In the previous chapter, we learned that Harry is locked up at Privet Drive, not being given nearly enough food to sustain him. Suffering from guilt over Cedric's death and torment at the hands of his relatives, there is nothing he can do to defend himself against Vernon's cruel attack. Meanwhile, Ron and Hermione both awaken from nightmares, Harry on their mind, and Arthur Weasley and Hermione both make their way to Hogwarts.
THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH
Hiding in plain sight.
The act sounds daring, dangerous, and therefore, exciting beyond measure. It sounds like something a fully-trained Auror would do, as he stood beside his opponent and grinned down at the unwitting adversary, knowing he had always had the upper hand. After all, he was hiding in plain sight. He was so visible, he was invisible. Yeah, it sounded exhilarating.
It was, quite possibly, the most ridiculously boring thing that Sirius Black had ever done in his life. Coming from a man who had spent twelve years of said life rotting away in Azkaban Prison, this was saying quite a lot.
Both an Auror (though no longer recognized as one, thanks to stupid choices, dirty traitors, and the dim-witted Ministry of Magic), as well as an escaped convict, Sirius Black was the kind of person who liked to be active and participating in the efforts against the newly-resurrected dark lord.
Sirius sighed heavily in a fashion not befitting him. Head propped up on his hands, elbows resting on the top of the table, Sirius stared unseeing at the wall in front of him. His mind had wandered elsewhere, unwilling or unable to remain still, as his body was forced.
He was thinking of the dream he'd had just that night. The one that had caused him to wake up screaming in terror and anticipatory dread.
"I think I'm in love with you, Sirius."
Those words wouldn't leave him alone. Rather, they haunted him like his own personal ghost, and they were likely to continue to do so for the remainder of his life. Remus had said those words to them. Said them and meant them with all of his beautiful, self-sacrificing heart.
And Sirius had questioned him, and rejected him.
So very like a Black.
He shook the thought away. The voice sounded disturbingly like his father; a deep tone interlaced with shame, dancing in an air that said he knew that he was more than you could ever even hope to be.
I hate it here, Sirius mused darkly, eyes regaining focus as he came back to himself and to the present. Leaning back, crossing his arms in front of himself, Sirius studied the kitchen with an eye that held something akin to contempt. He knew the layout by heart and could have navigated the rotting mansion in his sleep, but it was so much easier to loathe something when you could look upon it with narrowed eyes.
Ah, the wonders of the infamous Black Family Glare of Doom.
Rot, House, rot, Sirius demanded silently of the stale air, his sapphire eyes filled with a cruel glee that would have made his parents smile, even though it came from him, worthless blood-traitor child that he was. Rot as I have done.
Number 12 Grimmauld Place was a dark home, reminiscent of some Dracula-esque tomb, with an aura of death, pain, and undeniable hatred. It had been the home to one of the oldest, darkest, and cruelest wizarding families in England, and perhaps the world.
It was where Sirius Black grew up.
He hated it.
He had hated it when he lived here, years and years ago. The loathing was worse now, he thought. It might even border on abhorrence.
He was channeling his dear, dead mum now, he was sure.
Even when you're dead I can't escape you, spiteful bitch, he thought viciously.
Sirius had not had a very pleasant childhood. At all. It was quite horrendous, actually, and nothing like a childhood should be. Some pureblooded families were like that, he supposed; they put appearances above happiness. In his family's case, they put values above love. Sirius was not loved by his family, because he did not believe as they did. He was hated, because he was the family freak.
They were all dead now, but he was still a freak.
Sirius let his head drop and hit the table, trying in vain to beat the thoughts out of his mind. Unfortunately, he was a puppet, as all of his relatives, and they had begun to ingrain the thoughts into his impressionable mind at a very young age.
"Damn you all," he muttered darkly.
Running long, slender fingers through his ink-black hair, Sirius sat up again and looked around the kitchen. He was alone in the house now, asides from the crazy old house elf, Kreacher, who he would like very much to-
No… no, that led to dark thoughts and even darker actions. He was not a murderer. Not, not, not.
Huffing a sigh that might have come from a dog rather than a human, Sirius pondered how to waste the day. Remus had been staying at Grimmauld Place with him for the past few days, likely to keep him company. The werewolf had his own house and Grimmauld Place was far from pleasant, but by Dumbledore's orders, Sirius had to remain in his childhood hellhole, and Remus was selfless enough to join him.
