"Lumos," Harry said quietly, drawing a blinding light from the end of his wand. Still, he blinked, staring deep into the shadows, certain that something or someone was watching him—and for one short moment, he caught a glimpse of wide and gleaming eyes staring back at him.
For a moment he stood frozen, unable to move despite the fact that his instincts were screaming at him to retreat. Just as he started to take a step backwards, though, he heard a hurried whisper speak from not far away. "There he is!"
Panicking, Harry stumbled sideways, almost tripping over his trunk. There was something eerily familiar about that voice, and although he could not recall where he had heard it before, Harry knew that it had to be someone sent by the Ministry of Magic. He'd broken the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Wizardry by blowing up his Aunt Marge; Harry didn't know for sure if they would arrest him or just outlaw him from the Wizarding world, but he knew that he wasn't going to stick around to find out. Just thinking about the consequences made his heart sink, though, and images of Ron and Hermione immediately sprung to his mind. He'd have to go on the run, now, and Harry knew that he would miss them terribly. They were the only real friends he'd ever had—
A low growl startled him out of his morose thoughts, and Harry spun, raising his wand hurriedly. However, only the hulking outline of a gigantic dog stood before him; the creature had moved out of the shadows as Harry rushed to escape. For a moment, he met the dog's pale eyes, and he saw white teeth flash in the darkness as a second voice broke the silence.
"Quickly, you fool!"
Two shadowy figures strode up Magnolia Crescent. Their faces were masked and they wore hooded cloaks of a type Harry had never seen before—but both had wands raised and at the ready. Taking an instinctive step backwards, Harry suddenly tripped over his trunk, and before he could react, the taller of the two cried:
Before he could react, Harry's wand had been ripped from his hand and he lay helpless on the ground. He cast a quick glance around for help, but his only asset was his broom; even the giant dog was gone. Suddenly, Harry felt very, very, alone.
"Harry Potter…" the first voice drawled. "Fancy meeting you here…"
Realization nudged at the corner of his mind even as Harry struggled to his feet. He knew that he recognized that voice—but his broom was only a few feet away, and if he could make it—
"Don't even think about it, boy."
Lucius Malfoy, Harry suddenly thought. Behind the mask, the tall wizard's aristocratic voice was impossible to miss, and the recognition made Harry feel very cold. Somehow I don't think he's here from the Ministry.
The other wizard laughed as Harry froze. Malfoy, however, continued: "You'd best come along quietly, Potter. There's someone who would very much like to see you."
"What are you talking about?" Harry demanded, his heart beating so fast that he could barely hear himself think.
"You didn't think the Dark Lord would stay gone forever do you?" Malfoy drawled, strolling towards him. "Little remains to bring him back…simply you."
"Me?" If only Harry could keep them talking, then he might have a chance.
"Yes, you, fool." Irritation crept into Malfoy's voice. "Take him, Avery."
The taller of the two reached for him even as Harry leapt for his broom, hoping against hope that he might be able to reach it in time—but a hard hand grasped his arm, pulling him back. Not knowing what else to do, Harry brought his right foot forward and kicked Avery in the knee; the wizard howled angrily, but didn't let go of Harry's arm, no matter how hard the boy tugged. Suddenly, though, Avery cursed, and a giant black shadow soared out of the darkness, growling and snarling dangerously—
"What the—" Malfoy's aristocratic drawl was gone, tinged with worry and with fear as the humongous dog bowled into Avery, tearing the wizard away from Harry. Startled, the boy wizard backed away, tripping over his trunk again in his haste to retreat.
"Get the bloody dog off me—Oww!" Avery howled.
A distant corner of Harry's mind registered that lights were coming on all over Magnolia Crescent as the residents began to realize that something odd was going on in the street. But there was no time for thought, or even for action—Harry was strangely frozen as he lay sprawled over his trunk in the gutter. All he could to do was watch as the dog's teeth fastened on Avery's arm and the wizard yowled again.
"Move, Avery!" Malfoy snarled, trying to aim for the dog, which was partly shielded by the other wizard. Malfoy fired off a curse and missed, and Avery finally toppled to the ground underneath the creature's weight. Unfortunately, that offered Malfoy a clear shot at the dog—
But the dog was gone. Frantically, Harry looked around for his savior, but could not see the hulking animal—until a shadowy figure rose from the street with Avery's wand in hand.
