The Owl and the Puppy-dog.
Lupin leaned on the worn wooden bar with a weary sigh.
"There you are, dearie," Madam Rosmerta said cheerily. "Missed you last weekend. Your usual?"
"Thanks, Ros," Lupin said gratefully, accepting the cool bottle of butterbeer and levering the lid off. He took a much needed sip and glanced around for an empty seat.
"Been poorly again, love?" Ros said sympathetically as he slipped onto a spare bench by the window. She tugged a cloth from her pocket and swiped some crumbs from the table top. "You need a nice girl to look after you."
"I'm waiting for you to offer," Lupin said soulfully, fluttering his eye lashes.
Ros chuckled and tapped his shoulder smartly on the way past. "Get away with you," she scolded. "I'll make you up a nice plate of lunch."
"Taa." Left alone in the crowded bar Lupin took another pull from his bottle and gazed out the window at the blustery January day. He probably should have stayed inside in such weather, especially so soon after full moon. But after a week spent teaching two rowdy six year olds he felt he needed to get away from the confines of Hogwarts for a few hours.
Lupin smiled a little, eyes seeing not the wind blown inhabitants of Hogsmeade as they struggled past the window, but his two little charges. They were good boys, the pair of them, somehow perfectly matched as a pair to teach. Harry was inclined to inattention and leaned towards laziness in any subject that didn't captivate him, whereas Neville gamefully plodded through every lesson, doing his best regardless of whether he was interested or not.
So Harry, who was cursed with his father's competitive streak, would fight his natural inclinations and struggle to keep up, and Neville, who was nervous of anything new, found himself fired up by Harry's wild bursts of enthusiasm.
Madam Rosmerta laid a plate of roast beef and veg in front of him and Lupin was started out of his introspection.
"Miles away, weren't you?" Ros observed, laying his cutlery and a napkin down beside his plate. "I put an extra Yorkshire pud on for you." She smiled tenderly. "You need feeding up, lad."
"You're a life saver, Ros my love," Lupin said, sniffing the enticing aroma with real pleasure.
"And you're a born charmer, Remus Lupin," she snorted, then clicked away on her gleaming high heels.
Lupin tucked in, enjoying the sheer pleasure of being able to afford a nice meal out, even in such modest surrounds as the Three Broomsticks. It was probably an unnecessary extravagance, but it was his only one, his life at Hogwarts was frugal and quiet all week. Expenses were low but long experience had taught him to hoard any wages that came his way. Jobs were few and far between for someone with his condition.
A frown knit his forehead and his knife and fork stilled as he thought on his most recent past. He didn't need much, which was just as well. But he couldn't deny it was a relief to have such secure employment for a while.
"One day at a time, Remus," he lectured himself under his breath, before tucking back into his meal. It was good advice. And he'd never needed it more than over the last few months. Since Sirius...
He shook his head firmly. He wouldn't think about that today.
It was snowing again when he left the village, soft white flakes drifting down and settling gently on the remains of the last fall. Hogsmeade was a picture postcard, but the road back to the school was less attractive, booby trapped as it was with hidden wheel ruts and half frozen horse dung. Remus kept to the shoulder, kicking through the shallow drifts and enjoying himself despite the rugged conditions. He knew he'd regret it tonight though, when his muscles began to stiffen.
'A hot bath,' he mused to himself. 'And a hot toddy. And maybe...'
Nose flaring, Remus stopped in his tracks. Hackles were rising on the back of his neck and his right hand was diving under his cloak for his wand before his mind had even processed the information his senses were sending.
"Sirius," he breathed, swinging around swiftly. Behind him the road stretched away, empty save for his own tracks already being covered by the snow. He swung again, back to his front, and now he could see the road ahead, trackless, white. Empty.
But his senses did not lie.
"Sirius," he said, this time a little louder.
"That was quick," a familiar voice drawled and again Remus spun, to his right this time and the thick grove of trees. "Werewolf senses come in handy sometimes, hey, Moony?"
"Yes," Remus said evenly, eyes still on the trees. Where was the voice coming from? "These things just pay for themselves."
"Ha!" A crack of laughter, so familiar it made his knees weak for a moment. How he had loved to make Sirius laugh like that, how he had practised his own laconic comments for just that reason.
"You haven't changed, old friend," that voice called again, and this time it was further to his right and Remus tracked through the undergrowth with his eyes, straining for some movement, some shadow.
"Don't call me that," Remus said quietly. "You forfeited the right to call me that a long time ago."
The wind whistled a little through the trees, branches rustling, spilling some of their burden of snow with a muffled patter to the ground.
"Yes," Sirius called solemnly. "I know I did."
Something tightened in Lupin's chest at that calm pronouncement. "Why did you come here?" he yelled, gripping his wand hard. "Why didn't you just stay away? Haven't you done enough?"
"Not yet," Sirius's voice echoed hollowly through the white trees. "I've one more thing to do."
Now it was fear that tightened Lupin's chest. "Kill me?" he whispered. Fear turned to anger. "Well, why not? You finished off all the rest of us, didn't you? James and Lily and Peter?" Remus shook his head as his eyes stung in the bitter cold. "Now it's my turn!" he yelled.
More snow pattered to the ground as his voice rung through the forest.
"I didn't kill Peter, Remus," Sirius said quietly. "That's part of what I came here to tell you. It's why I came."
Somehow having Sirius come right out and deny it was even more painful than before, made him even more angry.
"You didn't kill him?" he seethed, eyes still fiercely scanning the trees and bushes. "And I suppose you didn't kill James and Lily either? I suppose you're not to blame for their deaths?"
"I am to blame," Sirius said, and even as he spoke he was swinging out from behind a tree, his hands raised. "I am to blame for their deaths," he said, as Remus raised his wand and pointed it at him. Sober eyes met his and Lupin stared in amazement at the man he hadn't seen for nearly six years. "But I didn't betray them, Remus," he said clearly, eyes deeply sincere.
Remus dropped back a step but Sirius only stood there, hands raised, snow dusting the shoulders of his ragged robe, his fingers blue with cold.
"I didn't betray them," he said again. "And if you give me just a few minutes to explain, I'll tell you what really happened."
"Why should I?" Remus managed, still shocked by the calm sanity in eyes he had last seen on a wanted poster, looking far from sane. "Why shouldn't I just drop you in your tracks?"
