Beta'd by nathaniel_hpand 3whiteroses Thanks to my housemates, who are a constant source of energy and encouragement to me. They often worship me, and I want to let them know that I worship every single one of them back. Go go Gryffindor!

This was originally posted as part of the Big Bang Blackout in September 2009, but the link has since died, so I will be reposting it to all the relevant places. However, since it was a Big Bang, there was also accompanying artwork by deathjunke that unfortunately is not included.

Chapter One

Everything moved very quickly. Sirius' brain very nearly didn't catch up with his surroundings. He changed to Padfoot at once, though that was on pure instinct; he knew he couldn't find Peter-as-Wormtail any other way. He meant to give chase, but as he rose, a jolt of pain stopped him. He took stock of the situation. Padfoot lay slumped and bruised in the Muggle street. A rain of concrete ashes pelted him. From the sound of screaming, he was not the only victim of the hot detritus. Someone was close, but a cursory glimpse told him the child-a boy, maybe ten-was very dead, and not the source of the wailing. Padfoot was not unfamiliar with the smell of death. It was thick in the air. He was too shocked and pained to move much. He'd just survived the worst day of his life, but this little boy hadn't. James hadn't. Lily hadn't.

Harry had.

Another familiar smell mingled with that of death, blood, and concrete: Mad-Eye Moody. Aurors. Sirius could hope they were after Wormtail, but he knew that Moody would think he'd been James' Secret-Keeper. Sirius himself had arranged for everyone to think so. Peter'd set him up. All of this, the dead boy, the collapsing buildings and caved-in sidewalk, the chalky dust that made his tongue too dry to even pant-all of it would be blamed on him. A dark humor began to rise in him, and he thought he might be losing his mind. He wanted to laugh, to laugh at the terror of it all. Any other emotion would have swallowed him whole. He was not afraid of the Aurors. He could almost welcome death.

Almost. But not quite. Because, stupid or not, guilty or not, crazy or not, Sirius remembered through the absurdities that clouded the past twenty-four hours that he was now the sole guardian of a tiny little man. Harry had only just learned how to say "Padoo," which Sirius, James, and Lily had been too eager to take as "Padfoot." He could not yet walk, unless he was clutching a hand. He would be helpless. Sirius had watched him enough to know how the tyke cried for his mama and papa. "Padoo" was one of the few people who could keep him calm. Now, perhaps he was the only person. Even if he was insane, guilty, and stupid, he was still the only person Harry had.

At that moment of revelation, Moody, followed by a women Sirius didn't know, reached the apex of the explosion where Padfoot lay with the dead boy. Only then did Sirius realize his own fortune at having transformed before being blown to the ground. He was fortunate in not being registered at all, in fact. Lily had suggested it once but it was really Remus and the whole werewolf registry business that kept Sirius from handing any of his own secrets over to the government. He'd been a Black too long to not know how power worked. Power always belonged to the Galleon, and plenty of Death Eaters had plenty of Galleons. He ought to know; many of those were Black family Galleons, after all.

The Aurors scooped up the boy, and the woman paused to uncover Padfoot. Sirius stood on wavering feet-glad to have four of them at the moment-while Moody said something about "the poor boy and his dog," and added the boy to "the count."

Padfoot hung close to Moody. He knew he shouldn't; Moody's paranoia was too acute, and if anyone would suspect a dog it'd be him. Still, all the information came to Moody. Through him, Padfoot learned that thirteen were dead and twenty-four injured. One Auror laughed and added, "Not including that dog, of course." Moody'd given Padfoot a sharp stare and grunted. Sirius tried very, very hard not to quaver under the gaze of that magical eye. Dog dog dog, hungry, want to be petted, Sirius tried to project to the imposing Order member. Moody seemed to be considering something but he eventually turned away to talk to some other Aurors.

"Moody," the woman who'd found Sirius came up behind him, "did you have lunch?"

"Brought my own, can't be too careful. Constant vigilance, Moorington!" Moody answered.

Padfoot snorted before he realized his mistake, and both Aurors were watching him again. Padfoot sniffed the ground and snorted a couple more times.

Moorington sighed. "What a mess. No sign of Black?"

Padfoot was extremely unnerved by the way Moody's magical eye settled on him at the question. He ought to run. Now. He ought to be out of there, but he didn't know where he'd go. Furthermore, leaving now might be the most suspicious action he could take.

"I have a feeling I know where Black is," Moody answered, his eyes not leaving Padfoot.

"Yeah?" Moorington seemed excited. "We need to get him. He needs to pay for this. The bloody Blacks are rotten, the whole lot of them. I can't believe anyone would make him a Secret-Keeper. Where's your lead, sir?"

Moody inhaled sharply and looked up at Moorington. "I can't disagree with you on the Blacks, but Sirius never put his stock in with the lot of them. The whole thing," Moody shook his head, "it's not Sirius' style. Far too subtle, planned. Black usually just thought he planned things well, but he was always transparent to those who don't let their guard down." Moody turned back to the dog, sitting quietly and listening to the conversation.

"What are you saying, sir?" Moorington asked. "That Sirius Black wasn't the Secret-Keeper?"

"I don't know what happened, but my instinct tells me he's not working with Voldemort."

"What? Why?" Moorington looked outraged at the suggestion. "But he killed all these people!"

"Eh, I don't think he did," Moody grumbled, looking around, "though this is more like Sirius." Moody laughed. "Subtle as a dragon, that one."

"So are you saying he did do this?"

"Him, or someone who knows his style," Moody frowned, "someone trying to set him up, maybe. Moorington! Let me ask you something."

"Okay..."

"If you were a brilliant young wizard working for someone powerful and you murdered thirteen Muggles in cold blood on the street, what would you do afterward?"

"I... I don't follow? I mean, I supposed I'd have to report..."

"No! I mean immediately!"

"Immediately, sir? I... I guess I'd Apparate-"

"Apparate! You'd flee the scene?"

"Of course!"

"And how could you Apparate in such chaos?" Moody asked her.

"Well, if I couldn't, I suppose I'd run, or bring a broom, or Floo ..."

"Your first priority would be to escape?"

"Uh, yes, sir. Before we got here."

"And if you didn't manage to leave before we got here, do you think you'd like to hang around underfoot waiting to be discovered for a good two hours?"

"What? That's insane!"

"Anyone who does that can't be guilty. Just stupid." Moody aimed a kick in Padfoot's direction but Sirius was too shocked to move fast enough. He took the force of Moody's wooden leg in one shoulder before spinning around to snarl at him. Moody didn't seem to register the dog's reaction.

"Moorington!"

"Yes..." Sirius sympathized with the young Auror's wary tone. Moody could be very exhausting.

"Do you know where they took Potter?"

"Harry, sir? How could I? That's classified. I thought only a handful of people knew-"

"Quite right, just checking," Moody nodded.

"I do know Dumbledore sent him to live with some Muggle relatives." Her nose wrinkled in disgust, and Sirius felt his hackles rise. It was an instinct from the war: he automatically distrusted anyone who expressed dislike of Muggles. Harry, after all, was half-blood, and Sirius would not stand for anyone to disparage his godson. Only belatedly did he realize that Harry's only Muggle relatives, then, would be Lily's, and Lily's only living relative was her hyena of a little sister. Sirius and Lily had bonded over their distasteful immediate families. He'd had heard enough about Lily's sister to make him shudder at the thought of Harry living with the woman.

And Sirius, unlike Moorington or perhaps anyone else in the wizard world with a few choice exceptions, knew exactly where Petunia Dursley lived.

"You! Dog! Shoo!" Moody rasped. "Your boy's dead, go find another already."

Moody, Sirius realized, was right. His James was dead, though he was very far from coming to terms with the fact. He had to find Harry now. He had a job to do, a child to raise, and if Moody thought Sirius was innocent, everything might be okay. Someday.

Ten Years Later

In ten minutes, it would be Harry's birthday. He tapped the clock again and held it out in front of his dog. The two were lying on top of the covers and Harry was trying to pass the time by reading, though he was having trouble concentrating.

"Only nine more minutes," he murmured. Padfoot, in response, rolled over to expose his belly.

"Hush, you," Harry laughed. "It'll be my birthday. I expect to get my belly rubbed. Did you know you're an attention hog?"

Padfoot's tongue hung out in response. Harry rolled his eyes and tapped the clock. "Eight minutes! Wonder what the Dursleys'll get me this year. Maybe I'll be real lucky and get a stick of gum or something, but I shouldn't get my hopes up."

His dog made an alarmingly human noise of frustration and sadness and Harry smiled over at him. "Ah, never mind. Least I have you." The truth was, Harry didn't really have Padfoot. The way the Dursleys told it, he'd wandered in as a stray about the time Harry's parents had died in the car crash. They'd thrown the stray out more times than they could count. They'd hurt him, sent him to the pound, and Uncle Vernon had eventually tied a rock to him and tried to drown him, but none of it worked. Always, he showed up back inside the house with no explanation of how he could have arrived there. Out of options, the Dursleys had declared they would just let him starve. But, like the enormous black dog, dog food seemed to mysteriously keep appearing no matter how many times they'd throw it out. And that, alas, was not the only thing that seemed to come out of thin air. Sometimes they'd find, in Harry's cupboard where the dog food always turned up, some food or candies that Harry had no money to buy. It unnerved them greatly and they'd taken to hitting the dog whenever they saw him.

Luckily, they had finally moved out of that cupboard. It had come down to a fight between Aunt Petunia and Padfoot. He could have a right temper when he wanted to. One summer when Harry was seven, Padfoot had taken to snapping and snarling every time Aunt Petunia even suggested Harry go into his 'room'. After many sometimes-violent attempts by Uncle Vernon to stop Padfoot by force, Aunt Petunia had eventually relented. The only way to calm the dog seemed to be to move Harry into Dudley's second bedroom, and so she had done exactly this.

Some of Harry's earliest memories were of trying to sneak Padfoot in and out of the house in the middle of the night, just for a walk, but for the most part, Padfoot took care of himself. Sometimes he would disappear for a couple days, but he always came back. The issue of ownership was not really applicable to the situation. Harry almost felt like Padfoot's pet at times. Padfoot, after all, had more power than the Dursleys in an odd way that Harry couldn't describe. Still, if he complained to the dog about something, it always seemed to get itself fixed. Well, until the Dursleys found out and took away the fix again.

"There you go," Harry announced, tapping the small clock triumphantly. "Midnight. 'S my birthday. I'm eleven now. I don't suppose it makes much difference. I guess you couldn't knock Aunt Petunia's trash bins into her flower garden again like you did last year? Or we could go to the zoo. I don't know how you found that back entrance, but it was brilliant. It was almost like you meant to bring me there." Harry smiled at his own silly imaginings. Sometimes, he liked to imagine he had parents that took him places like the zoo. It was no wonder that he even imagined his dog was doing it.

"It wasn't so great when the Dursleys found us, though, was it? I thought you were going to be dead for sure." Harry frowned. His dog rolled over with a plaintive whine that seemed to match that of the wind outside. "New school this year," Harry sighed. "Oh well, I better be getting to sleep. Get down, Padfoot, leave some bed for me, now." His dog jumped down but once Harry was curled under the covers he felt the weight and heat of the dog on the bed again.

"I'm just glad I don't have to go to school with stupid Dudley," he sighed under his breath.

He dreamed a response, dreamed that it was not Padfoot curled in bed with him, but the voice of his dad from impossible childhood memories that said, simply, "Happy birthday Harry."

"Thanks, Da," Harry mumbled to his pillow to the dream.

Breakfast the following morning began as an unremarkable affair. Harry had arisen to make bacon and eggs. Biscuits were rising in the oven. He'd conveniently dropped a few pieces of bacon in front of Padfoot before Aunt Petunia had shooed the dog outside. Now they were seated at the table. Uncle Vernon was going on and on about Dudley's school, the same place he'd gone as a boy. No one had said where Harry would be going, but Harry knew it wouldn't be some excellent private school even if his grades were far better than Dudley's. Harry pushed his small helping of eggs around, not wanting to finish before everyone else. That's what he was doing when all the commotion started.

The first sign that something was odd came from Padfoot. Outside somewhere, he started making a ruckus. Maybe for other dogs this wouldn't be unusual but Padfoot hardly ever made any noise unless for some reason. The barking and howling coming from the front yard all of the sudden sounded absolutely gleeful. Harry jumped up and ran for the door, hoping that he wasn't misinterpreting the sound, hoping that it was glee and not anguish.

Harry's uncle reached the door in just enough time to push Harry out of the way, and to swing it open himself. He was already hollering at Padfoot when Harry caught a glimpse of the dog from under his uncle's meaty arm.

Padfoot was sitting underneath the tree in the front yard. In the lower branches, subject to all of Padfoot's bellowing, sat a quite traumatized-looking owl. The owl held with a firm grip in one claw a letter. Padfoot jumped repeatedly into the air as if to try and catch the owl in his large, toothy jaw. As frightened as the owl looked, he never budged.

Then Aunt Petunia came to the door and positively shrieked at the sight. "Vernon," she cried, "shut this door at once! Do not let that filthy bird into this house. Nor do we want its filthy message. Keep it out!" Uncle Vernon pushed Harry back to slam the door right in his face.

Harry, however, had noticed something about that letter right before the door closed on him: the letter had been addressed to Harry James Potter-to him! He'd never got a letter before, let alone one from an owl.

"W-wasn't that letter for me?" Harry asked.

"Hush up, boy," Uncle Vernon snapped.

"Nonsense," Aunt Petunia huffed. "Owls do not carry letters."

"Well, but that one did. You just saw it."

"Don't talk back to your aunt!" Uncle Vernon locked the door, but he did not leave the front hallway. Instead, he kept his body between Harry and the door.

"Anyway," Harry added, "My dog's out there. You have to let him back in sometime."

"We do not!" Uncle Vernon stormed. "We never agreed to let any dog live in this house. He's a stray and that's where he belongs. I'll nail this door shut if you don't leave it be."

Harry sighed in resignation and went back to the kitchen to clean the dishes. If there was one thing he could be certain of, it was that Uncle Vernon might bluster but he did not bluff. If he said he would nail the door shut, he would. Padfoot had somehow gotten back in through the locked door before but Harry had no way of knowing whether he could get back in through doors nailed shut. He didn't want to test it.

Only then did he realize that the Dursleys hadn't even noticed it was his birthday. "But whoever sent the letter noticed," Harry said to himself. "Someone knows." He had no idea who, and no way to find out, though, so he let it be.

Harry was sound asleep in bed that night when he was wrested from a dream by the weight of a body on top of him. He started, and then opened his eyes just in time to close them again before he was assaulted by Padfoot's tongue. "Glad to see you back," Harry mumbled.

In response, his dog merely dropped an envelope onto his face.

Instantly, Harry was wide awake. He sat bolt upright in bed-not an easy feat with a hundred-and-eighty pound dog sitting on you-and scrambled for his bedside lamp. Padfoot blinked warily at the bright light but Harry was too excited to even mind the lamp. He ripped open the envelope with so much haste that it tore along its center and was laid bare. Burying a couple fingers into the extra-soft fur behind Padfoot's ear, Harry flipped open the card inside and read.

The very top of the paper had an ornate seal, and Padfoot shuffled and whined, seemingly unable to contain himself.

"I dunno," Harry imagined what he thought his dog was thinking and answered him. "It seems to be an acceptance letter from a school of some sort. It says, 'Mister Harry Potter, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and wizardry.' That can't be right." Harry bit his lip as a lump began to well in his throat. He looked up at his dog.

"It's just a joke! It's all been a joke! No one remembered my birthday. Instead, they've sent a fake letter..." Harry stared down at it again, wondering who in the world 'they' could even be.

Padfoot whinged and whinged, wiggling and nudging at the letter again.

"Forget it, boy," Harry moaned. "I don't care. This might be my worst birthday yet. You should have let that dumb bird keep the letter." Harry ripped it in half, turned out the light, and curled back onto his side in bed.

The next day, when Harry awoke, the letter was carefully re-assembled with some strange tape and laid on his bedside table. He didn't think as much of it as he ought to have, perhaps, because strange occurrences like this were so normal for Harry that he had been nearly seven before he understood that objects don't repair or move about on their own, that new glasses shouldn't show up from nowhere, and that draughty windows didn't close themselves.

Harry had learned the hard way, however, that mentioning anything out of the ordinary to the Dursleys was not a good plan, so he shrugged off the magically-repaired letter and went down to make breakfast.

And that was when it hit him: magically-repaired letter. Maybe he really was a wizard! Surely if he were really magical he could do something better than use tape to repair a letter he hated the sight of while he slept. That sounded more mental than magic. Maybe the Dursleys had a point.

Padfoot was downstairs before him, sprawled on his back all over the Dursleys' white-upholstered couch, and drooling quite merrily. Harry merely shook his head and laughed as he walked by en route to the kitchen.

He stopped laughing when he saw that there, on the table, was another letter of the same kind he'd had upstairs. Hearing footsteps behind him, Harry turned to see his dog watching him with keenly aware eyes.

"Did you go after another owl?" Harry asked. Padfoot didn't answer. Harry sighed and sat in a chair to open his newest letter.

"Dear Mister Potter..." The contents were identical to the previous one.

Chapter Two

Harry did his best to ignore the letters for three whole days. His dog was acting strange, and the Dursleys were acting even stranger, but no new letters came so everything was just starting to settle down again when, one evening while Harry was doing the dishes after dinner, there came a loud knock on the door. Aunt Petunia shrieked and Uncle Vernon blustered and postured about how whoever it was could jump in a lake, calling this time of night. Then, Uncle Vernon answered, and though Harry thought he had been laying it on thick before, Uncle Vernon clearly had only been getting warmed up. The corpulent man seemed to explode at whoever was outside the door. Harry peeked out from behind the kitchen jamb to watch.

The man at the front door was rather enormous, managing to dwarf even Uncle Vernon. He held a pink umbrella, and seemed to be using it to try and swat Uncle Vernon away from himself, even as he struggled through the door. Uncle Vernon was putting up a fuss and Aunt Petunia was trying to reach the phone. Just as she got there to ring the police, though, Padfoot came out of nowhere and dragged her back to the chair by the bum of her nightdress.

"Bad dog," Harry admonished, without enthusiasm. He did wonder if maybe he shouldn't phone the police himself, from the phone in the kitchen. The man did seem to be trying to get into the house. But Harry trusted Padfoot more than he trusted his aunt and uncle, and Padfoot seemed to be trying to help the man get into the house... So, mostly, Harry watched in shock. Dudley was just shooting into the room from his upstairs bedroom when the towering man at the door popped into the foyer and called in a booming voice,

"Harry Potter! Well I'll be, but yer all growed up!" The man beamed brilliantly and added a cheery "'Appy birthday, Harry."

Harry's hand, turned meekly towards the kitchen phone that he doubted he would have dialed, fell to his side. He didn't know who this man was or why he knew Harry's birthday, but Harry found himself smiling despite the stranger's intrusion into the Dursleys' home.

Padfoot ran across the room and jumped onto the man, alternately taking swipes at the man's hand and at his pocket with his long canine tongue. Before long, the man-who introduced himself as Hagrid-was producing a small cake from the pocket in which Padfoot had expressed such keen interest. The Dursleys were not happy but they eventually had no choice, as Hagrid sat on their white-upholstered (but dog fur covered) couch to tell a story.

Harry sat up half the night. What Hagrid-that was the name of the giant man-had told him was impossible to believe. Hagrid had said his parents were a witch and a wizard. He'd said they hadn't died in a car crash like his aunt and uncle told him, but rather they were killed by a horrible wizard. Harry had never imaged that the world might hold real, powerful villains just like those in books and movies. He had never been allowed fantasy books, or even Disney movies. Those sorts of things were all rot, Aunt Marge and Uncle Vernon said, without a bit of truth to them. Even while Harry had always hoped that his aunt and uncle were fundamentally wrong, he still would never have believed that these things really existed.

