. . .
The heat was on, and it was not just the August sunlight that was causing it, though Sirius Black would have paid good galleons to make it so. He crouched beside a large garbage bin in a filthy alley and tried not to gag from the smell as he futilely scrubbed at his leg with a stolen wand. The former owner of the wand was a young Auror who was now taking a blunt-force trauma induced nap under a stack of newspapers in a park two blocks away. Normally, Sirius would have been laughing it up over securing himself a wand, but before he had "encouraged" the Auror to take the rest of the day off the brat had hit him with some kind of marking spell. Now his leg was glowing lurid purple.
To make matters worse, Sirius had never held a more incompatible wand. The thing was completely useless. He had been trying to dispel the mark for the better part of fifteen minutes now and had only managed to sear the edges of his already tattered pants.
"Things are looking grim, Padfoot," he muttered as he stabbed the wand at his pants again. "Well, everything but you, that is. You won't be looking like a Grim at all if you don't fix this stupid, stupid spell."
The wand erupted in a shower of sparks and he yelped as they landed in his clothes and began smoldering. He jumped up and batted them out quickly, realizing only too late that he was drawing attention to himself. There was a shout at the far end of the alley and Sirius looked up from his smoking clothes to see a red-robed wizard pointing a wand at him.
With a curse Sirius leaped over the garbage bin as a streak of red light splashed against the ground where he had just been standing. Grabbing the edge of the bin he spun it sideways and kicked it over, blocking most of the alley. He dashed out of the alley and into the street, nearly knocking over a little old lady as he did.
"Sorry ma'am!" he shouted over his should as she railed at him in a high-pitched voice about youth, bums, morals, and gardens, though how the last had anything to do with the others Sirius could not fathom. A moment later his pursuer did knock the agitated woman to the ground, and did not even stop to help her.
"Scum sucking Hit Wizard!" Sirius shouted as he dodged another red spell. Jerk did not care who saw him use magic; the stinking Ministry would cover everything up nicely later. Another barrage of spells followed his insult, fiercer than anything yet. Apparently the guy did not like being called a scum sucker. Or maybe he hated his job.
Regardless, two nearby pedestrians were hit with Stunners and several people ran into the street in a panic, nearly causing a car wreck. In the confusion that followed Sirius lost his attacker by slipping into another alley and onto the next street.
He continued to move further from the area of discovery, knowing that Aurors and Hit Wizards would shortly begin an expanding search from that point. He kept to the alleys as much as possible but was forced to cross the streets in the open often. He needed to get out of the city. Once outside he could use his animagus magic to transform into a dog and make a run for it. He longed to transform right away and embrace the safety and anonymity the form afforded him but could not as long as the glowing mark remained. The last thing he needed to do was advertise that he was an animagus by running around with a huge, gleaming sign (literally) announcing his identity.
A little more than an hour after his run-in with the Hit Wizard Sirius thought he had at last moved beyond the threat of immediate detection. Emerging from an alley, he set off down the street at a fast pace. Ahead was a road sign that indicated a highway, his ticket out of town. As he walked he pulled his coat around himself despite the heat. Once upon a time it had been a long trench coat, but that was probably in another life, before it came into possession of the bum that Sirius had nicked it from a few days ago. Now it was in ragged shape and barely covered him, but it dimmed the light of the mark somewhat. He picked up his pace, eager to reach the highway. Once there, he could inconspicuously transform and place his enchanted leg towards the guardrail. He would hug the rail all the way out of town, and no one would pay a bit of attention to a ragged old stray mutt meandering down the road.
Sirius thought it sounded like a pretty good plan. Not perfect, but so far none of his escape plans had been perfect, and yet he was still "running amok" as the Daily Prophet put it. When he buried the Auror he had taken the wand from under newspapers he had carefully arranged a copy of some Muggle paper over the man's face so that the story announcing his escape was proudly displayed. It was not a very good story, Sirius thought, since it did not mention that he was a wizard, had escaped from the most inescapable prison in history, and was ruggedly handsome. Unfortunately, he never got to test his latest plan.
A line of cars was rolling down the access road when he reached it. Sirius tapped his foot impatiently, looking furtively up and down the sidewalk as he waited for a break in traffic. Just when he thought he saw an opening approaching, movement to his left drew his attention. Not ten meters down the walk an Auror emerged from an alleyway in a flurry of robes. Sirius felt like he had swallowed his heart as he tried to hide his profile behind a streetlamp. He looked to his right and saw two more robed figures step around the next corner. None had seen him yet. Jumping out into the traffic would be a fine way to commit suicide, get caught, or worse, both at the same time. That would make a crappy obituary.
