"Freak! Give my ball!" Harry stared at Dudley, unblinking. His whale of a cousin swatted at him with a pudgy hand, and then pushed him. Harry stumbled backwards a little, and found a wall there, helpfully preventing him from falling.
"Give!" repeated Dudley, more insistent. Harry glanced to one side, through the dark pane of glass set in the kitchen door, and facing out into the garden. It was dark outside, save for the bright moon hanging in the sky, as round and silver as a freshly minted coin.
Bushes rustled. The whale howled. Harry shuddered.
"Muuuum! Harry threw my ball outside and he won't go get it!"
Harry stared at Dudley, wishing that, for once, Aunt Petunia would disregard the obvious lie. She had seen Dudley abandon it outside hours ago, when Harry hadn't even left the house. It was, as always, too much to hope. She was Dudley's mother, not his, and never let him forget it. No reply came from upstairs, but the heavy thumps on the stairs indicated that Uncle Vernon was coming to investigate. Harry bit his lip nervously. Uncle Vernon was almost as bad as Dudley and a whole lot bigger. He really did think that he should go outside and get the ball, but it was so dark outside that he couldn't bring himself to. There was nothing out there that was scary, just a few bushes and an autumn breeze.
Uncle Vernon heaved his bulky frame through the door, and glared down at Harry.
"What's all this noise about, boy?" Harry thought it was terribly unfair that everything was his fault, even though it had been Dudley making the noise, but one look at Uncle Vernon, towering more than twice as high as him and four times as wide, made him swallow any complaints that he had left in him.
"Nothing, Uncle Vernon. I'm getting the ball." Uncle Vernon let out a derisive snort, and stomped over to the fridge. Harry looked outside again. It seemed even darker, now, and the clink of glass as Uncle Vernon pulled a bottle out of the fridge seemed to have an ominous undertone. He took a step towards the door, and then hesitated, only to fall flat on his face. He picked himself up immediately, and turned to see Dudley standing there in a position similar to his father's, with an equally ugly leer on his face. Harry swallowed nervously, and reached up, setting his hand on the door handle, and struggling to pull it open, before being pushed roughly aside.
"Idiot boy! You'll break the door!"
Harry let out a yelp at the sudden sound of his uncle's voice in his ear and the unexpected shove. His uncle pulled a key out of his pocket, and unlocked the door, before turning away and wandering into the living room. Harry heard the lively music of a television show starting, and wished that he could go sit in his cupboard and listen instead. It was warm in there.
Not a chance. He knew that, and twisted the door handle. The key was still in the lock, left by Uncle Vernon, no doubt, so that he could lock up afterwards. This time, the handle gave way, and the door swung open. Harry took a deep breath, and stepped out. His heart thumped in his chest as he crossed the garden, but he soon found the ball, illuminated by the light coming from the kitchen windows.
He rose, with ball in hands, to go back inside, and a loud noise filled the night air. Harry spun around, his breath catching in his throat, and saw Dudley standing there, on the other side of the door - the closed door. As Harry watched, he made a gesture beneath the door handle, and Harry realized with a sinking heart that he was locking the door.
Dudley pulled a face; a vicious cross between triumph and a cruel sneer, and held up the key, which he then tossed over his shoulder onto the countertop, and disappeared from view. Moments later, the lights in the kitchen went out, and Harry was left alone in the dark.
Bushes rustled. The wind howled. Harry shivered.
The ball fell to the ground, released by his hands, which now seemed to have the strength of wet cardboard, and rolled a little way. Taken aback by the sudden descent into darkness, Harry found himself unable to see it, even so short a distance away. He rushed over to the door, and tugged at the handle, but to no avail. Nothing happened. He was trapped.
Bushes rustled. The wind howled. Harry shivered.
For the first time, he noticed how cold it was outside. He looked around frantically, furiously squinting into the night. As he stared, his eyes adjusted, and he began to make out a few indistinct shapes a little better. He saw the high fence which bordered one side of the garden, and the bushes covering the others. They were as good as a fence, really, because you couldn't see through them, and nobody would bother forcing their way through.
Really, nobody would ever do that. They'd get all dirty, and covered in leaves. Harry told himself over and over again that he was imagining things, and took a half step back, away from the shadow that seemed to detach from the bushes.
He bit his lip, and felt a hot prickling. Something warm dripped onto his chin.
As it drew closer, Harry saw that it was a dog; a large, black dog. Maybe it was just the light. Everything looked black and grey except the full moon hanging in the sky. The dog let out a low whine, and lowered its head. Some of Harry's apprehension began to fade. It was just a dog, after all, even if it was so big. Another, even larger dog came through, after it.
This one seemed different. Harry tried to convince himself that this one was friendly, too. It didn't come any closer, but looked at him oddly with eyes that glinted in the darkness, shining in pale amber. It didn't look much like the other dog, except in size and the number of legs.
With a sudden sickening realization, Harry recognized it. It wasn't just a dog, but a wolf.
Bushes rustled. The wolf howled. Harry froze.
Harry stood stock still as the creatures, both dog and wolf, slowly made their way over to him. They moved cautiously, almost prowling, and he found his feet unable to move. He opened his mouth to shout in alarm, forgetting his worry of attracting his uncle's irritation; only the tiniest of squeaks came from his throat.
The larger of the two; the one that Harry thought was a wolf, stopped less than a foot in front of him, and lowered its head to sniff at his feet. He felt himself trembling in fear as it slowly sniffed up his body, pausing when it reached his hand, which twitched slightly but remained hanging limply by his side. The wolf opened its mouth, and Harry watched, eyes wide, as it made to bite his hand. He wanted to jerk it away, but the thought was sluggish and half formed, and he found that he couldn't move it.
