Ron and Harry are playing Exploding Snap in their dormitory when Seamus and Neville and Dean get back. Seamus bursts in first, saying “Ron! Can you believe--”
Without looking up from his cards, Ron says “Told you.”
Harry groans, digs a Sickle out of his pocket, and hands it over.
Neither Dean nor Neville, who barreled in only seconds after Seamus, seems to know what to make of this.
“I bet Ron that Dean would beat you up the stairs,” Harry explains, and adds, to Dean, “I hope you’re happy, he’d have done my Charms homework for a week if you were a bit faster.”
There is a brief silence, as Dean and Neville and Seamus recall that Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, Savior of the Wizarding World, et cetera, is also Harry, the boy who corrects their spelling and stubbornly sides with Ron in arguments about Quidditch despite all evidence to the contrary.
“Well,” says Dean. “I’m Muggle-born, so I suppose the news wasn’t quite as exciting as it was for these two.”
Once Hogwarts is full of students again, Harry’s world gets very loud. Or rather-- there is loudness happening everywhere, except for wherever Harry happens to be, because he seems to travel in his own little bubble of quiet. No matter where he goes, there are people whispering to one another, closest in, and they get louder as they get farther away from Harry.
Ron and Hermione and Padfoot, at least, aren’t any different. And thank goodness, because nearly everyone else is being tremendously weird. The whispering is bad enough. The people who get up the nerve to actually ask him things are usually worse. Harry keeps catching people staring at his scar, and resolves to grow his hair back out. He already regrets getting a haircut before Christmas.
The revelation that Harry is the Boy Who Lived is so surprising that it even shocks Malfoy out of being unpleasant for a little while. The first time Harry crosses paths with him, the day before before classes start, Harry is on his way down to the Great Hall for breakfast, hurrying to catch up. He’s carrying his new broom-care kit, so he can go straight out to the Quidditch pitch after he eats. Malfoy, apparently an earlier riser than Harry, plows into him as Harry rounds a corner, nearly knocking them both off their feet.
But once they pick themselves back up, Malfoy doesn’t have a cutting remark ready. He just-- stares at Harry, for slightly too long to be comfortable.
“What?” says Harry.
“You’re Harry Potter,” says Malfoy. He sounds... Harry doesn’t quite know how he sounds. Shaken, perhaps. Off-balance, and not just from nearly falling over.
“Well, not currently,” says Harry. It’s one of a handful of responses he’s found himself repeating, these last few days, along with “If you insist,” and “Only technically,” and a few others.
“What do you mean, not-- you defeated the Dark Lord!”
“I was a baby,” says Harry. He’s had versions of this conversation a dozen times already. “I didn’t do it on purpose, I don’t think. What does it matter to you, anyway?”
Malfoy seems genuinely baffled, like it should matter, like the front page of the Daily Prophet has somehow changed who Harry is. “You’re supposed to be-- and you’re just, just running round with Muggles, and Weasleys, and Granger as if you don’t know any better!”
“What else would I be doing?” Harry asks. He suspects he knows the answer, and that it’s some version of “be snobby and mean to everyone but other purebloods,” but he’s a bit curious to see if Malfoy can make it sound nicer than that.
“You know,” says Malfoy, gesturing vaguely. “Meeting the right sort of people. Our sort.”
He says “our sort” with almost precisely the same tone that Harry’s mum uses to imitate someone she disagrees with.
“I think I’ve already worked out who the right sort of people are, thanks,” says Harry. “Mostly they’re the ones who don’t say awful things about my mum and dad all the time.”
“But they’re not even your real mum and dad!” says Malfoy.
Now it’s Harry turn to stare for slightly too long to be comfortable, long enough that Malfoy looks like he might actually have something like a sense of shame.
Harry says, “If you still think that, you’re definitely not the right sort,” and accidentally-on-purpose whacks Malfoy with his shoulder as he marches past him to breakfast. He doesn’t bother to look back.
We found Nicholas Flamel!! Not in a book, though. On a Chocolate Frog card, which is so silly it’s almost annoying. I know you said I shouldn’t worry about it, but it’s been bothering me all year, and it’s such a relief to have the answer. And it’s really interesting, too: Nicholas Flamel is the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone! Remember, I told you about the theory behind it when I was reading Advances in Modern Alchemy last summer, but it didn’t mention Flamel, which is a dreadful oversight, don’t you think?
Hogwarts is rather quiet otherwise. Most people have stopped making a fuss about Harry, although I do catch the Ravenclaws staring once in a while. I was a little afraid that the girls in my dormitory would get standoffish again when they found out that I knew, like they were at the start of the year. Instead they’re all very impressed that I’m friends with someone famous. Thank goodness Ron knew, too, or I wouldn’t have anyone sensible to talk to right now! But Harry’s the same person he was before, of course, and I think everyone will get used to it eventually.
I’ve read all the books I brought back with me. Please send A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet as soon as possible! Parvati wants to read them when I’m done. Also please ask Miss Howell at the bookshop whether she’s set anything aside for me.
Yes, I am remembering to floss.
Hermione Jean Granger
Dear Mum and Dad,
I finished reading Diggers and I liked it a lot. It’s very funny. It says in the back cover that there’s a third book, so please send it soon. Until then Dean lent me A Wizard of Earthsea , so I’m going to read that next.
Things are mostly back to normal, except I keep catching people staring and Draco Malfoy is still being strange. I told Neville what you said about him, Dad, and I think it helped, because at the Quidditch game last week he gave Vincent Crabbe a bloody nose. If it were anyone else I would agree with you that fighting isn’t any way to solve problems, but Ron told me what Malfoy said to start the fight and honestly you’d have hit him too.
You can tell Moony that Padfoot is okay. I know I sounded a bit worried in my last letter, but the Headmaster sorted everything out. Also, Hermione wants to know if he has any recommendations for good Defense books for beginners, because Professor Quirrell is rather useless. Most of the stuff he’s taught us I knew from Padfoot or Moony already, but Padfoot says that Moony was the only one who ever wrote anything down so we’d better ask him.
We beat Hufflepuff! I caught the Snitch really fast, everyone said they’d never seen anything like it. The whole team was really nervous because Professor Snape was the referee. I don’t know why everyone thinks he’s so scary. It didn’t even matter, though, because the game was over so quickly.
I have Herbology soon, so I’m going to give this letter to Hedwig on my way to the greenhouse. Don’t let her fly back here if it’s snowing, even if she acts like she wants to.
I wish you’d said something to me sooner about the Mirror. I understand, I do, but I’d have told you what it was and why you oughtn’t let it draw you in.
And I’d have liked to see them too, in all honesty.
I’ve enclosed a list of books for Harry and Hermione, and a second list of books that you should definitely confiscate if you see any of the kids reading them. It sounds like Quirrell’s doing slightly worse than average for a Hogwarts Defense teacher. Considering how bad the average is, they could use the extra help.
The lead on Wormtail didn’t pan out-- nothing worth missing the Quidditch game for, even a game as short as that. Can you imagine how insufferable Prongs would have been, if he’d ever caught a Snitch that fast?
I’m going to come up a day or two early for the next moon. I miss you.
I know. I’m sorry. I was being an idiot, and I knew I was being an idiot while I did it. Part of me wishes I had told you, and given you the chance. The rest is relieved I didn’t, because it certainly didn’t do me any good. Harry, either; I think he’s been having nightmares ever since, though he’s trying to be very grown-up and insists it’s nothing to be concerned about.
I’ll pass the first list on, and guard the second with my life. I like Harry’s friends, but they’re much too smart for their own good, and the rank hypocrisy of that statement isn’t lost on me. Honestly, though! They worked out what Fluffy’s guarding, entirely on their own. Now Ron and Hermione are convinced that Snape is after it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they had some compelling evidence-- he isn’t working very hard to look innocent. Harry’s not had an easy time talking them down.
Harry hasn’t let fame go to his head, thank goodness. Prongs would have such an inflated ego by now, he’d be bobbing around near the ceiling of the Great Hall. Harry just seems annoyed by the attention, and determined to wait it out. I’m afraid he might be waiting some time, though: I’ve heard most of his teachers call him “Mr. Potter” by mistake, even McGonagall. Binns hasn’t, because he thinks all his students are people who’ve been dead for eighty years, and I suppose Snape would prefer it if the name “Potter” never passed anyone’s lips ever again.
When you get here, can you have a talk with Hagrid? He’s been acting very odd.