Left with no choice, he fell back three quick steps and yanked open the door of the shop behind him, ducking inside.
It was a brightly lit place, lots of white, very modern. Clean edges too, and plenty of them, because there were plenty of bookshelves. This was a bookstore.
Having no desire to be near the large display windows when the Aurors and Hit Wizards outside walked by, Sirius retreated further into the disconcertingly neat and ordered rows of books. This was nothing like the bookstores and libraries he was used to, never mind that he had not seen a book in nine years. Where were the cobwebs and spiders, the dust, the bad smell, and why was it so bloody well lit? He was not the bookish sort to begin with, and this fastidiously clean shop was setting his nerves to dancing.
Suddenly feeling quite tired as the adrenaline rush from his close brush outside began to wear, Sirius flopped down in an overstuffed chair near the back of the store. Thankfully there were no employees around to complain about his appearance and try to chase him out. As he sprawled there lazily he began to notice something very incongruous. To his left was a stack of books.
No, not just a stack of books. Several stacks. Huge stacks. He looked at the neat, orderly, shelves. He looked back at the haphazard stack of books. It was crooked, unorganized, and enormous. Almost monolithic, even. Was there another chair buried under all that?
All at once the bookstore felt a little more comfortable. Still a bit stuffy, but the little island of chaos beside him made it tolerable. He reached over and pulled a large volume off the top of the stack and found himself, quite unexpectedly, staring into a pair of wide, innocent, brown eyes. So there was a chair down there, and a little girl was sitting in it, all but obscured by the mounds of books she had piled around herself.
'What a little oddball,' Sirius thought, and liked her immediately. "You, ah, mind if I read this?" he asked, hefting the book he had picked up.
An abrupt change of attitude seemed to come over her. She eyed him suspiciously for a long (and rather uncomfortable, if anyone had asked him) moment. Finally she shook her head, her somewhat frizzy hair bouncing with the motion, and scooted further into her stack of books.
Nonplussed, Sirius looked at the book he had grabbed and felt his jaw drop.
Criminal Psychology: Crimes Against Children Vol. III
He was completely flummoxed. The book suddenly felt absurdly heavy. It might as well be titled Good Intentions, Betrayed.
He leaned back over toward the stack of books. The little girl was not reading. Just below the rim of her makeshift fortress she was staring at him intensely.
"I uh, that is...I don't like this book very much," he said lamely. "Do you mind if I choose another?"
She nodded her assent, and watched him closely as he chose a replacement. He scanned the titles very carefully before picking one up. He had never heard of Atlas Shrugged, but surely it had nothing to do with, well, that other subject.
He opened the cover.
Who is John Galt?
It had been many years since he had read anything at all. He struggled for the first few pages. The words looked like random combinations of alien glyphs which would suddenly, coyly, turn into proper English and leap at him. It was confusing and a little frightening how primitive his own mind felt, but by the time he finished the first chapter he was beginning to feel sharp again.
The book was about trains. Well, actually, he thought it might not be about trains at all, but he had not read far enough to grasp the theme. Even if it was not about trains, it was the trains that got his attention. He loved trains. All the trains the book spoke of he imagined as being red. Red dragons galloping on steel claws merrily, but also a little scary. They began as tiny dots just at the edge of one's vision, obscured a bit by the ever present fog at the station. Their claws shrieked and with their mouths pointed skyward they chugged out deep breaths of blue-black smoke. Then came the howling cry, "Choo-choo-choo, I'm coming!" and the big folk would separate themselves grudgingly from the little folk, and the little folk would line up on the platforms pretending they were entirely happy to be shut of the bigger ones. Some were acting, some were not.
He did not notice the two Aurors enter the store until they were standing right on top of him. Stupidly, instead of simply stunning him, the two of them pointed their wands at him and one yelled "Black, you're under arrest!"
Sirius looked up from his book in momentary bewilderment before his brain engaged and interpreted his current situation. Oh, bugger. He sat very still, staring at the two Aurors. Both were pointing their wands at his chest. Both were standing close together. Both wands were shaking. Sirius had to stifle a burst of laughter. Two green Aurors.
"BLAUGH!" he screamed, shooting to his feet. In the same motion he thrust his hand through the "book fortress" the bushy haired girl had built and swept his arm forward, throwing a shower of books in front of him. The two Aurors shrieked pitifully and fired Stunners at him but both spells hit flying books. It seemed the sound of their own screams must have embarrassed them to point of removing their fear, because the next moment the two had separated and dropped to one knee, carefully leveling their wands in his direction. Too little, too late, boys.
