The Sugar Quill
Author: Corgi (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Canis Mutatem: Wish Upon a Star  Chapter: Canto One
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Canis Mutatem:  Wish Upon a Star - Canto One

Canis Mutatem:  Wish Upon a Star
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.

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 at him, eyes full of concern; eyes that had not yet lost the look that Azkaban had given them, that deadened, haunted look.'

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 19


Alex had helped Sirius shop for the trip -- she wouldn't hear of letting 'her wizard' leave so abruptly that he'd starve the whole way back.  Buckbeak ended up with two bags of dried fruit, nuts, and camping food tied onto his back.  Wouldn't do the hippogriff any good, of course, as he would have to hunt the whole way, but at least it would keep Sirius in better shape than the last time they took this route.

Sirius wouldn't let her load him up with weatherproof clothing, tools, all the other things she thought he would use on the way.   Buckbeak had had a hard enough trip heading south during the summer; now he would have to fight the violent weather autumn and early winter often brought, while carrying Sirius too.  Alex did manage to get a good coat on the wizard though, to layer over his original raggedly grey robes, and missed paying three petrol credit cards as a side effect.  'It was worth it,' she stated stubbornly.

One other thing she pressed upon him that he agreed to take -- a strange Muggle instrument called a 'cellphone'.   Not wanting to depend on owls or macaws or what-have-you, Alex had researched mobile providers, found the one that provided the most thorough coverage of Great Britain, ordered and pre-paid for a year of service and an extra extended-life battery.   The phone unit arrived express at the expense of the department store payments.  'It's SO worth it, stop bugging me.'   She showed Sirius how to use it, after programming her own mobile and landline numbers into the speed-dial feature, to make it easier for him to call.  He'd have to find some Muggle power source to plug the recharger into of course, but she didn't worry about that.   She even had him practice, using her phone (as the British phone didn't have service in the States), until he rolled his eyes, shifted, and took NEO out for a run to escape.

Alex kept something back from his packing: Sirius's shirt, the one he arrived in, as ragged as it had become from almost constant wear.  In lieu of shopping, even on-line, she had made him some simple tunics and trousers to wear instead of his temporarily discarded robes; nothing fancy, nothing binding, which suited him quite well.  Like many men, Sirius had never been fussy about his clothes unless he was trying to impress a girl.  It was a fair trade.  Alex wanted to keep as much of him as possible around, and the shirt, pulled out of the laundry, was rich with his scent.  She sealed it up in a Ziploc and stored it under her pillow to save it.  Sirius was quite moved when she shyly told him what she'd done.

Three days after Harry's letter arrived, Buckbeak took to the night air with Sirius on his back.  This time the wizard had a map of the route up I-95 and into Canada to help them find forests and avoid the cities.  Alex drove back from the Everglades numb, dazed.   Their goodbyes had been minimal, in contrast to the almost desperate lovemaking of the previous evenings, where they each seemed to be trying to absorb as much of the other as they could before their forced parting.  Alex almost regretted not surrendering her virginity to him then, but knew deeper down, where she was inevitably right about herself, that it would have only made missing him hurt worse.  No, before scrambling onto Buckbeak's back, Sirius had hugged her so tightly for a long, long time; kissed her hard; stared at her like he was memorizing her face and said, 'I love you.'  He didn't wait for her response.

Alex didn't break until she got home.  She patted the dogs listlessly, forgot to feed them supper, and went to bed right away.  She hadn't changed the bedlinen yet, and when she pulled out the shirt and laid it on the body-pillow next to her, her loss hit her like a migraine on steroids.  NEO, who had followed her into the bedroom and had curled up like usual on the trundle bed, looked startled... then slunk back into the living room, avoiding her unrelievable pain, afraid he'd done something wrong.  She sobbed most of the night, called in sick to her work, and didn't get up except to let NEO out the front door on a long lead instead of walking him.  She remembered to feed them eventually.

A musical phrase cut through her misery.  The mobile rang, using one of the programmed tones that could be set for individual numbers entered into its address book feature.   It was an important song, she knew, but thought took a long time to filter through the soggy channels of her mind.   It was... it was... IT WAS SIRIUS.  She lunged for the phone, reaching it just before it cut over to voice mail.   She didn't care that his phone couldn't possibly be getting signal yet, not after only a day of travelling.   'Hello?!' she answered, splitting microseconds before hearing his voice again.

'Alex!'  Pure audio honey.  Not even the rich voice of her friend Mike, an actor-hyphenate, ever sounded so good.

'I love you.'  She didn't want to lose her chance.   The other end of the call stayed quiet; she started to worry the impossible signal had dropped.

'I miss you already,' Sirius finally said, softly.  She even thought she heard yearning in his voice.  At least, she hoped she heard yearning.  Yearning would be very very nice.  He continued, more pragmatically, 'Buckbeak and I are making good progress.  I believe we're in Georgia already.   I didn't expect the phone to work already, I was going to use the, erm, "calling card" you gave me, but it displayed what you told me to look for, so....'

'I'm glad.  It's a lot safer than you trying to use a public phone.'  Alex actually found herself not knowing what to say.  She really just wanted to reach through the phone and fall into his arms, but that couldn't be expressed too well... wait, she just thought it.  So she repeated her wish to her beloved, who laughed softly in response and agreed that would be a nice feature, wouldn't it.

Although fine in person, long silences preyed on phone bills, so Alex reluctantly bid him goodbye and Goddesspeed, breaking the connexion after final reassurances that she, the dogs, he and Buckbeak were all fine.  Well, mostly fine.   Fine-except-for.

She lay back on her bed, trying to remember how to breathe, and produced a hysterical cackle of relief instead.  It was all too intense to be borne easily.  She passed a hand over her face and down her sternum, and suddenly remembered when her hand hit her corgi charm.  Pulling on pyjamas, in case of emergency change-backs, Alex bolted to her front door, shut it in NEO's face, hunched down -- and the Cardie took off like a bolt to lap her eastern half of the golf course, to run until exhaustion drained her.