I think I'm in love with you, Sirius.
And it was back to slamming his head on the table.
Remus had not asked then why Sirius had refused his love. Of all the things that the werewolf could have said, Sirius would have thought he would have at least questioned the boy's reasoning behind rejecting him. But Remus had not asked, and Sirius had not told. Still, however, he remembered why.
Because Remus was a liar.
That was his reasoning, put simply, but it went deeper than that, as all truths did. Sirius had grown to be able to read people. It was a gift he had gained that had been born as a defense mechanism, used in his early childhood to tell when it was safe to speak and when it was best to run. His life at home had been anything but pleasant and he had needed to learn quickly how to defend against attacks, physical, verbal… and emotional.
When he was finally able to escape his home by attending Hogwarts, Sirius had been careful. He paid attention to everything – every little detail, every word someone said. He analyzed every spoken phrase, tried to catch every guilty look they were unable to hide. Such looks he had seen in Remus.
When Remus had first claimed his mother was ill in their first year, Sirius had sympathized. Actually, he had wished Remus' mum's illness upon his own mother, but he had then tried to reassure Remus that everything would be okay. That was what friends were supposed to do, right? He had thought so, but then he had never had a friend before, so he hadn't been certain.
The days had reoccurred, Remus needing to return home to visit his sick mother. Their concern had grown for her, through Remus. What would happen to him if his mother passed away? Would he remain at Hogwarts? Where would he live? How would he change as a person? Could he handle it?
Remus seemed so… soft, so fragile sometimes that Sirius had almost been afraid to touch him. And then… something... it would break through the mask Remus wore, a look in his eyes, almost primal. It was both terrifying to see and exhilarating to witness, but then it would be gone, and Sirius thought he had imagined it all, perhaps because he had wanted to see it.
As the year went by, Sirius began to pay attention to his friends more closely. He had let his guard down around them – something he never did around anyone - and James had pranked him horribly one night. Sirius had claimed revenge, as well as to not let James catch him by surprise so easily, and so he paid attention, watching for the sly grin, the guilty looks, the expression of fear at the idea of being caught. In the end, however, it hadn't been James he had caught lying.
Remus. Quiet, thoughtful, unfairly-intelligent Remus Lupin. It had been one night near the end of term, when Remus was telling them he had to run home to visit his mum. He seemed concerned, but when Sirius looked deeper, paid closer attention, he saw the look. It was a glance, a snatch of sight at each of them in turn, trying to see if they suspected anything of what he was actually doing – if they truly knew what was going on.
Immediately, Sirius had grown suspicious of Remus' intentions. What exactly was he doing on those nights, if not going to visit his sick mum? Sirius began to pay closer attention to him, noticing more and more about him – how often he lied.
Sirius did not like lies. He was lied to far too often at home and had learned that believing in such falsehoods only ever lead to pain. When he had discovered that Remus was a liar, that he lied every day to him, James, and Peter, Sirius had felt a wall position itself between him and Remus. Remus had felt it, too, as Sirius grew distant, confiding in him less, making efforts to avoid being alone in his presence…
That was why he had turned Remus down when he claimed that he was in love with him. Was Remus lying? Was he trying to make Sirius lower his guard so that he could get something from him?
There had been more to it than that, however. It was more than the fear that Remus was lying about his love, as well, and that Sirius would only be hurt again by someone's lies. It was the fact that Remus was a good person – too good.
Everyone had their dark side; a part of them they tried to keep hidden.
James could be cruel. It was hard to believe, as James was one of the nicest people Sirius had ever meant (though that wasn't saying much, really, considering his family). However, James had a temper and when someone did something to anger him, James did not like to forgive, and he was very good at holding a grudge. He thoroughly enjoyed pranking people for a spot of revenge, but James' pranks could turn deadly in an instant, and he was a fearful sight when he was on a rampage.
Peter was a coward, and this much he would admit to, especially under the scrutiny of a furious James Potter. Though Peter was practically a genius in Potions class, the young man had a tendency to skitter far from danger whenever there was a chance of a duel, or even a rather destructive prank war.
Sirius was suspicious of everyone, never trusting someone at their first meeting. It was something he had gained over the years of being spoken to sweetly by his mother, and then kicked in the ribs.
