It was a risk to come to King's Cross, Sirius could admit as much. He’d argued about it with himself as well as the others from the Order, especially Dumbledore who had flat out tried to forbid it. Not that he’d had any success with that. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, all things considered, the Weasleys had been the first to support the plan, even before Remus. Molly and Arthur had only nodded, as if a request to come along just to meet his godson off the Hogwarts Express was entirely reasonable.
“Of course, of course,” Arthur had said, clapping Sirius on the shoulder. “The kids need something steady, something reliable, at a time like this.”
If anyone had told Sirius that he'd one day be described as 'steady and reliable' he would probably have slugged them on the nose for the insult. Now, he just felt terrified. He was skilled for dangerous missions and daring rescues, maybe an odd bit of duelling, not... anyone's anything 'steady'.
“You're being ridiculous,” Remus had told him. To be fair, it was what Moony told him most of the time and he was almost always right. “Don't overthink it. It'll be fine. The boy loves you.”
Except that too was bloody terrifying. Of course Sirius loved Harry as well. Had from the moment Lily and James had told him they were expecting and hundred times more still when Lily had placed a small, snuffling bundle into his arms. The problem was that he'd never expected to really do anything else except love the kid. Maybe teach him some broom tricks and spoil him rotten. But whilst those things were still in the offing, there was now also so much more.
Sirius didn't know the first thing about being a parent. He'd known, of course, that the possibility was real enough when he'd accepted the role of Harry's godfather. But even then, even with death hanging over them like a storm cloud, it had still felt more like an abstract concept than anything he'd ever really have to deal with. Arrogance of youth, he thought; assuming everything would stay the same.
But it never did. And now here Sirius was, sitting on the cold, slippery floor of King's Cross platform as Padfoot, watching the Hogwarts Express pull in with a cloud of steam and putting up with Molly idly scratching him behind his ear. He suspected she had clean forgotten that he wasn't a real dog for a moment and would feel somewhat mortified by this later, but Sirius let it be. It distracted him both from the collar she has insisted he wear – “Non-negotiable,” she'd said. “You already stick out.” – and the nervous flutter in his stomach.
He'd been willing to take the risk of being recognised, though Molly was right, the sparkly collar and the bath she'd made him suffer through, did make him look like a prize hunting dog rather than a mangy Azkaban escapee. And in any case, it wasn't the idea of Aurors descending on him that made his insides feel like a ship full of knots. He'd only met Harry twice really, and not under the best circumstances. They'd exchanged a few notes since then but there wasn't really anything real one could say without giving away too much. The Weasleys had been great, and Moony too, telling him stories of a boy who had James' reckless bravery and Lily's fierce protectiveness. But for all that, Sirius didn't really know him yet.
He wanted to though. Desperately. Which is why he had fought Dumbledore and the Order for custody of Grimmauld Place for the summer, enlisted Remus and Molly and Arthur to help him make it safe and liveable, and spent all his spare time brewing as much Polyjuice as he could. Luckily, London was full of people and Sirius had quite a collection of hairs from men and boys matching him and Harry in age. With planning and precautions, maybe they could...
His musings were cut off once the old train finally came to a stop. There was a moment of stillness, a cloud of steam covering everyone before starting to dissipate, and then the doors burst open and a veritable river of children poured out. Sirius flinched at the sound of excited voices and running feet, but then he recognised Ron's “Mum! Dad!” and there, trailing behind a gaggle of Weasleys...
Padfood was up on his feet now, tail wagging furiously. He only stopped himself from rushing forward for the fear of drawing the wrong kind of attention. He saw the exact moment Harry noticed him though, the flash of recognition obvious in his widening eyes and in the way he dropped the end of his trunk and just ran the last of the distance, crashing right onto his knees in front of Padfoot.
“You're here!” he said, beaming from ear to ear.
“Yes, Harry, this is... Uh, the dog we told you we were going to get. For security.” Arthur was talking loud enough for any curious onlookers and Molly was giving her children a hard 'questions later' stare.
Harry wasn't really paying attention though, that much was obvious. His hand hovered in the air between them as if he was unsure of the protocol, or simply whether his touch would be welcome or not. Sirius felt a little more of his heart break. With a gentle 'woof'' he pushed closer, giving Harry's face a thorough licking that sent the boy into peals of laughter. Pleased with his initial success, Padfoot gave a doggy grin of his own and proceeded to stick his cold nose behind Harry's ear.
For all Harry had been happy to see him, he got increasingly quiet and sullen the further away from the platform they got, dragging his feet until Padfoot had to physically nudge him in the back of his knees to get him moving. They were heading toward one of the numerous back alleys behind King’s Cross, in search of a safe place to use the portkey to the Burrow.
Once outside the station, Harry came to an abrupt stop. Padfoot whuffed in annoyance, having almost run into the boy.
Harry didn’t seem to notice. He was anxiously scanning the crowds, craning his neck to look up and down the road, eyes tracking each passing car.