The last night Sirius and Alex slept together, between cycles of insatiable, hungry caressing, they'd talked about keeping in touch.  Not just the phone, but... rituals.  Alex had always been big on rituals and habits, even if she complied with them sloppily.  They discussed when he’d call and how he could leave messages on the answering machine Alex had finally installed so she wouldn’t miss a single word from him... and then she asked him for one thing more.

'You're going to be outside a lot, so this should be easy,' she started.  Sirius looked attentive, but never stopped stroking her side with his hand, lightly, from shoulder to as far down as he could reach, over and over.  'An hour after Sirius rises, if you stare at it and think especially of me, I'll be doing the same thing.'

Her lover couldn't help himself.  'You'll be thinking about yourself?'

She nibbled his lower lip to shut him up, and the stroking stopped so he could pull her close instead.  'It's not as good as sitting next to each other on the omphalos, but it's about as good as I can get right now,' she replied more seriously.

'Okay,' he agreed, and buried his face in her neck, squeezing her tightly as she clung to him in response.

Sirius the star burned brightly over the head of Sirius the wizard, and he stared at his star as if wishing on it would allow him to be in two places at once.  Wonder if anyone ever developed a spell for that without nasty side-effects? he wondered to himself.  Definitely something to look into if he ever got the chance to walk into a library again without having Dementors set on him.  Moving north, and away from the coast, the nights grew chillier, but other than propping himself up against Buckbeak's warm side, Sirius couldn't bring himself to do the practical thing and change into Padfoot for a nap before they continued moving north under the safety of darkness.   He stared at the sky, and cursed his and Harry's enemies instead.


Alex lived for phone calls now.  She knew it wasn't really healthy behaviour -- as her friend at work kept saying, she was the obsessive-compulsive poster child -- but right this moment, she couldn't care less.  She rushed home from work at lunch, back to her old pre-Sirius habits.  At least she didn't have to crate NEO any more -- Padfoot had straightened him out there.  However, she still felt walking the two dogs during the day was only fair for them, since they were accustomed to the exercise... and it gave her a chance to check the answering machine.

The message light blinked as she opened the door to bouncy canine greetings.  Her heart clutched, and she tapped the playback button while NEO insisted on being hugged bipedally.   Yes, there was a message... but not for her.  For the dogs.  She played back three minutes of woofing, whines and other canine vocalizations for NEO and Mouse.  NEO paused in his Tiggerness to cock his head in that stereotypically cute, RCA-Victor-dog pose and seemed to be listening carefully.   After the recording stopped, he wiggled all over, jumped up on Alex again and licked her face enthusiastically.

With a suspicious look on her face, Alex quickly shifted into dog form to listen to the messages again, and howled (literally) in laughter as Padfoot instructed NEO, in that curious emotive language dogs use, to 'give Mummy lots of kisses for me.'  She needed that laugh.  It counteracted hours of sighs.  She grinned for the rest of the afternoon.


Sirius and Buckbeak made it back to the Scottish mainland in under two months; they had had a close call crossing one of the wide stretches of water between the islands of the North Sea due to the violent weather for which the Sea was well-known.   Sirius hoarded the mobile's charge carefully; it was going to be difficult to get it recharged.  Dumbledore had suggested a place, not far away from the school and close enough to Hogsmeade village to be able to cadge or steal food, where he could hole up with the hippogriff.   Padfoot and Buckbeak could also hunt to some extent, although with winter coming on, game would be getting scarcer and scarcer.

He made a point, no matter how bad the weather got, to climb over the cave every night and check the sky for any sight of his star, as he'd promised.  Even when he had to fly elsewhere on Buckbeak, he would check the eastern horizon after sunset and wait for a blue-white glimmer.  He didn't depend on just the mobile, but also sent owls with specific instructions to 'treat the Muggle nicely!'  He didn't think Alex would be able to stomach feeding them live mice, but hoped she found an acceptable compromise.

Her letters back to him were either totally mundane -- or totally amazing, full of the passion of missing him.  He saved them carefully and tried his best to send back letters of equal worth.  He had been forced by his circumstances to 'show her his belly,' (to put it in dog idiom) and had come to relax into this vulnerability.  As Alex put it neatly one morning not long after he had blown his cover:  it’s a very nice thing to have someone to watch one’s back.  And then she spoiled the philosophy of the moment with a slyly lascivious comment about some people's backs being more worth watching than others.


Harry's letters weren't quite as ...stirring, although Sirius was warmed by his effort to divert, and thereby protect his godfather's hide:

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.


Sirius hadn't answered until he had settled in his hiding place, let the two adults who knew of his innocence -- Albus Dumbledore and his old friend Remus Lupin -- know where he was (carefully, in case of intercepted owls), and started collecting old newspapers from town to get an idea of what had been going on in wizarding Britain while he rejuvenated in Muggle Miami.

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.


Food became a real challenge.  Sirius would turn Buckbeak out to hunt at night, but the hippogriff picked his kills clean, crunching even the bones with his fearsome beak.  Padfoot was reduced to hunting for small rodents -- the only game he could find this close to town -- especially once it started to snow.   He found the villagers were willing to toss a dog a few scraps every now and then as well, but he couldn't steal much if he meant to keep scrounging there.  Madam Rosmerta, the proprietress of the Three Broomsticks public house, proved to be his most generous benefactrix.  She was used to odd types around her pub.

The cave got colder and colder as the year wound down; surprisingly, Buckbeak allowed Padfoot to curl right up next to him, and the two shared body warmth through the night.   Sirius found himself daydreaming about Miami and curling up with Alex instead.

However, Harry's letter, written after Hogwarts's great Halloween feast, gave him chills no tropical location would have cured:

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.