"Ah, ah ah," Sirius admonished them. "Nothing hasty now." He hugged the little girl close in front of him and tapped her lightly on the head with his stolen wand. He apologized to her silently in his head. "You wouldn't want anything nasty to happen to this cutie would you?"
As he spoke he backed slowly toward the rear of the store. A store clerk looked up from a novel as he approached the counter and squeaked in surprise.
"There a back door in this joint?" Sirius asked him. The clerk looked back and forth between Sirius and the Aurors. He seemed undecided whether to be amused at a couple of men pointing sticks at each other or terrified by, well, a couple of men pointing sticks at each other. Sirius fixed him with a glare and he decided on terrified. When he was sure he had the clerk properly cowed Sirius told him, "Run back there and open it for me, then come back up front. Any funny stuff and I start causing a ruckus, get it?"
The clerk nodded quickly and disappeared through a door marked Employees Only. He reappeared a moment later and pointed nervously behind him. "It's open."
Sirius backed around the counter, making sure to hold the girl between himself and the Aurors. He kicked the door open and could see another door standing ajar further back, the dirty brick of a back alley clearly visible. Mustering up the most evil voice he could manage he reached out with his wand and tapped the clerk on the arm and muttered "Exspecto Incendia." He was pleased with the effect it had. Shoot, it even sounded scary to his ears. The two Aurors blanched ghostly white and the clerk jerked a bit, uncertain what had happened. "Take care of him for me fellas," he called cheerily as he shut the door.
The moment the door clicked shut the girl bit him on the wrist, hard.
"Yow!" he shrieked, dropping her. He caught her again by the back of her coat before her feet hit the ground. "Watch it ya little brat, I'm delicate!"
"Let me go pervert!" she cried, kicking at him futilely from arm's length.
"I'm not a pervert!" he shot back. "And I take offense at that!"
Still holding her at arm's length he rushed out the back door and into the alley. She continued to berate him shrilly. "Deviant! Molester! Degenerate! Profligate!"
"Would you please shut up!" Sirius moaned. "And what the heck is a profligate?"
The girl looked at him strangely. "You're really stupid too," she observed, and immediately added that to her repertoire. "Stupid! Delinquent! Bottom-feeder!"
"Seriously, I need you to be quiet for a few minutes, can't you do that!"
"I won't be quiet! Help! It's a pedophile! Help! Child endangerment!"
"Ok! Ok! Look! I'm letting you go!" Sirius cried in desperation as he set her on the ground. "Just run along and don't make any more-"
Just as he set the girl down an Auror peeked into the alleyway, obviously drawn by the screams.
"Scratch that, I'll let you go later!" he amended as he snatched her up again.
Sirius ignored her taunt and sprinted at the Auror with his wand to her head. "Out of the way or I do something terrible!" he shouted in as desperate a voice as he could manage. Not difficult, since he figured his desperation on a scale of 1 to 10 was sitting at a tentative 10,000.
The Auror jumped aside and let him pass and Sirius thanked his lucky stars that it was another green looking kid. As he ducked onto the next street a glare in the sky cast his shadow on the sidewalk in front of him. A red flare rose above the rooftops. Apparently the kid was not green enough to forget to call for backup. Drat.
Running full tilt down the sidewalk, dodging confused looking pedestrians and trying to keep uncovered parts of his arms away from the girl's mouth (unsuccessfully, to his great discomfort; who knew little girls had such sharp teeth?), he knew he would not last long. Any moment now Aurors would be on him like a crooked politician on a Malfoy or a Muggle police officer would stop him wanting to know why a scruffy looking bum was man-handling a well dressed schoolgirl. On top of that, he was tiring badly. In the last week he had eaten only what he could catch as a dog (mostly rats and squirrels) or what he could salvage from rubbish bins (he preferred the rats and squirrels, actually) and it was taking a toll on his already emaciated body.
Lady Luck was still smiling at him though (or laughing, but he was not going to call her on it) and he at last saw his way to freedom in the form of a large drainage ditch. He jumped the railing and sprinted into the dark culverts, ignoring the icy bite of the ankle deep water. Around twenty minutes later he was finally outside the city.
The ditch emptied into a canal, and an overpass a few meters from where he emerged promised a bit of shelter. Once he was underneath, he unceremoniously dumped the girl onto the ground and collapsed into a heap, clutching at his burning chest. He laid there for a long time, and when he looked up the girl was staring at him.