"Stupefy!" the man croaked, felling Avery even as the wizard struggled to his feet. Red light washed over the street, illuminating a ghastly white face and matted, long hair. The hand that held Avery's wand was bony, yet its aim was steady enough, and the mysterious man started to swing around before Avery even hit the ground. Meanwhile, Malfoy's arrogant voice delved into panicked surprise.
"You!" Harry couldn't see Malfoy's expression behind the mask, but he was willing to bet that it was shocked. Unfortunately, the surprise didn't seem to slow the dark wizard down; immediately, his wand came up. "Imperi—"
The other was faster, and Malfoy hit the ground with a thud, leaving Harry alone with a stranger who most definitely wasn't from the Ministry of Magic, either. For a long moment, the mystery wizard faced Malfoy's downed form, staring at the unconscious man; then he slowly moved over to collect the other's wand. His movements were stiff, though, as if he hadn't used his limbs in a long time or had been sitting still for too long. Finally, he turned to face Harry, and the young wizard blinked in recognition.
It was him. It was Black, the escaped convict who had been on the Muggle news. His black hair was matted and tangled, elbow length, just like it had been on the television. But his gaunt face was different, now. On the screen, Black's features had seemed dead; his eyes had been empty and devoid of life. Now, though, his blue eyes burned with intensity that made Harry's skin crawl. It hardly entered Harry's mind to wonder how an escaped Muggle criminal might know magic; he was too busy trying to control his breathing and wondering irrelevantly where the dog went. Black stared unblinkingly at the boy, who for a long moment could think of nothing else to do but stare back—and then he remembered his wand. It had fallen to the ground with Malfoy, and wasn't very far away at all.
Harry dove for the wand even as Black blinked for the first time. Although he knew he had little chance of beating a grown wizard who had two wands in his hands—and Black had to be a wizard; nothing else made sense—his reflexes were good from having played two years of Quidditch and he had to take the chance. Plunging over his trunk, Harry twisted and rolled, coming up with his wand pointed at Black. However, the Stunning Curse abruptly died before it could leave his lips.
Black hadn't moved.
He hadn't even raised his wand. Either wand. Instead, he was simply staring at Harry as if he'd never seen a thirteen-year-old boy before. His pale blue eyes were the only living part of his skull-like face, and they were fastened on Harry. Black's gaze was unnerving, and it sent a chill down the young wizard's spine, but he didn't cast a spell. Somehow, Harry wasn't sure that he should. The pieces just didn't add up; nothing made sense. Black had just saved his life.
The silence became chilling. Down the street, voices began calling to one another, and Harry knew that he had to run—but Black continued to stare, and Harry couldn't help but meet his eyes. I have to go, he told himself desperately. Someone is going to find me and then I'll end up in some Muggle police station and they'll—What would they do with Black? What could they do with him? Black wasn't just another Muggle prisoner. He was a wizard. A wizard. And he was on the run from the law, just like Harry. Another chill wormed its way down his spine as he remembered the Muggle newscaster's words. "…Black is armed and extremely dangerous. A special hot line has been set up…"
Suddenly, the escaped convict shook his head, moving so slowly that it seemed like he was underwater.
"Hello, Harry," he finally said. His voice sounded dry and hoarse, as if it hadn't been used for a long time.
"What do you want?" Harry whispered. He struggled to keep his hand steady and his wand pointed at the taller man, but it was hard.
"My name is Sirius Black…" The voices from the other end of the street grew louder and closer, and Black's eyes nervously turned in that direction. "We don't have much time."
Suddenly, Black stepped close to Harry, separated from him by only the width of the trunk. "Look, I'm going to have to ask you to trust me, no matter what…" Something flashed in his shadowed eyes, and he swallowed. "I knew your parents, and…"
"You knew my parents?" Harry asked eagerly, forgetting all about approaching Muggles and escaped convicts. A part of him knew that he ought to be more cautious, but it was hard to even think straight. Black had saved his life. Black had known his parents. "How?"