They lived with each other's faults, though, perhaps brought together by them. After all, they all had flaws… except Remus.
It was this which Sirius found to be the most irritating and distrustful thing about Remus. The boy was kind, generous, a bit quiet and shy, but always ready to lend a helping hand. Despite his superior knowledge in most areas, he wasn't arrogant or self-righteous, and there was no doubt that he was attractive, both his personality and physical appearance.
But there was no vice. Nothing to combat the light within him. He seemed to be almost mechanical, because there was nothing about him that wasn't nearly perfect. It sickened Sirius that he almost hated Remus for it, not out of jealousy, but because he knew that there was something more about Remus that he did not show them, and it made him a liar in Sirius' eyes.
However, that day in their third year, when they had followed Remus into the Shrieking Shack, everything had changed. Sirius had seen what was buried beneath the mask of kindness and quiet intelligence that Remus wore – something fierce… powerful… primal… and beautiful.
Sirius had returned to the Shrieking Shack under cover of James' invisibility cloak. He knew the cloak wouldn't protect him from the superior senses of a werewolf, but it was successful in bringing him safely through the passages of Hogwarts. When he reached the base of the Whomping Willow, he discarded it.
He entered the Shrieking Shack only half-cautious. The other half of him was reckless, uncaring. If he was bitten and turned, it wouldn't matter. He needed to see Remus again.
He had timed it close, dangerously so, arriving just as Remus began to turn. He'd ducked into a closet and barricaded the door effectively, just in case. The door had cracks in it, though it was strong enough to hold. Sirius stood in the claustrophobic darkness of the tiny room and watched his best friend transform into a howling beast.
At that moment, he fell in love with Remus Lupin.
The absence of this part of Remus was why Sirius had been unable to love him. How could you hope to love someone who was perfect? How could you dare to compare yourself to them? It was impossible, because it wasn't the perfections of a person that you loved, but their flaws – the little idiosyncrasies that made them who they were.
Sirius had wanted to tell Remus that he loved him. The term ended only a week after that day and he returned home for the summer. Not even his horrid family was able to drag him from his thoughts, however, as he sat at his desk, quill in hand, poised over a piece of parchment. The gears in his brain cranked ceaselessly, trying to find the words.
They never came.
How could he tell Remus that he had changed his mind? How could he explain it so that he would understand? He didn't concern himself with the idea that he would be breaking a promise to James to wait until Remus told them he was a werewolf. His mind was too consumed in the realization that he loved Remus, and that Remus was one of his best friends.
But Sirius had hurt him, hadn't he?
Remus had admitted his feelings, and Sirius had turned him down. How could he reconcile that? He didn't finish a letter and send it off to Remus that summer. In fact, during those three months, he didn't speak to him at all. How Remus must have thought Sirius hated him!
Sirius nearly cried when he thought of how he must have hurt his friend. When they returned to school the following year, things were strained between them. Remus avoided Sirius' presence whenever possible, and Sirius couldn't think of what to say. He wanted to confide his feelings to Remus, but he couldn't get close to the secret-werewolf, and when he was finally in the position to be able to tell him, Sirius could never get his mouth to work right.
He remembered constantly the day Remus had told him he loved him, and the looks of sadness and longing that had adorned the werewolf's face for weeks afterward. Sirius dreamed about that day; about the look of pleading in Remus' eyes, the hopeful tone of his voice, and more than once, Sirius would wake up crying in the middle of the night at how much pain he had caused his friend.
Eventually, sleep became his enemy. Unable to close his eyes because he would see only Remus' pain-stricken face, Sirius took to cat-napping. He would sleep in half-hour or forty-five minute increments, wake up and do something for an hour, then go back to sleep for another half-hour. If Sirius could have been able to do that all day, he might have been all right, but he'd had Quidditch practice, classes, exams, homework, and three friends that loved to prank anyone who they thought got out of line. Eventually, the dreams, memories, his suppressed feelings, and the lack of sleep finally caught up with him.
Truth be told, Sirius didn't remember a whole lot of those three weeks. He remembered how he had started to feel ill, what with the lack of sleep and not eating as much as he should have, but he chose to let it take care of itself. It would go away.
Well, it didn't.