I miss you. Love,
Dear Mother and Father,
Thank you for the cashmere gloves you sent, and for the sweets. The shop in Hogsmeade still refuses to stock anything I’ve asked for. You ought to write to them. Professor Snape also sends his thanks, and his compliments to Mother for her charmwork keeping the pastries so fresh.
I am fully recovered from the injuries inflicted by Weasley, and Crabbe and Goyle are as well. You were right, Father, brawling is beneath my dignity as a Malfoy and it’s no wonder that common, low-class Gryffindors resort to it so often. Perhaps one day they will learn the value of self-control.
It is outrageous how much the teachers favor them. Even Professor Snape cannot speak his mind on the subject, or I am sure that he would be much more severe towards
Potter Macinty Potter in his classes. Some of the Gryffindors even go visit the groundskeeper in his horrid little hut, at all hours! Someone ought to catch them at it. It would serve them right.
Have you made any progress in repealing the rule against first-years bringing their own brooms? In your last letter, it sounded like you might have. I promise that my grades will not suffer in the least if the ban is lifted.
Do you know anyone who’d like a baby Norwegian Ridgeback? Please reply at once, it’s sort of urgent because I don’t know how fast they grow. Asking for a friend.
Harry does feel guilty about losing so many points for Gryffindor. It seems as though the whole of Hogwarts is angry at them, not just his own house. Hermione can hardly summon the enthusiasm to raise her hand in class, and the burst of self-confidence Neville got from fighting Crabbe and Goyle at the Quidditch game seems to have evaporated entirely.
Padfoot is in disgrace, too. Apparently his idea of what counts as “harmless youthful hijinks” doesn’t match up with Professor McGonagall’s at all.
And there’s still a detention to serve. Harry spends a few days dreading it. Ron tries to cheer him up by telling him about some of the detentions the twins have had, but that really only makes things worse.
Harry expects an evening spent cleaning out the Owlery, or chopping potions ingredients til his eyes water, or something else tedious and bad-smelling. He could manage that, he thinks, if not enjoy it. Though when he remembers that Malfoy will be there too, he resigns himself to an even-less-pleasant time.
Instead, to his surprise, Filch leads them out onto the grounds, down to Hagrid’s hut, where Hagrid is waiting with Fang and Padfoot at his heels. They’re going into the Forbidden Forest, it seems.
Neville and Hermione are nervous, and Malfoy outright panicked, but Harry has to fight back a smile. Padfoot has told him lots of stories about the Forest. There are dangerous things, to be sure, but known dangers aren’t nearly as frightening, especially with someone along who’s already faced them. And since Padfoot will be there, Harry’s detention suddenly feels more like an adventure than a punishment. Even if there is something in the Forest hurting unicorns.
Malfoy makes a dreadful fuss about werewolves, and refuses to be left alone with only Fang for protection, which is just typical. So Hagrid sends Harry and Hermione and Padfoot off in one direction, and goes the other way with Neville and Malfoy and Fang.
After they’ve gone far enough, Padfoot turns into Sirius, which seems to make Hermione feel better.
“You’re really not worried?” she asks him. “Draco seemed positive we were all about to be savaged by werewolves.”
“Nah,” Sirius says shortly. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“It’s waxing gibbous, anyway, look,” Harry points out.
Hermione cranes her neck up at the sky, at the bright moon beaming down at them through the branches. “Oh!” she says. “Of course it is. I’m being silly.”
“You’ll hear a lot of nonsense about werewolves from kids like Malfoy,” Sirius says. “They’re a useful sort of bogeyman in some pureblood families.”
This has a bit of an edge to it, which Hermione misses entirely. “Draco ought to know better,” she says. “It’s in the Defense textbook! Werewolves only transform at the full moon.”
“We haven’t got that far in the book yet, have we?” asks Harry.
“Well, I did read ahead,” she concedes.
There’s a strange noise up ahead, then: a dragging, slithering sound.
“Hush a moment,” Sirius says, putting a hand up to stop them, but it’s gone. They all stand there, straining to hear in the silent forest.
“Padfoot has better ears,” says Sirius, and transforms.
He leads them on a little farther. The next noise is loud enough for Harry and Hermione to hear just fine on their own, though, and Harry thinks he sees something moving, in the trees up ahead. Hermione gasps, and freezes beside him.
“It’s all right,” Harry says. Padfoot’s tail is wagging.
It’s quite exciting, to meet a centaur.
“It’s Ronan, isn’t it?” Sirius asks, having transformed again. “We met a few months ago, I think-- I was with Hagrid.”
“Good evening to you,” says Ronan.
“This is my godson Harry, and his friend Hermione,” says Sirius, in much the same way that Harry’s mum might introduce Harry to one of her colleagues from work. “They’re both students up at Hogwarts.”
"Good evening," says Ronan. "Students, are you? And do you learn much, up at the school?"
“Er,” says Harry.
“A bit,” says Hermione, very faintly.
If this were one of Harry’s mum’s colleagues, he’d be in for a pop quiz right about now. Really, if more of his mum’s colleagues were centaurs, Harry doesn’t think he’d mind the pop quizzes very much.
But Ronan just says, “A bit. Well, that's something,” and turns his face up towards the sky. “Mars is bright tonight,” he says. “But the Dog Star is hidden.”
“There’s an injured unicorn,” says Sirius. “Hagrid’s following the other end of the trail. Have you seen anything?”
Ronan goes on staring at the sky. "Always the innocent are the first victims," he says, after a while. "So it has been for ages past, so it is now."
“You’re not wrong,” says Sirius, “but I meant in a more specific sense.”
“Mars is bright tonight,” Ronan says again. When Sirius makes a yes, and? sort of expression, Ronan only adds, “Unusually bright.”
“So nothing strictly unicorn-related, then,” says Harry.
The only answer Ronan gives, after a bit of a wait, is that “the forest hides many secrets.”
There’s movement in the trees. Another centaur, wilder-looking, with black hair on his horse half and darker skin than Ronan on his human half, joins them in the clearing.
“Do you know that one?” Hermione whispers to Sirius.
“Don’t think so,” Sirius replies.
“Good evening,” the second centaur says. “It’s been some time since I saw you last.”
Sirius frowns “It’s… Bane, then, right?” he asks.
“You had more legs, then,” Bane says. “And less good sense.”
“Sounds about right,” says Sirius. “Listen, we’re trying to find an injured unicorn. Do you know anything?”
Bane nods. “The Dog Star is hidden still,” he says. To Ronan, he adds, “and Mars is bright tonight.”
“Right,” says Sirius. “Thanks.”
Of course, Malfoy has to ruin things for everyone. Hagrid’s so annoyed that he sends Harry and Padfoot off with him instead of Neville. He apologizes for it, in a whisper that’s much too loud for Harry to hope no one else can hear it. “But he'll have a harder time frightenin' the two of you, an' we've gotta get this done," he says.
So Harry sets off into the heart of the forest with Padfoot and Malfoy and Fang. Without Hagrid to protect him or Neville to frighten, Malfoy starts to get nervous again. He keeps wittering on about werewolves, and what they ought to do if they run across one.
“I dunno,” mutters Harry, too low for anyone but Padfoot to hear, “offer him a cup of tea and a chocolate bar? Ask if he’s read any good books lately?”
Padfoot can’t laugh, exactly, when he’s dog-shaped, but Harry knows his I’d-be-laughing-if-I-were-the-right-species-for-it bark very well. Malfoy doesn’t, and it makes him even more skittish.
But the trail is easier to follow the further they they go, even as the forest grows thicker and harder to push through. Harry starts walking directly behind Padfoot, who’s big enough to trample down the undergrowth a little. He considers suggesting that Malfoy do the same with Fang, but decides against it.
It looks like there might be a clearing up ahead. Harry sees something bright white through the trees, gleaming on the ground. Malfoy swats a branch out of his face, grumbling, and then notices that Padfoot-- and Harry, behind him-- have gone absolutely still.
It is the unicorn, and it’s dead. Harry doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything so beautiful, or so sad. It lies as if it’s only just fallen, unexpectedly, its legs at odd angles. Harry feels as though he ought to do something-- turn it properly onto its side, arrange the shining mane so it’s not tangled about the poor thing’s face. He’s never seen something dead like this before, that he can remember. Goldfish don’t count.
Harry takes a step forward, and then freezes again. Padfoot is growling, very low, just loud enough to hear. And there’s something else, too, some other noise-- a slithering, dragging sound.
Out of the shadows, a hooded shape comes crawling across the ground. It’s like something out of a horror film, the kind Harry’s not supposed to watch til he’s older. When the cloaked figure reaches the unicorn, it lowers its head over the wound in the animal's side, and begins to drink its blood.