Harry could very easily imagine that there had once been a time when such magical and mystical things would have fulfilled his deepest desires: of course his mother was a witch, and his father a wizard. He himself was important in some way, a hero! And famous!

Except that it wasn't anywhere near as great as he might have imagined it. A terrible wizard wanted to kill him? And had killed his parents? That wasn't great at all. Everyone in the world of witches and wizards knew who he was and had heard of him? It sounded great as a story, but he couldn't imagine being comfortable walking down the streets with people staring at him.

At least he would get to go away to a good school. Harry didn't know what Hogwarts would be like but he was looking forward to getting his school things. More than anything, he was looking forward to not living with the Dursleys.

Harry was still awake, these thoughts buzzing through his head, when the sun rose the next morning. Today, he would be heading to get his school supplied with Hagrid. Harry was up and dressed long before Hagrid fought his way past the Dursleys to kidnap Harry. When Hagrid cursed Dudley with a pig's tail for his indolence, Harry just knew he was in for a brilliant day.

The weather was perfect. The sun was shining and the air was cool and breezy as Hagrid and Harry bustled from shop to shop in Diagon Alley. Harry found himself overwhelmed more often than not but the items around him. The people, also, were unusual. A couple of them stared at him. Some knew who he was ,and he got a few, "Well I'll be!"'s and the like. harry cringed away from the attention. He was not used to being the center of anyone's focus. Usually, when he had the Dursleys' full attention, it meant he was in trouble.

"Here," Hagrid directed Harry's attention to the front window of a shop. It appeared to be full of owls. "You get a familiar at Hogwarts. 'S like a pet. You can have an owl, cat, or toad. What about an owl, 'Arry?"

"I already have a pet," Harry answered, pressing his face to the window to peer into the store. "My dog. I'll bring him."

"I don't think yeh can, 'Arry," Hagrid answered. "The approved familiars are only cats, frogs, an' owls. How 'bout yeh get an owl? They're functional as well as great companions. They can take letters to whoever yeh might have in mind to send 'em to."

"I haven't got anyone to send letters to," Harry answered, looking up at the giant. "All I've got is my dog."

"Yer aunt and uncle-"

"They don't even pretend they want to hear from me. I've no use for an owl."

"How 'bout a cat, then? They can be real social, just like a dog."

"I don't want a pet 'like a dog.' I wouldn't even want a different dog. I want my dog."

"I don't think Dumbledore will allow a student to have a dog at school, Harry."

"Then I won't come. And I'm not joking." It broke Harry's heart to say. He wanted to be away from the Dursleys more than he wanted anything in his life, but he would not leave Padfoot. It was something he couldn't put into words. He didn't fear for Padfoot, being left at the Dursleys'. Not exactly. He knew his dog could take care of himself better than most people could. And it wasn't a security issue-Harry was sure this new school was safe. Still, finding out your parents were killed by the darkest of Dark wizards and that this man might one day come after you? Maybe it was, a little bit, a security issue. But more than that, Padfoot was Harry's family-the only family he'd ever had. He would not let them be separated.

Hagrid laid a gentle hand on Harry's head and patted the already-unruly hair there. "I'll talk to him about it."

"Thank you," Harry answered quietly.

"Come on then, 'Arry," Hagrid answered with a smile. "We still have to visit the 'Pothecary."

The two ambled down the street, the breeze ruffling Harry's tousled hair and Hagrid's fuzzy beard. Harry felt a queasiness ease from his stomach. If he was going to be able to stay with Padfoot, everything would be just fine. He was sure of that.

"Well, then I'm afraid we must allow him to have a dog at school," Dumbledore answered Hagrid, eyes twinkling.

"That's highly irregular, Albus." Minerva McGonagall stood in one corner of the Headmaster's office, frowning, silhouetted against the roaring fire.

"It's out of the question. It's against policy, against house and school rules-" Severus Snape stepped closer to Dumbledore's desk, but Dumbledore raised a hand in the universal symbol of silence.

"The dog," the Headmaster began, "may prove quite an asset. I imagine he will protect the boy quite better than we," he eyed Snape especially, "could hope to."

"A mutt like-"

"Hagrid tells me," Dumbledore nodded to Hagrid, who happily returned the nod, "that 'the mutt' is both large and faithful and showed a marked degree of intelligence. We cannot shadow Harry all day every day, but the dog very well may."

"What if parents register complaints at the exception?" McGonagall asked.

"Ah," Dumbledore smiled as if he had anticipated the question and was delighted to deliver his answer. "Do you think that they will, Minerva? Complain that he is being treated differently? That Harry Potter is receiving special consideration?"

McGonagall smiled a bit herself at that revelation.

"Disgusting," Snaps snarled.

"That people can be so blinded by fame? No doubt," Dumbledore answered dryly. "Nevertheless, we will make every accommodation for Mister Potter's canine familiar. Hagrid-oh, do you happen to remember the dog's name? If we're going to have him as an ally underfoot it's best we stopped calling him 'the dog'."

Hagrid cleared his throat. "Tha's the strangest thing, sir. I don' know where 'Arry heard it. I wouldn't trouble myself over it too much, Dumbledore, sir. It's jus' a name."

"Well, let's have it, then," McGonagall answered. All eyes rested on Hagrid.

"Padfoot, sir. The lad calls his dog Padfoot."

McGonagall gasped and Snape scowled, but Dumbledore remained very still. He showed no visible reaction. "Does he, now?" the Headmaster asked, his voice still tinted with humour. "May I ask, are we upset about this because the padfoot is the harbinger of death, or for- other reasons?"

"Albus-" Professor McGonagall started forward until she was pressed right up against his desk, "That was the nickname-"

"I'm aware of what our 'other reasons' might be, Minerva, I simply fail to see what they have to do with Mister Potter's pet dog."

Struck dumb with this clear indication that he thought her fears were unfounded, Minerva McGonagall took a step away from Headmaster Dumbledore's desk and tried to swallow her fears. It was true, there was no indication that a dog was anything to be afraid of but she exchanged a glance with Severus that told her that he, too, didn't feel that they'd spoken enough on this topic. Dumbledore dismissed them, and both knew when not to argue with their Headmaster. Still, neither professor was settled as they went back to their private rooms.

Also, neither professor knew that once he finally had his office to himself, the first thing Headmaster Dumbledore did was to Floo the soon-retiring Auror Alastor Moody.

Harry felt proud and adult, even as the Dursleys dragged him unhappily across the parking lot and insisted that there would be no train. Still, Harry was sure there would be. He was going off, today, to school! To a school for wizards! His cart was loaded with a cauldron, a telescope, and a large trunk full of robes. The money for these items had been retrieved from his parents' vault, which had turned out to be far from empty. The entire world looked different today from how it had seemed only yesterday. The sky was bluer and more strangers seemed to be smiling. Padfoot, too, was dancing, as if he knew where they were going.

Not all of Harry's bags could fit on the cart, and he was left to haul his heaviest: the one filled with books. That didn't even bother him, in part because the day was so perfect and in part because Padfoot was helping. Not just helping, doing most of the work, really. About half his books were new. The other half had turned up in his room the night before he'd gone shopping with Hagrid. They bore various nicknames on inside pages, notes and scribbles. Harry had guessed that Hagrid got them delivered to Harry's room but when he asked Hagrid the giant man said he knew nothing about it. Hagrid's guess was that Aunt Petunia had secretly given them to Harry, and that they were his mum's. "They look 'bout the right age. Ah, yeah, I remember Professor Slughorn assigning this essay to yer parents' lot," Hagrid nodded when a half-done parchment dropped out of the back of a potions book. "Must've been a draft." He had handed the parchment to Harry and packed away Harry's mystery books with the others.

Harry, however, had a hard time imagining that Aunt Petunia would keep a thing of his mum's, let alone wizard things. The story didn't seem right, but he didn't say anything to Hagrid. Someone would probably only take the books away if he mentioned it, and he liked having something used. Maybe he wouldn't seem as new to all the wizards and witches if he had some older books and essays. Harry hoped to have time later to flip through the notes stuck in odd pages by himself, without Hagrid watching over his shoulder. But for the time being he had been happy to spend less of his parents' gold on books. Even though they weren't alive and the gold was technically his, Harry didn't feel right about spending their money.

They wheeled the cart through King's Cross on the late summer day, searching for Platform Nine and Three Quarters. They found Nine easily, and Ten as well, but there was none in between. Harry was feeling his elation turn to an ice-cold desperation just as Padfoot rushed, barking and dodging a security guard, at a wall between the two.

He disappeared.

"That's brilliant!" Harry gasped. Without even stopping to say goodbye to his aunt and uncle, Harry barreled through the wall with his cart-

And came crashing into another cart.

"Watch it!" a red-haired boy barked at him.

"Sorry." Harry looked away, suddenly feeling not adult at all, but quite sheepish.

"Aw, no, it's alright. This your dog?" The boy pointed at Padfoot, who was gazing with glazed eyes around the bustling train platform while a small girl buried hands in his long fur.

"Yeah. He's-he's coming to school with me this year."

"No, he can't," the boy answered. "Dad, I thought you said we can't have dogs as familiars."

"It's against the rules," a tall and balding red-headed man said from nearby, "but I did hear that Harry Potter is going to have an exception this year."

The boy turned back to Harry, eyes wide. Rather rudely, he flung out his arm and pushed aside Harry's fringe, revealing Harry's lightning-bolt-shaped scar.

"Blimey," the boy gasped.

"Oh wow, this is an honor," the man stepped up to them. "Arthur Weasley, my son Ron."

"Still don't believe you get a dog," Ron whispered.

"I don't think Harry will get to bring his dog, unless he can get Ginny detached somehow," Mr. Weasley laughed, pointing to where some other redheads were gathering around the little girl, who was still clinging to Padfoot.

Ron sighed. "Does your dog follow you and all? Can he find you?"

"Yeah, definitely," Harry answered.

"Good, then let's get on the train before all the good seats are gone."

Harry sat with Ron on their train ride. He was thankful to have someone who could explain Hogwarts to him a bit. Ron told Harry tons of neat things, like about chocolate frog cards, his brother who worked with dragons, and his other brother who was a curse breaker all the way in Egypt. He told Harry about Sorting and Houses and Slytherin, and about how he expected to be in Gryffindor but dreaded being in Hufflepuff. Draco Malfoy stopped by, but when Padfoot growled and snapped at the sneering blond, the boy didn't stay long.

They got out and took boats guided by Hagrid across a lake towards a towering and beautiful castle lit with many tiny lights. Harry was worried that Padfoot wouldn't like to be in a boat, but his dog was an excellent sport and had no problems with any of it. In fact, if anything, he seemed just as elated or more so than Harry. He was as thrilled as Harry to get away from the Dursleys.

The new students were ushered into a room by a witch who introduced herself as Professor McGonagall. She wouldn't let Padfoot in, though. Rather, she clucked at Padfoot and directed him to go straight to the back courtyard. Everyone was slightly surprised by how immediately the dog followed her instructions. She hadn't yet given him directions to the courtyard, and he was already running down a hallway, eager to obey. When the dog skipped over a step and continued around the corner and out of sight, the tall professor made a strange noise in her throat and turned to glare at Harry. Harry sunk back next to Ron and simply hoped that he would survive to see his pet again, and that Padfoot would survive to see him.

Chapter Three

They settled into a routine very quickly. Harry tossed and turned for a couple nights, missing the strange dreams he'd had his entire life: dreams of his father telling him goodnight, or kissing him on the forehead and tucking him in. The dreams had disappeared like the Dusleys but the warm weight of Padfoot at the foot of his bed was a comfort, and soon Harry found that he missed the dreams of his father about as much as the other students missed their own parents, judging, at least, by the fact that he found Hermione Granger-a Gryffindor girl-crying in the common room one night when they were all supposed to be in bed.

Harry had woken up, noticing that Padfoot was gone. In the common room, he'd found Granger gripping the black dog's fur and gulping, trying to calm herself. As soon as she saw Harry, she stood and backed away from the dog, stammering "Sorry-I'm sorry."

"'S alright," Harry shrugged. He trudged back to bed, wondering if Hermione's strong, smart attitude in class was taking a toll on her. She, too, had moved away from the Muggle world and into this strange place all on her own, and unlike himself, she had made no friends. Harry thought that maybe he and Ron shouldn't be making fun of her. But for now all he could do was lend her Padfoot: a neutral shoulder to cry on.

Sirius, too, was settling into the castle he had once called home. It was different, living here as a dog. For starters, Harry (and hence he himself) was sleeping in the bunk that had once belonged to James, years before. Often enough Sirius felt a surreal snap of deja-vu, walking into the dorm room and seeing the ruffled black hair jutting from underneath the covers. His own bed housed Neville Longbottom, and even though the boy was forgetful and not the best wizard, Sirius was happy to see him well. Too vividly he remembered hearing about Bellatrix and Rodolphus torturing the baby boy's parents into insanity. That was when James and Lily had taken Harry into hiding. Sirius found himself watching Neville sometimes, wishing he could tell the boy about his parents, before. Well, likely Augusta had.

Also strange: basic human necessities while living as a dog. Sirius wouldn't dare risk using the boys' dorm bathroom. He smelled every inch of it on arrival, but, like the dorm, which he also had scoured for familiar scents, all scent-memory of his days at Hogwarts was long erased by the arduous hands of house elves and the busy lives of a full generation of students. Neither, though, did Sirius fancy going out of the castle to defaecate on the lawn. He certainly had done so before. As a teenage boy, it had seemed a neat trick: peeing on the Slytherin locker room door, or the one time he had pooped near the entrance to their dungeon common room. This was no prank, though. For years, he'd been sneaking into the bathroom at the Dursleys' as a man. He was not a dog, no matter how permanent the change seemed. After Harry and the Dursleys were asleep, Sirius went about the house a bit as Sirius. Sometimes he'd clean up so Harry wouldn't have to. Sometimes he'd take care of Harry by bringing home a bit of snack in addition to some dog food. Mostly, though, Sirius was content to kiss Harry gently and tuck him in, to bathe quietly by the moonlight, sometimes to read wizard papers that he sneaked home in dog form. And during the day Sirius often enough had the Dursley house to himself. A piss in the toilet had never been a big issue. He'd also done it when Petunia was home, but like most odd things that happened around the house, Petunia had learned to ignore the noise if the toilet flushed during the day. She'd had a plumber look at it several times, years before, but she no longer let it bother her.

At Hogwarts, though, there were too many potential eyes for such risks. Sirius did, their first day there, dart into the bathroom and lock the door while the boys were asleep, to shower. He was not pleased, though, when someone knocked on the door and called after whoever was in there. He'd frozen and waited, and the boy-Dean, Sirius thought his name was-had gone away after a few moments. Still, the incident was too close a call. Harry didn't often have to get up in the night to pee but apparently that didn't extend to other little boys.

By the second night, Sirius had figured a way into the fourth floor boys' Prefect bathroom. It certainly was not his first time there. Back when Remus had been a Prefect, and then James Head Boy, they'd thrown little parties in there with very exclusive invites. Now, Sirius was simply happy for a place he could see to human needs in privacy. No Prefect would traipse down there in the middle of the night and even if they wanted to, they simply weren't allowed. These Prefects, unlike the Marauders when they were in school, wouldn't have the benefit of an invisibility cloak to help them skirt the rules.

And then, there was food to worry about. Sirius had been in the castle nearly two days and eating leftovers Harry brought back from dinner when it occurred to him that he ought to find his own food source. It wasn't fair to Harry to have to take care of him. Harry had never had to take care of him and that had always been quite intentional. Sirius was meant to take care of Harry, had always been meant to take care of Harry.

So, Sirius did the first thing he thought of-he went to the kitchens. It wasn't all that difficult to tickle the pear as a dog, really. He used his tongue and the entrance to the kitchens swung open easily. Warm and inviting smells welled out and Sirius, as Padfoot, rushed in. It was ham. The scent of ham was simply everywhere and he slavered in anticipation of a lovely meal of ham and ham bones.

What he had not counted on, however, was the reaction that all of Hogwarts' kitchen elves would have to a drooling dog appearing at the entrance to their domain. The creatures, usually so friendly to students, were absolutely vicious to Padfoot. Elf magic was nothing to sneeze at, as Sirius Black well knew from his own childhood experiences, but he was soon reminded of this as Stunners singed the hair on his tail. He was quicker than the elves, though, and had run from the kitchen before any serious spells could hit their target.

Defeated, but no less determined, Sirius had to think of other possibilities. Alright, so the kitchens were out. There was never a time when it was not attended to by house elves, and if he waltzed in as Sirius Black news would spread around the castle as fast as house elves could Apparate. No, there had to be some other possibility. The problem was, Sirius was thinking like a man. He needed to think like a dog. Where at Hogwarts would a real dog find food?

Only then did Sirius realize that there was a real dog at Hogwarts, or at least there had been when he was a student. He remembered Hagrid's Great Dane, Axel. 'Course, the big lout had looked fearsome, but he was a right wimp. Hagrid had raised him since he was a pup. He wouldn't have lived this long, though, surely? Regardless, Hagrid wouldn't turn his back on a dog looking for a kind hand, even if the dog were as huge and terrifying as Sirius knew Padfoot could be. Sirius headed out of the castle and into the chilly night air.

The path down to Hagrid's was just as Sirius remembered it. He and James had raced down it more than once, James' invisibility cloak wrapped around themselves. Often, they were in trouble with some creature from the Forbidden Forest or needed advice on dealing with dangerous creatures and dubious spells. Hagrid had always been helpful. He shouldn't have given them so much aid, considering the sorts of things they asked at times, but perhaps Hagrid had known why they were asking... Sirius cut off his own train of thought before it could travel down a path he had long since let grow up with weeds.

He had arrived, by now, at the hut where Hagrid lived. Scents around the stoop and in the grass told him that Hagrid did indeed still have a dog, but these smells were not familiar. Not Axel, then. Padfoot walked up to the door and scratched.

Hagrid had never been Ravenclaw material, but he was certainly well aware of his surroundings. Sirius heard him speaking in the interior of his home just as a dog barked, deep and troubled. Another coward? Then the door swung open.

Sirius found himself welcomed into the warmth of Hagrid's hut and introduced to his hound, Fang, who whimpered pathetically.

"Yeh be nice ter him, Fang. This is 'Arry Potter's dog, yeh know!"

Padfoot's chest puffed out with pride. Not pride at being considered his godson's dog so much as pride that Hagrid thought so highly of Harry. Sirius stifled the urge to transform, to explode at Hagrid with questions and explanations. No, it would not do. Hagrid was loyal foremost to Dumbledore, and Dumbledore certainly had had the authority to clear Sirius' name if he had felt Sirius was innocent all these years.

So Padfoot gladly accepted a meaty bone along-side Fang's, and a soft blanket alongside Fang's. He didn't stay the night, but he reflected that some day he might, to get away from the tumult of the castle, to lay by the warmth of a fire without having a child trying to pull his tail. He was not a puppy any more, and that was more his speed.

A couple weeks further into the term, Sirius started to notice another canine scent about Hagrid. Fang clearly noticed it too, and the smell scared him. Hagrid began to speak of "Fluffy," and how he thought he could spare Padfoot and Fang a little meat from Fluffy's meal, as Fluffy wasn't getting enough exercise where he was and didn't need so much to eat after all. Sirius could only wonder who this other dog was. He entertained several thoughts of going in search of "Fluffy." Given the amount of meat Hagrid considered a reduced meal for the pup he was a giant, and Sirius was fond of mystery and adventure. Still, if he got himself into trouble, no one could get him out. He had no Marauders here, no one to follow him into the dark and craggy places of the castle. Sirius found himself whinging up at the sight of the castle morosely, wishing he had the luxury of exploration. Parenthood, in its varied forms, swept away most luxuries, and right now his obligations were to Harry.