Everyone paused for a bit, distracted by Hermione’s parents who jogged over with apologies about traffic and something that sounded like ‘root carnival’. Perhaps they were into gardening.
“Bye Ron. Bye Harry,” Hermione said, hugging each boy in turn, quick and fierce. “Remember to write!”
They waved in acknowledgement, eyes following her until she disappeared into the crowds with her parents.
“I’m fine to wait here,” Harry said after a beat of silence, putting his trunk down. “I’m sure Uncle Vernon will be along shortly.” He did not sound sure about it in the least. He definitely didn’t sound happy either.
Sirius was getting an impression that he’d made the right decision, insisting on keeping Harry with him for the summer. Molly’s face, after she’d come from the Dursley’s had suggested as much. She’d handed Sirius the vial of blood – taken from Lily’s sister under a brief trance, without her consent sure, but also without any actual harm – and said “If you need any more, I’ll be delighted to go get it for you.”
“Oh,” she said right now, looking momentarily flustered. “Don’t you remember? You’re staying with us for a few days. Your uncle and aunt and cousin are… taking a trip. To, uh, Isle of Man.”
Harry frowned. “Isle of Man? For how long?”
“For… a few days,” Molly repeated.
“Harry’s staying with us?” Ron’s grin was wide enough to split his face in half. “Hear that mate?” He elbowed Harry, who definitely looked more animated than a minute ago. “That’s going to be awesome!”
“Come on then, everyone!” Arthur motioned at people to get moving again. “We’ll talk more at the Burrow.”
A few hours later, Sirius, Remus, Molly and Arthur were sitting around the kitchen table. Harry was the only kid present; the rest having been shooed off, although Sirius had no doubt they were somehow listening in, or that Harry would tell everything to Ron as soon as they were done.
He’d finished explaining the plan, including all the ways it could go wrong, and the resulting silence had lasted for a good minute now while Harry was clearly mulling things over. Sirius sipped his by now cold tea and then casually reheated it.
Harry finally took a deep breath, obviously steeling himself. “You mean… I don’t have to go to Privet Drive?” His gaze went from one adult to the next, but it kept returning to Sirius. “For how long?”
Sirius clamped down hard on the ‘forever’ that was crowding on his tongue. He couldn’t promise that. He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. Beside him, Remus squeezed his arm in what felt like both warning and consolation. He knew.
“For the whole summer,” Sirius said instead, and then made himself add: “Unless something goes really wrong.” He was acutely aware that Harry didn’t use the word ‘home’ at all. He said ‘Privet Drive’ or ‘the Dursleys’ or maybe ‘aunt, uncle, cousin’
“Really?” Harry asked. “The whole summer? Until school starts again?” He’d crossed his arms and was staring at Sirius defiantly, chin jutting up. There was something dark in his eyes, a mix of resentment and hope and fear of hope.
Sirius wanted to hug him so badly. He was grateful for Moony’s vice-like grip on his elbow that kept him in his chair. “That’s right,” he said, turning a mug of tea around in his hands. “As long as it’s safe for you. And… as long as you want to. You can go back any time, Harry. You only need to say.”
Harry was shaking his head before he’d finished talking. “I don’t… I want to stay with you,” he said, and then looked terrified, as if admitting such a simple thing had cost him more than facing the dementors had.
“Great! I want you to stay with me too,” Sirius said, forcing his voice to be light, like this was no big deal. “Need a chance to get to know my godson, don’t I?”
“I suppose.” Harry shrugged, trying for nonchalant, but he was no longer scowling suspiciously and his shoulders had come down from around his ears. There was even a smile lurking somewhere in the corner of his mouth; tremulous still, but there.
Sirius felt himself relax as well. It was a start.
Of course, it was never going to be all smooth sailing.
For one thing, Grimmauld Place was no house for a thirteen-year-old. It hadn't been when Sirius had been that age and, despite his and everyone's best efforts, it wasn't now. The corridors were lit, the rooms aired, the doxies dispelled and the rudest of the portraits (okay, maybe eighty percent of them) had been covered with sheets. But the house still knew.
It tolerated Sirius because it had no choice and because blood was blood even if disgraced. But Harry... Harry was a stranger, and certainly not pureblood, and no matter how many inheritance bindings Sirius was going to do, it was always going to take more than a couple of weeks for them to take.
Which is why Harry regularly suffered from too cold showers, stoves flaming too hot, or corridors closing in on him unexpectedly. He seemed to find the first two annoying at most but the last one turned out unexpectedly traumatizing for them both.
Sirius was in the lounge, conversing with Moony whose head stuck out of the fireplace, when he felt it; a deep shudder like a Kraken turning in its sleep. Or a Pureblood House changing its layout.
“What is it?” Remus asked, frowning. “You've got that look, like Padfoot spotting sheep across the pasture.”
Absently, Sirius flipped off his friend, concentrating. There was nothing but silence now. Stillness. All very unnatural with a pre-teen boy in the house.
