A/N: Wherein Harry is Asked Many Questions... and Gives Incredibly Unsatisfying Answers.

The wedding is finally, FINALLY over! My aunt is married, and I am officially finished being an assistant. Sorry about the long gap between postings. It was basically a five day party. Takes a lot of planning. I'm so happy it's over. *cries* Enjoy the chapter!

The dog-man finished his bath and sat huddled in the sunshine. He looked cold, even with the warmth of the day and Harry's drying magic. Harry took pity on him and unearthed a length of cloth from his bag to drape over the dog-man's shoulders.

"How did you come to live in the forest?" the dog-man asked. He'd spent the last ten minutes staring at Harry, but had only spoken after he was wrapped up in his new blanket.

"In the usual way," Harry said. The snake had slithered up his arm and was inspecting the fox Harry was binding to a spit for roasting. He hissed in satisfaction and turned his attention to the dog-man. Harry let him drop to the ground and slither off in that direction to investigate.

"What's the usual way?"

Harry had liked the dog-man rather better when he couldn't speak English.

"By going into the forest and living," Harry explained. "How did you come to be in that cave?"

The dog-man fell silent for a long minute. Harry thought he'd given up by the time he opened his mouth again. "I escaped from a place where I was trapped. It was a small, cold, unhappy place, and I was very hungry and miserable all the time." He wrapped his blanket tighter around his shoulders. "I didn't do anything to deserve being there."

Harry thought this was a rather odd comment. "Should you have?"

The dog-man frowned. "It was a mistake. And no one cared to fix it."

Harry nodded slowly. "Things like that happen sometimes."

"Do you..." the dog-man hesitated, staring at Harry some more. "Do you know how your parents died?"

Harry set a fire under the spit he'd constructed for the fox, and thought about his answer. "I've heard about the wizard who killed them."

"There's more to it than that," the dog-man said. He scooted toward the fire on his haunches to warm himself. "The only reason that dark wizard was able to find them was because they were betrayed by one of their closest friends."

Harry, who'd been stoking the flames, allowed the rather heavy stick he'd been using to heat up and catch fire. He looked up at the dog-man with pursed lips. "Which close friend is that?"

"His name was Peter Pettigrew," the dog-man explained, and then launched into an impassioned and anger-fueled tale of Pettigrew's betrayal of every single one of his friends. Harry listened curiously, and learned that the dog-man's name was Padfoot. It was a wholly suitable name, and Harry liked it immediately. He'd also mentioned another name, but Padfoot was best, in Harry's opinion.

"-and then, when I tried to confront him the next day, he faked his own death and framed me for the entire thing. I ended up getting sent to Azkaban for what he'd done!"

"Wait." Harry held up a hand. "Azkaban?"

Padfoot shifted uncomfortably. "The, er, wizard prison."

"You are the escaped convict, then!" Harry exclaimed. He'd had a sneaking suspicion ever since Padfoot stopped being a dog and started being a man, but he liked to have his guesses proved correct. "Are you going to try to kill me? Draco said you might."

Padfoot shook his head vigorously. "Haven't you been listening, Harry? I told you I'm innocent. I didn't hurt anyone back then, and I'm not going to now. You have to believe me."

"Oh fine," Harry acquiesced, and gestured that he should continue. The fox was nearly cooked, and Dobby would be back at any time.

"I spent thirteen years there," Padfoot said, and his eyes took on a haunted glaze. "It was the most awful place you can imagine..."

He trailed off into silence. Harry, who had never really attempted to comfort someone who wasn't Dobby before, decided food could quite possibly wipe the awful look off the dog-man's face. In any case, Padfoot was appallingly skinny. He needed fattening.

He tore off a decent chunk of meat and levitated it in front of Padfoot, waiting for him to snatch it up like he had during every other meal they'd eaten together.

Sure enough, Padfoot blinked and took hold of the meat. His attitude jumped from melancholy to shock in an instant, and he dropped the meat onto his blanket.

"It's hot," Harry pointed out, tearing off a chunk of his own piece and blowing on it. "Careful."

Padfoot watched Harry's actions and mimicked him, chewing slowly. "Bit gamey," he said.

Harry shrugged and watched with interest as Padfoot transformed back into a dog right before his eyes. Now he picked up the hunk of meat in his jaws and devoured it cheerfully. The concentration Padfoot gave to his food reminded Harry of his old canine companion, and Harry smiled at the thought. They sat and ate together in peaceful silence until Dobby came back, bearing clean trousers, an undershirt, and a large jumper.