Sirius shrugged. "It's your choice," he said quietly. "But what I have to tell you is important enough for me to come here, unarmed, and give myself up to you. Listening won't cost you more than a few minutes."
"Give yourself up?" Lupin's wand wavered. "That's why you came?"
Eyes on the wand tip pointed at him, Sirius nodded. His tangled mane of hair was almost white with snow now, and he still shivered. But he was unarmed, and his hands were in the air, and Lupin knew he couldn't bear to silence the man now. He was getting this odd feeling, as if he'd been holding his breath for ages and ages and was finally ready to let it out. As if that other shoe were hanging there, ready to drop.
As if this was a conversation he'd been needing for years and years and finally, finally he was going to get answers to questions he'd been screaming to an uncaring night since his world had changed forever.
Mind made up he nodded and gestured with his wand. Just for a moment Sirius's eyes widened with fear and Remus was human enough to enjoy that tiny taste of power.
"Temperatus," he said, and Sirius stiffened and then relaxed into a sigh as he was warmed all over, from his torn boots to his blue fingertips. He flexed his hands and gazed at Lupin in surprise. "You have five minutes," Remus said. "Make them count."
Lupin cast the spell twice more before the story was through, once on himself and once more on Sirius. This time the other man hardly seemed to notice, he was lost in the past as he told his tale, eyes darkening with remembered grief and anger. Finally he trailed away, his voice hoarse, his cheeks damp. Remus let a few moments pass by as Sirius rubbed roughly at his face with a filthy sleeve.
"Quite a tale," he said at last.
"It's all right if you don't believe it," Sirius said dully. "I wouldn't blame you a bit."
"I'm just curious as to why it's the first time I'm hearing it," Lupin returned. "Or has it taken you the last five years to come up with it?"
Sirius gave one of his cracks of laughter again, but there was no real mirth in it, only bitter anger.
"It's plain you've never been to Azkaban," he said, voice low. "If you can ask me that. You don't think in there, old pal. You exist. Trapped in the memory of every terrible thing you've ever done, or has been done to you." He shivered, and it was not from the cold. "As you can imagine, I had quite a bit to dwell on."
Remus shook his head, not wanting to dwell on this himself. A handful of times in his life he'd been near Dementors. That had been enough.
"Look, I was half crazed with grief when I went after Wormtail," Sirius said forcefully. "And half dazed with whatever it was he used to kill all those Muggles and knock me out with afterwards. I was in no fit state to tell any tale, and by the time I was, well, no one was listening. No trial, no one to speak for me."
"And no one in there?" Lupin murmured.
"Only them." Sirius's eyes had darkened again. "And when they're around no one makes too much sense. Look, Remus, I was probably going to sit in that cell for the rest of my life muttering quietly to myself just like the rest of them if not for Harry!"
"Harry?" Lupin tightened his hand on his wand again. "What about Harry?"
"I saw him in the paper," Sirius explained. "Fudge used to give it to me when he came on his monthly visits. I liked seeing the old boy's face when I spoke coherently to him, Merlin knows it was hard enough to do. But it gave me a measure of satisfaction and there was little enough of that in that hole, believe me."
"I'm trying to believe you, Sirius, but you're making no sense. What about Harry?"
"He was on the front page." Sirius shook his head. "I couldn't believe it. Standing there as large as life with Severus Snape of all people! The paper was filled with this gibberish about him being Harry's father, that the boy was living at Hogwarts, I could barely make head nor tail at it. But there was Harry, looking out at me with James's face and Lily's eyes..." Sirius trailed away and lifted a shaking hand to his face. "It woke me up, Remus. It stirred me out of that living death the Dementors had me in."
"So you escaped and came here."
"I was still half crazy," Sirius confessed. Then he shrugged ruefully. "Maybe three quarters crazy," he amended. "I didn't mean to frighten the boy, but when I saw him flying so close to me, looking so young, so vulnerable..."
"Sirius, you fool." Remus kept his wand up while he rubbed tired eyes with his free hand. "Why do you have to do everything the hard way? Why have you come here to me with this? What I am supposed to do? Even if I believe you, there's no proof of what you say. What am I to do?"
"Take me to Dumbledore," Sirius said promptly. "I've spent the last few months since I left here trying to regain some clarity of thought. Trying to figure out what I can do in this state to keep the promise I made to James all those years ago and protect his son. And this is all I could come up with."
"Turning yourself in to Dumbledore?"
"I know he'll have to turn me over to the Ministry. He has no choice. But he's a fair man, if I can get him to listen to what I have to say, to believe me..." Sirius broke off, thin chest heaving. "Then I don't care what happens to me after that."
"No? Even if I told you what lies in wait for you?"
Sirius paled. "What?"
"After your little stunt with Harry, Fudge made a decree." Remus swallowed hard. "It's the Kiss, Sirius. He's ordered that you be given the Kiss."
Closing his eyes, Sirius swayed a little on the spot and Remus fought the urge to move towards him, to take his arm, to hold him up. No matter what his private feelings on the matter he could not let his guard down now. Nothing had been proven yet.
And he owed it to Harry to do what was right this time, not just what was right for him. He'd made a promise and chosen a side.
"Well," Sirius said hoarsely. "I suppose it was to be expected." He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. "It doesn't change anything," he said firmly. "I have to do this. Harry's out in the world now, exposed, vulnerable. And so is Peter. Dumbledore has to know this, he has to believe it. He can look inside my head or give me Veritaserum if he wishes. Whatever it takes." He turned his sober gaze on Remus. "Well? Will you take me to him?"
Remus took him to the Shrieking Shack and sent a message to Dumbledore, unwilling to help Sirius onto the grounds of Hogwarts. He knew the secret passage to the Whomping Willow was now warded, so he sent his message that way, to warn the headmaster as well as inform him.
Then he stood by the door of the very room Sirius had left Harry in, months before, and watched his oldest surviving friend drop onto the edge of the dusty old bed.
Sirius's words still rang in his head and he played them over and over again, testing their facts against the memories in his head.
"You thought I was the traitor," he realised out loud. He gazed at Sirius who gazed stolidly back at him. "That's why you made Peter your Secret-Keeper."
"Yes," he admitted.
Lupin couldn't help the throb of pain in his chest at this confirmation. "You and James?" he asked quietly.
Sirius sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing his face with one scratched hand. "I'm more sorry than I can say, Remus," he said heavily. "But you have to remember what it was like back then. Brother against brother, friend turned to foe..."