“Harry?!” he called.
“I've got to...”
“Go,” Remus said. “Send your Patronus if you need help.”
Sirius nodded, already on his feet.
“Harry, you downstairs?” he shouted again, sticking his head into the kitchen. Kreacher sat in the corner, slowly polishing one of the pots with a rag that was probably only making it dirtier.
“Have you seen Harry?” Sirius asked, though he didn't expect much in reply.
“No, Master Black,” Kreacher said. It was obvious the title caused him some consternation. “Kreacher has not seen that little half-blood brat since Kreacher served him eggs this morning.”
Sirius shuddered at the memory of the breakfast, which neither of them had been able to finish.
“All right. Just... Let me know if you do,” he said, turning away.
Maybe Harry was in his room. He did spend a lot of time there, much more than Sirius had ever done when he was... Well, any age really, since he learned how to walk probably. It was a bit weird, since he knew from even Harry's own stories that the boy liked to roam about and get into trouble.
Still, at least it was a place to start. Sirius took the stairs two at the time, turning to the corridor housing the doors to both his and Harry's bedrooms... Only to find that it no longer existed.
There was nothing there but a blank stone wall. Sirius tapped it with his wand. “Quit it,” he said, swallowing down sudden fear. “This is not funny.” Hopefully, only the entrance to the corridor had been blocked and the rooms themselves were unaffected.
He stared at the wall. The wall stared back. Could one even win a staring contest with an inanimate but probably self-aware and cranky as hell about it building?
Well, he wasn't going to waste time trying. He wasn't even going to waste time with any of the standard spells. Instead, Sirius pointed his wand at his own palm and muttered a quiet “Secare.” A long, thin gash opened on his flesh, blood welling to the surface. Sirius didn't even hiss. This was nothing.
He slapped his palm against the stones. “I am Sirius Orion Black, the rightful and current Master of this house. In nomine sanguinis, fac mihi viam!”
The house shook. The stones under his palm trembled and then, resentfully, withdrew.
Sirius ran down the corridor toward Harry's bedroom. “Harry!?” he shouted, wrenching the door open.
The bedroom was gone. Or, not gone, just shrunk. It was as if someone had moved the walls and the ceiling inwards until the previously decent sized bedroom looked more like a... cupboard. The furniture was still there, some crammed in, some sort of half-buried in the walls. Perched on the last visible quarter of the bed was Harry. He sat with his knees drawn up to his chin, arms wrapped around them. He too looked like someone had squeezed him into something smaller than a teenage boy.
“Oh,” he said, lifting his head. “That was fast.”
Sirius blinked and then acted on instinct, grabbing Harry by the arm and pulling him out into the corridor.
“Are you okay?” he asked, giving in to the urge to hug the boy. “Are you hurt?”
“What? No, I'm...” Harry's voice was muffled against Sirius' shoulder and there was no mistaking the way he clung, just for a few seconds. “I'm fine. Everything just started... I didn't think you'd co– get here this quickly.” He pushed off, adjusting his glasses.
“Oh!” Harry noticed Sirius' hand and grabbed it in both of his. “You're bleeding! Did the house do this?” He was back to angry and indignant now, the momentary wobble all but forgotten.
But not by Sirius. “Yeah. You could say that.” Gently, he ushered Harry toward the staircase. “Let's go get some hot chocolate, eh?” The ache in his chest far surpassed the sting on his palm, the image of his godson, curled tight and small, the bitten off admission of not expecting anyone to come lingering like a smell of something rotten.
Like most things of its ilk, once seen, it was impossible to unsee. It was also impossible for Sirius not to do something about it.
“No,” Remus said. It was the voice he used when the 'no' really meant 'absolutely not and if you even think about it I will skin you alive' rather than just the normal 'you probably shouldn't but I'm going to help you pick up the pieces when you do anyway'.
“But you didn't see the way he looked when I pointed out the clothes he'd left on the floor!” Sirius was turning the pint glass in his hands – brown and square as a result of today's Polyjuice – fast enough that the beer sloshed over the rim, wetting his sleeve.
“Yeah, tell me again why on earth you thought you had any kind of high ground to point that out in the first place?” asked Remus. He looked like he always did; permanently worried and far too skinny. “I've lived with you, remember? And tripped over discarded clothing and things much heavier and thus more painful on my toes regularly.”
“I know,” Sirius whined. “I just thought... nagging about keeping your room clean, that's something parents do, right?” In truth he had no idea. He'd grown up with house elves picking up after him, which was probably at the root of Remus' point. “I didn't really mean anything by it! But Harry, he... flinched, Remus. Flinched. Like he thought I was going to... Like he thought I was really angry,” Sirius finished lamely.
There was sympathy in Remus' eyes. Anger too, though banked with caution. “I didn't see it,” he said. “Well. I saw... bits. I knew... even fewer bits. But being a teacher...” He shrugged. “It's different. And Harry was with his friends. Not living with an adult fulltime, like he is with you.”
