Chapter 8: Making Connections
Relishing the long-forgotten feeling of being clean, Sirius followed the delicious aroma of freshly cooked scones into the warm kitchen. The mid-morning sun poured through the open curtains, creating a cheerful brightness that artificial light could not have achieved. On the far wall, a square table was set for two, with a jug of orange juice and an assortment of different jams and spreads adorning its surface.
Beth was taking a tray out of the oven when he entered and didn't immediately look up.
"I hope you're hungry because I've made plenty," she commented, setting the tray on the stove top and turning toward him. "Whoa," she whispered when she caught sight of him.
Gone was the filthy, ragged nightmare from the night before. Instead she saw a strikingly handsome man with thick, wavy hair that hung in a shining cascade to his elbows. His face, while painfully thin, was clean-shaven and dirt-free. Dave's old clothes were slightly too big on him and made him appear much thinner than he'd looked in his robes. Overall, the effect was astonishing; somehow he seemed more human and less the annoying idiot she'd beaten up a matter of hours ago.
Beth gave herself a metal shake. "Come sit down," she invited, gesturing to a chair. "I'll join you in a minute."
Obediently taking a seat, Sirius took the time to study his spirited hostess while she was occupied with breakfast preparations. She too had taken the time to freshen up. She now wore a sea-green t-shirt with jeans so faded they were a pale blue; her ebony curls were now contained a loose side ponytail that hung over her shoulder and reached halfway to her waist. If he hadn't known otherwise from bitter experience, Sirius would have said she'd be incapable of defending herself against anyone larger than a twelve-year old child. Standing, the top of her head didn't even reach his shoulder; she had to look up to speak to him. The gracefulness with which she moved completely belied the little spitfire from just 10 hours before. The same spitfire who'd beaten a notorious mass murderer over the head with a kitchen skillet and then still had the audacity to give him sass and scold him for his lack of common courtesy.
He broke off his scrutiny of her when she turned and approached the table with a tray of warm scones, setting a generous amount on the plate in front of him.
"The coffee pot is boiling if you want some," she said languidly, taking a few biscuit-like cakes for herself.
"Sounds good," Sirius replied as he smeared a goodly amount of blackberry jam on a scone before biting into it with enthusiasm. He closed his eyes and sighed in pleasure as he savoured the delicious home-cooked meal; the first he'd enjoyed in over thirteen years. When he reopened his eyes, Beth was watching him with a sad smile, her own chocolate-brown eyes full of compassion as she got up to fetch the whistling coffee pot. She poured two cups and sat silently as Sirius ate his way steadily through his portion.
Beth waited until he had turned his attention to the scalding-hot brew before speaking.
"Black – Sirius, I think Harry should stay here while he recovers. There's no way he can return to the Dursleys with the house in the state it is. He'd be safe here, only the Dursleys, Weasleys and Hermione know about my connection with Harry." When he didn't comment, she pressed on. "You're welcome to stay of course. I can set up a spare bed in Harry's room for you."
Sirius almost choked in surprise. "You're asking me to stay here? The same person who you beat senseless and then spent every waking hour since glaring daggers at? What brought on such a drastic change of mind?"
"Harry," she said simply.
He blinked. "What?"
Beth looked him directly in the eye. "Last night, he couldn't sleep. We spent quite a long time talking. He told me a quite moving tale of a man who risked everything to protect his godson from his parents' betrayer, a man who, against all odds, located that boy to make sure he knew the truth, a man who offered him something of incalculable worth which gave him a reason to hope."
"What was that?" Sirius asked, puzzled.
"A home," said Beth softly. "A family. After I heard his story, I knew I'd underestimated you. He speaks of you with such admiration. For the first time since his parents, someone cared enough to risk their life to save his, and that to him is something almost beyond comprehension."
Sirius swallowed and studied her gravely. "Are you sure you know what you're getting yourself into? I'm a wanted man. If I'm found here, you could be arrested for harbouring a criminal. And Harry isn't an ordinary teenager."
"Sirius… I've been alone for a long time. My parents died when I was fifteen. My brother fell apart and deserted me, leaving me to endure three years in an orphanage. After that I had to balance two jobs and a university degree in order to have any hope for a future. There was little time for socialising. I was completely alone. Then, just over five years ago, I met a scrawny unappreciated eight-year-old boy who showed me kindness and loyalty like I've never seen in my life. He touched me in a way that I hadn't felt since my parents were alive." Her voice broke over the last sentence. Sirius reached out to take her hand in both of his. She raised over-bright eyes to meet his. "I love him, Sirius. I will do whatever it takes to prevent him from going through life alone. And you…" She gave a dry laugh. "I realize trying to brain you with a skillet wasn't an ideal first impression, but you've also been alone for a long time; it's comforting to have people who actually understand what that's like to go through."
Sirius nodded thoughtfully, eyes slightly unfocused. There was a brief pause before Beth spoke up.
"I still think you're annoying, though," she added cheekily.
Sirius was slightly taken aback, but couldn't hold back a chuckle. "Okay, we'll stay. If that's the worst thing you can say about a mass murderer than I think we might just get along."
Beth smiled teasingly. "If not…" she glanced over at the skillet meaningfully.
"You really don't get many visitors, do you?" Sirius said, shaking his head. "Your hostess skills could do with some work."
She merely smiled serenely before getting up to clear the dishes away. "Are you still hungry? There's still half a tray left. Feel free to eat however much you comfortably can. I'm going to take some to Harry."
