The Sugar Quill
Author: Corgi (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Canis Mutatem: Words, Vows, Gifts, Tears  Chapter: Canto One
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Canis Mutatem:  Words, Vows, Gifts, Tears - Canto One

Canis Mutatem:  Words, Vows, Gifts, Tears
Air feeds Fire; Fire transforms Air

(a Harry Potter fanfiction by Corgi)

beginning immediately after the events of The Prisoner of Azkaban,
and continues through and after The Goblet of Fire
-- continuing from Canis Mutatem.
 

Author's Note:  I started wondering, during a rereading of Goblet of Fire, exactly what was Sirius doing in all that time between letters... and then added in his 'going south' to escape and came up with this.  Alexandra MacMillan's hair is based heavily on a real person's.

Some sections of this story quote heavily from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in order to remain as true as possible to the incidents in the book.

This story is illustrated, with both original works, and with permission of the original artists.  Please pardon the download times, I tried to keep them small.

Disclaimer:   All characters, names and situations from the Harry Potter novels belong to J.K. Rowling, her publishers and filmmakers.   No infringement of any copyrights is intended, no profit will ever be made on this story, and all rights are reserved to their legal owners.   Alex MacMillan and her dogs (Canis familiaris, not Canis sapiens) are mine, however.  You can have Miami, I don't particularly want it.


Canto One

'Sirius looked different from Harry's memory of him... the hair was short and clean now, Sirius's face was fuller, and he looked younger, much more like the only photograph Harry had of him which had been taken at the Potters' wedding.'

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 19

'Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love's full sacrifice...'

Troilus and Cressida: I, ii

 

'No.'

'Oh, yes I am.'

'No.'

'Why not?'

'NO.'

'Like you couldn't use somebody to watch your back!'

Sirius didn't need to shapechange to growl fiercely.  Alex looked incredibly underimpressed.  He condescended to tick off reasons on his fingers while he snugged his bundles onto Buckbeak, who kept trying to nibble on the unfamiliar harnessing.   'One, you have dogs to take care of.  Two, you have a job.   Three, you have bills to take care of, now that you've finally got that mess straightened out for the second time since I got here.'  She remained stubborn looking, arms folded, frowning.  Sirius pulled out the weapon of mass destruction.  'Fourth, I want to have a reason to come home.'

Meltdown.  He had really got her with that one.

However, he'd forgotten she was, after all, a Celt.  She brought her own fingers to bear.  'One, my mother can take care of the dogs, even if she complains about it.  Two, I can take a emergency family leave.'  Her expression challenged him to deny the 'family' part.  'Three, I can sign a bunch of cheques and leave them with said mother.   Fourth, if I'm with you, I can help you more than pining away across an ocean and five time zones.  Fifth, if I'm with you, I can help guard Harry, even if it's just stepping into the line of fire.  If I'm family, and he's family, then we're family together.  Simple math.'

Sirius ground his teeth.  'Buckbeak can't carry two adults all that way.  He was exhausted carrying just me, and that was when I was a lot lighter.  Now he's got me, and supplies, and I'm sorry, love, but you still outweigh me.'

Goal to Sirius, but Alex is still in the game, and zooming after the quaffle.  'I... oh, you're not half a ra...creep.   I'll...' A wicked grin crossed her face.  'I'll shapechange.  I'm much lighter as a corgi.'  Her exasperated beloved threw up his hands and uttered the classic strangled scream.  That didn't keep him from noticing her abrupt edit of the insult.  As his ally, Alex professionally despised Peter 'Wormtail' Pettigrew, and therefore 'rat' had become an insult deadly beyond mere words.

Any metaphoric fly on the proverbial wall would have had a good laugh at seeing the couple try to out-stubborn each other... standing next to a hippogriff, in the middle of a swamp.   In the end, Sirius caved to the threat of her blowing off her rent to buy a ticket on Virgin Atlantic and tracking them down by staking out King's Cross.  He shook his head, muttering to himself about fools and love and such, to be taking... ah, blast, a Muggle of all people into the middle of a dangerous magical war.

Later, Alex got to yell some more in the traditional manner of relations between her mother and herself.  She dodged committing to a return date with great deftness, and evaded the question even further by talking her friend Debbie into delivering the signed cheques to her mother from a package Debbie would pick up at Alex's workplace.  Alex didn't feel particularly good about hoodwinking her mother in this fashion, but the truth was both too complicated and too strange; they weren’t her secrets to tell.  And nothing was going to stop her from following Sirius into danger.  After all, isn't that what loyalty and devotion meant?

