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

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 Two

Not long after their felonious excursion to Loch Ness, and less felonious excursions for Christmas, a fuzzy ping-pong ball began ricocheting around the fugitives' mountain hideout.   Alex-corgi felt feathers whang off her head, and she cracked one irritated eye open from her I-don't-have-anything-to-do nap.  Shrill hooting, sounding inexplicably happy, echoed from the close walls.  The corgi barked her charm, shifted to something with hands that could pin the annoyance without getting plumage stuck in teeth.  It was a tiny, cheerful owl, with a bulky roll of parchment hanging off one miniscule leg.  A letter from Harry? This time, Alex waited politely for Padfoot's return, despite her itching curiosity.

Sirius recognized the owl on sight.  'Ah, Ron must have kept him.  I asked this owl to take the first message I sent Harry after my dramatic escape from Hogwarts.  I suggested Ron keep him, as I had in a way cost him his rat.'  Alex had become familiar with Harry's friends from Sirius talking about how much they'd both helped him, once convinced of his innocence.  The wizard unrolled the message, and Alex let the owl go.  'Don't fly off just yet, owl,' Sirius commanded.   The minuscule bird actually perched at that command but kept hopping from foot to foot.

'Well?' asked Alex, starting to fidget like the owl.   Sirius sat down and began to read Harry's detailed report of his Triwizard Task, involving a fearsome dragon.  Alex found herself looking forward to broomsticks.  Sirius grinned like a proud parent by the time he reached the bottom of the roll.   Such a change in his face from the past weeks.  Alex melted a little inside, and beamed back.

Sirius decided to put the little owl to work for a few messages before writing back to Harry.  One of his best friends from the Marauder days was also one of only six people (the kids, their headmaster and Hagrid being the rest) who knew the truth about Sirius.  A letter went off to Remus Lupin to help Sirius fill in some of the missing pieces the Daily Prophet (slightly used) couldn't complete.

Sirius busied himself composing his reply awaiting the owlet's return.

Dear Harry,

     Congratulations on getting past the Horntail.  Whoever put your name in that Goblet shouldn't be feeling too happy right now!  I was going to suggest a conjuctivitis curse, as a dragon's eyes are its weakest point, but your way was better, I'm impressed.
     Don't get complacent, though, Harry.  You've only done one task; whoever put you in for the Tournament's got plenty more opportunity if they're trying to hurt you.  Keep your eyes open -- especially when the person we discussed is around -- and concentrate on keeping yourself out of trouble.
     Keep in touch, I still want to hear about anything unusual.

Sirius

'Hmph,' Alex commented, leaning distractingly over Sirius's shoulder as his quill scratched across the parchment.   'You're repeating yourself.  And sounding distinctly wild-eyed.'

'"Optimistic paranoia," remember?  And shoo.'

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Despite the break in routine at Christmas, Sirius grew more tense and worried about the situation at Hogwarts in inverse proportion to his physical well-being.  Alex tried what she could to distract him from his almost constant brooding, but each new owl or newspaper sent him into fits of pacing.   She felt helpless; she had no magical powers, and no real comprehension of the nature of the danger, just the magnitude.   Not surprisingly, other than Christmas, they had had no moments of any sort of romance since reaching Britain; the warming glow of their holiday had faded already in the bleakness of mountainside living.  In fact, Alex counted herself lucky if she didn't wake up alone in the morning, Padfoot usually having gone out to scout the village already.  She had insisted on coming along as built-in cheering section, emotional support and cannon-fodder backup.  Instead she felt like a fifth wheel, a burden.  She hadn't forgotten a word of what Sirius had said before; she had just stopped believing it again.

Circumstances proved Alex wrong in short order.  Sirius had taken Buckbeak out, presumably to meet one of his correspondents (he neglected to say), and returned quite late.   The Cardie greeted him, as fur-form was her only real defence against the January cold.  She had spent most of the day in the village as she could find cozier shelter there, and had picked up a used newspaper at the same time.  Sirius greeted her wearily but affectionately, ate the bit of food she'd been able to bring back, and almost immediately curled up as Padfoot, asleep.  So much for an evening's conversation.   She nestled against him like usual, her smaller form fitting inside the curve of his body like the 'hole' cut out of a doughnut.

Alex-corgi woke first for a change, as the light outside the fissure turned ice grey.  She didn't know why, but then she heard a noise.  Human noise.  Startled, she hurried over to Buckbeak to try to encourage the hippogriff to remain silent, then as quietly as possible, climbed the 'front door' rockfall and peeked over the top.  Hunters.  A regular human hunting party, probably looking for deer.  And possibly finding hippogriff, instead.  She thought frantically.  How could they possibly conceal Buckbeak?   Finding two dogs in a cave would not be remarkable, not even finding two humans (although that would end up causing uncomfortable questions to be asked) -- but a 'real live monster'?

To increase her anxiety, the hunters seemed to be settling down for a rest right in the shelter of their rockfall.   Very, very quietly, she made her way back to Padfoot to wake him, holding her paw over the front of his muzzle in an inappropriately human gesture for silence.  He followed her to their vantage point on the hunters, and recognized the same danger.  They slid back to the floor, and retreated to the hippogriff's napping form to shift and whisper.

Alex's mind had been running rapidly from the moment she'd comprehended their problem.  'I think I have a plan,' she hissed, before Sirius could say anything.  She clutched his upper arm for emphasis.  'I'm going to be a diversion, and you fly Buckbeak out of here and out of sight.'

Sirius shook his shaggy head violently in negation.   'No.  I won't let you risk it.'

Alex rolled her eyes in exasperation, and remembered in time to keep her voice low.  'Listen, there's good reasons for it.   Buckbeak knows you much better than me, and you also have a much better idea of where to take him.  I don't know this area at all, and you spent seven years in the area.  Padfoot is pretty ominous looking, and large enough to be threatening, but I can't see that a bunch of macho hunters would do much more than laugh at a corgi bouncing around at them.  I'll put on a fuss, draw their attention away from here, and you two fly out as quickly as possible.'

Sirius opened his mouth, paused, thought hard for a moment -- then grinned grimly.  'Good plan.'  Alex felt ridiculously pleased.  She shifted back, waited for Sirius to ready Buckbeak, then scrambled over the rockfall and charged toward the hunters.

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The next week consisted of constant movement; they didn't settle in the same place for more than one day as they nervously surveilled the valley.  They received an owl from Harry, but Sirius didn't take the time to consider Harry's letter until he could settle down with the letter in relative peace.

Sirius finally tethered Buckbeak back in the old fissure with the brown Hogwarts owl to keep him company, while the humans searched the mountainside the hard way.  The two of them scrambled up a goat path searching for their new shelter, looking for a cave deep enough to avoid the weather, and large enough for a hippogriff -- and high enough up the mountain to make it inconvenient for anyone without either wings, or patience.   After one wind-provoked nerve-wracking slip over a washed-out spot on the path, they both shifted into dogshape to continue their hunt.  The sun had risen fully behind the mountain, casting sharp elongated tree shadows across the valley by the time they came upon a suitable cave.  It had a reasonably smooth floor, extended about four hippogriff-lengths deep to a solid back wall -- not a tunnel or sudden drop -- and seemed blessedly dry.  This meant they'd have to haul water, but it also meant no slime, or soggy trouser-seats.

