd even settle for a good knife) and he doesn't feel especially dangerous at the moment--
'Mummy, look!' a high-pitched voice calls out, making him jump. 'That dog's reading a newspaper!'
'Hush, Lucy, don't be ridic-- oh, Good Lord,' the muggle woman gasps, as Sirius looks up. 'Look at the size of that thing! I wonder if we ought to notify someone...'
Sirius backs away, slipping down the alley (though not before snatching up the discarded sandwich he'd been after in the first place). He doubts any muggle pest-control could pose a real threat to him, but he doesn't want unnecessary trouble, or strange reports of large black dogs that might make it back to the wrong ears (a couple days later, he sneaks into York's magical district in the dead of night to scrounge up as many different editions of the Daily Prophet as he can; he finds that the reporters are having a field day with his escape, but neither the papers nor the wanted posters in the shop windows contain any mention of black dogs, so at least that's not common knowledge).
It's purely by chance that he finds himself near the tracks just south of York while a freighter inches past, also headed south-- and on a sudden impulse, he jumps up into one of the empty boxcars. As far as train rides go, it's loud and dusty and not at all comfortable (especially as the train picks up speed beyond the city limits) but it's also much faster than he could have hoped to travel on foot, and he'd gladly put up with far worse if he had to. This particular line is a straight shot towards London, as it turns out; he hitches rides as far as he dares (but circumvents the capital itself) and soon enough he's headed into Surrey.
Of course, Sirius never had any reason to know exactly where Lily's muggle sister lives (hell, he never bothered keeping track of his own estranged relatives-- though in all fairness, he rather doubts Petunia Evans ever did anything half as bad as Reg or Bella or Cissy after they all threw their lot in with the Death Eaters, and Lily had made at least some small effort to keep in touch with her one remaining relative). But Sirius has always had a knack for finding hidden or missing things even without magic (even before he had his animagus form's powerful senses) and more importantly he's determined.
...Though if he's being honest he still has no idea what he's planning to do after he finds Harry. Stick around and play guard-dog, or try to get himself adopted as a pet? Find some way to... warn the muggles, somehow? But he can hardly do that as a dog, or expect them to react well to Escaped Convict Sirius Black popping up on their doorstep (and that's saying nothing of how they'd take the news that a Literal Rat might show up at any time trying to murder their nephew-- that sounds absurd, even by wizarding standards).
James named him Harry's godfather; Sirius knows he's supposed to do something because that's what godfathers are for and that's what he swore when he agreed to it, but... hell, he's been sleeping in gutters and eating rubbish for the past several days, and the years in Azkaban feel like a nightmare he's only just started to wake up from, and he's one tiny misstep away from landing himself right back--
Sirius pushes it all down, the bubbling panic he's constantly on the verge of falling into, the ever-present fear that this is the dream and he'll wake up back on the cold stone floor of his cell-- if he lets himself stray from the moment, right here and right now, he knows he'll break down completely, never be able to pull himself back.
But distractions are easy enough to find, in the end-- the countryside overflows with earthy green scents, and even when travelling at night he still takes care to keep out of sight (because big black dogs without owners or leashes are a bit too conspicuous) and he stays focused on his Mission, poring over stolen maps in search of the muggle town Lily might have mentioned once or twice, in distant mostly-forgotten conversations... in a distant past when Sirius didn't jump at sudden movements and loud noises, when he might've actually known what to do (instead of just running blindly forward in the vain hope that he's picked the right direction and isn't charging headlong into another life-shattering mistake) but he's trying and that's all he can hope for.
Soon enough Sirius finds himself in the town of Little Whinging, under the street-sign for Privet Drive-- the neighbourhood is about as bland and muggle as it's possible to get (a fairly new development, with tidy rows of near-identical square boxy houses and smooth green lawns and neatly manicured hedges) and he feels like he's taken some odd turn and stumbled into a different world entirely--
Until he sees the slender dark-haired boy pulling weeds outside Number Four, and there's no doubt he's come to the right place. Up close, Harry looks even more like he might've fallen straight out of the baby pictures James's parents had always kept up on the mantle (even as their son grew old enough to find such things embarassing) with the same wild black hair and knobbly scraped-up knees... but it's equally apparent that he's not like James. Sirius can see that right away-- James grew up happy and loved, and a little bit spoiled (born to older parents who had longed for a child for a very long time, who were old enough that they were mistaken for his grandparents at times). James Potter was outgoing and confident and a touch arrogant, had loved being the centre of every room he entered.
