Professor Lupin paused in the aisle and tapped the book Marcus propped up on his desk. 'I'll have that comic, thank you, Mr Winston.'
Harry pencilled his answer carefully in the blank space. He wasn't entirely certain of his maths, though he hardly ever was. Professor Lupin leant over to review his work on his way through the desks, and touched a blunt fingernail on the second line of the equation. 'Negative integer, Mr Potter,' he murmured, and nodded as Harry quickly erased both his mistake and the incorrect sum. Professor Lupin's warm hand lingered on his shoulder for just a moment before he moved on, completing his turn about the classroom.
'Quizzes forward,' Lupin called, just as the bell rang. 'The exercises at the close of Chapter Four for your homework-- no, Mr Winston, you may not have your comic back til after classes, see me at supper. No running, Clement!'
Harry stuffed his notebook and pencils into his bag and hurried to the front. He dropped his quiz onto the ragged pile on Lupin's desk. 'Sir?' he asked.
Lupin wiped the blackboard, dusting his sleeve with chalk for at least the third time that day, judging by the whiteness of the smudge. 'Yes, Mr Potter?'
'I heard there was parents coming today.'
'Heard that there are parents coming today,' Lupin corrected, and Harry nodded without much minding it; Lupin was like that. 'Yes, I believe there's a planned visit.'
'Who you think they're here to look at?'
Lupin sat in his creaking chair. He began his marking immediately, using the blue ink pen which always wrote encouraging comments in the margins, even for failing tests. The first one was a failer, Harry saw, Eddie Bannister, who got an 'X' beside each equation and a 'Good try' at the top right. 'I don't think they've settled on a placement,' Lupin told him, looking up through a fringe of greying hair. 'But you shouldn't be distressed. Fostering is a lengthy process.'
'I know.' Even when people came for a boy it could be months getting him out of Crowhill. Sometimes the boys came back after a while. The youngest boys got adopted, though, and they never came back. There were nine boys younger than Harry in Crowhill just now, with Jimmy the oldest of those, seven in two weeks. Jimmy was small, though, enough to pass for younger, and Harry had been after him to practise his recital. He could do God Save The Queen and three Rugby Union songs and six entire Christmas carols, though it wasn't near enough to Christmas to bring it up naturally on the parents' walkabout. But it was always better to have a hook, and if Jimmy had a chance, Harry would make sure he got it.
Lupin sat looking at him for a long minute, tapping the point of his biro against Sam Jenkin's quiz. Sometimes Lupin looked at the boys like he could read minds, and he did always seem to know when trouble was brewing, but this wasn't trouble. This was important.
'They'll be here at four,' Lupin said then, and wrote 'Well done' at the top of Sam's quiz. 'If you need time for a bit of spit and polish, I would write you a pass.'
'Sir? Thank you.'
Lupin unlocked his desk drawer for the proper form, the yellow photocopies. He penned Harry's name on the form, and paused with his biro raised. 'The other name?'
'Jimmy,' Harry whispered. 'Jimmy Aberdeen.'
Lupin wrote that as well, and signed his own swooping RJL at the bottom. Harry pocketed it and turned to go-- he'd have to get Jimmy before the bell for next class rang.
'Harry,' Lupin said, as he hurried for the door, 'good luck.'
But it wasn't to be. The parents came, and they looked nice, spruce folks in nice clothes and smiles at all the right times. They talked to lots of the boys, and had tea with Headmaster Jones, and they stood in the yard and watched during play hour. Harry sent Jimmy to play near them with one of the tricycles-- Jimmy didn't know how to ride, and Harry felt a fierce surge of hope when the man in the suit crouched by him in the sand to ask if he wanted any help. They were at it for twenty whole minutes, laughing and having a good time, and Jimmy even managed to get out half of a Rugby Union hymn, but when the bell rang the parents went inside, and they were gone before supper. Crowhill Boys Home sank back into routine with a sigh that Harry felt almost as a physical blow. The boys went moody and quiet, and even the teachers walked with a little less spring in their step, but nothing else much. That was just how it went.