Quicker than he could notice, the dog was there, bodily shoving the wolf away with a low growl rumbling in its throat. It crouched in front of him, almost protectively. If he wasn't so frightened, Harry would have felt a rush of warmth at the fact that someone, no matter that they were a dog, was finally on his side. He was prepared for a fight, but to his shock, the wolf took a step back and lowered its eyes, away from the dog's gaze, as if it was ashamed. It reminded him a little of a glimpse that he had once caught of himself; head ducked, and feet shifting nervously, as Uncle Vernon berated him for some perceived wrong. The dog then took over the sniffing, making his way from Harry's midriff to his neck, and sniffing at his ears and face. He felt a slight ruffling over his forehead as the dog reached his unruly hair, and then saw it take a small step back, letting out a short but emphatic bark.
He looked at it carefully, if a touch warily. It seemed almost to be grinning at him, and although its teeth were bared, Harry found that it didn't seem to be in a threatening manner. Some of his fear gone, he chanced a nervous smile back, feeling silly. The dog took another step forward, and its giant pink tongue came out – which then proceeded to lick him from neck to forehead, before the dog made a soft noise in its throat and bounded a little distance away as happily as a dog can bound.
Harry smiled again. It really did seem to just want to play, and he relaxed slightly, looking around for some sort of stick to throw. He couldn't find anything, and chanced a few small steps away in the darkness, feeling around with the tip of his shoe for a fallen branch. A foot or so away, he found a twig lying on the ground; it was a little on the small side compared to the dog, but it would do. He picked it up, and threw it, laughing when the dog ran to pick up the stick, and smiling as he watched it bring the stick back. He threw it again, a little farther this time. Again the dog ran, but this time, it looked at him playfully, the stick hanging in its mouth, and ran from the garden. The wolf slunk out behind it, leaving Harry alone.
"H-hey! Wait don't you want to play?" exclaimed Harry, all fear forgotten, as he ran to the bushes. He pushed his head through, and almost bumped into the wolf. Looking around it, he saw where the dog was waiting for him a few metres away, wagging its tail to and fro in a comforting rhythm.
Without thinking, he stepped out of the bushes, happy that someone wanted to play with him, even if they were not human. As he stepped closer, the dog backed away, still wagging its tail, and then turned round and broke into a slow loping run, stopping some distance away and sitting down, dropping the stick.
Harry ran to catch up; not watching where he was going; not aware of the corners the dog had turned, and before he knew it, he wasn't sure where he was, and knew that he was entirely alone in a barely lit street, save for the company of a dog and a wolf who were sitting a few metres away. The dog's head was hanging, but its eyes were wary.
Harry's breath came in ragged bursts and his eyes filled with tears as he looked around. The Dursleys were going to kill him - if these animals didn't first. He felt something cold and wet press into his hand and looked down to see the dog pressing its nose into Harry's hand, and looking up at him with sad eyes.
"I'm lost," whispered Harry. "I don't know how to get back to my house." He slumped against the wall closest to him, sitting on the cold ground, and burying his face in his hands.
"Don't be afraid. We'll take you home if you want." Harry jumped at the unexpected voice and barely avoided screaming when he looked up to see an unfamiliar man in front on him, standing exactly where the dog had been only moments before. The wolf was eyeing this man warily, and a low rumble was coming from its throat. Harry's eyes widened as the man knelt in front of him, and spoke slowly.
"What's your name?" he asked, gently. Harry just shook his head, not trusting himself to speak after the sudden shock.
"That's okay. You don't need to tell me. I'm Sirius, and that over there is Remus," said the man – Sirius, he had said he was called - pointing to the wolf.
Harry looked up at him, wondering where the big black dog had gone. This man didn't look as startling as the dog did; he had long and unruly black hair, and kind eyes, but he was still a stranger, and he had come from nowhere. Something was telling him that this man wasn't scary, and he sat up a little straighter, his voice barely a whisper.
Sirius grinned at this point, so wide that Harry was scared his face was going to split in two. The wolf had looked up at this point, something like surprise shining in his black eyes.
"I knew it. It's too much of a coincidence, Moony. It has to be him. He looks like James as well, and the eyes -" said Sirius quietly to the wolf, which just shook its head slightly.
"I thought you said your wolf was called Remus," murmured Harry, glancing at the wolf, which looked away.
Sirius let out a laugh that sounded distinctly unusual. No, he didn't laugh; he barked loudly, and looked down at him.
"He's not a wolf," he said, and then smiled reassuringly. "Surely you should have been taught the difference between a wolf and a werewolf, right?"
"N-no," stammered Harry, his face dropping. He had heard of werewolves before, from those movies that Dudley always talked about. The ones that his parents didn't let him watch, but that Dudley snuck downstairs to watch at night anyway. Harry had caught a few glimpses of them on the television as he snuck past in search of food at night. They were meant to be scary, but this Remus didn't look like them. He looked more like a dog than a monster.
"Strange," said Sirius, looking down at Harry with no small amount of concern.
"And where did the big black dog go?" Harry asked, still confused. He became even more so when the man laughed again.
"I'm the big black dog, I'm an Animagus."
Harry was just confused more than anything; werewolves, and now this new word, Animagus. It wasn't something that he had ever heard before.
"What's an Animal-Animagus?" he asked, tilting his head and scrunching up his nose ever so slightly.
"I've never met a wizard child who didn't know about Animagi before. You do know about the magical world don't you?" Sirius spoke with concern, and sat down on the floor in front of Harry, crossing his legs and looking thoughtful.
"Magic!" exclaimed Harry, unsure whether he had heard right or not. This man had just said that magic was real, hadn't he? "My uncle always says that people who believe in magic are stupid freaks, because it's not real."
At this, the wolf growled slightly and Sirius stood up. He started pacing frantically, talking loudly to the wolf.
"Can you see this, Moony? The poor boy doesn't even know what he is. I knew letting him go to Muggles would be a bad idea. We can't have this!" He looked up, a smile spreading across his face as he thought. He stopped pacing suddenly, and looked at the wolf with a predatory gleam in his eyes.
"That's it. Moony, we're taking him with us."
The wolf immediately trotted over to Sirius, and butted its head into his side. Sirius patted it on the snout affectionately, and it growled.