In that first Prophet snapshot, Sirius had thought Harry looked like a little shadow, trailing after his horsey aunt and porky cousin. And it's clear now just how right that was-- how he slips around like he's trying to be invisible, how he flinches when they so much as look at him, how he's light on his feet and always careful to stay out of arm's reach. Sirius sees it all, and he knows what it means from the old deep scars that never quite went away, and it makes his blood boil because James and Lily's son should have grown up happy and loved and cherished and not-- not like him, not like he's something cursed and unwanted and wrong.
Sirius supposes that muggles, just like wizards, must have good and bad sorts. And these particular muggles have got to be the worst ones in existence. So the thought of leaving Harry here is unbearable, makes him feel quite ill.
...Which brings him back to the Problem. The Problem is that he's a bloody fugitive, and he hasn't the faintest idea how to go about being a parent even if he wasn't-- knows he's broken, that he's been steeped in anger and hate for so long that he's not sure he's got anything else left in him. These hell-muggles might even be on par with his own parents, but dragging a small child along with him on the run-- he can't see how that wouldn't be just as bad. Worse, maybe. When he thinks of little Harry forced to eat out of bins to survive, or what they'd do when winter hits and the temperature drops... not to mention what would happen if-- when-- the dementors or aurors or Death Eaters catch up to them...
Sirius whines and curls miserably under a hedge, and watches as he argues himself in useless circles, grasps for answers that may not exist. He doesn't have the faintest idea what to do-- never thought he could hurt more than everything already heaped on him, but... here he is.
He watches, and the feeling of helplessness is steadily replaced by quiet simmering rage as the hell-muggles demonstrate terrible new layers of neglect and abuse. He watches, until one afternoon when Harry and his horrid pig of a cousin are 'playing' some ways down the street from Number Four. He watches until Piggy goes at Harry and pins him down before he can get away and laughs nastily and hits him, and--
Sirius lunges from the shadow of a hedge, snarling viciously, and his jagged teeth close on a soft fleshy arm-- he truly doesn't mean to bite hard, but Piggy screams and flails and tries to hit him in the face, and before he knows it there's blood spurting across the pavement. Sirius releases him just as fast, because the boy is obviously a horrid little prat but he's also just a child and Sirius only wanted to scare him, not--
But then Piggy gets up, clutching the arm and running for home as fast as his short legs can carry him, screaming for his mum (so he's not too badly hurt, at least) and Sirius promptly forgets him altogether when he sees Harry backed against a fence, eyes wide with fear.
Sirius drops right where he stands, resting his head on his paws as he gives a contrite whine-- the scent of blood is still heavy on the air (it's probably smeared all over his face) and fuck he'd probably be scared too but he doesn't want--
They stay like that for a moment that seems to drag on forever, Sirius trying to look as small and nonthreatening as possible... and then Harry relaxes slightly. 'Were you... trying to help me, dog?'
Sirius snuffles a little, ears perking up. He still doesn't get up, doesn't want Harry getting spooked again.
'That's kind of you, really, but that's just how Dudley is,' says Harry, with an odd sort of nonchalance that makes Sirius's stomach twist--
Sirius bites it back, rolls his eyes. Oh, yes, he's noticed; little Piggy's an absolute terror, and it's no wonder with parents like that.
Harry smiles a little, tilting his head to one side. 'You must be quite a smart dog-- you really understand me, don't you?' he asks, eyes too bright, too clever, too hopeful.
Play dumb! the sensible part of his mind screams, but it's only a very small part and impulse control is a rather tricky matter when you're a dog. Sirius nods once.
'Are you magic?' the boy asks in hushed tones-- any fear he felt has been thoroughly replaced with wonder.