Working together, fighting the violent wind, they got their pitiful camp set back up, and the hippogriff moved.  Even the owl helped by carrying their bag of parchment, quill and generally unused hairbrush, and got all its feathers blown wrong-way for its trouble.  There was just enough light after they were done to collapse near the entrance to catch the amber light of the setting sun and read Harry's letter together.   Sirius's scowl at the conclusion of the account of the odd behaviour of various individuals involved in the Tournament was the darkest yet.  The sunlight had faded to a sort of washed-out mauve, almost too dark to see, when a second owl landed on the edge of their cave.  Lupin had sent word for Sirius to meet an information drop in just a few hours.  Exasperated, Sirius grabbed the quill Alex proffered, scribbled off a very hasty note to his godson:

Send date of next Hogsmeade weekend by return owl.

...and dashed off into the night.  Alex waved wearily goodbye, dispatched the owl on its way (flying nearly sideways in the awful weather), despondently kicked a stick off the verge to listen to it clatter downslope, and curled up in fur on the scanty nest of grasses they were pretending was a bed.

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Sirius and Buckbeak remained away for several days this time.   Alex, failing any specific task put to her, made the rounds of the village, hunted rabbits futilely in the fields, collected Daily Prophets for Sirius to peruse when he got back, and basically tried to hold the fort.  She'd never been so consistently hungry in her life; she kept telling herself Fate intended this as an educational experience, to make her more sympathetic for impoverished Third World populations.  The thought was cold comfort.

The tolerant brown owl returned before Sirius, bearing the date Harry and his friends could visit the village.  Alex stared over the chilly landscape, captivated by the thought of actually getting to meet Sirius's godson at last.

Sirius eventually returned, glad to get the return note, and scribbling off a quick reply to get the owl on its way.

Be at stile at the end of road out of Hogsmeade (past Dervish and Banges) at two o'clock on Saturday afternoon.   Bring as much food as you can.

Alex dangled conversational bait. 'Mmmm, real food. However, after all this time, I'm really looking forward to meeting Harry.'

'Hmm?' Sirius mused.  'Oh.  Yes.  I don't see why not.'

Alex felt vaguely put off, but couldn't think of anything to say in reply.  The silence was obvious.  Sirius looked up at her from his tattered newspaper, pinched the bridge of his nose, and reached for her.  She allowed herself to be pulled next to him, where he said, apologetically, 'Of course.'  He paused.  'Go hunting with me?'

'You missed our Broomsticks night.  Want to see if Rosmerta has any goodies for us?'  Alex said hopefully.  The only game either of them had found for weeks had been rodential, and even in dogform one could only take so much rat and squirrel.   Sirius shapeshifted in response, and waited for her to change as well.  He walked close to her all the way into the village, his foreleg brushing her shoulder; and let her have the better piece of old sausage when the barkeeper fed them scraps.

Sirius hadn't realized until their moment of awkwardness how much his focus on the events swirling around Harry had caused him to effectively neglect Alex.  Christmas had been only one day, after all.  As they huddled in the lee of the pub's rear door, eating their supper of left over leftovers, thinking through Padfoot's less structured thoughts, he considered how much harsher the past several months would have been, even considering their excruciatingly limited resources.  He had told Alex, when he tried to convince her not to come, that he wanted someone to come home to... and he did.  And he was.  Home was just closer than he'd had anticipated back in September.  Sirius knew single-mindedness was something of a flaw of his, even though it had kept him sane in Azkaban.  He resolved to split his attention enough to keep Alex from getting sick of the deprivation she had so far suffered willingly with him, and leaving.   Resolve was definitely one of his strengths.

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The week before the Hogwarts Hogsmeade weekend passed quickly.   Padfoot took the Cardie down to the village with him early, so they could collect the news before Harry, Ron and Hermione showed up... with FOOD.  Alex would have hummed the song from Oliver! in anticipation if corgis could manage humming.   Too many students made Hogsmeade a little precarious for loose dogs, as the nastier Slytherins liked to throw things at them, and the softer-hearted Hufflepuffs kept trying to succor them.  They dodged the crowds, Padfoot found his newspapers, and they headed back out to wait at the designated meeting point.   The sunlight shone with rather watery strength, but felt good on dark coats on this mild day, the warmth sinking all the way in.

Padfoot paced, like usual, and kept standing up on the stile to look down the road.  The Cardie grinned at him, her tongue lolling to one side.  She didn't bother looking, mostly because she couldn't stretch past the hedge or weeds around the stile to see anything except leaves.  Eventually, she heard a boy's voice call 'Hello, Sirius!' with great affection in its tone.  Padfoot clambered over the stile, greeted the young wizards, and led them back over to start up the path to their cave.   The Cardie finally got a look at the famous Harry and friends, and liked what she saw and smelled.  They stared back down at her in obvious surprise.  Sirius had never had occasion to mention her existence in any of the rather businessy letters he'd swapped with Harry, and, well... they were guys.   Their surprise didn't surprise her.  She grinned a canine grin back at them, and trotted off next to Padfoot.

On the rocky trail up the mountainside, Alex-corgi took tail position, to shepherd their human charges upward.  She felt sorry they couldn't also take advantage of '4 on the floor' as she and the Animagus could, as the students obviously struggled over the rocks.  The scent drifting back from Harry's backpack tantalized her; she could barely wait.

Eventually, they all made it safely inside the cave, at which point Sirius morphed back into his human form.  The students greeted Buckbeak appropriately, Hermione patting him with affection.   Harry handed Sirius the bag of food from which the Animagus pulled out two chicken legs, tossed the corgi one, and tore into the other himself.  'Chicken!  Thanks.  I've been living off rats, mostly.  Can't steal too much food from Hogsmeade; I'd draw attention to myself.'

Alex-corgi caught the chicken neatly, laid it down, barked her charm -- startling the students -- and said, 'Tsk.  You should know you're not supposed to feed dogs chicken bones.   They splinter.'  The teenagers' eyes all got round as they stared at her, then Sirius.  Alex grinned mischievously, while Sirius appeared to be somewhat nonplussed.

'This is Alex. She's... ah... she's...'

'His good friend from being on the lam, and live-in cavekeeper. '  Her American accent, now that they could hear more of her voice, surprised the students even more.  Her sense of humour, however, flat escaped them.

Harry shook it off first, and asked worriedly, 'What're you doing here, Sirius?'

'Fulfilling my duty as godfather.  Don't worry about it.   I'm pretending to be a lovable stray.'  Alex snickered loudly, and dug out another chicken leg, and... oooh, fresh bread.   Drool.

Sirius continued to try to reassure Harry.  'I want to be on the spot.  Your last letter... well, let's just say things are getting fishier.'

Alex tuned out his explanation of his information gathering and the fine art of fugitive life in order to concentrate on her share of the food, which she finished off in short order.   She lounged on the floor contemplating a happy stomach.   The students kept sneaking looks at her as they and Sirius discussed the mysterious occurrences of recent days, and what they all meant in Lord Voldemort's dark schemes.