"It's him! The convict!" a woman's voice suddenly screeched, and Harry distantly recognized it as old Mrs. Figg, whose house always smelled of cabbage and had too many cats. "Sirius Black!"
Black's bony hand reached out and grasped Harry's arm without warning. "Please," he whispered urgently. "Trust me. Fling out your wand and call the Knight Bus. It's the only chance either one of us has—"
"Somebody call the police!" a man shouted.
"The Knight Bus?" Harry echoed cluelessly.
Running footsteps echoed against the pavement, coming closer and closer. "Just do it!" Black hissed. "Tell them to take you to Grimmauld Place!"
Suddenly, he disappeared from Harry's side, leaving a giant black dog in his place. Everything snapped into place at that moment, and Harry decided to take the biggest chance of his life. Without hesitation, he flung his right arm out, trusting in a man he'd hardly met and never even heard of—
BANG! Harry threw up his hands to shield himself from the unexpected and blinding light. At his side, the dog flinched slightly, whining very quietly. It—Black—stepped very close to Harry as a triple-decker purple bus came into view amongst surprised exclamations from the Muggles. Written in gold letters over the windshield was The Knight Bus, and a purple-clad conductor leapt out of the bus and began to speak loudly, oblivious of the staring Muggles.
"Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand hand, step on board, and we can take you anywhere you ant to go. My name is Stan Shunpike, and I will be your conductor this evening."
Harry stared. Stan Shunpike was hardly any older than he was, and his ears were laughably large. But the pimpled conductor was looking at him strangely. "'S a big dog, you have 'ere."
"He's very well behaved," Harry promised, remembering that some Muggle places didn't allow pets. What would he do if he had to get on the bus without Black? He didn't have any clue where or what Grimmauld Place was, or what even to do with the Knight Bus—
"Woss that on your 'ead?" Stan asked abruptly, seemingly not caring about the dog anymore.
Harry gulped and pushed his bangs down so they covered his scar. The last thing he needed was to be recognized by a wizard—but before he could answer, a Muggle's voice came from the darkened street.
"Call the police!"
Startled, the conductor's head snapped around to stare at the approaching Muggles. "What're they doing 'ere?" he demanded nervously. "They're Muggles!"
"I know, I know—"
"Well, c'mon then!" Stan abruptly grabbed Harry by the arm, dragging him onto the bus. A flick of the conductor's wand made Harry's trunk and Hedwig's cage follow, and the dog jumped up right after them. Harry hardly had time to notice the fact that the bus had beds instead of seats before Stan had turned to face the elderly wizard who sat in the driver's seat. "Step on it, Ern! There's Muggles out 'ere!"
"Muggles?" Ern echoed, squinting out from behind his thick glasses.
"Just go!" Harry pleaded urgently, staring out the window at the gathering crowd. One of them was almost close enough to touch the rapidly closing doors, and he recognized Mrs. Figg standing at the back of the group. Oddly enough, she was just standing there, frowning and looking very, very worried—
There was a tremendous BANG, then, and Harry was thrown off his feet as the Knight Bus took off. The dog—Black—barked irritably, but he at least had remained on his feet, seemingly having expected the sudden lurch. After struggling to his feet, Harry glanced out the darkened window, and noticed that they were on a completely different street. He let out a relieved breath. They were safe…for now, anyway.
"Thanks," he said quietly.
"No problem," Stan replied promptly. "Glad te help out." But then he frowned. "What were you doin' with all those Muggles, though?"
"I—" Harry swallowed. He couldn't exactly tell the truth, could he? "I fell," he said quickly. "I fell and my wand went off—they must have seen the light or something."
"Oh. Well, anyways, you can 'ave this bed," Stan said, helpfully sliding Harry's trunk underneath the bed directly behind the driver. "This is Ernie Prang, by the way. Our driver."
"Hello," Harry said politely, then tried to change the subject before Stan realized how ridiculous his story sounded. "How much will it cost to go to Grimmauld Place?"
Stan's brow wrinkled in concentration. "Grimmauld Place… that's in London, ainchit?"
"Yes," Harry answered quickly, hoping that he was right. If not, well…
"Eleven Sickles." Stan smiled. "But for firteen you get 'ot chocolate, and for fifteen you get an 'ot water bottle an' a toofbrush in the color of your choice."