Those awful muggles very obviously haven't told him who he is, but Sirius has begun to suspect that most muggle kids believe in magic at least a little-- as though they can feel it instinctively, or maybe their imaginations are stronger than what their world dictates is possible. Sirius nods again, and winks for good measure.
'Oh, brilliant,' Harry replies with a grin. 'Uncle Vernon says there's no such thing as magic, but he also says animals can't talk and I know some can, and then weird things just happen sometimes and they always act like it's my fault but I don't know how I'm supposed to have done that sort of thing unless--'
Harry breaks off, suddenly stiff and unsmiling; there's a man shouting in the distance and a woman's high-pitched screams over Piggy's still-audible wails, and Sirius can pick out a few of the man's words-- including Harry's name and terms like 'blasted mutt' and 'kennels' and 'put down'.
'That's Uncle Vernon,' Harry says, rather unnecessarily. 'He's really mad you bit Dudley-- you should run away; one time Number Seven's new puppy bit Dudley and Uncle Vernon said it was a Menace even though there wasn't even any blood, and Number Seven had to get rid of the puppy so Uncle Vernon wouldn't call his Solicitor. And you're a Magic Dog, too, so he'll hate you worst of all.'
Sirius hesitates-- he loathes the thought of just leaving, but Harry's clearly bright and clever, and Sirius knows he'll never be able to stick around without causing more trouble for both of them, knows he'll have to find some other way. He slowly gets up and starts back towards the hedge--
Vernon shouts again (now including phrases such as 'cupboard' and 'meaning of pain' and 'regret you were ever born'). Sirius's fur bristles and he can practically feel Harry flinch. He stops and looks back, thinking how the kid is so small and how can he just--
'W-wait,' says Harry. 'Can I... come with you?' The small round face is so full of pained longing-- it's enough that Sirius is pretty sure he'd be tearing up if he were human-shaped, and has to stifle a small distressed doggy whine. Harry scuffs the toe of his peeling trainer against the pavement. 'It's just... I'll probably get locked in my cupboard again, at least if Uncle Vernon doesn't strangle me first, and--'
...Oh, hell. Sirius woofs softly and trots back to Harry's side, licks his cheek and tugs at the hem of his baggy and faded t-shirt before starting off again.
This time, Harry falls into step beside him, small fingers twisted into the fur of his back like the kid is terrified he'll vanish. Which he probably is-- terrified that he'll have to go back to that awful place he's been forced to live. What the bloody ever-loving fuck were they thinking, leaving a child in a place like that-- leaving James and Lily's son--
'Sorry I got scared,' Harry says as Sirius leads him through a couple hedges and out onto a side street near a park. 'I've only really known Aunt Marge's bulldogs before, and they're mean and hate me.' He falls quiet, pensive. 'Well, she's not really my aunt, but I have to call her Aunt Marge anyway or Uncle Vernon gets mad.'
Not anymore, you don't, Sirius thinks darkly.
'But I like you,' Harry adds. 'You're a Good Dog.'
Something about this frank comment makes Sirius want to laugh for the first time since... he can't remember when. Laughing as a dog is always a bit strange (since dogs can't quite laugh in the way people do) but Harry seems to understand well enough what the peculiar not-quite-doglike sound is supposed to mean, and smiles in return.
As they cross the park, none of the few pedestrians bat an eye at what appears to be a young boy and his pet dog going for an afternoon walk-- and why would they think otherwise? But Sirius is painfully aware that he's just more or less kidnapped the Saviour of the Wizarding World (does taking your godson away from horrible abusive relatives who lock him in a cupboard still count as kidnapping? Sirius feels like it really shouldn't, but also suspects most people would disagree) and now they're both probably in quite a lot of danger... and Sirius might as well be an ordinary dog for all that he's actually equipped to protect a small child.
...Or even provide the most basic level of care. He reminds himself, again, that Harry absolutely cannot eat rubbish out of bins.
Harry obviously isn't scared or concerned, his eyes bright with excitement-- it's all some Grand Adventure to him, a Magic Dog come to whisk him away from his life of misery and neglect, like something out of a fairy tale. But that's not how the world goes, and Sirius knows it's not fair to lead him off into the unknown without at least explaining some things. Even if he's just a kid and Sirius is just barely clinging to the last vestiges of his own sanity. Damn.