Sirius, having thus far fancied himself such an excellent parent, therefore had trouble reconciling with himself how he managed at Halloween of that year to overlook the fact that Harry had not escaped with the rest of the castle full of students when word of a troll in the castle was spread in the Great Hall. Professor Quirrell-a stuttering fool that smelled of something rotten and nauseating to Padfoot-burst in, made the declaration, and fainted. Padfoot scampered out with the flux of students and only once outside did he realize his godson had not been at his heels. He silently cursed himself for trusting James' son to do what James never would have done, and then weaved his way between a maze of legs and back into the castle.

Sirius spared no great thought to where Harry might be. He found it unlikely that the boy would have gone up to Gryffindor Tower to read Quidditch magazines while a troll rampaged the dungeons. Padfoot leaped down the stairs, taking them three at a time. He slid along the stone floor at the bottom, having difficulty finding a purchase as his legs splayed out from under him. Sirius had always hated the dungeons. Only after skidding into a wall was Padfoot able to lift himself up on marginally steady feet and take off again down the hallway.

The dungeons were a maze of bifurcating halls but, again, Sirius had no problems locating Harry. The high-pitched screams of a girl lead him as easily as a trail of bread crumbs might. He turned a corner and saw robed figures rushing ahead of him: the professors. He wanted to overtake them, to get there first, but on the smooth and worn-down stone, he couldn't move nearly as swiftly as someone wearing a simple pair of shoes. Padfoot knew he had lost the race. Still, he kept trying. If he ran too quickly he lost all purchase entirely and his feet skidded out from under him. Miserable at having to pace himself, he watched the professor turn a corner ahead, and willed them to go faster, even as he couldn't.

By the time Padfoot arrived at his destination, the screams of the girl had stopped. This terrified him. He had already recognized the voice of Hermione Granger and he could visualize her beaten and lifeless body too easily. Padfoot was battered from falling down too much, from skidding into walls. He was out of breath. He slid through a wall of black curtains: the robes of professors standing by the opening of a girl's loo. Inside, he was beyond relieved to see Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger, all looking shaken up and worse for the wear but safe and healthy and in possession in all of their limbs. A rather enormous mountain troll was passed out on the floor. Ron Weasley was tentatively pulling his very own wand from the troll's nose.

Padfoot listened as Professor McGonagall scolded the three children. He felt they deserved a reward, not a scolding, for taking down the troll but when he considered how frightened he'd been-yes, a part of him did want to punish someone for that.

Mostly, he wanted to punish himself. He had let Harry run off like that, let Harry get into this trouble. He had been right next to Harry and still had not looked out for him. The professors swept away and the children, looking in dire need of a shower and bed, followed suit.

"Padfoot," Harry exclaimed, "You missed what we just did!" There was unmistakable excitement and pride in Harry's voice.

Padfoot said nothing. His own adrenaline surge was wearing him down now as it receded. He followed the kids to Gryffindor Tower and waited for them to get ready for bed. He wondered vaguely at the realization that Professor Quirrell did indeed smell worse than a mountain troll. Was it the garlic the man insisted upon wearing? But he didn't smell like garlic, not entirely...

The three children went to bed early that night, and Sirius did something he had never done in their time at Hogwarts. He closed Harry's curtains and, making sure the boy was fast asleep, transformed into a man and held the boy to his chest. He might be over-reacting. Maybe Harry had been fine. Maybe he hadn't nearly lost Harry this evening. Regardless, Sirius needed to hold his foster-son, needed to know with the strength of a man's hands that his little boy was alive and well.

The night after the troll in the girls' bathroom, Harry Potter dreamed of his dad again. He dreamed simply of being held. When he woke up, he was disappointed that the weight in his bed was only his dog and not the watchful presence of a father. For the first time in weeks, he buried his head in his pillow and cried out his homesickness for a home he had never known.

Chapter Four

From that day on, Padfoot remained glued to Harry's side. He saw what Harry saw. He noticed what Harry noticed. He still made visits to Hagrid for food, but no resting by the fire. He had to watch Harry. Harry was his everything, all that he had left in the world, and he could not let Harry be put in danger.

Spending more time around Harry and his friend, Sirius began to notice trends in their conversations. He was entering into the subject in its middle, that much was obvious, but he nevertheless gathered that something had been stolen from Gringotts and that Harry believed that item to be here in the castle. Sirius himself snuck into the library late at night as a man and looked up this supposed break-in in the Prophet. He had not believed it for a second but there it was, the news splashed right across the front page. Harry had not misremembered.

Sirius had been in Gringotts the day before. The thought gave him chills. If anyone knew, they would assume he was responsible for the attempted theft somehow. Still, no alarms, nothing troubling at all had disturbed his mission to retrieve his own old schoolbooks for Harry's use. He had had to plan the mission, true. It had started before dawn:

Padfoot slipped silently out of the Dursleys'. He walked for miles in the pre-dawn gloom, the air cold despite the late summer day ahead. He had to distance himself from Harry in case he was to be discovered. He walked to a neighborhood that smacked of wizardry. To the untrained eye it might have seemed a usual Muggle neighborhood, but Sirius saw past that to the lack of cars, the high back-yard fences. One even had a burned-out cauldron sitting in the driveway. wizards, he knew, tended to group together when they lived in Muggle urban settings, just like ethnic minorities. He chose one house, one with plenty of dark shadows and big bushes to hide in even as the sun climbed into the sky, and he waited.

Sirius had to wait as Padfoot for several hours. He carefully chose a vantage point that gave him a view, partial and obscured as it was, of a large fireplace. If anyone inside Floo'd to work, Sirius would be able to see. And indeed he did finally see. An old wizard, well past middle age, Floo'd away and Sirius made his move. He had a knife that could pick any lock, so he transformed quickly and opened the door in short order. He'd seen where the wizard kept the Floo powder: in a candy dish on the large oval coffee table. Sirius opened it carefully, grabbed a pinch, and stepped into the still-burning flames. With a clear and loud voice, tucking his elbows with the thoughtless force of habit of all who grow up wizard, Sirius gave the name of the one destination he had always least desired to visit:

"Knockturn Alley."

When he stepped out of the Floo he was unsurprised to find himself in Borgin and Burkes. They had the main Floo portal in Knockturn thanks to a deal much older than Sirius himself. Sirius stepped from the fireplace, aware of how out of place he looked in his Muggle sweater and jeans. He quickly gathered about himself centuries of pureblood arrogance as an actor gathers a well-studied role. No one questioned him as he left the store.

Not that Knockturn was the sort of place where one expected to be questioned. Too many of the other denizens of the street of ill repute wanted to avoid questioning. There was a friendly attitude of simply not noticing others lest they notice you in return. Sirius, nevertheless, felt eyes burn on his skin. He knew he was recognized here. He wondered how recognized he would be elsewhere. One particularly nasty-looking hag actually crooked a finger at him and exclaimed, "That can't be-," at which point a man near her hit her over the head with his walking stick. Sirius was grateful to the man but did not deign to notice him long enough to convey the sentiment.

Sirius headed straight for a dark and gloomy tent on an already dark and gloomy street. An old Russian man was stooped behind a counter containing all sorts of bizarre items. Sirius frowned in disgust at most of them.

"What you want?" The man barely asked his question in more than a grunt but Sirius supposed that, in such a location, impoliteness might even be a virtue.

"Polyjuice," Sirius answered, "And none of your poor quality, I can tell the difference. Freshly-brewed."

"That is not cheap," the man barked.

"Have you got it?"

"Of course. Is not cheap."

"Who do you have?"

"I will add the hair for you." The man pulled out a velvet roll, unrolled it, and displayed for Sirius a wide array of hairs grouped into minuscule bunches. Sirius pointed immediately to a short, blond clump.

"This is Muggle woman," the shopkeeper shook his head.

"Perfect. I'll take it. How much?"

The man seemed to study him for a minute before answering, "Thirty Galleons."

Sirius handed over twenty without a word. The man counted them, nodded, and added the hair to a sludgy cup of Polyjuice-after, of course, he'd let Sirius smell the potion to verify its quality. Sirius waited patiently while the liquid boiled and stank. Suddenly, another item caught his eye. He pointed, shocked and affronted, "What is that?" There was a flatness to his tone that suggested he was not asking a question.

"You like it! Good. I can tell you recognize. That is special. That is two hundred Galleons."

Sirius starred at it, appalled. "You can't be serious."

"Not any specimen, that. They say he was tamed. Like a pet!" The man laughed gleefully. "Have you ever heard of a thing as a tamed werewolf?"

Sirius, mouth dry, dropped two hundred Galleons onto the counter and said, "I'll be by to pick it up later."

"Maybe you will look like a Muggle lady," the man smiled, showing a complete set of yellowed teeth. He held up the glass of reddish-brown Polyjuice Potion, and Sirius took it from him. It tasted like cherries, alcohol, and mud, but Sirius drank it all quickly and waited quietly through the pain of his mild transformation. The shopkeeper held up a small mirror. Sirius approved, though he also stopped to buy a scrappy old robe from a used clothes vendor in Knockturn, as his own clothes no longer fit him. He left his own with the shopkeeper, once again assuring the man that he'd be back for the werewolf paw, and headed up the street towards Diagon Alley.

Sirius had always known that Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley were polar opposites in spirit, but there were other attributes that reinforced the differences to anyone brave or strange enough to actually trek on foot between the two. The first thing he noticed was the scent. Even with a meager human nose, Sirius could smell the foul stench of unwashed human bodies and Dark Magic clear from the air, to be replaced by the more tantalizing scents of ice cream and fried dough. Though Sirius had visited many Muggle stores within the past ten years, he'd never thought it safe to visit Diagon Alley. He couldn't think of it as safe now, but Polyjuiced to look like an overweight blonde woman did make it somewhat more so. He passed familiar shops, watched the owls in the front window of the Magical Menagerie. He remembered fondly his days eating ice cream with Harry's dad at Fortescue's. Sirius lowered his head and hurried onwards. He was aware that his clock was ticking. The Polyjuice effects would only last an hour and though that sounded like more than enough time Gringotts was a maze, and the Black vault was near its center.

Sirius had been expecting to have to employ any number of tricks and hexes to get his way down to the vaults unattended but once inside Gringotts, Sirius was surprised to find that it was actually very easily accomplished. He claimed to be heading for the Potter vault; it was on the way to his own. He couldn't very well give his own name, so he claimed instead to be a long-lost relation of Lily's. The goblins didn't know Muggle-born from wizard-born, so they let him right in. A thimbleful of demonstrated knowledge of the workings of Gringotts transport and vault system was all Sirius needed to be left alone. From there he rode the transport system deeper and deeper into the ground towards his own vault. He retrieved the books without difficulty and stepped back into the sunlight of Diagon with an audible sigh.

Sirius sat back to consider his easy 'theft' from Diagon Alley only the day before the real theft. Surely it could not be that easy. Was Gringotts impervious reputation just that-all reputation? His pureblood upbringing had instilled into Sirius a belief in the absolute security of Gringotts, and therefore he simply could not accept that it was at all easy to break into. Well, he thought, the warning carved into the stone above the Gringotts door was a warning about seeking someone else'streasure. Sirius had come for and left with something that belonged to him. He may have been Polyjuiced, but Polyjuice supposedly is not clever enough to fool the ancient and unparalleled charms of Gringotts, charms that were wrought into the stones themselves before they were even carved from the mountain of the goblins' homeland. The bank had been a bank even while it was a mountain, and rumour said that the stones had come from the interior of a dragon's cave, where the dragon's elemental magic had entranced the very rock to protect protect protect its treasures. Sirius thought of the pyramids-other stone structures with such strong anti-thieving charms. Gringotts goblins spent a lot of time in Egypt trying to understand the working of those age-old spells.

Yes, Sirius had come for and left with his own treasure. The stones would not see him as a thief. But what of this other individual, this other thief? Sirius shivered violently, imagining the Dark Magic needed to successfully steal from Gringotts. The thief had not been successful, though, so perhaps they had just been cocky. Sirius put it out of his mind.

And then came news of the unicorn blood. Padfoot had been with them, with Hagrid, Harry, Hermione, and Ron as they'd seen a wounded unicorn in the forest. Sirius no longer had to imagine the sort of Dark Magic required to steal from Gringotts. He could see it in the trail of silver slick by moonlight. What sort of murderous beast would do this? Ron whispered, "Werewolf," but Sirius knew better. True, they stood out there in the Forbidden Forest on a full moon night but he did not fear a werewolf. The forest was silent except for the night birds and insects. Sirius imagined the forest had been silent for a while now...

Sirius fulfilled his promise to the old Knockturn shop-keep. After his jaunt in the bright lights and sweet smells of Diagon Alley, Sirius wended his way back to Knockturn Alley before the Polyjuice Potion could wear off, all the while levitating his old school trunk behind him. He felt the painful shift back to his true form just as he arrived back at the tent. The old Russian smiled greedily and Sirius could see that he was missing some teeth.

"I know who you are," the man said. "The price has risen."

"I gave you the money already!" Sirius protested, already knowing he'd pay whatever more the man asked. The shopkeeper eyed Sirius' trunk.

"You have been to Gringotts. The price, it has risen."

"By how much?"

"A hundred Galleons."

Sirius felt the blood drain from his face in a flash of white-hot anger. That was obscene, but no price was too high and Sirius, fallen heir of the House of Black, did have the money. Pocket change to his family. His mum had burned him off the family tree but she had neglected before her untimely demise to take him out of her will, ironically. The Black fortune had fallen to him sometime in the past ten years. He hadn't even known that she had passed, but he knew the pile of assets in his Gringotts trove had grown by leaps and bounds. Or perhaps the money had come to him some other way? He couldn't imagine any other way, not any reason the Black money should have gone to him and not the Malfoys, but Gringotts was a stickler for paperwork so they had likely worked these things out appropriately.

Sirius brusquely hefted another hundred Galleons and stuck out one hand for his purchase. The shopkeeper accepted the exchange and both men dropped their burdens on the counter for a swift trade. Sirius took his clothes and left without looking behind him. He sunk his new purchase into his pocket and began a chant he knew would haunt him for years to come: You don't recognize it. It isn't his. You don't recognize it. The words were not as reassuring as they ought to have been.

Sirius Black buried the paw of a "tamed werewolf" sold as a trinket in Knockturn Alley below the lilac bush in the Dursley backyard. It was the best he could do as far as a proper burial and, to anyone looking, it was just a dog with a bone.

You don't recognize it, Sirius. It isn't his. You don't recognize it.

Sirius heard the silent forest all around and repeated the well-worn mantra one more time.

Regardless, this was no work of a werewolf. This was something so unnatural, so demented, so unclean and dark that Sirius could only think of one man capable of this horror: Lord Voldemort.

Chapter Five

Padfoot had already been glued to Harry's side, so there was nothing more he could do to protect Harry by simply following the boy around. He needed to do something more proactive. Thinking along that path, Sirius began to get ideas. He wanted to find Voldemort. Anyone else in the entire wizarding world would have sworn up and down that Lord Voldemort was as dead as, likely, was Sirius Black. Sirius understood better than anyone how easy it was to hide in the magical world and he was more convinced than ever that not only was Voldemort alive, Sirius was sure he was here at the school, or at the very least, in the Forbidden Forest. Snape was acting suspicious, and Harry had noticed. He, Ron, and Hermione had spoken about it several times. Was Snape helping Voldemort into the school? Certainly Snape had been a Death Eater. Sirius could never understand what would make Dumbledore hire a Death Eater, but Dumbledore had made many decisions that Sirius could not understand. And then there was the question of Peter. Where had the rat gone to? Living in the sewers? Escaped to some other continent, anywhere where Sirius wouldn't find him?

Sirius began to spend nights investigating, snooping around Snape's chambers to catch a scent that didn't fit, or sometimes venturing into the Forbidden Forest when he was sure Harry was asleep. He needed to get to The Dark Lord before Voldemort got to Harry.

Once, he found a mirror that, when he looked into it, seemed to show him a memory. In it, he saw himself holding Harry-Harry as a little tyke, maybe five. He didn't think he had stayed a human that long around Harry. No, not to that age. Maybe it wasn't a memory. He couldn't be sure, and he didn't know what it meant, but it did remind him that he was supposed to be finding out Voldemort's plans, protecting Harry, and not gazing into mirrors. Padfoot turned away and rushed back into the hallway, desperate to save the godson that meant everything in the world to him.

He repeated this ritual night after night, sleeping while Harry had classes. This was how Padfoot came to be deep in the Forbidden Forest and nowhere near Harry when the Dark Lord finally did make a move-though the move was not on Harry at all but on the treasure he had tried to steal from Gringotts, the items being guarded by Hagrid's enormous Fluffy. Sirius thought that Harry and his friends were sound asleep in bed at the time, and had no way of guessing otherwise.

Not, at least, until he heard a foul, blood-curdling scream rend the night. Padfoot turned and ran full-speed towards the castle, only to find he had arrived too late to be of any help. By the time he had traversed the lawn and found Harry's scent, Dumbledore had already brought the boy to the Hospital Wing, where he was forced to learn the story of Voldemort's infiltration of the castle from Harry's muttered nightmares.

Sirius was not sure he would ever forgive himself for being so careless.

Harry's heart sank at the idea of returning home to the Dursleys. He'd settled into life at Hogwarts. Padfoot had made friends with most of the students, and Harry had his own set of friends. As time went on he missed dreams of his father less, but he likewise didn't believe that they would begin again when he got home. Perhaps he had simply outgrown them. He clutched at the picture album that Hagrid had given him, staring at the picture of his mum and dad waving his own chubby baby arm at the camera. Harry had not been surprised, upon seeing the picture, to view his mum and dad. The first time he looked in the Mirror of Erised, however...

Harry had found the mirror earlier in the school year, before he'd even made friends with Hermione, really. It had showed him his parents, smiling and proud. To his own surprise, though, they were not familiar. He had had dreams of his dad all the time growing up but the man in the mirror, short hair and spectacles, was not the man he dreamed of. That's normal, perhaps, Harry thought. He hadn't known what his dad looked like, so perhaps he had made up what he wanted to see. Still, it left him feeling disconnected from his parents, even from himself, somehow. He still thought of the man with the haunted blue eyes and the rough long hair as his father. His father was a fairy tale, a man who had never existed, but Harry held onto that memory of a ghost even more firmly than he had ever before. That was the face of the man who made him feel safe and loved.

Harry watched the picture. The couple in it were so happy, but he still had some trouble thinking of them as his parents. Who, Harry idly wondered, had taken the picture?

Then he shoved that, too, into his bags and climbed onto the Hogwarts Express. In a sense, maybe it would be nice to go back to the Dursleys'. There would be no teachers with Dark Lords glued to the back of their heads there. The whole thing with Professor Quirrell and the Philosopher's Stone had perhaps shaken Harry up a bit more than he'd admitted. Strangely, Professor Dumbledore's reaction afterward had been odd. Sure, he had comforted Harry but then he'd turned to peer accusingly over his glasses at Padfoot. Padfoot, too, had been acting strangely since. Maybe even... depressed? Hermione said that was silly. Harry guessed that maybe it was. Maybe he was doing as Hermione had suggested and projecting his own strange depression onto his dog.

Harry would be exceptionally sad to be away from his friends, but he was looking forward to a laid-back summer in Little Whinging.

*****
Harry, unfortunately, had not figured a house elf named Dobby into his summer plans. The small, mischievous creature visited him regularly to wreak havoc on his life. The first such visit came in July. Until then, Harry and Padfoot had enjoyed a relatively relaxing summer. They'd spent time outdoors, simply laying in the grass. Harry loved resting his head on Padfoot's warmth, listening to the sounds of birds and a steady heartbeat. He would often speak to his dog; he always had. It felt almost like a conversation. Once, Padfoot led Harry into town and stole a bag of candy for him. The theft was so brilliant that, even though it niggled at Harry's conscience, he laughed with pure joy for such a long while that he thought maybe the little bit of misdeed was worth it. Certainly no one would miss a few pence for a little bag of sweets.