Professor Lupin had charge of the older boys for evening study in the mess hall, and set them all to reading with their partners. They were meant to be working through Antony and Cleopatra, but most everyone were just talking or doodling or staring mindlessly at the television, playing the nightly news. Professor Lupin said it was instructive for children to know about goings-on in the world, but since there was no quiz for that hardly anyone really paid any attention. Harry, inclined to be depressed about losing out on the parents, stopped minding the play as soon as Gaz struck up a game of marbles with Najid. He traced someone else's old drawing in his textbook, an old pencil rendering of the faded banner that hung above the Head Table. Harry added birds that might pass for crows, blackening them with his pen in thick dark strokes and drawing claws clutching the ends of the banner.
'Yes, Mr Jones?'
'Professor, who's that man on the telly?'
Harry glanced up to see Professor Lupin reaching for the controls on the television on the shelf with obscure, dusty trophies of indistinguishable sports of years past, and turned it off. A few groans of disappointment didn't faze him. Nothing much ever did. 'The news is warning everyone about an escaped criminal, Mr Jones. It's none of your concern.'
'You reckon? I mean mightn't he come here, if he was sighted in our area?'
'Professor? Will he come here?'
'Ooh, is he a murderer, Professor?'
'More like a perv,' cracked Gaz to Harry. 'Come to a boys' home, yeah. Better wear two layers of undershorts tonight!'
'Enough,' Lupin said, cutting everyone quiet with a single stern word. 'You will attend to Master Shakespeare, please. Crowhill boys will be well-educated or they will go to bed before eight.' He paused. 'Yes, Professor Lupin.'
'Yes, Professor Lupin,' they chorused, and heads bent back to their books, at least til Lupin went back to his tea and his own reading.
Harry went back to his doodling. He drew a squiggly sort of face with a crown of ivy leaves. An asp, not that he knew what an asp looked like, so it was a squiggly sort of snake wrapping around and around a wobbly neck, fangs arched and dripping ink.
'Lurid,' a voice commented dryly. Harry slammed his book shut, not before Professor Lupin arched a brow at him. Harry flushed.
'Sorry, sir,' he began, but Lupin only handed him a paper. His maths test. 7 of 10, that was better than he'd expected. In the top right corner Lupin had written 'Good work'. 'Thank you, sir.'
'You're welcome, Harry.' Lupin didn't move on from his table, though. 'You're nearly eleven, Harry, aren't you?'
'Me? Yes, sir. In two months.'
'Hm,' Professor Lupin said, with pursed lips and a thoughtful cast of his strange pale eyes. They were a very unusual colour, in much the way that Harry's were. Except that Harry had very green eyes, like grass or crayons, and Professor Lupin's were sort of yellowish, like the Adults-Only Juice all the teachers drank at the head table. They were very washed out in the flickering overhead lights of the hall. The ever-present bags under his eyes had much more colour to them, and the gaunt shadows of his face. 'Eleven,' Professor Lupin said, 'eleven is a very important year, I think.'
Harry hadn't especially thought any years were more important than others, except for marking your chances of getting out of Crowhill Boys Home. He should know. Eleven would mean he had been at Crowhill for seven whole years.
Harry was inclined to feel sorry for himself, but he didn't like to do so in front of a teacher. Nothing was worse than being called to the Head's office because you were moping. Moping was a guaranteed road to being volunteered for horrid tasks like fence painting and floor scrubbing. The Head believed that nothing cured teenage grumps quite so well as hard, sweaty work.
His deception must not have been quick enough. Lupin and his piercing gaze didn't miss a wink.
'Tea,' Lupin declared suddenly, and patted him on the shoulder. 'Come to my office for tea tomorrow, Mr Potter.'
'Yes, sir,' Harry said, and Lupin moved away without anything else, to break up a shoving match that had started near the back.