“I've organised for him to go to the Burrow for a few days next week,” Sirius said. “Hermione, is going too.”
“And in the meanwhile, you and I could pay a little visit to Privet Drive.”
“Absolutely not,” Remus said again. “You can't curse your way out of this one. No matter how good it would feel.”
“I don't know what else to do though.” Dejectedly, Sirius scraped a thumbnail over the worn tabletop. “I'm not... I've never been good with this stuff. I'd get him someone who is but...”
“But there's no one with that kind of expertise that we could trust,” Remus finished.
“Or who Harry would trust,” Sirius added. Sure, the mediwizards at St Mungos had all sworn an oath of confidentiality, but those things meant little at times like this.
Remus emptied his half-pint of shandy, bought mostly at Sirius’ insistence. “I think what you're doing is fine,” he said. “Just being there.”
Okay, okay. Be there. Sirius could do that.
The first thing was to convince Harry to actually stay in the same room as him for more than thirty minutes though.
“So,” he said, throwing the pizza crust back into the box. “What are you doing tonight?”
Harry's hand reached for a fourth slice but then he paused, eyes flickering up as if to check Sirius' reaction.
Sirius nudged the box closer to the boy encouragingly. Harry grabbed a slice.
“I don't know. Probably writing to Ron and Hermione,” he said, slightly muffled through a mouthful of cheese and pepperoni.
“You're seeing them in five days,” Sirius said, grinning. “Guess there's tons to plan, eh?”
Harry's closed off expression cleared. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Ron said Charlie might be visiting and if he does, he might come on a dragon!”
Sirius bit down on the first two responses and went with “Where are they going to fit a dragon at the Burrow?”
“Ron says his dad's shed could be expanded and it would do well, although Hermione said most dragons wouldn't enjoy that at all and we'd have to charm it to at least look like mountains but then what if it's a dragon who likes the forests better? Also, do you think Charlie would let us ride it and if he says yes, can I?”
Sirius blinked, then blinked again. It took him a while to sort through the sudden deluge of words. This was the first time he'd heard Harry just... babble. The first time he sounded like a kid.
“Arthur's shed is better than the open countryside,” he said finally. “We could practice some scenery charms, if you wanted to?” He ticked off the second point on his fingers. “And if Charlie says you can ride a dragon, I want you to fire-call me immediately because there's no way in hell you're doing that...” Harry's face fell, and Sirius couldn't keep his straight for longer than a few seconds. “...without me,” he finished, grinning.
Harry rolled his eyes, but he was smiling again. “You mean it about the charms?” he asked. “What about the Decree?”
Sirius scoffed. “You know how the place is protected by the Fidelius Charm?”
“Well, not only does it hide the house, but also everyone within it. Including,” he added with a smirk James had once described as 'detention-in-waiting', “any magic they may do.”
Perhaps it wasn't 'good parenting' strictly speaking, but Sirius didn't care, not when the way Harry's eyes lit up made the awful hollow ache in his chest ease up. He couldn't change the last thirteen years, but maybe he could make the next few a bit better.
Or at least this one summer. Sirius didn't dare to wish for more.
Things got a bit easier after they spent an evening turning one of the many reception rooms into mountains, forest, countryside and a beach complete with seagulls. And after Sirius extracted – between half-swallowed half sentences – the reason why Harry spent so much time in his room. It seemed that the Dursleys hadn't wanted him 'underfoot' outside specific chores, and Harry was playing it safe with Sirius, still an unknown variable really.
“I thought you were busy. With stuff.” He waved his hand vaguely, whilst flicking his wand with the other, turning the evergreens into silver birches.
“Busy?!” Sirius squeaked in indignation. “I’m not busy, I'm...” He subsided at the raised eyebrow Harry directed his way, eerily reminiscent of Lily. “All right,” he said. “I am busy. With 'stuff''.” He made silly air quotes just to watch Harry roll his eyes again. “But from what I hear, that sort of thing should only make my company more enticing. Frankly, I'd be surprised if you haven't paid enough attention to concoct at least a dozen wild theories to send to your friends by now.”
Harry flushed and suddenly found the floorboards immensely interesting. Sirius suppressed a snicker.
“That's beside the point,” he said. “What I meant was, I'm not too busy to spend time with you. And even if I'm doing something, it would be nice if you wanted to hang around in the same room, doing something else.” God, that was the lamest, most awkward sentence that had ever passed his lips. Even counting the time he'd tried to tell Remus about figuring out his 'condition' without actually using the word 'werewolf'.
“Oh,” Harry said. “Really? I mean...” He feigned disinterest, casting a charm that made a flock of birds fly across the ceiling. “I suppose we could do that.”
Sirius was indeed busy with stuff, but unlike some of the Order, he saw no benefit in not sharing with Harry what they knew, what they guessed at, or even what they fervently hoped wasn't the case. In Sirius' experience, being in the dark only led one to look for the light, sometimes in the wrong places.