A taste for adrenalin rushes didn't hurt either.  She patted NEO and Mouse goodbye.

 

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The trip proved to be every bit as strenuous as Sirius had threatened.  Alex, who had travelled the bottom part of their same route several times in Muggle fashion, found herself impressed with the speed of their progress.  Even with many more stops to eat and rest than she took for the same distance while driving, they still managed to reach the Washington, D.C. area in about 28 hours of actual travelling time; 33 counting naps and carnage.

Far ahead of them, neither the travellers nor Harry had any way of knowing that Hedwig had run smack into the tail end of an 'extra-tropical' storm which obstructed her whole flightpath across the mid-Atlantic.  Sirius's latest letter to his godson would be delayed in delivery by several days.

Buckbeak, of course, slept 'rough' as a matter of course; the pair of two-foots found it far more practical to do almost all of their travelling in dog-form, except when Sirius shifted to hold Alex-corgi tightly to Buckbeak's back during flights.  Even sleeping on completely bare and unsheltered ground, Alex found curling up inside the circle of Padfoot's huge, thick-coated form more than warm enough.  It would have felt good to her under any circumstances.

 

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Hedwig caught them up as they slowly made their way around the southern coast of Greenland.

Dear Sirius,

     I reckon I just imagined my scar hurting, I was half-asleep when I wrote to you last time.   There's no point coming back, everything's fine here.   Don't worry about me, my head feels perfectly normal.

Harry

'He says "reckon"?  How... quaint,' Alex commented, lurking over Sirius's shoulder as he read the note.   Sirius replied with a muttered 'Americans,' and a barking half-laugh which caused Alex to twist around, trying to keep the owl balanced on her arm, and see his face at the same time.  He ducked.  She set the snowy owl down respectfully, and grabbed Sirius to turn him towards her; crooned a prolonged 'awwwww...' and stretched up to gather him in her arms.

'He's worried about me,' Sirius mumbled into her shoulder.  'He's trying to protect me.'

'What a great kid.'

From Greenland to Iceland... to the Faroes, to the Shetlands, to the Orkneys... the fugitive party hop-scotched across the North Sea as quickly as they could, fighting fatigue and the perpetually hostile weather.

 

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Buckbeak landed exhaustedly on Iceland's shore and the three travellers started walking along the coast, huddling into themselves against the sharp arctic ocean wind.  Alex fumbled her plait loose, and let her hair wrap itself around her.   It didn't help much, but it was better than nothing.  Sirius followed her example, glad now he'd never cut his hair short as he'd kept threatening, and Alex kept adamantly forbidding, dangling his license tag as if it gave her authority over these decisions.  They had no other clothes to put on for layering; Sirius had been very stern in packing to minimize the burden on the hippogriff.  They had a single change of underwear and socks each; he wouldn't even let Alex pack a spare pair of eyeglasses or her habitual hat.  He allowed the hairbrush reluctantly.

Eventually, they found a sheltered area formed between a small crevasse and a tumble of boulders.  Moraine? Alex pondered, but she couldn't really care about the accuracy of her geology right now.  The best feature of the shelter was the little hot spring, courtesy of Iceland's vigourous geothermic activity.  The overhang of the slanted crevasse trapped the warmth, creating a bubble of cozy heat protected from the cutting wind.  They fit snugly into the space; the hippogriff, who felt the cold the least, curled up in front of the entrance, his wings insulating his back.

Crevasse with spring, from the
outside (90K)

The humans pulled the bag holding their scant store of food from Buckbeak's harness -- that bag was almost empty by now.   Supply shopping had been one of Sirius's rare excursions out into the Muggle public, complete with celebrity-like dark glasses and pulled-down baseball cap.  Once Alex caught on to his selections, she then took them to a camping supply store, for high-energy bars and other lightweight foods.  Sirius took the bag, and started assembling a meal for the humans.   Buckbeak would have to go hunting later.  Alex knelt carefully by the spring, trying to keep from getting her clothes wet, and scooped up a mouthful of the bubbling water.  She made a face, but announced, 'Tasted worse.'  They watered the hippogriff, reserved some for themselves to allow it to cool off a little, and made up powdered soup at spring-temperature.   Soup, energy bar and some dried fruit for the sweet restored both of them.