It's a trap, Sirius thought, his mind spinning.   Who could have done this?  He needed to talk to Harry directly, but... how?  Sirius thought furiously about this logistical problem for the next few days, not even distracted by the package Alex had sent him in the mistaken impression wizards and witches held Halloween in more regard than Muggles.  She had persuaded two large Canadian geese (how, he couldn't imagine -- they didn't fly that far south, normally) to carry a small bundle of paper parchment, narrow-nibbed calligraphy markers (to simulate quill points), and a solid milk chocolate heart.  He would have to be grateful later.  For now, he used one of the pens and sheets of paper to dash a note to Dumbledore.  Nobody could best him at solutions, and Sirius needed to utilize every resource he had.


Alex had a quiet, nondescript Halloween.  There weren't any kids who trick-or-treated in her neighborhood, and her thoughts lay elsewhere anyway.  She stared at her ceramic jack-o-lantern and meandered through seasonal memories -- Sirius's descriptions of the holiday feasts at school, with candle-lit carved pumpkins floating through the air over the students' heads, Alex's frustrated attempts to try to explain Wicca versus wizardry....  She hoped he'd got her package okay.   Getting those geese when she called -- another tiny charm Sirius had left her -- was a Goddessend; these birds she knew could handle the distance.  Waterproofing the package turned out to be a real trick -- gotta protect against those water landings.   At least temperature wasn't an issue at this time of year.

She knew where her problem lay.  She was in 'waiting mode.'   She couldn't concentrate on anything else when she was Waiting for something; it would distract her from being able to act on the anticipated... whatever.  No matter how long it took.  And, from what Sirius had written to her about this Triwizard Tournament, he'd be gone at least until the end of the Hogwarts school year, until next summer.  Alex counted months again, and the number added up the same -- from Halloween until the end of June was still eight months.   Hadn't changed from five minutes ago.

June had changed from being the celebration of one of her best friend's birthdays to 'when Sirius comes back maybe' month.   Thanksgiving was being anticipated as 'it's a shame Sirius isn't here to experience this' day.  Everything around Alex had become redefined in terms of Waiting.

Maybe an owl would come today.


Sirius had got his solution to contacting Harry.  He would use the Floo Network, and reach him through the Gryffindor common room fire.  It suddenly struck him that the mobile phone worked in a similar manner.  He hadn't called Alex lately because the batteries had finally worn down, and he had no way to recharge it yet -- another reason to depend on owl post.

He wrote to Harry first:

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.


The presence of the headmaster of one of the participating schools -- Durmstrang -- concerned him.  Karkaroff had been one of Voldemort's followers who had turned, in the end.  Sirius considered him unreliable, and possibly the source of the immediate threat.

Once that message flew on its way, tied to the leg of the school owl with whom Harry had sent his own announcement, Sirius turned his mind south-west.  He needed to let Alex know her package got to him, but it had to be so carefully written to rise to the level of the gift.  He carefully pulled out a sheet of the parchment-like paper, trying not to smudge it with his dirty fingers, and one of her pens; then sat at the entrance of the cave in good light, waiting for the right words to come to him.

My dearest Alex,

     It's a good thing I wasn't in dog-form when your amazing present arrived, as I may have been tempted to eat one of your gracious messengers.  The hunting's been scarce, and they reminded me of old-fashioned Christmas dinner.
     However, all thought of roast goose left my mind when I saw what they had brought.  Not only the means to allow me to keep in touch, but you sent me your heart.   I had left mine behind, invisibly, tucked into your bed where it would always be close, and there to protect you, but now I hold yours in my hands, marvelling at its perfection and purity.  I almost dare not eat the chocolate for the loss of the sight, but when I do, I'll know your heart will dwell within me as thoughts of you constantly dwell in my mind.
     Never doubt I cherish the least thing from you, and I long for the day when I can see you again and hold you in my arms.

Your most loyal Dog

Sirius looked it over critically.  He usually spoke far more directly, even this past summer in Alex's presence, but somehow, the situation called for 'flowery', or 'baroque', or... well, some sort of elaborate.  Words couldn't make up for punctuating a sentence with a hug or kiss, but he tried hard.

He stared off into the distance feeling hollow, not just with his almost constant hunger.  This sort of longing was new for him.  Before... before Azkaban, and Voldemort, and James and Lily's murder, he was the sort of flashy one of all the Marauders.  James was the leader devoted to his lady, Remus the shy intellectual, Peter -- the scum -- the hapless sidekick to his more charismatic friends.  Sirius had always been the classic rakish Best Friend, loyal as one could wish for, but refusing to 'settle,' whether it be on a girlfriend, or a hobby, or some other kind of project.  He'd brush off anything, be it was extra homework or almost killing Severus Snape, with a wicked grin and a sly look.  He did own a flying motorcycle, after all.  Must live up to the image.

But then his best friends died, and because of his suggestion; and he lost everything except for the deep, deep desire to kill Peter Pettigrew.  Azkaban had come very close to hollowing him out.

And Alex had refilled him, by simply trusting him and loving him with few expectations.  Her absence almost allowed circumstances to start chipping away at him again, but this time Sirius knew he was not truly alone.


Alex got Sirius's reply the week before Thanksgiving.   As usual, she had volunteered to work that holiday, this year to actively avoid any social gatherings.  Certainly, she could be thankful for her health, and having employment, and all the usual Thanksgiving blessings, and she definitely felt thankful for Sirius in general; but unsurprisingly, she couldn't bring herself to be thankful about his absence.

Especially after she found a weary owl sitting on her porch on the Saturday previous to the holiday.  She coaxed it onto her arm, brought it into the house, sternly instructed NEO not to harass the poor thing, and settled it on the ladder in the middle of the pantry.  Her hands shook ever so slightly as she unfastened the roll of parchment on its leg, but tucked it into her shirt instead of reading it.  Feeding the owl came first, of course.  Sirius's supposition had been correct -- no live mice.  But Alex had gone to an exotic pet supply and found that owls snacked, if reluctantly, on thawed fresh-frozen mice.  She could deal with mammals she didn't have to kill herself, and therefore purchased a few pounds of mouse-sicles.  She took a few tiny corpses out of the freezer now, wrapped them in a paper towel to microwave them thawed, and took the owl back outside with its meal.  She had got a perch, which she kept supplied with seed and water for her unusual visitors, as well as the frozen mice, and made the owl comfy.

