In preparation for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them I whipped together a piece of Sirius Black Fan Fiction.
I’ve thought about this story idea for several years. It’s a story called “A Place in Your Mind” and it covers what happened to Sirius in proximity to Book 4: The Goblet of Fire.
The letter made him leave. He would miss his little incubator of an island: the warm weather, the beaches, the five-o-clock somewhere culture that could care less if his poverty came from being a fugitive or from bankruptcy. The whole island suffered. The “why” of poverty didn’t matter so much as the “with whom” and he had given them smashing company. The sun had mended large swaths of his soul, the part that hid his depression, and had reinvigorated the charm of his inner patron.
He cut his matted hair.
The locals had found it odd that he’d used cast nets from the boats to catch the parrots and macaws and how he’d tied little handwritten letters to their feet and whispered in their ears and sent them away again in their squawking. But even that they ignored, ultimately, because in the context of the rest of the island’s sleeping rough and their various mental states, his was a mild case.
Britain would not be so kind.
Then again: had it ever?
He had to go. A weird thing happened this morning, though. My scar hurt again. That’s what the letter had said and it was enough to make him leave his island incubator. He had to go. He’d told the boy to call on him if ever he needed to. Well, the boy needed to now, all right. He’d planned on the boy writing to say he’d been mistreated by that “perfectly normal” bourgeois aunt and uncle of his — anyone who spent their lives making machines that poked holes in the earth had no business raising someone else’s child. That wasn’t the only boring thing. The words my scar had burrowed down deep into the recesses of his being and there they festered, prodding him back home as an abscess prods one towards the dentist.
Were her parents still dentists? These people and their drills…
Or, rather, prodding him back towards what had once been home. That’s the interesting thing about the word homeless: those without homes, by definition, wandered. And some wandered aimlessly. And some wandered with purpose. Mother would never have understood that. Society — even the island society — treated all homeless men and women alike: as aimless. Whether by spitting on him or ignoring him through diverted glances or refusing him a bog standard meal like crackers, they kept him from his dignity. And they tolerated him. It wasn’t, in the end, welcome.
Yes, it was their tolerance that bothered him.
He didn’t want to be tolerated. He wanted to be an honored guest. He’d read this memoir by some Half-Irish bloke while sleeping on the beaches — one of those discarded mass market paperbacks the Americans had left in their wake. He’d saved it from the high tide, having dusted off the sand. The author was good, though clearly unmagical, and had said something like, “Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.” Walking on the wall. He’d been walking on the wall since they’d kicked him out in his teens. The Britain he remembered was not the Britain to which he would be returning. Marauders murdered and exiled and run aground all. None of them left like the glory days. And if only he could somehow bring them back, bring their footprints back to the map like Peter’s had just last year.
My scar hurt again.
He sent a letter to the headmaster about it all and the headmaster replied in agreement, though he had his reservations. He suggested going to number 12. But number 12 wasn’t home, so he wrote back vetoing that idea. His home was not a place on the map at all. He suggested the Scottish countryside. The headmaster wrote back his reservations and said: keep to the caves. What was it with the headmaster and caves? The letter also mentioned how Bertha Jorkins had died.
He wrote back to the boy:
I’m flying north immediately. This news about your scar is the latest in a series of strange rumors that have reached me here. If it hurts again, go straight to Dumbledore — they’re saying he’s got Mad-Eye out of retirement, which means he’s reading the signs, even if no one else is. I’ll be in touch soon. My best to Ron and Hermione. Keep your eyes open…
So he rode back on the smelly beast. Considering how he had no money for a cab or a plane or a ship, and considering how he no longer had his motorcycle, it was the cheapest and the fastest and the most discrete way, as long as he stuck to the shadows. And the beast kept him company in a way, though it felt more like another form of being tolerated. In the beast’s defense, he probably felt merely tolerated by him as well — two roommates stuck together, working together, sleeping in the same room, unable to communicate. (Not unlike growing up in the House of Black.) And they both smelled of the road and their filth and the need to wazz against walls and and the roots of trees. Smells demented, but it’s the way of many ex cons. The body odor too… well it’s not like they had any lack for water, sometimes a man just forgets to bathe in the midst of his depression.
And sometimes a beast is just a smelly beast, regardless of wings or hooves.
The ride was long.
Spending the summer at his friend’s house, that was the postscript in the lad’s letter. The postscript called to mind summers at James’ house where they’d take to the woods and fields and dig burrows and lay out beds of clover and build castles of sticks and fairy stones — the ones with the holes in them, playing pretend as they did. He hoped the boy would have that sort of fun this summer. Fun was in short supply these days.
Storms in the highlands of Scotland interrupted the thought. The tours would never run this late, which gave him opening enough. Over Sangomore they went, stopping short in a field to the south of highway A838. Across an open parking lot lit by a couple of its building’s side lights, its little green dumpster kept company by a massive ship propeller, a white anchor leaning alone by the handicap parking spots. He’d leaned like that before when his mates were planning pranks.
Through the weeds and tall grasses, then they went along A838 for a bit until they hopped the guard rail, and made their way down to the entrance of Smoo Cave. Stepping down stones was harder for the beast, along the moss, the great craggy walls. He taking the footbridge, the beast splashing happily in the remnants of some high tide that had washed in from the North Sea. The North Sea… he never wanted to touch her frigid waters again.
He turned inward, in out of the cold, towards the cave’s relative warmth, its damp cool. His thirst felt unquenchable and so he took care of himself and drank some water there in the mouth of the cave. He popped his lips as he eyed the mouth of the cave. His brother Regulus came to mind. He didn’t know why.
And he didn’t know why he missed him either.
He pulled out a light and they both worked along the abandoned platforms and walkways, working deeper and deeper inside, first past the bit settled by tourists, then past the bit affected by the spelunkers who ran the cave, and finally into the deeper underbelly where the other animals slept. Fleamont and Euphemia had taken he and James there one summer while wild camping around Scotland. They’d seen this old stag up on the hill, its antlers of the sort that refused to shed for one reason or another, Spanish moss and regular moss hanging from them: relics reborn from some netherworld to which they’d been condemned. The Spanish moss in particular had struck him, the way birds would light upon those antlers and make those dangles move. The four of them at the end of the semester had decided to choose animals, following after Remus (always the trendsetter). Really to protect him. And to have a good reason to do something illegal. On the trip, Sirius had found that great black dog in the alley a few towns back. But when James set eyes on that stag there in the hills of Sangomore, he gasped and locked eyes with it. Fleamont had said something along the lines of, “Bless my soul” and Euphemia had said, “Mercy me.”
James had said nothing.
He had said, “Yeah, mate, pick that stag. It’ll be big enough to keep him… company.”
“Keep who company, Sirius?” Euphemia had asked the boys.
James had lied about carving an animal version of chess.
“I’d actually like to have one of those for Christmas, mate,” Sirius had said.
“I bet you would,” James had said.
“You and your gambles,” Sirius had said. Why had he said it like that? Why had he said it at all?
The hill was cold now above the cave and deep in its belly, the man named after the grey dog’s star waited with the beast. Food would come tomorrow. Man had they eaten well at the wedding — Lily’s mum and dad could cook. Nevermind food. For now, they slept.
They slept most of the morning and leaving the beast untied (could one honorably do otherwise?), he went out to find food during the day. Diving dumpsters could wait. He needed to see if he could either nick some out of a vacant home or find some unwitting publican from whom he could beg a bit of brown bread. About a thirty minute walk to the west (counting the climb) he found The Pub — Sango Sands — was closed. He looked and for leagues in every direction, he could not spot another. So he walked up to the Durness Visitor Information Center. He thought he was a visitor here in Durness and he needed information, so perhaps the folks at Visit Scotland would help him. Certainly they liked decorating their lawns with upright way stones. Reminded him of something Old Mad Eye might have done.
The visitor’s center was about the size of the room he’d shared with his best mates back in school: a little A-frame of stone, plaster walls on the other side, grey tile roof, single door leading into a room full of chairs he’d seen in other unmagical offices and brochures and bright metallic things the people who Visit Scotland apparently liked to buy from the local Durness clerk. They looked like idols. Certainly New Yorkers had a lot of similar metallic talismans shaped like a moldy version of some daughter of Ceres.
Approaching the desk, he cleaned his throat and rubbed the glyph tattoo under his right sleeve — sometimes they nagged at him like that.
Behind the desk slouched a teenage girl with tight shorts and a black t-shirt advertising some band considered obscure even by his standards She painted mythical creatures on one page of a book of canvas sheets.
“Have a pub?” he asked her.
“Hey. Aren’t you supposed to welcome me?” he asked.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Did that backwards, didn’t you?”
He worked his thumbnail over with the tip of his pointer finger. His tongue touched his canine. He thought better of that, but only just. Then he said, “If that’s the greeting you give to each of your guests, I understand why you see so few.”
The paintbrush stopped swaying. “No,” she said.
“No that’s not your greeting?”
“No, we don’t have any more pubs. You’ve got to go several shires south for that. Past the sheep.”
“Oh. Well, where can a guy get some food?”
She pointed to two glass cases with small, bright packages locked in tight with one another, inescapably bound in their little wire cells. He thought of cold stone and high waves and halls that whistled in the night’s chill. He looked out the north windows of the visitor’s center towards the North Sea and thought hateful thoughts at her waves.
The girl said, “Half quid.”
“Measure your money in Quidditch matches? Is it a gambling thing?” He flinched and thought again of James.
He didn’t have any of their sort of money. “Got mugged.”
She fished around in her pockets and held out a wrapped bar.
He smiled grimly and pocketed it, then walked out.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
“You did that backwards,” he said and chuckled. It sounded like a growl.
Outside, he gnashed his teeth on the bag and started walking towards the nearest house. Begging was not beneath him, there were just better scraps that took less effort to scavenge. He saw no one was home and so he came around the edge of the house when another letter came. He snatched it off the string quickly and tipped its deliverer:
I reckon I just imagined my scar hurting, I was half asleep when I wrote you last time. There’s no point in coming back, everything’s fine here. Don’t worry about me, my head feels completely normal.
“Whelp, guess I’ll go back to the Caribbean,” he said to no one and whipped his head and his neck popped and half sprained and he realized he’d cut his hair. He’d have to get use to the lack of weight and wind resistance again. He pulled out some scrap parchment and wrote the boy: Nice try. I’m back in the country and well-hidden. I want you to keep me posted on everything that’s going on… don’t worry about me, just watch out for yourself. Don’t forget what I said about your scar. He’d also added how the kid needed to use a more discrete method of communication — he thought that was the most important part. He added a separate note for the headmaster about how the boy had begun to lie, then tied both notes to the foot of the snow owl and watched it fly away in broad daylight into the open air of the country field. Well-hidden. That was a fine joke on him, alright. The boy would probably think it something he’d managed to get back without getting caught. That was the thing: getting caught on your own terms was half the fun. He turned back to the house and thought he’d rap his knuckles on the front door first, just to be sure.
A very short, very fat old woman came. “Well there, I didn’t order no parcels.”
“What about post-order strippers?” Sirius asked.
She stopped for a second, looked him up and down. And down. She met his eyes again. “Oh that’s right, I did! Come in, laddy!”
He had been joking, of course. Sarcasm had helped as much as harmed him over the years.
He also wasn’t sure which side this encounter fell into.
The fat lady’s costume jewelry clacked against itself as she ambled into her foyer and then under the little arch in the dry wall to the island in the kitchen. She leaned against it and said, “Well get to it.”
“Can’t really dance on an empty stomach, can I?”
“Well you don’t have to dance on a stomach, now do you? You can dance on the floor. You can dance on me bed if it pleases you.”
“Yes, but if I’m hungry—“
“Well what good was the money I paid for this order?” she asked
“Goes to the seller, not me. They pick us up off the street and haul us off and send us to the other end of the world to pull favors.” He was full of it now and he knew it, but that was the problem with sarcasm. The worst part was how she didn’t quite welcome but… well even she was merely tolerating him, wasn’t she? Merely tolerating a potential male stripper. That was grand. Just grand. He couldn’t even make it in a brothel if the floor of the whole earth fell out from under him.
“Well I guess I’d better feed you then,” she said. “You know my son left years ago…”
Weeks later, he knew he’d picked the right house for food but the wrong house to blend in and feel welcome in the town surrounding Smoo Cave. At least he hadn’t needed to strip: she took him in as a sort of surrogate son and turned out she knew a lot more about his world than she’d let on, but she didn’t read the papers as far north as she was. She thought of herself as something of a hermit pretending to live a normal life among the less-than-magical villagers up here. The fat lady’s name was Della — short for O’Della. Sirius made a habit of singing:
Oh Della Oh Della
Who’s plumper than most
You warm me, adorn me
And fill me with toast.