Sirius surprised Alex by starting to strip off his clothes.   In response to sardonically inquiring eyebrows, he grinned back, 'I'm not passing up the chance for a hot bath.  I'm covered with dirt and sea salt.  I'm surprised you can stand me, actually.'  Alex snorted in amusement.  She grabbed his robe, shirt and trousers as he flang them at her, shook them out in a vain attempt to do some good, and hung them on rock snags to try to air a bit.  He peeled out of his underpants and looked at them, then the rocks critically.  'Do you think these would dry if I washed them out, too?'

'It's pretty humid in here.  Unless you're really fond of walking around in freezing wind with plastic bags of wet cloth, I wouldn't chance it.'  Alex held out a baggie to use as their laundry bag.  Sirius stuffed in the offending undergarment, Alex zipped it up, and he eased himself into the steamy burbling water.  The spring was surprisingly deep for its small circumference, and Sirius stood ribs-deep at its lowest point.   He ducked to drench his head, and emerged with his still-loose midnight hair straggling over his face and shoulders as if someone had just poured India ink slowly over his scalp.

Alex watched him appreciatively, but without heat.  Not every time she watched... 'her wizard' (she grinned to herself) had to be an exercise in her newly-permissible lust.   Anyway, they were both too tired to get any kind of stirred up.  He had his back mostly turned to her, and had waded to hip-depth.  She considered his body with an artistically critical eye.  She wished she had a camera -- black and white film, of course -- for a photographic study of her subject.  Sirius's build, even after a few months of rest and feeding, remained whip-lean, cleanly-defined unbulky muscle rippling over ribs and broad shoulders as he scrubbed at his arms, spine in distinct relief.  Hazy light bleeding through the top of the crevasse from the cloud-covered early morning sky softened the shadows, minimizing harsh lines as well as lighting from a pro.  The ink-spill of wet hair concealed the line of his neck, but his twist to reach a spot let her consider his strong, sharp facial features in profile.

The water figleafed him modestly at the depth where he stood as he turned, still not aware of her attention.  Considering Padfoot's thick pelt, one might expect Sirius to be as densely furred, but he wasn't.  A scattering across the top of his chest, and a narrow black line all the way down the midline of his torso, bifurcating his flat pectorals and abs, was about it.   Alex considered his muscle definition didn't come from as much the physical activity of, say, keeping up with NEO at a flat run, but a lack of any visible body fat whatsoever.   Sirius finished his scrubbing, hunkered down to find a place to sit and soak, and flipped his hair back out of his face.   He finally noticed his partner's intent gaze, and held her eyes for a moment, considering; then pulled one arm out of the water and extended it to her, beckoningly.  She smiled a small thoughtful smile back, stripped, and joined him in the pool where he massaged her scalp, played with her hair, and tucked her into the crook of his arm to soak.

Alex felt incredibly lucky to have something, some one so beautiful in her existence.

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Sirius put off answering Harry's mock-reassuring letter until they had got safely to Scotland.  For one thing, neither of them had any writing implements due to Sirius's draconian packing strictures.  Sirius sent Alex into a small wizardly shop they encountered to buy a few small things with her Muggle money; she sold the story about conversion problems and her odd accent successfully.

Nice try, Harry.

     I'm back in the country and well hidden.  I want you to keep me posted on everything that's going on at Hogwarts.  Don't use Hedwig, keep changing owls, and don't worry about me, just watch out for yourself.   Don't forget what I said about your scar.


Sirius

'Will you please stop lurking over my shoulder while I'm trying to write?'

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They moved carefully through the Scottish highlands -- on foot for the most part, to spare Buckbeak and avoid low-flying military jets on practice runs.  Thankfully, they could stay far away from settlements, although they knew they'd have a harder time of concealed movement the further south they went, and the closer to Hogwarts they got.  Hiking through the moors without decent gear, however, proved to be an incredibly chilly experience.  Their spring-side meal in Iceland had used up everything except three dried apricots, and that was nearly a week ago.  One good thing about travelling with a hippogriff, though -- the humans asked him nicely to bring down two deer from one of the herds which swept wild over the highlands.  They cut a couple of fat steaks from the carcass, surrendered the rest to Buckbeak's obvious satisfaction, and managed enough of a fire for a stupefying supper.  Eventually, a barn owl, probably borrowed from the school owlery, swooped out of the lowering, turbulent Scottish sky to deliver Harry's latest letter.