She didn't realize exactly how much her forced diet had changed her shape from her pre-Sirius figure.  Hermione, still stroking Buckbeak, watched her especially, and saw a woman of medium height and slim build (although it was hard to tell under her baggy shirt and trousers), with fairly unexceptional facial features -- except for very alert eyes.  Alex scrambled to her feet, and walked over to sit back down next to the witch, wrapping her arms around her knees and twisting her head up to stare back at Hermione, who had remained standing.   The young witch now noticed Alex's extraordinarily long plait, which pulled her hair sharply back from her face.

Hermione knelt down carefully, trying not to dirty her robes any more than from the long climb, to meet Alex's gaze more directly.   After a moment, she stuck her hand out at the American, who promptly shook it and grinned back.  The boys were discussing the threatening incidents at the World Cup.   Hermione snapped her head to face them.  'Winky didn't steal that wand!'

She returned her attention back to Alex.  'I'm Hermione,' she offered.

'I know,' Alex grinned back.  'Sirius has told me all about you.  Well... as much as he knows.'  Hermione's eyebrows rose, but then she heard a cue.

'Oh!  Excuse me,' she apologized, and promptly defended the house-elf Winky vociferously for several minutes (Alex had no idea what they were talking about, but just filed it for future reference).

Alex waited patiently as Sirius commanded the attention of the young wizards with a vivid, nay, lurid description of the evils of Voldemort's power-play back when they were all babes in arms, and the response of the Light wizards against him.   The information clicked like puzzle pieces into other things Sirius had told her and what she had read in the Daily Prophet.  Wizarding Britain was like Muggle Britain's mirror twin -- so similar and so different at the same time.   And she was an American -- perhaps a well-educated one, but still foreign -- on top of that.  Times like this made her feel more alien than usual.

Sirius started talking about Azkaban, and his whole demeanor shifted.  Alex walked on all fours to where Sirius sprawled next to the food on the floor, curled up her legs to sit just behind him, and started massaging his shoulders in silent comfort.  He patted one of her hands in grateful acknowledgement, and reached for the pumpkin juice with the other.  Hermione's eyebrows sprang up again, and then she looked thoughtful.  Sirius gestured the flask towards Alex, who took it, sniffed, cautiously took a tiny sip and made an extraordinary face.  She promptly handed it back to the wizard, who just as promptly drained it.

They turned their conversation towards somebody named Snape, who Alex vaguely remembered from Sirius's tale of meeting Harry.   She found out much more just listening, her hands still moving slowly over her wizard's shoulders.  Very educational meeting, this.

After finding out they'd been at their brainstorming for over an hour, Sirius suggested that the students return before they were missed, and reminded them to keep sending him notes.   '...And don't forget, if you're talking about me among yourselves, call me "Snuffles," okay?'  Alex choked loudly; they all turned to stare at her, and she put on her best innocent, I-didn't-do-nuthin' look.  Sirius had a bad feeling about this, but continued to the others, 'We'll walk to the edge of the village with you; see if I can scrounge another paper.'   Both of the adults shifted to make their way down the rough path, but Alex changed back once off the mountain and hung back to talk with Hermione.

'Sorry, I didn't mean to be rude to you,' Hermione tried to apologize, but Alex waved it away dismissively.

'You weren't rude; I was butting in.  So... you're a witch, and a very well-studied one, from what I've heard.'

Hermione wrinkled her forehead at Alex's phrasing.  'You say that like you're not a witch yourself.  Are you some sort of American shapeshifter we haven't studied yet, then?   I haven't met many Animagi, but I've read up on them, and I haven't found any who speak a charm to change.   They all usually do it the way Sirius does.'

Alex nodded, Hermione having just confirmed the 'well-studied' description in the space of three sentences.  'No, actually, I appear to be a real live Muggle.'

Hermione's jaw dropped, and she stopped dead.  Alex jogged backwards a couple steps to catch her up again.  She enjoyed the young witch's bogglement, as she looked first at Alex, then at Padfoot, then back at Alex, then stared at the corgi pendant.   She finally found words, and hissed in alarm, 'That's illegal!'

'So is murder, illegal confinement, fleeing from lawful confinement, and abuse of a minor, but people are getting away with it right this very minute right around this very school, aren't they?'  Alex paused, and thought hard.  'You deserve more than a "but he's doing it" answer, so let me run this by you, and you might want to kind of keep it between us for now; not to be sexist, but I don't think the boys will really get it for a few more years at the most optimistic guess.   Sirius did this because a wizard needs to perform magic like all humans need to breathe oxygen; because it provided company which would be perfectly sympathetic to what he is; because he was grateful to me for taking him in,' Alex enumerated, 'but mostly because he believed it would make me happy.   He loves me, I believe as much as I love him, even if neither of us are very good at it or show it well.'

Hermione's expression had become a large 'Oh!' face, and as Alex concluded, she sighed, 'That's so beautiful, Alex.'   Alex, embarrassed now, just shrugged, her face having gone a bit pink.

The party had reached the stile; Alex changed back to a corgi, and both Dogs allowed affectionate pats goodbye before they parted ways.  Once back up to their shelter, and changed back to human, Alex rounded on Sirius and asked imperiously, 'Oh, Snuffles.... You don't see the boy for over a year, somebody's tried to kill him, and you don't even put your paws up on his shoulders and give his face a good schlurp?!'

Sirius dropped his newspaper into the pile of other issues and abruptly backed Alex up against the wall of the cave, pinning her with his long arms.  She looked startled until he growled intimately, 'I save that for you,' licked the tip of her nose quickly then kissed her very thoroughly.  Being late March, even with a tiny fire, the weather prevented any flamboyant expressions of physical affection, but for the first time since Christmas night, Sirius and Alex slept spooned up with each other in their human forms rather than as Padfoot and the Cardigan.

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The weather after the students' visit to the cave improved rapidly, as did the fugitives' diets.  Only a day after the delivery of the delicious chicken, a whole parliament of owls, including the tiny owl they'd found out had been named 'Pigwidgeon,' brought a large ham, cakes and fruit.   They fell on the food with happy cries, but didn't forget to tip the owls.  It was indeed a large ham.

Alex grew thoughtful while meditating on the providers of their bounty, and chewing.  'Sirius?' she mumbled through a mouthful.

'Mmmm?'

'I just realised something.  Didn't you tell me, when you gave me my Canis charm, that you'd put in a sort of safety that would prevent me from changing in front of witnesses?   Other than you, of course.'

'Mm, yeah.'  The Animagus was also distracted by his meal; he looked forward to falling asleep on a full stomach.

'Then how do you explain me shifting in front of Harry, Ron and Hermione?'

'. . . .'

'Sirius?  Siiiirius?'

'Uh... I can't.'  The Animagus looked sheepish.   'You're right, it's not supposed to work like that.'

Alex chewed her lower lip thoughtfully for a moment.   'Maybe... it just won't work in front of Muggles?'

The Animagus shrugged at her, mildly embarrassed.   Thankfully, neither his Charms professor nor his Transfiguration tutor would be grading him on this project.   With no definitive answer forthcoming, Alex shrugged back at him and returned to the al fresco feast.  As long as the charm kept working, she didn't much care.