From what James had told him, they had been playing Quidditch – in the middle of the game against Ravenclaw – and Sirius had been spending his time protecting the Chasers (especially James) from the Bludgers that the Ravenclaw Beaters were firing their way. The game was a long one, however, as both teams were extremely good, and the storm was making it hard to see. The cold had been hard on Sirius, but he was determined not to let his team down, so he never complained, even when their captain asked how everyone was fairing.
It was a long way into the game when Sirius began to falter. He was stubborn, against people as well as himself, and he had been fighting his needs. However, they finally caught up with him; when he beat a Bludger back away from James, he didn't notice the second one.
He wasn't sure if he'd passed out before or after the Bludger had struck him, but James said he was hit hard, directly in the chest, and thrown from his broom. This was a terrifying incident, considering that, at the time, he had been over one hundred feet in the air.
A number of the teachers had moved, he was told by his classmates. Dumbledore and McGonagall had seemed to be of a similar mind, as they both cast spells to slow him down as he plummeted through the air. Sirius liked to think, however, that it was Remus' genius that truly saved his life, as his friend cast a series of cushioning spells so fast on the ground that no one was sure exactly how many he used.
Sirius had been rushed to the Hospital Wing. True, the damage he could have gained from the fall had been thwarted for the most part, but the Bludger had struck him hard – too hard – in the chest. Remus and James had to be literally dragged out of the Hospital Wing when they learned that a number of his ribs had been shattered, and the bones piercing his lungs had stopped his breathing.
Three days without sleep, is what James had said. Sirius would have laughed it off, but for the look on James' face. James never joked with that serious look on his face – the look that was reserved specifically to show that he was not kidding. Three days, they had waited. They had refused to go to class, but sat in the hall outside of the Hospital Wing, waiting for news. McGonagall had threatened them with everything she had, taking over two hundred points from Gryffindor for the both of them (Peter didn't want to defy the professors and continued going to class, taking notes for everyone). When she had threatened with expulsion, Remus had frozen up for a moment, meeting her eyes with a gaze of utter fear, James had related, but then his golden gaze became determined, and he simply said, "If it's necessary, Professor, but I'm not leaving."
And that was it. The threats stopped, and the professors gave up trying to make them leave. After they fell asleep in the hall on the fourth day, Madam Pomfrey finally relented, at Dumbledore's insistence, and let them sleep in the Hospital Wing.
But they still weren't allowed to see him.
A week later, she gave in again, this time without Dumbledore's insistence. Remus had to go to the Shrieking Shack that night and he didn't want to leave. The boy was near tears at the thought, and he later confided that he was afraid that if he left, Sirius would die while he was gone. So Pomfrey let them see him.
It still gave Sirius chills to remember how James described him, that emotionless voice he used to hide the pain that was too visible in his hazel eyes. He'd stated quite clearly that he thought that Sirius was dead upon first seeing him, and he was certain that Remus had stopped breathing for a time. Sirius had been pale, his lips slightly blue, his chest wrapped in bandages, and an odd bubble spelled around his mouth to help him breathe. Even with the spell, he seemed to have trouble breathing, and it terrified them.
It must had scared Remus more than he thought it would have, because he had been carried back into the Hospital Wing the next morning by Madam Pomfrey, blood covering his body, his throat nearly ripped out. He'd nearly died himself that day, and Sirius remembered waking up to find him like that, in the bed next to him.
It had hurt to move, but he'd had to see Remus. He half-walked, half-dragged himself over to the boy's side, sitting down on his bed. The movement immediately waking the wounded werewolf, and Remus' eyes had widened at seeing him. Sirius remained silent for a long time, studying the scratches and scars across Remus' arms, before meeting his eyes and whispering softly, "I'm sorry I made the wolf so mad."
And there it was. Sirius had broken his promise to James to wait until Remus was ready to tell them, and he had revealed to Remus that he knew. He knew Remus was a werewolf, and he didn't give a damn. He had never seen so many emotions flicker across a person's face at one time before, but he saw fear, hope, happiness, sorrow, regret, disbelief, and then again that love, but then Remus had settled on cautious hope and started to ask a question, but found his voice too weak from the wound across his throat.
"Remus, I don't give a damn what you are otherwise," Sirius had replied, and then smiled. "You're my best friend, furry or bald."