"What are you still doing here?" he asked.
"Last time you let me go you were lying," she accused. "How do I know this isn't some sort of trick?"
"Last time was a special case. And look, really, I apologize about all of this. Now scram."
"Just like that?" She still wore an expression of extreme suspicion.
"Just like that."
"I'm going to go straight to the police."
"Whatever floats yer boat missy."
She hesitated, still torn between relief and disbelief. "What's that stick?" she asked.
"Stick?" Sirius responded, confused by the sudden change of pace.
"Yes, that stick you're holding. You've been pointing it at me all day and those funny looking men seemed scared of it. It's some kind of weapon isn't it? Like a taser. You're going to use it on me as soon as I turn my back on you, I just know it."
"I don't even know what a tay-zur is," Sirius complained. "And I'm not going to use this on you. It's a wand. You know, for casting magic. But it's completely useless to me. I can't even use it."
She looked at him as though he had grown an additional head. "You're completely batty! Magic? Aren't you a little old for fairy tales?"
"I'm not batty!" Sirius retorted, but withered a bit under her incredulous glare. "Well, ok, I am a bit batty. Maybe a little doggy too, haha! But seriously, I'm a wizard and this is my ... well, it's not mine, but it is a wand."
If skepticism could be given human form and placed in front of him it could not have been more skeptical than the look the girl was giving him. In fact, her entire bearing said, quite clearly, "You're an idiot." Her eyes were especially bad. They said, "You're a bleeding idiot. You're stupider than a sack of hammers. You fell out of the stupid tree and hit every..."
"Arrgh! That's it!" Sirius shouted. "I'll prove it to you!"
"I thought you couldn't use it," she retorted smugly.
"Oh I'll make it work," he growled.
She just lifted an eyebrow in response, which infuriated Sirius all the more. He bent and picked up a rock and made a show of setting it down in front of her. He sucked a deep breath through his nose and gave his wand a swish and a flick and said-
-never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said 's' instead of 'f' and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.
James said something extremely off color and both of them ended up in detention because they could not stop laughing.
As James was passing Harry to him he said "He'll be hung like Flitwick's buffalo," and Sirius spit his punch all over Lily's clean rug and she ran all three of them out of the house. Harry pooed his nappy and James was begging at the window to be let back in, but Lily threw a fresh cloth at him and hit him in the face. They were laughing so hard that James tied the new one on without wiping the boy's bottom and had to beg at the window for another.
The girl was looking at him strangely.
"Sorry," Sirius said. "Been a while, you know? Had to remember the spell." He wiped at his eyes discreetly. He wasn't crying was he? He was relieved to find them dry.
Clenching his teeth he swished his wand again and cried "Wingardium Leviosa!"
Nothing happened. The rock sat exactly where he put it. Rocks couldn't be smug could they?
"Wingardium Leviosa!" he shouted again, a little more determined this time. Again, nothing.
The girl shifted her weight and placed her hands on her hips somewhat imperiously. Sirius did not dare look at her face. He blew out a frustrated breath. Setting his jaw stubbornly he spread his feet, raised the wand above his head, gave it a mighty SWISH!, a mighty FLICK!, and bellowed "Confound it, WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA!"
Black smoke billowed from the wand tip. The shaft grew hot in his hand. Really hot. Really, extremely hot. He tried to throw it down but found his hand would not open.
"Aiiiie, it's hot, it's hot! Auugh, I'm burning!" he shrieked, shaking his hand around wildly.
He was trying to pry the fingers of his right hand open when he heard the girl say, "There's quite a bit of water right beside you." He dashed to the bank of the canal and plunged his hand into the water and immediately steam erupted into his face. The water cooled the wand and unlocked his fingers. He angrily threw the wand into the mud and blew on his hand miserably.
"If you're going to carry a weapon at least know how to use it," the girl sighed behind him.
"I do know how to use it," Sirius snapped sullenly. "It's not my fault this wand is rubbish. And that should prove it, that I'm a wizard, and that's a wand, and ... blast it, why are you still here? Clear out darling. If I wanted you to stay I'd have conked you over the head or something."
She backed away a few steps.
"And take this stupid thing with you. It's caused me more grief than good," he groused, and tossed the wand at her. She caught it reflexively.
The moment the wand touched her hand a shower of sparks blazed from the tip. The girl yelped in surprise and dropped it. Sirius felt his jaw drop. "Y-y-y-you're a witch!" he sputtered.