Gaz kicked him lightly under the table. 'Don't let him lock the door, Potter. You know what happens to little boys who--'
Harry ostentatiously propped his book upright, Act III Scene I glaring off the page. 'You think everyone's a pervert.'
'Why else would you be a teacher here? Fresh meat every year.'
'Lupin's not like that.'
Marcus sidled closer on their bench, jostling Harry's book with his and setting up a kind of fortress of paper that blocked Gaz's smirk from view. Behind that impenetrable wall, Marcus nudged Harry. He said, quietly, 'Reckon he must be, though. You know he's got the hivv.'
Gaz knocked their books down. 'The hivv,' he hissed, loud enough to turn a few nearby heads. 'You know. The queer disease.' The older boy grinned his gap-toothed grin at Harry, who squirmed in his seat. 'You know what queer is, don' ya?'
Harry didn't, as it happened. 'Of course,' he retorted in his best scornful voice, which trembled a bit at the end.
'Stop it,' said Benjamin Hounders, and he was one of the oldest at Crowhill, so the other boys did what he said and kept out of his way. He was scowling down at his book, but under the lip of the table he had a magazine opened his in lap, and it had pictures of ladies without clothes on. Now he closed the magazine and rolled it up tight to slip into his pocket. 'You don't know shit, Gary, stop pretending you do.'
'Well he's sick all the time, int he?' Gaz protested. 'He's always taking off ill.'
'Maybe he just gets tired of looking at your stupid face, wanker. I do.' Hounders shoved to his feet, raising a hand to the air. 'Professor? Can I be excused? Only Jasper and I were going to work on the Biology practical.'
They weren't, either. They were going to go to the loo and do things that the older boys did. Harry didn't know what that was, either, but it was a zealously guarded privilege. None of the younger boys were even allowed to pee after eight. If you had to go, you had to sneak downstairs or hold it. Harry reckoned it had something to do with the dirty magazines, but he knew better than to ask questions.
Still, he wondered. He wondered, very uneasily, and it was a long time that night before his brain could settle. He lay staring at the bunk above his, bowing a little from Gaz's weight in the middle, and everything went swirling around in his head. Hivvs and queers and naked ladies all went tumbling over each other and before he knew it he was a dark place, running, or maybe flying, but motorcycles couldn't fly, could they? And the strange dream ended with a lady crying his name, and screaming, and a flash of green light that made Harry wake, gasping, and almost sick up from the pain in his head. But it was just a remembered pain, like the nightmare was just a memory. The car crash that had killed his parents, and left the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, the only thing he had left of them. He buried his hot face in his pillow and willed back tired tears. He hadn't had that dream in a long time. He hated that dream.
He was scratchy-eyed and weary by morning, too listless to eat much and therefore even more tired as he dragged through classes. He was docked a point in Geography for doing up his tie wrong and not remembering to brush his hair, though he thought rebelliously that his hair always looked like he'd forgot to brush it anyway. He was docked another point in History for falling asleep, though really he'd just been sitting with his eyes closed thinking if he could pretend he'd slept the whole night through he might make his body believe it. By luncheon he had a full demerit, and watched glumly as the silver star with his name on it was moved down to the bottom of the big chart in the mess hall. Jasper and Benjamin were in demerits, too, which likely meant they'd been caught doing whatever it was they did in the loo, but that didn't make Harry feel any better. With a sigh Harry collected his tray of sandwich and an apple from the fruit bowl, and took himself to the patio to eat. A few of the other boys were about, but most were involved in an impromptu game of football on the lawn, and the drowsy summer heat drowned out their raucous yells and silly fumbling. Harry drooped over his plate, only slowly realising he'd put his head down on his arms, a bit of egg salad dribbling out of his sandwich onto the leg of his trousers. He was so tired. Just a few minutes, he'd hear the bell...
