It was not until the next day that Harry saw Sirius again. His friends had thankfully left the room, leaving him in much needed solitude. He was sitting on his bed, back against the headboard, knees tucked to his chest, when someone knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" Harry asked warily.
"Severus," came the reply.
"Come in," Harry said in relief. He was still feeling far too guilty to see Sirius.
Severus opened the door and stepped inside, Sirius in tow. "And Sirius," Severus corrected.
Harry scowled as he felt a rush of embarrassment. He didn't meet Sirius's eyes.
"Harry, you cannot stay in here all day," Severus said. "You cannot just hide and sulk. There is work to be done."
"I know," Harry replied.
"Why don't you leave us alone for a minute, Severus?" Sirius asked, voice lacking its usual bright energy.
No, don't, Harry wanted to protest. But he didn't.
Severus closed the door with a snap and then they were alone. The awkwardness was next to unbearable.
"I'm sorry, Sirius," Harry said again.
Sirius came to sit next to Harry on the bed, but still Harry did not look up. "I don't blame you, Harry."
"Harry, listen to me," Sirius said sternly. "Look at me."
Reluctantly, Harry raised his head.
"I don't blame you," he repeated, slower for emphasis. "You weren't the one who sent those dementors and if you had been alone to fight them, I never would have forgiven myself. I would take your place any day. That's what I'm here for."
Harry felt hot tears burning in his eyes. "You can't go back to Azkaban, Sirius, you can't."
"I won't," Sirius said confidently.
"How do you know?" Harry mumbled.
Sirius grinned. "Dumbledore's defending me."
"Oh," Harry replied. Despite his misgivings about the man, Harry knew that Dumbledore would be an excellent ally in court. "But you wouldn't be in this situation if it weren't for me."
"Yes, but instead, you would be going to court for using magic underage," Sirius replied. "Trust me, Harry. This is better. I mean, there are already enough things going around about you, we wouldn't need to add something else."
"Things like what?"
Sirius looked regretful and Harry got the impression that he had slipped. "Oh, you know. Anyways, I forgive you. Will you stop being guilty now? I'd like my fun godson back."
"I'm a terrible godson," Harry muttered.
"Harry," Sirius warned. "No guilt."
Harry sighed, but gave in. "Alright."
"That's better," Sirius said, giving him a hug. "Now come on, let's get some breakfast and then you can help your friends clean."
They stood up and Harry's brow furrowed. "Hang on, I thought you were cleaning last summer? You wouldn't let me come over because you were in the process of cleaning."
Sirius nodded shiftily. "The process, yes."
Harry looked at him, waiting for more.
"Well, I got a bit distracted, you know," Sirius said sheepishly. "It happens."
"Distracted with what? You said there was nothing to do around here."
"...Nothing to do for humans that is," Sirius said ambiguously. Harry groaned. "But for dogs, there's a little park down the road a little ways, and sometimes an attractive young lady stumbles upon it...women are suckers for dogs, you know."
Harry shook his head at his godfather as they walked down the stairs. "And I suppose you put on the 'lovable stray' look?"
"Worked on you at that picnic, didn't it?"
"You're a piece of work, Sirius," Harry commented.
"Thank you," Sirius said proudly.
Later, after managing somehow to remove every single doxy from the curtains in the sitting room, Harry collapsed on the couch and closed his eyes. He was only allowed a moment's peace before he was rudely awakened.
"Harry," Severus's sharp voice came. "This is no time to sleep. Are you coming back to Spinner's End with me to attempt the potion?"
Harry sat up and rubbed his dry eyes. "Yeah."
"Good. Let's go now, then, before you are taken up with another of Mrs. Weasley's never ending chores."
"Agreed," Harry said, hopping up. "I've breathed in so much dust in the past hour, I think I might develop lung disease."
"Yes, add that to the growing list of 'things that may or may not happen to the most unlucky boy on earth' and it will be over three feet long," Severus said snidely.
Harry looked at him as they walked to the Floo. "You're in rare form today."
"I just lost an argument," he replied darkly.
"Ah," Harry said, "that clears everything up."
Severus shot him a brief glare. "You first," Severus said, gesturing to the Floo.
Mrs. Weasley's bright voice grew louder as she bustled into the room. "Oh, where are you off to?"
"We have a few things back home that need taken care of," Severus replied stiffly.
Mrs. Weasley put her hands on her hips. "Oh, well. I suppose the other three will have to start on sorting out the attic without Harry, then. If we can get that cleaned up today, maybe we can move a few beds up there, give everyone a little more space."
Severus had donned the look like he didn't care in the least. "I am sure Mr. Malfoy, Ms. Granger and all of the Weasley's are more than up to the task," he stated. "Harry, if you will."