Only then did she bolt for her bedroom, and curl up in her nest of pillows to read Sirius's latest letter.  She missed hearing his voice (or his bark), but there's always something special about written communication.  She read his thank-you three times over before frantically digging his old shirt out of its sealed bag and hugging it as tightly as if the man had been in it.  If she'd been a witch the way Sirius was a wizard, she likely would have invoked him right back to the house.   Alex thought all his letters special, but this one was more wonderful than most.

She had to... show nobody.  Sirius remained a fugitive on the books of both wizarding and Muggle Britain and Alex rarely shared any of her feeble attempts at romance with anyone out of fear of eventual mortification.  As a result, nobody knew about her wonderful, blissful, magical summer.  She had nobody to share the letter with who wouldn’t try to eat it— or lie on it at least.   Alex had nobody to share her overbrimming emotions with, and therefore no way to vent.  She suddenly felt diminished, and lay down hugging the shirt between her and a pillow as tears crept down her face in a constant stream.


Christmas approached as the snow around Hogsmeade deepened, as if to ensure the classic greeting-card look for the village in time for the celebrations.  Sirius had his first almost-in-person meeting with Harry in months just before the First Task, but his godson got interrupted by a wandering Gryffindor before they could discuss strategies.  However, Harry had passed the harrowing Task with -- literally -- flying colours, and had written to Sirius with blow-by-blow description a week or so ago.  The proud godfather passed on a Muggles' Digest version of the same to Alex.

Sirius found himself once more vexed by holidays.  How could he possible celebrate with either of the important people in his life when he was pinned inside an unheated cave halfway up a Scottish mountain by circumstance?  Tempted to write to Dumbledore, he instead sent the wizarding equivalent of a power-of-attorney to Remus Lupin, with instructions to 'buy Harry a penknife, something that we would have wanted.'   His vault seven hundred and eleven at the wizarding bank still had a decent balance available.

Lupin sent back an excellent Gryffindor-red item a week later, complete with story:  he had swept into Gringotts with the legal document, carefully aged by magic to look thirteen years old, telling the tale of how obviously Sirius Black was an unsuitable godfather, so it was only appropriate Harry's parents' second-best friend take up the burden of ensuring the poor lad had at least a little bit of Christmas cheer.  Sirius could almost hear the pompous accent Remus claimed he affected, and laughed a little as he sent the owl onward to Hogwarts's superbly competent house elves, so they could wrap and store the present with Sirius's gift note for delivery on the proper day.

However... Alex.  This would have been... should have been their first Christmas together.  For all his near-swaggering mock indifference as a teenager, the holiday meant a lot to Sirius.  He had looked forward to all the traditional drinks, and firesides, and... well, mistletoe.   Lots of mistletoe this year.  He had been certain they could manage at least a video fire and fake mistletoe in Miami.  He and Alex would have supplied the genuine holiday feeling.

An errant breeze blasted into the narrow cave entrance, and set Sirius to shivering.  He retreated to where Buckbeak had curled up, covered almost completely by his wings, head tucked under in bird fashion.  The hippogriff allowed him to nestle beneath his wingtips at other times, and Sirius did so now, sinking into the relative furnace of the creature's body warmth.  Alex... what in the world could he do for Alex...?   Between his stressed physical condition, the hippogriff's warmth, and the stuffiness of the air pocketed beneath the great wings, Sirius fell into a doze instead of a solution.


Alex, on the other hand, had to try to limit herself.   Her problem lay not in what to send, but how much to send and how to send it.  Nothing smaller than a roc could manage the smallest reduction of her presents-box -- and the rocs didn't come when she called.  She tried.

She had no connexions to the Floo Network.  Hogsmeade didn't receive regular British post as far as she could tell, and neither FedEx nor UPS had any clue where to find the town.   No Apparition, no broomstick, no luck.  She had to think harder.  Okay, if she got it across the ocean in Muggle-fashion, maybe she could get someone to pick it up on the other side and shove it through a fireplace, or dispatch a whole parliament of owls for it.  But who?  The only wizards she knew... knew of, really... had been mentioned to her by Sirius.  She didn't have much in the way of contact information.  Riffling through Sirius's letters, she narrowed the possibilities to two names:  Hermione Granger, and Remus Lupin.  Hermione's parents were both Muggles, knew their daughter was a witch, and seemed proud of the fact, if a bit puzzled.  Remus had left Hogwarts the year before and had settled somewhere, but Sirius never specified.  Maybe he hadn't been told yet.

Of the two, the Grangers seemed the most practical.  Thank Goddess for Internet phone directories -- twenty minutes of looking came up with the Doctors Granger, DDS.  Express mail to ask if they would manage this package for her went off that evening, as did a macaw to Hermione asking for her help.

Alex fidgeted for a week, until the Muggle mail reply arrived.   Polite, with a slight overtone of puzzlement (must be anything associated with magic which caused that), they advised they'd be happy to assist her present on its way.  Alex wrestled the box into her car and hurried it to the Post Office, where the overseas express charges sent her reeling, and the box on its way.

Hermione's answer came the next week, after the box presumably had arrived at her parents'.  Maybe it was just Alex's extended aura, because Hermione's reply also had an overtone of puzzlement, as well as being quite mannerly.

Dear Miss MacMillan,

     I received your letter explaining about the box you would like delivered to Sirius Black, how you know him and how you know who I am.  I had to share the letter with my friend Harry, who you know is Sirius's godson, because he's actually been in contact with Sirius.
     Harry didn't happen to be familiar with your name, but got quite excited over the idea of Sirius getting a big Christmas present, especially a surprise sort of present, and asked me to tell you that we -- Harry, Ron and I -- will take care of getting to Sirius once my parents forward it here.