Everything is so quiet that the next sound Harry hears nearly frightens him out of his skin. It’s Malfoy, of course.
Sirius claps his hand over Malfoy’s mouth before he gets most of the way through screaming, but it’s already too late. Harry turns back to the clearing to see the hooded figure raise its head and rise to its feet. It has unicorn blood all down its front, Harry notices, in a cold, removed sort of way. He feels frozen to the spot. Fang has already bolted.
“Both of you, run,” says Sirius. “I’m right behind you. Go!”
He gives Harry a shove, not hard but enough to jolt him into action. His head hurts like it’s splitting in half. Harry grabs Malfoy’s arm, and starts to run.
They don’t get far before Harry hears something trampling through the forest towards them. For a heart-stopping moment, Harry thinks that the hooded figure has got ahead of them somehow, but then a centaur comes crashing through the trees, and leaps clean over Harry and Malfoy both.
“Aaaaah!” Malfoy yells again, and stumbles. Harry still feels like his head is on fire, and finds that he can’t keep his feet either. But Sirius is there, helping Harry up, patting at him to make sure he isn’t injured.
“Are you all right?” the centaur asks. He looks younger than the other two, palomino with fair hair and bright blue eyes.
“Yes -- thank you -- stop fussing ,” Harry says, this last to Sirius.
“What was that?” Malfoy demands, his voice too high and too loud. “Who are you? What’s going on ?”
This centaur doesn’t seem any keener to answer questions than the other ones had been. "You are the Potter boy," he says. "You had better get back to Hagrid. The forest is not safe at this time -- especially for you. Can you ride? It will be quicker this way.”
He adds, frowning at Sirius, “Best you keep close, Animagus.”
“Right,” Sirius says. “Up you get. You too, Draco,” he adds, helping them both up onto the centaur’s back. Malfoy looks as though he’d like to protest, but he’s still too frightened. A distant part of Harry wants to point out that he’s the MacIntyre boy, actually, but the rest of him hasn’t yet caught up.
“My name is Firenze,” the centaur says. Sirius nods, and changes back into Padfoot.
Before they can go far, though, Harry hears the sound of more galloping from somewhere past the trees behind them. In what seems like the blink of an eye, Ronan and Bane are flanking them, and both centaurs look furious. Padfoot growls at them, his ears flat and his hackles up, but they hardly pay him any notice.
Harry doesn’t understand what the centaurs are shouting at each other about, and he’s too distracted to make sense of it. Padfoot is too close for comfort to their great heavy hooves, and Malfoy, sitting behind him, is clutching Harry’s middle tight enough to hurt. His head throbs, and his thoughts are fuzzy.
The argument doesn’t last long, anyway. Firenze gives up on shouting at the other two, and takes off into the forest at a gallop, Padfoot racing along behind them. Ronan and Bane don’t follow. After a little while, Firenze slows to a walk, and warns Harry and Malfoy to look out for low-hanging branches.
For the first time since they found the clearing, Harry’s heart stops pounding quite so fast. Malfoy must calm down a little as well, because he stops trying to squeeze all the air out of Harry.
He’s the first one to find his voice again, too. “I want to know what’s going on,” he says. It sounds like a bad impression of his normal voice: like he’s trying to be proud and imperious, and failing.
It’s a question worth asking, anyway. “So do I,” says Harry. “What was that thing? What were Ronan and Bane so upset about?”
“What?” says Malfoy. “Who are Ronan and --”
“The other centaurs,” Harry says.
“How do you -- no. No!” Malfoy says. He pushes away from Harry, and clambers ungracefully down from Firenze’s back. “I am not going anywhere with you lot until someone tells me what just happened!”
“Do you know what unicorn blood is used for?" Firenze says.
“Nothing good,” says Sirius. He goes to Harry, to help him down, but Harry shakes his head and climbs to the ground himself. He still feels a little wobbly on his feet, but Sirius is right there with a hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
Malfoy seems to be knocked even farther off-kilter by this, though. “Your dog’s an Animagus,” he says faintly.
“It is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn," said Firenze. "Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."
Malfoy, already paler than usual, goes paler still, almost greeny-white. Sirius looks grim.
"But who'd be that desperate?" Harry asks. "If you're going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn't it?"
"It is," Firenze agrees, "unless all you need is to stay alive long enough to drink something else -- something that will bring you back to full strength and power -- something that will mean you can never die. Do any of you know what is hidden in the school at this very moment?"
“Yes,” says Sirius.
“Of course,” says Harry.
“No!” says Malfoy.
Firenze goes on ignoring Malfoy. Centaurs are very single-minded, Harry decides.
"Can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power,” Firenze says, “who has clung to life, awaiting their chance?"
Everything goes cold again. Harry feels as if someone has replaced his heart with a ball of ice.
“No,” says Sirius. Harry has never seen him look afraid before, not really. Not like this. “You can’t mean -- he’s dead. He’s dead, it’s over --”
“What is he talking about?” Malfoy says. He looks to Harry, pleadingly, as if Harry is the only person around who might make the least bit of sense.
“He means,” Harry croaks, “that was Vol --”
"Harry! Harry, are you all right?"
Hermione comes running toward them down the path, Hagrid puffing along behind her. Sirius changes into Padfoot and goes to sit at Harry’s side, leaning into him.
“We’re fine,” Harry says. “I think. The unicorn’s dead, Hagrid, it's in that clearing back there."
"This is where I leave you," Firenze says. He nods at Padfoot. "You are safe now. The skies are clearing.”
“Thank you,” says Harry. He elbows Malfoy, and after a confused moment Malfoy stammers a thank-you as well.
"Good luck, Harry Potter,” Firenze says. “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times."
After Firenze canters off into the forest, Harry remembers to shout after him, uselessly, “It’s MacIntyre, actually!”
All Harry wants to do is trudge back up to the castle and fall over in his own bed. But Hermione is staring at him, and Malfoy is staring at Padfoot, both of them full of questions about to spill out into the air.
Hermione puts the pieces together first, quick as ever. “Neville’s gone back already,” she says. She glances sidelong at Malfoy. “Did he...?”
“Yeah,” says Harry.
“Granger knows about all this?” Malfoy says.
Hermione draws herself up into her most heavily inflated state of self-righteous know-it-all-ness. Harry has never been more grateful to have her for a friend.
“Some people can be trusted with important secrets,” she says. “Can you?”
“Of course I can!” Malfoy says, too angry at the insult to be afraid, or even to remember how he normally treats Hermione.
“Then prove it,” Harry says. “If you want to know what’s happening, prove we can trust you with it.”
“My word of honor as a Malfoy,” he says, without hesitation. He holds his hand out, and looks expectant. There is a long, silent moment. Padfoot’s tail thumps in the dirt behind Harry -- once, twice.
“All right,” Harry says. He shakes Malfoy’s hand. “But -- in the morning, yeah?”
All three of them remember, at more or less the same time, that it is extremely late at night, and they’ve all spent quite a lot of time running around frightened out of their wits.
“...Fine,” says Draco, and fights back a yawn.
For all that he’s exhausted, Draco doesn’t sleep very well that night. Every time he manages to drift off, even a bit, he sees that awful thing in the Forest, coming towards him across the clearing, lurching like its knees are on backwards and dripping with unicorn blood.
Eventually he gives up on sleep entirely. Draco stares at the ceiling to wait for dawn, with nothing but his thoughts and Goyle’s snoring for company. Granger’s voice keeps playing itself on a loop in his head, over and over, which he would ordinarily find intolerable.
Some people can be trusted with important secrets -- can you?
But everything else he can think of is just as bad, or worse: the hooded figure hunched over the unicorn. That centaur -- can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power? The Animagus, appearing out of nowhere -- both of you, run. I’m right behind you. Go! And Potter -- MacIntyre -- Harry looking as if he might faint, his scar standing out pale against his forehead, saying he means, that was Vol --
It’s nonsense. Has to be. The Dark Lord is dead; Harry ought to know, of all people.
Anyway, the Dark Lord would never lower himself to tramping around in the woods, looking for unicorns to kill.That doesn’t sound anything like the Voldemort Draco’s heard stories about, the nights his father’s friends stayed late after dinner, and he listened at the door when he was meant to be in bed.
Father doesn’t talk about the war very much. Draco’s asked, a few times, when he was younger, but Father usually just says something about Imperius muddling his memory, and changes the subject.
“He was a very powerful and charismatic wizard,” he told Draco, once, the most he’s ever said on the matter. “It is... regrettable, I would say, that a handful of extremists have tarnished his name so badly. Now, of course, anyone who does not repudiate his ideas is treated with suspicion.”