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The Cardie took to basking on the path just below the cave's entrance if she didn't have anything better to do.  The number of post owls increased steadily, not just from Harry, who started to write every day (and sent food almost as often), but from Lupin, Dumbledore and others.  Padfoot had just returned one day, nimbly stepping over the inverted corgi blocking the entrance, when a flurry of owls dropped in.   Two of them shared the delivery of a care package from Harry and friends, while the others simply had messages.   Sirius started unrolling the notes, re-read the outside of one, and called out, 'Alex!'  Opening the next, he skimmed the contents of a parchment with Lupin's writing.  'Alex?' He craned his head towards the entrance.

Corgi doormat.

Hmph.

Sirius stepped over to the cave mouth, leaned down, and tapped the sleeping bitch on the muzzle with the parchment.  The Cardigan's eyes snapped open, she snorted, and writhed abruptly to her feet, rolling almost too close to the edge of the path.   Sirius grimaced when he noticed that.  Um, not a funny idea, perhaps.

Alex noticed that, too, and glared at him fiercely, hands on hips, all a-bristle.  Sirius held up his hands apologetically, then extended her the letter gingerly.   She snatched it from his hand, brows down-drawn until she skimmed the letter and spotted the author's signature.   'It's from Hermione!'  Forgetting Sirius, she plunked down to read the letter carefully.

Dear Alex,

     I hope you don't mind my writing to you.  I know you and Sirius are very busy.  We've been getting lots and lots of homework, and getting ready for the year-end exams -- well, Ron and I have, as Harry's got the Third Task instead.  I've also been helping Harry study some hexes, jinxes and other spells which should be useful for the Task.  Sirius had suggested a couple, which got put right on the top of the list.
     I don't know if you knew both my parents are Muggles, so I'm pretty familiar with all sorts of Muggle things.  What I would really appreciate, though, is if you could tell me about America.  I've never got to meet an American, except when my family went on holiday to France.   Have you met any American witches?  Are people really as different as they say?  Are the libraries really really huge?

Thanks so much,
Hermione Granger

Alex bounced to her feet and scrambled for the bag in which they kept the writing supplies, but Sirius already had the quill and ink out.  She hovered impatiently until the wizard gave up his own letter in exasperation and handed over the quill.   Alex happily plunked down in good light, and spent a good three quarters of an hour composing her reply, including the suggestion Hermione ask her some specific questions, as 'America' was a rather large subject to cover.

The owl took the letter off to the young witch, and Sirius finally finished his letter.  After that, Alex got her own owl about once a week, as Hermione managed to squeeze in at least a few questions out of her busy revision schedule; and Alex kept Hermione thinking with questions of her own about how magic worked, and equality between witches and wizards.

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'Idiot boy!' Sirius raged, stomping from side to side.   His obvious anger disturbed the hippogriff, and Alex hastened to stroke Buckbeak's head and soothe him.   Sirius wouldn't be soothed until he finished venting.

'What happened?'

'He wandered off into the Forest with the Durmstrang champion, and could have been attacked by anything.  He came across Crouch -- that fellow from the Ministry, remember? -- insane, went for help, and returned to find Crouch missing, and the other boy knocked out.  That could have been him!   Why isn't he listening to me?!'

Okay, enough hippogriff-soothing; time for Animagus-soothing.  Alex caught him up and held him still long enough to hug him fiercely, but allowed him to shake her off and continue pacing.  'I don't suppose it'd do any good to remind you what the Marauders got away with.'

The wizard gestured dismissively, violently.  'I've told him every single letter to be careful.  The Marauders never had to face Voldemort!  The worst we had to deal with was Remus's change, and Snape's long nose.'  He stopped his pacing to face her challengingly.  'He knows he's safe from broad magical attack, but keeps forgetting a teenage boy can be overwhelmed physically with very little effort.   And it's not like I can be there to watch out for him!'   The anger on his face started shifting to show the underlying fear and frustration.

Alex had felt the same way herself, and understood.  She asked gently, 'Do you want to hear the practical response, or the sympathetic response?'

'Sympathetic,' Sirius snapped, biting off the end of the word.

His partner stood on tiptoe, and settled her hands on his shoulders, not quite a hug again.  She dipped her head toward his, and spoke in a low voice, still gentle.   'Boys this age never believe they're anything but immortal.   He knows you're worried about him, but in the heat of the moment, there's only reaction, not thinking.   I'm sure he doesn't mean to distress you -- he just doesn't realize it until it's too late.'   She paused, noticing the shoulders beneath her hands had unknotted slightly.  'I noticed, he thinks the world of you.   Not just because you give the best presents, or because you're the best connexion to his past.  He loves you for yourself; he's been waiting for a dad for a long time, after all.'

Sirius didn't as much hug her as much as drape himself on her, the drain of emotion leaving him limp.  Alex had seen him about as vulnerable as he'd ever been, when she first found out his secrets; and Sirius had therefore become unhesitant about his passions, positive or negative, exploding in her presence.   Since Azkaban, he had kept his face and heart shuttered before anyone else, even Harry.  They stood that way for several minutes, Alex stroking his back.  Finally, Sirius sighed, squeezed her back, and straightened up, finger-combing scraggles of hair away from his face.

'Some better?' his lover asked.

'Thanks.'

Alex looked around, scooped up blank parchment and the well-used quill, and held them out to Sirius.  'G'wan, chew the little idiot out for distressing his godfather,' she grinned.

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The Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament was scheduled for the end of the month of June; Hermione's letters kept them up on how Harry's training progressed, and Harry's letters kept them apprised of how he was actually doing.  He told Sirius that this time, he felt far better prepared.  Hermione's exacting standards confirmed this.  Sirius felt some small sense of reassurance, but couldn't help thinking -- it was fairly obvious -- that whatever purpose that mysterious Someone had for imposing Tournament participation on Harry, they didn't have much time left to fulfill it.  Alex still couldn't help much; Sirius could only provide coaching from a distance, and she couldn't add to that.  Her idea that she be slipped into the castle as a familiar to provide an extra pair of eyes to watch for suspicious activity, although lauded by both Sirius and Dumbledore (he addressed part of a letter directly to her), was deemed to be too difficult to execute.  Wizards and witches rarely kept canine familiars, and her presence would therefore prove to be both conspicuous and hard to justify.   The tension in the air increased as June ticked onward.

'So it's tomorrow morning,' Alex commented as the two of them woke the morning of the twenty-seventh.  Sirius nodded, his face more drawn than ever.  'Wish we could do something special for him.   Balloon bouquet, something... you know, fun.'

Sirius growled, 'He doesn't need fun, he needs this to be over.'   He had just shifted into dogform when the proverbial lightbulb popped on in Alex's head.

'Wait!  We can do something a little different.   Don't go yet.'  Digging out a fresh sheet of parchment, Alex folded it crisply in half, then half again.  She picked up the bottle of ink, their water bottle, and set them down again.   'No, wait, need ashes first.'  She scooped up a handful of ash from their 'fireplace' and carried it carefully over to a faint hollow in the floor near the entrance, out of the way.  Padfoot watched curiously as she picked up the liquids again, poured a little bit of ink into the ash, then a bit more water, and stirred it thoroughly with a fingertip.  'Messy.   Perfect.  Okay, come over here.'