I hope you have a very Happy Christmas,
Yours sincerely,

Hermione Granger

'Didn't happen to be familiar with my name... that secretive, close-to-the-vest, black-haired MALE.'  Alex's snarl came with a genuine grin.  She couldn't guess if Sirius hadn't mentioned her for the same reasons she hadn't told anyone about him -- a form of shyness; or because he was, after all, a man, and simply didn't see any reason to tell Harry.  She'd heard guys did things like that.  Couldn't do anything about them, either.  Oh, well.

She wrote Hermione back quickly, thanking her effusively, and updating her on the box's progress.  It seemed likely that the letter would arrive at the school after the box (which also had a letter for Hermione secured to the top), but she sent it anyway.  The parrot sat on the perch, still snacking, and looking rather tired, so Alex called a local owl and asked it to make the trip.

Ah, activity.  Something to DO.  Much better than Waiting.


Sirius was running out of time, and not running into any ideas.  He even resorted to prowling around town as Padfoot, hoping someone might drop  something appropriate, or leave a perfect present unattended.  No such luck.  He remained completely unaware of the Christmas conspiracy swirling about him, currently roiled by the just-in-time arrival of Alex's box at the school.  Hermione managed to keep the boys from checking out the contents only by the threat of superior spellpower.   Bookworms rock.

Hermione had the transportation responsibilities; Harry had to coordinate their logistics.  Even he didn't know exactly where Sirius was, just 'back in the country and well hidden.'   Harry recognised the importance of not compromising Sirius's security, and didn't dare ask his godfather if he could drop by and oh, bring his friends and a huge box.

Ron helped him come up with what they all hoped would prove a successful alternative plan.  Using the faithful Invisibility Cloak to conceal it, Harry and Ron would guide it to the far side of the village while Hermione, being the best at the spell, levitated the box.  They would have to wait until Christmas Eve to deliver it to a hiding place -- although not an 'official' Hogsmeade visit, older students were permitted down to the village for last-minute gift shopping, and the three of them and box would not be able to sneak through the Whomping Willow tunnel.  Since Professor Snape had re-discovered it, the tunnel was now warded anyway.

Sirius had just sent Harry off his letter of congratulations the day before, and didn't expect an owl -- Pigwidgeon, in fact -- the next morning, that of the Solstice.  He snorted to himself, thinking his old astronomy tutor would have been proud he'd remembered.  Astronomy had not been one of Sirius's stronger subjects, other than the obvious self-interest factor.

Harry's letter had crossed his; Sirius skimmed it in alarm, looking for any indication of trouble.  It turned out to be directions for something sounding surprisingly like a treasure hunt.  On Christmas Day, after lunch, he had to locate a specific set of directions, hidden outside the Three Broomsticks.   Harry apologised for asking him to come so close to the village, but added:

P.S. Bring Buckbeak with you -- you'll need his help.

He squinted at the note crammed onto the bottom of the parchment.  Buckbeak?  Now his curiosity was truly piqued.

The days passed, cold and beautiful.  Whatever Voldemort or lesser evils might be plotting, it seemed they decided to respect the holiday as well.  The Daily Prophets reported no new unusual troubles, and no reports came out of Hogwarts either, from any of Sirius's correspondents.

Padfoot toured the village as usual on Christmas Day, collected a newspaper, got a special luncheon from Madam Rosmerta... and found his 'treasure map' hidden beneath an empty barrel outside the back of the pub.  He read it carefully, trying very hard not to look like a dog reading a parchment in case anyone walked by.

The directions instructed him to start at Dervish & Banges, the last student-interest shop on that side of the village.  He had to take a certain number of paces away from the shop, turn right, and walk past or through some hedges until he saw a large cairn on his left, on the other side of a fence.  Bemused, he wondered if the students had remember how much longer Sirius's legs were, and decided Padfoot's pace would match the teenagers' strides best.  His canine vision might also serve him better as the winter sunlight failed early in the day, especially this far north.

Padfoot gave them credit -- the instructions worked very well.   From their precision, he suspected the best student of the three, Hermione, had been in charge of writing them.   The large black Dog pushed through an untended hedge running at right angles to a board fence, also neglected; just around the shoulder of a small rise in the field to the left, he saw the cairn.  Probably built by a forcibly patient farmer clearing a field for planting, the substantial pile of head-sized rocks stood taller than his human height.

He jumped the fence, and approached the cairn.  Circling it, he noticed some of the rocks on the far side had fallen away, spoiling the symmetry, but creating a sort of sheltered nook.   Pausing in admiration, he considered Harry & Co.'s ingenuity in locating this place.  The Marauders certainly hadn't, and they had covered Hogsmeade pretty thoroughly when they all ran together in fur-form once a month.

Padfoot approached the nook, but didn't need any great powers of vision to see the very large cardboard box, covered with packing tape, crammed into the rocks as far as it would fit -- presumably to give it the best protection from the weather.   Now he could understand why Buckbeak's assistance had been recommended.  He looked a little closer, and felt a buzzing start in his head.  The box had Alex's writing on the top.

He looked at the sky.  The sun, low in the sky and beginning to be veiled by thin icy-looking clouds, wouldn't set for another hour or two.  Sirius didn't dare take the hippogriff out of concealment until well into twilight.   Oh, well.  Getting back up to the cave would take at least a half-hour if he hurried, and if he didn't hurry, he might be able to come right back with Buckbeak.  And well-ground-down teeth.

His timing worked out perfectly.  The sky glowed the indigo of last light as Sirius soared through the frigid winter's-night air on Buckbeak's back.  The 'treasure map' directions proved as easy to follow from the air as the ground, and they landed before the cairn in short order.  Sirius tugged the box from its concealment, finding it not as heavy as he had guessed, and directed Buckbeak to clutch it in his front talons.  Balancing statuesquely on his horse hinders, wings extended for balance, Buckbeak waited for Sirius to throw himself back over the hippogriff's shoulders before bounding free of the ground once again.