Which can’t at all be reconciled with the shambling creature Draco saw. Even the centaur had more dignity that that. Even Hagrid has more dignity than that.
There must be some mistake, that’s all.
Though that still leaves the matter of the Animagus.
When it’s finally technically very early in the morning, rather than very late at night, Draco gets up and dresses and makes his way up to the Great Hall. None of his dormitory mates so much as stir. The Hall is nearly empty, when he arrives for breakfast: no teachers, just a few frazzled Ravenclaws squabbling over their exam notes in the corner.
Draco sit down to eggs and toast. He feels a bit more like himself by the time Harry and Granger and Weasley arrive, Harry’s black dog trailing behind him. None of them look like they slept well, either, which Draco finds obscurely pleasing.
He studiously ignores them, though it’s hard to miss the significant looks they keep aiming in his direction. They bolt their breakfasts -- no manners at all -- and as they pass him on their way out, Granger whispers, “Fourth floor, east corridor, third door on the left.”
“Knock twice!” Weasley adds, a little too loud. Granger shushes him.
Draco has to exert a truly phenomenal amount of self-control to stay in his seat and finish his breakfast at his normal, leisurely pace, rather than sprinting after them the moment they’re through the door. He manages it, but only just.
When he does leave, it must be said: he sets a brisker pace than usual.
He finds the door, knocks twice, and after a moment and some muffled whispering, it opens to admit him.
Weasley looks wary. Granger looks keen, but it’s a more nervous keenness than usual. Harry is sitting on the floor by the window, half leaned up against his dog. His Animagus dog, which Draco has a great many questions about.
They look rather awful, boy and dog both.
“Well,” says Granger. She’s clutching a notebook. “I’m sure you have some questions.”
“Not for you ,” Draco says. Trust Granger to put herself in charge, even at a time like this!
“Ron and Hermione know everything I’d tell you,” says Harry. “And if you can’t be decent to them, you can go on not knowing.”
Draco wants to protest, but he wants to know even more.
“I made up -- well, a sort of dossier, I suppose,” Granger says. “After Halloween. The Daily Prophet made the first ten pages rather obsolete, though.”
“Thank goodness for small mercies,” says Weasley, which gets a weak laugh from Harry and an “Honestly, Ron!” from Granger. The Animagus perks up a bit, even.
“Hang on,” says Draco, “you’ve both known about all this since Halloween?”
“Only the Harry and Padfoot parts,” says Weasley. “The You-Know-Who stuff is new.”
Draco’s memory helpfully provides yet another play-through of the hooded creature and the dead unicorn, which he does not need or appreciate. He shivers without meaning to, and says “That’s not -- that can’t really have been the Dark Lord. It’s nonsense. He’s dead.”
“I think it was him,” Harry says.
Suddenly the dog turns back into a man, sitting next to Harry on the floor. “It’s not. It isn’t possible,” he says.
“Oh good, the argument were were up half the night with,” says Granger. “I so hoped we’d have another go-round.”
Now that it’s daylight and Draco isn’t terrified out of his wits, the Animagus is just a man, a lanky black-haired wizard in Muggle clothes, with dark circles under his eyes.
“My scar hurt when he looked at me,” Harry says.
“You’ve been having headaches all year, don’t think I haven’t noticed,” says the Animagus. “Your mum wants to send you to a migraine clinic when you get home, she’s that worried.”
“But Firenze said -- ”
“Centaurs talk all sorts of nonsense, and most of it only makes any sense to other centaurs,” says the Animagus.
Weasley says, “I still think we should -- ”
“I’ve written Moony and I’ll speak to the Headmaster,” says the Animagus. “We’re not involving the Ministry, with no proof of anything.”
Granger says “But what if -- ” and Harry and the Animagus cut her off in unison.
“It’s not Snape!”
“Will someone,” says Draco, “please tell me what on earth is happening?”
They all look a bit startled, as if they’d forgotten he was there.
The Animagus sighs, and heaves himself up to his feet. “Right,” he says. “Hello Draco, I’m your cousin. Don’t worry, the murder charges were a frame-up, but if you tell anyone you’ll probably get me killed, so I hope you’re more trustworthy than your father.”
“Padfoot!” Harry says, glaring, and swats him on the arm. “Don’t make things worse!”
The talk with Draco doesn’t go as badly as it could have, in that Sirius doesn't think he’s going to go running to tell the nearest Death Eater right away. He goes very pale and set for most of it, visibly struggling to keep his expression from giving away too much. He blanches, though, when the matter of Azkaban comes up.
Well, fair enough. Sirius doesn’t like talking about it any better. There’s a reason he foists the job off on Remus, when he can. But he can’t fall to pieces, not now, even when most of him is roiling with panic and unease. Harry doesn’t need him unraveling, on top of everything else. No matter how little he likes talking about Azkaban.
“But -- how could anyone get sent there by mistake?” Draco asks. “There were trials, and things, weren’t there?”
“Not for me,” Sirius says. This part is easier, somehow: it’s not down to anything he did, or didn’t do. “Suppose they didn't think they needed to bother. Open and shut case, on the face of it, and by the time I came to my senses at all I was already locked away.”
“I didn't know that part,” says Hermione, frowning. “Were there a lot of people sentenced without trial? That's horribly illegal, it contravenes all sorts of statutes--”
“As far as I know, there were only a handful, and the rest really were Death Eaters,” Sirius says. “Don't let it worry you too much.”
From the way Hermione frowns, and starts scribbling in her notebook, Sirius suspects she is going to let it worry her, a bit. Bless her tender heart, Caro would say. If you think it’s wrong, do something, Lily would say. Don’t dither.
“So you escaped,” Draco says, “because you're an Animagus, and you went and found Harry and rescued him from the Muggles?”
Sirius can’t help but laugh. “Other way round, I'm afraid,” he says. There’s no explaining it, to someone whose whole world fits neatly into only the places where Muggles aren’t.
“Mum and Dad were a bit put out at first, that he hadn’t told them the truth from the start,” Harry says, “but they came round really quickly. Mum says Padfoot’s more than paid for himself in babysitting by now.”
Draco clearly has no idea how to respond to that. He’s saved by Hermione, who reminds Harry and Ron that they’ve got class in ten minutes and chivvies them out the door. Leaving Sirius and Draco, staring at each other from either end of the empty classroom.
“You’re sure it wasn't really him, right?” Draco says.
Sirius doesn’t want to scare the boy -- or, rather, he doesn’t want to scare him so much that he fucks everything up for everyone else. “In my experience, anyone who tells you they're sure of anything, isn’t.”
That's no help at all, of course, so he amends this with “I don't think it’s him, and I’m hoping the Headmaster will agree with me. But I don't like lying, so I won't tell you I'm certain when I'm not.”
Draco shudders. “But it was so… messy. I though the Dark Lord was supposed to be, you know. Lordly.”
Sirius hesitates. He knows what he wants to say on the matter of Voldemort, which is mostly vocabulary Draco shouldn’t know yet. And he knows what it would sound like if he tried to put the way things really felt, back in wartime, into words. But he’s had ten years or so to think about what he might have said to Regulus, if he’d ever had the chance, so he’s not flying entirely blind.
“He liked for people to think so, I know that. But maybe I'm the wrong person to ask,” he says. “Every time I ever saw him he was trying to kill someone I cared about.”
“But,” Draco says. “I mean. If you hadn’t.”
“Hadn’t what?” Sirius asks. “Been a blood traitor? Cared about people who weren’t purebloods?” He doesn’t quite shout. He’s trying not to, anyway. Draco doesn’t know , he reminds himself. He’s a child, same as Harry, and he’s been kept in the dark.
“Well,” Sirius says, and thinks about it. Gets up, paces a bit, sits back down next to Draco. He searches for the lightest way he can manage to say it. God, but he wishes that Remus were here; he does a poor impression on his own. “I wasn't much for all the noble and most ancient business, really, and oh, didn't my parents let me know it. But I've never once regretted the side I chose. Does your mum talk about her family, much?”
Draco shakes his head.
“Let’s see,” Sirius says. “Bella’s in Azkaban, and more than earned her place. Regulus did believe in blood, honor, dulce et decorum est, all that nonsense. I still don’t know how he died, only that he did. Your mum stayed out of it, and Andromeda ran off with a Muggle-born. From what I hear, they're happy enough. And I’m a fugitive.”
“Couldn't you have stayed out of it, too?” Draco asks.
Sirius wants to say -- oh, all sorts of things.