The huge black dog stepped over, then got tugged into place.   'All right, then.  Let me have your hand.'  Alex picked up Padfoot's right paw, touched it lightly into the sludgy puddle, then onto a clear spot of floor, then picked it up again.   She examined the mark that left critically, and Padfoot got the idea.  She dipped his paw again, this time setting it squarely on the inside page of the folded parchment.  It left a lovely print, blurred a bit by straggles of hair.

Padfoot shimmered into Sirius, glad that the gook on his paw didn't transfer to his human form.  'Lovely!'  he pronounced, 'Your turn.'  Alex raised her eyebrows at him.   She didn't even think of that.  Sirius shook his head at her, 'No, you too.  You're part of this, and you want to wish him well, don't you?'  No argument to that.  The Cardigan moved into position next to the puddle, and Sirius performed the same procedure Alex had on him, adding a neat little pawprint next to the huge one.

She shimmered back, and examined the result critically.   Her grin got bigger the longer she looked at it, ridiculously pleased at being included like this.  Sirius smiled in response, and he took it from her to pin it down with some small rocks, to let it dry thoroughly.  'Come on,' he beckoned, and the two Dogs scrambled down the long goat path towards Hogsmeade.

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Sirius paced all the next day.  The Task didn't start until the evening, and he couldn't concentrate on anything else, except for the one owl from the headmaster.  'He requests we wait for him near Hagrid's cottage after dark.'

'Doubt it's for the same thing he invited us to Hagrid's house before,' Alex responded wryly.  'Although one may hope.'   Sirius shot her a look half-irritated, half-amused.

'We'll do what we did that time, though -- fly Buckbeak around to the back edge of the Forest, and walk there.  It's the least likely method to get us noticed, and well away from the Quidditch pitch.  That's where the Task is set up.'

'Yes, I remember Harry bemoaning the state of his precious arena,' Alex grinned.   Sirius didn't smile back, as he was too busy stalking back and forth.  Alex found herself idly wondering how he didn't go totally dizzy, considering the length of Sirius's legs and his ability to cross the width of the cave in about three strides.  'Sirius, let's go for a run or something.  I'm going to get motion-sick watching you up here.'

Somehow, they made it through the morning and afternoon, and watched the sun creep towards the horizon at an agonizingly slow pace this close to the Summer Solstice.  Sirius finally gave up on the sunlight, and took Buckbeak out into the deep amber-pink gleams of sunset, the Cardigan balanced carefully across the hippogriff's shoulders like usual.

The sky over Hagrid's pumpkin patch glowed a deep indigo by the time they reached it.  They had tied up Buckbeak in the shelter Hagrid had tucked away deeper in the Forest, to keep him safe.  The Cardie looked at Padfoot once they reached the garden, wondering what they were to do next.  Padfoot settled down, facing the bright spot glowing on the other side of the castle, only partly visible.  Faint crowd noise drifted through the clear summer air.  The corgi looked up, seeing a sky as beautiful as any in Sirius's fantasy landscapes from... almost a year ago now.

A year. It seemed more like a lifetime.

A cheer came from the half-seen Quidditch pitch, and a garbled, amplified voice.  Not even canine hearing could make out the words at this distance.  The Cardigan settled against Padfoot, letting her mind drift off into that ineffably patient canine state of being.

Both Dogs jerked out of their state of patience by a sudden change in tone from the pitch.  Alarm, distress?   Nothing happened for another hour, although they remained alert.  No threats emerged from the Forest, or the visiting students' transports; nothing odd happened at the castle.   Then another great collective shout, more negative than the first, and longer.  Something bad had happened.   Padfoot jumped to his feet, straining every muscle to listen harder, but not daring to leave the pumpkin patch yet.

Circumstances left them to wait in agony for another half-hour, at least.  Then a figure approached the garden, but not any of the people they might have expected.  Light streamed from the end of her wand as she approached cautiously, and finally spotted the waiting Dogs.  Padfoot's coat blended into the night so completely, she only spotted him by eyeshine.   Padfoot recognized her as Professor McGonagall, the deputy headmistress.  The Cardigan would have to wait for introductions later.

The woman cleared her throat, and addressed them a little awkwardly, not sure at all what sort of beings she spoke to.   'Ahem.  Professor Dumbledore has asked I bring you up to his office.  He said he'll be with you in about a half hour.  If you'll follow me, please?'  A corner of Alex-corgi's mind noted the professor's distinct Scottish accent, and realized, despite their location, she hadn't heard many burrs in Hogsmeade.  Hmm.

McGonagall led the Dogs up a wide stone staircase, into a hall, up more stairs, through so many corridors the Cardigan got totally disorientated.  Although she couldn't appreciate the building as she might from a human height, she marvelled at the richness and variety of the ancient castle.   Eventually, they fetched up to a stone gargoyle, which leapt aside when the professor murmured a phrase to it.   They ascended an amazing moving spiral staircase, and she left them in a handsome office, furnished with books, portraits, and a large bird perch, which was currently empty.

The door clicked behind the deputy headmistress.  Sirius started pacing again.  The Cardigan barked her charm, and curled up on a large leather chair with a sigh.  As fascinating as the office was, she knew she wouldn't get the pleasure of prowling through its details, not with what was going on outside.   She was worried about Harry, too.

After Sirius had completed about three hundred transits of the office (Alex counted; it was something to do), they both heard a sound on the other side of the door.  Sirius stopped stock-still, as the door swung open to reveal a limping Harry, accompanied by someone who could only be Albus Dumbledore.

Sirius, his face gone fainting-white, almost leapt to his godson's side, and asked urgently, 'Harry, are you all right?   I knew it -- I knew something like this -- what happened?'  He seated Harry in the chair Alex had jumped up from at the entrance of the others, and asked again, 'What happened?'  Sirius's hands shook more than his voice.   The headmaster began telling Sirius about an interrogation he'd just completed, while Alex knelt on the floor on the other side of the chair from where Sirius stood, and took Harry's hand.   His leg looked a mess; his robes were torn in several places, and she could see deep lacerations in his skin.   Harry looked down at her blankly.  His exhaustion was evident.

Alex suddenly heard wings immediately over her head.   Startled, she twisted back and forth, as a large, utterly beautiful bird with red and gold plumage settled on Harry's undamaged knee.  She would have sworn that perch had been empty when the two Dogs entered the office....

''Lo, Fawkes,' Harry wearily greeted the spectacular bird, and stroked it.  Alex stared at the bird, fascinated, but did not let go of the young wizard's hand.

'I need to know what happened after you touched the Portkey in the maze, Harry,' Dumbledore stated, seating himself at his desk.

'We can leave that till morning, can't we, Dumbledore?'   Sirius, still standing at Harry's left, placed a protective hand on his godson's shoulder.  'Let him have a sleep.   Let him rest.'  His tone was fierce.

Dumbledore didn't look at Sirius, but waited until he had captured Harry's eyes.  'If I thought I could help you by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it.  But I know better.  Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.  You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you.  I ask you to demonstrate that courage one more time.  I ask you to tell us what happened.'