Hippogriff Segreant (43K)

By air, the trip to the cave took only a few minutes, even going the long way to minimize being spotted.  Buckbeak had to set the box down on the path a little way down from the cave to be able to land safely; from there Sirius easily carried it inside.  The exterior light failing, he hastened to get his tiny fire lit, all that he would allow himself to prevent being spotted.

How had she done it?  From the markings and stamps on the box, it had travelled the large part of the distance by Muggle post of some sort, then apparently by owl post.   Now he deduced the extent of the 'conspiracy' -- Alex must have shipped the box to someone the students knew, they sent it to the school, and the kids got it to him.  He stared at the still-closed box in astonishment, overwhelmed.  The Marauders had done things like this for each other -- the Animagus spell they'd learned being the exemplar.  But Azkaban makes you forget people will make these kinds of efforts.   He touched the box almost reverently, then set to work on the tough tape with teeth and an edged rock.  A letter lay on the very top of the contents:

O my best-beloved (I've always liked that phrase),

I could not bear to leave you on that mountain without some sort of solace for the holiday.  I'm sure you wish as I do that we could be spending it together -- I was kinda looking forward to the whole mistletoe concept for once.

If things work as I've planned them, you can thank the Doctors Granger, your godson and his best friends.  Hermione's parents are the only other Muggles I know of who also know about Hogwarts, and were kind enough to play relay for me.

I can't possibly tell you how much I miss you, because that would probably be depressing.  I can't possibly tell you how much I love you, because I don't think there are superlatives 'big' enough in English.  I can tell you I want you to be comfortable, and whole, and safe, and HERE, but there's priorities beyond my self-centred desires.  So all I can do, beside longing for you and dreaming about you enfolding me in your arms, is to try to take care of you from this great distance of ocean and culture.

Your most devoted... Alex

P.S. The packing 'popcorn' is cornstarch, so it'll dissolve if you get it wet if you want to get rid of it.  Buckbeak might like the stuff, although it doesn't taste like anything (I tried).

One of the nice things about people being in love with each other seems to be their ability to be pleased easily by the least effort from their partner.  In that light, Sirius would have considered that cover letter alone entirely enough Christmas all by itself.  However, he had considerably more Christmasing to come.

Under the letter lay a colourful picture of a Christmas tree, thoroughly bedecked -- with dog bones and other canine decorations.   A little note attached to it read:

Put this up on a wall, and you can pretend the box came from under the tree!

Grinning broadly, Sirius followed the direction; then, tucking the tail of his robes and his now well-worn duster beneath him to protect his hindquarters from the cold rock, he reseated himself and continued.

The next layer covered the contents of the box, and consisted of two extra-large towels, wadded up at one corner to, as it turned out, pad some of the rest of the contents.   Thoughtfully, Alex had chosen towels in the dark blue Sirius preferred.  He pulled the towels loose, and discovered that 'popcorn' Alex had P.S.'d about.  Elusive stuff, packing popcorn.  Sirius offered a loose handful to Buckbeak, curious to see his response.  The hippogriff didn't seem to pay much attention unless Sirius tossed the fluffy bits in the air, where Buckbeak could snap at them playfully as they drifted to the floor.

Eventually the wizard got tired of trying to scoop 'popcorn,' finding that digging into it and drawing out the items produced much better results.  He pulled out a large daypack; a fat cylinder about as long as his arm and a little thinner around than the span of both hands; a small, firm pillow shaped much like a bone; and what turned out to be two metal and glass lanterns and several large bundles of candles to place in the lanterns.  Just what he needed to keep exploring the contents of the marvellous box!

Sirius installed candles in both lanterns, lighting them from his fire.  One lantern perched on an outcropping next to the Christmas tree; the other he kept next to him.   Visibility improved drastically, but he knew he couldn't use this much light too often -- it wasn't safe.  The daypack looked as if it would take quite a while to explore, so Sirius looked at the strange cylinder next.  Another note hung off the drawstring:

At the risk of insulting your intelligence and the knowledge you acquired while you were here, I'm going to overexplain anything I think might be exclusively Muggle-ish.   This is a ThermoRest self-inflating sleeping pad, which means it's A: insulated and B: will puff itself up with air when you unroll it.  To make it firmer, you will have to blow into the valve at one end, then secure the cap quickly by twisting it on to the right.  To open the drawstring, you squeeze both ends of the toggle in, and slide toward the end of the string.

Again, he followed the directions, and pulled the contents of the stuff-sack free.  True to Alex's words, it puffed right up; Sirius found the valve, and inflated it further, then sat on it.  Bliss.  He hadn't sat so comfortably in this cave before, or so warmly.  He crossed his legs as he centred himself on the sleeping pad, brushed 'popcorn' off the daypack, and started in on it.

The pack consisted of two large compartments, one twice as deep as the other, and smaller pockets on each side and the front.   He decided to start with the smallest, and work his way up.

The pouch in front contained waterproof matches, a striking flint -- presumably if he ran out of matches, a small sewing kit in a plastic box -- although Sirius couldn't imagine why; several large cotton handkerchiefs folded up tightly and lip balm.   The label advertised it had 'SPF 30!' although the wizard couldn't figure out what that meant.

Tucking everything back in carefully, he checked the longer pocket on the left of the pack.  This held a large, handsome hunting knife and sharpening kit, wound about with a long leather belt and the inevitable little note showing how to knot a belt equipped with a ring instead of a standard buckle.  Alex had apparently bought it at a Society for Creative Anachronism event.

The right pocket held a set of plain flatware, five pieces, wrapped up in large cloth napkins.  Apparently, Alex held the philosophy that many large squares of fabric were Very Good Things to have.  Tucked in to fill the space the flatware and napkins didn't, were several long cylinders.  The attached note described them as 'glowsticks,' and explained how they provided a weird green cold light by a chemical process.