"Nope. No argument. You can't stop me." The wolf whined, and pawed at the ground. Sirius dropped to one knee, so that his head was level with the wolf's. "Come on, Moony. We can't leave him ignorant like this. Magic is in his blood. He's no Muggle."
With a jerk of its head, the wolf gestured at Harry. It moved over to him, and stood right in his face, staring into his eyes. Harry felt the heavy breath on his face, and the memory of the wolf about to bite him cropped up, causing him to flinch away. The wolf turned to face Sirius, giving him a pointed stare.
"You're not frightened of ol' Moony, are you Harry?" asked Sirius, a pleading note in his voice. Harry shook his head, lying, but unwilling to admit that the great beast unsettled him. He'd learnt early on that showing fear only ever made things worse.
Remus hung his head, growling softly in what seemed to be frustration. Sirius grinned, and winked at Harry, who realized that the wolf was frustrated by its inability to say what it wanted. After a full thirty seconds of growls, each louder than the last, the wolf brushed past Harry to the doorway of the nearest house, and whined plaintively, pushing its head against the door.
"Oi, Moony, don't wake the Muggles."
At the sound of the word Muggles, Remus let out a louder whine, and butted the door with his head again.
"The Muggles? Is that it?"
Remus trotted over to Sirius, and flopped onto his feet like a tired old sheepdog. Harry looked from one to the other, who seemed to be saying something without any words that was going right over his head.
"No, I don't want to take him away from his family. But, damnit, he's my family, too, right? Just as much as you are."
Harry clenched his fists at the thought of the Dursleys.
"They're not my family," he whispered to himself, too quietly for Sirius to hear. Remus' ears pricked up, though, and he turned to look at Harry. Sirius was oblivious to this, and began mumbling to himself. At last, he snapped his fingers triumphantly.
"I know! Harry, do you want to come with me and Remus, and learn some magic?"
Harry looked at Sirius, and nodded eagerly.
Sirius put a hand on Remus' back, and murmured something that Harry couldn't hear. The wolf made a rumbling noise, and then they both turned to look at him. Harry fidgeted nervously, and then Sirius crossed the few paces to Harry.
"Okay, Harry. Take my arm, and I'll Apparate us away. It might feel a bit weird, since you're not used to it."
Harry mouthed the word Apparate silently, and vowed to find out what all these strange words meant. He had scarcely formed the thought when the world spun around him, and he felt a bone grinding pressure, as if he was being sucked through a very small tube.
He stumbled away from Sirius, and landed in the dirt, on his knees. All around him, there were trees. Harry stared; he seemed to be in the clearing of a forest, and not one that he recognized.
"Welcome to your new home, kid."
Leaf mould and mulch covered the forest floor, leaving it glistening wherever the moonlight cascaded down from between branches reaching high overhead to scrape the very sky. Harry took a tentative step forwards, and placed the palm of his hand against the nearest tree. The bark was hard, and cold, and wonderful. It was alive. This whole world was unlike anything that he had seen before. Everything was natural; grown into its place, rather than carefully arranged to careful angles. None of the bushes had been selected carefully to match the colour of the dirt like the wallpaper and carpets back home. Harry winced inwardly, and berated himself for even thinking of considering Privet Drive to be his home. This was where he lived, now. He looked around, searching for the house they were going to stay in.
He didn't find one.
"I know it's a bit rough around the edges," said Sirius. "But it's home. Most of the time."
Harry gave Sirius his best quizzical look. His confusion must have shown through, because Sirius ran a hand through his hair nervously.
"Ah – I'd better explain about Remus, then. See, werewolves are cursed, and once a month they turn into a monstrous wolf that likes to attack people. Yeah, that's right," he said, seeing Harry glance up at the sky. "Remus doesn't want to hurt anyone, but the wolf in him does. Sometimes, like tonight, I get a special potion for him so he keeps control, which is great. Other nights, we go to an old house of mine in London and he locks himself in the cellar so he doesn't do anything bad.
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Harry began to feel a bit uneasy. His uncle locked him in the cupboard when he was bad, too. This could mean that he was a werewolf, couldn't it? Everyone called him a freak. Was this why?
"Am I..." His voice trailed off, hesitant, and insecure. Sirius jerked as if he'd been slapped.
"No! You're not in any danger!" Harry tried to say that he hadn't meant that, but Sirius carried on speaking frantically, over the top of his head. "Remus can't get out of the cellar when he isn't in control, and when he is, he's the sweetest little lamb you'll ever meet. He'll tell you himself tomorrow, when he changes back to normal."
Harry gave up, and nodded. Sirius grinned at him.
"Hey. Betcha wondering where you're going to sleep, huh?"
A lot of thought went into Harry's answer. He thought back over half-caught glimpses of life seen through the television, and overheard comments from the Dursleys when they occasionally disappeared for a weekend.
"In a tent?" he asked, unsure. Sirius shook his head, and his grin widened.
"Want to see something cool?"
Harry nodded. The grin grew larger than Harry thought possible, and Sirius pulled out a thin wooden stick from inside a pocket. He twirled it around a few times with a practised dramatic flair, like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat, and then pointed it straight at the ground, murmuring rapidly in a language that Harry almost recognized. It seemed a bit like some old words he'd heard here and there, but, on the other hand, nothing like them. Sirius' speech had an almost musical cadence, like that of an ethereal song.
As Sirius' words flowed through the clearing, the dirt began to shift and rumble. The ground was like a living, breathing animal, flexing powerful muscles beneath its skin; stretching, and about to wake up.
Suddenly, the dirt spiralled into the air, and cascaded down into a rough earthen dome around the two of them. It changed in colour and texture, and formed rounded stones; almost a hybrid between the vast blocks forming a castle wall and the uneven boulders used to build stone dykes.