"Thank you," Sirius said gratefully. When Beth had slipped out of the room, he sipped at his coffee, deep in thought. The young woman intrigued him. One minute she was fierce as a tigress, the next compassionate and vivacious. She touched something in him that he hadn't felt for a long time. She certainly warranted more observation. He had enjoyed the feeling of her fussing over him, and then sharing her story with him. A small smile appeared on his face. There was no doubt that Beth was a sweet woman –
The sound of shattering glass and a startled scream shocked him back to the present.
"Black!" the sweet woman bellowed from the guest room. "Sirius, get in here!"
Harry was trapped; fire surrounded him in blazing walls. The searing heat burned his skin. He was choking on the smoke. His eyes were dry and sore, and his head pounded in protest against the smoke and overpowering heat. A few metres away, he watched as the inferno greedily consumed the pile of Dudley's broken toys before moving on toward Harry. There was an ominous creak as the weakened house structure began to give way. There was no escape. The fiery walls were edging closer. A chunk of ceiling fell into the flames, showering Harry with glowering embers. He yelped as they scorched through his clothing in places, burning his skin.
"Help me!" he yelled desperately as he shook them off. "Someone help me!"
His cries were met with silence. Harry knew that no one would come. He was alone. The fire crept steadily closer. The heat was unbearable. He couldn't breathe; his sight and hearing were impaired by the smoke and thundering crackle of the fire. Then, out of nowhere, a voice called out to him over the roar of the flames.
He peered through the fire, squinting in an effort to protect his watering eyes from the thick smoke. It didn't do any good; the walls of fire were too thick for him to see the other side.
"Get me out!" he begged the unknown person. "Please get me out!"
"Harry, calm down. You're okay. You're safe!"
Whoever the person was, they had a very skewed idea of what qualified as 'safe', Harry thought frantically as he scrambled away from falling debris. Then, high above him, the ceiling gave one last groan, and with a sickening crack, a large beam tore loose and plummeted toward him…
"No!" Harry sat bolt upright in a cold sweat. White-hot pain coursed through his side at the sudden movement. He slumped over sideways, gasping for breath and cringing as his stomach lurched with nausea. As he lay still waiting for the discomfort to end, he became aware of a hand massaging his back.
"It was just a dream, Harry. Take slow breaths, the pain will pass," Beth said soothingly.
The waves of nausea increased their intensity and as he tried to repress the urge to vomit, pain cleaved through his body like a sword stroke. He gasped and clutched at his stomach. The motion upset his burns and made his head spin. The pain reached a crescendo and a harsh cry tore from his lips; the window shattered with a loud crash. Beth let out a startled scream, but recovered quickly.
"Black – Sirius, get in here!" she yelled.
Sirius sprinted into the room. Beth didn't look up from where she sat with her arm around Harry. "There are two small boxes of medication on the kitchen counter. I need you to bring them to me," she ordered. "Oh, and grab some fresh ice packs from the freezer."
"On it," Sirius called over his shoulder on the way out. He was soon back with the requested items.
"Good," Beth said distractedly as she began measuring out the required dosage. When she had finished, she thrust the glass into Sirius' hands. "Help him drink this while I prepare the ice packs."
Sirius put a strong arm behind Harry's shoulders to support him and held the cup to his lips. At first Harry attempted to hold it himself, but when the movement sent fire up his arms he reluctantly accepted the help. He drank slowly, relishing the feeling of the cool liquid trickling down his dry throat. When he had drained the cup, Sirius set it aside and gently lowered Harry back to the bed.
Harry suddenly realized that there were tears on his face mingling with the sweat. He hastily wiped them away on his sleeve, moving awkwardly as he tried to move as little as possible. He felt exhausted and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, but the pain made this impossible.
Beth rested the icepacks on his burns. "Just hold on, Harry. The painkillers will kick in within the next fifteen minutes or so." Turning to Sirius she said tightly, "Where is this wizarding doctor I requested? It's been almost two days. If I'd known he'd take so long, I'd have left Harry at the hospital. Goodness knows it would have saved me dozens of fights with my colleagues."
Sirius looked alarmed. "Doctor? Those Muggle nutters that cut people up? By Merlin, it's lucky you got him away from them! Could you imagine the state he'd be in?" He was completely at loss when Beth sent him a death glare so he continued as if he hadn't noticed. "I'll send a Patronus right now to get them to hurry up."
Without further ado, he pulled out his wand and gave it a wave; an immense silvery dog erupted from it and streaked off out the broken window. Beth watched it, wide-eyed, until it was out of sight.
"What does that do? Does the dog scare them into hurrying up?" Beth asked sarcastically.
"Nope," Sirius answered easily, reaching over to give Harry's shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "It'll go to Dumbledore and speak the message in my voice. It's useful when you don't know a person's exact location; it's much quicker than an owl."
"Right," said Beth vaguely, looking at Harry with a tense expression. He lay still but his eyes were open, reflecting in the light coming from the window.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, Sirius said teasingly, "Now, if I had wanted to scare them witless, I could just sick you on them."
Beth sent him a mutinous look that froze on her face when Harry laughed softly.
"He's got a point, Beth," he commented with a small grin. "Remember how you stormed over to my relatives' house and gave them that tongue-lashing?"
"Yeah…" Beth said slowly. She looked rather satisfied with herself, but there was something in her eyes that didn't quite match her smile.
Sirius looked between the two, both grinning reminiscently. "What were you telling them off for?" he asked curiously. He was surprised when the smiles instantly disappeared. Harry bit his lip nervously and glanced at Beth.
That woman looked angry, but at Harry's meaningful look Sirius saw her give the boy an almost imperceptible nod.
"They tend to favour their son over Harry," she explained quietly.
Sirius wasn't convinced, but Harry looked completely exhausted; a full explanation would have to wait until he had recovered.