But all of that was before Dobby. Dobby chose-or perhaps planned?-his first arrival to coincide with a very important dinner that Uncle Vernon was throwing for his boss from work. Dobby had proceeded to get both Harry and Padfoot into a good bit of trouble by spilling a dessert that Aunt Petunia had spent all day on. Still, Dobby was not done. It was too easy for Padfoot to take the blame for the dessert incident. Thus, Dobby visited again and again, getting Harry into trouble more than once. He and Padfoot both tried to chase Dobby off or silence him but at the end, they'd failed, and Harry had been barred and locked into his bedroom. Padfoot had been locked, once again, out of the house. So much for anything laid-back about this particular summer. Luckily, and quite serendipitously, neither the locks on the Dursleys' front door, nor the locks and bars on Harry's door, nor the bars on Harry's window were able to confine Padfoot. He seemed to come and go with ease, and Harry often awoke to find extra food-often take-out, on his desk waiting for his growling stomach. The Dursleys were utterly vexed but did not know what to do about the situation.

In this manner the end of summer rolled around with impossible swiftness. He was almost content, locked in his room with take-out from any place he liked, or sweets when he wanted, with the company of his only friend in Little Whinging: Padfoot. Soon, Harry's birthday had rolled around again. Harry found himself lying in bed, nearly twelve, wondering whether the Dursleys would give him any gift and rather hoping they wouldn't insult him by actually doing so. Maybe his dreams that night would be good. He'd been dreaming of his dad again that summer, and though he felt like he might be outgrowing the need for those dreams, on today, his birthday, he felt more alone than ever. "I don't want to be twelve. I just get lonelier with every year," Harry muttered to Padfoot as his eyes drifted shut on the dawn of his twelfth year.

Sirius shifted forms and shuffled the black fringe from Harry's forehead. "I love you, Harry," he said, his voice raw from disuse. For not the first time, he wondered if his secret should not be a secret from Harry any more. But what twelve-year-old wants an adult hanging around them all the time? Sirius was frightened that he might lose Harry if he revealed himself to the boy. Harry was surely old enough to keep a secret by now. Even Dumbledore thought so. Still, Sirius remembered being twelve years old. It hadn't been all that long ago, as he was just approaching thirty-three himself. He had been watching over Harry too long to let the boy go now. There were too many dangers still plaguing Harry to let his boy wander off alone into that dangerous world.

Sirius, nevertheless, indulged himself this once on Harry's birthday and waited until the boy was sound asleep before wrapping his arms tightly around Harry and falling asleep beside his son.

Sirius was awoken not long after by the sound of a Muggle car-right outside the window. He shifted forms quickly and began barking a warning to Harry, who jolted awake and jumped to the window.

"Get your dog to shut it, mate," Fred hissed through the bars.

Padfoot stopped barking as soon as he saw the identity of their visitors.

"We're here to rescue you!" Ron declared. And in short order, they had done just that. Sirius had a bit of a terrifying moment when he was thrown bodily from the room to the car. The Dursleys had nearly stopped Harry from escaping; Vernon had got a hold of Harry's leg and didn't want to let the boy go. Sirius had just been planning another frightening car-to-window leap to attack Vernon when Harry shook his uncle loose and made a final jump for the Weasleys'... flying car. The thought seemed to hit Sirius for the first time, not because it was a novelty of which he was unaware-after all, he'd owned a flying motorbike-but because Arthur Weasley was supposedly against this sort of thing, in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office. Padfoot stuck his head out of the window, enjoying the wind as it flopped his ears and gums.

"Your dog looks happy, Harry," he heard Ron comment. For the moment, up in the air once again, Padfoot truly was.

They arrived at the Weasleys while it was still dark and Sirius, though with a man's brain, couldn't help but sniff every inch of the house, inside and out. The Burrow contained such a heady and exciting mix of scents. For once he felt Harry was with good people, safe, and he could relax a bit as he watched Molly Weasley make breakfast for Harry. He didn't get to relax long, though, because soon Molly threw him out of the house. He was hungry, but he found the vegetable garden and made use of his man's appetite for vegetables. After filling himself with tomatoes and squash, Padfoot had a pleasant time chasing their garden gnomes out. As a child, he'd watched the house elves rid the back garden of gnomes on more than one occasion, but he was never allowed to go and help. It was unbecoming of an heir, and all that rot. Sirius made sure to thoroughly enjoy the mayhem and dirt of the experience before he settled to sleep in the shade of a tree. Harry went with the Weasleys to Diagon Alley, and Sirius felt relieved to trust someone else to watch Harry while he enjoyed the last lazy days of summer in the unadulterated bliss of the Weasley garden.

Chapter Six

Harry's-and thus, Padfoot's-second year started in a very unusual way. The day after Harry had gone to Diagon Alley with the Weasley family, the lot of them rode in a very over-crowded and ostensibly flight-enabled Ford Anglia to London's King's Cross. The car was clearly magically enlarged somehow or else it would not be possible for them all to fit. From the look of the Burrow, either Molly or Arthur had become quite proficient at enlargement charms. Sirius likewise had become good at them himself as he'd gradually increased the size of 'Dudley's second bedroom', though it had been Harry's bedroom and not Dudley's for years now.

The ride was calm, even if it wasn't as fun as flying. When they got to the station, everyone went through ahead of Ron, Harry, and Padfoot. The three of them tried to pass the barrier to Platform Nine and Three Quarters, and Padfoot was as surprised as Harry and Ron when the wall was as hard as brick to their touch. He might have been a bit more surprised than Harry and Ron, actually. Padfoot had slammed his nose into it rather hard. Any dog could tell you that this is especially not fun, as it is a sensitive body part.

"Bloody hell," Ron exclaimed. Sirius rather would have liked to agree but he was resigned to standing, whimpering pitifully as the boys worried over the clock, the train, and their missed departure for school. Thus, when Ron had the stunning idea of flying his parents' Muggle motor-coach all the way to Scotland, the idea actually seemed rather good. Later Sirius would reflect that, as the adult in this situation, he ought not to have allowed it. At the time, though, all he could think was that the train was leaving.

And that flying all the way to Scotland sounded bloody brilliant. He would stick his head out the window the whole way.

Which, of course, he did. They had a scare at one point when the car didn't seem to be invisible but they did manage to spot the scarlet steam engine and follow it to Hogwarts. Sirius was a very mature adult, of course, by making sure to keep his eyes on the train. If this required he hang his entire head out of the window for the entire trip, well, he would manage somehow. It was wonderful.

Until their crash landing. Sirius hated to think how that would have gone without him. They managed to crash into the Whomping Willow, which Sirius knew like an old friend. Padfoot was hit by several ravaging branches (not for the first time in his life) before he managed to reach the appropriate knot to calm the flailing tree. The Willow stilled overhead, and only then did Sirius realize that the beating he'd taken was more severe than he'd realized. Something was really hurting... somewhere.

"Padfoot." Harry's anxious green eyes hovered overhead.

"Harry," Ron whinged from nearby, "Look where we are. We need to get out of here!" He sounded terrified but Padfoot, through the pain that was just starting to register, agreed wholeheartedly.

Harry looked up at the tree and nodded. "We have to move him. We've got to bring Padfoot to Hagrid." Together, Harry and Ron managed some passable levitation charms on him and Padfoot was only half hanging from the air when they dragged him across the grounds to Hagrid's. Harry and Ron must have been aware that they were missing the wonderful feast that marked the beginning of the school year at Hogwarts. Padfoot could smell the food from across the grounds and he guessed, when there was no answer at the door of Hagrid's hut, that Hagrid was also at the feast. Harry and Ron's absence must have been noticed by now, at least by Hermione.

Harry disappeared suddenly, running towards the castle and Padfoot sat up, testing his limbs. One leg hurt, yes. A lot. Broken, most likely. But otherwise it wasn't a severe emergency, not a compound fracture or anything.

Ron Weasley laid a big warm hand on Padfoot's head and and chuckled. "Harry really worries about you sometimes." He patted Padfoot's head a couple times and sighed wistfully. "Wish I could have a pet. My brother was supposed to give me his old rat last this year but the rat didn't like me. Percy figures it's the smell of you on me he might not like. He hides all the time when you're around. You'd probably eat him, huh, boy?"

Sirius considered his past experience with rats and thought, yes, there was a high probability that he would at least give the Weasley pet rat a little healthy fear, just to let out some steam.

"It hurt much?" Ron asked. Padfoot reached out and licked his hand. Ron replied with a laugh. "Harry will be back in a moment."

And indeed, Harry was back in a moment, tailed by not only by Hagrid but also by Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Professor Snape. Snape was spewing invectives as they scurried across the grass towards the hut.

"-Expelled," Sirius heard Snape grunt. "He was seen by at least a dozen Muggles in London-"

"They, Severus," Dumbledore intoned calmly.

"Potter and Weasley could have started an incident. As it is, they risked severe physical harm to themselves and damaged an ancient landmark on the Hogwarts grounds."

Even Padfoot rolled his eyes, whereas Dumbledore interjected smoothly, "The Whomping Willow is hardly ancient."

"What seems to be the problem 'ere, Harry?" Hagrid's booming voice approached with a running Harry trailing behind.

McGonagall interrupted Harry's feeble attempt to answer Hagrid with, "Speaking of the Willow-Albus, look. It's not moving."

Harry managed to address both McGonagall and Hagrid as he briefly retold the story of their landing: "The car crashed in the tree and Padfoot dove out of it and did something to the Whomping Willow that made it stop-stop its-"

"Its whomping," Ron pitched in helpfully.

Sirius lifted his canine head and inspected the tree for himself. Indeed, it was still. He remembered wanting to still it and knowing what to do to do so but he had never done wandless magic before while in his animagus form. Still, the only way he could have pinned something so firmly against the knot that it had continued freezing the tree was if he had used some sort of sticking charm. They'd never even done that as teenagers, just because having a stilled tree was akin to having an open door to the Shack. Usually Wormtail had held the knot, as he could pass through the branches without being-without all the-well, the whomping. But Sirius had clearly frozen the tree far more than momentarily.

"Harry." Dumbledore's voice was not as light-hearted as usual; Sirius suppressed a nearly-animal urge to get up and run. If not for the broken leg, he wasn't sure he might not have done just that. "You said your dog stopped the willow?"

Harry nodded but it was Ron who answered. "Yeah, it was like he knew just what he was doing, wasn't it Harry? Blimey, he's a smart dog. If he'd been faster, he might not've been... whomped."

"Indeed." Dumbledore was frowning. He turned to McGonagall and Snape. "Minerva," some of the humour had returned to his voice, "I will leave to you the question of what to do regarding Mister Potter and Mister Weasley, as they are in your house."

"Well! Technically, their misbehaviour occurred prior to their arrival here. As such-"

"You cannot be serious," Snape groaned.

"I feel we cannot punish them for actions prior to the beginning of the school year."

Snape muttered something else that sounded like a slur against Gryffindors. Considering he was standing in the presence of only Gryffindors, Sirius wondered at the wisdom of such statements but everyone else ignored him. Padfoot's leg was starting to throb painfully. Harry was petting him tenderly and cooing, though, and that was a lovely relief.

"I think this is a case in which we'd better not use magic to heal the bone."

Dumbledore's announcement shocked everyone. "Albus," McGonagall's forehead wrinkled in concern, "the poor animal is clearly in pain. His leg is swelling!"

"Quite right. Hagrid, please do what you can to make him comfortable and set the bone, but nothing transfigutory. Luckily," the headmaster's eyes sparkled, "I can leave him in your care as I know you haven't got a wand."

Sirius, trapped behind Padfoot's canine eyes, felt another shiver of alarm. Very few healing spells were truly transfigutory, but bone-setting sometimes involved turning nearby tissue into bone. A broken bone might result in a weaker muscle or a skinnier arm for a couple weeks if it was very severe, but usually the process left no ill effects. What worried Sirius, however, was that Dumbledore had singled out transfigutory spellwork, but allowed everything else. Not that Sirius wasn't grateful at the idea of being rid of the pain and swelling, but it meant-

"Yes, Professor Dumbledore, sir," Hagrid picked Padfoot up and then, as easily as if the bear-sized dog was a small-child, carried him inside the hut. From there, he could hear McGonagall, Snivellus, and Dumbledore still discussing-or arguing, it sounded more like-but he couldn't make out the words. Harry stroked him softly. Padfoot had nearly drifted off to sleep, soothed by Hagrid's pain potion (just a little silver thistle mixed with brandy, truth be told, though Sirius fancied he liked this better than most pain potions) and anti-swelling spells, when a knock rang against the door to the hut. Hagrid stepped across the room and swung the door open, revealing Dumbledore. The two spoke in soft tones, before Dumbledore called Harry outside. Padfoot perked up and waited anxiously until Harry came back in. He desperately wanted to know what that was about. He wanted to curse the fact that he couldn't ask.

Or to kiss Ron Weasley, who wasted no time in doing the same:

"What was that about?" Ron dodged Padfoot's pink tongue with an exaggerated, "Ick."

Harry shrugged. "Dunno. He just asked me about Padfoot."

"What about him?"

"Wanted to know if he'd ever bitten me or anything."

Sirius had no control over the growl that arose from his throat.

"Well, that's what I told him!" Harry protested. "It's ridiculous."

"I'll say. My mum doesn't spoil me half as much as your dog does you." Ron's statement was not without its usual hint of resentment. Harry laughed.

"Well," Harry shrugged again, "I did tell him about the time Padfoot did snap at me. I was maybe seven or eight and I was about to chase my football into the road. I didn't realize it until he nearly knocked me over."

"If Padfoot attacked me," Ron responded, eyes wide, "Merlin, I think I'd mess my pants."

Harry laughed again, purer and truer, and Padfoot basked in it, rolling over for a belly rub. Harry gladly provided. The contact helped assuage Sirius' fears over the Headmaster's possible discovery.

"He did say...eh, never mind, I didn't really hear it all."

"What, now? You can't just start saying something like-"

But, just then, the door to Hagrid's hut burst open and Hermione launched herself through. She enclosed first Harry and then Ron in hugs. Both boys made half-hearted attempts to evade her forward affection. Once they were free of her, she lowered her chin and settled into full-on lecture mode. "How dare you? Oh, I'm so glad you're both safe. You could have been killed! That horrid tree. Ron! I cannot believe that you thought it would be a good idea to steal your parents' car! Why on earth-"

"Hermione," Ron whinged, "leave it be! You've seen us for ten seconds-"

"How do you know all of this?" Harry interrupted. "We've only been here a little while."

"Everyone knows, Harry. Your crash was loud. And then you came running in all dirty and scraped up and grabbed Dumbledore-"

"Oh no," Harry moaned.

"Wait," Ron turned swiftly towards Harry again, "that reminds me, you were about to tell me something Dumbledore said."

Padfoot had been trying to listen to all of this with attentive ears but something in what Hagrid had given him was making him very drowsy. He tried once again to focus.

"Well, he said something about- He said it to Snape, though, so I don't know who-"

"What did he say, Harry?" Hermione had Harry pinned in her keen gaze.

"He said he had to track down someone. He said he would be hard to find. I can't remember... let's see, the name was-"

"Who, Harry?"

"Hermione! Let him think, for Merlin's sake," Ron snapped. Hermione huffed.

"It wasn't a usual... maybe for a wizard, I dunno. Romus? Remus?"

Padfoot felt alertness come to him with the sting of adrenaline. He barked, entirely involuntarily, jumping off the couch and to his feet, then felt himself falter on his mostly-painless broken leg. He scrambled and fell to the Floo r. Sirius, from inside the dog's brain, was trying to reason out what this all meant. Had he been discovered? No, surely Dumbledore wouldn't still let him be here with Harry if that was so. Why, then, did Dumbledore need Remus?

Hermione chewed on her bottom lip, watching the dog carefully. She inhaled. "I don't know if that's enough to get us anywhere at the library."

"Yeah. Pity we don't get to spend this entire year in the library," Ron muttered.

"Harry?" Hermione asked, ignoring Ron.

"Yeah?" Harry turned to Hermione.

"You know how I'm always saying that you act as if your dog is smarter than he can be, or more human?"

"Yeah," Harry answered defensively.

"Well, I think I may have been wrong," Hermione murmured. "Whoever this Remus is, I'd guess that Padfoot knows a bit more than us."

Harry and Ron turned to look at Padfoot as if seeing him for the first time. Padfoot's leg ached and his eyes itched to close but he stood again, alert-agitated, even.

"Bugger," Harry sighed.

"Can we talk about this tomorrow?" Ron yawned. "I could really go for a bed right now. After some food, of course."

"Of course," Hermione rolled her eyes.

Thanks to Padfoot's hurt foot, though, they left him at Hagrid's. He didn't want to be left. He wanted to stay with Harry. He was too fatigued to put up much of a fuss, though, and Harry was insistent that Padfoot rest and eat whatever Hagrid gave him. In the end, Sirius was unable to argue with the marrow of a fresh bone and a warm hearth in the company of a friend. Strange that Fang had become that-a friend-considering that the dog was pretty stupid. Even for a dog. But Fang was generous and fair-minded, trusting and hard-working, and Sirius always had preferred Hufflepuffs over many less savoury ilk-of any species.

Chapter Seven

Harry had Defense against the Dark Arts on his very first day of classes back at Hogwarts. He'd met Lockhart in Diagon Alley and was not looking forward to the class. It went worse than he had expected. The only thing he did learn was that Lockhart's favourite colour was lilac and that he'd make a better Defense teacher if he were a squib. Hermione, though, could not stop daydreaming over his blond locks and award-winning smile. Harry and Ron scowled at each other all the way through their Defense class.

The rest of the day, however, went smoothly. Their first week blended into their second. Divination was mental. Harry and Ron found themselves making up each other's homework while Hermione tutted disapprovingly but it did her no good, as they consistently pulled better marks than she did in Divs. By the third week of classes she'd dropped it and transferred to Ancient Runes.

Also that week, Hermione brought back up the name of the mysterious man that Dumbledore had said he was going to search for. 'Remus' was, after all, enough to get them somewhere, though not at the library. They found their next lead one warm September evening while they were sitting in the Gryffindor common room, animatedly discussing this mysterious personage. Padfoot looked on with quiet dismay. Suddenly, Nearly Headless Nick, ghost of Gryffindor Tower, appeared out of nowhere.

"Did I hear you're inquiring after dear Remus?" The ghost asked.

Padfoot raised his head and tried to glare menacingly at the ghost.

"You know him!?" Harry shot back.

"Of course I know-well, knew him. I've been thinking a lot about those boys lately." He smiled kindly down at Harry and said, "I suppose that's only natural."

"How do you mean?" Hermione asked, no nonsense in her tone of voice.

"What with Harry here," Sir Nicholas elaborated obtusely.

"What has Harry got to do with anything?" Ron asked.

"Remus Lupin," Sir Nick said, as if that explained everything. When the kids continued to stare at him in confusion he shrugged and answered, "Sorry, I figured you knew. He was your father's best friend. One of, anyway. I suppose the other two are dead, though no one really knows what happened to Sirius Black. He always had a temper but I never thought he'd go such a bad way, that one. Sweet boy," Sir Nick reflected fondly.

"Err...thanks," Hermione answered the ghost.

"You said Dumbledore is looking for Lupin?" Nick asked.

"Oh, yes. I haven't got an idea why, though. Have you?"

"No, not at all," Nearly Headless Nick sighed. "He has been scarce since... Well, he has good reason." He seemed to abruptly come out of his reverie, then. "Don't stay up too late, children. Professor McGonagall will not be happy with me if you nod off in a lecture and she finds I found you awake after curfew."

"Yes sir," the three kids nodded, cleaning up their stuff and wandering back up the stairs.

"Goodnight," Nick called behind them.

Hermione separated from the boys and went up to her own dorm, while Harry followed Ron up the stairs to their shared dorm room. Padfoot brought up the rear of their little procession. Padfoot was not at all sleepy, and Harry didn't look tired himself, but Nick had been known to occasionally pester kids when he felt they should be in bed. Harry and Ron could always finish this conversation in their dorm room. Nick had the politesse not to follow there.