"Oh, I remember," Remus shot back bitterly. "I've lived it for the last five years. Of course, I had good reason to believe you a traitor and even then Dumbledore had to shake it into my head. I trusted you," he finished harshly.
"You distanced yourself from me!" Sirius defended hotly. He lifted his chin in a pugnacious gesture all too familiar to Remus. "When the fighting started and the Order was working, we never saw you! You hardly came near James and Lily, even when Harry was born!"
"Does that sound like the actions of a spy?" Remus bellowed back. "A spy would have been getting closer to you, not backing away! Worming his way into your confidence, hanging around no matter how bad things got! He would have..." Remus broke off, recent revelations vying with the memories crowding in now.
Sirius met his wide eyed glance with a knowing nod. "Like Peter?" he said laconically.
Remus bit his lip and turned away from those knowing eyes. "I wasn't pulling away," he muttered. "Things were just different, that's all." He broke off, not wanting to say any more, to reveal any more. Sirius had never been the type to reveal ones feelings to, not unless you were prepared to have them thrown back at you later, or slyly mocked in front of others. Certainly he would never hear from Lupin why everything had changed between them all those years ago.
It didn't matter any more anyway.
Boards creaked on the stairs and Sirius stiffened and looked fearfully at the door.
"You see, don't you?" Sirius said, his voice hoarse and his skin paler than ever. Going through the whole story a second time seemed to have worn him out, he drooped in the torn and dusty chair he was slumped in.
"I do," Dumbledore said thoughtfully, his fingers stroking his beard. "I do see."
"I had to warn you about Peter," Sirius slurred. "If I know Harry is here, you can bet that treacherous rat does too."
Lupin frowned as dark rimmed eyes closed and Sirius sighed and slumped even further into his chair. Even as Remus watched the other man slipped into slumber.
"What did you do to him?"
Dumbledore hadn't taken his eyes from the ragged wizard seated before him. "Hmm? Oh, just a small suggestion while I was studying his mind. He certainly needs the rest."
Lupin felt some of the tension leave his body and he sat back on the old bed behind him. "He looks terrible."
"On the outside, yes," Dumbledore returned quietly. "But there's a calm mind inside that ravaged form. Calmer and clearer than I expected."
"Do you believe him?"
"I'm inclined to."
Lupin waited, eyes narrowed as he studied the older wizard. He still sat, all his attention fixed upon Sirius. "But?"
"But I can only see what exists in Sirius's mind. I can only testify as to what he himself believes. If his years in Azkaban have driven him mad, then it may be in his madness he has vindicated himself. It may be that he truly believes in his own innocence."
"Then what are we to do?" Lupin said in despair.
Dumbledore finally looked up at him, and smiled. "Calm down, dear chap, calm down. I've said I believe him, and I do. I just can't categorically tell anyone else that what he's saying is the truth."
Lupin frowned, puzzling it out. "Why do you believe him them?"
"Partly what I've seen in his mind. Partly what I knew about him before this all began. Even partly what I knew about Peter Pettigrew." Dumbledore stood up and paced to the bed, where he pointed his wand at a moth eaten blanket. Dust flew up and settled on the floor, then the blanket swiftly flew to Sirius and covered him from chin to feet.
Lupin felt the creeping cold in the room and shivered a little himself.
"But mostly it's because of what happened here last year. If Sirius had truly been what we believed, he would not have foolishly taken Harry. And if he had been mad, he would not have let him go unharmed."
"But what if that in itself was a trap?"
Now Dumbledore smiled kindly at him. "Don't over-think yourself, Remus. It could drive you crazy!"
Remus smiled weakly back at him. "Sirius was right about that, at any rate. I remember what it was like to see enemies behind every door. To read meaning into every small word."
"Yes," Dumbledore said soberly. "Absolute proof is not always at hand. Sirius does not have it to offer now. All I can go on is what my instinct tells me. And I believe him."
"Then he wasn't the traitor?" Remus said, unable to take it all in. "He didn't betray James and Lily to their deaths?" One emotion was catching up with him now, seeping through his numbed joy. "Then he was innocent," he breathed in horror. "And we let him go to that prison, that place-"
"What did I say about not over-thinking it?" Dumbledore warned him, putting a warm comforting hand on his shoulder. "There'll be all the time in the world for recriminations later. For now we have greater worries."
Remus took a deep breath, and then another. "The Ministry," he managed.
"I can't turn an innocent man over to the Dementors," Dumbledore said simply. "And Fudge has proved himself untrustworthy in my eyes over this business with Harry. Which means I am going to have to do something I was rather hoping I could put off for a while yet."
He met Lupin's curious gaze with a rueful shrug.
"Set myself against the Ministry, of course."
They discussed the problems and made plans as the afternoon wore into the winter darkness of early evening. Dumbledore conjured up a meal and they ate, watching as Sirius's nose twitched at the enticing aroma of hot tomato soup and crusty bread.
"He'll be waking up soon." Dumbledore lifted his bowl and blew teasingly at the warm vapour, setting Sirius's nose twitching again. "A good warm meal inside him and we can tell him what we've decided."
"Will you tell Snape?"
"How can I not? He must be warned about Pettigrew, and he has the right to know where the warning has come from."
Remus looked at Sirius as he stirred and snuffled in his cosy chair. "Sirius doesn't know Snape is actually Harry's father," he said lowly.
"Yes," Dumbledore looked sympathetic. "I don't envy you that conversation."
Lupin dropped his bread roll. "Me!"
Sirius started awake. "What?" he said, scrambling to his feet, warm blanket dropping to the floor. He blinked and focused on the other two wizards in the room. "What?" he repeated dazedly.
Lupin smiled weakly and picked his bread roll up. He proffered it. "Hungry?"
"Now, what will it be, young Harry?" Hagrid said thoughtfully, tugging at his bushy beard. "A rock cake?"
Harry looked doubtful. "I don't think my teeth are big enough to bite rock cakes," he said politely.
"Hmm, maybe not," Hagrid agreed as Harry bared his small white teeth to be peered at. "I suppose toffee's outta the question then?"
"I'm not really hungry, Hagrid," Harry assured his host. "Can't we just go and look at some interesting animals again?"
Hagrid made a face. "I sorta promised your dad we wouldn't do that no more," he revealed, a trifle sheepishly. "Seems the scratch you got last time from that bowtruckle was a wee bit too much for him."