"Well, do be back for dinner," Mrs. Weasley insisted. "And when you get back, Severus, I think there might be a boggart in the cupboard upstairs. Would you take a look? I keep meaning to get Moody, but that man never has a spare moment.""I will look at it," Severus said, giving Harry a look and a nod, implying that he should just go.
"Spinner's End," Harry said, throwing down the Floo powder. He stepped into the flames and was off, heading home.
Severus followed a few seconds later, looking worn out.
"Good to be home, isn't it?" Harry asked lightly.
"Indeed," Severus said. "I will be in the library, looking up a few things. I will come get you when we are ready; until then, you can do whatever you want."
Harry nodded, heading up to his room. There were a few things which he had forgotten to pack that he would rather like to bring to Grimmauld Place. Upon opening his door, Harry saw a tawny owl take flight from the tree outside his window and come to land on his windowsill.
Harry let it in, feeding it a handful of owl treats. He wondered how long it had been waiting. Untying the note from his foot, Harry, led the bird over to Carmax's abandoned water dish and filled it from a nearby jug. He glanced at the name on the note and recognized the writing.
"You're Rhea's bird, aren't you?" he asked. This was the first she had written to him this summer; Egypt was a good week or two flight away. "I'll leave the window cracked and if you come back, you can just slip the note in, okay?" For a moment, Harry felt foolish for talking to a bird. However, given how well they seemed to understand who to deliver notes to, perhaps it wasn't futile.
Harry unfurled the note and read:
I hope all is well since you last wrote, I know it will be a while before this note reaches you. Egypt is alright, I suppose, but every year it grows more dull. The magic of it all when I was a child has noticeably diminished, probably because, compared to your escapades last year, everything seems mundane. Perhaps next year, I will be able to persuade my family to go on a holiday to Greece.
I must confess that I was slightly disappointed not to find a mirror with your letter - perhaps it would be an easier journey to send it to Durmstrang in the fall. That is, if you would still like to keep in touch.
Harry, I do get the news here, and I want to say I am completely on your side. Aris and Bennet are with me in this; if you should need anything that we can help with, feel free to ask.
On a darker note, though I am quite removed from most magical contact, the few wizards there are agree that something is stirring. It is difficult to name, but there is an ancient sort of magic here and it has been disturbed. Given events of last year, I cannot help but think that you might be involved, and I urge you to be careful. I would not like our last meeting to be our final one. I suspect my fears are unfounded, though, given the nature of your guardian. Even so, please don't do anything stupid.
Write soon. My owl can bring a message from you to save yours the trip.
Harry reread the message once, hearing it echo in his mind in Rhea's voice. He missed her, actually. That was something he hadn't expected. Idly, he wondered what she meant by the news and being on his side. Severus had unsubscribed to the Daily Prophet at the beginning of summer, after yet another inaccurate article professing that he was the only winner of the Triwizard Tournament, not mentioning Cedric's death or Voldemort's return at all, had been published. Maybe he'd see if Sirius had a paper he could borrow.
"Please don't do anything stupid," Harry read aloud. Muttering to himself, he complained, "Why does everyone think I'm prone to doing something stupid?" In the back of his mind, a voice pointed out that running off had been stupid. And look where that led him.
Pulling out a piece of parchment and a quill from his writing desk, Harry wrote back.
I am very glad to hear from you and am grateful for your support.
Harry figured it was best to remain ambiguous on this topic, rather than betray his ignorance.
As for how things are going here... well, not so great, really. Your warning didn't come fast enough and I did something stupid. I may have gotten my godfather in serious trouble-
Harry winced at the pun.
-and I feel horrible. It turns out that both he and my guardian have been keeping really important things about Voldemort from me and upon finding this out, I acted rashly. I regret it now, but... Anyway, there is definitely something happening. To be honest, I'm a little scared, but I can only hope that we'll make it through like we have every other time.
I'll work on getting the mirror to you as soon as term starts; I would very much like to keep in touch.
I wish I had better news, brighter news, but I can't find much. I gave all of my Triwizard winnings to the Weasley twins (you remember-from the conversation in the mirror?) so that they can start a joke shop. They made me partner. That promises to be interesting. I'll send you some of their "experiments" once they're up and running, provided that you promise to use them on people like Gregor.
I hope to hear from you soon. Until then, I will honestly try to stay out of trouble, but, knowing me, I won't succeed. Oh well, you can't have everything, right?
Harry rolled up the sheet of parchment and sealed it with the ring that Severus had gotten him. His initials looked beautiful and dignified in blood red sealing wax. Harry was in the midst of admiring it when Severus called from outside the door, "I am prepared, Harry. Are you ready?"
"Yeah, one second," Harry said, tying the note to Rhea's owl and letting him off through the window.
Before going downstairs, Harry watched him fly off, disappear into a speck in the distance. Somehow, it seemed symbolic to Harry; as if he were sending off his worries to some distant place where they were more removed, less important. Just a speck in the sky.