'Harry,' someone hissed, and it seemed the world became very dim, somehow, as if the sun had gone behind a cloud, but it was mid-day, and the shadows shouldn't be that long, nor that menacing. He felt something cold and wet nudge against his hand, and dropped his sandwich with a start. A huge black dog stood at his knee, growling softly and insistently, like the thunder of an approaching storm. When the sandwich plopped to the patio stones, the dog whuffed, foul breath washing over Harry. Its sinister jaws snapped, and then it lapped up the sandwich and chewed it down. It issued a bark that sounded more like an order than a thanks, and Harry reached out as if in a dream and picked up his apple. He tried to drop it, or lob it, sort of, some distance away, but the dog took it right out of his hand before he could. Harry stared at the slick of slobber on his palm, and swallowed hard. The apple disappearing into a squirt of juice and mash could just as readily been his fingers-- but hadn't been.
'Good boy,' Harry whispered tentatively, and watched himself quite unwisely put his hand out, both terrified and absolutely sure he had no need to be. The dog sniffed his hand, and then perked its big ears. Harry slid his fingers into tangled fur, caressing the ridge of a big black eye and petting back along the curve of a hard skull, instinctively finding the soft spot at the back of the head. The dog whined, just a little, and tilted into the caress. 'You're not so scary,' Harry whispered, encouraged by that. 'You look like a monster, but you're not so bad, are you?'
'Potter! Get away from that mangy cur!'
The dog flipped away from him. Harry caught a whip of a long tail against his arm, still stupidly outstretched, as the dog bounded off into the bushes. Mr Thompkins went charging past Harry, tripping off the steps of the patio with a broom waving wildly in his arms. Mr Thompkins chased the dog all the way off the property, but didn't seem to see what Harry had-- the dog slid on its belly between a bush and the old willow, and went out a burrow-hole right under the fence. To Mr Thompkins, it evidently appeared the dog had merely vanished, and he stomped about the yard poking into bushes with the broom and cursing loudly.
Just then Harry became aware that he felt simultaneously much better and much worse. Better because he saw he'd accidentally fallen asleep, at some point-- the sun had indeed gone in behind a cloud, and it was no longer mid-day, but early evening. And worse because his unplanned nap had clearly caused him to miss half a day of classes, not least that of Thompkins, who looked fit to be tied as he came stomping back towards Harry with the broom gripped in both fists and a very angry look bugging out his overlarge eyes.
'Potter,' Thompkins growled. Harry squeaked something, wiping his damp hand on his trousers as he scrambled to his feet. 'Where have you been all bloody day, boy?'
'Sir, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to--'
Thompkins tripped on the same step of the patio coming up, and Harry gloomily saw that it only maddened the Religion instructor further. This suspicion was confirmed when Thompkins jabbed the bristles of the broom into Harry's middle, smearing his white shirt with dirt and poking his ribs with dozens of needles. 'You are aware that there is no sleeping outside of beds at Crowhill, Potter?'
'No, sir. I know, sir.'
'You know, do you? Then you disobeyed the rules on purpose?'
'I didn't mean to!'
'Did you mean to feed that rabid beast? Have you been sneaking out here to feed it all along? There are no pets at Crowhill, Potter, no matter how sorry you feel for it.' Another jab, this one rather more serious, since Harry must not have looked any sorrier than he felt for that error. He hadn't meant to feed the dog, had he-- well, not the sandwich, anyway. 'Any apologies rattling around in there, Potter?'
'I didn't mean to,' Harry said again, quite truthfully, and quite inadequately.
'Stupid boy,' Thompkins spat, and pulled himself up to his full height. His moustaches were quivering and his face was cherry red, all signs Harry recognised and knew quite enough to fear, but the malicious gleam was new. 'You think you're special, Potter, don't you. Think the rules don't apply to you, eh.'
'I've never thought that, sir.'
'Crowhill isn't good enough for you, is it? Off to your new school, eh, leaving all these brats behind? You're still an orphan. You won't get away from this place.'
Harry stared up at his teacher, stung by that. 'I know, sir,' he said, but Thompkins didn't seem to hear him, or even care any more.