"I'm knackered," Ron yawned.

"Not me," mumbled Harry.

"Well, I'm going to bed. That Divinations homework was hard."

"I thought you didn't do yours," Harry answered.

"Yeah, but thinking about it was hard." Ron grabbed his pyjamas and began to pull them on.

Harry shrugged and sat on his own bed. Padfoot guessed it looked like there would be no further discussion tonight. On the one hand, he was relieved. He didn't want the kids to inquire any further into this subject. On the other hand, he wanted to know- he needed to know- what had become of Remus in all these years? Remus had lived believing himself betrayed. In Sirius' mind, that was nearly as good as actually being betrayed, because in truth, Sirius had betrayed Remus's trust, in a sense. He'd really thought Remus was the traitor. And why? A little medical condition? Sirius hated to think he was as bigoted as that. He tried to pretend he'd seen other signs, other reasons to suspect Remus.

When he finally climbed onto Harry's comforter and draped his head over his godson's ankles, though, Sirius could not convince himself that those other signs had really existed. He, Sirius Black, was simply a bigoted bastard like his family. He'd got his best friend killed because he'd thought his own boyfriend was a traitor. And why?

Remus Lupin was a werewolf. There was really no other reason.

"Give it here," Fred whispered, leaning around the corner to see more clearly the path, even though the parchment he grasped could show him that there was no one in the west wing third floor hallway at three in the morning on this particular night.

"Wait," hissed George. "There's someone coming up the stairs."

"Bloody-" Fred hissed.

"If it's Filch, we'll have to go back by-"

"The back stairway's the noisiest."

"We can't exactly sneak out by the front stairway, can we, berk?"

"Maybe," Fred answered. "If we can think of a good excuse-"

"We ran out of good excuses at least two years ago."

"True enough. Let's head-"

"It's not Filch!" George whispered in shock, not yet having handed over the unfolded parchment.

"What?" Fred squinted his eyes, not believing what he was seeing.

"That can't be right," George shoved his long hair out of his eyes.

"Sirius Black!?"

"He was an agent of You Know Who's!"

"He can't really be in the castle-"

"But if he is, it's up to us to catch him!"

"We're the only ones who know."

"Right, I'll go head-on. Maybe you should sneak up the back staircase and down the front stairs. You could get behind him and then we'll have him cornered."

"You reckon that'd be enough? They say he killed a dozen Muggles in cold blood."

"I could kill a dozen Muggles. Let's see him try the two of us."

"Right."

"Take the map."

"Right-o. I'll see you in a few."

Fred nodded goodbye to George and slipped back down the hallway the way they'd come. His steps up the back staircase were loud and the door slammed on both ends but George stayed still and flush against the wall, waiting and hoping that the infamous Sirius Black was not about to pop around the corner on him. George's wand didn't waver or shake and the hexes he'd learned in both classes and pre-game Quidditch fights readied themselves on his tongue. Still, his palm grew sweaty against the worn wood of his hand-me-down wand (it was Bill's first). He waited five minutes, more than enough time to go up the stairs and back down again, and then George straightened his shoulders and spun around the corner to face one of the Dark Lord's most trusted henchmen.

Instead, he was greeted by the sight of Fred patting Harry's pet dog. "Bloody hell!"

"Harry must have named his dog Sirius Black," Fred laughed.

"That doesn't make any sense," George snapped. "Harry was raised by Muggles. He's never even heard of the name Sirius Black, and even if he had, why in the name of every place Merlin ever put his wand would Harry Potter name his dog after Sirius Black."

Fred gaped at George. "Well, I don't know. The boy's gone round the bend."

"Or you have," George mumbled. "How do you know that's not the real Sirius Black but as an animagus or something."

Fred faced him and laughed heartily. "It's Harry's dog!"

"The map-"

"Must have been wrong. Give it up, George. You know Harry's dog. Pad's alright. He chased half the trolls out of the garden last month. Can't help but like him for that."

"Yeah, I guess," George answered, shaking off his stress a little bit and feeling fatigue wash over him as adrenaline wore off. "Well come on then, let's get to bed."

Fred nodded and the two boys turned and started heading back to Gryffindor Tower. The dog followed. Suddenly, George stopped in his tracks.

"Wait," George hissed, "What's the dog's name again?"

"Pad."

"Padfoot, you mean." George grabbed the map from Fred's pocket and used it to whack him over the forehead.

"Don't be silly. A dog can't make a map."

"A dog can't but an animagus could."

"That would explain 'Padfoot'," George whispered, gesturing with the blank parchment in his hand.

"And 'Sirius Black'," Fred pointed to the said parchment.

From behind them issued a low-frequency growl.

"It can't be."

"Big coincidence if-"

"You think Sirius Black-"

"Made this map!"

"The two boys turned to watch the keen and unusually blue eyes of the large black dog as it watched them. It seemed tense and angry.

George opened the map and whispered, "We solemnly swear we are up to no good."

"Still says 'Sirius Black'."

"Padfoot-" George started, addressing the dog in a loud and clear voice. But, before he could continue with what he was saying, Fred gasped and pointed at the map. A red ink blob outlined the bubble over "Sirius Black" and then faded slowly. "Padfoot," George whispered. Fred gasped again. "Merlin's saggy balls," Fred whispered, "Do you reckon he's going to kill us now?"

Sirius didn't need to see the map to know what they were reacting to. The highlighting charm had been Remus's idea but it was Sirius who used it most, not possessing of the patience to scan the entire map for signs of his friends. It didn't work with everyone on the map, just with the four of them: the Marauders, and only with their nicknames, not their given names, lest anyone other than themselves be looking for them. He looked up to find both boys gaping at him. Their eyes were laced with disbelief, excitement, fear. He could watch their thoughts coalescing. And then Fred spoke, in a whisper, but loudly enough for Padfoot's canine ears.

"We can take him, George."

Sirius had to make a split-second decision. Right in the Hogwarts hallway he transformed into a human. His wandwork in such rapid encounters had always been good, so he was deftly able to lock the shocked twins up in full-body-binds and shove them into the nearest broom closet. He briefly entertained thoughts of leaving them there and running, but these were friends of Harry's and he knew he couldn't do that.

"Wha-what!" Fred reached for his wand but realized only as his hand touched his robe pocket that Black had taken it. A swift glance at George revealed that George had had the same instinctive reaction and had come to the same realization. The boys looked at each other. Fred saw fear in George's eyes, but not only fear-outrage waged a war with it for the upper hand. Fred knew the feeling. He spoke.

"Now look here, if we disappear, people will notice."

"You'll never get away with this, Black."

Black had a twisted smile on his lips.

"We'll yell," Fred offered.

"My soundproofing charms are a bit out of practice but, even so, I doubt that anyone would hear you in the middle of the night," Black answered flatly.

"Either way," George drew himself up to his full height, at which he veritably towered over the much shorter Black, "People will find out what happened. You're going to lose your grip on Harry no matter what happens to us."

"And that's all that matters. To you and to the wizard world," Fred added.

"I will not let you come between me and Harry. No matter what." Black's eyes developed a flinty determination with this statement.

"Too late for that," George sneered.

Black took a step backwards until he was as distant as he could be from the two larger boys in the tiny space and his shoulders seemed to sag. "What can I do to convince you to keep a secret?"

"A secret? You have to be-"

"Joking! We'd rather die than help you."

"Look! Nothing is what you think it is!" Black was shouting by now, and George couldn't help but wonder whether Black had already put up those soundproofing charms.

"No kidding!" Fred shouted back.

"We thought you were a dog," George explained.

"Look." Black stepped towards them again, raising his wand to the clearly threatening height of George's chest. "I'm not trying to hurt Harry. I want to help him. I am a dog, or I am as far as he knows. I've been with him his whole life. If I wanted to kill him, I'd have had a million chances by now."

"That's true," George answered, frowning.

"And Harry has always spoke of the particular devotion of his dog." Fred was addressing George and not Black.

"But it's Sirius Black."

"Yeah-"

"Are you Padfoot?" George turned to Black very abruptly and asked.

Black seemed to be having some trouble following the twins' train of thought. His brow wrinkled and, in a very un-fearsome voice of confusion, he asked, "Didn't we already cover this?"

"No, I don't just mean Padfoot Harry's dog. Are you Padfoot of the map?"

Fred's eyes widened. "Holy Helga's Handsome Knickers!" he exclaimed.

"That. Yes, the map-that's me as well."

"Alright-" George flashed a mischievous smile to Fred.

"Tell us your story-" Fred started.

"And we may just believe you." George finished.

Chapter Eight

Sirius Black spent all night in a very tiny broom cupboard with the Weasley Twins. He tried very hard throughout the conversation to not reflect on how much these boys reminded him of Gideon and Fabian Prewett, their twin uncles, whose vibrant lives had been claimed so unceremoniously in the midst of war. That was the worst part of war, Sirius firmly believed: it wasn't glorious and in slow-motion with a riveting soundtrack like in Muggle cinema portraits. People just-died. They were alive and then they were dead, and there was no perfectly-timed sunrise or piccolo solo to bring the moment any false meanings. He couldn't help but think of James. Sirius had found his best friend on the living room floor with his eyes still open.

And so, he told his story to George and Fred Weasley. The boys did a credit to their uncles and gave Sirius the benefit of most doubts, except where he clearly gave them too little information to do so. Before the sun had risen they knew near as much of his life's story as he did. They knew about Peter's betrayal, Sirius' tender care of the infant Harry right under the noses of the Dursleys, Sirius' realization that he would be discovered if he didn't begin spending more time as a canine, and eventually Sirius' nearly-complete morph into an entirely canine lifestyle. He told them about his time during Harry's first year spent with Fang and Hagrid, told them about the trouble he and Ron and Harry'd had getting through the barrier at Platform Nine and Three Quarters, and finally told them about how to stop the Whomping Willow. Sirius, throat sore, sat back and simply breathed. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted, to finally have someone he could share his story with. He still had some misgivings. The Weasley boys before him were not very old, and he could only hope and pray that they were any good at keeping secrets. Still, he did have some previous proof of that. The twins' reputation proceeded them.

"I do have one question, though," Fred leaned forward on the old and rusted cauldron on which he was perched. "If you're the Padfoot of the map, who are the others?"

"Moony, Wormtail, and Prongs." George elaborated, as if Sirius would need reminding.

"Prongs," Sirius sighed, "was Harry's father."

"Oh. The others?"

"Wormtail is Peter Pettigrew." Sirius' face twisted in disgust as he said the name. He'd already told the twins that story so they didn't inquire further into, at least, the particular personage of Peter.

"And Moony?" George prompted.

"A friend."

"Why didn't you choose this Moony as the Potters' secret-keeper?" Fred asked.

"A mistake," Sirius answered, in a tone that he hoped hinted at the fact that he was not especially willing or eager to share more of this part of the story. "My worst mistake."

The trio sat in silence a while before Fred stood and stretched. "It must be getting near morning. I don't suppose you could let us out of here now, if you have no plans to kill us after all."

"Huh?" Sirius squinted up at Fred. "The door isn't locked."

"It isn't?" George gasped and jumped to his own feet.

"Never was," Sirius shrugged.

Fred and George laughed heartily at their fool assumption. Sirius felt he'd made two friends, or at least allies, as the Weasleys slipped out of the closet. Sirius himself transformed and followed not even a moment later.

"Dueling!" Ron explained. "That sounds brilliant! Harry, maybe you'll get a chance to hex Malfoy."

Harry grinned.

"Don't be silly," Hermione huffed, "Of course it'll be supervised."

Hermione was right, of course. There was no way the Dueling Club wouldn't be supervised. Still, when Harry saw that there was to be such a club, he was more than enthused to sign up for it. Even finding out that it was to be run by none other than Gilderoy Lockhart the Incompetent and Severus Snape the Insufferable only mildly dampened Harry's excitement. He'd been in enough situations to wish he knew more about dueling. No doubt he would find himself in increasingly frightening situations as he got older. He recalled Voldemort, attached to the back of Professor Quirrell's head, and shuttered. If Voldemort ever got a body, Harry had better be the very best duelist there was. He only hoped this club was up to the task of teaching him. After all, he wasn't learning anything useful in Defense lessons, with Lockhart as the professor.

Even with supervision, Harry did find himself dueling Malfoy after all, but when Malfoy conjured a large and terrifically frightening-looking snake and the snake turned its beady eyes to the Hufflepuff Justin Finch-Fletchley, Harry's instinct kicked in. He ordered and pleaded with the snake to leave Finch-Fletchley alone. The snake eventually obeyed, Snape vanished it, and a silent hush fell over the student body. Harry, not quite sure what had gone wrong, was eager to be away from the stares and whispers of so many students. He jumped down from the raised dueling dais and left the hall.

"Harry!" Hermione called behind him.

Harry kept walking, sure that he didn't want to endure a lecture from Hermione right now, though he couldn't imagine why he would be receiving one. Hadn't he done the right thing? He'd stopped the snake from killing Finch-Fletchley. He was sure of it. Harry's steps sped up.

"Harry, wait," Ron said, revealing that he was following as well.

"Harry," Hermione pleaded, "We aren't mad at you, really."

At that, Harry spun. "Why would anyone be mad at me? I just stopped that snake from attacking Finch-Fletchley!"

Hermione's jaw dropped open. "S-so that's what you were doing?"

"'Course! You heard me!"

"Harry," Hermione started slowly, "It looked like you were egging the snake on."

"What? Don't be ridiculous. You heard what I was saying to it!"

"Saying- Harry, do you mean you were talking to it?" Hermione's face scrunched strangely.

"Don't be daft," Harry barked in exasperation. "No, I was singing to it. Of course I was talking to it."

"Just sounded like a bunch of hissing to us, mate," Ron answered.

"A bunch of-"

"Come on," Hermione looped an through one of Ron's, then one of Harry's. "Common room."

"Wha-" Harry spluttered, but he let himself be led along, regardless.

Once they reached the common room, Hermione forcibly sat Harry down on a sofa. Padfoot was nowhere to be seen, and Harry guessed he was asleep upstairs in the dorm room. He slept an awful lot.

"Harry." Hermione's no-nonsense voice brought Harry back to the present. "It's not a good thing if you can speak to snakes."

Harry glanced up at Ron, who was staring at him in- was that fear?

"Why?" Harry asked. "Can't everyone do it? I only spoke in English."

"It wasn't English," Hermione answered. "It's called Parseltongue. It's a kind of snake-language. Very few witches and wizards can speak in it."

"The fewer the better," Ron muttered, and Hermione shot him a glare that Harry couldn't read.

"You're saying I was speaking this other language?" Harry asked.

Hermione nodded.

"But how can I be speaking another language and not even know it?"

"I don't know," Hermione shook her head, "But that's not the point. This is bad."

"Why."

"Because. Harry. Very few wizards known Parseltongue. In fact, I only know of two."

"Who?"

"Salazar Slytherin-"

Harry frowned.

"And Voldemort."

Harry lay awake deep into the night. He was frightened. Was he very much like Voldemort? After Hermione had told him the meaning of his actions in the Great Hall, Harry had retired to the security of the empty Quidditch pitch. There, no one was around to glare at him, to skirt by him with too much space between, or to whisper behind his back. The day was cool but sunny, and the location fit his mood- lonesome. Padfoot had come looking for him before long, however, and Harry was actually glad for his dog's company. At first, both sat in silence. Then, Harry had been compelled to tell the entire story to the one animal he didn't think would judge him for it.

He had been wrong to do so.

Padfoot had waited a minute, maybe two, and then disappeared. He didn't know where to, but even now, Harry was alone. Was his dog also afraid he was secretly a Dark Wizard? Of course Padfoot was. After all, Harry himself was afraid of that same thing.

Padfoot wandered the grounds. It was quiet in the evening, peaceful. He knew he was being all sorts of wrong, selfish. Harry needed him. But this- this news. Sirius didn't know what to make of it. He had to overwhelming urge to transform into a man, maybe smoke a fag. He hadn't had one since Harry was born, actually, but today he felt that he needed one. Surely it wouldn't hurt much to transform?

Padfoot wandered into the edge of the forest, just by the lake, and did so. He found a rock, tall and broad, and sat on on it to watch the sunset in the full color of a man's eyes. It was a familiar spot; not a favorite, but a place he'd come a couple times as a kid to see the sunset over the bens. And to smoke. No hope of that now.

Sirius shook his head to clear it, trying to focus on what he knew. He knew that Harry was a good kid, a precious kid. The kid had a conscience like gold, but purer. A little too pure, from all that Sirius had seen. There was no way in hell that Harry had an ounce of anything even slightly Dark in him. He was no Wormtail, no Snivellus. The suggestion was preposterous.

Where, then, had Harry picked up this talent? Was this Voldemort's doing? Just a freak coincidence? Sirius remained troubled, trying to puzzle out the solution. He was sure it was important in the long run, but in the short run, he fell asleep on the rock over the lake.

When he awoke, still in a man's form, the moon was full and high. Upon seeing the orb overhead, Sirius transformed back into Padfoot on instinct. He then remembered where he was and what had brought him out here. It didn't matter, he decided. It didn't. Harry was Harry and they could deal with all the rest another time.

Padfoot leaped down off of the rock and ran back towards the castle across the dark lawn.

Sirius would always remember where he was when the first attack happened. He had not been with Harry at the time. His vow to himself to stay by Harry's side had honestly not lasted as long as he had intended, due to the innate security and absolute parade of distractions afforded within the wall of Hogwarts. At the time, Sirius had actually been-as Padfoot of course-in the Hufflepuff common room. He'd become quite popular with young witches and wizards of every house. He reflected with some amusement that he was even more popular now than he had been as a rakish and wealthy young student. The Hufflepuffs fed him at times and, at that particular time, he'd been enjoying a snack of cheesy popcorn, care of a Muggle-born boy.

An instant later, though, a round-faced and blonde-haired girl had rushed into the comfortable and cushion-lined common room. Her cheeks were flushed and her voice was frantic as she mumbled something about an attack, and blood, and these "horrible words." When her housemates asked her what they said she'd burst into tears and, through sobs, simply answered that she would "never ever repeat them."

Not five minutes later, all the inhabitants of the Hufflepuff common room, including Padfoot, were stampeding up flights upon flights of stairs, led by the unkempt blonde hair of the first still-crying girl.

When Sirius saw the display of hatred and nerve before him, his blood went cold and all he could think of was getting to Harry. The victim was Mrs. Norris, Filch's horrid cat. Sirius had no love for Mrs. Norris but, all the same, he would never have wanted to see the old cat petrified, perhaps permanently. Worse, Harry had apparently been nearest the incident at its discovery and, almost instantaneously, blaming Harry became the vogue thing to do. Sirius didn't believe that for a moment, of course, but he would have felt better about denying it even to himself had he been with Harry at the time of the attack.

Harry was shaken up by the event. He tried not to show it too much, especially as eyes and fingers turned towards him. Sirius took this peculiarly emotional reaction on Harry's part as a sign that the accusations were getting to the boy. One heartbreaking evening, Harry curled fingers through the dense ruff of Padfoot's neck and whispered, "Maybe I am crazy."

Padfoot turned questioningly towards the boy. Harry could read his canine expressions well enough, as he answered, "Oh nothing. Never mind."

Sirius, though, did not put these words of Harry's out of his head. He clung especially close to the boy and on more than one occasion Harry seemed to grow tense and uncomfortable while looking at the walls. Once, he turned to Padfoot and whispered, "Do you hear that? You must hear it."

Padfoot listened carefully but all he heard was the hiss of steam through some underground piping. He followed Harry even more closely from then on.

Then came the second attack. Padfoot was with Harry before this one; the boy seemed to pay close attention to the walls again before he broke off at a run. Padfoot scampered to keep up. Once again, all he heard was a steaming pipe, though Harry seemed to be listening more intently than that. The steam seemed to rush past them as they ascended stairs towards the main staircase and by the time they reached the foyer to the Great Hall, both Harry and Padfoot stopped in shock at the sight that greeted them.

