Author's Note: This story is set during the summer of the Quidditch World Cup. It was written before Goblet of Fire was published, and hence is not consistent with post-Prisoner of Azkaban continuity.
Although it was Harry Potter's fourteenth birthday, he didn't feel much like celebrating. This wasn't really the fault of his relatives the Dursleys. They were ignoring this birthday as completely as they'd done all the others since Harry started at Hogwarts, but he'd been expecting that, and at least this year they weren't forcing him to put up with any guests.
Nor had his friends from Hogwarts forgotten him. A flock of owls had been by earlier that night; the cards they'd brought -- from Ron, Hermione, Hagrid and Professor Lupin -- were lined up on his bedside table ... and Harry wished he could trade them all for a single scrap of parchment from his godfather, Sirius Black. Sirius had promised to write again soon in his last letter, delivered to the Hogwarts Express at the beginning of the summer, but over a month had gone by with no word from him.
At first, Harry hadn't been especially concerned. He knew that Sirius was on the run from the Ministry of Magic and might have difficulties using owl post. The Dursleys kept Harry almost completely out of touch with the magical world over the summer, but as the Muggle government was in on the search too, Harry felt sure that any progress would be reported on the evening news. He'd been watching it of night all summer (to Uncle Vernon's great annoyance) and so far there had been no mention of Sirius Black.
As the days turned to weeks, however, Harry had grown more worried. It wasn't just the Ministry of Magic from which Sirius was in danger. To prove his innocence, Sirius had to find Peter Pettigrew, who would in turn be seeking out his master, Lord Voldemort. If Sirius had encountered Pettigrew or Voldemort and come off worse, Harry doubted that anyone involved would send a press release to the Daily Prophet.
Harry had resolved that if he didn't hear from Sirius before his birthday, he'd have to do something to find out why not. So when his birthday cards -- but still no message from his godfather -- had arrived, Harry sent a note back with Ron's tiny owl, asking Ron to see if his father had heard anything more about Sirius. Mr Weasley worked for the Ministry of Magic and would presumably know of any information being kept from the general public.
Harry then set his alarm clock so he could slip downstairs next morning and phone Hermione before the Dursleys woke up. Hermione didn't have an owl of her own, but she did have a subscription to the Daily Prophet, and, knowing her, read it front page to back every morning. Hermione was the cleverest witch Harry knew; if anything had been reported in the wizarding newspaper that might explain what was up with Sirius, she would have noticed and remembered it.
Nonetheless, Harry was hoping he wouldn't have to risk calling her at all. If the Dursleys caught him at it, they'd likely be angry enough to stop him visiting Ron for the Quidditch World Cup. Sirius might simply be having trouble finding an owl, or writing materials, and Harry had taken steps to solve that problem too. After scribbling 'Been worried, please write' near the top of a blank piece of parchment, he had wrapped it around a Muggle pen, bound the lot to Hedwig's leg and told her to go and find Sirius.
Now, Harry thought as he slumped back onto his pillow, he could do nothing more but wait ...
Harry was jerked awake by the sound of Hedwig's wrathful screech as she came swooping back through the open window. Bits of what looked like cobweb clung to her wings and body, and she was missing several tail feathers. The pen and parchment were still tied to one leg. The talons of the other were coated with blood.
Hedwig herself didn't appear to be injured. The wisps of greyish stuff stuck to her feathers dissolved the second Harry touched them. Once they were gone she soon calmed down; Harry, on the other hand, went from worried to panicked. Clearly something had gone very badly wrong for Sirius ... but what? At that moment Harry would have given anything to be able to talk to owls as well as snakes. As he couldn't, there was nothing else for it but to go and have a look himself.
He dressed quickly, stole down the stairs, picked the lock on the cupboard underneath, got his wand, broomstick and Invisibility Cloak from his trunk and raced back up to his room. His intention was to send Hedwig to find Sirius again, this time following behind her. Hedwig, however, flatly refused to cooperate. She dug her claws stubbornly into the window-sill, and when Harry himself tried to go out the window, she flew up and dived at his face, driving him back into the room.
'Hedwig, let me out,' Harry whispered urgently. 'If Sirius is in trouble, I have to go and help him.'
Hedwig hooted sympathetically, hopped onto his shoulder and nibbled his ear, but still wouldn't let him near the window. Harry finally gave it up and went to sit dejectedly on the edge of the bed. Even if he did manage to get past Hedwig, he'd no real chance of finding Sirius without her. The more he thought about it, the less certain he was that he should try.
Hedwig wouldn't be acting this way without a good reason. If Sirius had got away from -- from whatever it was, he no longer needed Harry's help. If Harry went looking for Sirius, he might very well end up leading something back to him, or getting caught himself. It was also entirely possible that the creature that had attacked Hedwig had nothing to do with Sirius.
Harry lay down again and tried to get back to sleep, but other, less comforting thoughts kept intruding. If the thing Hedwig had encountered wasn't after Sirius, why hadn't the owls that brought his birthday cards been attacked too? And what sort of beast was it? The webs suggested some kind of spider, and Aragog and his relatives were definitely big enough to eat an owl. But surely their webs wouldn't simply vanish when touched? No ordinary spider Harry had ever squashed had had red blood, either.
Harry went over in his mind every terrifying monster he'd studied in Defence Against the Dark Arts, to no avail. More horrible than any of them was the possibility that Hedwig didn't want him going to help Sirius, because Sirius was already dead.