'Hands,' Thompkins said, and Harry shivered. It would be nice if the dog came back and bit Mr Thompkins just now, but then Thompkins would probably blame Harry for that, too. He'd had his hands slapped before. Thompkins did it to everyone at some point, just because he could. Harry put his chin high, and his hands out. He was nearly eleven, even if he was an orphan who'd never leave Crowhill. He wouldn't blubber about it.
But he swore that to himself before he realised Thompkins didn't have a ruler or his classroom pointer. What he had was a broom with a thick wooden handle, and when it slapped down on Harry's knuckles, it hurt.
Harry was late for tea with Professor Lupin. Marcus, who had kitchen duty, had got Harry a cold mustard to soothe his hurt, and he still smelled rather strongly of Dijon when he climbed the stairs to the third storey overlooking the abandoned factory. Lupin's office was at the far end of the corridor, and Harry dragged his feet, dreading another scolding. Thompkins had denied him dinner as well as slapping his hands, and since the strange dog had eaten his lunch, Harry had a mild headache and a worse stomachache. He hoped Lupin might have biscuits or something for him, but Lupin didn't generally go in for sweets, and Harry glumly reflected it had been a terrible week, altogether.
Happily, Lupin's door wasn't shut, and Harry was spared figuring how to knock with sore swollen knuckles. He nudged it wider, and peered around the jamb. 'Professor?' he called. 'Sir, it's Harry Potter.'
'Come in, Mr Potter.'
Lupin was at his desk, which was a battered old secretary of peeling pine finish so stuffed with books it looked like a library had vomitted all over it. Books towered in stacks all across the surface, and lined up against the spindly legs and under the area his feet were supposed to go, but couldn't find any room. A shelving unit was just as bad, and it looked as if Lupin were in the midst of reading at least seven or nine different books, all of them open more than halfway and several sporting cups on saucers in various stages of abandonment. Lupin went looking for fresh cups as Harry cleared a spot on the sagging sofa along the wall, squeezing in next to The Handmaid's Tale and Robots and Empire. Lupin relocated his electric teapot closer to the socket under the window, and soon it was rumbling. 'Do you drink tea, Mr Potter?' Lupin asked.
'I don't know,' Harry said. 'Some of the older boys do.'
'Why don't we see if you like it.' Lupin dusted a cup for him, ignoring Harry's dubious glance. 'I recommend two sugars to start. Where-- ah.' He moved a book, and produced a tin. 'Biscuit?'
Harry's stomach gurgled an answer. He meant to only take a few, but Lupin handed over the entire tin, and sat back to pour water over tea bags. Harry ate, and ate a few more when Lupin nodded for him to make free, and took the cup when Lupin passed, or tried to. Lupin didn't let it go, and tea sloshed, a little, as Lupin stared at his hands.
'Did you by any chance attack a tree?' Lupin asked, and his voice had got very quiet. Harry had never heard that kind of voice on a teacher before, but it was far more dangerous than Mr Thompkin's maddest screaming. 'Tear down a stone fortress? Beat a giant?'
'Er... no, sir.'
Lupin took hold of his hands. Harry winced pre-emptively, but Lupin was very gentle with him, just turning them by the wrist this way and that. 'Harry,' he said, in that tone just a little bit above a whisper, 'did one of the other boys do this to you?'
'No, sir,' Harry said.
'Did you do this to yourself?'
Lupin enclosed both of Harry's smaller hands in his larger ones, cool against the throbbing heat of his knuckles. 'A teacher?'
'I...' His hesitation was answer enough. Lupin was pale over the rumpled collar of his shirt, and his red tie was like an exclamation mark under eyes that had gone very fierce. 'I... don't want to get in trouble, sir,' Harry managed.
'You won't.' Lupin squeezed his hands carefully. 'But I should very much like to know who did this. It's not to be borne.'