Dear Sirius,

     You told me to keep you posted on what's happening at Hogwarts, so here goes -- I don't know if you've heard, but the Triwizard Tournament's happening this year and on Saturday night I got picked as a fourth champion.   I don't know who put my name in the Goblet of Fire, because I didn't.  The other Hogwarts champion is Cedric Diggory, from Hufflepuff.

Hope you're okay, and Buckbeak.

Harry.

Sirius furrowed his brow at this message. 'I've... got to think about what to do next.'  He walked away from his travelling companions, as Alex tried to feed the tired owl bits of leftover meat.  After several minutes of intense pacing, Sirius returned with a grim expression.  'I have to talk to him.  We're going to have to take a really big chance.   I need to use the Floo Network, which means we need a connected fireplace.  Which means we're going to have to break into a wizard's house.'

He didn't expect the manic grin on Alex's face in response.   'Breaking and entering, cool,' she chortled.   Sirius blinked.  More of a Marauder than I would have ever supposed.

Harry --

     I can't say everything I would like to in a letter, it's too risky in case the owl is intercepted -- we need to talk face to face.  Can you ensure you are alone by the fire in Gryffindor Tower at one o'clock in the morning on the 22nd November?
     I know better than anyone that you can look after yourself, and while you're around Dumbledore and Moody, I don't think anyone will be able to hurt you.   However, someone seems to be having a good try.   Entering you in that Tournament would have been very risky, especially right under Dumbledore's nose.
     Be on the watch, Harry.  I still want to hear about anything unusual.  Let me know about the 22nd November as quickly as you can.

Sirius

Sirius knew he would have to pick the house carefully.  Only a few days separated them from Hogsmeade, near to which Sirius felt sure he could find convenient hiding places; but in case of a close call, he certainly didn't want to bring the Dementors back down on the wizarding village.  It would have to be within convenient hippogriff flight distance.   Alex was all ready to trot off to the Bank of Scotland with her diminishing American funds, and fetch them an Ordnance Survey map over which to plot, but Sirius showed her a simple spell that functioned even better for their purposes.  She bought them McDonald's instead, the last hot food either of them would enjoy for some time.

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Buckbeak banked sharply around a mountain ridge, and landed abruptly.  They only had about a half-hour of useful dark left, and had to get the hippogriff out of sight.  The grey glimmers from the east provided just enough light to navigate by if they stayed fairly low and slow.  Sirius slid down Buckbeak's shoulder, set the corgi on the ground, who promptly barked five times, turned back into Alex-human and looked at the wizard expectantly.  He had started getting gaunt again, as food became hard for them to find; his untended hair was tangling into mats.  The hunger and stress of furtiveness turned him haggard.  Alex looked in somewhat better condition, but only because she had shifted into a relatively passive, follow-the- leader mindset, less stress; 'better' was only relative, though.   'Now what?' she asked, tugging loose their impoverished bag of possessions.


Sirius pointed up the steep, intimidating slope.  'Now we climb.'

While Buckbeak napped, tied up in a dense thicket, the humans clambered around the side of the mountain, seeking shelter.   They wanted to find something with reasonable access, but not obvious to a casual glance, of course.  A crevasse with a three-metre rockfall at the opening seemed to fit their needs -- concealed entrance, dry floor, good overhang to protect from storms, but still reasonably easy for two humans or two Dogs to scramble in and out.

Sirius decided to move Buckbeak now, before the hippogriff got restless and wandered too close to town.  Alex came with him to forage for firewood and, if she had a run of luck, food.   They might not be able to have a big fire, for fear of smoke being spotted, but... maybe a little one.  Sirius sensibly held the hippogriff on the ground until they had made a decent collection of tinder.  They gathered the few very late berries hanging on for dear life to some blackberry brambles, too.   Alex had a light-bulb moment just before Sirius took off, and grabbed armfuls of fallen leafy branches and some tall grass to try to make some sort of bedding to insulate them from the cold rock floor.  With Buckbeak's help, they moved all their gatherings in one go.

The wizard secured the hippogriff at the back of the fissure, so he couldn't be tempted to lunge after passing birds, and left his Muggle to make things as comfortable as possible.   Padfoot made his way back down the long slope, and trotted into Hogsmeade for the first time in over a year to look for information.