"Okay." After some rummaging, Harry pulled his money bag out of his trunk and shoved some gold into Stan's hand, flattening his bangs out over his forehead as he did so. Then he sat down on the bed, noticing how Black's uncanny blue eyes followed Stan, watching him carefully. It was almost as if Black was trying to protect him—
"Woss your name, again?" the conductor suddenly asked.
"Neville Longbottom," Harry replied quickly, saying the first name that popped into his head. Fortunately, Stan didn't ask any more questions, and Harry was left to look out the window in silence, watching trees, lampposts, and mailboxes jump out of the Knight Bus' way. Every so often, the boy wizard looked at Black, but the dog had laid down quietly on the floor, and seemed to be sleeping—though something told Harry that illusion was a lie.
After the bus made a stop and a green-clad witch clambered down the steps, Stan pulled out a battered copy of the Daily Prophet and began to read. It only took Harry a moment to recognize the sunken-faced man whose photograph was on the cover, and he had to catch his breath before he said something foolish. Instinctively, Harry glanced down at the dog, but Black still seemed to sleep, completely ignorant that his face graced the front page of the Wizarding world's premier newspaper.
"Can I read that when you're done?" Harry asked as calmly as he could manage.
"Sure. I wuz done, anyways," Stan replied cheerfully, handing the paper over. Harry's eyes widened, then, as he read:BLACK STILL AT LARGE
Sirius Black, possibly the most infamous prisoner
ever to be held in Azkaban fortress, is still eluding
capture, the Ministry of Magic confirmed today.
"We are doing all we can to recapture Black," said
the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, this
morning, "and we beg the magical community to
Fudge has been criticized by some members of
the International Confederation of Warlocks for
informing the Muggle Prime Minister of the crisis.
"Well, really, I had to, don't you know," said an
irritable Fudge. "Black is mad. He's a danger to
anyone who crosses him, magic or Muggle. I have
the Prime Minister's assurance that he will not
breathe a word of Black's true identity to anyone.
And let's face it—who'd believe him if he did?"
While Muggles have been told that Black is
carrying a gun (a kind of metal wand that Muggles
use to kill each other), the magical community lives
in fear of a massacre like that of twelve years ago,
when Black murdered thirteen people with a single
For a long moment, Harry stared at the picture, willing it to turn into someone else. He didn't want to believe that the man who had saved his life was a murderer—he'd stopped Malfoy and Avery from taking Harry to Voldemort. And he'd said that he knew Harry's parents…
"Scary-lookin' fing, inee?" Stan asked suddenly, startling Harry out of his dark thoughts.
"He murdered thirteen people?" the boy whispered nervously, struggling not to look at the dog. He still didn't want to believe it. Black had asked him to trust him, and Harry had—betrayal welled up in his stomach. "With one curse?"
"Yep," Stan replied with forced lightness, "in front of witnesses an' all. Broad daylight. Big trouble it caused, dinnit, Ern?"
"Ar," Ern said darkly.
Stan suddenly turned to look at Harry, who was feeling alternately cold and terrified all at once. "Black was a big supporter of You-Know-'Oo."
"Yeah." Stan shuddered. "Very close to You-Know-'Oo, they say. Anayway, when little 'Arry Potter got the better of You-Know-'Oo—"
Harry's heart was pounding so loudly that he hardly heard the rest. Instead, his eyes turned, quite against his will, to look again at the dog. At Black.
Surprisingly, the dog wasn't feigning sleep anymore. His eyes were suddenly bright, and they met Harry's own without hesitation. Black's words echoed in his head. "I'm going to have to ask you to trust me, no matter what…" Those blue eyes were watching him pleadingly now, human eyes shining out from a dog's face, and Harry's breath caught in his throat. "I knew your parents…"
"—all You-Know-'Oo's supporters was tracked down, wasn't they, Ern? Most of 'em knew it was all over, wiv You-Know-'Oo gone, and they came quiet. But not Sirius Black. I 'eard he thought 'e'd be second-in-command once You-Know-'Oo 'ad taken over.
"Anyway, they cornered Black in the middle of a street full of Muggles an' Black took out 'is wand and 'e blasted 'alf the street apart, an' a wizard got it, an' so did a dozen Muggles what got in the way. 'Orrible, eh? 'An you know what Black did then?" Stan continued in a dramatic whisper.