“You have to understand,” he told Harry one evening. “I don't know everything. I never did.”
“Who does then?” Harry asked. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, photo albums spread around him. Moony had kept all the old photos, even the ones with Sirius in them.
“No one,” Sirius said. “You thought I was going to say 'Dumbledore', didn't you?” He raised his eyebrows knowingly.
“Nah.” Sirius shook his head. “I think... Maybe some days the old man thinks he knows everything. Maybe there are too many days like that lately,” he added under his breath but waved a hand when Harry looked confused. “Never mind. What I mean is that...” He sighed. “I'm going to sound like such an old codger. But the truth is… the older I get, the less I know.”
Harry frowned. He was holding a photo of James and Lily, taken on their wedding day. “That's actually not very encouraging,” he said. “Are you sure you're doing this advice bit right?”
Sirius barked with laughter. “Not even remotely,” he said. “Do you want to keep that one?” he nodded at the photo. “Remus said you could pick as many as you liked.”
Harry's eyes lit up.
To Sirius' delight, (and Remus' quiet approval, despite the ulcer he claimed the constant risk of discovery was giving him) they also did other things.
Sirius did not know much about Muggle London but luckily the concept of Tourist Information was universal. Polyjuiced as a German grandmother (though he didn't try the accent) he leaned against the counter of the one outside St Paul's Cathedral. Sirius didn't know who Paul was or what he'd done that was so saintly and quite frankly he was too busy trying not to flinch at every car, taxi, bus, or motorbike that drove past to care.
“My grandson is thirteen,” he told the woman behind the counter. “I need some suggestions on what to do with him. Please.”
Possibly he sounded desperate enough, as the assistant shoved a whole library of leaflets into his hands and spent good twenty minutes explaining the different options.
Sirius walked out with tickets to the Aquarium. Fish. That sounded easy. Maybe even a little boring.
It was neither. All right, the fish themselves were great. Small, big, weird, colourful, plain, poisonous... No problem there. Harry loved them all, it seemed. In fact, the boy’s eyes had been as huge as one of the manta rays since the moment they'd Apparated to one of the quieter side streets in Westminster.
“Are you meeting someone in there?” Harry had asked when Sirius (looking like a history postgrad today, sporting a beard and a tweed jacket) brandished the tickets.
“No.” Sirius frowned. “I just thought it would be... fun?”
Harry stared, his expression still recognisable despite the face being that of else. “Are we...? Who else is coming?”
“Oh.” Dammit. He should've thought of this. “No one. Just us. Sorry. If you'd rather go with Ron and Hermione, I could see if we can change the date on the tickets and then ask when they–”
“No!” Harry actually grabbed Sirius' jacket sleeve. “It's fine! Just us is good! For... fun.” His grin was a bit slow to come but absolutely blinding. “Come on!” He tugged at Sirius to follow, practically dragging him to the entrance.
Sirius had not anticipated the mere act of getting into the aquarium to be as complicated as it was. But there were a lot of muggle things like turning tiles and lifters, to say nothing of the people themselves and the things they carried and pushed and pulled.
“Why is that man poking at a brick?” Sirius hissed at Harry, who was entranced by slowly waving anemones of all things. Weren’t teenage boys supposed to be into like… sharks and octopuses? Octopi? Sirius was not ashamed of the ten minutes he’d spent in the shark walk, head tipped back in awe.
Harry tore his eyes away from the rockpool to glance at the man in a flash suit Sirius had pointed out. “That’s a phone,” he said. “Oh look, a starfish!”
Sirius knew about telefoones. “That can’t be right. Where’s the rope?”
“The rope?” Harry frowned.
“For the… the sparks! The electrical sparks!” Sirius nodded triumphantly.
Harry rolled his eyes. “God,” he muttered, tugging Sirius along. “I’ll ask Hermione to explain it to you later.” But he was smiling and didn’t actually sound that put upon, more amused.
About half-way through the aquarium, there was a machine that inexplicably flattened coins.
“I didn’t realise Muggle money was this weak.” Sirius flipped the elongated penny and then made it dance across his knuckles.
Harry snorted. “Can I have another one please?” he asked. There was barely any hesitancy at all in his voice. Sirius would’ve been prouder about it, if he’d asked for more than a mere penny and a pound on top for the machine. He had checked the conversion rate.
“Here.” He dug out all the coins from his money purse. “Make one of each. I want the shark picture.”
By the time they made it to the gift shop, Sirius was knackered. At least he understood the concept of the place well enough. Consumerism crossed the magic-Muggle divide readily.
“I’m dying for a drink. Oooh, maybe fish and chips, eh?”
“How can you say that!” Harry looked scandalised but also hungry, so Sirius was betting on the moral objections vanishing as soon as the boy got food in front of him.