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A couple weeks later, they had settled in to their bare-bones existence.  Padfoot had made a habit of scavenging day-old Daily Prophets from dustbins.  Sometimes the Cardigan accompanied him, and they would do a sort of canine soft-shoe act, cute friendly stray dogs, to cadge sympathy and scraps.   Madam Rosmerta of the local pub, the 'Three Broomsticks,' turned out to be the most consistently generous.  Alex made it a point to try to lighten Sirius's mood, and insisted that stopping at Rosmerta's would be their 'weekly date night.'

The date of Sirius's meeting with Harry approached quickly.   Sirius decided on where to go for their little excursion into benign burglary, and the three of them left just after sunset.   They headed east-north-east, skimming up Glen Mor, the Great Glen, and headed in the direction of Inverness.  The famous loch had been an especially favoured summer holiday spot for witches and wizards for centuries, and should have several Floo-Networked homes that would be safely unoccupied this late in the year.  Nobody wanted to spend the holiday by themselves if they could help it; many of the loch-side cottages had been abandoned in favour of family gatherings elsewhere.

Sure enough, they found a perfect house -- off the high street of a shorefront hamlet, obviously shut up for its owner's long absence, and with easily fiddled locks.  They had apologetically left the 'borrowed' wizard's house as undisturbed as possible, of course.  Alex stood watch for passers-by in corgi form while Sirius had his furtive conversation with his godson.  Buckbeak was tied up a good several minutes walk away.

Padfoot came up behind Alex-corgi sooner than she'd expected.   She jumped, then followed him into the shadows to change back.  'Somebody interrupted Harry.  We had to cut the conversation short.'

'But how is he?'

Sirius smiled happily in a way Alex had never seen before.   'He's all right.  Pretty worked up, though.   He's been chosen as a champion for the Triwizard Tournament, remember?  And most of the other students seem to resent him for it.'  The wizard continued to explain the tournament rules and history as they made their way carefully out of town and back to the hippogriff under the cover of the early-morning darkness.

'Teenagers are cruel,' Alex pronounced pompously.

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Alex, not being wanted by the law on both sides of British society, got to do the shopping for Harry's Christmas present, which proved to be more of a pain than she had expected.   One of Sirius's owl-post contacts had spared them a few galleons, which the fugitives had agreed should be spent on something important like Christmas.

Sirius was as picky a shopper as Alex, and sent her back three times until the exactly-right penknife / lockpick had been fetched.   Nothing like a Firebolt, of course, but that had been a catching-up present, too.  He had taught her about the Hogwarts Houses, and in House pride, and therefore Alex ensured glowing Gryffindor-red enameled the chosen model.  Sirius approved of that touch highly, and claimed that made it from both of them.   A passing owl delivered the package to the Hogwarts house elves, who carefully sorted all the students' and staff's presents every year, making perfectly arranged mounds at the foot of each bed Christmas morning.  They would ensure Harry got his present right on time.

Sirius, having got Harry's present despatched, still found himself gored on the horns of a dilemma -- what to get Alex for the holiday.  Alex, in the same situation, finally gave up on debating it in her mind, and brought the problem up.

'I'm embarrassed,' she announced, not sounding particularly embarrassed at the moment.  'Here we've been on pretty darn intimate terms for... six months already, and I have no idea what to get you for Christmas.  I don't even know what your favourite colour is, not that it matters right this minute.'

'Blue, on the dark side.  I know yours is red.   There was that one shirt you liked best....' Sirius paused.   'My dear woman, I am so out of practice for celebrating holidays that I really wouldn't miss observing it again.   I don't want you to worry about... depriving me.'   He gestured dismissively, but Alex was not diverted.

'Aw, c'monnnn....' she pleaded, sounding exceptionally American at the moment.  He'd half-noticed her accent drifting to match his more and more often.  Alex continued her plaint, 'I've never assumed any sort of...' she waved her hands, groping for a word, 'intense relationship I might ever get into would be anything like "normal," but I guess I had an assumption that the first Christmas I might spend with someone, really "with," would be...'  Now she did look embarrassed, and her voice dropped to a mumble.  '...kinda... special.'

Sirius's mind sent up all sorts of alarms at this.  He had one or two serious girlfriends before... well, before; he recognized emotional thin ice when he heard it crackle beneath him.  Instead of tucking his tail in and running yelping for the woods like he strongly desired to, he stood to gather Alex up, and crooned, 'All right.  So, little girl, come sit on Santa Sirius's lap, and tell him what you want for Christmas.'