"Dobby has found clothing for the doggie," Dobby announced proudly, holding up each piece for the dog's approval. Padfoot wasn't paying much attention, as he was distracted by sniffing around Harry and the other piece of the fox Harry had been saving for Dobby.

"Padfoot, pay attention," Harry laughed, scratching behind the dog's ears. "Dobby's found you something to wear when you're not a dog."

Padfoot transformed back into a human and took the clothing with relieved thanks. Once he was dressed, he turned to Harry, who had taken the time to fill the snake in on the dog's story. He switched back to English just long enough to say, "The rest of the food is Dobby's. Ask him if you want more."

Rather than heeding Harry's advice and turning on Dobby, Padfoot continued to stare as Harry and the snake spoke.

"You aren't really speaking Parseltongue, are you?" he asked, shocked.

"Elves can speak to most animals," Harry said, then switched back to Parseltongue. "So then apparently they switched Secret Keepers, for some reason, over to a wizard-"

"That sounds like an exceptionally daft thing to do," the snake replied.

"That's what I thought," Harry agreed. "But Padfoot says they all trusted this Pettigrew character."

"Wait," Padfoot interrupted. "What other animals can you speak to?"

Harry scrunched up his nose. "You know, birds and snakes and ferrets and things. And I spoke to you when you were a dog, didn't I? Most animals. And then I've been learning Mermish, but anyone could learn that if they bothered to." Back to Parseltongue. "Of course, they shouldn't have trusted him even a bit, obviously, because he went right to that dark wizard and told him exactly where my parents were!"

"The pissing wanker!"

"That's exactly what I said! And isn't it just like wizards to blame it all on -"

"You didn't speak to me," Padfoot said, frowning now. "I mean, not exactly. It's all body language and tone and scent with dogs."

"Body language is a language," Harry disagreed. "It's even got it in the name. I was able to get my point across, wasn't I?"

Padfoot subsided into thoughtful silence, which gave Harry the freedom to finish up his explanation to the snake without any further distraction.

Flitwick's owl showed up just after twilight, when Dobby had already fallen asleep. Harry was still sitting by the fire, an orb of light floating above his head as he scratched a careful step by step account of his fairly successful brewing of a Swelling Solution at the end of the relevant completed essay.

He chirped a soft greeting to the bird, who settled in comfortably next to him and watched as Harry finished the last few lines. The sample of his potion was already bottled and sealed, so he rolled it up inside his completed work and stuck it in the pouch attached to the bird's leg, alongside a couple other scrolls.

Flitwick's response to Harry's last owl was lengthy, and included a separate parchment which essentially repeated the concerns of the other letters he'd already received that day, and encouraged Harry to come back to Hogwarts. He set this aside and focused on the few paragraphs in a different handwriting which he had come to associate with the Transfigurations professor.

...given your results, I would usually recommend holding the wand more firmly and aiming the second flick more precisely at your squirrel. As your technique is obviously lacking in the second flick, and indeed, any wand movements to speak of, I would instead suggest developing a more nuanced mental picture of the feather duster and perhaps casting with more confidence or interest in the success of your end product. I look forward to receiving a second attempt at a feather duster in addition to your rendering of a nutcracker in your next correspondence...

Harry frowned and reached over to the bird's leg, detaching the pouch with practiced fingers. It looked like he had more work to do before he could send this batch off.

"What are you doing?"

Padfoot, who moments earlier had been an ungraceful heap of dog on the other side of the fire, was now reclining on his back in human form, his face pointed toward the sky.

"Just some homework," Harry said. "I've got to re-do my transfiguration from last week."

Padfoot sat up, confused. "You have school in the summertime? Isn't it still summer?" He paused. "But you go to Hogwarts, right?"

"I went to Hogwarts," Harry corrected. "I didn't like it anymore, so I left. But I've got a deal with Flitwick, so he sends me my work without me having to be there."

"You - you left?" Padfoot looked flabbergasted. "You can't just leave Hogwarts!"

"I don't see why not," Harry said. His thoughts were already turning toward how to capture a squirrel without damaging it, so that he could transfigure the feather duster and send the owl on her way. "I didn't want to be there, so I stopped being there. It seems to have worked out well."