There, in the foyer, was the pesky Gryffindor first year, Colin Creevey, with his camera held up to his face, standing as petrified as Mrs. Norris.

This second attack-and this one on a student-caused much more of a frenzy than the first. Those who had been quietly whispering about Harry's involvement behind his back now spoke loudly and to his face. It hadn't helped matters that he was so quick to show up at the scene of the second crime, as well. Padfoot had been with him, and if only he could speak up, he would have vouched for his son. Harry, at least, seemed to retain a great comfort in the fact that Padfoot had been witness to his innocence-or perhaps simply to his vestiges of sanity.

"Pads," Harry whispered to him in bed one night, "You know I didn't do it."

Padfoot reached out and licked Harry's lined face.

"I know I didn't do it, and you know I didn't, and that's enough."

Chapter Nine

"Even in the wizarding world, Harry," Hermione whispered behind a curtain of her own hair, "it's not good thing to hear voices."

Harry blushed and backed away from her a bit. "So you think I'm losing it?"

"I didn't say that," Hermione snapped, but the concerned expression on her face belayed her words.

Ron simply asked, "How come no one else has heard this voice?"

"I don't know!" Harry snapped. He'd answered that same question coming from Hermione just moments before.

"Are you sure you're getting enough sleep?" Hermione asked.

"I didn't dream it!"

"Alright, calm down," Hermione sighed.

"You don't think I'm the Slytherin heir, do you?" Harry sounded very near panic.

"Now you are mental," Ron answered under his breath.

"Well..." Hermione made a face again.

"You do think he is?" Ron's expression was one of clear and open shock.

"Anyone with pureblood wizard in him is bound to be, and I've looked up Harry's family tree."

"You have?" Harry and Ron answered at once.

"The Potters were pureblood and Harry had a grandmother who was a Black. That's about as pureblood as you can get, aside from the Slytherin branch, which supposedly died out. If anyone were the heir of Slytherin, it would be Harry, or..."

"Or?" Harry jumped at the opportunity to not be an evil overlord. Padfoot listened with half an ear to this entire conversation, as he recognized both the truth in Hermione's words and knew the falsities in them. Harry was clearly not responsible for the attacks.

"Draco Malfoy," Hermione answered tersely.

Even Padfoot picked his head up at that. Of course, Narcissa's son!

"That settles it, then," Ron nodded. "'Course he'd frame Harry."

"I'll get him for this," Harry growled.

For whatever incomprehensible reason, their plot against Draco Malfoy had lead them anywhere but. Hermione had spread her materials out on a table in the library, shoving books under the noses of Harry and Ron. "Supposedly," Hermione spoke in that special tone of voice she affected when she felt she was educating others, "Salazar Slytherin built this Chamber to cleanse the school of Muggle-borns, since he didn't approve of them attending. He was supposed to have hidden a kind of monster down there."

"What kind?" Harry asked.

"They don't say, but I think-"

"Mister Potter!" The conversation was interrupted by Madam Pince.

Harry, startled, nearly fell backwards in his chair, then looked with goggling green eyes up at the Hogwarts librarian.

"Professor Dumbledore may let you have your dog in this school but there is absolutely no reason for him to be in the library. Do you see anyone else with a familiar in the library?"

"N-no-"

"Of course not. Out."

Harry, alas, did not leave with Padfoot but simply sighed and turned to Padfoot. "Could you wait for me back upstairs, boy? I'll be done here as soon as I can be," Harry muttered. Sirius felt the real truth in Harry's words. He wanted to escape Hermione and Padfoot might give him an opportunity if Harry could just hold on a bit longer.

"Anyway," Hermione sniffed, "As I was saying-" But then the door of the library closed behind Sirius and he no longer had any idea what Hermione had been saying.

The kids were up to something. Sirius didn't know what, but he couldn't follow them into Moaning Myrtle's toilet. She had met the dog back in their sixth year and, fascinated at the young school animagi, followed himself, Peter, and James for a week. He was already eager to avoid Myrtle but, in addition to his aversion to her abrasive personality, she could easily identify him. Sirius continued to worry about what was going on in the bathroom, but Snape was not happy about his stolen ingredients. That was proof enough to Sirius that nothing the kids were doing could be all bad, not if it angered Snape in the process.

Rather, Sirius turned his own attention to trying to sniff out the Heir of Slytherin. He was as convinced as the kids that Draco Malfoy was the culprit, and thus he tailed Malfoy whenever he thought he could get away with it. He was hexed a couple times for his efforts. One morning at breakfast in the Great Hall, Malfoy stopped near the Gryffindor table to scowl and bark, "Keep your flea-ridden mutt away from me! If it attacks me, my father will hear about it. So unsanitary to have him around. Even at meals! Really-" He stalked away, promptly followed by his two goons.

Hermione followed this confrontation by giving Harry a shrewd look. "Padfoot's been following Draco?"

"Dunno," Harry shrugged. "He's been on his own a bit, I guess."

"That settles it," Ron drew himself up, "Draco must be the Heir of Slytherin. Even Padfoot thinks so."

"Padfoot thinks what?" A new voice joined their little group as Fred slid onto the bench next to Harry.

"Nothing," Hermione quipped. "Padfoot is a dog, Ron. He has no opinions on Draco Malfoy."

"Even dogs have opinions on people," Ron blustered back.

"Maybe so, but I doubt that Padfoot is following Malfoy around."

"Malfoy just said he was!" Ron's voice rose in outraged pitch, and Harry sunk a little deeper in his seat. George, on the other hand, slid in next to Ron, across from Fred.

"Dunno," George winked at Fred, "that dog's pretty smart, for a dog."

"That doesn't mean Draco is the Heir of Slytherin," Hermione protested.

"Ah, but you don't-"

"Deny that Padfoot is smart?"

"You know Hermione," Fred quirked an eyebrow, "you shouldn't defend Malfoy."

"Someone might think you fancy him," George finished.

"Hermione," Ron sat up straighter, "Do you fancy Draco Malfoy?"

"No! No. No."

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," George laughed.

Hermione made a face like she'd eaten far too many lemon sherbets.

"George?" Another small voice joined the group at the table.

"Not now, Gin," George turned to see his little sister, "we're having a conversation."

"Can I speak to you a moment?" Sirius noticed then that Ginny was looking especially fatigued. She had dark circles under her eyes and she was very pale.

"It's an adult conversation, Gin," Fred interjected.

"Go away," Ron added unceremoniously.

"Ron," Hermione scolded him.

Harry, by this point, was burying his face in his hands. Sirius commiserated. All of this back and froth was giving him a headache. Padfoot nosed Harry's hands underneath the table. Harry smiled and asked the dog. "Have you really been following Malfoy?" Padfoot did his best to nod but he didn't think Harry bought it. Harry sighed and looked up just in time to watch Ginny run from the Great Hall, having been told off by her brothers.

After weeks of following the pale boy, Sirius was no closer to learning anything sinister about Malfoy's doings. He'd been hindered by the fact that the Slytherin second year-his own cousin-hexed him whenever he saw the dog looming nearby. Harry, Hermione, and Ron disappeared into Myrtle's loo and at that time Padfoot was easily made aware of the fact that they'd been working on Polyjuice Potion. When Crabbe and Goyle emerged from Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, they still smelled of Ron and Harry. Sirius didn't follow them, though, knowing he would give the two boys away if he was seen hanging out with them. Rather, he went on his own way.

Harry and Ron seemed to discover nothing about Malfoy but the Polyjuice adventure did land Hermione in the Hospital Wing. She'd apparently mistaken a cat hair for that of Slytherin second year Millicent Bulstrode and, as the potion was not meant to be used with animals, the effects did not wear off as easily as they did for Ron and Harry.

For a while afterwards, with no new clues and no new suspects-as well as no additional attacks-life settled back in at Hogwarts. The kids concentrated on their classes once again and Padfoot even shared a hearth with Fang on occasion. Sometimes he still fretted about the fact that Dumbledore was supposedly looking for Remus Lupin, but nothing seemed to have come of it. Padfoot didn't doubt that Lupin must hate and blame him and did not relish the idea of seeing his old- friend. His mind was at ease, therefore, that he wouldn't have to.

The Christmas holidays passed without event and a wet rain fell on the Highlands of Scotland with the beginning of spring. Students were talking Quidditch and the fifth and seventh years were speaking of their upcoming exams, even though those were quite a ways off. No one much was remembering the Chamber of Secrets, except most likely the poor Creevey family and the Hogwarts caretaker Mr. Filch. He doubtlessly missed Mrs. Norris terribly, as she was his only friend.

Thus, everyone was shocked when Gilderoy Lockhart wound up in the Hospital Wing, petrified like those before him. Harry, once again, was first on the scene, and it did him no credit. No one was happy with him. Even Hermione felt he should make more of an effort to stay away from trouble.

When she said exactly this over dinner that night, Harry's mouth fell open. "I wasn't! I was just walking-"

Hermione shrugged and said, "Oh, forget it. I just don't understand-petrified. They think this is a creature Salazar Slytherin left here, and it petrifies people..."

"Bloody hell," Ron groaned, "she's got that look again."

"Which look?" Harry blinked at Ron.

"We're headed to the library," Ron whispered to Harry.

"That's an excellent idea, Ron. Come on, then!"

"But I haven't had my dessert," Ron yelped. Hermione, though, was already gone. Ron jumped up to follow her and Harry, not to be left behind, followed quickly behind Ron. Sirius could not follow them into the library anyway, so he merely watched them go.

"Padfoot!" George was suddenly there beside him.

"Black," Fred added cheekily. At the use of his surname, Sirius drew back his gums and growled.

"I think he is," George laughed.

"He's not brown or yellow. Definitely Black."

"Too bad he doesn't know anything about this Chamber business."

"You don't, do you?" Fred sounded instantly menacing, and Sirius growled again.

Left otherwise alone, and with no real incentive to follow Malfoy, Padfoot hung out with the Weasley twins for the rest of the evening. They did not seem bothered to have him on board. Mostly, they were busy trying to charm all the points in the Slytherin markers to be invisible so that it would look as though Slytherin had no points. Sirius loved the idea quite thoroughly and when the boys absconded to a hidden room to discuss the spells, he was only to happy to come along, transform once again, and work on the puzzle with them. These sort of challenges had always been his forte. He liked them difficult; he craved the impossible challenge, the impressive one that was also hilarious. A transfigurations expert, it was Sirius' idea to transfigure all of the points-markers into air molecules. That way they'd still be in the container (since the glass was carefully spelled against removals and additions), but the air pressure would simply rise, and only a meaningless amount, what with how few points there were compared to air molecules.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione stood with the rest of the Hogwarts students, staring at the large hourglasses that magically held the points-markers for their current term. Slytherin's was empty.

"Bloody brilliant," Ron gasped.

"Fred and George," Hermione growled under her breath.

"Don't look at us-" a voice answered from behind their shoulders. Harry turned to see Fred.

"We were with McGonagall when it happened." George smirked.

"Perfect alibi," Fred exclaimed.

"I don't know how you did it," Hermione hissed, "But it was you."

"What's the big deal, Hermione," Ron asked. "It's only the Slytherin points."

Harry laughed. "Yeah, Snape will give them that many more again by next week."

"And probably take away all of ours," she said as she glared at the twins from under her brown, fuzzy fringe.

"Perfect alibi," Fred and George intoned in unison.

"Let's hope so," Hermione answered snobbishly. "Come on Harry and Ron. I've been to the library and I've found out more about Remus Lupin."

Chapter Ten

In fact, Hermione had not found out much more about Remus Lupin. From old Hogwarts records, easy to find in the library and open to all students, Hermione had discovered that Remus Lupin had been a Gryffindor in Harry's dad's year.

"We already knew that, Hermione," Ron whinged.

"Yeah, Nick told us that," Harry agreed.

"Right. Well, there isn't much more, really. His exam scores aren't on file, of course, but we can see what classes he took-"

"Why do we care, exactly?" Ron interrupted.

"I don't know," Hermione sniffed. "Dumbledore wants him, so he's the key to something."

"Maybe Dumbledore just wants him to come speak to me or something," Harry answered, and try as he might, he was not able to keep the hopefulness out of his voice.

"Maybe," Hermione sighed. "I guess we just won't know unless he turns up. At least he's not famous or evil or anything."

"That we know of," Ron added.

"Nah, no friend of my dad's would be evil," Harry said, leaning back against the sofa in the common room and staring into the fire.

"Let's hope not," Hermione nodded.

Gryffindor was playing Hufflepuff that Saturday. It was not a particularly important match; Hufflepuff hadn't won their previous match, and they had a lot of new players on the team. Gryffindor was expected to win handily and they did just that. It was nearly a shut-out, but Hufflepuff managed one goal. Their Seeker wasn't bad, though, and Harry ended up in another death-defying last-minute struggle for the snitch with the older boy, Cedric Diggory. Even though Hufflepuff hadn't performed extraordinarily, neither had Gryffindor. The weather was warm and sunny, unusual for early April in Scotland. Gryffindor had lost possession twice to Hufflepuff. Luckily, Hufflepuff had not been able to turn those slips around to make points out of them, and had lost possession again in turn. Gryffindor only won because, while they played poorly, Hufflepuff played worse. Despite the victory, the match put Oliver Wood in a foul mood.

When Harry finally had escaped the locker room and Wood's grousing, still muddy and looking forward to a shower, he went straight to the Tower without hesitation. He was stripping in the dorm room when Ron burst in.

"It's Hermione," Ron called, headed straight for Harry.

"What about her?" Harry asked. He had not seen his friend in the stands, and he was bitter about that.

"She's been-bloody hell," Ron's voice shook. "Harry, she's been petrified!"

Harry felt ashamed at having been so angry with Hermione earlier. Of course his friend would only miss the Quidditch match for an emergency. She didn't like Quidditch, but she was still his friend, wasn't she? Harry immediately peeled his dirty Quidditch clothes back on and ran behind Ron all the way to the hospital wing.

Harry and Ron sat in their dorm in stupefied silence for most of the rest of the evening. Occasionally one or the other would say something along the lines of, "I can't believe it," or "I thought she just ditched Quidditch." It was a good hour before either of them brought up the mirror they'd found clutched in Hermione'd hand.

"Do you reckon Salazar Slytherin had it out for vain folks, then?" Ron asked, once Harry had brought up the mirror. "With Lockhart and all," Ron added. "And we don't know, maybe Mrs. Norris is very vain for a cat."

"Dunno," Harry answered. "Hermione's not vain, though. That's why the mirror is so odd."

"Mirrors, then? Lockhart loved his mirrors."

"Yeah, he did," Harry laughed tensely. "Ron, do you suppose Lockhart is Muggle-born?"

"No, he couldn't be. Could he?"

"Dunno, just Hermione and Creevey are, so..."

"Not Mrs. Norris, though."

"We don't know how that works for cats," Harry opined.

"Slytherin just would be mental enough to have it out for Muggle-born cats."

Seamus and Dean burst into the room just then. Seamus seemed about to burst as he exclaimed, "Oi, did you hear about Herm-"

"Yes!" Ron and Harry answered in unison.

"They would hear first," Dean smacked Seamus on the back of his head.

Neville followed behind them into the room. "Are we going to be sleeping tonight? Because I'm bloody tired."

Ron stared at Neville, agog at the meek boy's use of profanity, until harry interrupted:

"Yes, we're going to bed. Now, in fact. I don't want to talk about this any more." Harry stood and quickly escaped the room. Padfoot wasn't around this evening, and right now he wished more than anything for the comforting presence of his dog. Maybe the only plus side to Hermione's falling victim would be that people would stop blaming Harry for the attacks? He wasn't especially hopeful, though, even on that account.

Padfoot watched from the window of Gryffindor Tower. It was another rainy day. The hill that slanted southwesterly along the Black Lake was carpeted in the bright yellow of a thousand yellow daffodils. Besides that brilliant color, the world outside was grey sky reflecting onto even darker water. It was late April in Scotland. By the time they left for the summer, in a scant three weeks, the hills would be green and strewn with the purple of Highland heather. A lot happened in the Highlands in these last weeks of spring, as if the world were only just coming awake.

Under the blanket of the rainy sky, Padfoot saw a man walking up on foot to the Castle doors. He had a pronounced limp and carried a plain cane of a light and cheap wood. He had no umbrella for the rain, but rather seemed to have cast a water repellent charm on himself. The man rested the hook of his cane over his arm and rustled in the pocket of his ankle-length tweed cloak for a moment, pulled out a soggy looking bit of parchment, and continued. Padfoot lost sight of the figure as he disappeared under the overhang of the castle's entrance doors.

It was done, Sirius reflected. He was now, more than he had ever been, a fugitive in Hogwarts. Remus would not hesitate to turn him over to the Ministry, not after Sirius' mistake.

Padfoot, then, slipped quietly out of the Tower and from the Castle. He would have to hope that Remus, no doubt brought in to keep Harry safe at times like these, would be able to do the job. He felt himself exiled. He didn't even mind the mood-matching rain as he made his way to Hagrid's hut, scratched at the door, and was let inside. Fang moved over to leave Padfoot a spot by the fire, and Sirius settled in to dry off and sleep.

Padfoot had been missing for several weeks now. Harry tried not to worry. His dog had always returned to him, and in truth he wasn't really worried. He was more lonely than he was concerned. Seeing Professor Lupin every day around the castle, knowing that Professor Lupin had been best friends with his dad, and further knowing that Lupin had not sought him out even once, nor said a single word to him outside of class-it all made Harry feel odd. Therefore, on a particular Saturday when Ron and Hermione were still finishing up a lesson that Harry had rushed idly through, Harry was not much surprised to find that his feet had involuntarily steered him straight to the office of his newest Defense professor.

As far as professors went, Lupin was one of the best, if not the best. He easily held his own. Harry didn't fear Professor Lupin at all, so he knocked on the door, though it was ajar and he could see Lupin writing inside.

Lupin looked up and saw Harry. The old and tired-looking man smiled, and the emotion seemed genuine enough. "Harry, do come in."

Harry did as he was told, and soon found himself standing before his professor's desk.

"One moment," Lupin darted a smile up again. "I'm just putting the finishing touches on grading this essay, and then I'll be right with you."

Harry watched as Lupin graded. He looked as if he were having a conversation with the student who had written the essay: Lupin laugh in places, frowned in others, tutted and harrumphed, said "Yes, good," several

"What brings you here today, Harry? Something the matter?"

"Um, no."

"Alright."

Harry watched as Professor Lupin started on the next essay. Before the professor got far, however, he put down his quill and looked back up at Harry.

"Harry, you do know that you came to my office."

"Yes sir."

Lupin smiled indulgently. "You're welcome to sit if you simply need a place to be, but I'm afraid that, for the privacy of my students, it's really not proper if I let you watch me grade."

"Oh. Um, sorry." Harry took a step backwards away from the desk, but Lupin stacked the parchments and shoved them all in a drawer anyway.

"Say," Lupin folded his hands, "Where's this familiar I have heard so much about?"

"Sir?"

"Your dog, Harry," Lupin said, utterly amused by Harry's inattention.

"Oh. I'm not sure. He's been away."

"Aren't you worried?"

"Not really," Harry shrugged. "He does that. Padfoot can look after himself."

"I might beg to differ," Lupin muttered.

"Sir?"

"Oh, nothing. Now tell me, earnestly, what brings you by? Are you worried about your grade? I promise you, it's very good. You show much aptitude in Defense. You are rather like your father that way."

"Oh, no. Well, that's just it." Harry had neared his Defense professor's desk during this conversation, and now he was fingering a golden gadget on the desk's edge. "You were in school with my dad, weren't you?" Harry asked nervously, though of course he already knew the answer.

"Yes." Professor Lupin sat back in his chair. "And with your mother as well. You could not have found two friends better than James and Lily."

Harry smiled nervously. "That's how I feel about Ron and Hermione."