The quip made her grin, at least.  They settled back onto the floor together, long-dried grass crackling beneath them.   She curled up neatly in his long-limbed lap, surreptitiously glad she didn't have to look him in the face to answer his request.  She leaned her head against his, and spoke directly to his collarbone.  'I've seen how Hogsmeade's decorated for the season; it's amazing how easy it is for Britain to do the classic storybook look with so little effort.  I wish we could have a nice, traditional roast beef supper inside a building on plates, instead of outside on the pavement; and a tree, and a real fire to get nice and warm in front of, and a decent bed with pillows.  I've always liked having a real tree.'

Sirius's hopes plummeted.  Even if they had the galleons -- or the pounds -- his face was too notorious to try to stay out in public that long.  An idea glimmered at the back of his mind... who did he know who almost always managed to produce positive results from messy situations?  Alex had dozed off, snuggled into him as she was.  He touched her corgi charm, quietly uttered the spell to change her shape, and settled the more easily moved Cardigan onto their 'bed'.  Digging out a fresh parchment, quill and ink, Sirius began his plea for assistance.

Professor Dumbledore,

     I find myself in a situation totally unrelated to the threat to Harry, but which may prove equally as hazardous.  My companion, Alex, has expressed longing for a Christmas more traditionally British than a poor couple taking lodging in a cave with animals.
     As you are the master of resolving sticky situations, I would appreciate your guidance.

S.

He whistled up an owl, and sent the message on its way.

Padfoot had already gone down to the village when the owl returned a day later with a reply.  Alex had taken to sorting messages after Sirius read them, the growing piles weighted down with rocks, and out of Buckbeak's curious reach.   This time, however, she unrolled the parchment, thanked the owl, and read the brief reply:

Visit Hagrid after sunset on the Day.

D.

'Hmm?' she puzzled over the parchment, and shrugged, securing it under the 'new owl' rock.  Time to go hunt for... ghh.   She shifted, and headed down the long slope into the snow-dusted forest.

The Cardie returned empty-mouthed, and just after Padfoot arrived with another newspaper.  She snagged the new letter delicately with her teeth, and waved it at her partner.   Sirius shimmered into human form, took it from her, and glanced back at Alex uneasily.

'Did you, erm, read this?' he asked.

'Yeah, but....' she shrugged at him.  Seeing no signs that she had caught on to what the response implied -- and blessing Dumbledore for his brevity -- Sirius just nodded and offered no explanation.  Alex looked perplexed, but satisfied herself with stealing his newspaper away instead.   The date on the paper, yesterday's date, was December 23.

Christmas Day, like every other day in the cave, dawned with brilliant glints spearing in from the snowy countryside, and a good brisk zero-temp breeze eddying past the narrow entrance.

'Wake up, Alex,' Sirius gently shook the corgi's shoulder, and waited for her to shapeshift.  One of the benefits of a mock Animagus spell was the retention of whatever clothing and accessories one wore when one shifted last, so Alex blinked behind her glasses, let go of the charm and pushed up half-sitting.

'Wha...?'  Sirius, grinning, moved out of her line of sight so she could see a tiny pine tree on the other side of the cave, garlanded with bits of yarn scavenged from the knitting shop trash, decorated with stolen Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans stuck onto the ends of its needles, and topped with a golden toffee wrapper tweaked into a vaguely starlike shape.

Sirius hunkered back, immensely pleased with himself as he watched Alex's eyes go huge in surprise.  She uttered an incoherent noise that probably would have hurt both of their pairs of ears if they'd been in dogform, and crawled over to examine the tree more closely.  Cleverly, Sirius had the base packed tightly in a snowball, surrounded by a dam of dirt and rocks.  She reached for him and hugged him tightly, ignoring the sharp poke of unpadded bones.

'This is wonderful!  It must have taken you ages to get it all together!'

Sirius hugged back, gratified by the magnitude of her delight.  They took the day off from their routine and responsibilities, ignoring hollow stomachs for a game of tag in the snow, lightly fallen in the wind-shadow of the mountain.   Hogsmeade, like most of rural Britain, was going to be very quiet today, and the likelihood of a handout was small.   They checked the Three Broomsticks anyway, and to their delight, got an excellent breakfast.  Rosmerta had kept her place open for the residents who had no particular family to spend Christmas with, and splurged on her favourite canine customers in true holiday spirit.  'Now, come back tomorrow and we'll have some nice turkey for you as well, all right?' she told them, not really expecting that they understood her so well.   She klip-klopped back inside, her holiday pumps flashing with each step between glittery green and radiant red.