He mentioned nothing about the hug he had received. More a glomp, considering it had nearly thrown him to the floor. Remus had sobbed into his shoulder, muttering "thank you thank you" weakly, despite how Sirius told him to shut up so he wouldn't damage his throat any further.
And Sirius had told him how he found out, how long he knew, and everything – everything at all.
Except that he loved him.
Sirius pushed himself to his feet, deciding that moping at the table was doing nothing but making him feel more miserable. He wondered vaguely if he would ever have the courage to tell Remus how he felt? Some Gryffindor he was…
"Coward," he muttered darkly to himself, and then trekked out of the kitchen, searching for something that still needed cleaning, or a nice cement wall he could pound his thick head against until his problems solved themselves.
There was blood on the knife.
Harry sat on the bed with his knees pulled up to his chest, staring at the floor where the blade lay. It no longer glinted enticingly, having been drenched in blood.
He'd given in finally. He couldn't take it anymore.
And now it hurt even worse.
Burying his face in his bloody hands, Harry Potter sobbed relentlessly, trying to ignore the profound silence of the room otherwise, and the utter loneliness his actions had brought. His first friend, his dear companion, the only person in the house that didn't hate him, was dead. Hedwig was dead.
He had killed her.
He tried to tell himself that he did it for her own good. That wasn't a lie, but it wasn't making him feel any less guilty. She was too thin for an owl, her beautiful brown eyes dull and hollow, and she had begun to let out pain-filled squawks that were weak to his ears, but loud against his heart. She was dying, he knew. She was starving to death.
So he had killed her. He released her from her pain.
He'd tried to hold her through the bars of the cage as best he could, stroking her feathers lovingly, while he held the blade in the other hand. She'd eyed the weapon with those eyes of hers, so intelligent, and then she had looked at him.
Of course she knew what he planned to do.
And she didn't fight him. She knew, too, that she was fading. He could have given her all of his food, but she still wouldn't survive the summer, and they both knew it. If it had been anyone else, he knew she would have fought brilliantly, but she trusted him, loved him, and knew her feelings were reciprocated.
He'd aimed carefully and made sure it was swift and as painless as possible. He was proud of himself in that regard, though he noted that the thought was rather sick and morbid. Still, he hadn't wanted her to suffer anymore, and he had ended it swiftly. The blade had pierced her fiercely-beating heart, and he'd held her as best he could. She'd lasted for barely a second – only long enough to twitter reassuringly, before slipping away completely.
He didn't know how long he held her, but he cried every second. He loved her so much, his first friend, and he missed her already.
But at least she wasn't in pain anymore.
Maybe you'll get to meet my parents, Hedwig, he thought sorrowfully, if animals go where humans go when they die. Tell them I love them, Hedwig. Tears fell like stars from his dull green eyes. I love you, Hedwig…
The silence in the room continued mercilessly.
Remus Lupin had come to expect the unexpected. It helped that his past was filled with the unexpected, he having been turned into a werewolf at a young age, and then spending his school years around the biggest pranksters in the world. He'd been to the wedding of two school rivals, who no one thought would graduate without one of them killing the other, much less get married. He found out his martyr friend was alive and a Death Eater, and that his murderer best friend was an innocent convict. Yes, he was rather well-versed in the unexpected.
But he was still startled speechless when both Hermione Granger and Arthur Weasley came tumbling out of the Floo at the same time.
Only Hermione's sudden violent coughing fit managed to call him back to the present reality. She looked pale, with sweat rolling down her face and a fevered glaze to her eyes. He bit his lip. Obviously, no one had told her that you shouldn't travel the Floo when you were ill, as it amplified the effects of the illness nearly ten fold.
"Here, Miss Granger," he said, helping her to her feet and ushering her into a chair, where she coughed violently some more, and then began to shiver. He conjured some tea and a blanket, wrapping her in it as she gratefully took the warm drink.
"Th-Thank you, Professor L-Lupin," she shivered. The change was palpable. Hermione was always buoyant and well-spoken. To see her pale, shivering, and stammering was a sight that floored him in its odd reversal. It sent warning bells off in his head, as happened when things didn't add up, but he had acknowledged them and let them go. This wasn't a Death Eater in disguise, or if it was, it was a very ill Death Eater. He could smell the sickness on her, and he did not envy her the chills that caused her to shiver so violently.