The strange and wonderful bird on Harry's knee warbled a single note, an amazing sound that echoed through Alex's whole being.  She would state it more poetically later:  that Fawkes's cry echoed in her very heart.  Harry's colour actually seemed to improve slightly, she imagined, as if he'd drawn strength from the sound.  The boy took a deep breath, and started a tale that sounded to Alex like something from the horror fiction shelf.  An undead evil; a cauldron of rebirth like the Goddess Ceridwen's, only twisted; ruthless minions and dark rituals.  She kept shifting her attention between Harry, whose hand had closed around hers tightly as he told his story, and Sirius, still standing at Harry's side, still clutching Harry's shoulder.  She wished she could hold her lover, as his expression showed more pain than she thought she'd ever seen, but she wouldn't let go of Harry.

Harry had begun telling how the head minion had stabbed his right arm to steal a blood sample for the ritual.  At that, Sirius cried out and both he and Dumbledore moved hastily to examine that wound.  Alex, holding Harry's right hand, looked down in alarm at the boy's arm.  She had missed that earlier, as his damaged leg was so much more obvious.  Alex released his hand so he could stretch out the arm, spreading the cut in his sleeve with his fingers.

Dumbledore re-seated himself, and Harry reached for Alex's hand.  Quite touched, she clasped it securely again, patting their joined hands with her right.  He continued his story, but choked up as he started to describe a magical duel.   Alex stroked his arm as he struggled to recover, overwhelmed by his memories, while Dumbledore discussed a phenomenon of the duel with Sirius.

'Exactly.  Harry's wand and Voldemort's wand share cores.   Each of them contain a feather from the tail of the same phoenix.  This phoenix, in fact.'  The headmaster indicated the fabulous bird.  A phoenix?!? Alex thought, her eyes widening.  She stared at the bird more closely, and would have sworn she saw it wink at her in response to her examination.

She had a hard time following the next bit of Harry's story, about shades appearing from the enemy's wand; she made a mental note to ask Sirius to explain later, as the recitation of the shades' appearance caused Harry more and more distress.   Just before he choked up completely again, he described how the images of his parents had appeared and had spoken to him.   The longing in his voice caused Alex's eyes to fill in sympathy.  She saw Sirius move out of the corner of her eye and turned to see him sink into the other chair, one hand never leaving Harry's shoulder, but the other covering his face in such a terrible expression of fresh grief.  She knew, from his own telling, how responsible he felt for James and Lily Potter's deaths.   She couldn't go to him.  Not and leave Harry more alone with this terrible memory.  Fawkes suddenly moved, and dropped off Harry's lap to the floor.  He was a tall bird, and could easily rest his head on top of Harry's knee, but not before first brushing his crest against Alex's loose right hand, as if to tell her he'd take over for a moment.   Astonished, she nodded, and smoothed Harry's hand onto the chair's armrest, as Fawkes started to weep over Harry's wounded leg.

She crossed behind Harry's chair to lunge to her knees before her beloved, wrapping her arms around him, not caring if Dumbledore looked or not.  He responded to her touch, shifting position so he could clutch her in desperate grief, burying his face in her neck, but without tears.  She rocked him gently, stroking the back of his head.

'I will say it again, you have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you tonight, Harry.  You have shown bravery equal to those who died fighting Voldemort at the height of his powers.  You have shouldered a grown wizard's burden and found yourself equal to it -- and you have now given us all we have a right to expect.  You will come with me to the hospital wing.  I do not want you returning to the dormitory tonight.  A sleeping potion and some peace... Sirius,' and the Animagus looked up from Alex's shoulder, loosening his grip on his partner, 'would you and Miss MacMillan like to stay with him?'

Sirius nodded, stood up and shifted.  Alex, wondering at being addressed by her surname, spoke her charm and transformed as well.  The Dogs accompanied the two wizards down a different flight of stairs which led them straight to the hospital wing, Harry's adoptive family of Weasleys, and the medical witch named Madam Pomfrey -- who apparently disapproved of dogs.

'Headmaster!' she exclaimed, staring down at Padfoot and the Cardigan, 'May I ask what --'

'These dogs will be remaining with Harry for the while.   I reassure you, they are extremely well trained.   Harry -- I will wait while you get into bed,' Dumbledore stated without room for debate.

Madam Pomfrey got Harry settled into pyjamas and bed while the Dogs, the Weasleys and Hermione waited. The Cardigan walked over to the girl and licked her hand.  Hermione crouched and hugged her.  Her residual anxiety transmitted through her hug, and Cardie licked her cheek as well in reassurance.  They were finally allowed to settle themselves in chairs at Harry's bedside, but the Cardie had a better idea.   She put her front feet up on the side of the bed and gathered herself, springing onto Harry's bed.  She settled herself longwise, along Harry's legs, so her nose lay just within reach of Harry's fingertips.

Madam Pomfrey returned, saw this complete violation of her usual infirmary discipline, and sputtered angrily under her breath all the while she gave Harry some purple potion.   Looking up from under her corgi eyebrows, Alex-corgi saw a tiny hint of a smile cross the boy's lips as he drifted off rapidly into sleep, but not before giving her some tiny pats.

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Everybody was disturbed the next morning as Professor McGonagall, a man eventually identified as Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and, after a bit, even Professor Dumbledore got into a long and loud brangle.  Apparently -- and again, Alex regretted the lack of a full frame of reference -- the man the headmaster had told Sirius about last night had been soul-stolen by one of the horrible Azkaban guards, and this Minister refused to see the seriousness of this as a problem.   Is he covering things up?  Why would he want to eliminate a witness?  she wondered, having shifted around to curl up across the foot of the bed.

Dumbledore tried to move the disturbance up to his office, but Fudge started glancing toward Harry with a sort of sneaky, smirking expression.  He crossed the line when he asked, 'You are -- er -- prepared to take Harry's word on this, are you, Dumbledore?'  Alex-corgi was dumbfounded.  Padfoot didn't react to that well, and began growling in a very serious manner from Harry's bedside.  The great black dog had climbed from his chair to take a guard-like position as soon as Fudge had shown up.

The headmaster continued to defend his position as Fudge kept questioning their facts.  Harry, who had been quietly awake for several minutes -- as if anyone, even medicated, could sleep through all this noise -- finally put in his own two pence, first stating that the Minister read 'Rita Skeeter,' who apparently served as a source of bad information.  He finally shouted in sheer frustration, 'Look, I saw Voldemort come back!  I saw the Death Eaters!  I can give you their names!  Lucius Malfoy --'  He struggled to get out of bed to confront the Minister, but Mrs Weasley hurried to push his shoulders down.  The Cardigan lent her assistance by moving up to Harry's side, and laying her head across his waist.  She was afraid if she stayed at the end of the bed, she'd snap at the Minister if he got too close.

The Minister remained unmoved by Harry's and Dumbledore's testimonies.  If she'd been in human form, Alex's jaw would have hung open.  This man was amazingly blind.  Talk about covering one's butt -- but this coverage would consist of lost human lives, both wizard and Muggle.  The Cardie didn't need to be a witch to see the implications.  She could hear Padfoot's almost subsonic and continuous growl.  Fudge needed biting.