She laughed enough. And she gave him more than toast and muffins: he ate better than he’d eaten since school and could also nick food to smuggle back to the beast. The beast had taken to eating crawfish and slithering things that had washed in from that damnable North Sea. It was on such a trip back to the cave one night that he got the next letter, which did, in fact, arrive far more discretely:
You told me to keep you posted on what’s happening… Tournament’s happening this year and on Saturday night I got picked as a fourth champion. I don’t know who put my name in… Hope you’re okay…
That did it. He wrote back immediately:
I can’t say everything I would like to in a letter, it’s too risky… we need to talk face-to-face. Can you be sure you’re alone by the fire… at one o’clock in the morning on the 22nd of November?
I know better than anyone that you can look after yourself… I don’t think anyone will be able to hurt you. However, someone seems to be having a good try. Entering you in that tournament would have been very risky…
…I still want to hear about anything unusual. Let me know about the 22nd of November as quickly as you can.
He got an independent letter from the headmaster as well, explaining the situation, particularly how dragons were the first test in the tournament. The boy needed to hit it with a Conjunctivitis Curse, right in the eye.
A few days later the response came from the boy:
22nd of November. One in the morning. By the common room fire.
He warned the beast that he wouldn’t be coming home that night. Then he went to the little cottage, buttered up O’Della and stayed late and of course she offered for him to stay. So he cozied up on the couch and she stoked the fire and added some logs and then ambled back to her room where he first heard the bedsprings whining and then, after the echos of a large mammal tossing and turning mid-hibernation, he heard the sounds of a low, whistling snore. He laughed, got the chuckles about it, and had to cover his mouth at the comic sound of it.
He stoked the fire to a brilliance and tossed some of the powder in and it flared up. Then he buried his head in the coals.
“Sirius — how’re you doing?” the boy asked. His eyes were scanning his features, surprised. Probably because he’d been eating well and didn’t have mangy hair.
“Never mind me, how are you?” Sirius asked.
“No one believed me. I couldn’t enter the tournament by myself. I don’t know how. And there’s this journalist. She interviewed me and lied about me in her paper. And now I can’t walk down the hall without people sneering at me over what she said. I think. And Ron doesn’t believe that I couldn’t enter the tournament either. He’s jealous that he couldn’t get in and jealous of the paper and he won’t talk to me. And now Hagrid’s just shown me what’s coming in the first task, and it’s dragons, Sirius, and I’m a goner.”
Oh to be young. “Dragons we can deal with, Harry, but we’ll get into that in a minute — I haven’t got long here… I’ve broken into a wizarding house to use the fire, but they could be back at any time.” That was true, but it made it sound more glamorous than how it had actually played out. Eh, let the kid think he was a renegade a bit longer. Maybe they could get into a little trouble together later like he and James used to do, godfather and son. “There are things I need to warn you about.”
He told the boy about his cellmate Karkaroff from the prison in the North Sea and how the guy was at the school. That’s probably why Old Mad Eye was there in the first place: watching over the old felon.
“Why did they release him?”
“He did a deal with the Ministry of Magic,” said Sirius. “He said he’d seen the error of his ways, then he named names… he put a load of people into Azkaban in his place… He’s not very popular in there, I can tell you. And since he got out, from what I can tell, he’s been teaching the Dark Arts to every student who passes through that school of his. So watch out for the Durmstrang champion as well.”
“Okay,” Harry said slowly. “But are you saying Karkaroff put my name in the goblet? Because if he did, he’s a really good actor. He seemed furious about it. He wanted to stop me from competing.”
“We know he’s a good actor,” said Sirius, “because he convinced the Ministry of Magic to set him free, didn’t he? Now I’ve been keeping an eye on the Daily Prophet, Harry—“
“You and the rest of the world,” said Harry.
“—and reading between the lines of that Skeeter woman’s article last month, Moody was attacked the night before he started at Hogwarts. I think someone knew their job would be a lot more difficult with him around. And no one’s going to look into it too closely, Mad Eye’s heard intruders a bit too often. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still spot the real thing. Moody was the best Auror the Ministry ever had.”
“So… what are you saying?” said Harry slowly, “Karakoff’s trying to kill me? But — why?”
Sirius hesitated. “I’ve been hearing some very strange things,” he said slowly, “The Death Eaters seem to be a bit more active than usual lately. They showed themselves at the Quidditch World Cup, didn’t they? Someone set off the Dark Mark … and then — did you hear about that Ministry of Magic witch who’s gone missing?”
“Bertha Jorkins?” said Harry.
“Exactly … she disappeared in Albania and that’s definitely where Voldemort was rumored to be last … and she would have know the Triwizard Tournament was coming up, wouldn’t she?”
“Yeah, but…it’s not very likely she’d have walked straight into Voldemort, is it?” said Harry.
“Listen, I knew Bertha Jorkins,” said Sirius grimly. “She was at Hogwarts when I was, a few years above your dad and me. And she was an idiot. Very nosy, but no brains, none at all. It’s not a good combination, Harry. I’d say she’d be very easy to lure into a trap.”
“So… so Voldemort could have found out about the tournament?” said Harry. “Is that what you mean? You think Karkaroff might be here on his orders?”
“I don’t know,” Sirius said slowly, “I just don’t know… Karkaroff doesn’t strike me as the type who’d go back to Voldemort unless he knew Voldemort was powerful enough to protect him. But whoever put your name in that goblet did it for a reason, and I can’t help thinking the tournament would be a very good way to attack you and make it look like an accident.”
“Looks like a really good plan from where I’m standing,” said Harry grinning bleakly. “They’ll just have to stand back and let the dragons do their stuff.”
“Right — these dragons,” said Sirius, speaking very quickly now. “There’s a way, Harry. Don’t be tempted to try a Stunning Spell — dragons are strong and too powerfully magical to be knocked out by a single stunner, you need about half a dozen wizards at a time to overcome a dragon — “
“Yeah, I know, I just saw,” said Harry.
Good old Hagrid. He missed his motorcycle. “But you can do it alone,” said Sirius. “There’s a way and a simple spell’s all you need. Just — “
But Harry held up a hand to silence him.
Sirius heard footsteps coming down the staircase on the other side.
“Go!” Harry hissed. “Go! There’s someone coming!”
Sirius backed out of the fireplace and heard Della getting out of bed. “Young man,” she said, “to whom were you speaking?”
“A face in the fire,” he said.
“Always hated that powder. I miss the days when we still used horses and whispers. I’ll turn on the tea,” she said, “and you can tell me all about these dragons.”
He made up some crock story about wanting to feel like a dragon sometimes at night and burying his face in the coals to fool himself.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“To feel strong.”
“Economy does terrible things to my self-esteem too.”
“Er… yeah,” he said. He worked on his port and passed on the tea.
She said, “What shall I call you?”
“Snuffles,” he said.
Not long after that, O’Della Who’s Plumper Than Most and Filled Him With Toast passed away in her sleep. He had to move out before he got accused of anything unsavory. He left in the night, basically emptying her fridge and pantry of anything he could take. It took several trips and no one really watched for marauders at no soul’s hour in one of the northernmost shires of Scotland. At one point he even got tired of bringing the things in loads, so he enlisted Buckbeak’s help and they made off like how bandits in some desert country will make off with saddlebags on their camels. Except it was just him and the hippogryph and there were no saddlebags, only old white sheets with blue anchor print tied around the beast’s wings like the world’s largest hobo knapsack. The flowstones deep in Smoo Cave made for wonderful shelves and he turned their netherworld into a homey little place. The scissors and the rest of the toiletries were last-minute add-ons, as was the money she had sown into most of the drapes and quilts — galleons and quid alike. They did not last — he lost the scissors quite quickly.
A few days later, he watched with the teenage girl (who now donned a different obscure band on her screenprinted t-shirt) as the non-magical folk hosted a wake and then auctioned off O’Della’s possessions, most of which they recognized, but some of which had to be confiscated by the Ministry of Magic. Sirius had tensed as he watched the ministry folk clean out old trinkets from Diagon Alley and whatnot. Two of the understudies even came into the Visit Scotland shop and Sirius turned toward the brochures as the wizards asked to use the loo.
That night, in the depth of his despair for having lost O’Della, a twerp of an owl landed all jittery on a nearby stalagmite. He untied the note and read about how the boy had solved the dragon problem without him. And with his broom of all things. That’s exactly what James would have done. Sirius had planned on teaching him how to shrink the thing down to size, but the trick with the broom… that was almost genius. Almost too smart for him. He wondered who had been so kind as to help Harry.
He wrote back:
Congratulations on getting past the Horntail. Whoever put your name in that goblet shouldn’t be feeling too happy right now! I was going to suggest a Conjunctivitis Curse, as a dragon’s eyes are its weakest point but your way was better, I’m impressed. Don’t get complacent, though, Harry. You’ve only done one task; whoever put you in for the tournament’s got plenty more opportunity if they’re trying to hurt you. Keep your eyes open — particularly when the person we discussed is around — and concentrate on keeping yourself out of trouble. Keep in touch, I still want to hear about anything unusual.
The letter he attached to the talon of the fidgety bird. It seemed insufficient, though. He decided to spend a bit of money, take a risk, and get the kid something special for Christmas. It took awhile to remember the store and to prepare for the journey.
He wanted to Apparate south enough that he could get into a store, but if the Ministry could track underage wizards, it could certainly track his Apparations. So he sprinted as a dog through the countryside. When he arrived, and he saw, outside the Best Made store, the wanted posters with his face on it, he felt it again. Unwelcome in his own country. Maybe his own country was just a place in his mind. So he broke into the back door and looked around. They had all manner of camping tools. He wanted the boy to have something functional in case he got into trouble. And he found the kind of knife that had once gotten him out from under house arrest as a young man. It had dozens of attachments that would unlock any lock and undo any knot. He got two of them: one for himself and one for Harry. He then left some of the money he’d nicked from O’Della on the counter and tipped very well. Somewhere, an Intruder Herald went off and started describing his physical attributes loud as a fog horn so he ran back to the north, knives in his teeth, again wishing he could Disapparate. He the package to a new owl, which left in the morning.
Weeks passed and the food ran out and he grew very, very hungry.
Awhile later, he received a brown owl telling him of how Barty Crouch had broken into Severus’ office, which made no sense, as well as Old Mad Eye and Severus talking about Severus’ Death Eater tatoo — typical banter between them, he supposed. Unless, of course, Severus had truly put Harry’s name in the goblet and was trying to bring harm to the boy. Something didn’t level. Something serious was about to happen. He wrote Dumbledore, telling him what the boy had communicated.
Dumbledore’s return note read:
There is another cave. A fissure by Hogsmeade.
Enclosed was a hand-drawn map with some of Dumbledore’s special ink meant only for the receiver: it looked black with flecks of gold. The map showed the way to the fissure.
He decided to risk it and get closer to Hogsmeade. At least he could see the boy and feel welcome. And maybe find some food — hardly anything lived in Smoo. He wrote Harry: Send date of next Hogsmeade weekend by return owl and sent the brown owl on its way. It came back rather quickly with the dates. The owl tried to fly away again and it fought back, so he punched it and forced it to the ground while he jotted down Be at stile at end of road out of Hogsmeade (past Dervish and Banges) at two o’clock Saturday afternoon. He didn’t feel bad about punching it either — it was there to do its job. Of course, he didn’t much like when people kicked him as a dog, so there was that. His stomach growled long and low. He thought of growling back at it. He’d long eaten clean through O’Della’s store. Bring as much food as you can.
When the time came, Sirius left the north with Buckbeak and worked back into a secondary cave, this fissure in the mountain. There he tied Buckbeak and left again. After searching Hogsmeade for awhile, he determined it was pointless to risk it. He faked like a stray, then, and began to eat scraps out of the trash while trying to attract as much love as possible from the locals.
It was then, there in the fissure, they began truly to live off of rats.
On November 22nd, he showed up as dog at that very stile at the end of a winding lane there in the shadow of the mountain. He had newspapers in his mouth.
“Hello, Sirius,” Harry Potter said as he approached.
Sirius sniffed at the bag the boy carried. It smelled like a dozen chicken legs, a loaf of bread, and a flask of… pumpkin juice? Pumpkin juice. Although there was a hint of old bourbon in there and backwash from whoever tried to dip a pretzel stick down inside it back when it had held hot tea. He wagged his tail — he wanted to scarf the stuff immediately — but instead led them through a scrubby patch that led to the foot of the mountain. There at the very foot of the mountain, where the ground was covered with boulders and rocks, Sirius bounded like a mountain goat. The kids struggled, but he pushed them higher and harder until they made it into this second cool, dimly-lit cave. They bowed to the beast while he transformed back into a man.
He was suddenly painfully aware of his ragged grey robes — the ones he’d worn when he’d left Azkaban. He remembered how long he’d been away from O’Della, the cold of Smoo Cave, of the scissors he’d lost. He spat the newspaper from his mouth and said, “Chicken!” hoarsely.
Harry passed him the bag.