Of course I fucking couldn’t, you pampered, coddled -- no.
Sure, so long as I never looked myself in the mirror again for the rest of my life.
Well, everyone else was doing it, and we hadn’t learnt about peer pressure yet in those days.
You little idiot, staying out of it was choosing a side, too.
He settles, after some thought and a few deep breaths, on, “When everyone around you is in danger, standing aside means you can’t do anything to protect the people you care about.”
Not that he did much protecting, when it counted.
He looks at Draco, steady as he can, and hopes like hell his words are sinking in. “I don’t want any of you, ever, to have to know what that feels like.”
Draco still doesn’t look like he understands, not really, but he sets his sharp little chin and nods. “All right,” he says. “I won’t tell about that thing in the forest, or -- you. I can keep a secret.”
“Thank you,” Sirius says. “Do you want me or Harry to tell you, if we ever do find out what it was?”
“Yes please,” says Draco. He looks surprised, for a moment, at his own unexpected politeness.
Maybe Harry’s being a good influence already. Sirius can hope.
For those who know the more tragic histories of the wizarding world in any detail, there are certain patterns that emerge to the discerning eye. Again and again, it seems, young witches and wizards are abandoned, betrayed, even doomed by their elders, for reasons that seem petty or perverse with the clarity of hindsight.
Young Ariana Dumbledore, long forgotten, was cut down through no fault of her own. Eileen Prince raised her son in a cold and loveless house, where he learned that he could not expect affection or kindness, nor entrust them to anyone else. The elder Evanses, for all that theirs was a happier home, failed to recognize the growing rift between their daughters; if they saw it, they could not patch it well enough to hold. The noble and most ancient house of Black, of course, provides a great many instructive examples. Even Tom Riddle was a child, once, consigned to a miserable, neglected youth by mere accidents of birth.
In all such cases, over and over again, the same question arises: why wasn’t anyone paying attention?
Why was there no adult, no sober, responsible, caring person, who saw the suffering children in their midst, and intervened? It seems so clear, after the fact, that such and such a sequence of events would lead inevitably to disaster. Why was it not prevented?
A villain is sought. Perhaps there is someone to blame. Someone with authority, someone who could have changed things, and chose not to. Perhaps someone wanted these tragedies to happen. Perhaps some intricate plot required them, to achieve some obscure and lofty greater good.
Here is a terrible secret:
Sometimes, even with all the will in the world, with sober, caring, responsible people on every side, the disaster happens anyway. Sometimes adults are not nearly so wise and capable as they seem, in the eyes of a child, no matter how hard they try. Sometimes all it takes is a blind spot, a misstep, a momentary lapse in one’s constant vigilance.
Later, it will seem obvious. If only someone had been looking a little closer! If only someone had listened a little better. It would have been so easy to change things, they will say.
But in the moment, there are only ever ordinary people, trying to make the right choices. Still feeling like children doing their best impressions of grown-ups, no matter how old they grow.
For what it’s worth, the adults in question will certainly blame themselves, after the fact. But their sins are not unreasonable ones.
To answer the first and most obvious question: when the moment arrives, Harry’s godfather is not there. It’s been two days since the full moon, and Remus is having a worse time of it than usual. Harry’s parents ask Sirius to stay a little longer. They hardly see him anymore, after all. He lets himself be persuaded. All perfectly unremarkable things, in the moment.
“See Professor Dumbledore?” Professor McGonagall repeated, as though this was a very fishy thing to want to do. “Why?”
Albus Dumbledore underestimates his bright and resourceful students. He set a trap for Quirrell, left it baited all year, knowing he was mixed up in something Dark. Dumbledore fears that the ghost of Tom Riddle might show himself, and hopes for some other explanation. It never occurs to him that Harry and his young friends could not only uncover but solve a puzzle intended for someone else entirely. Until they do it, of course.
“Professor Dumbledore is a very great wizard, Potter, he has many demands on his time –”
“But this is important – and it’s MacIntyre, actually–”
In the ordinary way of things, Minerva McGonagall knows that when children seem truly distressed they almost certainly have a good reason. They shouldn’t be shooed away from the grown-up concerns they already know too much about. But she has worries of her own. There is Quirrell, of course, and the way that Albus grows increasingly tight-lipped and inscrutable over the course of the year. The fear that You-Know-Who might return plagues her. So many of her students are living reminders of what the last war cost.
"MacIntyre, I know what I’m talking about,” she said shortly. She bent down and gathered up the fallen books. “I suggest you all go back outside and enjoy the sunshine.“
(In her fleeting moments of free time, Minerva has been sounding out Ministry officials, hoping to find one who might be convinced that a notorious, long-vanished convict deserves the fair trial he never got in the first place. It hasn’t been a success.)
As for Severus Snape, well. There is one student in particular who reminds him, very painfully, of what the war cost, and he has done his level best to pretend as though that student does not exist. This determined blindness extends, unfortunately, to the student’s closest friends, and so he does not notice when their suspicions of him reach a tipping point, and spur them into action.
"It’s tonight,” said Harry, once he was sure Professor McGonagall was out of earshot.
This is how it happens. It’s no one’s fault, not really. The adults will look back, later, and see all the places where they could have done something else, something better. Paid more attention, been more responsible. The children, left to their own devices, will triumph or fall on their own, and it will not occur to them to wonder why no one stopped them.
In this case, all ends happily enough. The children are clever, brave, resourceful and kind, exactly the sort of young wizards (and witch) that Hogwarts always hopes to produce. They solve the puzzles. They stop the villain. No one important dies.
But they should not have been left to do it alone.
Harry spends three days in the infirmary, but he doesn’t remember them. If he really works at it, he has a vague recollection of being carried, held carefully and close; of lights going on and off, and grown-up voices murmuring around him in low, worried tones.
He thinks he might hear the lullabye his mother used to sing to him, when he was smaller: come away, o human child / to the waters and the wild / with a fairy, hand in hand / for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
It sounds like Padfoot singing it, almost, but his voice is hoarse and cracked.
When Harry does wake up properly, it takes him a moment to get his bearings. He looks around wildly: he’s in the hospital wing. Sirius is asleep sitting up in a chair against the wall, next to an enormous pile of sweets and fruit and flowers. And Albus Dumbledore stands at the foot of his bed, smiling kindly at him.
“Good afternoon, Harry,” he says, very softly, so as not to wake Sirius.
Harry and Dumbledore talk, but the conversation leaves Harry nearly as confused as he’d started. Just thinking about it makes him tired. He drifts off again for a bit, the Headmaster’s words rattling around in his head: to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure -- fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself -- why, he may never return to power -- it was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.
The next time Harry wakes up, Padfoot is dog-shaped and curled up at the foot of the bed. He doesn’t change back, even after Harry convinces Madame Pomfrey to let Ron and Hermione in for a few minutes. When Harry tells the story of what happened in front of the Mirror of Erised, Ron and Hermione gasp in all the right places, but Padfoot sets his ears back and growls.
"So what happened to you two?" Harry asks, at the end of the tale.
"Well, I got back all right," says Hermione. "I brought Ron round -- that took a while -- and we’d hardly left the third floor before we nearly collided with Malfoy and Professor Snape.”
“Malfoy and Snape!” Harry can hardly believe it.
“Guess Malfoy’d been keeping an eye on Snape after all,” says Ron. “He said he heard Dumbledore had gone and thought the same thing we did. So Malfoy got nervous and decided to sneak out and find us, and when he found Neville Petrified instead he ran off to owl Padfoot.”
Padfoot makes an assenting noise at this, but he still doesn’t change shape.
“But on the way back down he got caught,” says Hermione, “by Professor Snape, which I suppose is lucky because we were wrong about that part. And Malfoy told him everything. And thank goodness, because Snape sent word to Professor Dumbledore on the spot! He was dragging Malfoy up to the Headmaster’s office to explain himself when they ran into us.”
“So we got dragged along. Could have been worse, I suppose,” Ron says philosophically. “I think Malfoy’s had the bullying frightened out of him.”
“We only saw Dumbledore for a moment,” says Hermione. “He just said, 'Harry's gone after him, hasn't he?' and hurtled off to the third floor.”
They talk for a little while longer, until Madame Pomfrey shoos Ron and Hermione out. Padfoot gets up then, too, hops down from the bed and stretches, but doesn’t change back. He just helps Madame Pomfrey herd Ron and Hermione the rest of the way out into the hall. He hasn’t come back yet when Harry falls asleep.