The Dogs wandered back out of town, and found a sheltered spot, free of snow, which still provided a nice vantage of the scenic village.  They shifted, settling down to bask in the sunlight of the surprisingly clear day.  'That was nice of Rosmerta, wasn't it?' Alex said drowsily, the warmth and the meal dragging at her eyelids.  She turned to Sirius, grabbed his face and kissed him quickly.   'And very very nice of you, incidentally.'

He chuckled, and teased, 'I'll bring you a big limb next time if this is how you react to foliage.'  He found he wouldn't mind a nap himself, and suggested to Alex she use Padfoot as a pillow.  She nestled her head in the soft spot between his hip and ribs, wrapped her arms over her chest and drifted off.   He took one last watchful look around, put his head down, and followed her example.

By early afternoon, the sun deep in the southern sky had westered enough for the sleepy pair to be in full shadow, and getting chilly once more.  Alex shifted again, and they climbed back up to the cave to check for owls.  Indeed, there was a message waiting.  Instead of checking on Buckbeak, the Cardie plunked herself down on her chest to stare at her tiny tree, nose almost touching its impromptu base while Sirius read his latest letter.  He looked up to comment to her, saw her position, and laughed.  Now, that wasn't a sound that had been heard in this cave for quite some time.  Buckbeak shrieked his own response, and promptly got the attention he demanded.

The sun set quite early, being so close to its solstice.   As it touched the horizon, Sirius said, 'Come on,' and untied Buckbeak.  Alex raised her eyebrows -- they rarely took the hippogriff out while it was still light enough to be easily spotted.  She shifted to her portable form, her wizard scooped her up across Buckbeak's shoulders, and they soared off into the gloaming -- not towards Hogsmeade directly, but a long circling route taking them around the mountain, and into the edge of a looming forest.  There they took to the ground, the trees too close together to risk Buckbeak's wings.   'Find Hagrid,' whispered Sirius into one of the creature's feathery ears, and he shifted to Padfoot to follow.

The Cardigan still didn't know what they were doing, and would have hopped with impatience if she were in Alex-form, but trotted along just the same.  Padfoot managed to look amazingly smug for a large dog.  They followed the hippogriff in near-total darkness, between the gloomy overhang of the forest and the time of evening -- it was certainly full after sunset by now.   At least they didn't have to break snow-crust.   Eventually, the trees thinned and broke open to a wide stretch of lawn, interrupted by a cottage with a large pumpkin patch and paddocks attached.  Sirius shimmered, and grabbed Buckbeak who had sped up on seeing the cottage.  'Shh, shh, wait here,' he crooned, and handed the rope to Alex.  She wrapped it around both hands, as the hippogriff strained hard to keep going.

'What are we doing here?' Alex hissed, presuming a need for cautious quiet.  Sirius had that look on his face again, an I'm-up-to-something expression.  He hushed her with a finger over his lips, and Padfoot walked carefully up to the back door of the cottage.  Alex also strained, but to see what her not-so-secret Santa was up to.  He listened at the door before scratching on it lightly.  After a moment, a Very Large Person opened the door, clapped Padfoot staggeringly on the shoulder, and brought him inside, closing the door behind them.

Alex waited impatiently.  So did Buckbeak. If she at least knew what she was waiting for....  Thankfully, the door didn't stay closed long.  Padfoot and the cottage's resident, carrying a shaded lantern and followed by a Very Large dog, walked back to the trees behind which Alex fought to keep Buckbeak.  'Beaky!' the large... very large person cried in a deep, growly voice, full of delight.  The hippogriff squawked joyfully in return, and submitted to affectionate skritching.

'Hagrid, this is Alex,' Sirius introduced.  'Alex, this is my friend Rubeus Hagrid, the gamekeeper for Hogwarts.   He raised Buckbeak.  And this is Fang.'  Alex offered what suddenly seemed to be an incredibly tiny hand to the enormous man, who shook it carefully, then touched noses with Fang, who wagged cheerfully.  She didn't have to bend over hardly at all -- Fang was almost as tall as Padfoot.  Alex turned back towards her partner with an obvious and-we're-here-because? look.  Hagrid caught the look, and chuckled.

'I'm going to put Beaky up in a shed I've got a ways into the forest.  I've got some nice dead chickens waiting for him there.  I'll head up to the Hall after that, so go on in, I won't be coming back tonight.  It's the Yule Ball, after all, go on for hours.'