Some of the stones rippled, and shifted into panes of clear-cut crystal glass – windows - as Harry stood in the centre of the dome, amazed. It was nearly pitch black inside, but a soft light began shining from everywhere and nowhere at once, illuminating blocky, uneven clumps of soil rising from the ground, and forming basic items of furniture; huge and exquisite four-poster beds decorated in red and gold quilting, tall, slender lamps of cast bronze, comfortable looking sofas and chairs, and, most remarkable of all, a fireplace of homely red bricks, complete with a fire, but without a chimney. It gave off no smoke, but it was as warm and bright as a real fire.
"What is that?" yelped Harry, stunned. Sirius turned to face him, and Harry saw the firelight glinting off his teeth, adding to his satisfied smirk.
"Transfiguration, m'boy. The noble art of taking stuff and making it into other stuff."
"Transfiguring?" repeated Harry weakly. Sirius gave a one shouldered half shrug, and then burst out in his grin from before.
"And I'm damn good at it!"
Exhaustion soon overcame Harry. The events of the night were just too much for him, and he found himself drained by all the excitement. Sirius put him to bed – something that Harry couldn't remember Aunt Petunia ever doing – and before long, he was fast asleep.
"-wand. Are you crazy? That could stunt his magical growth, permanently!"
An unfamiliar voice woke Harry; emphatic, but hushed.
He turned underneath heavy blankets, hearing the sound as if it was muffled, or somehow distant. Dudley must have turned the television on earlier than usual. Strange. It wasn't like him to be up before Aunt Petunia forced Harry out to make breakfast. The voices grew louder, and Harry turned over, trying to muffle the noise by sticking his head under the pillow. Under the large, soft pillow, with a second beneath it. His bed had a single pillow at the end, and it had all the comfort of cardboard. Harry's eyes shot open, and he stared about himself, taking in the odd room he found himself in, and remembering the previous night in a bizarre rush that seemed almost unreal.
"James dabbled in it a little at his age, and he came to no harm! He was one of the most powerful wizards of our generation as a result," exclaimed someone else - more familiar - Sirius.
Harry looked at the unfamiliar speaker. His hair was the same colour as the fur of the wolf from the night before. Sirius said that the wolf was a person like him, didn't he? This could be Moony. Harry frowned, trying to recall the wolf's other name.
"Remus!" he exclaimed triumphantly. Sirius and Remus turned to look at him in surprise, before beginning to laugh.
"Listening in on us, kiddo?" asked Sirius. Harry gave a hesitant half-nod. "Well, y'see, Remus and I, we were talking about what kinds of magic to teach you."
"You mean…like…last night? Making this house and turning into a dog and stuff?"
"All that, yup. Feel like following in your dad's footsteps? He was real good at this kind of thing."
"Sirius! He doesn't even have a wand!"
"Ignore him, Harry. You don't need a wand to do magic – remember me turning into Padfoot? No wand involved there, right? Once you're eleven we can get you one, and it'll help you move onto the really hard magic, but for now we can teach you the easy stuff, like becoming an Animagus."
"Shut it, Remus!"
"I can really do magic?"
"Sure can, kid. C'mon, we'll give it a shot; get you on some easy tricks. Now, this thing here is so easy that even Remus can do it without a wand. Watch my hand – see?"
A handful of crackling flames appeared in Sirius' hand, without seeming to burn him. Harry tentatively held out his right hand, feeling foolish, in the same position.
"Oh ho, giving it a try? Let's see, then."
"Sirius!" exclaimed Remus, again, sounding more exasperated than ever. "You haven't even told him what to do – or how to do it. You're an awful teacher."
"I am not," said Sirius pointedly, "an awful teacher. You're an awful helper. I haven't even started yet and you're already on my back." Of course, it was quite obvious he was kidding around; already, Harry had begun to understand that Sirius had a bit of the devil in him in the very best of ways. He turned back to Harry now, fingers outstretched once more. It looked almost ominous. "You can't be frightened of it, or it won't work." Harry nodded. His palm felt altogether too cold and clammy to be the sort of place to nurture a fire. "Now, come on. Thinking like that isn't going to help you, is it?"
Harry looked up, startled. "You can't…?"
"No, I can't. I just… well. I knew someone a lot like you once, and I got quite good at reading faces."
For a moment there had been nostalgia peppered across Sirius's handsome features, clouding the spark that had even been evident in them in his dog form, but Remus seemed to clear the air with his… with his what? His warning? It had sounded like a warning to Harry. Then again, he wasn't anywhere near as good at reading faces as Sirius claimed to be. Perhaps Sirius just got distracted easily.
"Yes. Sorry. Right." He wiggled his fingers and then stretched them again; the fire licked lazily up from the centre of his hand right before Harry's eyes once again. "Try to relax, Harry, really. It won't hurt you. Just… think about the flare of light you get when you strike a match, and put it into the palm of your hand. Close your eyes if it helps."
There were so many distractions – their faces prickled some distant memory in the back of his mind, and it made him want to stare until he worked out whether and where he'd seen them before – that he decided closing his eyes would help, and did so; albeit a little tentatively. Closing your eyes in front of Dudley was pretty much asking for it, but somehow he doubted that his older companions would behave anything like Dudley Dursley. Hand shaking, he flexed his fingers in imitation of his teacher, but he soon found that he was barely capable of conjuring an image of a match into his own mind, let alone a fire into his palm. It hadn't yet quite sunk in that magic really existed; that he was really about to learn things that would make his old family regret ever having treated him in the way that they had. As such, it remained an impossible source for him to access. After a few seconds of trying, he opened his eyes again in defeat.
"Never mind, Harry," said Remus gently, but Sirius looked about as disappointed as he felt. "You're only just beginning; it would have been astounding if you'd managed. It's astounding that you're ready to try."
"Yeah. Don't beat yourself up, kid," Sirius said, patting him heavily on the shoulder and going over to check on an indistinct lump simmering over a fire. Harry wanted to believe he meant it, but after years of spending time with the Dursleys he knew insincerity when he heard it.