'You won't-- you won't fight him?' If anyone had asked Harry this morning he would have scoffed at the idea of Lupin fighting anyone. But he was suddenly aware that Lupin was quite tall, actually, and though he was thin his shoulders were broad and the old faded scar on his cheek looked suddenly less like a childhood accident than a map of unimaginable brawls on pirate ships or in biker bars or something equally perilous.
'No,' Lupin replied. 'I can promise you he won't fight me at all.'
That was not precisely what Harry had asked. But he believed it to the bone. 'I didn't sleep well last night, I fell asleep at lunch, there was a dog, only I reckon it must be wild because it was very hungry and skinny, but it didn't bite or anything, and I cheeked Mr Thompkins, only I didn't mean to but I did, the dog ate my sandwich and I think Mr Thompkins must not like dogs, I think-- sir,' Harry blurted all in a rush.
And Lupin nodded once. He said, 'Thank you, Harry,' and rose. He was nearly at the door when he turned, and fetched a small glass bottle from inside his desk. He said, 'Use a dab of that tonight, on each hand. No more than the size of a pound coin.' And then he was out the door, and his footsteps moved swiftly off in the direction of the east wing, where Mr Thompkins's office was.
The oddest thing was that he seemed to have taken something else out of his drawer-- a long stick not unlike the pointers the teachers used in their classes, and he was holding it in a clenched fist. Was he planning on rapping Mr Thompkins's knuckles? Or worse? Mr Thompkins liked to talk in Religion about how in his day whipping and caning had been allowed, and Professor Lupin, kind Professor Lupin who always had something nice to say, looked plenty capable of caning a man with that stick.
If Harry had had a hard time falling asleep before, that night was positively torturous.
But he must have been out a least a while, since he woke abruptly at the noise of Marcus tumbling off the bunk, late for first bell. Harry scrambled to follow, rubbing drool off his face and remembering only at the last moment to go back for a comb so he wouldn't be docked points again, though the mirror told him he looked a fright anyway, all red eyes and hair standing out like the hay in a scarecrow's hat. Harry was clattering down the steps with his bookbag thumping along his spine, sprinting pell-mell with the other late boys for their classrooms, and made it to his desk in the back of his first period with just seconds to spare. Mr Higgins gave him a withering look, but didn't pursue it, and Harry allowed himself to breathe. He got out his notebook and History textbook, and waited meekly in queue to sharpen his pencils for the day as Mr Higgins wrote their assignment on the board.
The pleasant grate of the sharpener was lulling him when he noticed something-- or, rather, the lack of something-- and all of yesterday's anxieties came flooding back, with a hefty dose of confusion.
His hands were completely unmarred.
They'd been swollen as sausages just last night. Bloody in the knuckles, and blistered. He'd had one fingernail going purple and black and had thought he'd lose it for sure. He hadn't been able to bend them hardly at all. Now he made a fist without pain, wiggled each finger freely. Maybe he hadn't been injured as badly as he'd feared? It had seemed awful, Harry thought dubiously, as he trotted back to his seat. But perhaps he'd just been that upset, and thinking it must look as bad as it felt. But it had hurt something terrible, it really had. Hadn't it?
By the time Maths rolled around, Harry was well on his way to doing himself a new injury, from chewing on his thumbnail. He was ahead of the crowd, this time, running between Geography and Lupin's classroom so fast he arrived sweating, shoving his way through the boys still exiting in a stream to peer through the door. Lupin was there, dusting his board and his sleeve with equanimity, and when he saw Harry standing there he smiled absently and said, 'Take your seats, boys, if you please.'
'You look all right,' Harry said, and blushed when he realised that had been aloud.
Lupin turned to face him, brushing chalk from his hands. He nodded. 'Yes,' he replied. 'I am, thank you. And you?'
Wordlessly Harry showed the professor his own hands. Lupin didn't look at all amazed, which put Harry out a bit. Instead, Lupin issued a brisk, 'Excellent,' and commenced ignoring Harry as he returned serenely to the his lessonbook.