At that moment, Dumbledore chose to enter the office, and look at the two new visitors with a surprised look, before schooling himself. "Miss Granger, Arthur, how are you?"
The attempt at pleasantries was expected, Remus supposed, but it still annoyed him a little. Hermione was obviously not well.
"I wish I could suggest that things are fine, Albus," Arthur offered, stepping forward and taking all of their attention, "but I'm concerned about Harry."
Dumbledore sighed and shook his head "Mr. Potter is fine, Arthur." He sounded somewhat exasperated as he sat down in the chair behind his desk and folded his hands in front of him. "The wards on Privet Drive will protect him against Death Eaters and Voldemort alike."
Arthur flinched at the use of the name, but his voice didn't tremble and he spoke with some heat. "It's not You-Know-Who or Death Eaters that concerns me. Ron woke up this morning screaming, and what he saw…" He shook his head, paling slightly.
"A mere dream. I don't think we have reason to be concerned over a nightmare."
"Sir," Hermione said, and everyone turned their heads to look at her, "I had a n-nightmare, as well. S-Something's wrong." She swallowed, biting back the cough that demanded precedence. "P-Please, Professor. Ch-Check on him, at least?" Her cold took over at that point, and Remus refilled her teacup when the coughing had subsided.
"Headmaster, I don't think it would hurt to check on Harry," Remus said, turning to face the Headmaster. "Even if these are only nightmares, Harry has recently gone through a traumatic ordeal, and it might do him good to see a friend or have someone to talk to. From what I remember of Petunia, she's not very… accepting of our kind. I doubt Harry would have someone to confide in at Privet Drive."
Albus sighed, reluctant to give in for whatever reason, but obviously seeing some truth in Remus' logic. To be fair, there were few who could defy the werewolf's genius, and most who did weren't intelligent enough to know how to follow someone, anyway.
"Perhaps you're right, Remus. Very well. You bonded quite well with Harry during his third year here, if I'm not mistaken, and he obviously trusts you, as he was comfortable working with you one-on-one concerning some higher defensive spells."
"It was only the Patronus charm, Headmaster." Remus didn't want the man think more highly of his relationship with Harry than was realistic. "You know how he reacted around the Dementors. He needed to know how to cast it. I'm quite certain he would have gone to Severus for help if need be."
Hermione held in an uncharacteristic snort at this comment, but only just. It was Arthur, however, who spoke up in argument against Remus.
"I don't think you're being fair to yourself or to Harry. For one, Severus has a rather prejudiced view against Harry, and the boy is hardly comfortable in his presence."
"Few are," Remus muttered, and Dumbledore's eyes twinkled brilliantly in amusement.
"From what I have seen, Harry doesn't trust easily-"
"Now, Arthur," Dumbledore argued, but the Weasley patriarch held up his hand, and the headmaster quieted, regarding him in polite curiosity.
"He doesn't, Albus," Arthur continued, glancing at the headmaster before turning back to Remus, "though it's an easy thing to miss. Harry seems to be a rather open person at first, but if you start on a topic that he's uncomfortable with, he becomes very tight-lipped. He's quite secretive concerning his knowledge of things, whether it is of himself or something that he has learned… when he probably shouldn't have."
"You seem to be speaking from experience, Arthur," Dumbledore commented, steepling his fingers and gazing thoughtfully at the redheaded man before him, who had the attention of all in the room.
"Yes, well, I'm sure you remember what happened at the beginning of his third year?" Arthur asked, and they all knew immediately what he was talking about. "Harry stumbled upon a… conversation I was having with Molly, about whether or not to tell Harry of Sirius Black's escape. He didn't say anything, until I confronted him at King's Cross, where he admitted to having heard our discussion. I wish he hadn't learned of it that way, but it got me thinking. How much do you suppose he knows but doesn't say, because he either thinks he's not supposed to know, or isn't sure how someone will react?"
Hermione was biting her lip, yet another annoying habit of hers. Mr. Weasley's comments were quite thought-provoking. True, Harry was rather open with her and Ron, for the most part, but then, they were almost always present when strange things happened – stranger than normally happened at a magic school, anyway. When the discussion turned around to Harry's home-life, however, Harry did grow extremely quiet and mentioned little, other than the occasional comment that he didn't like living with his relatives. Ron thought it was because they were Muggles, mostly, but Hermione had to wonder…
"Arthur, you seem to have put a great deal of thought into this," Dumbledore noted.