"I am not a witch!" she shot back, sounding aggrieved.
"No no no! I mean, I'm a wizard, and you're a witch! That is, you can use magic!" he explained excitedly. She had to be younger than 11 years old. What were the odds that he would pick up an unidentified witch in a city full of Muggles?
She stared at the wand is disbelief. "I-it's a trick," she said shakily. "That's just some kind of fancy taser."
"Does it look fancy to you?"
That stumped her. "Uh, well..."
"Pick it up. Go on, don't be shy."
She shot a pointed look at his wand hand, which was sporting a wand-shaped streak that was the stark white and red that characterized minor burns. He shook it somewhat self-consciously. "Haha, don't worry about this. I don't think it will burn you. The only time I could get it to make sparks like that was when I didn't want to."
Cautiously she squatted next to the wand and poked it nervously with one finger. When nothing happened she snatched it up quickly and held it out as though she expected it to explode.
"Think about magic and give it a good shake," Sirius told her.
"About magic?" she asked uncertainly. She bit her lip fretfully and gave the wand a little wave. Another shower of sparks jumped from the tip and she yelped again, but did not drop the wand.
"See there?" Sirius said cheerily. "Nothing to worry about." He clapped his hands together briskly. "Now how about learning a real spell?"
The wide eyed amazement in her face answered his question. "I bet you can do that one I was trying. Here, we'll even use the same rock."
"What is that spell supposed to do?" she asked breathlessly.
"It makes things float," Sirius answered. "Now, you're going to give the wand a little swish and a flick and say 'Wingardium Leviosa' while thinking about making this rock float. Think you can?"
He demonstrated the motions with his hand and then pointed to the rock. Her first couple of tries were shaky and produced absolutely squat, but when the rock jumped perceptibly she gave a very girly shriek of glee.
"It really is magic, isn't it?" she gushed. "Oh, this is so amazing! Why aren't there any books about this!"
Sirius laughed at that. "There are libraries so big you can't see either end with nothing but books about this!"
When she heard that her eyes grew as large and luminous as little moons. "I want to go," she said dreamily, already gazing off into the distance as though she could see it.
"Well, when you turn eleven you'll get your Hogwarts letter and then-"
"Eleven!" she interrupted, suddenly coming back from whatever mental orbit she had been in. "That's next year! I can't wait until next year!"
"Patience is a virtue," Sirius intoned sagely. "Every kid has to wait until they're eleven."
"Who are the people you are running from?" she asked.
"That's ... wait, what?" She had switched gears on him again. Where was she going this time?
"You're running from those funny looking men. Why?"
"Well ... those are Aurors. They're like Mugg- er, well, they're like police. And as for why I'm running?" Sirius hesitated with his answer. What was she asking, and why was he answering? What was he answering? "I was ... accused ... of a crime," he said slowly.
"Were you convicted?"
"I was sent to prison," he answered.
She thought about this for a few moments. Sirius was pretty sure if he could see into her head there would actually be gears grinding out answers in an information factory. There was something about the way this girl spoke, how she asked questions, how she was able to perform magic (however weak it might have been) within minutes of learning of its existence that suggested to Sirius that he might be dealing with a child prodigy of some kind.
Coming out of deep thought she gave him a smirk and said, "That's not what I asked."
Sirius sighed. Definitely a prodigy. She had cut through his misdirection to the heart of the matter. "There was no trial," he said. Saying it out loud hurt more than he thought it would.
"No trial!" she exclaimed incredulously. "You can't send a person to prison without a trial!"
Sirius laughed bitterly. "Tell that to the people who put me there. Speaking of whom, I've wasted too much time here already. Go home, read a book, practice your levitation spell, and look forward to your Hogwarts letter. Oh, and drink a cup o' hot cocoa for me."
"What were you accused of?"
"Wha- I'm not kidding here, scram kid!"
"Don't want to."
"You've gotta be shi ... Ugh, I mean, I can't believe this. You do realize I'm a convict right? Convicts aren't nice people. I could kill you and dump the body. Leave. Now."
"I'm not worried about that. You're innocent."
"I- What ... did you say?"
"You're innocent," she repeated calmly, as though she had no idea what those words meant to him.
"You can't just arbitrarily decide that!" Sirius shouted at her. "How do you know?"
"I don't know. I just do."