Before he can chicken out, he guides Harry into the yard of a vacant house with a for-sale sign, around the back and into a shed. It's dark once he shoulders the door closed, even to Padfoot's eyes-- good.
'Do you live here?' comes a child's whisper. 'Is this a magic shed?'
Sirius takes a deep breath, lets it out, and changes back. 'No, Harry,' he croaks-- and winces at the sound of his voice, rusty from disuse.
Harry either doesn't notice or doesn't care. 'You can talk,' he gasps.
'Only sometimes,' says Sirius, sitting against the closed door. '...Can you keep a secret, Harry?'
Harry nods, wide-eyed-- Sirius can just make it out in the dim light that creeps in through the cracks around the door. 'I'm very good at secrets.'
'I'm your godfather,' Sirius says abruptly, because he has no idea where else to begin. 'Your dad was my best friend, and he-- I promised him and your mum I'd look out for you, if--' He breaks off again, takes a deep breath. 'Do you know much about your parents?'
Harry shakes his head. 'Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon hate talking about them. They died in a car crash when I was just a baby.'
'A car--' Sirius begins, bites off the outraged comment and gets his breathing under control. This is hard and he's not ready for it, but he doesn't see any other way. 'It-- it wasn't a car crash, Harry. Your parents were murdered, by a very bad man. He tried to kill you too, but... couldn't.'
Harry takes a moment to mull this over. 'So were my mum and dad magic, like you?'
'Yes-- and so are you.'
He can just make out Harry's teeth in the dark as he grins-- like the whole world just clicked into place. 'Can I turn into a dog, too, then?'
Sirius is startled into laughing again, and it sounds like a dog's bark. 'No, most witches and wizards can't turn into animals-- it's my secret power, so you mustn't tell anyone about it.'
'Oh, okay.' Harry fidgets. 'Am I... going to live with you now?' he asks, with that awful pained hope that makes Sirius feel like he's suffocating--
The smile drops off Sirius's face as swiftly as it appeared. '...That's what I need to talk to you about. I'm not really... There's bad people after me, and I don't have a home, and-- and it'll be miserable and dangerous and not fun at all, probably even worse than living with your aunt and uncle. So if you'd rather go back--'
'No,' says Harry, forcefully, and Sirius can hear Lily's stubborn streak in the word, can practically see the way she'd set her jaw and lift her chin... 'Nothing's worse than the Dursleys,' Harry adds, quieter but with a hardness to it that leaves no doubt about the sort of people the Dursleys are (just in case Sirius wasn't already convinced).
'Okay,' Sirius croaks, once again cursing himself for not taking Harry on That Night-- if he'd just given up on finding Peter, been a little more insistent with Hagrid, Harry wouldn't've had to stay with those bloody awful-- but it's too late for regrets. He puts his hands on Harry's shoulders, too thin and small under his baggy shirt. 'Yes-- of course you can come. I just wanted to be sure you knew you had a choice.'
'Well, they're horrible and I don't want to go back ever,' Harry states. 'Besides, you can show me magic, and tell me things about my parents, and...' He trails off, squinting at Sirius in the dark, the silence suddenly heavy-- because Sirius isn't ready to talk openly about James (not yet, not while it's still so raw) and it seems Harry picked up on his discomfort with the instincts of a child who's had to learn to read such things-- but Harry speaks again before Sirius can say anything. 'What's your name? You know my name but I don't know yours.'
Sirius twitches, drops his hands and shakes himself out in a rather doglike manner. '...Padfoot,' he answers.
Harry giggles. 'That's a funny name.'
'It's my dog-name,' says Sirius. 'I've got to stay a dog most of the time so you should use that one.'
'Oh, right,' Harry says, as though this makes such perfect sense that he should've thought of it himself. 'So, can you only turn into a person in the dark, then?'
'...For the moment, yeah.' In a manner of speaking, anyway. He looks absolutely frightful, he knows, and doesn't want to scare the kid... and doesn't know how to explain that everyone thinks he's a mad mass-murderer, either.
'That's too bad... I should've liked to see what magic dog-people look like.'