On to the large compartments.  The shallower section in the front held a metal box, a fully stocked first-aid kit.   Sirius had no way of performing the most basic healing spells, and considered himself lucky for not having to need any so far.  Alex described the contents in exacting detail in her explanatory note inside the box.  Sirius set the kit aside to see what else the compartment contained.  It turned out to have many little pockets, into which had been tucked more pens, hair elastics for the ends of plaits -- and a small pair of blunt-ended scissors which had a note attached which Alex must have printed out from her computer.  The letters were a good two inches high, thick, bright red, and read:


Leaving the metal first-aid case to one side with the bundles of candles, Sirius opened the main section of the pack.   Irregular round things bounded out from the internal pressure.  Sirius captured one before Buckbeak nabbed it with his sharp beak and realised it was actually a pair of woolen socks, knotted up.  Six pair had bounced from the pack.   Under the socks lay a pair of fleece lined moccasins; he presumed these, from their soft soles, were intended for cave-only use, to give his now extremely battered boots a rest.   A pair of ski gloves, thickly insulated and with textured palms for good grip lay tucked in with the moccasins.

Alex also included a couple knit caps and scarves, and one full-coverage black balaclava.  The note pinned on that item specifically read, with elaborate curly capital letters, 'Stealth Is Good'.   Sirius shook his head in amusement at that one, and murmured to himself, 'She would have made a Marauder in our day, wouldn't she?  "Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, Prongs, and the Cardigan."  Bit long, though....'

Layers of clothing came out next.  The note said the long underwear, glove- and sock-liners were made of silk, for its excellent insulating qualities.  Four sets of the long-sleeved tunics and trousers Alex had made for him previously lay under the underwear; two made from sturdy cotton fabric, the second two from wool and cut fuller, to allow Sirius to layer the clothing for warmth.  Almost to the bottom, Sirius also found two dozen men's underpants ('enough to allow Padfoot to bury a few if you can't possibly wash them').  Under those, finally to the bottom of the extremely stuffed pack, lay several bars of all-purpose soap.  It said it, right there on the wrapper, 'All Purpose Soap.'

The wizard noticed that the back of the pack now seemed strangely loose, once all the clothing had been pulled out.   He lifted the lantern closer, and discovered what he had thought a sort of backboard or bracing inside actually had sections.  Picking at a corner, a quarter of the semi-matte black 'board' came loose.  A book.  One of four, it looked like.  Concealed in the vertical centre, protected by the books facing spine-out and forming a narrow 'tunnel' between the page edges until he removed the first volume, Sirius found a parchment, tightly rolled.  This didn't look as 'practical' as the rest of his wondrous box had so far, and he resolved to keep it for last.  He stacked the four small black books, the roll of parchment, and buried behind the bottom two books, a lumpy envelope all to one side with the partially-repacked rucksack.

Now to see what's in the bottom layer, he thought as he pulled the box closer to his blissfully comfy seat.   The pack, pad and lanterns had rested on a layer of some strange, stiffish silvery material.  Not the liquid sort of silver of an Invisibility Cloak, this remained very solid and visible.  As he lifted the material out, he displaced the rest of the 'popcorn' and found Alex's note sliding out between folds:

These are called 'space blankets' because they're made from materials developed by the American space program, to protect the people who travelled in orbit around the world and to the moon.  There're two so you have plenty of slack to tuck under the ThermoRest, and to pull completely over your head if it gets that cold.

He wrapped one around himself experimentally, and felt the warmth gather around him almost instantly.

Under the space blankets was... FOOD.  Oh, was there ever food!  One corner held tea bags, coffee bags, sugar cubes, dried milk, flavoured instant oatmeals and other cereals, in hopes he could possibly heat water.  Another corner held salt, pepper,garlic powder, various herbs, powdered soups, a set of camping tinware which included two cups, and two items noted as 'folding buckets, sort of'.  The whole long half of the bottom of the box was filled with meat jerkies, energy bars, dried and dehydrated fruits, nuts, other camping foods, and real chocolate.

Sirius was glad he was in human form, because Padfoot would not have been able to keep from drooling a river.  He plunged into the bounty, and had his first good supper in months.   After wolfing down three energy bars and a handful of apricots, he pulled out the 'buckets' and slipped outside to fill them with snow.  If he kept his fire burning, the snow should melt by morning, he hoped.

Sirius surveyed the cave floor.  Christmas, indeed. He arranged things in a somewhat more orderly fashion, leaving all the food together, pushing the pack with all the clothing up against the wall next to the box, stacking the bundles of candles on a bit of a ledge in the corner.

And so, he left himself his wonderful new sleeping pad, the blankets... and the mysterious books and parchment.  He tucked himself back under a blanket and picked up a volume.   This cover was blank; but when he flipped it over, he saw a Roman 'IV' painted neatly in bright silver ink in the upper right corner, and a pawprint in the same ink in lower right.   He turned all the books silver-side up, arranging them in a rectangle as they'd probably been inside the pack.   Picking up 'I,' he opened it to see what might be inside, and found another Alex-note.

One of the very first victims of any war is, as you know painfully well, the truth.  I hope and pray with everything in me that things will not go as badly as you told me they might at worst; but if we are so cursed with the worst, I would like to try to allow truth to survive less scathed than before.   I've sent you these blank books -- they're artist-quality paper and should last well -- to encourage you to keep a journal if you possibly can.

Tell your story.  Start from the very beginning, before the murders, so all the pieces of the story are in one place at last.   Write down what's happening at the Triwizard Tournament, and your suspicions and conclusions, so those omens of forboding can be read clearly in the future.  I've sent four books, not only because they'd fit better that way, but in case you either have to abandon one for some reason, or if you end up having a lot to transcribe.

The other items here will be self-evident if you haven't looked at them already.  I want you back, and will do whatever I can to ensure that will happen.