Harry’s alone when he wakes, but he can hear voices close by, trying to keep quiet: Sirius, human again, and Hagrid. It’s dark, though Harry’s still too tired and too muddled to know whether that means it’s night-time or if the lights are just out.
“-- ruddy fault!” Hagrid says, nearly at full volume, but he drops back to a whisper after Sirius shushes him. “It was the only thing he didn't know, an' I told him! He could've died! All fer a dragon egg!”
“You couldn’t have known,” says Sirius. “Not when I wasn’t even--”
“I’ll never drink again!” says Hagrid. “I should be chucked out an' made ter live as a Muggle!"
“No,” says Sirius, “but even if you were, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Harry’s parents--”
Their voices drop lower, or they move towards the door, away from Harry.
The last thing Harry makes out properly is Hagrid, saying “I’ll make it up to him. To both of yer. I’ll go right now--”
A few minutes later, Padfoot jumps back up onto the foot of the bed. Harry pretends to be more asleep than he is, at first, and soon he’s not pretending at all.
When he wakes, in the morning, Harry feels nearly back to normal. But he doesn’t get up right away: he knows that if he does, Padfoot will get up too, and he’ll have to ask why Padfoot doesn’t want to talk to him. Harry has a pretty good guess at what the answer is.
But then Madame Pomfrey bustles in. “You have visitors, Mr. Potter!”
Harry’s eyes pop open, and “It’s MacIntyre, actually,” falls out of his mouth more or less automatically. He sits up in bed. He can hear the rumble of Hagrid’s voice in the corridor, and other voices with him.
Padfoot’s ears are pricked up for the first time since Harry woke in the infirmary, and his tail thumps against the coverlet. He jumps down, and changes back to Sirius a moment before Madame Pomfrey draws back the curtain round Harry’s bed.
Hagrid is there, and Remus, who’s a bit too worn and weary for Harry’s liking. But Harry’s attention is only on them for a moment. Because behind them, looking bewildered but relieved, are Harry’s mum and dad.
“Oh, darling ,” says Caroline, and she rushes towards him, with Tim a step behind.
Harry is much too old to cry, but then again practically all of the grown-ups around him are crying too. So that must be all right.
(somewhere on the other side of the comforting wall Harry’s parents have formed around him, after everyone has calmed down a bit, Sirius says, “But I thought that Muggles couldn’t--”
“Ask Hagrid,” says Remus. “He worked it out.”
“I’m not groundskeeper fer nothin’,” Hagrid says. “And I said I’d make it up to yer.”)
“To Mr. Draco Malfoy, for having the good sense to ask for help when he needed it, I award ten points,” Dumbledore begins, nodding vaguely in the direction of not blatantly favoring Gryffindor in all things. He promptly gives up the pretense, and drags Gryffindor up from dead last to a first-place tie on the flimsiest of excuses.
Throughout all this, Severus is forced to sit at the high table and maintain a calm demeanor, while the Headmaster upends the point totals with total disregard for fairness or tradition. He is, therefore, in a foul mood by the end of the leaving feast, fleeing the Great Hall and its clashing decorations of red, gold, silver and green as soon as he can manage a decorous exit.
On his way to the dungeons, he has a brief but wildly unpleasant run-in with Black (who is at least dog-shaped for the duration), Lupin, Hagrid, and a pair of Muggles. They ought not be anywhere near Hogwarts at all, let alone be introduced to him with careful politeness, or shake his hand, or thank him for helping to look after their son with entirely too much heartfelt sincerity. By the time Severus manages to extract himself from the pleasantries, he’s sure Lupin is laughing at him from behind his mild expression.
Severus keeps to himself for the last few days of term, rarely venturing far from his rooms or office. He’s rewarded with blessedly little interaction with his students or colleagues. Having received their exam results, the children are too busy celebrating their mediocre achievements to notice the absence of a teacher. As for the adults, he supposes that planning for the reemergence of the Dark Lord is a higher priority than their usual time-wasting efforts at pretending to enjoy his company.
It can’t last, of course. The evening before the students depart, there is a knock at Severus’ door.
Sirius Black is standing in the corridor.
“What do you want,” says Severus. Black looks like he’d rather be absolutely anywhere else, and Severus doesn’t like the twinge of fellow-feeling this inspires.
“I need -- can I talk to you, for a moment?” Black asks. He adds, with apparent difficulty, “Please.”
It’s not as though he’d leave if Severus said “no.” He turns away from the door, leaving it open, and after a moment Black follows him in. Severus sits, and regards the stack of potions journals that had been his original plan for the evening a trifle wistfully.
“Well?” Severus says.
There’s a reason Severus only has one armchair in his private sitting-room, but Black just conjures another and flings himself down into it. “Right,” he says. “Look. I wanted to thank you.”
Black is staring down at his hands, and doesn’t notice. “I wasn’t here,” he says. “I wasn’t here, and Harry was in danger. You listened to Draco and you sent for the Headmaster, and if you hadn’t Harry might have died.”
Severus also accompanied Albus down through the trap-maze, and helped him to separate Quirrell from the boy, and carried him back up to the infirmary while Albus tried and failed to save what was left of their former colleague. Unconscious, the boy looked even more like his father than he did awake. But more than even that, he looked horrifically young.
In the days since, Severus found himself revisiting the memories of his benighted childhood with adult eyes. Without the vivid sting of rage and humiliation they carried at the time, everyone looks just as young. As unformed and foolish as his current students, who even now are preparing to leave the castle for a summer of poor decisions and minimal revising.
He can’t say he likes it any better.
Not that he would say as much, and certainly not to Black. “Very well,” he says, as levelly as he can. “Is that all? Your gratitude is very touching, I’m sure.”
“Hah,” says Black, perfectly toneless. “I expect you want my gratitude -- oh, about as much as the invitation to dinner with Harry’s parents I’m meant to pass on.”
Severus genuinely isn’t sure which of those he wants less.
Black reads it off his face, of course. “Yeah. I’ll tell them you politely declined.”
“You needn’t do me any favors,” says Severus.
This time, the sound Black makes is very nearly a real laugh. “I think I’d better, actually.” He stops staring at his hands, and looks up at Severus.
In Severus’ memories, Black never looks at him without some mixture of scorn, contempt, and incipient devilry. This -- is not that.
“Look,” Black says. “The Ministry’s finally remembered that they lost track of Harry once, and got his aunt and uncle killed. They didn’t bother doing anything to protect Tim and Caro while he was at Hogwarts, of course, but now that he’s going home they’ve decided to give a damn about his safety. So Remus and I can’t stay close, the way we ought to.”
Severus fails to see how this is his concern, and says so.
“We’re going after Peter,” Black says. “Properly, this time, not stealing away for a day or two to follow a lead. If I can’t be Harry’s last line of defense, I’m damn well going to go out and find the biggest threat to his safety.”
“Wouldn’t that be the Dark Lord?” Severus asks.
“Dumbledore says he’s not strong enough, without followers,” says Black. “That if he’s just a scrap of disembodied spirit, he can’t hurt Harry.”
“Dumbledore has been wrong before,” says Severus.
“Which is why I’m asking you this,” says Black. “If we can’t finish it before Harry comes back to Hogwarts, I want to know you’re looking out for his safety.”
Ah. There it is. Black does want something from him, though Severus can’t imagine why it’s this, in particular.
“Why ask that of me, of all people?” Severus says. “Your godson thought I was the one after the Stone.”
“His friends did,” says Black, “and he panicked when I wasn’t there and they were sure it was you and not Quirrell. But you’ve been ignoring him all year, when I know damn well you look at him and see James standing there instead. Anyway. Dumbledore trusts you.”
Too close to the mark, on that shot about Potter. If it were Lupin, Severus might not be quite as surprised by that sort of insight, but from Black it feels unprecedented. Perhaps spending all that time as a dog has, somehow, rendered him less self-centered.
“And that’s all the recommendation you need?”
“No,” says Black. “Look. I know you and Lily cared about each other, once.”
Severus says nothing; there is nothing to say to that.
Black carries on talking. He does still love the sound of his own voice, it seems, so not everything has changed.
“It was my idea to switch Secret-Keepers at the last minute, you know. If I hadn’t been so impressed with my own cleverness, James and Lily might still be alive.” He looks up at Severus again, clear and level, nothing in it but but excruciating sincerity. “Do you really think I don’t know what guilt looks like?”
That is beyond the pale, entirely. Severus springs to his feet. “I have work to do,” he says, and immediately regrets it: he does not need to make excuses for himself. He has every right to order Black out if he wants to, which he very much does.
But Black is already retreating. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. It’s none of of my business.”