“Thanks,” said Sirius, grabbing a drumstick, sitting down on the cave floor, and tearing off a large chunk with his teeth. “I’ve been living off of rats mostly. Can’t steal too much food from Hogsmeade; I’d draw attention to myself.” He grinned at his godson.
Harry grinned back reluctantly. Feigning welcome. Couldn’t he feel welcome at least with his own godson? “What are you doing here, Sirius?” Harry asked.
“Fulfilling my duty as godfather,” said Sirius. He gnawed on the chicken bone and slobbered on it. “Don’t worry about it, I’m pretending to be a lovable stray.” He grinned.
Harry’s brow was knotted together tight. Not merely unwelcome: a burden of worry.
Sirius said, “I want to be on the spot. Your last letter… well, let’s just say things are getting fishier. I’ve been stealing the paper every time someone throws one out, and by the looks of things, I’m not the only one who’s getting worried.” He nodded at the stack of them. It was a huge stack.
Ron picked them up and unfolded them. Good. They needed to realize how serious it was.
“What if they catch you?” Harry asked. “What if you’re seen?”
“You three and Dumbledore are the only ones who know I’m an Animangus,” said Sirius. Well, there was Lupin and Peter Pettigrew but… what did that matter? Lupin wouldn’t tell and Peter had no one to tell, still feigning death as he was. It’s not like Voldemort had returned. He shrugged and went after the chicken again as they read.
“They’re making it sound like he’s dying,” said Harry slowly. “But he can’t be that ill if he managed to get up here…”
“My brother’s Crouch’s personal assistant,” Ron informed Sirius. “He says Crouch is suffering from overwork.”
“Mind you, he did look ill, last time I saw up close,” said Harry slowly, still reading the story. “The night my name came out of the goblet…”
“Getting his comeuppance for sacking Windy, hasn’t he?” said Hermione, an edge to her voice. Who was Windy? Hermione was stroking Buckbeak, who was crunching up his chicken bones. “I bet he wishes he hadn’t done it now — bet he feels the difference now she’s not there to look after him.”
“Hermione’s obsessed with house-elfs,” Ron muttered to Sirius, casting Hermione a dark look.
Sirius perked up. “Crouch sacked his house-elf?”
“Yeah, at the Quidditch World Cup,” said Harry. “A bunch of death eaters showed up and started causing a scene. Then someone threw up a real Dark Mark into the sky. Turned out it was Winky — Crouch’s house-elf Winky. She stole my wand to do it. Crouch was furious.”
Sirius had risen. He grabbed a second chicken leg and paced. “Let me get this straight,” brandishing his leg like a sword, like Chesterton dictating a story about dueling to a stenographer. “You first saw the elf in the Top Box. She was saving Crouch a seat, right?”
“Right,” said the kids together.
“But Crouch didn’t turn up for the match?”
“No,” said Harry. “I think he’d been too busy.”
Sirius paced all around the cave in silence. He didn’t touch his chicken. “Harry did you check your pockets for your wand after you’d left the Top Box?”
“Erm… No. I didn’t need to use it before we got to the forest. And then I put my hand in my pocket, and all that was in there were my Omnioculars.” The boy stared. “Are you saying whoever conjured the Mark stole my wand in the Top Box?”
“It’s possible,” said Sirius. He thought of Wormtail scrambling for someone else’s wand.
“Winky didn’t steal that wand!” Hermione insisted.
“The elf wasn’t the only one in that box,” said Sirius, his brow furrowed as he continued to pace. “Who else was sitting behind you?”
“Loads of people,” said Harry. “Some Bulgarian ministers… Cornelius Fudge… the Malfoys…”
“The Malfoys!” said Ron. His voice ricocheted in echoes throughout the cave.
Buckbeak tossed his head around.
“I bet it was Lucius Malfoy!”
“Anyone else?” said Sirius.
“No one,” said Harry.
“Yes, there was, there was Ludo Bagman,” Hermione reminded him.
“I don’t know anything about Bagman except that he used to be Beater for the Wimbourne Wasps,” said Sirius, still pacing, thinking of the posters on his old room in number 12. “What’s he like?”
“He’s okay,” said Harry. “He keeps offering to help me with the Triwizard Tournament.”
“Does he, now?” said Sirius, frowning more deeply. “I wonder why he’d do that?”
“Says he’s taken a liking to me,” said Harry.
“Hmm,” said Sirius. The house elves reserving a spot was rather odd. It reminded him of the dark days. Crouch and that ruthlessness of his—
“We saw him in the forest just before the Dark Mark appeared.” Hermione told Sirius. “Remember?” she said to Harry and Ron.
“Yeah, but he didn’t stay in the forest, did he?” said Ron. “The moment we told him about the riot, he went off to the campsite.”
“How d’you know?” Hermione shot back. “How d’you know where he Disapparated to?”
“Come off it,” Ron said. He sounded incredulous. “Are you saying you reckon Ludo Bagman conjured the Dark Mark?”
“It’s more likely he did it than Winky,” said Hermione stubbornly.
“Told you,” said Ron, looking meaningfully to Sirius, “told you she’s obsessed with the house—”
But Sirius held up a hand to silence Ron. There was always Imperio. “When the Dark Mark had been conjured and the elf had been discovered holding Harry’s wand, what did Crouch do?”
“Went to look in the bushes,” said Harry, “but there wasn’t anyone else there.”
“Of course,” Sirius muttered, pacing up and down, “of course, he’d want to pin it on anyone but his own elf … and then he sacked her?”
“Yes,” said Hermione in a heated voice, “he sacked her, just because she hadn’t stayed in her tent and let herself get trampled—“
“Hermione, will you give it a rest with the elf!” said Ron.
Sirius shook his head. The elf was the bloody key. “She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron. If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” He ran a hand over his unshaven face. Why would the man leave? Had he ever? Crouch’s actions reminded him of himself as a kid: running away because he was hiding something, trying to keep it hidden. “All these absences of Barty Crouch’s … he goes to the trouble of making sure this house-elf saves him a seat at the Quidditch World Cup, but doesn’t bother to turn up and watch. He works very hard to reinstate the Triwizard Tournament, and then stops coming to that too…. It’s not like Crouch. If he’s ever taken a day off work because of illness before this, I’ll eat Buckbeak.”
The beast looked up and stared at him, offended after they’d come so far.
Sirius was that hungry.
“D’you know Crouch, then?” said Harry.
Such an innocent thing to ask. Sirius’ face darkened. He bared his canines and furrowed his brow. His hunger rumbled and he thought he heard the kennelmaster’s call of the hunt. “Oh I know Crouch all right,” he whispered. “He was the one who gave the order for me to be sent to Azkaban — without a trial.”
“What?” asked Ron and Hermione together.
“You’re kidding!” said Harry.
“No, I’m not,” said Sirius, taking another bit of chicken. “Crouch used to be Head of Department of Magical Law Enforcement, didn’t you know?”
The kids shook their heads.
“He was tipped for the next Minister of Magic,” said Sirius. “He’s a great wizard, Barty Crouch, powerfully magical — and power-hungry. Oh never a Voldemort supporter,” he said, reading the look on Harry’s face. “No, Barty Crouch was always very outspoken against the Dark Side. But then a lot of people who were against the Dark Side . . . well, you wouldn’t understand . . . you’re too young. . . .”
“That’s what my dad said at the World Cup,” said Ron, with a trace of irritation in his voice. “Try us, why don’t you?”
A grin flashed across Sirius’s thin face: yes, Ron reminded him of himself. Ornery streak, large pure-blood family, the runt of the litter in a lot of ways. “All right, I’ll try you. . . .” He walked once up the cave, back again, and then said, “Imagine that Voldemort’s powerful now. You don’t know who his supporters are, you don’t know who’s working for him and who isn’t; you know he can control people so that they do terrible things without being able to stop themselves. You’re scared for yourself, and your family, and your friends. Every week, news comes of more deaths, more disappearances, more torturing . . . the Ministry of Magic’s in disarray, they don’t know what to do, they’re trying to keep everything hidden from the Muggles, but meanwhile, Muggles are dying too. Terror everywhere . . . panic . . . confusion . . . that’s how it used to be.
“Well, times like that bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Crouch’s principles might’ve been good in the beginning — I wouldn’t know. He rose quickly through the Ministry, and he started ordering very harsh measures against Voldemort’s supporters. The Aurors were given new powers — powers to kill rather than capture, for instance. And I wasn’t the only one who was handed straight to the dementors without trial. Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side. He had his supporters, mind you — plenty of people thought he was going about things the right way, and there were a lot of witches and wizards clamoring for him to take over as Minister of Magic. When Voldemort disappeared, it looked like only a matter of time until Crouch got the top job. But then something rather unfortunate happened. . . .” Sirius smiled grimly. “Crouch’s own son was caught with a group of Death Eaters who’d managed to talk their way out of Azkaban. Apparently they were trying to find Voldemort and return him to power.”
“Crouch’s son was caught?” gasped Hermione.
“Yep,” said Sirius, throwing his chicken bone to Buckbeak, flinging himself back down on the ground beside the loaf of bread, and tearing it in half. “Nasty little shock for old Barty, I’d imagine. Should have spent a bit more time at home with his family, shouldn’t he? Ought to have left the office early once in a while . . . gotten to know his own son.” He began to wolf down large pieces of bread.
“Was his son a Death Eater?” said Harry.
“No idea,” said Sirius, still stuffing down bread. “I was in Azkaban myself when he was brought in. This is mostly stuff I’ve found out since I got out. The boy was definitely caught in the company of people I’d bet my life were Death Eaters — but he might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like the house-elf.”
“Did Crouch try and get his son off?” Hermione whispered.
Sirius let out a laugh that was much more like a bark. “Crouch let his son off? I thought you had the measure of him, Hermione! Anything that threatened to tarnish his reputation had to go; he had dedicated his whole life to becoming Minister of Magic. You saw him dismiss a devoted house-elf because she associated him with the Dark Mark again — doesn’t that tell you what he’s like? Crouch’s fatherly affection stretched just far enough to give his son a trial, and by all accounts, it wasn’t much more than an excuse for Crouch to show how much he hated the boy . . . then he sent him straight to Azkaban.”
“He gave his own son to the dementors?” asked Harry quietly.
“That’s right,” said Sirius, and he didn’t look remotely amused now. “I saw the dementors bringing him in, watched them through the bars in my cell door. He can’t have been more than nineteen. They took him into a cell near mine. He was screaming for his mother by nightfall. He went quiet after a few days, though . . . they all went quiet in the end . . . except when they shrieked in their sleep. . . .” For a moment, the light faded from his eyes as the memory of other senses took over. He remembered himself slipping, remembered feeling as if he’d never be happy again, as if he’d confess any number of things in order to get out. How he’d realized they didn’t have eyes and wouldn’t recognize the difference between dampened happiness and the emotional spectrum of a dog and so he’d transformed. But the thing about being a dog was that everything was heightened for distance and the sensory system didn’t go eyes-ears-nose, but rather nose-eyes-ears. He remembered the smell of feces and blood and fingernails being filed away as they dug at the slick obsidian walls. And the sounds were amplified: sounds of men howling, sounds of women driven to the pangs of childbirth though barren inside.
“So he’s still in Azkaban?” Harry said.
“No,” said Sirius dully. “No, he’s not in there anymore. He died about a year after they brought him in.”
“He wasn’t the only one,” said Sirius bitterly. “Most go mad in there, and plenty stop eating in the end. They lose the will to live. You could always tell when a death was coming, because the dementors could sense it, they got excited. That boy looked pretty sickly when he arrived. Crouch being an important Ministry member, he and his wife were allowed a deathbed visit. That was the last time I saw Barty Crouch, half carrying his wife past my cell. She died herself, apparently, shortly afterward. Grief. Wasted away just like the boy. Crouch never came for his son’s body. The dementors buried him outside the fortress; I watched them do it.” Sirius threw aside the bread he had just lifted to his mouth and instead picked up the flask of pumpkin juice and drained it. There at the end, the hint of bourbon and pretzel.
“So old Crouch lost it all, just when he thought he had it made,” he continued, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “One moment, a hero, poised to become Minister of Magic . . . next, his son dead, his wife dead, the family name dishonored, and, so I’ve heard since I escaped, a big drop in popularity. Once the boy had died, people started feeling a bit more sympathetic toward the son and started asking how a nice young lad from a good family had gone so badly astray.” Of course, they had said the same thing about Sirius himself, so it wasn’t much. “The conclusion was that his father never cared much for him.” Which was also true about Sirius’ father. There was that. “So Cornelius Fudge got the top job, and Crouch was shunted sideways into the Department of International Magical Cooperation.”
There was a long silence.
Sirius wished Crouch would have suffered worse. Much worse.
“Moody says Crouch is obsessed with catching Dark wizards,” Harry told Sirius.