"What?" Harry asked hollowly, simply because Stan seemed to expect it. Inside, though, his head was whirling. It just doesn't make sense, he thought desperately. Why would he save me from Malfoy if he was working for Voldemort? Harry could hardly breathe. Why was Malfoy so surprised to see him?
Black's eyes were still on him, and the dog whined quietly, resting his head on Harry's foot. The boy almost pulled away, but Black kept staring, watching him and asking him, silently, to trust.
"Laughed," said Stan. "Jus' stood there an'—'re you alright, Neville?"
He was staring at Harry, who suddenly realized that he must have gone very pale. He gulped quickly, tearing his eyes off Black. "I think I ate something bad," Harry said. "I don't feel too well."
He could feel the dog's eyes upon him, but Stan smiled sympathetically. "You oughta lie down then, probably," he said. "I'll wake you up when we reach London."
"Thanks," Harry whispered complying, but he didn't dare turn his back on Black. His thoughts were all in a jumble—first, the words of the Daily Prophet article and Stan's explanation kept running through his head, and second, he kept seeing Black bowl Avery over and stun both him and Malfoy. It just didn't make sense. Why would Black save him if they all worked for Voldemort?
Of course, it was entirely possible that Malfoy's father didn't work for Voldemort, no matter what Mr. Weasley said—but Harry had heard Malfoy say that they were going to take him to Voldemort. He'd said that Harry was the only thing necessary to bring Voldemort back. But if Black was one of his followers, too, why had he stunned Malfoy and Avery? "I knew your parents."
Was it possible? Could they be wrong about Black? Or was he just lying? Harry swallowed, glancing once more at the dog. Black's eyes were flickering between Ernie and Stan now, but every so often they turned again to Harry, watching him protectively. Protectively? Harry shook his head. Why would he want to protect me? But Black had saved his life…and Harry had nowhere else to go, anyway.
He gulped back his fears, trying to convince himself that if Black had really wanted to kill him, he'd be dead already. And if Black really was a murderer, what was to keep him from cursing Ern and Stan right then? Why did he keep hiding, and staring at Harry as if Harry ought to trust him? Making his decision, Harry opened his mouth to tell Stan the truth—but those eyes stopped him. For a long moment, all Harry could do was stare back at the escaped convict, and then his mouth slowly slid shut. What did he have to lose?
He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but Harry never did drift off to sleep. All he could do was stare in silence, hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong. But before Harry knew it, he was standing on the street just outside the Knight Bus.
"Thanks," Harry said to Ern. Stan helped him with his trunk and Hedwig's cage, then after both conductor and driver bid him farewell, Harry was left standing on the street with Sirius Black.
There was a gigantic BANG and the Knight Bus vanished; a moment later, the dog also disappeared and left Black standing in its place. Slowly, the skeletal man straightened, and did not try to stop Harry from pulling his wand on him. His uncanny eyes just stayed focused on Harry, the only live part of his otherwise dead face.
"I did not," he said very quietly, "kill those people. Nor did I ever serve Voldemort."
He was the only wizard aside from Dumbledore who Harry had ever heard say the Dark Lord's name. He wished his hands weren't shaking so. "You—"
"We can't stay here," Black said hoarsely, glancing up the dark street.
"I'm not going anywhere until you give me a reason to," Harry replied grimly, still pointing his wand at the taller man.
"I can't." Something pained crossed his shrunken face. "There isn't time—you've just got to trust me. Please."
Harry swallowed, and suddenly the possibilities flashed before his eyes as if he had reached the fork in a road. To the left lay the safe path, the one that he had stepped upon the moment he had run out of his aunt and uncle's house. That road held loneliness and hardship, but at least it was one of his choosing. To the right, though, lay the path that Black was offering—one where chance could mean everything and where he had to trust. But that road also offered hope, hope that he barely dared to grasp. The choice, though, was a perilous one: darkness or hope. And it could only be one.
Seconds ticked by that they didn't have to lose. He'd either have to trust or run, and the time for choosing was up. Harry swallowed.
"Okay," he whispered. "Let's go."