“Go on then,” he said, waving a tired hand at the shelves and displays overflowing with stuffed toys, books, pencils, t-shirts and so on. “Pick what you want so we can go. See if you can find me something with a shark on. Oh, maybe a shirt with a turtle for Re- uh, Moony?”
Harry, who had definitely been eyeing a row of some kind of mechanical fish models, went eerily still for a moment. Then he relaxed, shrugging. Except that was even more eerie because there was something terribly calculated about his nonchalance.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I don’t really need anything.” He started to rifle through the shirts, clearly looking for one with a turtle like Sirius had requested.
Sirius thought hard about kicking something but managed to not actually do it. Remus would be so proud. “Okay, but… here’s the thing.” He leaned close. “I really want one of those.” He surreptitiously pointed at one of the giant plush shark toys on the top shelf. “But I can’t just buy it for myself, what would that look like? So, could you maybe help your godfather out and like pick out enough stuff that it would sort of… blend in amongst them?” It was obvious that would have to include a lot of things because the toy was almost as big as Harry. “Please? Are you sure there’s nothing you wouldn’t want? And maybe something for Ron and Hermione too?”
It worked. Sirius had a suspicion Harry knew what he was up to but that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. All that mattered was that, for once, Harry let himself be just a little bit self-absorbed and greedy, selecting not one but two of the mechanical fish models for himself, some kind of novelty hat for Ron, a thick book on oceans for Hermione and t-shirts for the entire Weasley clan. And Remus, of course.
Sirius walked through the shop and threw items into their basket almost indiscriminately. They would probably end up writing with pens with a wobbly starfish on top and drying their hands with towels with dolphins on them for the rest of their lives, but so what. Sirius would cope and so would Grimmauld Place. Not as if he was that keen on the family linen, he thought gleefully, snatching a pillowcase with a pair of seahorses on it.
The Aquarium trip broke through some kind of invisible barrier. The next day, Harry asked for pancakes. With strawberry jam.
They didn’t have any, but Sirius got Molly to send a recipe and step-by-step instructions and sent Kreacher to acquire several large boxes of strawberries, sun-ripened and sweet. Some of them even made it into jam, after the three of them – yes, even Kreacher appeared susceptible to the temptation and was blessedly silent when eating – had gorged themselves on the bounty.
After that Harry didn’t stop asking for things. It was mostly information and mostly easy to give.
“Who’s the angry-looking lady in the portrait by the stairs?”
“What was my mum like when she was little?”
“Do you still have the motorbike? Can you teach me how to fly it?”
Of course, there were some questions that weren’t easy to answer at all.
“Why did Pettigrew betray everyone?”
“When will the Ministry pardon you?”
“Why do Death Eaters hate Muggles?”
“What happens after the summer? Can I come back here for Christmas?”
Sirius tried anyway, muddling his way through hindsight, regret, politics and uncertainties. He didn’t think he actually managed to answer any of the harder questions, but Harry seemed to appreciate the effort.
There were also other, more tangential things, Harry asked for.
“Can Hermione and Ron come to stay for a bit?”
“Could we have ice-cream for dessert?”
Sirius was happy to provide, even when the requests weren’t quite verbalised. It took two nights of Harry sitting next to him on a sofa, a book open in his lap, subtly leaning closer and closer, until Sirius realised what the boy was after and wrapped an arm over his shoulders and tucked him against his side, making some comment about it getting cold and pretending to want to see what Harry was reading. After that he made more of habit of it; casual half-hugs, claps on the shoulder, messing up Harry’s already permanently messy hair just because it made the boy shriek in mock annoyance, the grin on his face possibly the most beautiful thing Sirius had ever seen.
“He’s starved for physical affection,” he told Moony one evening in late July.
“He’s not the only one,” Remus observed gently. The back of his hand nudged against Sirius’ as he reached for his pint, brief and deliberate.
Sirius huffed, his gaze cutting away and to the side, thinking that Remus should maybe review that old proverb about stones and people in glass houses. Still, now was not the time.
It was only a few days before Harry’s birthday, and the reason he had asked for an emergency meeting was that he didn’t have any ideas for a gift. After telling him off for scaring “…years off my life, Sirius! I thought something awful had happened!” Remus had acquiesced to a drink and a bit of brainstorming.
Right now, he rolled his eyes, and returned to business at hand. “I don’t know,” he said. “What did you want when you turned fourteen?”
“God.” Sirius rested his forehead – well, the forehead of a middle-aged banker he was currently wearing – against the sticky table top. “Sweets, a new broom, a kiss from Ronia Lux – remember her? Long black hair all in small braids, sharp as a knife – more time for pranks and adventures with you lot.”
“If memory serves, you got all of that too. Well, except for the kiss.” Remus snorted. “She was not interested.”
“She was not,” Sirius agreed, shaking his head mournfully. “Can’t blame her though, I was a tosser.”
“What do you mean ‘was’?”