How she managed to sound snooty while making such a nonsensical declaration of ignorance Sirius could not figure out, but she did. He wanted to argue her down, send her packing like he knew he should but ... nine years in Azkaban and finally, finally, someone who would speak the words "You're innocent," to him. He sat down on the bank of the canal, feeling as though he had lost a battle he did not know he was fighting. Was this girl also a Seer, to have such certainty?
The girl had that thoughtful look again. "No man would be thrown into prison without a trial unless the people putting him there thought he would be found innocent," she said. "Additionally, you don't act anything like a man guilty of a crime. Uh, not that I've known many criminals. Well ... I haven't known any at all, but that's beside the point ... isn't it? Anyway, I believe you're innocent."
Sirius put his head in his hands. Not a Seer, then. Just a precocious brat with a disturbing knack for logic. The feeling that he should get rid of her as quickly as possible, for her own sake, returned, but instead he found himself doing something he did not expect.
"I've never spoken these words aloud before," he said tiredly. "I was accused..." he broke off, unable to continue. It was still so hard.
"I've changed my mind," the girl said quietly. "Since you're innocent, it doesn't matter what you were accused of. You don't need to say it."
The out she provided for him was tempting, but suddenly it seemed as though speaking the source of his misery was important. "I was accused of betraying my best friend and his wife to their deaths, and murdering a bunch of people."
As the words left his lips he felt something leave with them, something dark and vicious that had been chewing at his insides for nine long years.
"Is that why you're so intent on escaping that you'll commit real crimes to get away?" the girl asked.
"No. I was content to rot there. I mean, what did I have left, yeah? But ... damn that Dumbledore for an incompetent ass!"
The girl frowned at his language and gave him an expectant look.
"Pardon m' French," Sirius mumbled, which seemed to mollify her. "Anyway, I found out that my godson, Harry, disappeared. Harry is James and Lily's son ... James and Lily were my friends who were ... killed. There're a lot of people who would pay in blood to see Harry dead. I thought he was supposed to be safe, with Dumbledore watching him and all, but ... how the bloody hell do you just lose the Boy Who Lived! The Boy Who Lived!"
"I don't get that last part, but you want to find him and help him, right?"
"That's right. I don't trust anyone else to do it right, so it's up to me." Sirius looked her over for a moment. "Come to think of it, he's your age."
"Hmm, well then, it's decided. I'm going to help," the girl stated authoritatively.
Sirius boggled at her. "A-absolutely out of the question! I'm not taking you with me!"
The girl smiled slyly at him. Sirius saw the gears turning again. Oh, not good.
"Who said anything about you taking me? You're going to convince my parents to let me go with you."
Sirius' frustrated cry warbled mournfully down the canal.
In the distance, a dog barked.
. . . . . .
Oh not good. Oh not good. Oh not good.
Sirius clamped his teeth tight to keep his jaw from chattering and stared resolutely into Dr. Granger's eyes.
'I haven't told you? It's Hermione Granger. Ah, Hermione Jean Granger. Having the middle name makes it sound important. No, no, the 'i' goes before the 'o.' Spell it how it's pronounced!'
Dr. Granger lowered his eyes and looked back at the letter in his hands, reading it carefully. The phony Hogwarts acceptance letter that Sirius had penned himself just an hour earlier. He desperately wanted to use the momentary break in eye contact to slap at the cold sweat that was trickling down the back of his neck, but Hermione's mother was standing next to her husband and she was not taking her eyes off him.
I swear I'm not a pervert! Oh, I want to be a dog. I want to be a happy dog and romp in the sunshine and eat old hamburgers out of garbage bins and-
"Professor ... White, was it?" Dr. Granger inquired slowly. Was that suspicion in his voice?
"YES!" Sirius barked hysterically. All three Grangers jumped. He rushed on, trying to fill the gap before an awkward silence rushed in. "Orion White, Professor of Arithmancy." He had wanted to say 'Defense Against the Dark Arts,' but Hermione had vetoed it saying, 'Don't be silly. We need something respectable sounding. Now what other classes are taught there?'
"Arithmancy?" Dr. Granger asked, obviously seeking clarification.
"It's the study of the relationship between magic and numbers," Sirius answered easily. Please don't ask anymore! I never took Arithmancy! I failed any test remotely related to it! I failed most tests period!
"I see..." Dr. Granger said speculatively. He eyed Sirius up and down, again. Sirius tried not to fidget in his cheap suit. Hermione had bought it for him for a few pounds at a charity outlet. It was a little worn, but not terribly shabby. A shower and shave at a service station along the highway had completed the transformation from scruffy escaped convict to pale, thin, Arithmancy professor. Hermione had pulled most of the kinks out of his wild, untamed hair and braided it. It was a little lopsided, but when he looked in the mirror he scarcely recognized himself. And that was good, because this little shenanigan depended on it.