“Yeah, I’ve heard it’s become a bit of a mania with him,” said Sirius, nodding. “If you ask me, he still thinks he can bring back the old popularity by catching one more Death Eater.” He wished he’d catch hold of Snape.
“And he sneaked up here to search Snape’s office!” said Ron triumphantly, looking at Hermione.
“Yes, and that doesn’t make sense at all,” said Sirius.
“Yeah, it does!” said Ron excitedly.
Sirius shook his head: not quite like him, after all. Ron was dim-witted at times. “Listen, if Crouch wants to investigate Snape, why hasn’t he been coming to judge the tournament? It would be an ideal excuse to make regular visits to Hogwarts and keep an eye on him.”
“So you think Snape could be up to something, then?” asked Harry.
Hermione broke in. “Look, I don’t care what you say, Dumbledore trusts Snape —”
“Oh give it a rest, Hermione,” said Ron impatiently. “I know Dumbledore’s brilliant and everything, but that doesn’t mean a really clever Dark wizard couldn’t fool him —”
“Why did Snape save Harry’s life in the first year, then? Why didn’t he just let him die?”
“I dunno — maybe he thought Dumbledore would kick him out —”
“What d’you think, Sirius?” Harry said loudly, and Ron and Hermione stopped bickering to listen.
“I think they’ve both got a point,” said Sirius, looking thoughtfully at Ron and Hermione. “Ever since I found out Snape was teaching here, I’ve wondered why Dumbledore hired him. Snape’s always been fascinated by the Dark Arts, he was famous for it at school. Slimy, oily, greasy-haired kid, he was,” Sirius added.
Harry and Ron grinned at each other.
Maybe he shouldn’t encourage the boys towards meanness. Had Severus deserved being tricked into the willow’s passage?
“Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year, and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters.” Sirius held up his fingers and began ticking off names. “Rosier and Wilkes — they were both killed by Aurors the year before Voldemort fell. The Lestranges — they’re a married couple — they’re in Azkaban. Avery — from what I’ve heard he wormed his way out of trouble by saying he’d been acting under the Imperius Curse — he’s still at large. But as far as I know, Snape was never even accused of being a Death Eater — not that that means much. Plenty of them were never caught. And Snape’s certainly clever and cunning enough to keep himself out of trouble.”
“Snape knows Karkaroff pretty well, but he wants to keep that quiet,” said Ron. “Yeah, you should’ve seen Snape’s face when Karkaroff turned up in Potions yesterday!” said Harry quickly. “Karkaroff wanted to talk to Snape, he says Snape’s been avoiding him. Karkaroff looked really worried. He showed Snape something on his arm, but I couldn’t see what it was.”
“He showed Snape something on his arm?” said Sirius. His eyes bugged out a bit. He ran his fingers distractedly through his filthy hair, then shrugged again. “Well, I’ve no idea what that’s about . . . but if Karkaroff’s genuinely worried, and he’s going to Snape for answers . . .” Sirius stared at the cave wall, then made a grimace of frustration. “There’s still the fact that Dumbledore trusts Snape, and I know Dumbledore trusts where a lot of other people wouldn’t, but I just can’t see him letting Snape teach at Hogwarts if he’d ever worked for Voldemort.”
“Why are Moody and Crouch so keen to get into Snape’s office then?” said Ron stubbornly.
“Well,” said Sirius slowly, “I wouldn’t put it past Mad-Eye to have searched every single teacher’s office when he got to Hogwarts. He takes his Defense Against the Dark Arts seriously, Moody. I’m not sure he trusts anyone at all, and after the things he’s seen, it’s not surprising. I’ll say this for Moody, though, he never killed if he could help it. Always brought people in alive where possible. He was tough, but he never descended to the level of the Death Eaters. Crouch, though . . . he’s a different matter . . . is he really ill? If he is, why did he make the effort to drag himself up to Snape’s office? And if he’s not . . . what’s he up to? What was he doing at the World Cup that was so important he didn’t turn up in the Top Box? What’s he been doing while he should have been judging the tournament?” Sirius lapsed into silence, still staring at the cave wall.
Buckbeak was ferreting around on the rocky floor, looking for bones he might have overlooked.
Finally, Sirius looked up at Ron. “You say your brother’s Crouch’s personal assistant? Any chance you could ask him if he’s seen Crouch lately?”
“I can try,” said Ron doubtfully. “Better not make it sound like I reckon Crouch is up to anything dodgy, though. Percy loves Crouch.”
“And you might try and find out whether they’ve got any leads on Bertha Jorkins while you’re at it,” said Sirius, gesturing to the second copy of the Daily Prophet. He wondered if Dumbledore had found anything else.
“Bagman told me they hadn’t,” said Harry.
“Yes, he’s quoted in the article in there,” said Sirius, nodding at the paper. “Blustering on about how bad Bertha’s memory is. Well, maybe she’s changed since I knew her, but the Bertha I knew wasn’t forgetful at all — quite the reverse. She was a bit dim, but she had an excellent memory for gossip. It used to get her into a lot of trouble; she never knew when to keep her mouth shut. I can see her being a bit of a liability at the Ministry of Magic . . . maybe that’s why Bagman didn’t bother to look for her for so long. . . .” Sirius heaved an enormous sigh and rubbed his shadowed eyes. “What’s the time?”
He watched Harry check his watch. There was water in it.
“It’s half past three,” said Hermione.
“You’d better get back to school,” Sirius said, getting to his feet. “Now listen . . .” He looked particularly hard at Harry. “I don’t want you lot sneaking out of school to see me, all right?” Actually, he did. But knew they shouldn’t. “Just send notes to me here. I still want to hear about anything odd. But you’re not to go leaving Hogwarts without permission; it would be an ideal opportunity for someone to attack you.”
“No one’s tried to attack me so far, except a dragon and a couple of grindylows,” Harry said.
Sirius scowled at him. “I don’t care . . . I’ll breathe freely again when this tournament’s over, and that’s not until June. And don’t forget, if you’re talking about me among yourselves, call me Snuffles, okay?”
Sirius handed Harry the empty napkin and flask and went to pat Buckbeak good-bye. “I’ll walk to the edge of the village with you,” said Sirius, “see if I can scrounge another paper.” He transformed into the great black dog before they left the cave, and he walked back down the mountainside with them, across the boulder-strewn ground, and back to the stile. Here he allowed each of them to pat him on the head, before turning and setting off at a run around the outskirts of the village.
He would miss Della out here too. He couldn’t get away from the memory of her — even the nickname “Snuffles” had brought her back to mind. And here wasn’t as safe as there, in a way. Hogsmeade was a wizarding town — the only one in England. They would all recognize him. He did his best when he could to persuade small children to feed him scraps, to lap up a butterbeer that had spilled or even to lick up fallen crumbs of sweets. It wasn’t enough, so he went back to rats until the two screech owls carried the food. After that, it was regular packages from the boy accompanied with notes about nominal changes — nothing out of the ordinary.
Some time later, Harry sent him a note about how Viktor Krum had taken him out into the woods to talk in private. How they’d come across Crouch, who had lost his mind and attacked Karakov.
Sirius was irate and began scribbling furiously:
Harry — what do you think you are playing at, walking off into the forest with Viktor Krum? I want you to swear, by return owl, that you are not going to go walking with anyone else at night. There is somebody highly dangerous at Hogwarts. It is clear to me that they wanted to stop Crouch from seeing Dumbledore and you were probably feet away from them in the dark. You could have been killed. Your name didn’t get into the Goblet of Fire by accident. If someone’s trying to attack you, they’re on their last chance. Stay close to Ron and Hermione, do not leave Gryffindor Tower after hours, and arm yourself for the third task. Practice Stunning and Disarming. A few hexes wouldn’t go amiss either. There’s nothing you can do about Crouch. Keep your head down and look after yourself. I’m waiting for your letter giving me your word you won’t stray out-of-bounds again
The return letter came immediately, swearing on his mother’s grave. He winced at that and ran out of the cave to get his mind off of things. He was roaming downtown when someone called animal control. He’d had one of those retractable nooses around his neck, so he flipped the guy over behind a trashcan in the back alley where he’d been caught, turned into a man, removed the noose by hand, erased the man’s memory, and then turned back into a dog. He returned to the fissure empty-handed.
The next day, a note came from Harry. He’d been nosing around in Dumbledore’s pensieve and had come across the headmaster’s memory of Barty Crouch Jr.’s trial when the kid had cried father, father. Harry’s come across Dumbledore’s memory of Bertha Jorkins and another of Snape worried about something. Dumbledore was concerned about some muggle named Frank Bryce who’d been murdered. Still reading the papers after all these years. And something else about a dream featuring wormtail. Wormtail and a whole lot of pain in his scar. With that voice…
He wrote quickly.
If Voldemort is really getting stronger again, my priority is to ensure your safety. He cannot hope to lay hands on you while you are under Dumbledore’s protection, but all the same, take no risks: Concentrate on getting through that maze safely, and then we can turn our attention to other matters.
That owl took off and a few days later, he wished he still had the backside of that other piece of paper handy. He wasn’t quite home, whatever that was, but the letters back and forth with Harry helped him feel more-than-tolerated. He felt needed for once, and it felt good. And to keep it up, he wanted to send the boy a card. A good-luck card. He needed a nice, new, clean piece of parchment for the card.
On into Hogsmeade he went, hoping the lady at the parchment and ink store would be gracious to an old shaggy Grim. She cooed when he came and he got a little greedy and snagged a piece of paper too early. She began to chase him out, trying to get the expensive piece of parchment from out of his mouth, but he ran off and splashed through mud on the way. When he got to the cave, he saw the splashes on the card and so he did the only reasonable thing he could think of: he dropped the parchment on the floor of stone, pressed his muddy paw into it, and folded it for the next owl. That would do.
Then he waited. The waiting stretched on longer than anything. He considered contacting Dumbledore’s brother, but thought better of it. He considered… no that would be foolish as well. There was nothing for it. He couldn’t very well make it back into the maze. Days passed. And then as he was eating the last of the most recent shipment of food, a great burst of fire exploded in front of him as Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, appeared.
The phoenix carried a note in its beak:
The Goblet of Fire was a portkey. Harry was taken, but has returned to us. A boy named Cedric Diggory is dead. Come.
He’d been summoned like this once before. It was the most welcome he ever felt: useful in the company of others. He simply grabbed hold of the firebird’s talons and felt a warming sensation in his bossom and then a cooling as he appeared in Dumbledore’s office. Fawkes rested back on his perch.
The oak door pushed open. And Sirius watched as Dumbledore came in with Harry in tow. In one swift moment, he had crossed the room. “Harry, are you all right? I knew it — I knew something like this — what happened?” His hands shook as he helped Harry into a chair in front of the desk. “What happened?” he asked more urgently.
“Barty Crouch Jr.—”
“Yes. And pretending to be Alastair all year. He was behind Harry’s name being drawn, behind the attack on his own father, who has been hiding him. He forced Winky to do his will. And he turned the Goblet into a portkey—”
Sirius looked at Harry as Dumbledore continued with the tale. The boy looked as tired as he’d felt crossing the North Sea. There was a soft rush of wings. Fawkes the phoenix had left his perch, flown across the office, and landed on Harry’s knee. “’Lo, Fawkes,” said Harry quietly. He stroked the phoenix’s beautiful scarlet-and-gold plumage. Fawkes blinked peacefully up at him.
Dumbledore stopped talking. He sat down opposite Harry, behind his desk. He was looking at Harry, who avoided his eyes. Dumbledore was going to question him. He was going to make Harry relive everything. Sirius couldn’t take that. The boy needed a break for once. “I need to know what happened after you touched the Portkey in the maze, Harry,” said Dumbledore.
“We can leave that till morning, can’t we, Dumbledore?” said Sirius harshly. He had put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Let him have a sleep. Let him rest.” He wanted to snatch the boy away somewhere. Perhaps back to O’Della’s house. But no, that house was not his, was not even hers anymore, and wizards would be watching. He had no place to take his godson.
Dumbledore took no notice of Sirius’s words. He leaned forward toward Harry.
Harry slowly raised his head and looked at the headmaster with those green eyes of his.
“If I thought I could help you,” Dumbledore said gently, “by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it. You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you. I ask you to demonstrate your courage one more time. I ask you to tell us what happened.”
The phoenix let out one soft, quavering note. It shivered in the air, and Sirius felt as though a drop of hot liquid had slipped down his throat into his stomach, warming him, and strengthening him. Wouldn’t that have been nice in Azkaban?
Harry took a deep breath and began to tell them. He told of the sparkling surface of the potion that had revived Voldemort; of the Death Eaters Apparating between the graves around them; of Cedric’s body, lying on the ground beside the cup.
Once or twice, Sirius made a noise as though about to say something, his hand still tight on Harry’s shoulder, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him. Sirius hated that, but he supposed he had his reasons.