The evening degenerated into half-hearted bickering after that, a relief from the ever-bleaker reality for them both. But something about the conversation stuck with Sirius and an idea of sorts took root.
“It’s risky,” Arthur said. “But we could do it.”
“We should do it,” Molly added, nodding firmly. “I can’t believe the boy’s never had one.”
“Do you want to ask Dumbledore if—?”
“Absolutely not!” Sirius said. “He could help, but he’ll try to stop us instead. I won’t have him take this away too.” He breathed deeply, forcing his voice down from the near shouting range it had climbed to.
“We’re going to need more people than just the four of us though.” Remus looked thoughtful. “Enough to maintain one hell of a warding over the Burrow.”
“And more blood from that horrible aunt of his,” Molly added. The men all looked slightly squeamish at the thought but Molly just pursed her lips. “Yes, I’ll get it. You lot, find some trustworthy adults of legal spellcasting age.”
In the end, it wasn’t difficult. McGonagall agreed readily enough to help with the wards. Charlie was able to come for a repeat visit to his parents’ delight, which only doubled when Bill too agreed to come home to help out. Hagrid happily accepted an invitation to attend and while he would be of little help with the spellcasting, he was someone Harry would want there.
After some humming and hawing, Sirius contacted Andromeda. Well. He let Moony do some of the initial talking and explaining, remembering just how fast his cousin could be with her curses, and then he opened the Floo network just long enough for her to step through, Remus on her heels.
“Dromeda,” he greeted her, aiming for casual but finding his voice breaking unexpectedly somewhere along the second syllable. “Been a while.”
“Merlin’s balls,” she breathed. “You look old.”
Sirius barked a laugh, rather wet around the edges. “You always were ruthless about your compliments, cousin.”
“Sirius…” Her voice, always so fierce, shook as well. She pressed a hand to her mouth, just briefly, but hard enough that the tips of her fingers turned white. Perhaps Sirius wasn’t the only one affected by the family reunion. “I should kick your skinny arse,” she said finally and then pulled him into a hug.
“Okay,” Sirius said, clinging just a little bit. “You can do that later.” Over her shoulder, he could see Remus discreetly retreating from the room, making a sign of a teacup with one hand.
The party was a success. Sirius had wanted to invite more of Harry’s school mates but conceded that it would have pushed the risk from manageable to foolhardy. Kids meant parents and siblings and all sorts of people none of them really knew and who thus had no business knowing about Harry Potter’s birthday party either.
Besides, Harry seemed perfectly happy to have just Hermione and Ron there, each beaming with delight at managing to keep the party a surprise. Well, more or less. Sirius was pretty sure Harry had suspected something.
“If you get sick from all the sweets, I’m not going to clean up after you,” he warned Harry in passing, after the trio had been by for a third helping of the cake, all of them giggling and high from sugar. He didn’t tell Harry to stop though. Maybe that made him a bad parent.
“That’s a lie,” Remus murmured from where he was standing, leaning against the kitchen counter with a glass in his hand. “You absolutely will clean up after the kid. And probably fuss when he gets a stomach-ache. Which he also absolutely will.”
Sirius huffed but couldn’t bring himself to deny it.
Later, when they had all gathered outside to watch the fireworks display the twins had prepared – “Completely invisible from beyond the wards,” Fred said. “Guaranteed private show or your money back,” George added, blithely ignoring the fact that no one had either paid or requested their services – Sirius found his eyes drawn more to Harry’s face than the colourful explosions. The uncomplicated joy in his expression, the way he whooped and pointed when a particularly impressive cracker shot off, the line of his nose, the set of his shoulders… It was like seeing the past and present, superimposed over each other.
Sirius blinked, pretending it was the smoke from the fireworks that made his eyes water.
“I miss them too,” Remus said quietly. It was a few hours later and most of the guests had either left or gone to bed. In the lounge, Molly was pulling a quilt over Hermione who had fallen asleep on the sofa, her hair spread across several decorative pillows. Arthur was chivvying Ron toward the stairs.
“Some days I turn around and see him, maybe just from a corner of my eye, and it’s like I’m back at Hogwarts, running after James,” Sirius confessed. “I know he’s not James. Or Lily. I know. And I don’t expect him to be but…”
“Yeah,” Remus agreed, waving a goodnight to Molly and Arthur. “As long as we remember that.”
Sirius watched Remus make them another cup of tea, sloshing a generous amount of fire whiskey into the mugs. He probably had a point. The past was the past. But you shouldn’t let it dictate your future. One of these days, probably after Harry was safely back in school, Sirius was going to have a long and likely very unpleasant conversation with Dumbledore about prophecies.
“Speaking of Harry,” he said, taking a sip of his tea but then setting it back onto the table. “Have you seen him?”
The wards were still up, would probably stay up for another month at least, considering the detail and strength behind them, so Sirius wasn’t too worried. Still, it was a relief to find his godson no more than a few steps from the back door. He was sitting on one of the fold-up chairs, hands shoved into his hoodie pocket and head tilted right back.