Alex looked confused.  Hagrid winked at Sirius, and led the hippogriff off, murmuring the whole time.  Sirius moved to Alex's right, tucked her hand into the crook of his arm in a gallant gesture, and walked her to the door.  He swept it open, and gestured her inside.  Hagrid's cottage, while undoubtedly cozy for him, was a nice size for smaller humans.   He had put up his own tree, and holly garland over his windows.  A steaming tub sat over in one corner behind a screen, and the table... oh, my.  A full Christmas feast.   Three kinds of meat, including a juicy pink roast beef; Yorkshire pudding, Christmas pudding, apple and pumpkin and pecan and mincemeat pies; mashed vegetables of various sorts, whole carrots; a boat full of gravy, flagons of several different beverages -- and even a pair of Cribbage's Wizarding Christmas crackers.

For the second time that day, Sirius saw Alex totally dumbfounded.  She turned to him in amazement, still speechless.  'Courtesy of the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, as a thanks for a job well done.'

'That being?' she croaked.

'Helping keep me alive and in one piece, apparently.'

Alex sat down heavily, not quite knowing where to start.   Sirius bent and scooped her up, shoulders and knees, and walked the few steps over to the tub.  Standing her up, he started to undress her and loosen her tangled braid in a gentle but businesslike manner.  'Soak first, the food's kept at perfect temperature by magic.'

'Join me,' Alex demanded.  'I've been wanting to deal with your hair for months.'  Thankfully, Sirius had thought ahead and brought the lonely, unused hairbrush.  They just sat in the tub for some time, letting the heat soak down to their bones before they began the practical business of washing.  The water got distressingly murky, at which point Sirius sloshed out of the tub, brought back a pink umbrella from the front door, pointed it at the water and intoned, 'Sedementia!'   The water cleared instantly.

'Wow!' Alex exclaimed, then started giggling.

'That spell isn't supposed to tickle.'

'No, it's... you're standing there stark naked, dripping wet, with a pink umbrella.  Please.  The image is just TOO funny.'

He dunked her.  Had to get the soap out of her hair anyway, didn't he.

Hagrid, or more likely, one of the Hogwarts house elves, had also thoughtfully left huge fluffy towels to wrap themselves in like togas when they finally oozed from the tub.  Sirius helped Alex wrap up her hair, carefully brushed while they were still able to float out some of the tangles, but left his to drip over his shoulders.  They settled down to eat.  It had been so long since they had so much bounty, they both found they filled up distressingly quickly, and as a result, lingered long over the food, eating in short stages.

Eventually, they gave up and retreated to the fireside.   Sirius piled up cushions to make a nest, and with the efficiency of Hagrid's excellent fireplace, baked dry in short order, discarding the towels gradually.  Alex, as usual, reclined tucked up against Sirius's chest, watching the flames dance.  Fire always fascinated her, but she pulled her attention away to ask, 'How did you manage this?  This... this was amazing, it's perfect.'

'I got expert help, remember?  Dumbledore calculated that not even the most fanatical law enforcers would be sniffing around Hogwarts tonight, not with the Yule Ball keeping everyone's attention.  Hagrid was happy to help, as he's attending the Ball as staff anyway, and he'd be able to keep Buckbeak happy.   And since I told him all about you,' Alex looked alarmed at this mention, 'he took great delight in treating you to a... sort of holiday holiday.'

'Told him what?!'

'Only good things, my love.'  She blinked at that appellation; she still wasn't used to it, and neither she nor Sirius were terribly demonstrative.  While Sirius could be flamboyantly affectionate, he had quickly picked up on Alex's almost gun-shy sense of privacy.  As a result, their 'mush factor' together was surprisingly low at times.

Sirius continued, 'I told him about the generous and daring woman who took me in on faith and without emasculating me,' and waited while Alex convulsed in laughter, 'and threw off all the comforts of civilisation to sleep in a cold cave for weeks on end, bringing that very civilisation with her.  How she's kept me sane and human.  How she's been plunged into a completely different world, at immediate hazard, and hasn't succumbed to despair....'  Sirius trailed off.

Alex was overwhelmed.  She hadn't done that much, and she stubborned her way into that cave.  She shook her head in disbelief, and Sirius nodded slowly back in refutation.   They embraced tightly, then slowly and gently loved each other in the warm nest by the fire.  This was Sirius's Christmas present -- her joy.

 

//
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