When Harry told of Wormtail piercing his arm with the dagger, however, Sirius let out a vehement exclamation and Dumbledore stood up so quickly that Harry started. Dumbledore walked around the desk and told Harry to stretch out his arm.
Sirius and Dumbledore watched as Harry showed them where his robes were torn and the cut beneath them. “He said my blood would make him stronger than if he’d used someone else’s,” Harry told Dumbledore. “He said the protection my — my mother left in me — he’d have it too. And he was right — he could touch me without hurting himself, he touched my face.”
Was that triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes? What had he been right about?
But when Dumbledore had returned to his seat behind the desk, he looked as old and weary as Sirius had ever seen him. “Very well,” he said, sitting down again. “Voldemort has overcome that particular barrier. Harry, continue, please.”
Harry went on; telling them both how Voldemort had emerged from the cauldron, and all he could remember of Voldemort’s speech to the Death Eaters. Then he told how Voldemort had untied him (where had his knot-untying knife been?), returned his wand to him, and prepared to duel, and how the wands connected. Then the boy stopped abruptly. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, as if trying to keep talking, but some memory held him in shock.
“The wands connected?” Sirius asked, looking from Harry to Dumbledore. “Why?”
Dumbledore looked arrested. “Priori Incantatem,” he muttered. His eyes gazed into Harry’s and it was almost as though an invisible beam of understanding shot between them.
Sirius was missing something. “The Reverse Spell effect?” said Sirius sharply.
“Exactly,” said Dumbledore. “Harry’s wand and Voldemort’s wand share cores. Each of them contains a feather from the tail of the same phoenix. This phoenix, in fact,” he added, and he pointed at the scarlet-and-gold bird, perching peacefully on Harry’s knee.
Well that was news.
“My wand’s feather came from Fawkes?” Harry said, amazed.
“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “Mr. Ollivander wrote to tell me you had bought the second wand, the moment you left his shop four years ago.”
“So what happens when a wand meets its brother?” said Sirius.
“They will not work properly against each other,” said Dumbledore. “If, however, the owners of the wands force the wands to do battle . . . a very rare effect will take place. One of the wands will force the other to regurgitate spells it has performed — in reverse. The most recent first . . . and then those which preceded it. . . .” He looked interrogatively at the boy, and Harry nodded. “Which means,” said Dumbledore slowly, his eyes upon the boy’s face, “that some form of Cedric must have reappeared.”
Harry nodded again.
“Diggory came back to life?” said Sirius sharply. Would it work on James?
“No spell can reawaken the dead,” said Dumbledore heavily. “All that would have happened is a kind of reverse echo. A shadow the living Cedric would have emerged from the wand . . . am I correct, Harry?”
“He spoke to me,” Harry said. He was shaking again, under Sirius’ grip.
“The . . . the ghost Cedric, or whatever he was, spoke.”
“An echo,” said Dumbledore, “which retained Cedric’s appearance and character. I am guessing other such forms appeared . . . less recent victims of Voldemort’s wand. . . .”
“An old man,” Harry said, his throat still constricted. “Bertha Jorkins. And . . .”
“Your parents?” said Dumbledore quietly.
“Yes,” said Harry.
Sirius gripped Harry’s shoulder so tightly, so tightly, hoping to never let go of him, the last of his friends, the last of the Potters. He clung to him as he’d clung to driftwood at the end of his trip in the North Sea.
“The last murders the wand performed,” said Dumbledore, nodding. “In reverse order. More would have appeared, of course, had you maintained the connection. Very well, Harry, these echoes, these shadows . . . what did they do?”
Harry told them both how the figures that had emerged from the wand had prowled the edges of the golden web, how Voldemort had seemed to fear them, how the shadow of James had told him what to do, how Cedric’s had made its final request.
Sirius buried his face in his hands.
“I will say it again,” said Dumbledore. “You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you tonight, Harry. You have shown bravery equal to those who died fighting Voldemort at the height of his powers. You have shouldered a grown wizard’s burden and found yourself equal to it — and you have now given us all that we have a right to expect. You will come with me to the hospital wing. I do not want you returning to the dormitory tonight. A Sleeping Potion, and some peace . . . Sirius, would you like to stay with him?”
Sirius wiped his eyes, nodded and stood up. He transformed back into the great black dog and walked with Harry and Dumbledore out of the office, accompanying them down a flight of stairs to the hospital wing. He had almost seen his friend one last time. If only he had gone into the maze: he was a monster, of sorts. He might have fit in there for a time.
When Dumbledore pushed open the door, Sirius saw Mrs. Weasley, Bill, Ron, and Hermione grouped around a harassed-looking Madam Pomfrey. They appeared to be demanding to know where Harry was and what had happened to him. All of them whipped around as Harry, Dumbledore, and Sirius as a black dog entered, and Mrs. Weasley let out a kind of muffled scream. “Harry! Oh Harry!” She started to hurry toward him, but Dumbledore moved between them.
“Molly,” he said, holding up a hand, “please listen to me for a moment. Harry has been through a terrible ordeal tonight. He has just had to relive it for me. What he needs now is sleep, and peace, and quiet. If he would like you all to stay with him,” he added, looking around at Ron, Hermione, and Bill too, “you may do so. But I do not want you questioning him until he is ready to answer, and certainly not this evening.”
Mrs. Weasley nodded. She was very white. She rounded on Ron, Hermione, and Bill as though they were being noisy, and hissed, “Did you hear? He needs quiet!”
“Headmaster,” said Madam Pomfrey, staring at the great black dog that was Sirius, “may I ask what — ?”
Oh great. Here it came again.
“This dog will be remaining with Harry for a while,” said Dumbledore simply. “I assure you, he is extremely well trained. Harry — I will wait while you get into bed.”
Sirius felt an inexpressible sense of gratitude to Dumbledore for defending him and asking him to stay at Harry’s side in the school. The thought of getting chased out of another home all over again, the idea of reliving the journey one more time, was more than he could stand.
“I will be back to see you as soon as I have met with Fudge, Harry,” said Dumbledore. “I would like you to remain here tomorrow until I have spoken to the school.” He left.
As Madam Pomfrey led Harry to a nearby bed, Sirius caught a whiff of the real Moody lying motionless in a bed at the far end of the room. His wooden leg and magical eye were lying on the bedside table.
“Is he okay?” Harry asked.
“He’ll be fine,” said Madam Pomfrey, giving Harry some pajamas and pulling screens around him.
Ron, Hermione, Bill, Mrs. Weasley, and Sirius the black dog came around the screen and settled themselves in chairs on either side of him. Well, the humans did anyways. Sirius laid on the floor.
“I’m all right,” Harry told them. “Just tired.”
Sirius sniffed for the stink of death and couldn’t find it on him.
Mrs. Weasley’s smoothed his bedcovers unnecessarily.
Madam Pomfrey, who had bustled off to her office, returned holding a small bottle of some purple potion and a goblet. “You’ll need to drink all of this, Harry,” she said. “It’s a potion for dreamless sleep.”
Harry took the goblet and drank a few mouthfuls. His exhaustion had carried him off to sleep. Sirius stood guard and ate some scraps that Madam Pomfrey brought him and behaved better than any dog he knew she’d ever seen. Of course, he was half-tempted to mark his territory on every bed post in the place just to rile her up.
Hours later, people were shouting and running toward the hospital wing.
Harry woke up. The room was still dimly lit.
Sirius heard whispering around him.
Bill said, “They’ll wake him if they don’t shut up!”
“What are they shouting about?” Mrs. Weasley asked. “Nothing else can have happened, can it?” Mrs. Weasley was on her feet. “That’s Fudge’s voice,” she whispered. “And that’s Minerva McGonagall’s, isn’t it? But what are they arguing about?”
“Regrettable, but all the same, Minerva —” Cornelius Fudge was saying loudly.
“You should never have brought it inside the castle!” yelled Professor McGonagall. “When Dumbledore finds out —”
The hospital doors burst open. Bill pulled back the screens, the others stared at the door. Sirius did and smelled a shift in the air near him as Harry sat up and put his glasses back on.
Fudge came striding up the ward. Professors McGonagall and Snape were at his heels. “Where’s Dumbledore?” Fudge demanded of Mrs. Weasley.
“He’s not here,” said Mrs. Weasley angrily. “This is a hospital wing, Minister, don’t you think you’d do better to —”
But the door opened, and Dumbledore came sweeping up the ward. “What has happened?” said Dumbledore sharply, looking from Fudge to Professor McGonagall. “Why are you disturbing these people? Minerva, I’m surprised at you — I asked you to stand guard over Barty Crouch —”
“There is no need to stand guard over him anymore, Dumbledore!” she shrieked. “The Minister has seen to that!” There were angry blotches of color in her cheeks, and her hands were balled into fists; she was trembling with fury. She looked like the last time Sirius had seen her in a duel. Sirius has crossed many women in his life — his mother and cousins particularly — but Minerva was one he made a point to never cross.
“When we told Mr. Fudge that we had caught the Death Eater responsible for tonight’s events,” said Snape, in a low voice, “he seemed to feel his personal safety was in question. He insisted on summoning a dementor to accompany him into the castle. He brought it up to the office where Barty Crouch —”
“I told him you would not agree, Dumbledore!” Professor McGonagall fumed. “I told him you would never allow dementors to set foot inside the castle, but —”
“My dear woman!” roared Fudge, who likewise looked angrier than Harry had ever seen him, “as Minister of Magic, it is my decision whether I wish to bring protection with me when interviewing a possibly dangerous —”
But Professor McGonagall’s voice drowned Fudge’s. “The moment that — that thing entered the room,” she screamed, pointing at Fudge, trembling all over, “it swooped down on Crouch and — and —”
And did what Sirius had seen them do over and over again inside the supposedly inescapable prison: suck out his soul through his mouth. He tasted a bit of dog vomit in his mouth and chomped it back down.
“By all accounts, he is no loss!” blustered Fudge. “It seems he has been responsible for several deaths!”
Had he a mouth, Sirius would have laughed. There are many things murderers deserve, but no human of any kind — not even a house elf or a goblin — deserved the tortures of Azkaban.
“But he cannot now give testimony, Cornelius,” said Dumbledore. He was staring hard at Fudge, as though seeing him plainly for the first time. “He cannot give evidence about why he killed those people.”
Yes. That’s the point: testimony given from someone under the care of Dementors is legally inadmissible. Unless, of course, you simply plan to promote witch hunts until the end of time.
“Why he killed them? Well, that’s no mystery, is it?” blustered Fudge. “He was a raving lunatic! From what Minerva and Severus have told me, he seems to have thought he was doing it all on YouKnow-Who’s instructions!”
“Lord Voldemort was giving him instructions, Cornelius,” Dumbledore said. “Those people’s deaths were mere by-products of a plan to restore Voldemort to full strength again. The plan succeeded. Voldemort has been restored to his body.”
Fudge looked as though someone had just swung a heavy weight into his face. Dazed and blinking, he stared back at Dumbledore as if he couldn’t quite believe what he had just heard. He began to sputter, still goggling at Dumbledore. “You-Know-Who . . . returned? Preposterous. Come now, Dumbledore . . .”
“As Minerva and Severus have doubtless told you,” said Dumbledore, “we heard Barry Crouch confess. Under the influence of Veritaserum, he told us how he was smuggled out of Azkaban, and how Voldemort — learning of his continued existence from Bertha Jorkins — went to free him from his father and used him to capture Harry. The plan worked, I tell you. Crouch has helped Voldemort to return.”
“See here, Dumbledore,” said Fudge, and Harry was astonished to see a slight smile dawning on his face, “you — you can’t seriously believe that. You-Know-Who — back? Come now, come now . . . certainly, Crouch may have believed himself to be acting upon You-Know-Who’s orders — but to take the word of a lunatic like that, Dumbledore . . .”
“When Harry touched the Triwizard Cup tonight, he was transported straight to Voldemort,” said Dumbledore steadily. “He witnessed Lord Voldemort’s rebirth. I will explain it all to you if you will step up to my office.” Dumbledore glanced around at Harry and saw that he was awake, but shook his head and said, “I am afraid I cannot permit you to question Harry tonight.”
Fudge’s curious smile lingered. He too glanced at Harry, then looked back at Dumbledore, and said, “You are — er — prepared to take Harry’s word on this, are you, Dumbledore?”
There was a moment’s silence, which was broken by Sirius growling. His hackles were raised, and he was baring his teeth at Fudge. He would eat the man. He could do it cleanly here and now.
“Certainly, I believe Harry,” said Dumbledore. His eyes were blazing now. “I heard Crouch’s confession, and I heard Harry’s account of what happened after he touched the Triwizard Cup; the two stories make sense, they explain everything that has happened since Bertha Jorkins disappeared last summer.”
Fudge still had that strange smile on his face. Once again, he glanced at Harry before answering. “You are prepared to believe that Lord Voldemort has returned, on the word of a lunatic murderer, and a boy who . . . well . . .” Fudge shot Harry another look.