Padfoot rubbed his face and shook his head several times. "How did this happen? Who's supposed to be taking care of you? Why hasn't anyone-"

He broke off, frustrated. Harry got up and left him to his thoughts, intent on tracking down his squirrel.

Padfoot followed him through the forest. "Are you going back next year? It'll be, what? Your second year? Third?"

"Er, third," Harry said. "And no. Be quiet now, I'm working."

"No? I-"

Harry shushed him again and picked up his pace. Padfoot scrambled to follow, and Harry shook his head at how loud the dog-man managed to be. Canines could be so clumsy, and humans were even clumsier. Harry held up a hand and decided to compromise.

"Look, if you stay here, I'll answer a couple questions when I come back," he said. "Just don't move and don't make any noise."

Without all the warnings Padfoot brought with him, Harry managed to track and freeze a squirrel in a matter of minutes. He came back with it bobbing along behind his shoulder, and jerked his head back toward where Dobby was still sleeping near the fire.

"Let's hear it, then," he said once they sat down again. "Two questions."

"How are you doing all that magic?" Padfoot blurted. "Where's your- I mean, you don't have a wand anywhere I can see."

Harry grinned. Padfoot could be clever, then. He knew better than to waste an opportunity on rephrasing a question, at least.

"Elves don't need wands," he said. Padfoot was less than convinced, so Harry levitated the squirrel back into sight and set it to floating in front of him. With a bit of concentration, and taking into account the Transfiguration professor's notes, Harry turned it into a feather duster. It looked much better this time, and he felt satisfied as he put it in the pouch.

"How did you learn-" Padfoot paused and pressed his mouth into a line. "Why don't- no... When did y- hmm. Give me a minute."

Harry shrugged and pulled out some parchment. He scratched notes about his second feather duster while he waited for Padfoot to come up with the question he wanted answered.

"Why do you say you're an elf?" Padfoot held up a hand as Harry opened his mouth. "The real answer, not the flippant brush-off you gave me earlier."

"I say I'm an elf because I'm an elf," Harry said. Padfoot raised his eyebrows, clearly waiting for Harry to elaborate, so Harry set his quill down and explained himself. "I'm a forest elf. That means I live in the forest, I can talk to animals, and I can do a lot of things wizards can't. Which is why I don't need a wand."

Padfoot examined Harry for a long time, frowning. "That's not what I asked, though, is it?" he asked finally. "I didn't want to know what being an elf means. I asked why you say you're one."

Harry blinked and tipped his head back to study Padfoot right back. "I say I'm an elf because I am an elf," he repeated, his eyebrows pulling together. Padfoot waited as Harry settled on a more elaborate answer. "When I was younger, I was living in a house with some stale people who thought I was a house elf," he began. "Then they set me free in a park in Kent, and I realised that I was an elf, and not a stale human like I'd thought. That's when I started living like a proper forest elf."

Padfoot let his eyes wander between the fire and Harry's parchments while he absorbed this explanation. "Stale - that'd be muggle, I expect," he said. Harry thought he was mostly talking to himself, so he climbed to his feet and focused on another transfiguration he'd been thinking about since Padfoot's clothing had to be burned. The colder months were on their way, after all.

"How old were you when you were 'set free'?" Padfoot asked, his mouth twisted with some negative emotion Harry couldn't quite place. He crouched down next to Padfoot and picked up his leg by the ankle.

He examined the bottom part of Padfoot's feet while the dog-man watched, openly puzzled. "That was six or seven years ago, I think," he said after a moment's thought.

At Harry's response, Padfoot tensed and growled under his breath. Harry set his foot down and backed up to the other side of the fire, watching him. "Lily's sister and that disgusting husband of hers had better hope they're very well protected," he told Harry, who gave him an uncertain look and went back to his transfiguration. The fox fur would make decent cover for Padfoot's feet when the winter came. Harry had been thinking about the shape and thickness of the soles, and thought he could probably manage something acceptable. As a dog his feet would be fine, but Harry thought Padfoot generally needed a lot more help as a human, anyway.

Padfoot continued to mutter to himself as Harry picked the fur out of his bag and transfigured it into the fox slippers he'd thought up. When he saw that Harry meant for him to try them on, Padfoot stopped short and stared at them.

"For your feet," Harry pointed out. "For the winter. You won't need them yet, but you should try them on so I can adjust them if I need to."