"I'm glad," Lupin said, "Everyone should have such good friends."

"Yeah." Harry shifted his weight from foot to foot.

"You look just like them, you know. Well, mostly your dad, but you have-"

"My mother's eyes. Yeah, I've been told."

Chapter Eleven

Sirius smelled Remus Lupin even before the knock landed on the door. Confident of being recognized, he hid in Fang's usual hiding place: under the bed. Thankfully, Fang was not currently occupying the space, as he was not afraid of Remus.

"Ev'ning" Hagrid greeted Remus as soon as he opened the door. Whatever he had seen on Remus's face, though, must have upset him. "Has something happened?" Hagrid asked. Sirius easily heard the distress in Hagrid's voice.

"Ginny Weasley," Remus answered. This was the closest Padfoot had been to Remus since that fated day twelve years ago, and he crawled closer to the edge of the bed to see his old mate. Remus looked careworn. His hair had greyed. His clothes were threadbare with the hems coming undone. His face seemed even more heavily lined than Sirius had surmised from the glances he had gotten here and there of Remus around the grounds.

"Wha's wrong?" Hagrid asked breathlessly.

"She's been carried into the Chamber of Secrets."

Sirius registered the words. Ginny Weasley. He had not spent much time with her but in the time he had he'd become fond of the youngest Weasley.

"It's real, then?" Hagrid asked, almost reverently.

"Apparently," Remus answered humorlessly.

"How can she be rescued? Where is she?"

Remus shook his head. "We've started to evacuate the castle, send the students home. There's nothing else that can be done."

"What do you mean? You can't jus-"

"We don't even know where it is!" Remus exclaimed. "We can't hope to rescue her. She'd be dead by the time- That's not what I came for," Remus added flatly.

"What did you come here for, then?" Hagrid sounded quite a bit colder now towards the child he used to look after. "Jus' ter tell me yer gonna let 'er die?"

"Harry," Remus answered breathlessly. "I can't find Harry."

"He's not here," Hagrid answered flatly.

"Ron either-"

"There's yer answer," Hagrid blustered. "If they're both missin', count on it, they're together. Ron wouldn't leave his sister behind."

"They can't have found the Chamber," Remus shook his head. "Even the faculty don't know where the entrance is. Even Dumbledore doesn't know."

"Wouldn't be the first time Harry knows somethin' Dumbledore didn't," Hagrid snapped.

"It's not a joke!"

"'M not laughin'."

"We've got to find them. Could I borrow Fang?"

Hagrid turned to see his dog and the shock of realization crossed his face. "Padfoot!" he called out. "Where's he got to? Padfoot, 'Arry's in trouble!"

Sirius had heard. Oh, he had heard very clearly. His muscles were shaking with nervous energy. He needed to get out of there. He would track down Harry, Ron, and Ginny.

"Padfoot's not..." Remus started, but he seemed to change tacks. "Severus said something about Sirius Black being in the castle."

"Oh no, it's just 'Arry's dog. I don't know where he got that name but he's a good'un." Hagrid was still looking for the missing Padfoot but Fang was no help to Sirius, as Fang had caught Hagrid's meaning and was sniffing intently at the bottom of the bed.

Soon, it was not Fang's face but Remus's staring at him the edge of the bed. "Sirius?" Remus looked blatantly amused and not even a little bit enraged. Sirius braced for the hex he felt must be coming but instead, when the humor dissipated from Remus' face, it was replaced with a very grave frown.

"I suppose," the greying professor started, "you heard that Harry is missing? Ginny's- Ron and Harry are missing."

Sirius didn't wait, recognizing an invitation when he heard one. He scrambled out from under the bed. That was not really the easiest of tasks, since the bed was rather low to the ground and Padfoot was not a small dog. Still, he'd slipped under it quickly enough and he did manage to slip back out. He did not wait to be asked again, but rather stood by the door to Hagrid's hut and waited for Remus to open it. Remus obliged as soon as he crossed the room. He opened the door to the cool night air. A million insects chirruped away, seemingly unaware of the tragedy unfolding in the mysterious and unreachable Chamber. Padfoot could not have been more certain that Harry and Ron knew-or at least thought they knew-where this Chamber was. They'd gone to find and save Ginny.

"You aren't going to transform?" Remus' voice interrupted his reverie. Sirius did not respond. He tried not to react at all. Maybe Remus would doubt that he was truly the Padfoot of their youth. Maybe he could be convinced that Padfoot was merely Harry's dog. Or if not, perhaps he would believe that Sirius had entirely lost his humanity. If Sirius was honest with himself, he didn't want to transform because this wasn't the time for confrontations or reconciliations. He didn't want to speak to Remus. He was afraid.

This realization didn't sit well with him, though, and so he told himself that at the moment he needed his nose to track Harry. It was somewhat true, but tracking Harry was pointless until he at least located a fresh scent.

Once back in the castle, Sirius found a fresh scent even sooner than he had expected. He did not have to go all the way to the Common Room. Rather, right on the top of the stairs on the floor leading to that haunted bathroom where the kids spent so much time earlier this year, Padfoot picked up a scent he could not mistake. No matter what, he knew Harry's scent as well or better than he knew his own. He took off at a skidding, claw-clicking run through the deserted castle. He did not wait for Remus when he reached the bathroom, but rather threw himself against the door. The door gave, and Padfoot slid on scrambling claws across the wet stone until he slammed into a sink.

"Hello," a ghostly voice giggled. "I recognize you. You're Harry's dog," Myrtle chortled in exactly such a tone as to say to Sirius that she knew who he was.

Then the door swung open behind him, and Remus entered.

"Oh," Myrtle gasped, "Not again. I'm not recovered from last time," she pouted. "Why are all the gorgeous ones taken?" She winked at Sirius and disappeared down a toilet.

Sirius was especially glad at the moment to be a dog and not a man. If, however, he hadn't been a dog, he was sure he would have blushed at that. The incident and the relationship to which Myrtle had referred was such a part of ancient history that Sirius wouldn't be surprised if they studied it in Binns' class. It was nearly worthy of the subject, too, the way it had torn apart the Order.

From the depths of his cynical self-loathing, Sirius noticed that one of the sinks was somehow transfigured into a gaping hole in the floor, and that Harry and Ron's scents led right into it.

"What on Earth?" Remus breathed, edging closer to the sink.

Padfoot sniffed the edge and whined.

"No," Remus muttered. "They can't have gone down this."

Sirius, however, could not have been more certain. Without delaying a moment longer, Padfoot leaped right into the hole in the floor. He heard Remus mutter, "Bloody idiot," behind him before there was a yelp, and Sirius assumed his old friend was likewise sliding down the tunnel.

Padfoot landed at the bottom with a grunt, only to be landed on top of a moment later by Remus, who clearly weighed more than his appearance would suggest.

"Thanks, mate," Remus chuckled, "I owe you one."

Sirius was rapidly coming to the realization that Remus did not believe Sirius had lost his humanity. Nor did he appear to be especially mad at his old friend-his old betrayer.

Then he came to an additional realization-they were not alone. "Hold it-who's there?" A shaky voice asked from the darkness of the tunnel. Sirius immediately recognized the voice of Ron Weasley.

"Lumos," Remus answered calmly. He stood and held up his glowing wand in the small tunnel.

"Professor Lupin!" Relief was evident in Ron's voice.

"Mister Weasley," Remus smiled tightly. "Do you mind lowering your- err... wand?"

Ron looked down at his wand, cracked after the incident with the Willow at the beginning of the year. The tip dangled by a bit of spellotape. He lowered it, muttering an apology.

"That's all right," Remus nodded. "We're here to help. I don't suppose you could fill us in?"

Ron's eyes skittered over Padfoot, and he drew in a deep breath. "This is the entrance to the Chamber, it just has to be! But the tunnel collapsed and Harry got through. I'd've tried to follow him, but..." Ron raised his broken wand by way of explanation. "Thought I might vanish myself or something by accident," Ron continued, dejected.

"I see," Remus tried for a reassuring smile, but to Sirius it simply seemed nauseous. "Stand back, then." With an easy wand movement, the wall of fallen stone blocking the rest of the passage vanished. Ron breathed an audible sigh of relief.

"Harry and Ginny are ahead?" Remus asked, hardly waiting for an answer as he forged onwards. Ron didn't answer, anyway. He simply followed behind his Defense professor.

In a very short while, the man, boy, and dog reached the end of the tunnel. Here, the top curved away into a vast cavern punctuated by columns. The dripping of water was audible from nearby, but they hardly had time to notice. Padfoot into a full run when a very familiar cry pierced the silent chamber, seeming to echo around all of the walls and right into his head. Harry was in trouble, and from that moment on everything else became meaningless.

Remus Lupin saw the large black dog disappear into the darkness of the cavern. He wanted to call after, to prevent Sirius from doing anything rash, but he knew he had as just as much likelihood of Apparating them all out of there through Hogwarts' anti-apparition wards, or even of stopping the Moon in its monthly journey around the Earth. The name he had been prepared to cry out, therefore, died un-uttered on his lips. He paused to think, wondering what his next course of action should be, and not wanting to endanger Ron through ineptitude of any sort-though likely Ron was already in about as much danger as he could be in at the moment. Remus had meant to ask the boy to stay behind in the tunnel but at the last moment he simply hadn't said so. He knew Ron wouldn't have listened anyway, so why waste time on the argument?

Just then, Ron seemed to see something, as he let out an unrecognizable groan and darted across the puddle-ridden floor. Only when he arrived at the foot of a large stone statue did Remus notice that there was a person on the floor there. Not Harry, Remus knew, as the sound of Harry had come from elsewhere. Ginny, presumably. Remus turned this way, hoping to help Ron and to check on Ginny, when a horrid noise caught him unawares from behind.

Spinning on his feet, he was greeted with the sight of a retreating row of scales, flashing in the dim light around a column nearby. Following in the snake's wake was a wizard, pale golden spells spilling forth from his wand. Sirius Black.

Then Remus's brain, so far slow to take in his surroundings, noticed the creature Sirius was chasing. He hadn't the faintest idea whether Sirius, Harry, or Ron knew what the creature was but years of studying dark creatures left Remus with very little doubt, even from so little a glance. His heart began to hammer, and he hoped to God that Sirius could not outpace the creature-or, more appropriately, that the creature would not turn around to see what it was that followed him.

For, if the snake did turn, that would be all there was for Sirius, the friend he hadn't even begun to reconcile with. This creature was no enormous snake. It was a Basilisk.

As if the snake had read his mind (and who was to say they couldn't?) Remus saw the Basilisk begin to turn then, as if in slow-motion. "Sirius!" he yelled. "Duck!" Sirius immediately fell to the ground; Remus smiled to himself that Sirius still did what he asked without hesitation, with complete trust. Just as he could almost imagine himself seeing the golden eyes of the Basilisk (though of course he must not have really seen them, as he was still alive to think about having seen them), Remus squeezed his eyelids shut and yelled, "Occus conjunctus!"

The screams that filled the chamber were unearthly. Harry had been on its back, and he fell to stand by Sirius' side, firing off spells along with a now-standing Sirius. Remus rushed over and cast his own-whatever spells he thought might breech the rough scales of the creature. Nothing seemed to have much effect.

A terrible laugh echoed around the chamber once the screams of the Basilisk died down; the three wizards fighting the creature turned to see Ron aiming his broken wand at a ghost. The snake retreated in pain.

"What are you going to do with that?" the ghost asked. "Your wand couldn't harm a flea, blood-traitor, but maybe you haven't noticed, thick as you are. I haven't got a body."

Ron growled something back at the ghost, and in a moment Remus, Sirius, and Harry had joined Ron by his sister's body. Remus leaned down to feel for her pulse.

"Is she-" Sirius started asking.

Remus shook his head. "She's very cold, but I've still got a pulse."

"Not for much longer," the ghost of the young man smiled smugly. "As soon as I've got a body, as soon as you lot want to try and hex me, she'll be dead."

"No!" Ron screamed. "I don't know who you are, but I'll-"

Sirius restrained Ron, wrapping strong arms around the second-year. Ron looked up at the dark-haired wizard and mumbled a startled, "Who in bloody hell are you? Gerroff."

"What I'd very much like to know," Remus interrupted, "is the identity of our young assailant here."

"Tom," Harry whispered.

"Very good," the boy named Tom grinned. "See, Harry knows so much about me. He and I have been chatting. In a way, this is all his fault. I knew that by capturing this girl, Harry himself would come. Harry, the boy who lived," the ghost of Tom spat into the air. "Why were you so bloody lucky, then? Why can't you die? No matter. I'll kill you-"

Sirius let go of Ron and stepped suddenly between Tom and Harry. "Stop threatening him." Sirius, even though facing down a rather maniacal ghost, managed to come off even more frightening himself. He was good at that, always had been.

"Or what?" Tom flicked his hair out of his eyes.

"Who are you?" Remus repeated calmly.

Tom laughed, seemingly delighted to be asked, and began to write with his wand in the air. "TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE," the words spelled. Then suddenly, they rearranged themselves and instead Remus read in the air before him, "I AM LORD VOLDEMORT."

In an instant, Remus had picked up Ginny and grabbed Ron. He was pulling them away from this boy-ghost of Voldemort's. Sirius was pushing Harry away, keeping himself always between Tom and Harry.

"How charming, to see how afraid you are, and I haven't even got a body yet," the ghost called after them. "You can't save her."

Sirius suddenly spun, pulling out his wand. "I'll show you fear."

"Sirius!" Remus cried out. Sirius looked mad in the half-light of the wet dungeon.

Tom laughed again. "Fear is not an emotion I am even capable of."

This time it was Sirius who answered. "That's not true! You were afraid of Dumbledore! You always were afraid of him!"

"Was not," Tom yelled, sounding every bit a teenager at the childish snipe.

"If Dumbledore were down here, you wouldn't even dare hurt Ginny," Harry continued.

And then Tom opened his mouth, but instead of the childish retort that Remus expected, he hissed.

The Basilisk came out of nowhere, quite suddenly, and charged at them. Without its eyes, it could do them no harm from afar, but that did not stop the danger its feet-long fangs posed to them. It also seemed easily able to smell them. Luckily, Remus, Ron, and Ginny were a good distance off still.

Unluckily, Sirius and Harry were standing right in the path of the Basilisk. Wand raised, Sirius waited as the creature opened it yawning mouth over him. Only when the maw of the creature came near to closing right over Sirius did Sirius shout, "Rictusempra!"

Remus didn't remember yelling, but he heard a noise and then realized it was issuing from his own mouth. He was running across the chamber, sliding on the wet floor, splashing up puddles. "Sirius!" he yelled. Harry had beat him there, but Harry didn't know- Harry didn't even know who Sirius was dammit. Remus closed his eyes as he slid across the stone floor to Sirius' side. He knew he'd scraped his knees, but he didn't care. All he could see was the growing pool of red, looking black in the dim light and quickly coating the stone floor.

Somehow, Harry had the most presence of mind. He used his wand to move the Basilisk off of Sirius. Remus was surprised to see Harry's hands shaking, to hear Harry muttering, "No, no."

"Sirius," Remus whispered, able to see now that Sirius himself seemed fine. His right arm had been pierced through above the elbow by a Basilisk fang, but his eyes, glassy as they were, were still open.

Tom Riddle began to laugh.

Chapter Twelve

Harry wasn't sure who the man, the man who had fought with him and saved him, really was. He was not the man from his photo album, not his father, not the man from the Mirror. He was, though... Harry couldn't think what else to call him but 'dad'. His face was eerily familiar from all the dreams he'd had about his father. He didn't know who the man was, but he knew he wasn't going to lose him before he'd had a chance to find out.

Harry saw Professor Lupin slowly cradle the man's head in his lap. Harry realized then that he was gripping the man's arm as hard as he could, desperate that he shouldn't die. Familiar grey eyes found his and parched lips formed his name soundlessly.

And then Tom Riddle began to laugh.

Harry looked up at the boy who had, until this hour, seemed so like him. Voldemort. "Shut up," he screeched.

"Why, so you can say goodbye to all your friends as they die?" Tom laughed harder. "Don't worry Harry. I'll let you join them soon."

Harry looked over to Ron, who was holding Ginny. His friend was nearly as ashen-faced as the little sister he held in his arms. "I hate you," Harry whispered at the ghost, though in truth the ghost looked almost real now.

"Good." Tom Riddle laughed again.

"I HATE YOU!" Harry screamed, and, reaching for anything he could to demonstrate and abate his intense emotions, his right hand found a fang from the dead Basilisk, and his left found the diary. He stabbed the diary, screaming all the while. He didn't know at all what he was saying, he just knew that he wanted Tom to go away, to never come back, to have never existed at all.

And then he looked up from the burbling puddle of blood-like ink to find that- that that was exactly what had happened.

The silence that followed was eerie, but Professor Lupin broke it. "Harry," he said quietly. "Sirius won't be with us much longer. If you want to say goodbye-"

"I don't underst-" Harry started, wondering how he was supposed to say goodbye to a complete stranger.

Professor Lupin, face streaked with tears, looked up and met Harry's gaze. "Sirius is Padfoot. Your dog. He's an animagus."

"What?"

"Your dog wasn't a dog, Harry. He was- is- your godfather." Then Remus looked back down at the wreath of hair in his lap.

"I don't want to say goodbye!" Harry cried. "He's not- what-"

"Well," Professor Lupin pressed a hand tenderly to the man's throat and looked up. "I think he's spared you the need."

"Wha-"

Just then, their stilted conversation was interrupted by a new sound. In the first moment Harry heard it, he worried that perhaps it was another snake, though not one speaking Parseltongue, as he couldn't make any sense out of the noise. It sounded almost more like-

"Is that music?" Ron asked from behind them.

The music slowly began filling the entire chamber. It was a thick, swirling, and lilting sound, crescendo-ing until they discovered its source. Fawkes, still young this go 'round, streaked across the cavern ceiling as a red blur on black stone. The music was entrancing, and Harry found it almost hard to feel anything besides calm. Then, quite suddenly, Fawkes alighted on the dark-haired man- had Professor Lupin called him Harry's godfather?- and began to cry.

Professor Lupin gasped as the tears fell from the phoenix's face into the gory wound of the man's open arm. When Fawkes had finished his job, the arm seemed almost well again. Professor Lupin pressed his hand to the man's throat once more, and laughed in joyous relief.

"Where are we?" a small voice asked from behind them. They both spun to see Ginny Weasley sitting up, looking very confused.

"Time for explanations later, I think," Professor Lupin smiled wearily. "For now, I think we'd all better find a way to the Hospital Wing. That is, as long as there are no objections?"

Fawkes had flown them back up the drain pipe from the sink and into the bathroom. Remus thought he ought to levitate Sirius to the Hospital Wing now that Fawkes had dropped them off. However, he found he could not convince himself to release the unconscious man in his arms. Sirius was heavy, but not as heavy as he looked, and Remus was forced to wonder whether he was eating enough for a man, in his dog form.

Ginny, at least, looked better. Her cheeks were tear stained, and Remus couldn't begin to understand why she felt this all to be her fault, but Harry did seem to understand. He was speaking quietly to her about a diary- the book Harry had destroyed, presumably. As they made their way from the bathroom, Remus looked down to find Ginny Weasley clinging resolutely to his own robes.

With Ginny starting to calm down, Harry seemed to have lost his own well of calm. He was not as agitated or tearful as Ginny, but he walked with a restless air, watching Remus and Sirius closely as they made their way towards the Hospital Wind.

Around one corner on the second floor, the group of shaken refugees from the Chamber- Remus, Ron, Harry, and Ginny, and of course the still-unconscious Sirius- ran directly into Fred and George Weasley.

"Been looking for you!" George announced triumphantly. He had a bit of parchment in his hand, and to Remus, it looked eerily familiar.

"Ginny!" Fred ruffled his little sister's hair, even as George scooper her up and held her to his chest.

"Fred, is it?" Remus asked, hoping he was telling them apart properly.