'Not so different from normal people,' Sirius answers. 'You'd be disappointed-- but wait'll you see a centaur; they're like people up top but with horse bodies on the bottom half.'
'Oh, wicked,' says Harry. 'Will we see them soon?' But Sirius falls silent and doesn't answer, and Harry squirms as though afraid he said something wrong. '...Padfoot?'
Sirius puts his hands on Harry's shoulders again. 'Harry, I-- if you're going to come with me, I need to know you'll...' He takes a deep breath. 'You know how you've been in trouble before-- when your aunt or uncle or cousin tried to hurt you?'
'Er-- yeah?' says Harry, as though he can't imagine why Padfoot is suddenly bringing it up.
'There's going to be other people like that, who want to hurt you-- and I'll do all I can to make sure they can't-- but I need you to promise that if I tell you to run away, or hide and stay quiet, you'll do that. Because there are people out there much worse than your Dursleys.'
Harry sits quietly for a moment. 'Like the man who killed my parents, you mean?'
'Yes,' Sirius croaks. 'Like him.' He squeezes Harry's shoulders. 'So-- promise?'
Harry seems to give this careful consideration. 'Okay,' he says finally. 'I will-- but only if you promise you'll stay safe too.'
This seems like a rather tall order, something Sirius really isn't sure he can guarantee, and he doesn't want to lie or make promises he can't keep. But maybe Harry's worked it out (at least on some level) that his parents once stood between him and danger and died for it, that Sirius is fully prepared to do the same-- and maybe (even at such a young age) he's already decided that he doesn't want anyone getting hurt on his behalf (Sirius thinks back to the moment, less than an hour before, when Harry stood flinching at Vernon Dursley's enraged shouting but his first impulse was to tell Sirius to flee, so that seems very likely).
Sirius pulls Harry into a hug. '...Yeah, I'll try my best,' he whispers, and really means it-- not because he thinks his own life is actually worth preserving, but because he can't let Harry face the aftermath alone (not again, not so soon) and because he's never wanted anyone stepping in front of him either.
And he thinks how Lily had always stood up and fought, too-- they all had, of course, but she had been the first and the loudest, even when it was thankless, even though she had the most to lose. Lily had been the bravest of them all-- and when Sirius thinks that Harry's got his mother's eyes, it has nothing to do with their colour.
Harry might not fully understand the dangers they're up against (Sirius wishes he'd never have to, but Sirius is not an optimist and can't imagine there's truly any chance of that) but the road ahead won't be the first time he's faced hardship, and he's got the strength to rise up and face it, and he won't have to do it alone. So that's something, at least.
Still, taking Harry and running off into the unknown is probably the most foolish, reckless, dangerous thing Sirius has ever done in a lifetime full of foolish and reckless and dangerous things, because this time it's not just his own skin on the line. This time it's Harry (a child!) and he's supposed to be the Responsible Adult (even though he feels like neither of those things) and he knows just how wrong it might go (and he's fucking terrified it will). But he holds Harry tight against his chest and knows it's the only choice he can make.
Because Sirius is no stranger to neglect and abuse; he knows what it is to have the people who are supposed to look after you instead telling you that everything you believe in and everything you are is worthless, dirty, subhuman. Because even though he escaped them years ago, Azkaban drags all your worst memories back to the front and it feels like only yesterday he was small and friendless and unloved, his mother's shrill screams ringing in his ears and the dark closing in around him--
But Harry's here, in a small dusty shed with the late afternoon sun just visible through the cracks, clinging to the filthy Azkaban robes like he never wants to let go-- like he doesn't care that the hug is all sharp bony angles or that Sirius is coated in years' worth of filth (and smells exactly as bad as you'd expect), like Harry's every bit as afraid as Sirius is that he'll wake up and find out this was nothing but a dream... so Sirius holds him, trying to convince the both of them that this moment isn't about to vanish into thin air.
They'll need to move on soon, Sirius knows (can't afford to stay in one place, need to put more distance between themselves and Privet Drive, should really get out of Little Whinging entirely) but for the moment he doesn't let himself think, doesn't move, tells himself that no matter what comes he'll find some way to make this work.