The fox fur slippers fit with only minor adjustments, and Padfoot ended up wearing them almost constantly, despite winter still being a couple months away. Harry would have said something, but even looking at Padfoot sometimes made him feel cold. Instead, he gave Padfoot his ever-warm cloak to wear and kept quiet.

The night after Padfoot's human form was revealed, Dobby and Harry woke at the usual time, when the moon was fully up. Usually they would wander the forest or continue travelling until one of them wanted to sleep again, but tonight they stood over Padfoot's supine body and stared at each other.

"Should we be waking him?" Dobby asked in a loud whisper.

"He woke up on his own as a dog," Harry whispered back. He extended his foot and prodded at Padfoot's back with a toe. He was unresponsive.

"Is he okay?" Dobby asked, crouching down next to Padfoot and peering at him. Harry joined him.

"Yeah, I think he's fine. Dogs sleep a lot." They stared at Padfoot for a while longer, but eventually his soft snores became boring so they sat under a nearby tree instead and chatted quietly.

While they spoke, Harry picked up a short, fallen branch. He stripped it of most of the bark with his magic and handed it to Dobby, who paused midsentence and examined it for a long minute. He took a chunk out of the side in a graceful curve and handed it back to Harry, who twisted the narrower end into a spiral, and handed it back. Dobby tipped his head on one side and was peering at the branch with one eye closed when Padfoot let out a low moan.

Harry and Dobby looked at each other, then leaned around the tree to look at the spot where they'd left the dog-man. Padfoot whimpered and curled up in the foetal position. There was nothing near him but the walking stick he'd been carrying all day.

"Nightmares," Harry said with certainty. They watched for a while as Padfoot huddled in on himself and muttered. This also grew boring, and so they went back to their conversation.

"Dobby is thinking they will be interested, if Harry Potter doesn't mind." Dobby hollowed the wood and handed it back to Harry, who smiled at it. Behind them, Padfoot groaned.

"If you think you can pull it off."

Dobby watched as Harry examined the branch. "Dobby thinks he can. They is being friends."

Harry started carving a series of notches into the sides. "Go for it. You know I wouldn't mind helping out, if you need it."

"Dobby can handle it."

Harry grinned. "Cheers, then. How're you feeling, Padfoot?"

Padfoot fell down next to Harry and curled in on himself.

"Not well," he admitted. "Can we have a bit of light? A fire, perhaps?"

Harry summoned up a handful of flames and held it out. Padfoot hesitated.

"It's perfectly safe," Harry assured him. "Warm, but it won't burn you."

Padfoot brushed his fingers through the fire and frowned. He held out his hand so that Harry could pour the flames into it, and settled back against the tree with it cradled on his chest.

"Thanks," he said. His face was cast with strange shadows by the flickering light. His cheekbones stood out sharply. "What are you two doing up?"

"I think the more important question is, why did you sleep so long?" Harry corrected. "We've been waiting on you for ages."

Padfoot looked up through the leaves at the sky. "I've can't have been asleep more than six hours."

"You shouldn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time," Harry explained. "It's not safe, and it can't be healthy. You need proper food and proper sleep if you're going to stop looking like a skeleton."

Harry's lecture elicited a grimace from Padfoot.

"And what about you?" he asked. Harry didn't understand. He ate and slept well. He even had an extra layer of muscle from all the bow practice. He was no skeleton.

"What do you mean?"

Padfoot sat up a bit and adjusted the flames. "You should be somewhere safe, where you don't have to worry about how long you sleep."

Harry squinted. He privately thought that the sort of places Padfoot meant were undoubtedly filled with wizards, and those sort of places almost always gave him a lot more to worry about than how long he was sleeping. He preferred to have less problems, personally.

"No thanks," he said out loud.

Padfoot's continued protestations did little to change Harry's mind, and eventually Dobby piped up.

"Padfoot is not understanding the ways of the forest elf," he said in his squeaky voice. Padfoot lifted his eyebrow but remained silent, the flames flickering in his cupped hands. "Dobby used to have the same problems as Padfoot does now," he continued. "Dobby was held captive by the wizards, by their word and in Dobby's mind. But Harry Potter showed Dobby how to be free, and now Dobby will help to show Padfoot how to be free!"

Padfoot stared at Dobby, and then looked at Harry, who was grinning at Dobby.