In weary finality, the elder wizard finally stated to the Minister, 'If your determination to shut your eyes will carry you as far as this, Cornelius, we have reached a parting of the ways.  You must act as you see fit, and I -- I shall act as I see fit.'  The Cardigan refused to retain any of the Minister's threatening bluster.  He kept crying, 'He can't be back!'  Another professor -- the infamous Snape -- showed Fudge yet more proof, but the Minister was impervious, refusing to let it register.  He finally left, but not before walking up to Harry's bedside table and dropping a heavy, clinking bag on it.  The Cardigan stood up swiftly when he approached, her hackles raised and lips curled the whole time he was within reach of Harry.

Dumbledore began organizing those who remained, sending Bill Weasley off to his father, Professor McGonagall off to arrange a meeting, Madam Pomfrey off on another errand... and then announced, 'And now, it is time for two of our number to recognize each other for what they are.  Sirius... if you and your lady friend could resume your usual forms.'  The Dogs looked at him, and the Cardigan jumped off the bed.  A moment later, Sirius and Alex stood on either side of Harry's bed.

Mrs Weasley screamed, 'Sirius Black!' and jumped away from where she was comforting Harry, nearly knocking over one of the privacy screens.

'Mum, shut up!  It's okay!' Ron yelled over his mother's vocal distress.

Alex watched the others carefully.  Snape snarled, 'Him!   What is he doing here?'  Alex lunged forward to put herself between Snape and Sirius, but Dumbledore blocked her way commandingly with an outstretched arm.  She growled, her eyes locked on Snape.

'He is here at my invitation, as you are, Severus.  I trust you both.  It is time for you to lay aside your old differences and trust each other.'  The two dark men glared at each other.  Dumbledore, an edge in his voice, continued, 'I will settle, in the short term, for a lack of open hostility.   You will shake hands.  You are on the same side now.   Time is short, and unless the few of us who know the truth do not stand united, there is no hope for any of us.'  That did it.  The two shook hands, very briefly.  Dumbledore released Alex, who stepped quickly to Sirius's side.  Then the headmaster moved between his antagonistic assistants, and continued his instructions.

'Now, I have work for each of you.  Fudge's attitude, though not unexpected, changes everything.  Sirius, I need you to set off at once.  You are to alert Remus Lupin, Arabella Figg, Mundungus Fletcher -- the old crowd.  Lie low at Lupin's for a while; I will contact you there.'

'But --' Harry looked as upset as Alex felt.  She hadn't quantified it yet, but she had a bad feeling about this.

Sirius addressed his godson, 'You'll see me very soon, Harry.   I promise you.  But I must do what I can, you understand, don't you?'

'Yeah... of course I do.'  He shook Sirius's hand in an adult fashion; Alex insisted on a quick hug.  There was, of course, no question that she would go with Sirius.

Sirius nodded to Dumbledore and shifted, trotting down the long ward where he opened the latched door with one great paw.   Alex stepped up to Dumbledore before she shifted, said, 'It's been a great honour meeting you, sir.  Please take it as a compliment when I say you're very Gandalf.'  She looked around at the others, locked eyes with Hermione.  She then lifted one hand in a small wave, the other to her charm, and recited, 'Canis Mutatem.'  The brindle Cardigan ran to meet the black dog waiting for her, and they were gone.

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They trotted along corridors, down staircases, along galleries; Padfoot found the school had not changed that much since he attended it, and remembered back ways that would allow the Dogs to avoid most students.  Once back outside, he loped towards Hagrid's cabin to leave him a note about Buckbeak.   They would not be able to ride Buckbeak where they were headed, as Remus Lupin lived in a heavily-settled area now, where he could find his Wolfsbane potion's ingredients easily.

Padfoot thought hard about whether to return to the cave before they headed south; it's not as though either he or Alex-corgi had any possessions up there not easily replaced, but all those letters....   In the end, he decided it would be better to hide any signs of their residence, and led his companion along the direct route from Hogwarts's front gate up to the village of Hogsmeade and out the other side.

Alex was glad he'd thought that way.  That hairbrush, which naturally Sirius never thought about -- that was blatantly obvious -- was the only one she'd found that would get through her hair without snagging or breaking... the brush.   They rolled up the students' letters, and stuffed all the rest in a deep nook in the cave wall, threw out their pathetic bedding, and, bag secured around Padfoot's neck, left the cave for the last time.  Alex-corgi hadn't yet asked the obvious question, in part because she recognized the urgency of their mission, and because she wanted to avoid the equally obvious answer.  That wasn't the right answer, it couldn't be.

For several days they worked their way south, in the general direction of Liverpool.  Padfoot could cover quite a bit of ground in any given day, but he matched his pace to that of the Cardigan, and that slowed him considerably.  It wasn't that corgis couldn't run or trot at a good pace, but the size differential between the Dogs just overwhelmed any sort of determined effort on the Cardie's part.  She tried keeping up with Padfoot in her Alex form, but that didn't work any better.   Although all her running around in dog form had done wonders for her endurance and wind, Padfoot was still a very large dog with a very long stride.

After their second day, when they stopped to sleep between midnight and dawn, Sirius's frustration had become visible even in Padfoot's body language.

'Um, look, I know I'm holding you up.  Can you maybe change me to a whippet or something temporarily, would that work?'  Alex suggested tentatively.

'No,' Sirius snapped, not looking at her.  He knew she didn't mean to slow him down, but his need to get word out kept him from patience.

'And you said you can't really Apparate without a wand....' Alex continued, wanting badly to break the wall Sirius's temper had thrown up.  'Sirius... Sirius.'  She wanted him to look at her.  'Sirius, I want you to go on ahead.   I can make my way there, or at least a lot closer, and we can arrange on meeting places or something for you to catch me up at.'

That got his attention.  'I will not leave you behind,' he stated, enunciating each word slowly.  That was the final word.  Alex gave up trying to assuage her guilt at having short legs and fell asleep until the sky started turning light, when they set off again in order to take advantage of the twilight and cool temperatures.

Eventually, they reached the neighborhood Remus Lupin had moved to after leaving Hogwarts the previous year.  He had found a mixed neighbourhood in a suburban setting, young wizarding families with one Muggle spouse.  He still had to guard his secret closely, of course, and having children close around worried him, but having other wizards in the neighborhood made potion-shopping easier.  And the area was far enough out from the city that he could escape to empty fields if his were, his wolf, threatened to overcome him.

Although Padfoot carried their scanty bag of items, the Cardigan bore burdens of the spirit herself by the time they started searching for Lupin's address.  First, of course, there was the delay -- it had taken them almost a week to get there; and then, there was The Unasked Question (it had achieved capitalization), coiled up in the pit of her stomach, feeling much like a cold rock had been dropped in there.  Or, she mused sourly, to be more scientific -- a hailstone, growing larger with each layer of anxiety.  She knew one day, The Question would grow so large it would erupt from her mouth, and land with a loud thud between her and Sirius.  She still couldn't bring herself to ask him voluntarily.  Not, at least, until they had discharged the immediate part of their mission.

Or really, Sirius's mission.  Dumbledore hadn't given her any task, or indeed done more than treat her with genteel politeness.  What good would a Muggle be in this situation, anyway?