"It was hardly anything!" Harry defended hotly. "My dad treats me like a baby."
"Ah, well," Hagrid said, prying the lid off a worn old tin and helping himself to a sticky toffee. "That's what dads are like, I reckon. Look at my old da now. I was as tall as him when I weren't much older than you are now, but he still used to wipe my chin and make me wear a tea towel around my neck when I et soup." Hagrid sucked thoughtfully at his sweet. "Well, a table cloth anyway. And you know what?"
Harry shook his head.
"He used to blow on my soup for me, can you believe it? In case I burnt meself." Hagrid sniffed and rubbed at his nose. "He was a good dad though."
"I suppose mine's okay too," Harry admitted grudgingly. "At least he doesn't blow on my soup." A tiny sound caught his attention and he focused on a box sitting on the huge hearth stone. "What's that?"
Hagrid glanced casually over then did a double take, pushing himself to his feet and towering over Harry. "Nothing for you to worry about!" he said loudly, leaning over and reaching for the box. But Harry's little legs had beaten him there and the boy was already bent over the box and peering past the blue ragged piece of blanket lining it.
"It's a bird!" Harry exclaimed. "A weeny tiny bird! Oh, look how fluffy it is!"
"Hmm, yes, well, come away now, lad," Hagrid said uneasily. "Best leave it be."
Harry cast one last look at the baby bird and backed away. "Is it dangerous?" he whispered, looking thrilled. "Is it a magical bird? Does it got big teeth?"
"What?" Hagrid said absently. "Birds don't have teeth, Harry. That's just a baby owl that is."
"Then why can't I look at it?" Harry risked a small step back towards the box. "Baby owls aren't dangerous." He shot Hagrid a quick glance. "Are they?"
Hagrid looked as if he would dearly love to say they were. "No," he admitted at last, sitting back at the table and tugging out a huge spotted hanky to wipe his brow. "It's not that." He heaved a huge sigh. "Well, the thing is, lad, it's only a tiny thing, see? I found it after the storm yesterday, and it's lost its mum..."
Hagrid reached out a big hand and patted Harry gently on one narrow shoulder. The boy's legs buckled a bit and he reached for one giant knee and clutched at it.
"And it'll probably die, Harry, that's all. I didn't want to upset you, that's why I didn't want you to see it."
Harry frowned. "Die?" he repeated. "But why? Can't you look after it?"
"He's awful small, Harry," Hagrid said gently. "Things that small don't do well without their mums."
"I was small when my mum died!" Harry said indignantly. "I did all right." He frowned a little harder. "Well, maybe it wasn't too good until my dad came, but I didn't die or anything."
"But birds is different," Hagrid began helplessly.
"I don't see why." Harry's voice and face were stubborn. "It just needs food and warmth and stuff, right?"
"It won't take food from me," Hagrid pointed out. "My hands are too big-" he broke off, but it was too late. Harry's face had lit up and he was smiling widely.
"My hands aren't big!" he said excitedly. "Look!" He held up his rather grubby paws to demonstrate. "I bet I can feed him."
"Harry," Hagrid sighed. "I just don't want you to break your heart, lad. If the poor little thing dies."
"It won't die." Harry said firmly.
Hagrid drew him closer and peered down into the stubborn little face. "Harry," he said again, more softly. "It might. You have to know that, and tell me that you do, or I won't let you take care of it - no, even if you do stick that lip of yours out!"
Harry maintained his sulky face a moment longer and then gave in. "All right, Hagrid," he agreed. "I suppose it could die, but I'm going to take the best care of it to try and stop that from happening." He gazed up at the huge groundskeeper, blinking away tears from his eyes. "Please let me try."
Hagrid surveyed the small face before him a moment longer, then huffed a huge sigh that ruffled Harry's hair alarmingly.
"All right," he gave in. "You can give it a try."
"All right!" Harry cheered.
"Though what your dad is gonna say to me about it is another matter," Hagrid grumbled as he heaved himself to his feet and set about the room, gathering various bits and pieces from benches and shelves.
Harry wasn't listening, he was back at the box, peering down through the blue folds at the downy owlet crouching pitifully in the center. "It's all right, little owl," he murmured. "I'll take good care of you."
Hagrid carried a bowl and spoon over to the table, then gently lifted the box and laid it on the table top as well.
"What do baby birds eat?" Harry wondered curiously, climbing up on a huge chair and standing on it to see back inside the box.
"You better sit up here, Harry," Hagrid said, lifting him easily and setting him on the table top. Harry crossed his legs and sat comfortably while Hagrid slid the box in front of him. "I've a mixture here, just warm enough for this little one. I've found my smallest spoon." He picked it up and although it did look tiny in his fingers it was as big as a dessert spoon in Harry's hand.
Harry surveyed the spoon and then the baby bird. Then he turned the spoon around and dipped its handle into the bowl of soft mush. The flared handle held a tiny portion of mix and Harry grinned at Hagrid.
The groundskeeper grinned back, then shook his head in amazement. "You're a right clever lad," he marveled. "Mebbe we'll have a chance at his after all."
Snape negotiated the path to Hagrid's hut in the twilight, his boot heels clicking on the worn old flags that marked the way. Before he had climbed the stairs the front door was opening and Hagrid had emerged, his hands held out placatingly.
"Now, it weren't my fault," he began in a soothing tone and Snape felt his anxiety level sharply increase.
"What wasn't?" he asked suspiciously. "Is it Harry? What have you done?"
"Harry's fine," Hagrid hastened to assure him, stepping back into the hut as Snape pushed his way inside. "Happy as Larry in fact."
"Look, daddy!" Harry said joyfully. He was sitting cross-legged on the enormous old table, drips of some glutinous matter gleaming on his once spotless robe. "I've got a new pet! It's an owlet."
"Indeed," Snape said, turning a wrathful glance on the groundskeeper. Not that he had a problem with Harry owning an owl, but he knew Hagrid well enough to know there something was up and he wanted to hear about it right away.
"Like I said, it weren't my fault," Hagrid said again, backing up a step and knocking a tin mug off the shelf behind him. "It's just a baby see, and I told Harry it probably wouldn't survive-"
"It's fine!" Harry interjected loudly from his perch. "It's eaten heaps and now it's having a nap right here!"