"This is..." Padfoot rubbed his mouth with his palm, then ran his hand through his straggly hair. "This is actually a little bit mental."

"Look," Harry said. "Dobby isn't saying you should become a forest elf. I don't even think you could, honestly." He breathed in Padfoot's magic and tilted his head. While unique, Padfoot wasn't really in the same category as Harry or Dobby. He had his own thing. "We're just saying, you don't have to do things a certain way just because the wizards say that's how it works. You can live however you want to."

Padfoot looked between the two of them with his forehead furrowed. He subsided back to his slumped position against the tree and watched as the conversation picked up again without him, though Harry didn't mind. Padfoot needed time. It was perfectly obvious.

They travelled east until they ran out of land. Padfoot took in the blue skies and calm water with a smile, and they decided to stick to the coast as they meandered on a southward route. Harry and Dobby taught Padfoot how to catch fish. They ate seafood for weeks, even as they detoured around cities and populated beaches.

"Why don't we go up on the cliffs," Padfoot suggested one day. The beaches were gradually giving way to steep cliff faces, and more and more often, they found themselves picking their way through shallow, boulder strewn waves.

"We can if you want," Harry said. "I like it down here."

"Yes, but you can, you know," Padfoot waved a hand in Harry's general direction. "Avoid getting soaked if you want. Float or apparate or what have you."

Harry looked down at the water, which only lapped at his feet when a particularly large wave came in. He looked at Padfoot, who was standing knee deep and gripping a boulder for purchase.

"I'm sorry, you should have said," Harry responded, and gestured for Padfoot to come up out of the water as well. "You like the water as a dog."

"I'm okay with a lot of things as a dog," Padfoot told him, trying not to overbalance at his unexpected new height. Dobby caught his arm and steadied him.

"Would Padfoot like Dobby to dry him off?" he asked, and set about doing so at Padfoot's grateful nod. Harry walked out toward the deeper waters where the waves were more calm, and looked down at the fish darting along below. Nerin's village was less than fifty leagues from here, but Harry didn't know how to send a greeting to her family without gillyweed. Perhaps merpeople had their own version of owl post? He'd have to ask when he saw Nerin next.

"This is much better, Harry, thank you." Padfoot stood next to Harry, newly dry and looking much more cheerful for it. Harry nodded and cast a warming charm over him, just because. Padfoot gave him a pleased smile and continued. "Out of curiousity, are we on our way to anything in particular?"

Harry furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, where are we going?"

"Oh." Harry's expression cleared. "I dunno."

Padfoot blinked. "Alright. Er, in that case, do you know what month it is?"

Harry looked at him, nonplussed. Padfoot made a face.

"Do you have some idea of when it is?"

"Well," Harry said slowly. "The frost won't come at least until the next new moon. I know the equinox should be in the next couple weeks, though."

Padfoot narrowed his eyes in thought. "School will have started again."

"It will have," Harry agreed. "Flitwick and I are working on my final exams right now, and once I've finished those, he's going to start sending my third year work by weekly owl."

Padfoot must have come to terms with Harry's version of getting an education, because he only asked, "How are you taking final exams without actually being at Hogwarts?"

Harry brightened. "Flitwick put a spell on the parchments so that when I write an answer, it will show up on a copy of the parchment in his office. It's dead useful. He's been sending out my exams two at a time, and I take them when the sun is highest on the two days after they arrive, and send his owl back with the practical. Then he sends notes along with my next two exams."

Harry could tell that Padfoot was impressed with this ingenious system, and beamed. He'd thought Flitwick was rather clever for coming up with it, and it was good that Padfoot agreed.

They walked along the water until the shadows grew longer and the wind colder. Dobby took Padfoot along as they disappeared to the top of the cliff and eventually settled down in an open field under the newly emerging stars.

Padfoot transformed into a dog and curled up in a particularly mossy spot at the bottom of a slope, which served as an acceptable barrier from the wind. Harry spread the ever-warm cloak over Padfoot's fur and leaned against his back, looking up at the sky.

"Cygnus is bright tonight," Harry said, pointing it out for Dobby, whose head was somewhere near Harry's ribs. "So is Saturn."

Harry frowned as he spoke. He'd learned enough from the centaurs to know that he shouldn't necessarily consider Saturn his enemy when it was in the eleventh house, but he would have preferred to see Jupiter out on a night like tonight.