Dr. Granger was speaking again. "It says here that Hermione has been selected for an Early Entrance program available to children of non-magical parents, but the starting date is listed as August 1st. Today is the 9th. Is there a reason for the delay?"
This was part of the plan, a red herring meant to both reveal that magic was not perfect, and to serve as a distraction from any true plot holes.
"Even magical systems aren't immune to failure," Sirius answered. "We have to actively search for magical children born among the Muggle population. Miss Granger slipped through the net until the last moment. Normally she would have to enroll at the start of term, but she took her Key Stage 2 mock SAT recently, correct?" Her parents nodded, both of them sporting small smiles. "When I saw the results I just had to bend the procedure a bit."
He was gambling on the last part. As he and Hermione discussed the holes in their plan she had been perfectly willing to tell him all about the practice exam she had taken. There was only one problem. She spoke endlessly about her failures, her perceived failures, about the questions she may not have answered "completely correct," but she had not said one word about the questions she got right. She seemed uncomfortable with the topic. Nor would she talk about her overall performance. Sirius knew the girl was brilliant, but it seemed that she only saw her shortcomings. Regardless, he felt like he was taking no big risk betting on her test results. If the girl was half as intelligent as he thought she was, they had to be astounding.
He was not disappointed. Hermione's mother immediately turned to her and said, "See honey, I told you you did fine!"
Hermione did something very surprising. She glared at the floor with a petulant look. "That Emerson boy beat me," she mumbled, obviously humiliated. "I botched my fractions and didn't have time to triple check the maths portion. I messed it up!"
'At last she acts like a child," Sirius thought. 'Though now that I've seen it I wish I hadn't.' She was so disappointed in herself.
Her parents both smiled brightly at him, but Sirius didn't miss the quicksilver flash of matching grimaces the smiles hid. There was a moment of silence both awkward and familiar. Neither tried to correct her; this was obviously an old song and dance to them. Besides, after teaching a child all their lives to always strive to be right, how do you tell them it is okay to be wrong?
Despite their unmistakable unhappiness in their inability to console their exceptional daughter Sirius recognized a gleam in their eyes he was well acquainted with. How many times had he seen that look directed at his brother? Hermione's parents were stunningly proud of her. Proud in the way that Sirius' own parents had never been proud of him. He felt his stomach tighten threateningly. Could he really do this? Take a child from her parents who loved her, simply because he wanted someone to talk to?
Of course, Hermione had convinced him that she could help him in his quest. She had rambled on about countless different plans, tricks, and strategies that she could pull off and he could not the whole time she was picking out his new suit in the run down little charity store. She hadn't let his shower interrupt her either. She perched on a nasty old bench outside his stall and chattered away, apparently unconcerned that she was on the men's side of the showers and completely deaf to his demands that she wait somewhere, anywhere, else. She continued with hardly a pause for breath as she braided his hair. She seemed to believe that if she missed a single moment to bend his ear that he would change his mind. Truthfully, she was probably right. The whole affair was wrong on so many levels, but nine years in Azkaban made it difficult to remember what was considered "right" and "wrong."
"Normally," Sirius thrust into the melancholy silence, "this is where the professor would demonstrate magic in order to convince the parents of the reality of this offer. This time, however, I think I will ask your daughter to be the demonstrator." Hermione looked up to meet his eyes. This was part of the plan, given that he could not use the wand, but seeing her self-reproach Sirius was determined to make it more. He passed her the wand.
"Now Ms. Granger," Sirius said to her in what he imagined to be a teacher's tone of voice. "I'm going to teach you a simple spell taught to all first year students." He proceeded to go through the motions of teaching her the Wingardium Leviosa spell. When he was done he placed a cup coaster which had been lying on the coffee table in front of her.
"I'd like you to levitate this coaster," he said. "This spell requires a certain amount of control, which I cannot teach you. You must feel that out on your own. Too much force could send your target through the ceiling. Too little and it may tip, spin, or otherwise do something you don't want it to. Try it."
Hermione hesitantly raised the wand and pointed it at the coaster. Her hands were shaking and she refused to meet Sirius' eyes. He bit back a word of encouragement and now her eyes did meet his. They were uncertain, questioning. He gazed back with no change in expression. His quiet vote of confidence seemed to steady her. She swished the wand, flicked it, and clearly spoke "Wingardium Leviosa."