“There you are,” Sirius said, lowering himself carefully onto one of the rickety chairs next to Harry’s. He thought about transforming into Padfoot momentarily. It would be more comfortable and maybe that was the kind of company that would be better received right now.
After a few seconds Harry acknowledged him though, humming noncommittally and flicking a brief glimmer of a gaze his way before going back to watching the sky. Sirius gingerly leaned back in his chair and did the same.
He had to admit, it was a sight behold. The small windows of Azkaban were perfect for letting in the cold wind but absolutely useless for stargazing, and in London the light pollution – the term he’d learned from Hermione of all people – made it a rather unrewarding pastime. But here…
“Now, that is something,” Sirius said.
Harry made a sound in agreement, one that didn’t quite turn into an actual word.
They sat in silence for a while, the sky above them clear and full of stars, like someone had thrown a bagful of diamonds over a velvet cloak. At one point, Sirius could hear the backdoor opening, the light increasing just for a few moments before whoever it was who had stuck their head out – probably Remus – to check on them, retreated once more.
“Hey,” Sirius said after several minutes. “Happy birthday.” He dug out a small bag from his pocket and tossed it into Harry’s lap.
That got a reaction. “What’s this?” Harry asked, sitting up properly and blinking at the pouch in his hands.
Sirius rolled his eyes. “It’s a birthday gift. And if you open it, you’ll find out what it is.”
“But you already got me the party,” Harry said.
“That was from everyone,” Sirius protested.
“Oh, come on! I’m not stupid.” Now it was Harry who was rolling his eyes. Or at least he sounded as if he was, it was difficult to tell with the way his glasses had gone opaque in the darkness. “I knew something was up. And yeah, everyone helped and that’s…” He broke off. “That’s so great,” he finished finally, clearing his throat. “But I know it was you… And, you didn’t have to. And, this summer too. I…”
“Harry,” Sirius interrupted. If he didn’t, he was going to have to sit through a thank you of all things, like he’d done anything but the bare minimum, probably not even that, definitely not even that, and… Sirius didn’t think he was strong enough to survive such a thing. “Just open your gift, will you? It’s not really exciting or anything but…”
“A key?” Harry had upended the bag onto his palm and was now looking at a large brass key, attached to a keychain shaped like a big black dog. Because Sirius couldn’t resist the joke.
“It’s more a symbolic thing really. Not the whole gift, obviously. And, it’s not even a proper gift, just something that would be… is yours anyway. I just thought…”
“Sirius.” Harry cut him off, which was a blessing really. “What’s it a key for?”
“Oh!” Sirius startled. He’d rather thought it was obvious. “Grimmauld Place of course.”
Harry stared at him. His hand had closed around the key and was now holding it in a grip tight enough that the metal must be cutting into the flesh of his palm, though the boy seemed unaware of it.
“I still can’t promise about Christmas,” Sirius said, the regret plain in his voice. “But I can promise that if it’s safe for you, I’ll do my damnedest to make it happen.” He sighed. “Might not be a quiet one though. I’m pretty sure Dumbledore is going to ask to use the house, so it’ll probably be full of people soon. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to say yes because, you know, it’s a good location for the Order but…” He trailed off, tipping his head back again. The stars were still there.
“But all that will end. Some day. And I wanted… needed you to know that there’s a place for you there, always.” He made himself look at Harry then, instead of the Milky Way, because he was the adult here, and the one responsible for getting this right.
“Your mum and dad … They were family. And that makes you family, Harry. Even if you weren’t my godson, you’d still be family.” He swallowed, reaching out to wrap a hand around Harry’s tight fist, his fingers clenched around the key. “I know you understand, when I say that family isn’t always about blood, don’t you?”
Harry nodded, his gaze drifting toward the house, where Ron and Hermione were already fast asleep, along with most of the party guests who’d stayed.
“Yeah,” he said. “I… Thanks.”
Sirius squeezed his hand once in reply, before letting go, grateful that Harry’s earlier thank you speech had been truncated into this. This he could handle. Just about.
They settled back down. Sirius turned his attention back to the sky, picking out the Dog Star out of habit and then tracing the whole Canis Major from it. Harry, he could tell, was more focused on turning the key around in his hands than the stars now, but Sirius let it be.
He was just thinking about maybe suggesting they go inside to sleep when Harry got up and stretched.
“Hey Sirius?” he asked, turning to look at him, one foot already on the back step.
“Hmm?” Sirius also stood up, and almost knocked the flimsy chair over in the process.
“If I can come for Christmas…” There was a smile tugging at the corner of Harry’s mouth. “Can we get a real tree?”
Sirius laughed, suddenly feeling lighter than he had since maybe before Harry was even born, as if something heavy and dark inside him had broken apart, just a little.
“Absolutely,” he promised, clapping his godson on the shoulder and then nudging him toward the house. “The biggest we can find.”