"It's been on my mind lately," Arthur admitted, scratching his head. "You see, when we went to pick Harry up to take him to the Quidditch World-Cup, his guardians were… less than welcoming." The last few words came out somewhat sarcastic, making Hermione think that Mr. Weasley would have rather said something else, but didn't find it appropriate.
"I wish you would have brought this to my attention earlier," Dumbledore said, leaning back in his chair. "Although I don't wish to remove Harry from the protection his relatives offer, I admit that it might make his summers more enjoyable if he were able to have his friends over. If his aunt and uncle are, as you say, not welcoming to other witches and wizards, that would make it somewhat difficult."
"Albus, think about this for a moment!" Remus said, stepping away from Hermione and raising his hand in a beseeching move for attention. "If Harry's relatives act this way toward visitors – toward Harry's friends – how do you suppose they treat him?"
"Now, Remus," Albus said, smiling softly, "whatever Mr. and Mrs. Dursley think of the magical world, Harry is their flesh and blood and they would care for him despite what fate has brought upon him."
The sudden lack of emotion on Remus' face caused Hermione to shrink down into her chair. She did not fear Professor Lupin, but no one could deny the fact that he could be very intimidating if he so chose. Watching him now, his golden eyes taking on a fire, while the rest of his face became dreadfully expressionless, she had to draw in a deep breath to calm herself, lest she run from what was obviously a deep, oft-hidden strength in the man before her.
"Are you forgetting, Headmaster," Remus said in an icy tone that Hermione had never heard him use before, "what occurred to a particular friend of mine during our time at Hogwarts?" Hermione noticed that a bit of the twinkling within the headmaster's eyes had gone out, and she wondered exactly who Remus was talking about. She knew he'd only had three really close friends in school – well, four, if you counted Lily – but she doubted that he would still consider Pettigrew a friend, and Harry's parents were dead. He must have been talking about Sirius, but what exactly did he mean?
"No, Remus, of course not," the headmaster said quietly, after a lengthy silence. "I could not forget the mistake I made then, and I wish terribly that I could change it. Unfortunately, I cannot."
"I know that, Albus," Remus said, his voice calming to a tone of understanding, "but you could work to prevent what might be a similar mistake."
"Or a worse one," Arthur added. The others looked at him. "I was a few years ahead of you in school, Remus, but I remember what happened. I don't think I could forget it if I wanted to. The difference here is that he was born into that family." Arthur turned to meet the headmaster's weary gaze. "But you placed Harry in the care of his relatives. Truth be told, someone should have checked on the boy's wellbeing a week ago, considering what just transpired at the end of this past year."
The room was silent for a long few minutes. Even Hermione's coughing seemed to have gone into a contemplative stillness. Finally, Dumbledore let out a tired breath and bowed his head, his eyes dim. "You are, of course, right, Arthur. Not only should I have checked on Harry early this summer, but I should have already begun making plans to have him come to the Burrow, where he could be around friends. It seems, having been distanced from the battle Harry underwent against Tom, I found it easy to forget. It is the mistake of an old fool, and one I am not keen to make it again."
He raised his head to meet Remus' eyes. "If I'm not mistaken, you arrived here only to reveal that the mission I assigned to you and Sirius has been completed." Remus nodded. "In that case, would you be so kind as to take Sirius with you to check on Harry? I'm sure you can easily appear as a man walking his dog, so as not to draw suspicion."
"Of course, Headmaster," Remus replied. "I'd like to escort Hermione to the Hospital Wing first, however."
Dumbledore's eyes regained a bit of their twinkle, while Hermione looked up at her former-professor in surprise. Remus smiled down at her. "Unfortunately, no one has taken the initiative to record a warning in any textbook that Floo travel amplifies illness," he informed her conversationally. "A rather negligent move on the part of the Wizarding World, don't you think?"
To her embarrassment and annoyance, Hermione's initial response was a rather violent sneeze. "Th-Thank you, Professor Lupin," she stammered weakly, and smiled softly in gratitude.