He felt quite awkward being on his own with Remus, though he supposed that was silly; especially silly given the kind expression that he seemed to wear on his face all the time. "Let's go outside for a second, shall we, Harry?"
Sirius grunted from where he was standing with the fire to indicate that he had heard – Harry wasn't quite sure what this was meant to mean, but Remus had an expression that might usually have been accompanied with a tut. In the fresh air, Remus breathed out heavily; he could sense that he was about to hear something important. He wiped the sleep from his eyes to look more attentive, not wishing to make a bad first impression on his new companion. Guardian? He didn't like to think it yet. "Please try not to be offended by Sirius's reaction. He has unfairly high expectations of you… I'm not going to say you'll never live up to them, but don't expect to any time soon. He has his reasons, I suppose; just don't take it to heart."
"Alright," Harry said, looking up from the patch of grass he'd trodden down with his feet. It was only then that he noticed a few large, old scars reaching from Remus's cheekbone all the way down to his jawline; it shocked him, and suddenly it became difficult not to stare. Was this what a werewolf looked like? In profile it looked quite alarming; as he turned back to face Harry with the same kind smile on his face they seemed to soften and sink into his skin a little, and he understood how he hadn't noticed them before. There was the same spark in Remus as there was in Sirius, if a more understated sort; it rather dominated his features. It must have been obvious that Harry had noticed, especially as he blushed and looked away quickly, but Remus pretended not to notice.
"I suppose you must be wondering how all this has come about," he said thoughtfully. "I shouldn't really give you any answers without having talked to Sirius first, but… well, don't think I don't understand how you feel. You're allowed to be unsure, you know. If you ever want to go back…"
Harry shook his head firmly and tried to sound as sure as possible through his shyness. "I never want to go back."
A certain sadness filtered itself into Remus's expression, tainting his smile. "Was it really so bad?"
The only answer that Remus received was a distant look from Harry, and a half hearted shrug. Harry looked at him – not meeting his gaze, but keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the older man's torso.
"Hey, punk!" Harry flinched, and then looked up at the shout, hardly recognizing Sirius' voice with such a derogatory sneer. It reminded him a little of Uncle Vernon's voice when ordering him about the house. To his surprise, Sirius wasn't glaring at him, but at Remus.
"Less talk, more breakfast," answered Remus, not even bothering to look at Sirius. He glanced down at Harry, and then put a hand on his shoulder in order to steer him into a plush armchair. "Now, Harry, the wizarding world is very traditional, so in many households, it's the witches who cook. Like Sirius, here."
Remus threw a cushion in the direction of the indignant shout. Harry watched in horrified fascination as it bounced off the back of Sirius' head, and tumbled into the flames. He grabbed at Remus' sleeve, but only succeeded in earning himself a quick smile while Sirius yelped and grabbed at the cushion.
"Ahh, I love the smell of bacon in the morning," murmured Remus; shoulders shaking in silent laughter. Sirius dropped the cushion back into the fire, frantically waving his hand in the air, and clenching his teeth.
"I was cooking toast, you mangy flea-ridden son of a hairless she-wolf rounder than the moon she howls to and –"
Harry blinked. Sirius was still gesturing wildly, and his lips were moving, but he wasn't making a sound. After looking around in a panic for a moment, he saw Remus holding a long thin stick; pointing it at Sirius. As Harry watched, Remus tucked it away into his robes, in an indiscriminate pocket that Harry couldn't make out. It seemed almost to disappear into the fabric.
"Umm..."Remus glanced down at Harry, and quirked an eyebrow upwards. "Did you just do something?"
"I think Sirius might need his mouth washed out for a bit before you can talk to him again," said Remus mildly. "Why don't you go outside for a few minutes while I sort out breakfast? Keep practicing that spell. Who knows? You might even get the hang of it soon!"
"'kay," muttered Harry, more than a little washed away by the situation. The cushion smouldered in the grate, dropping blackened remnants of fabric onto the ground. He turned, and turned, and turned some more, searching for a way out of the magically constructed dome that could easily pass for a cosy house that even the Dursleys wouldn't be ashamed to be seen in. There were no cracks in the walls, no handles, no knobs or protrusions or extrusions or gaping holes that could signify a door. Harry briefly considered slithering out of a window, but that dream was quickly shattered when he noticed a distinct lack of any means by which they could be opened. Rather than windows, they were simply rock, the same as the walls, only transparent. "Uhh, Remus?"
Harry looked back at Remus, and saw him holding his wand to a struggling Sirius' neck. Both of their robes were somewhat dishevelled, and Sirius was kicking his legs wildly like a child in a tantrum; much like a larger – and, in a different direction, smaller – Dudley. He was a little hairier, too. Especially around his face. And hair.
"Oh! Sorry, I forgot about that. Here –" Remus flicked his wand at the wall behind Harry. The bricks shifted somewhat, flowing almost fluidly into the shape of a doorframe. Tiny sparkles of light filled the doorway, popping into existence nearly soundlessly to form a privacy curtain of reddish-brown beads. Sirius wriggled free from Remus' grasp in the brief moment of distraction, and managed to escape a full half-step towards Harry, hands outstretched pleadingly, before Remus shot out a hand and grabbed Sirius by the throat, who promptly began to whimper, still silent. "This might be useful, too," he added, pointing his wand at the cushion – the burning cushion – and sending it flying in a wide arc at Harry, momentarily interrupting its smooth flight to slap Sirius on the back the head with it. Harry flinched as it came near him, but caught it in both hands out of sheer reflex.
He began to wonder if this was just a repeat of the Dursley life, only with madmen instead of fat men, and a burning cushion instead of the occasional backhand. His lower lip began to tremble, and his throat felt dry at the thought. This was all too much for him; out of one bad situation into another. Despite the premature cynicism that years of emotional neglect had given, erasing many displays of immaturity, Harry was still a child; still a very young boy. At this unexpected blow in the face of such hope of a happier life, he wanted nothing more than to sit down and cry. He'd learned early on that tears did no good.