Harry was a tiny bit miffed by that. He stomped a bit as he went to his usual desk, but Lupin didn't look at him even when he ran through attendance. He started them immediately on decimals. Harry's scowl soon turned towards the work-- he was on the slow side, completing the worksheet for ordering decimals, and as the lesson wound down Harry was concentrating so hard he missed Lupin's regular walkabout til the Professor was suddenly standing there next to Harry's desk, bent over Harry's shoulder to read his page.
But made no comment about it. He merely straightened, and said, 'Stay after, please, Mr Potter,' and moved on to review Gaz's worksheet in the next row.
Well. That didn't sound encouraging, but it gave Harry time to think of what he wanted to say, which he supposed he ought to have done anyway. So when the bell rang and the other boys had gone, Harry walked slowly to Lupin's desk at the front of the classroom. Lupin waited for him there, saying nothing, either, and for a moment they just looked each other in the eye. Then Harry took his hand out of his pocket and put Lupin's little bottle of balm on the edge of the desk.
Lupin's eyes flicked to it. 'Thank you for returning that,' he said.
'Yes, sir. For the next boy who needs it.'
He had thought that quite a subtle probe. Lupin's mouth turned up, spreading small lines to either side of his lips. 'You boys won't need it,' he answered, and put the bottle in his coat. 'There will be no further problems which warrant its use.'
'Did you beat him?' Harry asked, and perhaps blunt worked where subtle did not, because Lupin's smile faded.
'No, Harry,' he said, and looked away. 'But you have my word. He will never hurt anyone else.'
'I believe you.'
'Yes,' Harry said. He licked his lips, glancing up at the clock over the door. 'Sir...'
'Our tea was interrupted,' Lupin said then. 'Would you mind, returning tonight? I had meant to talk to you. There are things I would-- like to talk to you about.'
'We can't talk now?'
Lupin exhaled a dusty laugh. 'Well, I suppose we might. That is rather cruel, isn't it, leaving you in suspense.' He walked past Harry, to shut the door and draw the shade over the window. 'I can't always be writing you passes for missing class, but I suppose it doesn't really matter now.'
'Why?' Harry asked, sitting as Lupin gestured him to, in one of the desks in the front row. Lupin carried his chair from the board to put it near Harry's seat, and sat with his hands on his knees. 'I mean, why wouldn't it matter now?'
'Because things are going to change soon.' Lupin flexed his hands, and opened his mouth a little, but no sound emerged. His shoulders were tight and slumped by turns, and he seemed to be thinking very hard. Harry waited on tenterhooks. 'You're nearly eleven,' Lupin said eventually. 'That's a very significant age.'
Lupin had said that before. 'I don't think I understand, sir.'
Lupin made another false start, and bit his lip. He's nervous, Harry realised, amazed. He'd never seen an adult look like that. Unthinking, Harry reached out, and patted the Professor's arm. Lupin looked down at his hand with a bowed head, and kept it low like that even when Harry, abashed, retreated to his own desk.
Lupin found his voice again at last, though he still did not look up. 'Do you recall when I came to teach at Crowhill, Harry?'
'Sort of?' Sometimes it seemed nothing at Crowhill ever changed. 'I think I was seven?'
'You were,' Lupin confirmed. 'Or just short of seven, that is, just as you're just short of eleven now. I had wanted to be here earlier than that, but it took that long for me to find you.'
Harry knew, suddenly. He just knew. The way Lupin had always been just a little more attentive to Harry than anyone else, and touched him sometimes on his shoulder, when he didn't touch the other boys. He found himself holding his breath, but couldn't help it.
'You see, when you were younger-- no. You see, I'd been looking. I'd been looking for you, but it was very hard to find you. Every time I got close, something happened to delay me. Albus was always keen to-- no. That's for later, if ever.' Lupin composed himself rigidly. 'It took me some time to locate your aunt and uncle. Do you remember them? Vernon and Petunia Dursley?'