The coaster shuddered a bit and rose to hover about six inches in the air. Twin gasps from her parents startled her and she dropped it, but the magic had been worked. Hermione turned quickly to her parents, seeking approval.
"That was ... was," her father seemed at a loss for words. Her mother was slightly more articulate. "That was amazing sweetheart." Hermione beamed.
"She's not done yet," Sirius interjected. Three pairs of eyes turned to him – two with expectation, one with trepidation. Sirius grinned at Hermione's relapse into hesitancy. That lack of confidence irritated him. He was going to squash it.
"There is a difference between levitating a small object and a large object," he informed Hermione. "Not a terribly large one, but there's a reason students don't go around levitating castles. They're quite heavy, and the amount of control necessary increases with size and weight."
He placed his heels together, grasped his left hand with his right in front of his hips, and tilted his head upward. "Now Ms. Granger, levitate me."
Hermione's mother broke in. "Are you sure that's quite – "
Sirius held up a hand to still her concerns and resumed his former posture.
"The Early Entrance program is for talented students," he said, emphasizing the word. "I have absolute faith in your daughter's abilities." And for the first time since he walked through the Granger's front door, he was not lying – because he did.
She did it quickly, as though she did not want to lose her nerve. Sirius heard her incant the spell and felt himself rise. The hair on top of his head tickled as it brushed the ceiling, but he did not bump his head. He immediately began to descend as Hermione tried to put him down, but he stopped her with a quick command. He instantly quit sinking.
"Before you set me down, move me a few meters in a direction of your choice," he commanded her. "Then set me down."
She did not respond. The tip of her tongue was visible where she had it clenched between her prominent front teeth in concentration. Sirius floated gently towards the couch and then to the floor. His feet touched without a whisper. Immediately Hermione thrust the wand at him, lest he come up with some other nerve wracking test for her.
"Well done Ms. Granger," he said quietly as he took the wand from her hand. "Full marks."
She favored him with such a smile that the whole room seemed to light up. She was a gangly little creature, as all children tend to be. His godson Harry was her age. Sirius only remembered a gurgling tot, but that little baby's smile had the same effect on any room he had cared to reveal it in. He wondered if Harry looked anything like Hermione, with her big teeth, unruly hair, and eager and uncertain expressions. Was he alive? Was he well?
Sirius stepped back as Hermione's parents crowded her, showering her with praise. The little girl soaked it up but Sirius saw no conceit in her. Each commendation seemed a surprise to her.
Thirty minutes later, after a few more half-truths and outright lies, Hermione was skipping ahead of him as her waving parents, standing on the sidewalk outside their house, vanished around a corner.
"It's not too late to go back," he said to her. "You could make up any story you like and they would believe it. You're good at it. I could tell you how to contact real Hogwarts teachers. You could say a real goodbye to your parents and all your friends at school."
Hermione stopped skipping. "I don't have any friends," she said sadly. "I don't want to go back to my old school. I'm a witch, and I want to start being one right now!" She punctuated her statement with a defiant stomp of her foot.
No friends huh? "But if you contacted a real teacher – "
"You need my help don't you? Your godson is in danger, right?" Hermione pressed him.
"Yeah," Sirius admitted.
"So where are we going first?"
Sirius pondered this. The Department of Secrets was full of prophecies. Was there one there about him? Was Fate at the rudder of his life even now, directing its strange and unpredictable course?
"Hogwarts," he answered. "I have a bone to pick with the Headmaster."
He thought about this statement. "A bone to pick, haha! Shall I bury it once I've picked it? Ha ha ha!"
Hermione looked at him like he was crazy.
. . . . . .
Oh lawds, an update? It occurred to me as I wrote this why Rowling never bothered to reveal how Muggle parents are convinced to let their children attend a magic school which, as far as we know, they are never allowed to even see (shortly after being convinced that magic is, in fact, real after all). There are too many bloody hurdles to jump. It's easier to just suspend our disbelief.
Additionally, does anyone appreciate how hard it is to write about a 30-year-old convict taking a 10-year-old girl on an adventure without detouring into Have-a-seat-over-there territory? It's lampshaded a bit for fun in Hermione's initial accusations, but analyzing each and every word, right down to the articles and prepositions, to avoid trips into Creepville is a rather exhausting exercise. That's no excuse for how long it took to write this, but I'm going to use it anyway.
That aside, Sirius has bitten off far more than he can chew. Have fun watching him squirm.