Curious, he opened the envelope first.  Tucked between padding layers of tissue paper was a bracelet... he thought.   Holding it closer to his lantern, it appeared to be plaited from two thick strands of coloured metal -- red and yellow?   The candlelight made the hues uncertain.  Between the wires ran a third strand, not of metal but perhaps leather or fabric, as it had irregularity on the surface and only a satiny sort of shine.  He couldn't tell the true colour of it, either.  Shrugging, he set it down on the books and unrolled the parchment.

Two sheets fought his straightening, and Sirius lay them flat on the end of the sleeping pad, using two of the volumes to anchor the edges.  The top sheet contained writing, but formal-looking -- a calligraphed poem.

The children sing out 'twinkle little star'
And claim you're like a diamond in the sky
While wondering how far away you are,
As glit'ring on the zenith you do lie.

In sooth, I know that you are here with me,
For heart to heart we meet. Your soul with mine
Is woven tighter far than lace may be,
More pure and sweet than any rose from vine.

I draw you down from your celestial lair;
You pull me up to unknown heights of bliss.
We meet and spiral 'round our centre shared,
One heart from two blent well in souls' true kiss.

It's you, my heart's own adamantine sun;
And I your knotwork rose so bravely won.

Sirius read it, then read it again.  Then read it out loud to himself, slowly, savouring the words as he leaned over the pinned-down parchment.  She wrote me poetry.   Thousands of miles and three months away, and she wrote me a beautiful poem, he smiled in sheer delight.  Nobody had done anything like that for him for... he couldn't remember how long.  He pulled the sonnet loose from under the books, expecting a second poem, and froze in place.  If it hadn't started pounding so loudly in his ears, he would have thought his heart had stopped as well.

Alex had sent a photo of herself.  A three-quarters composition, she perched on the edge of a stool, one hand braced behind her on the stool top, the other resting gracefully on her thigh, looking almost majestically dignified... and clad in naught but her hair.

She had posed quite modestly, and her hair being the utter mane it was, covered her as completely as any normal swim suit, but it was clear she presented herself to her beloved in the most striking, memorable and private way possible -- a sight reserved for the two of them alone.

Sirius didn't even wonder how she got the image; he nearly ached with wishing this wasn't a Muggle photo but a wizarding one, so he could watch the light shimmer over her hair as she breathed, the living gleam of her pale, pale skin... so she could smile at him.  Devouring the details of the image, he finally looked closer at her free hand, the one resting on her leg.  The hand wasn't empty, after all, but... he held the picture carefully closer to the candlelight.   The bracelet.  The same one, he was sure, that she had sent in the envelope.  He reached over, picked it up again, and suddenly realized -- the dark, textile strand of the bracelet's weave was a quarter-inch-wide plait of Alex's hair.   As much of her as could be there, she had sent to be with him.

Sirius sat there, staring at the bracelet.  One trembling finger stroked the silky braid as it wreathed through its framing wires.  He slid it over his left hand; it just fit, with a little encouragement, which meant it was unlikely to be able to fall off.  He stared at the picture again, his eyes filling, whispering, ' "You pull me up to unknown heights of bliss."'   He brushed the photo gently, following curves with his fingertip which he remembered molding with his hands.   His hands were shaking; his whole body was shaking, and to his surprise he realised his face was wet with tears as well.   Sirius felt overtaken not so much by arousal as by... awe.   Simply... awe.  And a chest-bursting feeling of love mingled with pride for her, and humility for himself.   That she would do this for him...

But... this... this bounty, this gift -- it was all too much.   Sirius remembered how much she'd spent almost recklessly to equip him just to cross back to Britain; and the markings on this box looked as expensive.  And the time she must have taken, to put this all together....  Dumbfounded by the depth and breadth of her passion, he nonetheless feared for Alex herself.  He remembered the proverb about the candle burning at both ends, and decided, despite his selfish urges, he must try to ensure she didn't do this again.  Not that all that she sent him, including so much of herself, her heart, wouldn't do an excellent job of keeping him not only alive, but comfortable, sane and civilised alone here in his cave, but if she sent him everything, nothing would remain at home.

He would use the mobile, but it needed to be charged; and on Christmas Night, no Muggle establishment in the whole of Britain would open its doors to a stranger who just needed an electrical plug socket.  He'd have to wait until morning.  His sense of humour quirked -- he would call to thank her for his box on Boxing Day.  Apt.

So instead, Sirius set up housekeeping with his new goods.   He wished he could bathe properly before donning his new clothes, but some things couldn't be helped.  Shivering in the perpetual light draft which stirred through the cave, he stripped to the skin, and put on new everything -- underpants, long underwear, tunic and trousers; sock liners and wool socks, and the moccasins.  To honour Alex's magnificent gifts, he even pulled out the hairbrush she gave him so long ago, and spent the next hour unmatting his hair, thinking longingly of those scissors the whole time.  He pulled it back tightly and plaited it, using one of the elastics to secure the end.   He had got plenty of practice braiding when he'd played with Alex's hair.  However, now his neck felt unusually exposed, and he unpacked a scarf to remedy that chink in his warmth.

Warm.  He was warm, and fed, and clothed, and well-taken-care-of.   Sirius blew out the candles in both lanterns, to save them for later.   He fed the fire, and turned the water containers, getting the clever idea to fold one space blanket around them in a sort of half-tent, to help trap the scanty heat from the flames while he slept.  The blank books and precious parchment, he'd placed carefully in a cranny to keep them safe; the bracelet remained secure on his left wrist, pushed up far enough so he could feel it when the muscles of his forearm flexed against it.

He settled the sleeping pad between Buckbeak and the fire, and stretched out under the space blanket.  The 'bone' pillow's odd shape proved to provide excellent cradling for his head when he tucked in right under his neck.  The flames flickered dimly on the ceiling of the cave as the man lay there and watched the play of light, his thoughts whirling as he fingered the memento on his left arm.  What had he ever done to deserve to be treated this well?  He only hoped he could prove equal to the gift.  Just before he shifted to dog-form to sleep, he remembered a little prayer captioned on one of Alex's corgi calendars hanging around the house.

Lord, please let me be the person my dog thinks I am.


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