Snape turned his back on the indignant boy and glared up into Hagrid's alarmed face. "Will it survive?" he demanded, quietly.
Hagrid considered for a moment then rushed into speech as Snape's frown deepened.
"It's got a better chance now that it's taken food," he said hastily. "If Harry keeps feeding it a mort every four hours or so..."
"Can you absolutely guarantee it won't die?" Snape demanded.
Hagrid made an agonised face. "Well, of course I can't," he said finally.
Snape nodded. "I'll know who to call then to comfort the child if his heart gets broken," he said maliciously.
Hagrid's mobile mouth turned down. "Oh, Professor," he said reproachfully.
Snape turned on his heel. "Climb down from your perch, Harry," he said, ignoring the unhappy noises Hagrid was making behind him. "I'll levitate the box, Hagrid can carry the food." He slanted a glance back over his shoulder. "I assume you'll be supplying Harry with all he needs?"
"Course I will," Hagrid rushed to reassure him. "Be glad to. I'll be glad the little thing survives."
"You better hope it does," Snape said meaningfully. He straightened the collar of Harry's robe, then pulled out his wand and gently levitated the box. He peered into it on its way past and saw the impossibly tiny bundle of white down. He turned a fierce glance on the huge fellow that made him cringe back yet again. "You had really better hope it does."
Harry's round childish cheeks shone in the firelight as he sat by the box and watched patiently as his baby bird breathed in and out.
"It's very small," he marveled. "How small was I when I was born?"
Snape looked up from his book. "I don't know. I didn't see you when you were born."
"That man said he held me when I was a baby," Harry said thoughtfully, smoothing down a corner of ragged blue blanket. "He said he tickled my toes."
Snape fought to keep a snarl off his lips. Now and then Harry was apt to mention That Man, and he could only suppose it was the boy's way of dealing with it. He didn't like it though, and if he could have pulled every memory of Sirius Black from Harry's head he would have.
"I don't remember him though." Harry looked up. "Will my baby bird remember me?"
"Birds are different from people, Harry," Snape told him, glad of a subject change. "If he survives he will remember the hand that fed him. He will be loyal to you your life long."
Harry frowned. "What does that mean? Loyal?"
"It means to trust and be trusted. For a wizard and his familiar it means an important bond. He will rely on you and you on him."
"Familiar," Harry said, trying out the word. "Is that another word for an owlet?"
"It's a word for a wizard's pet, Harry," Snape explained. "Muggles might have a pet for companionship or protection, but for a wizard it's all that and more. A familiar may work with a wizard, enhance his magic, or even serve him, as your owl may one day do for you."
"Carrying messages and stuff?"
"Carrying letters, yes."
Harry leaned forward, elbows on his knees, chin resting on the palms of his hands. "I like that," he decided. "I like having somebody loyal to me." He looked over at his father. "Daddy? Why don't you have a familiar?"
Because I don't want something loyal to me. I don't want a bond - to grow to love something only to have it ripped away from me. It's something I've avoided all my life.
Fat lot of good that did me.
"I've never had time," Snape said lightly, shrugging in a careless manner. "And please remember, Harry. The owlet is very fragile. It may not survive the night.'
"I know." Harry smoothed the blanket one more time then climbed easily to his feet and trotted over to his father. "Hagrid told me that babies sometimes die if they don't have a mum."
Snape shifted a little and let Harry lean against his legs in his favourite pose. Little fingers plucked at fine black satin stitches that marked out the near invisible design on Snape's robe.
"It's the way of the world sometimes, Harry," Snape murmured.
"It's kinda sad." Harry's fingers traced the fine design, smoothing over the softly sheened satin. "I wish I remembered that man who tickled my toes."
"Why?" Snape asked curiously.
Harry shrugged. "Just because."
Snape tucked Harry's dressing gown more tightly around him. "Time for bed I think."
"But, daddy!" Harry said in dismay. "Hagrid says I have to feed the baby every four hours!"
"I'll wake you when it's time to feed it again," Snape assured him, rising and ushering the boy before him. "So you better get as much sleep as possible before hand."
"All right, daddy," Harry reluctantly agreed, casting a glance back over at the bird's box. "What should I call it, do you think? Hagrid says we can't even tell if it's a boy or girl owl yet."
Recognising a delaying tactic when he heard one, Snape relentlessly pressed the boy towards the bathroom. "We'll discuss it in the morning."
"Good soup," Sirius sighed as he polished the bottom of the bowl with the remnants of the bread.
Remus shook his head, tearing his fascinated gaze away from the sight of his reinstated friend devouring every scrap of food on the table before him. "Have you actually eaten anything since you escaped?"
Sirius settled back in the moth eaten armchair with a discreet burp. "You don't want to know what I've been eating."
"How did you stay hidden?"
"Muggles," Sirius said shortly. "You'd be amazed what they throw into their rubbish bins."
"Told you you didn't want to know." Sirius rubbed at his bristly jaw and looked around the dusty room, eyes more alert. "Now what? Did Dumbledore tell you his plan while I was napping?"
"Not a plan exactly, no," Remus admitted.
"But I assume he did believe me," Sirius probed. "Or is at least giving me the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise I would have been waking up back in Azkaban." He grimaced. "If I woke up at all."
"Come on, Sirius," Remus said dryly. "You didn't really think Dumbledore would turn you over to the Dementors if he had a shred of doubt. You must have been counting on that."
Sirius shrugged. "Maybe a little," he admitted. "It's actually quite nice to have a sense of self-preservation again. Believe me, for a long time I didn't care a jot what happened to me."
"Well, believing you is the name of the game, isn't it? And for what it's worth Dumbledore does seem to believe you. He just doesn't think he can convince anyone else to."
Sirius sat up more alertly. "So?"
"So we stay here for now. Or you do anyway."
"Out of sight out of mind?" Sirius said dryly. "I've got news for Dumbledore and it's all bad. I've escaped from one prison, and I didn't do that to exchange it for another."
"No, you did it to help Harry," Remus pointed out sharply. "Didn't you?"
Sirius grimaced. "You know I did," he said sulkily. "But-"
"But nothing," Remus interrupted hardly. "You've asked Dumbledore to trust you, the least you can do is trust him. Or would you prefer to rush out and do something else mad behind his back? After all, that worked so well last time, right?"
Sirius's face froze and he closed his eyes.