"You're quite welcome, Miss Granger," Remus replied, banishing the obsolete tea set back to the kitchens, and helping Hermione to her feet. He was quite aware of Dumbledore's twinkling gaze focused on him as he wrapped the thick blanket tighter around Hermione, as she shivered violently when she stood.
"Headmaster, if that is everything…" Remus gave Dumbledore a curious look, leaving the rest of his question unsaid.
"Yes, yes, all seems to have been taken care of. I'm sure Sirius will be happy to have a moment out of the house," Dumbledore commented with a smile, after saying good-bye to Arthur, as he returned home.
"No doubt," Remus replied, opening the door for Hermione. "I just need to get a pain relieving potion from Madam Pomfrey. Sirius has had a headache for the past three days, but Merlin forbid he ask his house elf to do anything."
"Kreacher has never been the most obliging house elf, if my memory serves," Dumbledore noted. "But a headache, you say? That's rather unlike Sirius."
Remus nodded. Similar thoughts had been pervading his mind lately. Even when Sirius did become ill, he wasn't the sort of person to complain about it. It had worried Remus for a time, but Sirius kept insisting that his time in Azkaban simply shot his immune system. While the theory was plausible, Remus couldn't bring himself to accept it. He didn't know why, but something felt off.
Dumbledore came around his desk and followed them down the moving staircase. "I need to make certain that Poppy has everything she will need for the beginning of the school year, as well," he explained, "but first, I believe I will need to speak with Argus." He shook his head. "It seems that two of Arthur's children left some rather potent fireworks inside a broom closet." The gargoyle jumped back into place after they had exited into the corridor. Remus and Hermione made their way toward the infirmary, while Dumbledore headed down a separate corridor, after offering a farewell.
"Professor," Hermione began thoughtfully, glancing at Remus, "have you or Sirius received any letters from Harry this summer?" Truthfully, Hermione doubted that they had, but she considered that, if Harry had been able to send just one letter, he may have sent it to his godfather. In his position, Hermione thought she probably would have.
Remus appeared startled by the question, which proved her suspicions correct. "No, Hermione, I haven't," he admitted, "and Sirius hasn't said anything. Knowing him, he'd gloat for hours about his godson sending him a letter." Hermione let a smile come over her face at this, but it quickly followed Remus' lips into a frown. "I thought you and Ron would be talking with Harry all summer, as close as the three of you are."
Hermione sighed, her eyes reaching the floor. "Ron's been trying, but Pig – his owl – keeps bringing the letters back, and I haven't seen Hedwig since the beginning of summer. Ron says they probably have her locked up, though."
She felt, more than saw, Remus' frown. "They, being the Dursleys, I presume. What do you mean about locking Hedwig up?"
Hermione pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders as they walked, her eyes on the stone floor. "According to Ron, when he and the twins went to get Harry the summer before second year, Fred and George had to pick the lock on her cage."
Remus stopped in the middle of the hallway, staring at the child in front of him. "I'm sorry, Hermione. Call me dense, but what? Why would they keep Harry's owl in a locked cage? And when did the twins and Ron pick Harry up in second year? I thought Molly and Arthur would have seen to that."
"Umm…" Hermione wondered if she had, perhaps, said too much. From the concern and worry in Remus' golden eyes, however, she thought that she needed to continue that path of bluntness. "H-Harry wasn't answering our letters," Hermione began hesitantly, feeling much like a lectured child beneath those watchful golden eyes, "and we were getting worried. Ron said that he and the twins drove Mr. Weasley's flying car to Privet Drive, and… and…" She swallowed hard and couldn't meet Remus' eyes. "Th-they had to rip the bars off of Harry's window."
Hermione didn't see the color drain from Remus' face. His voice was an abhorred whisper. "There were bars on Harry's window?"
"Yes, sir," Hermione replied just as quietly.
"Hermione, what else has happened to Harry at home that we don't know about?" Remus asked in a concerned tone.
"I don't know, sir," she answered truthfully. "Harry doesn't like to talk about his home life, but I know he doesn't like it there. He never goes home for the holidays and he always seems reluctant to leave when school ends. I… I'm worried about him, Professor."
They started walked again toward the infirmary and Remus' face was painted with a glower. "So am I."
Note: Yes, Harry killed Hedwig. Bear with me, there's a reason for this. I promise this isn't the last we've seen of our feathered friend.