So mordant were his thoughts that it took the sound of Remus' lilting laugh to make Harry realize that his hands weren't burning. The flames from the cushion tickled slightly, like a warm summer breeze. His mouth opened, gaping at it – although nothing spectacular in the face of the remarkable feats of transfiguration he'd seen, this magic was real. He was touching it!
"That's called a flame-freezing charm. You should learn it pretty early in Hogwarts – that's the school you'll be going to when you're old enough. Your mum and dad went there, too. It's where they met." Harry's delighted groping of the flaming cushion paused at the mention of his parents.
"You knew my mum and dad?"
"Didn't Sirius tell you last night?" asked Remus, frowning. Harry blushed.
"Hah, I understand. A lot happened – too much for you to take in all at once. Hey, tell you what – if you manage to do that trick Sirius showed you, I'll tell you all about your parents."
Harry nodded eagerly, a faint smile tugging at the corner of his lips. From over Remus' shoulder, he saw Sirius grin back at him, stopping his struggle briefly to flash Harry a thumbs up. Only the tip of his thumb poked out from underneath Remus' arm, but Harry could see the gesture for what it was, and his smile became a touch more confident. As he watched, Sirius wriggled out of Remus' grasp, and caught him in a headlock, pushing his chin into the back of the werewolf's neck, and mouthing silent words at Harry, who squinted, trying to make out what he was saying. Intently staring at Sirius' lips did no good, but a vague shooing motion in the direction of the door gave the game away – as did the way that Sirius conjured a handful of flame, and proceeded to wave it in front of Remus' eyes menacingly.
Remus growled, deep in his throat, sounding more like the wolf he'd been last night than the man that Harry saw standing there.
The air outside was cool, refreshing, and silent, at first. As Harry acclimatized to the unique cadence of forest ambience, he began to pick out the sounds of birds in the distance, and feel the insects spitting past his ears at blinding speeds, too small to be seen.
He looked up, seeing dark clouds building up in the distance. The sun still shone brightly, in a wide patch of blue sky, warming the skin on his face as he turned to face it, and flickering across him in a dappled pattern of heat as he moved through the shadows of leaves high overhead. Most people, thought Harry, would enjoy simply standing and relaxing in an illuminated stretch of grass, basking in the sunlight. Harry was not most people. Long days working at his so-called family's behest had left him with a few core rules when it came to any chore, particularly those that were impossible to do; cooking breakfast when he couldn't see over the countertop, or weeding a spotless lawn.
Once, he had written up the list in bright blue crayon. There were words misspelled when he had tried to outdo himself, and gaps when his vocabulary failed him, but the meaning was always clear, at least to Harry:
There is no such thing as difficult, only laziness;
It should have been finished five minutes ago;
Failure is an option, but so is an empty stomach.
"Magic," whispered Harry. "Magic."
There was no such thing. Conjuring fire out of nothing seemed impossible! Drawing on all of his experience labouring under the Dursleys, Harry tensed his muscles, and concentrated on the image stamped into his mind, of a burning cushion, of fire, of magic. He focused until it felt like his mind would burst, and his bones turn to jelly. He felt the beat of his heart, and the warmth of his blood, and the sunlight brushing against his skin. With a herculean effort, he squeezed the muscles in his hand, tensing them as much as he could into an open position, held out as if to cup the flames he wanted.
Minutes passed, and his hand began to ache beyond what was comfortable.
Tiny wet droplets bounced down from the leaves, so Harry retreated deeper under the cover of foliage, to where it was dry. He glanced up briefly, and saw that the sun had completely disappeared beneath grey clouds. Frustration welled up inside him, and was quickly quashed. He couldn't let himself get angry. He had to stay calm, keep control, be Harry. The last thing that he wanted was to turn into a second Dudley Dursley with childish tantrums whenever things didn't turn out exactly as he wanted them to.
Harry grimaced. Uncle Vernon could drive him into performing any task, no matter how difficult. If he could do something impossible for an angry walrus, he should be able to do it for a boisterous dog and gentle wolf. His eyes prickled, and he pushed away the unfamiliar feeling that he'd disappointed someone who mattered.
A sharp crack tore through the gentle patter of rain. Harry jumped, startled, and accidently unclenched his tensed hand. Pain exploded in the hand as soon as it was unclenched; after being held so tightly in one position, it cramped up uncomfortably. Having it jerked out of position so suddenly was far from pleasant. He bit back a sob, born every bit as much from anger at himself as from the pain, if not more so. Unpleasant feelings were common at Privet Drive for Harry. He forced himself past it. There was no sense in dwelling on how useless he was; on how much of a failure he could be.
Upon hearing the shout, Harry whirled around. The concern in Remus' voice shocked him far more than the lightning had.
"Are you okay? What happened?" demanded Remus, walking hurriedly towards Harry.
Heat rose in his cheeks, and he looked down at his feet, mumbling an incoherent apology.
"I can't do this," he whispered, feeling ashamed. Remus took a step closer, and lifted his arms, causing Harry to flinch from an expected blow. He should have know that it was too good to last, that even these kind strangers would soon become like the Dursleys. After flinching, Harry remained stooped into a cringe, waiting for the blow to land.
Arms wrapped around him in a sinewy hug. Harry gasped, and stiffened. When Remus didn't let go, he began to relax a little, into the first hug he'd ever had. Some of his doubt faded. Maybe things could work out, after all.
The frustration seemed to abate somehow, by the time Remus released Harry, and gave him a soft smile.
"Of course you can do it, Harry. It just takes a lot of practice. Some wizards can hardly do it after years of practice, so don't worry that you can't on your very first attempt. Your dad was a very powerful wizard, and your mum one of the brightest witches of her age. There's magic in your blood. All you need to do is learn how to use it. Now come on, get some breakfast. Even magic can't work"
Harry shook his head, and bit his lip.
"I don't think I can be a wizard, Remus. I can't do this!"