“I don’t need platitudes,” Severus spits out. Black has him off-balance, and scrambling for firmer ground. He dislikes it immensely. “Just because you think you’ve learned to act contrite -- I suppose Lupin’s managed to house-train you a bit over the years -- ”
Black’s expression hardens for the first time, a little of the old familiar anger appearing. “Leave him out of this,” he says. “Hate me all you like, but he never did anything to you.”
“I can think of one time he did,” says Severus. “Rather memorably.”
But the outburst Severus expects doesn’t come. Instead Black heaves a sigh, and the anger drains away. “Oh, all right,” he says. “We’re having this out, are we?”
“Oh, by all means,” says Severus. He feels foolish, standing there, and turns away to pace; at least if he’s moving he has an excuse to look at anything but Black. “Do you have a speech prepared? You will excuse me for my lack of counter-remarks, I hope.”
Rather than rise to the bait, Black very nearly smiles. “I do, I’m afraid,” he says. “Or something like one.”
“Plenty of time to rehearse in Azkaban, I suppose,” Severus says.
“Oh, no,” says Black. “That’s not a place you can string a sentence together, much less remember it later. I already had most of it before then, though, and worked the rest out after.”
“Well?” says Severus. “It had better be good, in that case, with so much practice.”
There’s that sincere look again. Severus doesn’t like it any better. “I was selfish, at fifteen,” Black says. “Selfish and short-sighted and impulsive. I very nearly hurt you and Remus both, very badly, and I’ve regretted it since about ten minutes after I did it. But you know all of that.”
“Well before you ever did, I expect,” says Severus.
“Probably, yeah,” says Black. “So I’m sorry for it, and I’ve tried to be better than I was. You’re welcome to hate me, though, as long as you leave Remus and Harry out of it.”
This implies that Severus is also welcome to hate Potter. It’s intriguing, in a way, although it’s not as though he needs anyone’s permission to hate James Potter. Least of all Sirius Black’s.
Black never had any talent for Legilimency that Severus can recall, which makes it all the more disconcerting when he says, “And if you’ve got to hate James, go ahead; it can’t hurt him. But Harry isn’t James. You’ll need to remember that, if you’re willing to help protect him, because he’s not going to do the things that James would do.”
Severus has yet to see much evidence of that. But it’s true that he hasn’t been looking.
“Fine,” he says. “It’s not as though I would let any of my students wander into harm’s way, if I could help it. You needn’t have come begging a favor. Don’t you Gryffindors have a bit more dignity than this, anyway?”
That attempt at a blow slides off, too. Black used to be much thinner-skinned, Severus is sure.
“I made James and Lily a promise, when they made me Harry’s godfather,” Black says. “It’s my job to keep him safe. It doesn’t matter if I have to do things I don’t like.”
He adds, as if it doesn’t cost him anything to say it, “I spent my first year with the MacIntyres pretending to be a dog. It’s a bit late to put my dignity ahead of Harry’s safety, don’t you think?”
Severus gives up. If nothing else, Black has apparently learned to hold his temper, and Severus is hardly going to let Black goad him into an outburst of his own.
“Oh, fine,” he says. “Very well. Consider it done.” He sits back down. There follows a long and very uncomfortable silence.
Severus isn’t fifteen anymore, either. He can manage a peace offering, even for the likes of Black.
Severus pulls a journal out of his stack and offers it to Black. “Damocles Belby thinks he’s close to perfecting his formula,” he says. “I expect he’ll have it within the year, if these results are accurate.”
Black takes it cautiously, as if it might bite. “He’s been saying that for well over a decade. You really think so?”
“Yes,” says Severus, and waits for the snide remark about his presumption of expertise.
It doesn’t come. Black flips to the relevant article, brow furrowed. “I’ve had to talk Remus out of joining the patient trials half a dozen times,” he says. “Told him to wait until they’d ironed out the side effects.”
“That… may have been for the best,” Severus admits. There were several fatalities in the early trials, he’s heard, though the details went unpublished.
“I hope so,” Black says. “A year, though. That’s something.”
Silence falls again, as Black puzzles over the article. It’s not anything you could call companionable, but the lack of overt hostility, in itself, is notable.
“You know, Lily was going to do her apprenticeship with him,” Black says. “Belby, I mean. After the war.”
Severus does know. He hadn’t realized anyone else did. He would rather face a phalanx of Death Eaters, wandless, than talk about it.
Mercifully, Black doesn’t press the issue. “I’d better go,” he says. “Thank you, Severus. I’ll owe you for this.”
He doesn’t even appear to be gritting his teeth as he says it. It’s fascinating, and a bit eerie. For a moment Severus suspects Polyjuice.
But Black changes into his Animagus form, which rules that out.
Before he can leave, though, Severus has a thought. “Wait.”
Black changes form again, and looks surprised once his shape settles back to human. “Yes?”
“Draco Malfoy sent for you, when he needed help,” Severus says. “If possible, you ought to encourage that tendency.”
“Offer him a sympathetic ear?” Black says.
“Certainly not. His parents already do that, and indulge all his worst impulses,” says Severus. “But the elder Malfoy is highly placed among the surviving Death Eaters. There may be some strategic value in showing his son an alternative path.”
Lucius has been one of Severus’ oldest and most loyal friends, in his way. He won’t be grateful if his son is turned against him. But it would be fitting, perhaps, if Severus has a hand in ensuring that Draco grows to be a better man than his father.
Given Black’s own family history, it’s not surprising that he seems to understand. “I’d be happy to,” he says.
“Very well,” says Severus. There. A favor for a favor, and nothing owed in any direction. He dislikes loose ends at the best of times, which this decidedly isn’t.
On his way out the door, Black says, “Oh, and by the way — thank you for giving Harry those photos. I won’t ask how you got them; I’m sure I don’t want to know.”
He leaves without waiting for a reply.
Severus remains ill at ease long after Black is gone. He feels better after Banishing the extra armchair with extreme prejudice, if only a very little.
But the students are leaving in the morning. He can regain his equilibrium far more easily in an empty castle, he’s sure. And Black won’t be coming back in the fall, in all likelihood. The thought is cheering.
Severus settles back into his reading, and doesn’t think of anything but potionmaking techniques and ingredient comparisons for the rest of the night. Anyone trying to prove otherwise would be unlikely to survive the Occlumentic backlash.
Some time ago, the matter of kindness was raised. Three kinds of kindness, and this is the third: the kindness practiced by those who would not be kind by instinct. It is deliberate, every time, and does not come naturally or easily.
This is not to say that a person who is not naturally kind is bad, by any means. Inconsiderate, perhaps, or unpracticed in acknowledging that those outside their chosen circle are as deserving of kindness as those within it. They are loyal friends, they are generous to a fault with the people they love, and they can turn and deal out breathless cruelty to those they have no reason to care for. Such people can learn, and choose better.
Lily Evans, who grew up sparring with her sharp-tongued sister, was not kind by nature. She was fierce, and her kindness was fiercely chosen in the face of a world that was not kind.
James, by contrast, found kindness easy, and needed to do only a very little bit of growing up to understand that when he laughed, not everyone laughed with him. His son understands that lesson already, though it will be years before he grows into Lily’s fierceness.
For now, he is only eleven, and worried.
Harry’s mum and dad can’t stay at Hogwarts for long, and Harry insists that he wants to go home with everyone else, on the train. So Harry goes to the Leaving Feast, and he and Ron and Hermione and Neville are awarded enough points that Gryffindor ties with Slytherin, and between that and saving the Stone from Professor Quirrell the other Gryffindors all seem to forgive them for losing so many points in the first place.
The Slytherins don’t like it very much, of course, but that’s just too bad. Draco, whose ten points prevented them from dropping to second place, is made much of at his house’s table for the rest of the evening, so he doesn’t seem terribly upset when he catches Harry alone the next morning.
“Granger and Weasley told me,” he says. “About, you know.” He gestures vaguely at the back of his head. “Is it true?”
“Yeah, says Harry. That part of the story isn’t common knowledge, though the fast-growing Hogwarts gossip tree seems to know the rest of it. “Thanks for owling Padfoot, and telling Professor Snape.”
“I think if I hadn’t, Professor Snape would have used Veritaserum to get it out of me,” says Draco. “Or the Imperius Curse. He was even angrier than he was when Goyle melted three cauldrons in one class.”
Harry winces; he remembers that class vividly. “I might have had the easier job, taking on Voldemort.”
Draco flinches a little when Harry says the name, he notices. Then something seems to occur to him. “So it really was him in the Forest, wasn’t it?”