Harry did remember them, in that he remembered a very loud very big man and a very thin very shrill woman, and none of what he remembered of them was good. But he supposed he had not been a very good baby, because they had given him away to Crowhill Boys Home. Harry did not remember this, but had overheard Deacon Massey from the local church tell Mr Higgins that Harry Potter was a sad case. Unwanted. His relatives had dumped him off with the police in the middle of the night, with nothing but an empty pillow sack filled with half a sleeve of McVities biscuits, a mealey apple, and a ten pound note, and his name pinned to his shirt collar.
'I didn't really remember their names,' Harry said at length. 'They were just Aunt and Uncle.'
'Yes, well, for your sake I wish they were even less than that. They didn't deserve something implying that much connection.' Lupin glanced up at him, and away. 'I don't mean to pain you. But the truth is they are not good people. Hard as it's been for you, here, I think it would have been worse with them. At any rate-- at any rate I was too late to them, and by the time I found them, they had already been shot of you for some time. I don't know if you can imagine this, but there's so much paperwork in Mug-- in modern life. There were records, and I talked to everyone who'd ever met you, it seemed, as you were processed through the police and family services and eventually into foster care. And eventually to Crowhill. By then you were seven, and I had missed... had missed so much of your life. And I-- I desperately wish it were otherwise, but I couldn't come here as a parent and take you away, as you deserved. I would never have been allowed custody of a child, and I couldn't put you through a life on the run, exiled between two worlds. I did what I could to be near you, hiring on as a teacher here. I know it wasn't enough-- I know it's never enough, when what you want, what you obviously want and deserve, deserve is to know a good life in a good home--'
Lupin was uncharacteristically rambling, but Harry hung on every word, simultaneously trying to imprint it all on his memory so he could linger over it later, and get through all the blasted words to the one he most wanted to hear. The final little stumble in Lupin's voice was all he could bear, and he burst out with it very bluntly indeed. He said, 'Are you my father?'
Lupin looked up, caught. 'Oh,' he breathed, and looked stricken, and that was all Harry needed to know. Hope like he'd never known crashed to ashes about his ears. His stomach dropped all the way to the floor, through the floor, and, most horrible of all, his eyes filled with tears.
'Oh,' Harry said, in a very small voice.
Lupin left his chair in a rush, falling to his knees beside Harry's desk. He put both hands on Harry's shoulders, squeezing tight as if he thought Harry might run, and Harry thought he might well run indeed, because he had never, in all his life, been so humiliated as he was right now. 'I know they're dead,' Harry croaked. 'I know about the car crash, I just-- I'm sorry, that was so foolish, I know they're dead--'
Lupin's face was a pale blur through his tears. 'Yes,' Lupin whispered, 'yes, they are, and I'm so unbearably sorry about that. But, Harry, I did know them. They were wonderful dear friends of mine, and though I could never-- I didn't have it in my power to take you when they died, I wanted to. You are such a wonderful, special boy, Harry, and things are-- things are about to change, for you. And I-- I see now I've done this horribly wrong, but I wanted-- oh, Harry, I just wanted-- you to know the truth-- I--'
Harry wiped viciously at his face. 'The truth about you?'
'The truth about you. Harry, you don't belong here, one anonymous boy alone with all these Muggles. The truth, Harry, is so much more complex than that. You were never meant to be here at all. If they'd lived, your parents would have raised you as a wizard.'
The word made his ears ring like a-- bell. Or was that just the bell calling for next class? But a weird shiver of anticipation and-- and joy crawled over Harry, and he shook his head to clear it, blinked the tears from his eyes. 'A what?'
Lupin nodded. 'You're a wizard, Harry. And an extraordinary one, I reckon. A wizard like our world has never seen.'
There it was again. Joy. Harry looked at Lupin, that strange unusual new joyful feeling welling up in him, sweeping away everything bad like sludge washed away with the rain, and he met Lupin's eyes, Lupin's strange eyes like his strange eyes, and he laughed. He laughed because he felt too good not to laugh. And Lupin smiled at him, used his thumbs to wipe the wet from Harry's cheeks, and laughed with him.