It was nearly morning before Harry at last fell asleep. He slept through the clock's alarm, only to be woken by Aunt Petunia's voice calling Dudley to lunch. Harry stumbled downstairs and choked down his food, neither speaking to nor being spoken to by the Dursleys. Once finished, he went straight up to his room. A little while later he heard Dudley and Uncle Vernon going out the front door and the sound of the car starting.
Harry spent the next hour stretched out on his bed, brooding pointlessly over the events of the previous night. If only he'd woken up in time to call Hermione ... surely she'd be able to figure out what was going on. It suddenly occurred to Harry that he had a perfect opportunity to call Hermione right now. Dudley and Uncle Vernon were gone, and as Aunt Petunia spent as much time spying on the neighbours as doing the washing-up, she'd probably still be at it.
Harry had just swung his legs off the bed when the doorbell sounded. He drew a sharp breath of frustration. There would be no chance of using the telephone until whoever it was had gone. After what had happened to Aunt Marge last summer, the Dursleys had become even stricter about keeping him away from visitors. He only hoped it wasn't Aunt Petunia's friend Yvonne. Harry knew from bitter experience that the two of them could gossip for hours on end, and if he so much as showed his face downstairs with her in the house, he didn't even like to think about the row that would follow.
A great shriek of terror from Aunt Petunia brought Harry's gloomy reflections to a halt. 'Sirius!' he whispered joyfully, as he leapt off the bed and shot out of his room -- only to stop short in astonishment at the top of the stairs. It wasn't Sirius Black who stood looming on the threshold before the cowering Aunt Petunia. It was, rather, the last person Harry would have wanted or expected to have visit him for his birthday: Professor Severus Snape.
Aunt Petunia let out another ear-splitting screech, even longer and louder than the first. Snape stared at her, looking slightly taken aback. Whilst many students at Hogwarts lived in fear of his sharp tongue and foul temper, not even Neville Longbottom was reduced to hysterics by his mere presence. Moreover, Snape seemed to have made a deliberate attempt to appear inconspicuous by wearing Muggle clothes.
Unfortunately, the particular items of clothing he'd chosen (as the closest match for his usual black wizarding robes, Harry suspected) had exactly the opposite effect. With his greasy shoulder-length hair, sallow complexion and menacing demeanour, Snape would not have been a reassuring sight to Aunt Petunia under any circumstances. Dressed in black jeans, black Doc Martens and a black trench coat, he looked as though he'd been sent by a sinister terrorist organisation to kill James Bond.
As Aunt Petunia had no way of knowing who Snape was, Harry couldn't blame her for screaming. Snape wasn't so understanding. He surveyed Aunt Petunia with mounting irritation. As she drew breath to shriek yet again, he clicked his fingers and the sound of her voice cut off in mid-screech.
Aunt Petunia clutched at her throat. Snape took a step towards her. Aunt Petunia turned and ran, fast as her legs could carry her, up the stairs, past Harry and into her bedroom, still screaming silently. The door slammed and Harry heard what sounded like a large piece of furniture being shoved in front of it.
Harry turned back to Snape, who was gazing up at him with such an enraged expression that for an instant Harry seriously considered running into his own room and dragging something heavy in front of the door. But it would take more than a chest of drawers to keep Snape out, and if the Dursleys discovered who he was, they were certain to blame Harry for the whole situation. He had to get rid of Snape before Uncle Vernon got back.
Harry began walking slowly down the stairs. It would help if he had some idea why Snape was there. Harry hadn't got his Hogwarts letter yet; perhaps one of the school owls had been attacked too and Snape had come to investigate. If so, he'd obviously made up his mind that Harry was in some way responsible, and wasn't likely to be persuaded otherwise.
Harry reached the bottom of the stairs and started down the hall. Snape swept into the house. The front door slammed magically shut behind him, hard enough to rattle the windows. Before Harry could say anything, Snape thrust a hand into his pocket and pulled out a piece of parchment.
'You've been writing to him, haven't you?' he snarled. 'You stupid boy, do you want to be murdered?'
Harry stared at the parchment, then at the half-healed scratches on Snape's hand.
'You've been taking his letters!' he yelled, torn between outrage and relief.
Harry snatched the piece of parchment away from Snape and skimmed his eyes over it.
Dear Harry ... hope this finds you well ... should have thrown the Ministry off the trail ... Buckbeak safely hidden ... will try to visit for your birthday ... let me know what plans you have ... Sirius
'He's coming to kill you, Potter, just as he killed your parents,' hissed Snape.
'He's not -- he didn't --' Harry shouted, so furious he could barely speak. 'D'you think I'm still Confunded, after two months?'
Snape gave Harry a look of utter loathing. 'I think you're exactly like your father,' he said softly. 'Too arrogant to admit you were Confunded ... too arrogant to admit you could be wrong. If he had listened to me, he'd still be alive today --'
'Told him not to trust Pettigrew, did you?' said Harry coldly. 'Does Dumbledore know you're here?'
The effect of this question on Snape was frightening. His sallow face went closer to white than Harry would have imagined possible, and the look in his eyes ... Harry backed away. He'd thought he'd seen Snape at his angriest last year in the hospital wing after Sirius escaped. Clearly, he had been mistaken ...
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.