Her downward spiral of thoughts was interrupted by Padfoot's nip, as he trotted up to the address Lupin had provided them.   They had arrived, and now they could spread the word about Voldemort's return.

Lupin welcomed them both warmly, although Alex found his long stare at Sirius when the Animagus introduced her to his old friend both amusing and telling.  She drifted politely out into the tiny, ragged back garden so Remus could interrogate Sirius behind her back and get it over with.  The closet werewolf was even warmer to her when she meandered back in; apparently, he approved highly.

Remus approved enough to give them his whole bedroom.   He volunteered to sleep on his sofa, over Alex's embarrassed protests, insisting it was his responsibility as their host.  She only stopped when Sirius grabbed her with one arm, wrapped the other hand over her mouth, and thanked Remus firmly.  She tried to bite him in indignation, but he anticipated this and moved his fingers in time.  She shifted quickly, and went for his ankles, but Padfoot pinned the Cardigan with one great paw.  Remus stood well out of range, and laughed at the canine wrestling match in the middle of his sitting room.  They all needed to play a bit; circumstances looked grim for the foreseeable future, and they could use all the lightness of heart they could get.

That evening, after Sirius had told Remus everything that had happened at Hogwarts over the summer, Alex and Sirius used up all of the hot water as they enjoyed their first good wash since Christmas.  They didn't get playful, as Alex was far too conscious of Remus's presence in the house -- thin walls and wolf-tuned hearing.  Anyway, after the long trip and their tussle earlier, neither of them had the energy to do more than get clean.  That was quite the task in itself, really.

They sat on Remus's bed, wrapped in towels, and took turns fighting through matted hair with Alex's faithful hairbrush, while their host ran their battered clothes through the wash twice.  Sirius tolerated the painful tugging at his scalp after his suggestion they just whack everything off with scissors was again summarily rejected.  He had to admit that Alex had the harder time of it, as he brushed at her knee-length tangles as gently as possible.

Eventually, they felt much closer to human again -- washed, brushed, braided, fed (Remus ordered take-away Indian food, and stuffed them full of curry and rice) -- and ready to give in to their heavy eyelids.  Remus, coddling them after what they'd been through, ordered them off to bed.  Now that Sirius had delivered the news, he could take the next leg of their information relay himself, and let them rest.

They spooned up naked in Remus's narrow bed, their clean ragged clothes saved for tomorrow.  Remus had told them, still being the perfect host, he'd do some shopping for them as soon as he could.  The feeling of relaxation, of burdens lifted, made Sirius almost lightheaded, and he was nearly asleep when he realized his arm was wet.  Alex wept silently as he cradled her in his arms.

He shifted, propping himself up on the elbow carefully drawn out from beneath her head.  He reached to cup her wet face with his other hand, gently turning her to face him.   'Alex, what's the matter?'

She didn't answer for a moment, but finally twisted to half-sit up against the headboard, tucking the covers tightly over her chest, as if she was trying to keep herself together.   She wouldn't meet Sirius's concerned eyes.

'I didn't want to dump this on you.  You've got enough to worry about, because you've got to do all the work, and know all the people, and...'  she sniffled wetly.  Sirius freed up a corner of sheet and dabbed at her tear tracks.   She stroked his arm as he did so, and maintained the touch as he placed his hand opposite her hip, so he half-leaned over her, braced on his arms.

'Tell me anyway.'

'It hit me after Dumbledore gave you his instructions, while we were leaving the school.  We... we're not going home, are we?'  The Question was out.  Thud.  Sirius's eyebrows climbed.  He hadn't really though of it that way.   Alex wasn't finished, though.  'Which means...' she choked up and visibly braced herself to force the next words out, 'I have to decide if I give up everything in Miami -- my house, my stuff, my dogs, my job -- or give up being with you.'  She closed her eyes tightly, and tears cascaded down her face again.

Sirius, struck speechless, could only wipe tears for a moment as his thoughts spun.  He hadn't realized how much this could cost her, without even being in immediate physical danger.   His focus had let him be blind-sided again.  And... Sirius had his own Unasked Question which had just got yanked to the forefront.  His own voice tensed as much as his partner's, dropping to an almost inaudible mumble, as he forced out, 'And with everything I've put you through, do you regret... regret coming with me?'

Alex heard the unspoken part of his question -- Do you regret being with me?  She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down to her.  'Not for a second.  You should never have thought that, ever.   But if I stay here, we won't have anyplace to go back to.  And it's a terrible imposition,' she laughed like a cough at the lightness of the word, 'to ask my friends and mother to pack up everything, and find some place to store it... assuming after all this time I haven't lost everything already.  I haven't kept in touch with anyone, and hadn't even noticed.  I had a life in Miami, even if it was kind of non-descript, and responsibilities, and people who'll have missed me, not to mention NEO and Mouse.  I had finally started to feel like I had sort of established myself as a householder, stable, competent.  I had made a place for you to come home to.

'But if I return, I won't know what's happening with you, except for the occasional owl, if I'm lucky.  There will be great and terrible things happening here, and you'll be in danger, and I'll be alone every single second because you won't be next to me.  I don't have anything of you except this charm, no proof that you ever existed, and I'll start to wonder after a while if you weren't just an amazingly detailed fantasy story I told myself one night.  I won't know if you're dead or alive.

'You've changed my life in a way I could have never expected or anticipated, and it's been like a whole other lifetime, this past year.  But now, no matter which choice I make, I'm going to pay hugely for it.'

Sirius loosened his equally tight embrace and pushed up to look in Alex's face again.  His face twisted with sorrow, he opened his mouth, but Alex interrupted fiercely, 'Don't you DARE apologise.'

He closed his mouth, and kissed her lightly, lingeringly, instead, then closed the space between them again to whisper in her ear, 'I can't help you decide.  I'm biased.'

Alex whispered back, 'I've got this little daydream I used to use to amuse myself, or to drift off to sleep with, when you were out with Buckbeak or off to Hogsmeade or whatever....'

It's after Voldemort is defeated again, finally and completely.  You've been cleared of course, front-page news in the Daily Prophet, and been awarded the Order of Merlin as well for your heroism during the whole war.  First class.  Finally, only the best for the long-suffering, unjustly accused, self-sacrificing hero, Sirius Black.

We're going out to dinner together, in public and all dressed up.  You're wearing the sharpest set of robes in fine black wool, tailored within an inch of your life.  They accent the width of your shoulders, and the lean line of your body, and you look magnificent.  Your hair's loose, flowing, but practically blends into your robes.  I'm wearing something elegant in my favourite shade of red, but nobody in the restaurant's looking at me -- they're oohing and aahing that you're there.   Some people come over, honoured to be able to shake your hand.  They're secretly sorry they ever suspected you were guilty.  I'm watching them honour you as you deserve, and basking in my satisfaction.

We enjoy magnificent steaks, and make our way home leisurely.   We decide to be scandalous, encouraged by the time of night and the sliver of moon showing, and make love out on the golf course.  You lay back after we've pleased each other, eyes half closed, hair spilling all around, but you're only visible in the dimness as a contrast against the grass.   And I sit up, and look down at you, and wish that this perfection would never end....

//
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