Remus felt a flare of guilt but he ruthlessly suppressed it. "Trust him," he said more gently. "He has your best interests at heart."
"So he always tells us," Sirius said huskily, opening his deep rimmed eyes and blinking at Remus. "And after all, he's been pulling all the strings for a while now. Look at this business with Harry. I mean, who would have thought of Snape posing as his father? Only that old wizard."
Remus cleared his throat nervously as Sirius shook his head in wonder.
"I mean, Snape?" he went on incredulously. "As if anyone would believe for a moment that Lily would have anything to do with that greasy Slytherin creep."
"Actually, Sirius," Remus began.
"Not to mention that the boy is the very image of his father," Sirius marveled. "How is it that anyone has bought such a ludicrous tale?"
"I suppose if you've been hanging around Muggles all this time you haven't seen the Prophet, or any other newspapers?"
Sirius frowned at him. "Only newspapers I've seen are the ones I can find to sleep on, and what they have on page three the Daily Prophet wouldn't print in a million years. Why, what's been in the paper?"
"A hearing, actually," Remus said, plunging in. "It was all very formal and official. And it found that Snape... Well, he really is Harry's father, Sirius."
"Well, I'm sure it did," Sirius said patiently. "If that's what Dumbledore wanted it to find."
"Fudge called the hearing, and believe me, the last thing he wanted was for Harry to have a living parent. He wanted to take the boy away and get some more political mileage out of him. Or maybe he has some even more sinister reason, I think even the headmaster is starting to think that way."
"The Ministry wants Harry?" Sirius frowned. "How did Dumbledore fool them?"
"He didn't," Remus said in exasperation. He pushed himself away from the low table and paced across the room. "He didn't have to fool them." Meeting the blank gaze of his oldest friend, Remus tried to inject all the sincerity he had into his next words. "Snape really is Harry's father, Sirius."
Sirius stared into Remus's eyes for long seconds. "No," he said, just as sincerely and deeply. "He isn't."
Remus puffed out a breath.
"I was there when Harry was born, remember? I was in the next room when James walked out with the boy in his arms. When he asked me-"
"To be his godfather, yes, I know," Remus said rapidly. "But you weren't there when James found out he and Lily would never have children together."
Sirius shook his head, opening his mouth.
"Just listen to me for one minute, all right?" Remus said, over-riding him. "Forget what you think you know and listen."
Sirius was still shaking his head, but he met Remus's stubborn gaze and must have seen determination to tell this story there. He set his own jaw, crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
"Fine," he said shortly. "You listened to my story. The least I can do is listen to yours."
"It's James's story actually," Remus said quietly. "James and Lily's. And I can only imagine what they must have gone through learning they would never have their own child. What it would have cost them to go to Severus Snape to get what they needed from him."
"Snape," Sirius snorted under his breath. "As if."
"James's cousin. The blood relative he needed to complete the spell."
Sirius tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, dislodging faded old stuffing onto the dusty floor. "Spell?" he said sardonically. "What spell?"
"Surrogace," Remus said simply. "Snape's seed, given to Lily, through James."
"That is so gross," Sirius said in disgust. "That you could even imagine a scenario with Snape's seed in it, for Merlin's sake."
Remus covered his face with an outspread hand. "Please, Sirius," he said weakly. "Can we get past this bit?"
"Gladly," Sirius said fervently. "It's your story."
"It's not a story!" Remus shouted, then held up a hand and took a deep calming breath. "It's the truth," he said patiently. "Harry looks like James because he does share his blood, although more distantly than father and son. And because he was conceived from their love, James and Lily's. But he is Severus Snape's son as well."
"And James kept this a secret because?" Sirius asked dryly. "I was his best friend, Remus. He would have told me, for Merlin's sake!"
"Would he? Would you?" Remus challenged. "He chose Snape in the first place because he wasn't close to him. He wanted to forget the fact that any part of Harry wasn't his and Lily's."
"I thought he chose Snape because of their blood tie?" Sirius reminded him. "In fact if it comes to that, I'm just as closely tied by blood to James as Snape is, which is to say, not very close. Why wouldn't James have come to me?"
"Because you were so close," Remus said, as if it should have been obvious. "How could he forget it, if you were there all the time reminding him?"
Sirius was still shaking his head, but there was a frown between his brows now, and his eyes slipped away from Remus's gaze and seemed to look beyond him, as if seeing some other time and place. "It's not possible," he said slowly. "Even if I believed that James was not Harry's father, to believe Snape, of all people..." He shook his head again, more emphatically. "No! I won't believe it."
Remus lost patience. "Fine," he said, standing up and putting his hands on his hips. "Don't believe it then. I'm not going to knock myself out trying to convince you."
"Just because you've bought this cock and bull story wholesale!" Sirius said, losing his own temper, pushing himself to his feet. "I was there, Remus, while you were off making your own life without us! James loved that boy!"
"And he couldn't love him unless he was his own?" Remus bellowed.
"He couldn't have loved him if he was Snape's!" Sirius bellowed back.
Remus stared, mouth agape. "He was your friend," he said incredulously. "But you sure don't give him much credit."
"He was my friend," Sirius repeated stubbornly. "I knew him better than you. He could never have given his whole heart to Harry if he was that Slytherin bastard's son."
"You mean you couldn't," Remus said in sudden realisation.
Now it was Sirius's turn to lose his voice for a moment.
Remus went on the attack. "Maybe that's the real reason your friend didn't confide in you?"
Sirius stepped forward, hands clenched and Remus stepped back, automatically reaching for his wand. But after only a step Sirius halted in his tracks, knuckles whitening as he brought himself under control.
"You're wrong," Sirius whispered through white lips. His whole face looked pale and he was swaying a little on unsteady legs, his too thin limbs trembling.
Remus felt a sudden flare of pity as his anger seemed to drain away like bath water.
"Even if I was," he said huskily. "The whole of the Wizengamut and the Magical Council wouldn't be so easy to hoodwink. Not to mention Elder Kendrick, who performed the parentage spell."
Sirius seemed to hardly hear him, he was reaching back with a trembling hand to find the lumpy surface of the old mattress. He groped for it and half sat, half fell backwards onto it. "You must be wrong," he whispered. "Everything I've done these last few months has been to find James's son. To help James's son..."
Remus sighed and sat down next to him, feeling the bed depress beneath his weight and lift Sirius a little. How thin he was, how light!
"He's James's son in every way that counts," he said gently.