“You’ve been reading Rita Skeeter, Mr. Fudge,” Harry said quietly.
Ron, Hermione, Mrs. Weasley, and Bill all jumped. None of them had realized that Harry was awake. Sirius wished he could give everyone in The Order a dog nose.
Fudge reddened slightly, but a defiant and obstinate look came over his face. “And if I have?” he said, looking at Dumbledore. “If I have discovered that you’ve been keeping certain facts about the boy very quiet? A Parselmouth, eh? And having funny turns all over the place —”
“I assume that you are referring to the pains Harry has been experiencing in his scar?” said Dumbledore coolly.
“You admit that he has been having these pains, then?” said Fudge quickly. “Headaches? Nightmares? Possibly — hallucinations?”
“Listen to me, Cornelius,” said Dumbledore, taking a step toward Fudge, and once again, he seemed to radiate that indefinable sense of power that Harry had felt after Dumbledore had Stunned young Crouch. “Harry is as sane as you or I. That scar upon his forehead has not addled his brains. I believe it hurts him when Lord Voldemort is close by, or feeling particularly murderous.”
Fudge had taken half a step back from Dumbledore, but he looked no less stubborn. “You’ll forgive me, Dumbledore, but I’ve never heard of a curse scar acting as an alarm bell before. . . .”
“Look, I saw Voldemort come back!” Harry shouted. He tried to get out of bed again, but Mrs. Weasley forced him back. “I saw the Death Eaters! I can give you their names! Lucius Malfoy —”
Snape made a sudden movement and then his eyes flew back to Fudge.
“Malfoy was cleared!” said Fudge, visibly affronted. “A very old family — donations to excellent causes —”
“Macnair!” Harry continued.
“Also cleared! Now working for the Ministry!”
“Avery — Nott — Crabbe — Goyle —”
“You are merely repeating the names of those who were acquitted of being Death Eaters thirteen years ago!” said Fudge angrily. “You could have found those names in old reports of the trials! For heaven’s sake, Dumbledore — the boy was full of some crackpot story at the end of last year too — his tales are getting taller, and you’re still swallowing them — the boy can talk to snakes, Dumbledore, and you still think he’s trustworthy?”
“You fool!” Professor McGonagall cried. “Cedric Diggory! Mr. Crouch! These deaths were not the random work of a lunatic!”
“I see no evidence to the contrary!” shouted Fudge, now matching her anger, his face purpling. “It seems to me that you are all determined to start a panic that will destabilize everything we have worked for these last thirteen years!”
Wait, what? It was now clear to Sirius that control, not governing, was Fudge’s only goal. A short, angry wizard stood before them, refusing, point-blank, to accept the prospect of disruption in his comfortable and ordered world — to believe that Voldemort could have risen.
“Voldemort has returned,” Dumbledore repeated. “If you accept that fact straightaway, Fudge, and take the necessary measures, we may still be able to save the situation. The first and most essential step is to remove Azkaban from the control of the dementors —”
Praise the stars. Yes. Sirius licked his lips.
“Preposterous!” shouted Fudge again. “Remove the dementors? I’d be kicked out of office for suggesting it! Half of us only feel safe in our beds at night because we know the dementors are standing guard at Azkaban!”
“The rest of us sleep less soundly in our beds, Cornelius, knowing that you have put Lord Voldemort’s most dangerous supporters in the care of creatures who will join him the instant he asks them!” said Dumbledore. “They will not remain loyal to you, Fudge! Voldemort can offer them much more scope for their powers and their pleasures than you can! With the dementors behind him, and his old supporters returned to him, you will be hardpressed to stop him regaining the sort of power he had thirteen years ago!”
Fudge was opening and closing his mouth as though no words could express his outrage.
“The second step you must take — and at once,” Dumbledore pressed on, “is to send envoys to the giants.”
“Envoys to the giants?” Fudge shrieked, finding his tongue again. “What madness is this?”
“Extend them the hand of friendship, now, before it is too late,” said Dumbledore, “or Voldemort will persuade them, as he did before, that he alone among wizards will give them their rights and their freedom!”
“You — you cannot be serious!” Fudge gasped, shaking his head and retreating further from Dumbledore. “If the magical community got wind that I had approached the giants — people hate them, Dumbledore — end of my career —”
“You are blinded,” said Dumbledore, his voice rising now, the aura of power around him palpable, his eyes blazing once more, “by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius! You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be! Your dementor has just destroyed the last remaining member of a pure-blood family as old as any — and see what that man chose to make of his life! I tell you now — take the steps I have suggested, and you will be remembered, in office or out, as one of the bravest and greatest Ministers of Magic we have ever known. Fail to act — and history will remember you as the man who stepped aside and allowed Voldemort a second chance to destroy the world we have tried to rebuild!”
“Insane,” whispered Fudge, still backing away. “Mad . . .”
And then there was silence.
Madam Pomfrey was standing frozen at the foot of Harry’s bed, her hands over her mouth.
Mrs. Weasley was still standing over Harry, her hand on his shoulder to prevent him from rising.
Bill, Ron, and Hermione were staring at Fudge.
“If your determination to shut your eyes will carry you as far as this, Cornelius,” said Dumbledore, “we have reached a parting of the ways. You must act as you see fit. And I — I shall act as I see fit.” Dumbledore’s voice carried no hint of a threat; it sounded like a mere statement, but Fudge bristled as though Dumbledore were advancing upon him with a wand.
“Now, see here, Dumbledore,” he said, waving a threatening finger. “I’ve given you free rein, always. I’ve had a lot of respect for you. I might not have agreed with some of your decisions, but I’ve kept quiet. There aren’t many who’d have let you hire werewolves, or keep Hagrid, or decide what to teach your students without reference to the Ministry. But if you’re going to work against me —”
“The only one against whom I intend to work,” said Dumbledore, “is Lord Voldemort. If you are against him, then we remain, Cornelius, on the same side.”
It seemed Fudge could think of no answer to this. He rocked backward and forward on his small feet for a moment and spun his bowler hat in his hands. Finally, he said, with a hint of a plea in his voice, “He can’t be back, Dumbledore, he just can’t be . . .”
Snape strode forward, past Dumbledore, pulling up the left sleeve of his robes as he went. He stuck out his forearm and showed it to Fudge, who recoiled. “There,” said Snape harshly. “There. The Dark Mark. It is not as clear as it was an hour or so ago, when it burned black, but you can still see it. Every Death Eater had the sign burned into him by the Dark Lord. It was a means of distinguishing one another, and his means of summoning us to him. When he touched the Mark of any Death Eater, we were to Disapparate, and Apparate, instantly, at his side. This Mark has been growing clearer all year. Karkaroff’s too. Why do you think Karkaroff fled tonight? We both felt the Mark burn. We both knew he had returned. Karkaroff fears the Dark Lord’s vengeance. He betrayed too many of his fellow Death Eaters to be sure of a welcome back into the fold.”
Sirius couldn’t believe it. Severus really had gone that deep into the other side.
Fudge stepped back from Snape too. He was shaking his head. He did not seem to have taken in a word Snape had said. He stared, apparently repelled by the ugly mark on Snape’s arm, then looked up at Dumbledore and whispered, “I don’t know what you and your staff are playing at, Dumbledore, but I have heard enough. I have no more to add. I will be in touch with you tomorrow, Dumbledore, to discuss the running of this school. I must return to the Ministry.” He had almost reached the door when he paused. He turned around, strode back down the dormitory, and stopped at Harry’s bed. “Your winnings,” he said shortly, taking a large bag of gold out of his pocket and dropping it onto Harry’s bedside table. “One thousand Galleons. There should have been a presentation ceremony, but under the circumstances . . .” He crammed his bowler hat onto his head and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The moment he had disappeared, Dumbledore turned to look at the group around Harry’s bed. “There is work to be done,” he said. “Molly . . . am I right in thinking that I can count on you and Arthur?”
“Of course you can,” said Mrs. Weasley. She was white to the lips, but she looked resolute. “We know what Fudge is. It’s Arthur’s fondness for Muggles that has held him back at the Ministry all these years. Fudge thinks he lacks proper wizarding pride.”
“Then I need to send a message to Arthur,” said Dumbledore. “All those that we can persuade of the truth must be notified immediately, and he is well placed to contact those at the Ministry who are not as shortsighted as Cornelius.”
“I’ll go to Dad,” said Bill, standing up. “I’ll go now.”
“Excellent,” said Dumbledore. “Tell him what has happened. Tell him I will be in direct contact with him shortly. He will need to be discreet, however. If Fudge thinks I am interfering at the Ministry —”
“Leave it to me,” said Bill. He clapped a hand on Harry’s shoulder, kissed his mother on the cheek, pulled on his cloak, and strode quickly from the room.
“Minerva,” said Dumbledore, turning to Professor McGonagall, “I want to see Hagrid in my office as soon as possible. Also — if she will consent to come — Madame Maxime.”
Professor McGonagall nodded and left without a word.
“Poppy,” Dumbledore said to Madam Pomfrey, “would you be very kind and go down to Professor Moody’s office, where I think you will find a house-elf called Winky in considerable distress? Do what you can for her, and take her back to the kitchens. I think Dobby will look after her for us.”
“Very — very well,” said Madam Pomfrey, looking startled, and she too left.
Dumbledore made sure that the door was closed, and that Madam Pomfrey’s footsteps had died away, before he spoke again. “And now,” he said, “it is time for two of our number to recognize each other for what they are. Sirius . . . if you could resume your usual form.”
Sirius as a great black dog looked up at Dumbledore, then, in an instant, turned back into a man.
Mrs. Weasley screamed and leapt back from the bed. “Sirius Black!” she shrieked, pointing at him.
“Mum, shut up!” Ron yelled. “It’s okay!”
Snape had not yelled or jumped backward, but the look on his face was one of mingled fury and horror. “Him!” he snarled, staring at Sirius.
Sirius wanted to kill the man. A Death Eater in their ranks. What could be worse?
“What is he doing here?” Snape asked.
“He is here at my invitation,” said Dumbledore, looking between them, “as are you, Severus. I trust you both. It is time for you to lay aside your old differences and trust each other.”
Sirius eyed Snape and Snape eyed back. This was home? Among someone like this? To be welcomed by an enemy simply because someone else commanded it? And how long would he have to spend with this oily-haired recreant?
“I will settle, in the short term,” said Dumbledore, with a bite of impatience in his voice, “for a lack of open hostility. You will shake hands. You are on the same side now. Time is short, and unless the few of us who know the truth do not stand united, there is no hope for any of us.”
Very slowly — but still glaring at each other as though each wished the other nothing but ill — Sirius and Snape moved toward each other and shook hands.
Sirius let go extremely quickly. He’d been surprised at how… warm that hand had felt. He’d half-expected ice. Snape was, in fact, human.
“That will do to be going on with,” said Dumbledore, stepping between them once more. “Now I have work for each of you. Fudge’s attitude, though not unexpected, changes everything. Sirius, I need you to set off at once. You are to alert Remus Lupin, Arabella Figg, Mundungus Fletcher — the old crowd. Lie low at Lupins for a while; I will contact you there.”
“But —” said Harry.
Sirius felt touch that the boy did not want to have to say goodbye again so quickly. Perhaps he wasn’t so concerned at all. Perhaps they could make a home together. “You’ll see me very soon, Harry,” said Sirius, turning to him. “I promise you. But I must do what I can, you understand, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Harry. “Yeah . . . of course I do.”
Sirius grasped his hand briefly, nodded to Dumbledore, transformed again into the black dog, and ran the length of the room to the door, whose handle he turned with a paw.
He heard in the hall behind him Severus giving a dog whistle and he had half a mind to go bite the man, but he didn’t. He worked his way past the castle grounds and around the edge of Hogsmeade to the mountains where Buckbeak was sleeping. “You ready?”
The hippogryph perked up.
“This time, we fly for something real.”
They took off to the south towards Yorkshire first and landed that evening in a copse of trees up the hillside from a tumbledown, semi-derilict cottage. Some unwelcome figure was standing several dozen meters ahead, watching, waiting. Dolohov. Sirius didn’t know why he had it out for Lupin, but he didn’t wait either. He stunned the man, subdued him with ropes and by the time he started in with the memory wipe, Lupin came outside, wand high.
“Sirius?” he asked. “Sirius!”
The men embraced.
“What are you doing here?”
Sirius told him about the cup, about Voldemort’s return, about the boy and about Cedric Diggory. He lifted up Dolohov’s sleeve to let the tatoo do the work of confirmation.
“What does Dumbledore need?” Lupin asked.
“Figg needs to know. For when Harry returns for the summer.”