"I see the big bear," Dobby said, pointing. They talked about the different constellations for a bit, but Padfoot was already out and the combination of the warmth of the cloak and his even breathing lulled Harry into sleep without his even noticing.

The equinox passed, and Harry thought it best not to bring it up. Padfoot was starting to gain weight and colour, and had stopped looking half dead weeks ago. His nightmares only tended to get bad these days when he slept for longer than four hours at a time, which Harry took as further proof that it wasn't healthy.

The sun was high in the sky, warming them as they sat among the roots under a sprawling oak. It was one of the last warm days of the season, and they were taking full advantage. Padfoot reclined in a bright patch of sun, basking, while Dobby flipped through Harry's battered old amulet book. Harry was practicing with his bow, but had quickly run out of new ideas for tricks. He sat down under the tree and started poking through his bag while the snake watched.

"What are you looking for?" he asked, dropping from his perch on a branch down to Harry's shoulder to get a better look.

"Something fun," Harry said. He grabbed hold of something heavy, and stood up to pull it fully out of the bag. It was a small wheelbarrow, and Harry stared at it, bemused. He hadn't even remembered that was in there.

Smaller objects soon filled the wheelbarrow as Harry continued his search. Eventually, even Padfoot opened his eyes and sat up to see what Harry was doing.

"That's quite a bag," he remarked, shifting around to lean against the tree trunk next to Dobby.

"It is," Harry agreed. He had a thought, and reached into one of the smaller pockets, hoping he hadn't misplaced it...

"Aha!" He pulled out his old practice snitch. "That should do nicely."

Padfoot, Dobby, and the snake watched as Harry released the snitch. He let it flit away into the meadow and counted to ten. Then he raised his bow, took careful aim, and let his arrow fly.

At the very last second, the snitch darted to the left and Harry's arrow missed. He breathed in deeply, thrilled at the new challenge, and raised his bow again.

Dobby looked up from the book occasionally to cheer for Harry when he managed to hit the snitch. Padfoot sat in the dappled sunlight under the tree and watched Harry's game absently, a small, genuine smile settling around his eyes.

"Winter is nearly here," Harry told Padfoot a few days later. "We need to prepare."

They were hovering around the edge of a town. If Harry expected to keep all of them well fed throughout the winter, and indeed, fatten Padfoot up a bit more, he needed to be positive he had a certain amount of surplus food stored away. If they ran into a week where Harry couldn't find any game (which was entirely plausible), he didn't want to run out.

He sent Padfoot into the town as a dog to sniff around and find where the food stores were located. Dobby didn't like to go into stale towns, since most stale people reacted badly to his general appearance. Padfoot blended best as a dog, but Harry would be needed to do the actual work of getting the food. He wanted to know exactly where he was going before he went in.

While they waited, Harry and Dobby scouted around for shelter large enough to fit them. Caves usually worked well for this, though they had utilised a hunting stand for a short period last year.

"Dobby is thinking he will be leaving soon," Dobby told Harry as they crawled through a tangle of low hanging branches. Harry had vague thoughts of weaving the branches together to make a weatherproof room at the center of this patch of trees.

"You're going to head out and find your friends?" Harry asked, pausing as a stubborn patch of brambles threatened to put paid to his plan. "Will you be gone all winter?"

Dobby reached past Harry and parted the brambles to reveal still more brambles. "Dobby is thinking he will. It is being a difficult task."

"That's saying something," Harry huffed, amused. He frowned at the unrelenting bramble patch. "This is a no go. Do you have supplies?"

"Dobby does," Dobby said. Together they disappeared to a less dense part of the forest. Harry turned to Dobby and gave him a long, hard look.

"Good," Harry pronounced. Dobby beamed at him. "Good luck, Dobby. Be careful."

"We will be seeing each other again when Dobby has finished his task," Dobby vowed. "I will be finding you."

Harry grinned. "I'll even let you," he promised. Dobby beamed at him one last time, and disappeared.

"Er," Padfoot said several days later. He and Harry were scoping out a patch of forest settled between two villages. "Where did Dobby go? He's been gone awhile."

"Oh, he left," Harry said. "He's got stuff to do."

"Stuff?" Padfoot asked. A bush caught his attention, and he crouched down to look at it more closely.

"Yeah," Harry said, watching. "He probably won't be back until the weather changes again."

Padfoot lifted his eyebrows. "Is he alright?"