"And Snape's too?" Sirius said dully. He turned deep set eyes to Remus. "Snape's son?"
Remus bit his lip, groping for words. "He's the same boy he was when you held him in your arms and tickled his toes." He smiled a little and nodded when Sirius blinked in surprise. "You fascinated Harry with that little tidbit."
"I don't remember telling him that," Sirius confessed.
"But do you remember doing it?" Remus pressed. "Do you remember standing by James's side and promising to be the boy's godfather? To take care of him if James and Lily couldn't? Promises like that meant a lot in those dangerous days."
"The truth meant a lot too," Sirius said lowly. "And I'm not so sure I would have made that promise, if I had known the truth. James knew me well enough to know that. Is it fair that I made that promise without knowing?"
Remus shook his head helplessly. "What can I say, Sirius? You didn't know the truth but James did. He asked you to look after his son because that's what Harry was and always would be to him. If it didn't matter to James - why should it matter to you?"
Sirius closed his eyes, chin sinking onto his chest. "I don't know," he whispered. "It just does."
Remus looked at him slumped in the chair, unkempt, half-starved. Pity welled up from that old place within him where love had once dwelt. Of course it mattered to Sirius Black, last survivor of the Black family. Things like that mattered to people like him, even if he had spent most of his life rejecting his family. It wasn't so easy to change who they'd raised him to be.
Blood mattered. To some wizards it mattered most of all.
"I'm sorry, Sirius," he said. "Sincerely sorry."
"I can't believe James did this," Sirius whispered bitterly, eyes still closed, mouth twisted. "I can't believe he let Lily do this!"
"Let Lily?" Lupin hooted derisively. "Your mind really did go in Azkaban, old friend, if you remember that James let Lily do anything."
Dark rimmed eyes flew open angrily, then Lupin's words seemed to sink in and Sirius was shaking his head, chuckling despite himself.
"Bloody Muggle-born that she was," he muttered, lips quivering. "Yeah, I suppose I can see how it would have gone. She's been leading James around by the balls since they were sixteen."
He shook his head again, eyes softer now, but still dark with memories.
"He must have loved her even more than I thought, to go through with such a hair-brained scheme."
"It got them what they wanted though,' Remus said simply.
Sirius acknowledged this with a shrug, and for long moments there was silence, while the night settled in around them. Stiff February winds shook the creaking old walls and wound its way through the cracks, sending a chill around their ankles. Finally Sirius met Lupin's eyes, his own shining with tears.
"I miss them so much," he whispered.
Lupin's throat tightened with his own unshed tears. "I know."
"I'm not sure I can do this," Sirius continued hoarsely. "I'm not sure I'm strong enough to get beyond this, even for James and Lily."
"Be sure, Sirius," Remus warned. "Or keep away from Harry altogether. If you can't love him, then leaving him in peace is the best way to honour your promise to his parents."
Sirius closed his eyes and again bowed his head.
Snape heard the headmaster out, listening politely until the end. He waited a beat while the old wizard sat back in his chair with a sigh.
"That's quite a story," Snape finally said. "Could have used a pirate though. Maybe I've been around Harry for too long, but a story just doesn't seem the same without a pirate."
"I get the feeling you're not taking me seriously, Severus," Dumbledore said mildly.
"I'm taking you very seriously," Snape protested. "I'm just not sure what I'm expected to do about this fairy tale." He grimaced. "I gather you believe it."
"I thought so." Lips twisting derisively Snape turned it all over in his mind. "I suppose it does make a kind of sense, looking back. Just the kind of asinine thing Potter and Black would do, isn't it? Risk everything on some fool hunch." He rolled his eyes. "Idiots."
"They have paid for it," Dumbledore pointed out.
"We all paid for it," Snape shot back. "And we were innocent, Harry and I."
Dumbledore only stared at him for long moments. "Innocent?"
"Well," Snape conceded. "Harry anyway. He paid most of all."
"Which is why Sirius has come forward now. Broken out of prison, given himself up..."
"Kidnapped Harry, scarred him for life," Snape continued conversationally. "Did I mention he's developed a morbid fear of large dogs?"
"Severus, really," Dumbledore chided. "I saw Harry riding Fang down to Hagrid's hut just this afternoon. He was holding him by the ears and shouting gee-up! Young Frobisher from Hufflepuff summoned his camera so quickly it nearly crashed through a wall. The boy seems to have gotten past his fear pretty quickly." Dumbledore took a deep breath. "Which is probably just as well really."
Snape glared at him. "Oh, no," he said in disbelief. "Tell me you're not thinking of letting Sirius Black roam around here in his Animagus form?"
"Not roam around, no."
"But you are planning on letting him stay here? Near Harry?"
"Near Hogwarts actually," the headmaster began.
"Absolutely not," Snape interrupted loudly. "No way on earth will I let that man-"
"Because I'm not sure he wants to be near Harry now as it happens."
"-anywhere near my son. I-" Snape broke off. "What did you say?"
"I said I don't think Sirius is quite so concerned for Harry as he was."
"What on earth are you talking about?" Snape said in astonished tones, then his brain caught up and he scowled fiercely. "Oh wait, I get it. You mean he doesn't care about Harry now that he knows the truth about him, correct? Now that he knows Harry is my son?"
"I'm afraid so," Dumbledore admitted sadly.
Snape's mouth worked for long seconds as he attempted to form words vile enough to express what he was feeling. It proved impossible so he settled for those he could find.
"That arrogant, elitist, Gryffindor, prick!" he shouted, setting birds outside the window exploding from their perches in the trees. "How dare he! How dare he?"
Dumbledore surveyed his engorged face with curiousity. "But surely, Severus, this is good news?"
"Ready to throw his life away for Precious Potter's son," Severus seethed trough gritted teeth. "Kiss from the Dementors - why, certainly - for Perfect Potter's loathsome little sprog! But not for my son, oh no!"
"Severus, do calm down,' Dumbledore implored, beginning to look really alarmed. "Don't make me throw water on you."
"Oh, I'm calm," Snape bit out. "Deadly calm." The red flags burning on each sallow cheek belied that statement, but at least the veins had stopped popping in his forehead, and his teeth were no longer grinding quite so loudly. "It's my own fault," he continued bitterly. "For letting myself forget the kind of man I was dealing with."
"Well, to be fair it must have been quite a shock to a mind already weakened by years of confinement," Dumbledore said reasonably.