They dropped Dolohov off on top of a very tall apartment building, memory wiped, wand disposed. Then they flew Buckbeak to Little Whinging and warned the cat lady of what might come. She was a stalwart old bird, Arbella. She needed no encouragement, no coddling. Simply the task at hand. Sirius kissed her forhead. Her perfume smelled the same as O’Della’s and the mere assonance of the names made him remember how he longed to see the old woman one more time. Arbella would do. He kissed her forhead again.
“You okay mate?” Lupin asked.
Arbella didn’t seem bothered. She was smiling, eyes closed.
“Yeah,” Sirius said. “Yeah.”
Then they went for Mundungus Fletcher.
After trying and failing to sue for reparations of a damaged tent he didn’t own, Fletcher had run out of money and found himself wandering the streets of London looking for a place to sleep. He’d allegedly tried conjuring a few nooks and cubby holes into the brick edifaces of the London downtown. It hadn’t worked. He smelled musty — he’d probably slept through one too many rains — and when he saw Sirius and Lupin coming, he Disapparated. They grabbed hold of him as he was fading and followed him through to Diagon Alley. He saw them attached and disapparated again to the street right in front of Number 12.
“Well shit,” Sirius said. This was the exact opposite of home.
“Didn’t you inherit it?” Lupis asked.
“Yes, but I disown my parents, so where does that leave us?” Sirius asked.
Sirius told him the way in. He told Mundungus too though the man eyed him, waiting. It’s like Dumbledore said: they either started trusting one another now or they wouldn’t make it through. He walked into his childhood home and saw an ornate crystal bottle with a large opal set into the stopper, full of what appeared to be blood. Boxes, made of tarnished silver and inscribed with dead languages. A dusty box containing Sirius’s grandfather’s Order of Merlin First Class. He wished it had been breakable. China with the Black family crest and motto. Rusty daggers. Family photos in silver frames. A grandfather clock that shot heavy bolts at whomever passed by. A spidery instrument, rather like a many-legged pair of tweezers, which scurried away and tried to puncture Harry’s skin. An closed locket hanging around Kreacher’s neck. Curious thing.
He saw that Mundungus was eyeing it too.
“Leave my shit alone,” Sirius said.
Mundungus slumped. Lupin did a few preliminary checks and realized that Number 12 was already — by default — safer than his cottage. They went to work repairing the place, ignoring Dumbledore’s suggestion that they stay at Lupin’s place.
He wondered if Snape was okay, wherever he was.
He didn’t know why he wondered that. Didn’t he hate the man?
Or maybe he hated hating the man?
The whomping willow trick had gone too far. In a way, Snape and Sirius had a sort of brotherhood bond: they both knew the life of an outsider.
As the news began to roll in, the rumors, Mad Eye — the real one — healed up and then showed up to begin amplifying and deepening the protections Lupin had put in place.
Then came Tonks, who felt tickled to spend so much time with Lupin. And Lupin remained blind to this.
Dumbledore would stop by now and again, giving directions, seldom giving news.
Sirius asked him if he could go to the giants.
No, that was Hagrid’s job.
To the werewolves?
Lupin, if he could.
To the shapeshifters, the goblins, the house-elves?
No, no, no came the answers — too risky. His disguise was known and he had not yet been pardoned.
He now knew why they called it not “home” but “house arrest.”
Snape here and there, but back out again. Then Molly and Arthur came mid-summer and with them, the kids.
Sirius began to write Harry. I know this must be frustrating for you. . . . Keep your nose clean and everything will be okay. . . . Be careful and don’t do anything rash. . . .
Arthur’s just told us what’s happened (dementors / underage magic). Don’t leave the house again, whatever you do.
I’ve just been attacked by dementors and I might be expelled from Hogwarts. I want to know what’s going on and when I’m going to get out of here.
It bothered Sirius that he could not yet clue in his godson. He wanted to make it good for the boy. After all, Harry was to inherit the house. It had been passed down by designated heir (“down the direct line, to the next male with the name of ‘Black’”). The only way the entail broke was if no living descendant matched the conditions of the entail. When the entail broke, the property in question could be disposed of by any legal means, including being willed to any person the current holder so chose. The property was inherited by Sirius although he was “disowned”, and then could be successfully left to Harry Potter once there was no “direct line, male descendant.”
Yeah, with Harry as his heir, Sirius thought he really could one day make a home of this place.
If it weren’t for his mother’s picture:
“Filth! Scum! By-products of dirt and vileness! Half-breeds, mutants, freaks, begone from this place! How dare you befoul the house of my fathers —” Tonks apologized over and over again, at the same time dragging the huge, heavy troll’s leg back off the floor. Mrs. Weasley abandoned the attempt to close the curtains and hurried up and down the hall, stunning all the other portraits with her wand.
Sirius came charging out of the door, his hair waving after him, noticing just barely a boy who looked like James. “Shut up, you horrible old hag, shut UP!” he roared, seizing the curtain Mrs. Weasley had abandoned. The old woman’s face blanched.
“Yoooou!” she howled, her eyes popping at the sight of the man. “Blood traitor, abomination, shame of my flesh!”
“I said — shut — UP!” roared Sirius, and with a stupendous effort he and Lupin managed to force the curtains closed again. The old woman’s screeches died and an echoing silence fell. Panting slightly and sweeping his long dark hair out of his eyes, Sirius, turned to face his godson. “Hello, Harry,” he said grimly, “I see you’ve met my mother.”
“Your — ?”
“My dear old mum, yeah,” said Sirius.
“We’ve been trying to get her down for a month but we think she put a Permanent Sticking Charm on the back of the canvas. Let’s get downstairs, quick, before they all wake up again.”
“But what’s a portrait of your mother doing here?” Harry asked.
They went through the door from the hall and led the way down a flight of narrow stone steps, the others just behind them. “Hasn’t anyone told you? This was my parents’ house,” said Sirius. “But I’m the last Black left, so it’s mine now. I offered it to Dumbledore for headquarters — about the only useful thing I’ve been able to do.” He wished he could go out. He hated being in this forsaken place. Could he ever come to make it home?
He led his godson to the bottom of the stairs and through a door leading into the basement kitchen. It was scarcely less gloomy than the hall above, a cavernous room with rough stone walls. Most of the light was coming from a large fire at the far end of the room around which people could congregate, but other than that? Darkness. A haze of pipe smoke hung in the air like homeless fumes, through which loomed the menacing shapes of heavy iron pots and pans hanging from the dark ceiling. Many chairs had been crammed into the room for the meeting and a long wooden table stood in the middle of the room, littered with rolls of parchment, goblets, empty wine bottles, and a heap of what appeared to be rags. Arthur and his eldest son, Bill, were talking quietly with their heads together at the end of the table. Molly cleared her throat. Arthur jumped to his feet.
“Harry!” Arthur said, hurrying forward to greet him and shaking his hand vigorously. “Good to see you!”
“Journey all right, Harry?” Bill called, trying to gather up twelve scrolls at once. “Mad-Eye didn’t make you come via Greenland, then?”
“He tried,” said Tonks, striding over to help Bill and immediately sending a candle toppling onto the last piece of parchment.
“Oh no — sorry —”
“Here, dear,” said Molly, sounding exasperated, and she repaired the parchment with a wave of her wand: it revealed the plans to the Ministry of Magic.
Sirius saw Harry’s eyes light up.
Molly had seen him looking. She snatched the plan off the table and stuffed it into Bill’s heavily laden arms. “This sort of thing ought to be cleared away promptly at the end of meetings,” she snapped before sweeping off toward an ancient dresser from which she started unloading dinner plates.
Bill took out his wand, muttered “Evanesco!” and the scrolls vanished.
“Sit down, Harry,” said Sirius. “You’ve met Mundungus, haven’t you?”
Fletcher gave a loud, grunting snore from behind his rags and then jerked awake. “Some’n say m’ name?” Mundungus mumbled sleepily. “I ’gree with Sirius. . . .” He raised a very grubby hand in the air as though voting, his droopy, bloodshot eyes unfocused.
“The meeting’s over, Dung,” said Sirius, as they all sat down around him at the table. “Harry’s arrived.”
“Eh?” said Mundungus, peering balefully at Harry through his matted ginger hair.
“Blimey, so ’e ’as. Yeah . . . you all right, ’arry?”
“Yeah,” said Harry.
Mundungus fumbled nervously in his pockets, still staring at Harry, and pulled out a grimy black pipe. He stuck it in his mouth, ignited the end of it with his wand, and took a deep pull on it. Great billowing clouds of greenish smoke obscured him in seconds. “Owe you a ’pology,” grunted a voice from the middle of the smelly cloud.
“For the last time, Mundungus,” called Molly, “will you please not smoke that thing in the kitchen, especially not when we’re about to eat!”
“Ah,” said Mundungus. “Right. Sorry, Molly.”
The cloud of smoke vanished as Mundungus stowed his pipe back in his pocket, but an acrid smell of burning socks lingered.
“And if you want dinner before midnight I’ll need a hand,” Molly said to the room at large. “No, you can stay where you are, Harry dear, you’ve had a long journey —”
“What can I do, Molly?” said Tonks enthusiastically, bounding forward.
Molly hesitated, looking apprehensive. “Er — no, it’s all right, Tonks, you have a rest too, you’ve done enough today —”
“No, no, I want to help!” said Tonks brightly, knocking over a chair as she hurried toward the dresser from which Ginny was collecting cutlery. Soon a series of heavy knives were chopping meat and vegetables of their own accord, supervised by Molly, while Molly stirred a cauldron dangling over the fire and the others took out plates, more goblets, and food from the pantry.
Was that what a mother was like?
Sirius watched from the table with Harry and Fletchbag, who was still blinking mournfully at him. “Seen old Figgy since?” Fletcher asked.
“No,” said Harry, “I haven’t seen anyone.”
“See, I wouldn’t ’ave left,” said Mundungus, leaning forward, a pleading note in his voice, “but I ’ad a business opportunity —”
Harry started and Hermione’s bandy-legged ginger cat jumped onto Sirius’s lap and curled up. Sirius scratched him absentmindedly behind the ears as he turned, still grim-faced, to Harry. “Had a good summer so far?”
“No, it’s been lousy,” said Harry.
Sirius grinned for the first time since Della. “Don’t know what you’re complaining about, myself.”
“What?” said Harry incredulously.
“Personally, I’d have welcomed a dementor attack. A deadly struggle for my soul would have broken the monotony nicely. You think you’ve had it bad, at least you’ve been able to get out and about, stretch your legs, get into a few fights. . . . I’ve been stuck inside for a month.”
“How come?” asked Harry, frowning.
“Because the Ministry of Magic’s still after me, and Voldemort will know all about me being an Animagus by now, Wormtail will have told him, so my big disguise is useless. There’s not much I can do for the Order of the Phoenix . . . or so Dumbledore feels.” He said it with a flattened tone of voice.
“At least you’ve known what’s been going on,” Harry said bracingly.
“Oh yeah,” said Sirius sarcastically. “Listening to Snape’s reports, having to take all his snide hints that he’s out there risking his life while I’m sat on my backside here having a nice comfortable time . . . asking me how the cleaning’s going —”
“What cleaning?” asked Harry.
“Trying to make this place fit for human habitation,” said Sirius, waving a hand around the dismal kitchen. “No one’s lived here for ten years, not since my dear mother died, unless you count her old house-elf, and he’s gone round the twist, hasn’t cleaned anything in ages —”
“Sirius?” said Mundungus, who did not appear to have paid any attention to this conversation, but had been minutely examining an empty goblet. “This solid silver, mate?”
“Yes,” said Sirius, surveying it with distaste. “Finest fifteenthcentury goblin-wrought silver, embossed with the Black family crest.”
“That’d come off, though,” muttered Mundungus, polishing it with his cuff.
“Fred — George — NO, JUST CARRY THEM!” Mrs. Weasley shrieked.
Sirius, Harry, and Mundungus looked around and, a split second later, dived away from the table.
Fred and George had bewitched a large cauldron of stew, an iron flagon of butterbeer, and a heavy wooden breadboard, complete with knife, to hurtle through the air toward them. The stew skidded the length of the table and came to a halt just before the end, leaving a long black burn on the wooden surface, the flagon of butterbeer fell with a crash, spilling its contents everywhere, and the bread knife slipped off the board and landed, point down and quivering ominously, exactly where Sirius’s right hand had been seconds before.
“FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!” screamed Molly. “THERE WAS NO NEED — I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS — JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE ALLOWED TO USE MAGIC NOW YOU DON’T HAVE TO WHIP YOUR WANDS OUT FOR EVERY TINY LITTLE THING!”
“We were just trying to save a bit of time!” said Fred, hurrying forward and wrenching the bread knife out of the table. “Sorry Sirius, mate — didn’t mean to —”
Sirius and Harry were both laughing. Damn it felt good to laugh. It felt… welcoming.
Mundungus, who had toppled backward off his chair, was swearing as he got to his feet.
Crookshanks had given an angry hiss and shot off under the dresser, from whence his large yellow eyes glowed in the darkness.