“Oh,” says Harry. “I guess so.” Padfoot had been so sure that it wasn’t.
“That explains why he -- it -- looked like that, doesn’t it?” says Draco. “I remember thinking it, that night, that it walked like its knees were on backwards. Because they were.”
“Eugh,” says Harry. “I suppose you’re right.”
“And he’s just -- been there, all year. In our Defense classes, everywhere Professor Quirrell went.” Draco gives a little shudder. “It’s hard to believe. The Dark Lord, going around backwards with a turban over his face.”
Harry find himself, very abruptly, trying not to laugh at the perfectly absurd thought that strikes him. Draco looks puzzled, and annoyed.
Harry manages to gasp out, “Sorry -- I just thought -- I always get so sweaty when I wear a hat, under my hair, and I couldn’t help but imagine -- “
Draco’s mouth twitches, and then he too bursts out laughing. Soon it’s the sort of laughter that bubbles up again every time they look at one another, and neither one of them can catch their breath. They both have to sit down on the floor until they subside.
“Did Professor Quirrell still have any hair?” Draco asks.
“No,” says Harry, “he was bald. But it was an awfully big turban, and it gets really warm in the Defense classroom on sunny days,” and the two of them are off again, laughing until they can hardly breathe.
Ron and Hermione find them like that, sitting on the floor giggling like they’ve both been chugging Elixir to Induce Euphoria.
Draco scrambles to his feet, suddenly conscious of his dignity again. Harry likes him better without it. It reminds him, of all things, of Hermione -- of the difference in her before Halloween, when she still spent all her time trying to act bossy and grown-up, and after, once they were friends.
“What’s so funny?” Ron asks. Harry does his best to explain, but somehow that takes all the air out of the joke.
“If you say so, mate,” says Ron. “C’mon, we’ve got to finish packing. Weren’t you going to fetch Hedwig?”
“Right, sorry,” says Harry. “Want to come with me?”
“Better not, I’ve got Whiskers with me and the Owlery makes her nervous.” His rat, who is peeping out of Ron’s shirt pocket, squeaks as if in agreement. “I’ll tell Padfoot you’ll be along in a bit.”
“Can I come with you?” says Draco abruptly. He goes a little red in the face when they all three stare at him. “I wanted to talk to -- er -- Padfoot. If that’s all right.” Draco looks at Harry, as if he’s asking for permission.
Harry shrugs. The leaden feeling he’d managed to laugh away comes back, all in a rush. “He’s your cousin, I can’t tell you what to do. He’s not in a very talkative mood, though.”
Everyone frowns at that, but Ron and Draco do go off together, each looking a little suspicious of the other but not actually hostile. Hermione tags along with Harry to the Owlery.
She notices Harry’s change of mood, of course. “Is everything all right?” she asks.
This time, Harry doesn’t so much shrug as hunch his shoulders, and keep them there. “I dunno.”
Hermione nods. “It was all rather a lot, wasn’t it? I’m still a bit shaky, and I didn’t have to face You-Know-Who.”
Technically I had to back-of-the-face him, Harry thinks, which is still funny. “No, it’s not that. Um. I think Padfoot’s angry with me. He won’t talk to me.”
“But he’s been around practically every minute,” says Hermione. “Honestly, I was surprised to find you without him in arm’s reach.”
“Yeah,” says Harry. “So long as there’s people around and he has an excuse to stay dog-shaped. But any time it’s just us, and he could change, he’s vanished.”
“Oh,” says Hermione. “You know, you’re right. I hadn’t noticed.”
Harry nods, glumly.
“I think he’s angry that we went running off without him,” Harry says. “And didn’t get help first. We should have, he’s only told me about a hundred times -- “
“Well, I think he’s being ridiculous!” Hermione says. “We did try, we went to Professor McGonagall. And Ron and I were just as determined as you were, he ought to be angry at us as well.”
“He’s not your godfather, though,” says Harry. “Or Ron’s.”
“Still,” says Hermione. “That’s not fair at all.” Harry shrugs. He doesn’t know what there is to be done about it.
Hermione gets a thoughtful, determined look on her face, though, and it stays there all the way back from the Owlery.
Later, on the train, Hermione gets that look again once she’s settled into a compartment with Harry, Ron and Padfoot. They’ve only just left Hogwarts when she announces, “I’m going to look for the trolley witch. Come with me, Ron?”
“Nah, I’m all right,” says Ron.
Hermione gives him a pointed glare, and kicks him on the ankle.
“Ow!” says Ron. “I mean, yes, I would like to come with you, Hermione.”
Padfoot gets up to follow them out, but is brought up short when Hermione very deliberately slides the door shut in his face.
(If you think it’s wrong, do something. Don’t dither.)
So it’s just Harry and Padfoot, alone. Harry isn’t sure whether he’s grateful to Hermione or not.
But she’s given him the chance he wanted, he supposes. So he takes a deep breath, and says “I’m sorry, Padfoot.”
Padfoot looks up at him quizzically.
“I shouldn’t have gone after the Stone by myself,” he says. “I promised I wouldn’t do things like that, after Halloween. I know you’re angry with me -- “
He is interrupted when Padfoot changes into Sirius. He looks stricken. “Harry, no,” he says, and sits down next to him to gather Harry up in a hug. “That’s not it at all.”
“But you wouldn’t talk to me,” Harry says. His eyes feel hot. He doesn’t sound the least bit grown-up. “And you’re not staying this summer, and I thought -- “
“I’m angry that I wasn’t there to protect you,” Sirius says. “I’m angry that I broke my promise. And I’m bloody furious at the Ministry, because if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere. But I’m not the least bit angry at you.”
He lets Harry go enough to see his face, which is nearly as watery and red-eyed as Harry’s. “All right?”
Harry nods. “Yeah,” he says.
They manage to talk a little more before Hermione and Ron come back. She knocks first, to give Sirius time to change into Padfoot, but he changes back again as soon as they’ve come inside and shut the door. “I hope we aren’t interrupting,” she says.
“No,” says Harry. “Perfect timing. What did you get from the trolley?”
“Nothing, because apparently everything they have is bad for your teeth,” says Ron. “Which, I’m sorry, is the entire point of sweets.”
“Honestly, Ron, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they offered something marginally healthy,” says Hermione. They bicker companionably about this for the next little while, but eventually talk turns to plans for the summer.
“We should meet up in London again,” says Ron. “That museum was good fun. I’d like to see more of those dragon bones.”
“They’re not dragons, they’re dinosaurs,” says Harry. “Well, and some are fossil mammals.”
He and Hermione do their best to explain the difference, but they leave Ron more confused than when they started.
“Moony and I will have chances to get away,” Sirius says. “We’ll work something out, even with the Aurors hanging around making nuisances of themselves. I promise.”
“Good,” Harry says. He’ll miss Sirius awfully, of course, but he can bear it better knowing it’s not because his godfather is upset with him. And it’ll be nice for Padfoot to have more time with Moony, for a change. Harry knows it’s a bit unfair, how little they got to see each other this year.
When they arrive at King’s Cross, it takes quite a while for them to get off the platform. As the guard lets students out a few at a time, so as not to alarm the Muggles, other students call out their goodbyes. Harry only has to correct them on his name a couple of times.
“You’ll to have to get used to being famous,” says Ron, grinning at him.
“Not where I’m going, thank goodness,” Harry says.
When he, Ron, and Hermione pass through the barrier, Ron’s mum and younger sister are waiting just on the other side. “There he is, Mum, there he is, look! Harry Potter!”
“It’s MacIntyre, actually,” Ron corrects her, half a second before Harry can do it himself.
“And it’s rude to point,” Mrs. Weasley says. She smiles at them. “Busy year?”
"Very," says Harry. Over her shoulder, he can see his mum and dad, with Remus trailing behind; they break into a run when they see him.
The grown-ups spend a little while exchanging pleasantries, while Harry and his friends say their good-byes. “Have a good holiday,” Hermione says. “I’ll see you both soon!”
“I’ll ask Mum if you can come visit,” says Ron. “And we can have Padfoot and Mr. Lupin over.”
“Thanks,” says Harry, brightening up a bit.
“And look on the bright side,” says Ron. “Your parents might not know you’re not supposed to use magic outside of school, yet.”
“No, they do,” says Harry. An idea occurs to him, and a grin spreads over his face. “But Moony and Padfoot put all sorts of wards and protections on the house. And Mum and Dad won’t mind if I do a bit of extra revising over the summer...”
“Darling, are you ready?” asks Harry’s mum.
“Yeah,” says Harry, still smiling. “Let’s go home.”