"Damnit, Sirius..." muttered Remus, and then put a hand on Harry's head, tousling his hair. "This is very difficult magic, especially for someone your age. It isn't even taught in school, because so few people bother to learn how to use it. Sirius shouldn't have tried to make you do it, okay? Maybe in a few years time, you'll be able to do it."
"No!" exclaimed Harry. "I need to do it now, or...,"he said, trailing off hesitantly. Remus narrowed his eyes, and crouched down to Harry's level.
"Or what? Do you think we're going to throw you out?"
Harry stood still, not daring to speak, or knowing what he would say if he did.
"Oh, Harry," said Remus. "You're James' son. You're family!"
A hot prickling feeling in his eyes caused Harry to look away, breathing deeply, and incredibly confused. When he'd fantasized about mysterious relatives coming to take him away from the Dursleys, was this what he'd been thinking of?
"Uncle Remus?" he asked, trying out the words. They felt alien in his mouth. His uncle was not a nice man, but Remus was. Harry didn't think that he could call Remus an uncle, but the man beamed to hear it.
"That's right, and Aunt Sirius!" He burst out in laughter that Harry didn't quite follow, but the corners of his mouth quirked up, and he offered Remus a tentative, genuine smile.
After the mirth had died away, Remus straightened, looking down at Harry with an odd expression.
"Does it really mean this much to you, being able to do this piece of magic?" Harry nodded vehemently; if he could do this one thing, he'd know that he was a wizard. It would prove everything; that everything would be alright.
"Okay," said Remus. "This is going against my better judgement, but I'll help with this. Before we begin, I want you to promise me that you won't be upset if you can't do it yet. Nobody would expect a wizard of your age to do something like this, especially without a wand."
"I promise," said Harry, quickly.
"Good." Remus sighed. "Right. Show me what you were doing before."
Screwing up his eyes and thrusting his hand out into the claw-like position from before, Harry tried to concentrate again on the thought of fire. This time was no different from the last.
"I can't get even a little one," he said.
"What were you concentrating on so hard?" asked Remus.
Remus quirked an eyebrow, and waited. After soem time, Harry realized what he was waiting for, and felt stupid, berating himself for being so slow.
"I was thinking about warmth and the sun," he elaborated.
"That's a good start, but there's more to magic than thinking about one effect of what you want. Think back to when you were holding that cushion. How did it feel?"
The cushion had been cool; Harry gave that answer. Remus shook his head.
"It...tickled?" offered Harry, hesitantly.
"Yes! It tickled. It didn't stay still, like a hot coal, but danced and moved and tickled your hands. Fire is like magic, Harry. It's not alive, but it acts like it is – it eats, and breathes, and grows. It's one of the first things you learn to conjure at Hogwarts, long before you learn how to turn a frog into a toad, or a ferret into a weasel. Try to imagine that some of the life inside you, some of your magic, is going into your hand, and dancing like fire. Forget about heat. That comes later, when you learn how to do it without hurting yourself. Right now, just focus on magic dancing in your hand."
Harry closed his eyes, and held his hand out, still cupped, but without the aching pressure that he'd been putting it under before.
Thunder roared again in the distance, sounding closer this time, but he ignored it. The rain was very heavy now, and some of it was slipping through the gaps in the boughs overhead. He certainly wasn't thinking about warmth now. Instead, he tried to focus on the feeling of erratic drops tumbling onto his skin, and bouncing off again. He imagined that pattern as the beat to music, as the rhythm of a dance.
Life, Remus had said. Magic. Harry didn't know where his magic was, or how to feel his life, but Remus had already said so much that he didn't dare ask for more help. He felt every beat of his heart, and focused on the tiny feelings coming from all over his body, from a slight twinge in one knee to the gentle patter of rain.
Nowhere could he find a repository of life to push out into his hand. There was energy in his body, and thoughts in his mind, but neither of those had worked earlier, when he'd tried to conjure fire – or perhaps, if he understood Remus correctly, when he'd tried to conjure flameless heat.
After all this effort, Harry couldn't stand to find no result greater than failure, so he did the only thing left that he could. He pushed out with his mind, sending thoughts of dancing flame and light, and mixing it with the energy from his body to give it the power to dance as he wished.
"Harry!" exclaimed Remus. His eyes snapped open at the startled shout, and then widened at the sight of what he held within his hand. A tiny flicker of light, no larger than an insect, was wavering and dancing as he had imagined – although much, much smaller.
"It's so small," muttered Harry, feeling disappointed.
"No, no, not at all. It's amazing that you managed to do it at all. I didn't get this far on my first attempt, and I was more than twice your age when your dad taught me how to do it."
At the mention of his dad, Harry took a new interest in what Remus was saying. If that was true, he'd just learnt one of his dad's spells. It was the first thing of his parents' that he'd ever gotten. Gratitude for the gift from Remus brushed aside his disappointment at the feeble size of his own spell.
Remus put a hand on Harry's shoulder. They stood like that for a while, man and boy, in tumultuous rain, silently sharing the loss of someone special.
"Do you smell that?" asked Remus.
A sudden deafening snap interrupted any answer that Remus could have given, and a bright light blinded Harry. Electricity crackled wildly as lightning tore down through the clouds, and struck a nearby tree.
Sharp pops echoed throughout the clearing as the tree sap was superheated and the bark tore like paper. Smoke rose from the wet wood, and it burst into flames.
"Oh no," muttered Remus. "Sirius!"
Sirius came dashing out, spluttering when rain got into his eyes and mouth.
"Aguamenti." A jet of water shot out of Remus' wand, while Harry and Sirius stared – Harry at the casual display of magic, and Sirius at the blazing tree.
"Whoa. That's impressive. You sure this is your first time with magic, kid?" Remus whirled around to stare at Sirius incredulously.
"Are you insane? Come on; help me put this out before it spreads. We're lucky it's raining, or we'd be in trouble."
"Hah! Our little Harry – aguamenti – is going to be a powerful wizard, just like his dad and Uncle Padfoot!" crowed Sirius. Remus simply sighed, and shook his head, choosing to hose down the tree with a powerful jet of conjured water rather than listen to Sirius. Harry, on the other hand, was staring at him. Did he really think what Harry thought he did?