“Boys,” Arthur said, lifting the stew back into the middle of the table, “your mother’s right, you’re supposed to show a sense of responsibility now you’ve come of age —”
“— none of your brothers caused this sort of trouble!” Molly raged at the twins, slamming a fresh flagon of butterbeer onto the table and spilling almost as much again. “Bill didn’t feel the need to Apparate every few feet! Charlie didn’t Charm everything he met! Percy —” She stopped dead, catching her breath with a frightened look at her husband, whose expression was suddenly wooden.
“Let’s eat,” said Bill quickly.
“It looks wonderful, Molly,” said Lupin, ladling stew onto a plate for her and handing it across the table.
For a few minutes there was silence but for the chink of plates and cutlery and the scraping of chairs as everyone settled down to their food. Then Arthur turned to Sirius and said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you, there’s something trapped in that writing desk in the drawing room, it keeps rattling and shaking. Of course, it could just be a boggart, but I thought we ought to ask Alastor to have a look at it before we let it out.”
“Whatever you like,” said Sirius indifferently.
“The curtains in there are full of doxies too,” Molly went on. “I thought we might try and tackle them tomorrow.”
“I look forward to it,” said Sirius. He was not looking forward to it.
Tonks was entertaining Hermione and Ginny by transforming her nose between mouthfuls, her nose swelled to a beaklike protuberance like Snape’s, shrank to something resembling a button mushroom, and then sprouted a great deal of hair from each nostril. Hermione and Ginny started requesting their favorite noses. “Do that one like a pig snout, Tonks . . .” Tonks obliged
Arthur, Bill, and Lupin were having an intense discussion about goblins. “They’re not giving anything away yet,” said Bill. “I still can’t work out whether they believe he’s back or not. ’Course, they might prefer not to take sides at all. Keep out of it.”
Sirius wished he could have Bill’s job.
“I’m sure they’d never go over to You-Know-Who,” said Arthur, shaking his head. “They’ve suffered losses too. Remember that goblin family he murdered last time, somewhere near Nottingham?”
“I think it depends what they’re offered,” said Lupin. “And I’m not talking about gold; if they’re offered freedoms we’ve been denying them for centuries they’re going to be tempted. Have you still not had any luck with Ragnok, Bill?”
“He’s feeling pretty anti-wizard at the moment,” said Bill. “He hasn’t stopped raging about the Bagman business, he reckons the Ministry did a cover-up, those goblins never got their gold from him, you know —”
A gale of laughter from the middle of the table drowned the rest of Bill’s words. Fred, George, Ron, and Mundungus were rolling around in their seats. “. . . and then,” choked Mundungus, tears running down his face, “and then, if you’ll believe it, ’e says to me, ’e says, ‘ ’ere, Dung, where didja get all them toads from? ’Cos some son of a Bludger’s gone and nicked all mine!’ And I says, ‘Nicked all your toads, Will, what next? So you’ll be wanting some more, then?’ And if you’ll believe me, lads, the gormless gargoyle buys all ’is own toads back orf me for twice what ’e paid in the first place —”
“I don’t think we need to hear any more of your business dealings, thank you very much, Mundungus,” said Molly sharply, as Ron slumped forward onto the table, howling with laughter.
“Beg pardon, Molly,” said Mundungus at once, wiping his eyes and winking at Harry. “But, you know, Will nicked ’em orf Warty Harris in the first place so I wasn’t really doing nothing wrong —”
“I don’t know where you learned about right and wrong, Mundungus, but you seem to have missed a few crucial lessons,” said Molly coldly.
Fred and George buried their faces in their goblets of butterbeer; George was hiccuping.
Molly threw a very nasty look at Sirius before getting to her feet and going to fetch a large rhubarb crumble for pudding.
Harry turned to look at him.
“Molly doesn’t approve of Mundungus,” said Sirius in an undertone.
“How come he’s in the Order?” Harry said very quietly.
“He’s useful,” Sirius muttered. “Knows all the crooks — well, he would, seeing as he’s one himself. But he’s also very loyal to Dumbledore, who helped him out of a tight spot once. It pays to have someone like Dung around, he hears things we don’t. But Molly thinks inviting him to stay for dinner is going too far. She hasn’t forgiven him for slipping off duty when he was supposed to be tailing you.”
Arthur was leaning back in his chair, looking replete and relaxed, Tonks was yawning widely, her nose now back to normal, and Ginny, who had lured Crookshanks out from under the dresser, was sitting cross-legged on the floor, rolling butterbeer corks for him to chase.
“Nearly time for bed, I think,” said Molly on a yawn.
“Not just yet, Molly,” said Sirius, pushing away his empty plate and turning to look at Harry. “You know, I’m surprised at you. I thought the first thing you’d do when you got here would be to start asking questions about Voldemort.”
The atmosphere in the room changed with the rapidity Harry associated with the arrival of dementors. Where seconds before it had been sleepily relaxed, it was now alert, even tense. A frisson had gone around the table at the mention of Voldemort’s name.
Lupin, who had been about to take a sip of wine, lowered his goblet slowly, looking wary.
“I did!” said Harry indignantly. “I asked Ron and Hermione but they said we’re not allowed in the Order, so —”
“And they’re quite right,” said Molly. “You’re too young.” She was sitting bolt upright in her chair, her fists clenched upon its arms, every trace of drowsiness gone.
“Since when did someone have to be in the Order of the Phoenix to ask questions?” asked Sirius. That was it. She was a mother. But there were times where she reminded him of his mother. And he wouldn’t stand for that. “Harry’s been trapped in that Muggle house for a month. He’s got the right to know what’s been happen —”
“Hang on!” interrupted George loudly.
“How come Harry gets his questions answered?” said Fred angrily.
“We’ve been trying to get stuff out of you for a month and you haven’t told us a single stinking thing!” said George.
“ ‘You’re too young, you’re not in the Order,’ ” said Fred, in a highpitched voice that sounded uncannily like his mother’s.
“Harry’s not even of age!”
“It’s not my fault you haven’t been told what the Order’s doing,” said Sirius calmly. “That’s your parents’ decision. Harry, on the other hand —”
“It’s not down to you to decide what’s good for Harry!” said Molly sharply. Her normally kindly face looked dangerous. “You haven’t forgotten what Dumbledore said, I suppose?”
“Which bit?” Sirius asked politely. Oh he wanted her to poke him. He was ready to unleash all manner of hell and grief upon her.
“The bit about not telling Harry more than he needs to know,” said Mrs. Weasley, placing a heavy emphasis on the last three words.
Ron, Hermione, Fred, and George’s heads turned from Sirius to Mrs. Weasley as though following a tennis rally.
Ginny was kneeling amid a pile of abandoned butterbeer corks, watching the conversation with her mouth slightly open.
Lupin’s eyes were fixed on Sirius.
“I don’t intend to tell him more than he needs to know, Molly,” said Sirius. “But as he was the one who saw Voldemort come back” (again, there was a collective shudder around the table at the name), “he has more right than most to —”
“He’s not a member of the Order of the Phoenix!” said Molly. “He’s only fifteen and —”
“— and he’s dealt with as much as most in the Order,” said Sirius, “and more than some —”
“No one’s denying what he’s done!” said Molly, her voice rising, her fists trembling on the arms of her chair. “But he’s still —”
“He’s not a child!” said Sirius impatiently. He felt like he was back in his room upstairs.
“He’s not an adult either!” said Mrs. Weasley, the color rising in her cheeks. “He’s not James, Sirius!”
Sirius nearly whispered: “I’m perfectly clear who he is, thanks, Molly.”
“I’m not sure you are!” said Mrs. Weasley. “Sometimes, the way you talk about him, it’s as though you think you’ve got your best friend back!”
“What’s wrong with that?” said Harry.
“What’s wrong, Harry, is that you are not your father, however much you might look like him!” said Molly, her eyes still boring into Sirius. “You are still at school and adults responsible for you should not forget it!”
“Meaning I’m an irresponsible godfather?” demanded Sirius, his voice rising.
“Meaning you’ve been known to act rashly, Sirius, which is why Dumbledore keeps reminding you to stay at home and —”
“We’ll leave my instructions from Dumbledore out of this, if you please!” said Sirius loudly.
“Arthur!” said Molly, rounding on her husband. “Arthur, back me up!”
Arthur did not speak at once. He took off his glasses and cleaned them slowly on his robes, not looking at his wife. Only when he had replaced them carefully on his nose did he say, “Dumbledore knows the position has changed, Molly. He accepts that Harry will have to be filled in to a certain extent now that he is staying at headquarters —”
“Yes, but there’s a difference between that and inviting him to ask whatever he likes!”
“Personally,” said Lupin quietly, looking away from Sirius at last, as Molly turned quickly to him, hopeful that finally she was about to get an ally, “I think it better that Harry gets the facts — not all the facts, Molly, but the general picture — from us, rather than a garbled version from . . . others.” His expression was mild. Of course the boys would have gotten several sets of Extendable Ears past Mrs. Weasley’s purge. Just like Marauders themselves those two.
“Well,” said Molly, breathing deeply and looking around the table for support that did not come, “well . . . I can see I’m going to be overruled. I’ll just say this: Dumbledore must have had his reasons for not wanting Harry to know too much, and speaking as someone who has got Harry’s best interests at heart —”
“He’s not your son,” said Sirius quietly.
“He’s as good as,” said Molly fiercely.
“Who else has he got?”
“He’s got me!”
“Yes,” said Molly, her lip curling. “The thing is, it’s been rather difficult for you to look after him while you’ve been locked up in Azkaban, hasn’t it?”
Sirius started to rise from his chair. His hand twitched. He was half ready to banish her from his home.
“Molly, you’re not the only person at this table who cares about Harry,” said Lupin sharply. “Sirius, sit down.”
Molly’s lower lip was trembling.
Sirius sank slowly back into his chair, his face white.
“I think Harry ought to be allowed a say in this,” Lupin continued. “He’s old enough to decide for himself.”
“I want to know what’s been going on,” Harry said at once.
“Very well,” said Molly, her voice cracking. “Ginny — Ron — Hermione — Fred — George — I want you out of this kitchen, now.” There was instant uproar.
“We’re of age!” Fred and George bellowed together.
“If Harry’s allowed, why can’t I?” shouted Ron.
“Mum, I want to!” wailed Ginny.
“NO!” shouted Mrs. Weasley, standing up, her eyes overbright. “I absolutely forbid —”
“Molly, you can’t stop Fred and George,” said Arthur wearily. “They are of age —”
“They’re still at school —”
“But they’re legally adults now,” said Arthur in the same tired voice.
Molly was now scarlet in the face. “I — oh, all right then, Fred and George can stay, but Ron —”
“Harry’ll tell me and Hermione everything you say anyway!” said Ron hotly. “Won’t — won’t you?” he added uncertainly, meeting Harry’s eyes.
“ ’Course I will,” Harry said. Ron and Hermione beamed.
“Fine!” shouted Mrs. Weasley. “Fine! Ginny — BED!”
Ginny did not go quietly. They could hear her raging and storming at her mother all the way up the stairs, and when she reached the hall Mrs. Black’s earsplitting shrieks were added to the din. Lupin hurried off to the portrait to restore calm.
It was only after he had returned, closing the kitchen door behind him and taking his seat at the table again, that Sirius spoke. “Okay, Harry . . . what do you want to know?”
He couldn’t remember quite what they said as they talked. He could only feel that he wasn’t homeless anymore, here with his friends, arguing about who got to come to the family meetings. That’s the interesting thing about the word homeless: those without homes, by definition, wandered. And some wandered aimlessly. And some wandered with purpose. And his wandering had brought him home. Mother would never have understood that. Society treated all homeless men and women alike: as aimless. Whether by spitting on him or ignoring him through diverted glances or refusing him a bog standard meal like crackers, they had kept him from his dignity. But here he was eating well. Here he was speaking well. Here he was sleeping well. And they more than tolerated him, even in this intolerable environment where he felt, for the first time in his life, not like a slave or some orphan stuck under the staircase, but rather like an honored guest.
He’d read this memoir by some Half-Irish bloke while sleeping on the beaches — one of those discarded mass market paperbacks the Americans had left in their wake. He’d saved it from the high tide, having dusted off the sand. The author was good, though clearly unmagical, and had said something like, “Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your mind. Something you dream about and sing about. Maybe it’s not a place on the map at all, but just a story full of people you meet and places you visit, full of books and films you’ve been to. I’m not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I’m walking on the wall and nobody can stop me.”
Walking on the wall. He’d been walking on the wall since they’d kicked him out in his teens. The Britain he remembered was not the Britain to which he had returned. Marauders murdered and exiled and run aground all. None of them left like the glory days.
And yet, here they were. Their footprints and pawprints brought back to the Marauder’s Map like Peter’s had just last year. He looked at Harry’s features and in them felt that James, more than anyone, more than even Lupin, was calling him home, whistling low behind the veil.