Harry smiled. "Of course. He came up with a brilliant plan and he's going to make it happen. Did you find something?"

He gestured to the bush Padfoot was still crouching over. Padfoot glanced at him with an unreadable expression. Instead of answering, he transformed into the dog and started sniffing around the base of the bush.

Harry followed Padfoot as he followed the scent he'd picked up, through the bush and along a nearly invisible trail for at least a few kilometers until he popped suddenly back into human form, surprising Harry.

He stood up and dusted off his hands. "Was Dobby's plan some kind of personal thing?" he asked, still staring down at the ground with focus.

Harry followed as they carried on the same trail, which tasted to him like a rabbit. He wondered if they were hunting for food instead of shelter now. "In a way," he answered. "It's something he wants to do."

"If..." Padfoot ran a hand through his hair. "If I had a plan... would I have to leave too, to make it happen?"

Harry blinked. "Well, not necessarily," he said. "Dobby's plan was something he had to do alone. If I'm there, his friends will just assume I'm his new master when he's trying to show them he's really, truly free."

Padfoot nodded, lost in thought. They walked until they found the end of the trail, the half eaten remains of the rabbit.

"Probably a fox," Harry said, examining it.

They found a cave before nightfall. Harry inspected it thoroughly and found it to be satisfactory.

"It's a bit small," he said aloud. "But it'll do unless we find something better."

"Why don't we just go up to Hogwarts?" Padfoot asked suddenly.

Harry turned to look at him, frowning. "Why would we go north for the winter?"

"There's plenty of shelter there," Padfoot said.

"There's plenty of shelter here," Harry pointed out. Padfoot looked around at the tiny cave and made a face.

"Plenty of bigger caves around Hogwarts," he pushed.

"We've got a perfectly acceptable cave right here. There's no reason to set out on a three week long walk just to be at Hogwarts," Harry snapped. "If you wanted to go north, you should have said so weeks ago."

Padfoot huffed and transformed into his dog form to sulk. The grumpy expression transferred surprisingly well.

Harry looked around the cramped cave, at the small fire already burning in the corner, at the dog curled up near it, licking his paws as though wounded by their previous conversation.

He wrinkled his nose, determined to be comfortable just to spite Padfoot. Folding his arms, Harry settled in and closed his eyes, meaning to nap.

The soft crackle of the fire soothed him, but Harry couldn't sleep. He opened his eyes and checked on Padfoot, who was finished cleaning and had sprawled out as much as he was able. After a long second of careful examination, Harry could see Padfoot's chest rising and falling. He closed his eyes.

The fifth time Harry felt compelled to slit his eyes open and check on Padfoot, he sat up and exhaled in a loud, irritated gust.

Padfoot woke at the sound and rolled his eyes up to look at Harry. He didn't move from his place sprawled out by the dying fire, and that bothered Harry for reasons he preferred not to think about, but which related to the last dog he'd known. This cave was eerily similar to the ones they had shared before they parted ways.

"Why do you want to go to Hogwarts so badly?" he asked. Padfoot continued to look at him from under sleepy eyes and shaggy fur.

It took another second for Harry's words to register, but when they did, Padfoot yawned and sat up in his human form.

"I have a plan," he said, readjusting the ever-warm cloak around his shoulders. "Like Dobby."

Harry frowned. "What is it?"

Padfoot leaned forward, and Harry watched the firelight flicker in the hopeful, sad eyes that hadn't really changed, even when the rest of him looked so much better. "What if we could catch the man who betrayed your parents and make him pay?"

Harry lifted an eyebrow. "He's at Hogwarts?"

Padfoot nodded urgently. "He's living in hiding, as a pet rat. I saw him in the paper."

Harry leaned forward, intrigued. "He's a rat?"

"He's a rat," Padfoot confirmed with a dark scowl. "In every sense of the word."

Harry pondered this. "What you're saying is, you want to go catch a tiny rat in a giant castle, and you want my help?"

Padfoot hesitated. "I probably wouldn't be able to do it alone, no," he admitted. "They're still hunting for me, I'm sure of it."

Harry settled back against the cave wall. "They'd stop though, if they knew you were innocent," Harry guessed, his face settling into understanding. "You'd be free."

"I would," Padfoot said, and Harry smiled. He could see the appeal of Hogwarts if that was the case.

He nodded slowly. "What will you do for me in return?"