"Yes sir," Fred answered.

"Professor McGonagall was planning to Floo call your parents and ask them to come immediately. Have they-"

"That's why we were looking for you," George interrupted. "They're here, and they were looking for Ron-" He stroked his hand across Ginny's hair. "And with Ginny-" He didn't finish the sentence.

"Ginny's safe," Remus answered, "But Sirius needs the hospital wing immediately. Bring your parents there? I think we could all stand to be looked after by Madam Pomfrey."

Fred nodded and ran off, but George kept a hold of Ginny, who was much too old to be carried about, but let her brother do it anyway. The parade of individuals continued on to the Hospital Wing.

Upon entering Madam Pomfrey's domain, Remus could not have been more surprised to see Auror Moody standing there with Dumbledore. "How did-"

"Fawkes has kept me apprised," Dumbledore said quietly.

"Mmmm, Black," Moody replied. The Auror- ah, retired now, Remus had forgotten that- had eyes only for Sirius.

"He's innocent," Remus laid him carefully on a bed and stepped between Sirius and Moody.

"Oh, I know." Moody acted offended that anyone thought he might not have known this.

"You do? How long-"

"I've always known," Moody shrugged. "I can't prove it and I don't have the power to do anything about it, so don't ask. I've decided, though, that letting Mister Black be guilty is probably for the best."

"For the best? How dare you-"

Dumbledore raised a hand to silence his newest professor. "Let Alastor speak, Remus."

"Letting Black take the fall means that the real culprit can lower his guard. We will find him."

"How long have you been trying?" Remus pinned Moody with a glare.

"That's not the point," Moody answered.

Remus turned his back to the retired Auror, knowing he was not going to win the argument. At the end of the day, Moody simply did not have the pull or evidence to pardon Sirius. That much was clear, and the rest was simply academic.

Just then, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley rushed into the hospital wing. Ginny was being looked over by Madam Pomfrey, and they flocked to her, demanding the story. In fact, as they did so, all eyes suddenly fell upon Ginny, who chocked down a sob, fixed her eyes on Harry, and began to explain the events of the year to everyone around her.

Only when she had finished did the Weasleys seem to notice the man on the bed beside their daughter's. "Sirius Black!" Mr. Weasley exclaimed, eyes quickly searching out Alastor Moody, understanding for perhaps the first time why the retired Auror was there.

Moody shook his head, and Dumbledore interrupted. "Mister Black is as innocent as you or I, Arthur. Well, perhaps rather more innocent than I can claim to be," he sighed.

"He killed a-"

"He didn't kill anyone," Dumbledore's voice rose with authority. "I can't deny, and I daresay neither would Sirius, that he made several disastrous mistakes." Dumbledore's eyes caught Remus's. "But mistakes is all they were, and his wand has never taken a life. You could no doubt perform a priori incantatem on it to confirm this."

"Could have," Remus supplied. "He has performed too many spells since the one he did not perform that night."

"Too right," Dumbledore nodded.

Harry looked down at the still-unconscious form of Sirius Black. "Is he really my godfather?"

Dumbledore rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. "He is, at that."

Harry turned his wide green eyes up at Dumbledore. "Is he really Padfoot- I mean, really my dog?"

Mrs. Weasley gasped at this insinuation, but Dumbledore simply nodded.

"We've been harboring a fugitive!" Molly Weasley turned, red-faced, to her husband.

"Clearly not," Arthur shrugged. "Not if Albus Dumbledore says he's innocent. That's good enough for me."

"So he's not a fugitive?" Harry asked. "Not anymore?"

"As I've already shared with Remus," Moody shuffled forward, "It would be best if Sirius were to continue in hiding as he has done. At least until we find the real culprit of the massacre of which he is accused."

"I'll do it," a groggy voice answered from the bed. Remus turned with a smile and pushed through the small crowd to capture Sirius's hand.

"Sirius, old friend, how do you feel?"

"Like I've been digested by a Basilisk," Sirius groaned.

"Not quite, thankfully," Dumbledore smiled. "Sirius," Dumbledore continued, instantly grave again, "You have understood the request that Alastor is making of you?"

Sirius nodded. "Lay low. Got it."

"Not here," Dumbledore added. "I'm sure, as much as Mister Potter must appreciate your affections, that a teenage boy does not want to be dogged at all times by his guardian."

"Oh, I know," Sirius groaned and leaned his head back. He would lose Harry to this. He was sure.

"Everyone here," Dumbledore turned to address the room, "Can I count on you to refrain from exposing Sirius's identity or whereabouts?" His look lingered especially long on the Weasley twins.

"Don't look at us," Fred bristled.

"Yeah, we've known about him for ages!"

"You have?" Molly gasped. "You didn't think it proper to notify the authorities?"

"Mum," George answered sternly, "Sirius is Padfoot. He's been living with Harry for his whole life. If he wanted to kill him-"

"I'd say he had more chances than You Know Who," Fred laughed, though Ginny winced uncomfortably.

Harry, suddenly, spoke up. "You aren't going to expel her, are you?"

"Who?" Dumbledore peered at Harry over his glaces. "Miss Weasley? Heavens, no. If I thought it proper to punish everyone who had been once a pawn of Lord Voldemort, most of the people in this room would fall victim, myself included. Do you hear that, Miss Weasley?"

Sniffling, Ginny nodded. "But I almost killed Harry."

"You have good company," Dumbledore continued. "Sometime, let us all share with you our experiences of almost killing- or Merlin forbid actually causing the deaths of- the people we care most about. I'd suggest your first stop would be Mister Black." Sirius winced this time. "But time gives us the opportunity to repay all debts."

Sirius nodded, as though receiving a secret message from Dumbledore. He eyes slid shut and he sighed.

"Really," Madam Pomfrey said to them all, "the patients need some rest now."

"Of course, Poppy. Come on, everyone. It should be breakfast time in the Great Hall shortly." Dumbledore left the room, and most everyone followed him.

Chapter Thirteen

Harry followed everyone out as well, but when he saw that Professor Lupin was approaching the bed instead of coming to breakfast, Harry took the opportunity to head back to Gryffindor Tower. Sirius Black, he was fairly certain, would soon be sound asleep, but Harry wanted to be there- unseen- when Black woke up. The two men knew each other, and had known his father, so he could not stop the impulse to eavesdrop on anything they might be saying about him. Ron had not followed him back, but rather had been hurried along with the rest of his family, so Harry was free to grab his invisibility cloak and run back to the hospital ward unobserved. As he slipped quietly back inside, he paused a moment by Hermione's petrified form. Madam Pomfrey said it wouldn't be long now before the mandrakes were mature. Harry missed his friend, and would have appreciated her opinion on the events of the past twenty-four hours.

The door to the hospital wing was still open- just barely- and Harry was able to flatten himself enough to slip in through the open space. He moved almost instinctively to Hermione's bed and watched Professor Lupin from the safe cover of his invisibility cloak. Professor Lupin was leaning on the hospital bed next to the strange man. Sirius Black- that was his name. Black's eyes were closed, and he breathed steadily: the absolutely picture of sleep.

"Sirius," Professor Lupin said softly. even though Lupin's voice was hardly above a whisper, it broke so profound a silence that Harry jumped.

"Why are you avoiding me?" Lupin continued.

"I'm not," Black answered from the bed. Harry jumped again. He had been nearly positive the man was asleep.

"Oh bollocks," Lupin groaned.

Black opened one eye, then the other. "Alright, fine, I am avoiding you." He sounded angry to Harry's ears. "But what am I supposed to say? I'm sorry I thought you were the traitor? I'm sorry I was a bigoted fool and I got my best friend killed?"

"It's a start." Lupin was smiling.

Black did not smile back. Rather, he groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. "I feel like I've been eaten by a Basilisk."

"Very nearly," Lupin deadpanned.

"And Harry?"

"Confused and shaken, I'd wager, but he hasn't got a scratch on him."

Black released an audible sigh. "Remus, I don't know what I'd-"

"Hush," Lupin interrupted, "Best not to dwell on hypothetical horrors. Our lives hold enough of the genuine article."

The ghost of a smile crossed Black's lips. "I'm sorry for thinking you were the traitor. Can you forgive me for believing it of you?"

"If you can forgive the same of me." Lupin pushed off the bed he was leaning on to rest his weight instead against Black's.

"I thought-"

"It's in the past," Lupin broke in. "Let us leave it there."

"Peter was the-"

"Sirius, yes, I know. Otherwise, do you think I'd just stand here and carry on a conversation with a Death Eater?"

"Remus," Black croaked, and this time he sounded desperate, his breathing ragged. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"We'll have to start from the beginning, Pads. As friends. I've changed, and you've changed. Merlin," Lupin smiled, "you're a single da!"

Black laughed, but he sounded profoundly sad when he answered, "I may lose him over this."

"No, you won't," Lupin waved as if to physically bat Black's concern away. "He's amazing, Pads. Top of his class, conscientious, strong. You've done a brilliant job. Lily couldn't even say otherwise."

"I did the best I could, under the circumstances- When did you realize Peter was the secret keeper?" Sirius jumped topics with more agility than Harry was used to even from Hermione.

"Oh, Dumbledore and Moody had a chat with me when they asked me to come on as Defense professor, after poor Gilderoy..." Lupin spared a glance at the bed where the pompous Defense professor was still unconscious.

"What a git," Black said, and Harry couldn't help but feel that he quite agreed with his mysterious godfather on this front.

"At any rate," Lupin continued, "I was expecting to see you when I arrived. I thought we had many things we needed to say to each other. But, you were nowhere to be found."

"I was avoi-"

"Yes, I know. And now, after all of that," Lupin shrugged, "I'm not sure we have all that much to discuss after all."

Black looked suddenly drawn.

"I mean that in a good way," Lupin clarified. "Haven't we just said all we need to say?"

"Remus?"

"Hmm."

"I missed you."

"I missed you as well, Sirius."

"Remus?"

"Yes?"

"I love you."

Harry heard himself gasp aloud as soon as the words were out of Black's mouth. Suddenly, words he had been hearing throughout this conversation clicked very clearly into place, and he understood what he was seeing. It was yet another minute before he was able to register that both of the men across the room were staring at him. Or towards him, at least.

"Moony, did you hear something?"

Lupin silently drew two wands out of the inside of his coat and handed one to Black. "I think we may have a spy."

"We'll just have to hex him!" Black stood and wobbled a bit. "Together?"

"I think so," Lupin smiled. "On the count of three. One-"

"No wait!" Harry threw off the invisibility to cloak. "It's me! Don't hex me! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to overhear your entire conversation."

Lupin and Black didn't even respond to Harry's apology, however. Both were too busy laughing at him.

"I didn't-" Harry started again.

"Harry," Black raised his arms, "Of course you were trying to overhear. Why else would you be in here with that cloak on?"

Harry felt himself blush as Black collapsed into even wilder fits of laughter, leaning on his bed for support.

"It's alright, Harry. Don't mind him. He's just proud."

Black laughed harder, and Harry found himself growing quite angry. "Quit laughing! That was frightening. It wasn't funny."

"Oh Harry-" To his credit, Black tried to stop laughing. Harry could see that much. He failed rather spectacularly.

"You-" Harry sputtered, shaking with anger. "You follow me, live with me, lie to me. I thought you were my best friend, but now I find out I don't even know you!" Harry felt a thrill of satisfaction when he saw that Black was no longer laughing. He'd sobered very quickly.

"Black, is it?" Harry had raised his voice by now. "Or am I just supposed to call you Sirius? You're just some bloke? I undressed in front of you. I mean, when I thought you were a dog... I told you all my secrets."

"Harry, I've known you since your mum was sprogged up. I changed your nappies. Do you think I care if you undress in front of me?"

"But you're- you're with him." Harry pointed an accusing finger at Lupin, who grunted a sheepish assent. "I mean, with him, like that." To be honest, Harry didn't care a bit, but he didn't know this stranger, and it was the only ammunition he had against Black.

"Were," Lupin answered quietly.

"Right, so why would I want to look at your scrawny arse?" Sirius laughed awkwardly, ignoring Lupin's comment. Harry's mouth dropped open. "Harry," Black gestured with his arms open, then dropped them helplessly.

"You're not my dad," Harry sniffed.

"No," Black answered quietly, "I'm not that."

"Well, you're not my dad."

Sirius couldn't deny that the words hurt, but he'd known this day would come. "No," he said softly, "I'm not that."

"In my dreams- I mean, I know what my dad looks like. I've seen pictures, and that mirror. Dreams are just dreams."

"The Mirror of Erised?" Remus interrupted, breathless.

Harry plowed on ahead, ignoring is interjection. "I know you aren't my dad."

Remus stepped forward, placing himself between Sirius and Harry and resting a hand slowly and carefully on Harry's shoulder. Harry flinched, but Remus didn't let that stop him. "Harry," he asked in a voice somehow reminiscent of Dumbledore's, "Have you had dreams of Sirius?"

"No," Harry answered abruptly and with startling finality.

"Was he your dad in them?"

"I was just a kid!" Harry protested. "I was confused."

Sirius felt his mouth drop open. He couldn't say what he was feeling beyond the desire to wipe the lost expression from Harry's face, and an overall sense of gratitude towards Remus for facilitating this reunion.

"Sirius raised you, Harry. It's not a betrayal to your father's memory if you think of him as your dad." Suddenly Harry's large green eyes shifted to Remus. In the process, they caught the light, and Sirius could see they were wet and shining with un-fallen tears.

"The only times I felt loved were in those dreams," Harry answered meekly.

Sirius was there just a moment later, pushing Remus aside and wrapping Harry up in his arms. He felt ten shades of bliss when Harry responded in kind, holding onto Sirius as a man might hold onto a life raft in the vast ocean. "Harry, Harry," Sirius whispered, "I have always loved you."

Two days later, Harry found himself back in the Hospital Ward. This time, however, the reason was much more joyful than all the other times he had come here. The mandrakes had matured, and today Madam Pomfrey was waking up Hermione and the other petrified denizens of Hogwarts. Lockhart was the first to awake after Mrs. Norris. The teal-robed ex-Defense professor yawned and asked everyone why he was taking his beauty sleep in the hospital wing. Dumbledore carefully led him aside. Harry guessed Dumbledore would have to break the news to Lockhart that he'd been sacked.

When Creevey awoke to see Harry standing nearby, the tiny boy immediately started blathering about the Basilisk and who all even knew what. Harry wasn't paying much attention, because Madam Pomfrey was waking up Hermione. Harry couldn't wait. He and Ron had so much to tell their friend before the school year came to its official end. There was no time to lose.

Epilogue

Harry pretended to sleep, silent in the dark room. He turned over, then turned over again. He thought he heard a noise from the cot at the foot of his bed, and he held still a moment, willing himself to sleep. He persisted in this horrible state of affairs for what felt like three hours, but might have only been twenty minutes.

He could not deny the awkwardness of this situation. Conversations with Hermione and Ron aside, Harry had to live with Sirius Black. All summer, they were to share a room and act as if nothing had happened. Clearly, though, something had happened. Sirius was no longer Padfoot on the foot of Harry's bed; rather, he had transfigured the hard desk chair into a cot that looked, to Harry, nearly as inhospitable as the chair had done. Sirius and Harry had changed quietly in opposite corners of the room. They hadn't spoken more than a word or two. Then, after a tense goodnight, they'd both slipped into bed. Harry couldn't help but wonder if Sirius was having as much trouble falling asleep as he was himself.

He hesitated before speaking. The name 'Sirius' was still awkward on Harry's tongue, but 'Black' sounded rude, and 'Padfoot' seemed wrong. 'Dad'- Harry just wasn't prepared to go there yet, even if, sometimes, watching Sirius, it was the name that came to mind first. Finally, he simply resolved himself and said it.

"Sirius? Are you asleep."

"Yup." The answer came quickly.

Harry laughed. "You can't say yes if you are asleep."

"It's magic."

Harry laughed again, and then, by the trace of light from the streetlights coming in the window, he saw Sirius sit up.

"Is something wrong?" Sirius asked.

"No," answered sullenly. Then, he say the shadows in the room shift and the bed neck to him lowered with the weight of a man as Sirius sat next to him.

"Harry."

"'M fine."

"Harry..."

"'M fine!"

"Except you can't sleep." Harry felt a large hand bury itself in his hair.

"Da, I'm fine." They both held their breath for a moment as Harry, and presumably Sirius, needed time to digest what Harry had accidentally said. "Sorry," Harry whispered. "I didn't mean-"

Suddenly, arms encircled Harry. They were warm, strong, and exceptionally familiar. He had been in these arms many times he was sure. He squirmed instinctively. "I love you," Sirius crooned into Harry's ear.

"Da, oh my god, let go."

Sirius chuckled and then did as requested.

"I just..." Harry sighed. "I don't want things to change, you know?"

"They haven't," Sirius said.

"Oh course they have."

"Ok, but maybe they've changed for the better."

"I guess."

"Either way," Sirius said, "you're not going to do anything by staying up except make yourself sick."

"Yeah."

"Come on," Sirius forced Harry's head down onto his pillow and lay behind him. Harry didn't even feel like protesting. "Maybe tomorrow we can go to the zoo. You can discuss philosophy with the snakes."

Harry smiled into the pillow.

"Or I can chase your aunt around that house. That's a good way to spend the simmer, isn't it?"

"Brilliant," Harry whispered.

"Come on, Harry, sleep."

Harry closed his eyes. That night, he did not dream of his dad. He didn't need to. He knew he could wake up to him.

"What are you doing?" Harry whispered to Padfoot. The dog ignored him and started out of the window of the Dursleys' car as they drove towards King's Cross. "I can't believe you just aren't going to tell me where you're going." Still no answer. "Don't you think it will look suspicious if I don't have a familiar at school this year?" Padfoot turned a sloppy kiss on him, and Harry dodged with a groan.

"Stop talking to your mutt," Uncle Dursley snapped. "And tell him to keep his tongue in his mouth."

"I can't tell him to keep his tongue in his mouth if I can't talk to him." Uncle Dursley turned beet-read at that, but by now they had arrived at King's Cross and Harry jumped out of the car. Padfoot followed close behind, and they both ran towards the station without even a glance back at the Dursleys. They stopped only for Harry to lift his heavy trunk onto a cart.

Harry turned to Padfoot as he began to push his cart. "Are you just seeing me off?" He asked, knowing he wouldn't get a response. He did though. Padfoot barked twice.

Only when Harry looked up did he realize that Padfoot had not been barking at him. "Professor Lupin!"

"Hello Harry!" Lupin rested one hand on top of Padfoot's head, also, Harry surmised, in greeting, though of a somewhat more intimate and familiar nature. "Ready to go?"

"Yeah. Are you teaching again this year?"

"Yes, in fact, I am." Lupin smiled.

"Brilliant!" Harry exclaimed. "Do you know where Padfoot is going? He won't tell me."

"I do," Lupin grinned. "He's coming to Hogwarts!"

Harry's mouth fell open as the three of them wound their way through the crowded station towards Platform Nine and Three Quarters. "Wha- But why wouldn't he tell me that? I didn't bring any of his things..."

"Don't worry, Harry. I've taken care of it. I think someone-" Lupin's hand moved affectionately on Padfoot's head, "Is looking forward to being a bit human this year."

"What do you mean? He doesn't have to hide any more?"

"Oh no. Nothing that exciting, I'm afraid. But he now has his own private quarters. Well- not so private."

Harry blushed, catching on. "You're stealing my dog," he griped.

"Harry," Lupin stopped as they approached the Platform barrier. "He was mine first.You stole him from me."

Harry pouted, but he was allowed to pout long. Padfoot reached out and licked him.

"Uck, never mind! You can have him."

Padfoot barked with joy and cut loose to chase his tale in one small circle before he disappeared through the barrier.

"Ready for another year of adventure, Harry?" Lupin asked.

Harry grinned up at his Defense professor and then pushed his cart and trunk as quickly as he could towards the barrier.