"So," asked Sirius. "Were you trying to burn down the tree, or did it just happen?"
"I didn't do it!" said Harry, protesting what he felt was an undue accusation. He wasn't a vandal like Dudley, and wouldn't do something like that for no reason. The accusation irritated him, and he was strongly tempted to ask Remus to hex Aunt Sirius again.
Harry took a deep breath, trying not to wince at the stench of a hundred, people pressing close to him. After the cool fresh air of a life outside, the unnatural smells wafting around King's Cross were beginning to give him a headache. Oil and smoke flitted about in the air, too weak for most noses to pick up on them, but Harry was special.
A little extra boost to his senses had seemed like an advantage at the time. In a crowd, it was just a nuisance.
"Gunhilda of Gorsemoor, Harry. She's on the third floor corridor, by the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Tap her with your wand and say – "
"Dissendium," interrupted Harry, cutting Sirius off. "Yes, I know. You've told me a hundred times. I don't see why we couldn't just go to Diagon Alley. It's been ten years! Nobody would recognize you."
A large and loud family clattered past. Sirius took a step closer to Harry, and gave them a wary glance. Harry snorted at his paranoia, earning himself a dirty look.
"I'm a wanted criminal, remember? Even if nobody saw who I was, there's no way to tell whether I'd be able to get any money out of Gringotts. The goblins might let me in, or they might alert the Ministry."
Harry grimaced. Sirius was right, loath as he was to admit it. There was simply no way that they could get into Diagon Alley for his school supplies without taking risks that they couldn't afford. He had no trunk, only a tattered bag with a single set of robes inside. Still, that problem would be fixed soon enough, thanks to an old friend of Remus'.
"Oh, right! I almost forgot, sorry. Here," said Remus, holding out his wand. Harry took it gratefully, and offered the man he'd come to think of as an older brother a smile.
"Thanks, but I wanted to ask something –" Harry broke off, trying to find the right words for his question. There was a lot he wanted to ask, and even more that he wanted to know, but he already knew so little that it was hard to find where to begin. "Dumbledore's going to give me the money I need to buy everything?"
Dumbledore, Harry had heard, was the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. More so, Sirius had told him that he was the single most brilliant wizard alive, and a truly great man. It was an intimidating reputation to live up to, and Harry was more than a little nervous about the prospect of going up to the man and asking for handouts.
"Not quite. He's going to give you the key to your Gringotts vault. Your parents will have left you quite a bit of money; enough to keep you going all through Hogwarts, and goodness knows what else afterwards," answered Remus.
"Why does he have it?" asked Harry, wondering why a complete stranger should have access to his money. He wasn't surprised that he didn't have it himself – he was a year old when his parents had died, after all – but couldn't think of any reason why the money would go to a schoolteacher.
"Your parents were very generous. The war had gone on for too long, and it was costing too much in blood and gold to keep fighting. Dumbledore was one of the leaders opposing Voldemort, and before they went into hiding, they gave him all of their money, save for what they needed to live. They were such very good people, right up until the end. Dumbledore refused to accept, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. After they died, he decided to return it to you when you re-entered the wizarding world."
It was a lot to take in. Harry had become used to living without money, and had hardly seen any in the years that he'd lived with Sirius and Remus. Magic could provide almost everything that they needed to live, and beyond the bare essentials, there was little more but the company of one another that any of the trio craved. He wondered briefly what it would have been like to grow up rich and spoiled, like Dudley Dursley. Seconds into the fantasy, he shuddered. He decided that he would gladly take a cupboard over turning into Dudley.
Harry's thoughts were interrupted as Sirius caught him in an unexpected hug.
"Harry," he said, voice muffled by the way that he was pressing his face into Harry's shoulder. "The school owls are free for students to use at any time. Please, write to us, let us know you're safe, as soon as you can. The very first night, you promise?"
Remus chuckled, and pulled Sirius away, only to give Harry a hug of his own.
"Don't listen to your Aunt Sirius. Enjoy your time at Hogwarts. It'll be nice to hear from you, but you should make friends instead of spending all your time writing to a pair of mangy hounds like us."
The last few minutes that Harry had with the only people he cared about passed quickly, and soon they stood in silence. Harry looked up at the large clock hanging over the station, and sighed. He was eager to go, but didn't want to part from Sirius, Remus, or the life he'd had with them.
"It's nearly eleven. Come on, Harry. I'll take you through to the platform. Sirius, just wait here. If you come through, you could be recognized," said Remus, taking a step away, towards Platform Ten. Harry shifted the weight of his bag across his shoulders, and nodded.
"I have a better idea. I'm coming with you."
"What? No, Sirius!" snapped Remus, too late. Sirius dropped to the ground, shifting faster than the eye could follow into a large black dog. "Someone will have seen that, you fool!" he hissed. None of the Muggles around them seemed to be reacting, or so Harry thought, as he looked around the station warily.
Remus sighed. Harry laughed at his exasperated look. There was really no stopping Sirius when he had his mind set on something. It usually kept Harry amused through his constant light-hearted disagreements with Remus. Sometimes he thought that Sirius had gotten their ages confused, and should be the eleven year old heading off to Hogwarts.
Sirius-as-Padfoot ran circles around Harry, barking joyfully. Harry reached down with a hand to pat him, and followed up the pat with a flick on the nose.
It was time to leave. Together, they walked towards the Hogwarts Express, unseen behind powerful enchantments. Man, boy, and dog vanished into closely packed red bricks. On the other side, a gleaming red train stood proudly on the tracks, smoke billowing, and paint shining brightly.
Remus took Harry by the shoulders. Harry looked into his eyes, seeing a hint of the wolf within emerge in amber ferocity.
"Make your father proud, Harry. And if anyone gives you trouble," he said, giving a smile that was all wolf. "Tear their fucking throat out."