"I- pardon me?"

"It's like a boon, right?" Harry blinked at Padfoot. "An equal exchange."

Padfoot looked around the small cave. "You would gain from this, too. My name would be cleared. I'd be free to give you... a home? A family?" He looked at Harry's blank expression as though he'd known those offers wouldn't work. "A top of the line broomstick?"

Harry's skepticism spurred him on to further speech.

"Well, what do you want?"

After a second's thought, Harry realised: "I don't want anything, actually." He smiled down at his hands. "That's rather nice."

Padfoot's face fell, and Harry directed the smile at him. "Don't be like that," he said. "Dobby and I got him his freedom, didn't we? We'll get you yours, too. Here's what we'll do."

He carefully moved the sleeping snake off of his bag and reached into it. A narrow cabinet rose out at his gesture, filled with hundreds of tiny drawers, each of which contained its own vial. Some of the vials contained amulets, some had potions, but Harry poked through the vials that had nothing more than thin rolls of parchment in them. Appearance was half the point, after all, and Padfoot proved it by looking properly impressed. "I've got a spell in here. We'll say it together, and then you'll owe me three wishes."

Alarmed was probably the right word for the face Padfoot made at Harry's explanation, and Harry hurried to reassure him.

"Obviously there are limits. Nothing you wouldn't or couldn't grant, nothing that involves anyone outside of the two of us, and nothing huge. I'm not a bad elf."

"And I'm not a djinn, you know," Padfoot pointed out, his knees pulled up to his chest under Harry's cloak. A small smile lurked under his still wide eyes, and Harry shrugged.

"I know." He held up the tiny roll of parchment and used it to point at Padfoot. "But you could be." He paused and tipped his head to one side. "Sort of."

Padfoot squinted at the opening of the cave, thinking hard. "If I do this, you'll go back to Hogwarts and help me capture Wormtail?"

Harry nodded, thinking of the Map. "I might as well. It shouldn't take long. I'm sure Peeves will appreciate a visit."

Padfoot hesitated for less than a second before holding out his hand to take the parchment.

Together they clasped hands and chanted the words to bind their agreement with magic. Three blue bands wrapped around Padfoot's wrist once they'd finished, and Harry examined them carefully to be certain everything was in order.

Harry let go and leaned against the cave wall again.

"Lovely," he said. "I suppose we'll get a start tomorrow, then. I can't disappear you like Dobby can, so it's going to be a long walk."

"Three weeks, you said." Padfoot frowned.

"There's no rush," Harry reminded him. "It's not like he's going anywhere, right?"

They set out the next morning. Harry was grateful they had taken the time to prepare when they still thought Dobby would be with them for the winter. Padfoot had Harry's ever-warm cloak and fox shoes, so he was largely warm enough. The temperature dropped steadily as the days passed and they moved further north.

Harry had plenty of thick animal furs to cover himself in, and was experimenting with making his own version of what Padfoot wore. So far his gloves and cloak stayed warm from dawn until well after dusk, but he still had to renew the charm regularly. He made a mental note to write Flitwick about permanency magic in their next exchange. Perhaps he'd send a book.

Three weeks passed with relative ease. When they reached the outskirts of the forest that ringed the Hogwarts grounds, the snake poked his head out from under a rabbit skin to address Harry.

"Thinking about going back to lessons?" he asked, watching with interest as Padfoot picked his way across a culvert that Harry had avoided entirely by disappearing over it. They crouched in a dry spot under the shelter of an evergreen as they waited.

"Of course not," Harry said, irritated. They had already talked about this. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason any wizards should be aware of his presence. Except perhaps Draco. "Why would I do that?"

"I just wondered," the snake said, his scales slipping nonchalance down Harry's shoulder. "Have you missed it, at all?"

Understanding dawned, and Harry huffed out soft laughter. "You miss the food, don't you?"

"The meat was ssso tender," the snake sighed. "We have not had lamb in ssso long."

Padfoot found Harry snickering as the snake bemoaned his lack of cooking ability.

"-and I have learned that the best bird is roasted in its own juices, which you simply cannot achieve with your primitive methods," the snake was lecturing. "Spits are fine for sometimes--"

"We'll visit the kitchens from time to time," Harry promised, crawling out from beneath the tree to join Padfoot as they moved deeper into the forest.

"That is all I ask of you," the snake said, satisfied.