"Weakened!" Snape sneered. "That's a kind way of putting it."
"But I'm sure that given time he will come to terms with it and put it in its proper perspective."
"No, no," Snape said maliciously. "You were right, headmaster. This is the best thing that could have happened. Harry doesn't need or want that twisted, Gryffindor psychopath in his life. Let him find something else to fill his useless days until the Ministry catches up with him and administers the punishment he so richly deserves."
"He's innocent of the crimes he was accused of," Dumbledore gently reproached him.
"The crimes they accused him of," Snape said grimly. "I could add a few to the list."
"So it won't bother you if he stays on the grounds?"
"Why should it?" Snape said carelessly. "What's one more animal around the place?" He glanced at the clock and made a polite grimace. "Now, if we're done here, headmaster, could you show yourself out? I have an owlet to help feed."
Harry laughed joyously as his owl fluttered clumsily from one palm to the other, twittering and peeping persistently as it did.
"He did it!" Neville crowed. "He's going to be the best owl ever!"
"He already is," Harry said firmly, cupping both hands around the small creature proudly. "Look, his downy bits are almost gone and his dappled feathers are coming in. Hagrid said he's a Little Owl and that he's gonna be really smart and fierce."
"Maybe you can train him to be an attack owl?" Neville said breathlessly.
"Have you named him yet?" Snape asked, looking up from his papers. He kept one hand on them firmly as the cool March breeze played around them. It was a little early for sitting by the lake, but the day was so beautiful and blue that Neville and Harry had begged to eat out here and feed their tiny pet in the fresh air.
"Harry wanted to call him Mr Bunnsy," Neville giggled, covering his mouth with one hand.
"Did not," Harry said, cheeks reddening. "That was only an idea."
"It's a rabbit's name," Neville chortled.
"A speckled rabbit," Harry reminded him. "And my owl's going to be speckled. And Mr Bunnsy is pretty cool, and my owl is the coolest owl ever."
"It's still a rabbit's name," Neville chuckled.
"Anyway," Harry said repressively. "I'm still thinking of the perfect name. Hagrid is going to help. He said that the Little Owl is also known as Athene and that would make a good name. It sounds a bit sissy to me."
"It is hard when you don't know if it's a girl owl or a boy owl," Neville conceded a trifle apologetically.
Harry nodded. "What do you think, daddy?"
"I think you have plenty of time," Snape said absently.
"Look, there's Mr Lupin," Neville pointed back towards the castle. "He might have an idea." The boy stood up then shrank back onto the bench. "Look at the big doggie he has with him," he said nervously. "That's not Fang, is it?"
Snape looked up with a frown and twisted on the bench. Immediately a paper was whipped away by the wind and deposited on the ruffled surface of the lake. "Bugger!" Snape swore, although not at the errant paper now sinking with blurred ink beneath the waves. He could care less if one of his odious students had to sit the test again. He was swearing at the sight of the huge dog padding softly along by Remus Lupin's side as he made his way down to the lake shore.
"It's too big to be Fang," Harry frowned, looking a trifle nervous himself.
"It looks like that big dog that carried you away that time," Neville said, drawing his feet up now. "Doesn't it, Harry?"
Snape quirked a malicious smile as he waited for Harry to recognise the beast and set up a clamour. Would someone else hear? Would the Ministry be informed? How terrible if Sirius Black were hauled away and killed horribly because he had the gall to walk out here in broad daylight before one of his victims?
"No," Harry said firmly. "That dog was much bigger. And its eyes were yellow and its fur was all matted and gross and stuff."
"Bugger," Snape said again with a sour grimace.
"Hello, boys," Lupin called as he approached at a leisurely pace. "Severus. Enjoying your lunch?"
"Whose dog is that, Mr Lupin?" Harry asked curiously.
Snape studied the animal in question with disappointed curiosity, not surprised Harry didn't recognise it. It had obviously been ruthlessly bathed and clipped to within an inch of its life. Its teeth were white and its nose a moist healthy black. Even its claws were neatly trimmed and gleaming white. Most incongruous of all it sported a large blue bow around its neck, wide satin weave glimmering in the bright sunlight.
"My new pet, Harry," Lupin said, not meeting Snape's eye as he stood before them. "Do you like him?"
Harry grimaced a little nervously but held out one bold hand for the dog to sniff. It bent its massive head and Snape could hear the two boys hold their breath as it sniffed and snuffled the boy's small paw. Then it extended a long pink tongue and licked the slightly grubby hand wetly.
"Ooh!" Harry squeaked in delight. "He licked me!"
"He's not seeing what you taste like, is he?" Neville said nervously.
Lupin chuckled. "My dog doesn't need to eat little boys, Neville, he gets plenty of good food from the house elves." The tutor patted the smoothly trimmed head fondly. "He's especially fond of steak and kidney pie."
"Me too," Harry said. He checked the door on his owl's little cage was shut tightly, then slid off the seat and approached the huge animal fearlessly. "Hello, dog," he said. "I'm Harry. What's your name?"
The dog wrinkled its nose and then proceeded to sniff Harry again, beginning with his hair which was just on a level with his own head, and then descending to his neck and his arms. Harry squirmed and giggled under the snuffling assault.
"He's an awfully snuffly dog," he chuckled and Neville forgot his fear at the sight and slipped down to join him. The dog began to sniff the other boy too, mouth opening and long tongue lolling. He looked like he was grinning.
"Funny you should say that, Harry," Lupin said. "That's his name. Snuffles."
Snuffles stopped snuffling and slowly twisted his massive head and stared malevolently at his 'owner'. If looks could kill the tutor might have found himself a ghost on the spot. Snape felt some of his own outrage trickle away and deliberately snorted in amusement at the animals discomfiture.
"Snuffles!" Harry said in delight, beginning to pat the beast around his neck and ears. Neville joined in and the dog turned back to them and began to wag his tail at the firm pats and delighted scratchings.
"He likes it!" Neville said, rubbing behind one ear.
"He likes me," Harry said, closing one eye and half chuckling, half grimacing as a huge tongue swept his cheek once more.
"You know," Lupin said deliberately, meeting Snape's eyes for the first time. "I rather think he does."
Snape clenched his fist on the papers in his grasp and gritted his teeth. Somehow, somewhere, he had the feeling he'd been hoodwinked.
And he didn't much like it.