The Sugar Quill
Author: Mincot (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Just a Loveable Stray  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Siriussoup

Summary: Molly Weasley and Sirius. Soup. 'Bout it.

Disclaimer: I do not own JK Rowling’s characters or world. They are all hers. Dang it. As usual, this story is intended to mesh with Thing1's world (thanks, Thing1).

Author’s Note: This is just a quick plot-bunny …. Thanks to RemusJay for the information about dogs and their arrangement of arteries/veins; as you can see, I incorporated it. Thanks to my magnificent and dedicated beta reders: Alkari, Luna, and ChorneyVolk. This story would have been far fluffier and less believable without their advice! And thank you to Alkari for the Hogwarts Old Witches league.

Just a Loveable Stray

He trotted purposefully up to the back door, but then hesitated. --Wait until morning, go to the kitchen door, and bark. That's what her owl said. This was the kitchen door, and it was morning, and it was bloody wet out here. Still, he paused, sniffing the air carefully, for anything out of the ordinary. He could feel the muscles in his haunches quivering with tension. Nothing. Nothing wrong anywhere. Still, he could not ignore his instinctive reaction. --It's Mrs Weasley knowing about me. Not just about me, about Padfoot, he realized. Mrs Weasley was the first adult that he had not known for a very long time to have learned his secret. Even Severus' knowledge of his Animagus form did not disturb him as much; from long experience, he knew what Severus would and would not do. Mrs Weasley, on the other hand ...

--Oh, do shut it, Padfoot, he told himself irritably. --Dumbledore trusts her with Harry, after all. She can certainly handle knowing about a wanted illegal Animagus.

He barked sharply, three times. Above his head, the shutter twitched, and then the door opened and Mrs Weasley peered out. She gave a little scream when she saw him. "Oh, you poor thing! You look terrible. Oh, my, you're completely sopping wet! " Mrs Weasley held out her hand, snapping her fingers and clucking her tongue. "Come on, boy, come on, come on, here you come," she crooned.

Padfoot huffed at the tone but allowed himself to be drawn into the warm kitchen. He paused at the door, surprised by the plethora of fascinating smells--food and warmth and food and people and food. Meanwhile, Mrs Weasley took her wand out of her apron pocket and conjured a towel, which spread itself in front of Padfoot. "Here, stand on that."

"Who are you talking to, Molly? Good heavens, what is that thing?"

Arthur Weasley. Her message had said that she would be alone, and that she had something for him to give to Dumbledore. For all of his caution, the warm kitchen smells had obscured Mr Weasley's immediate presence. And Mrs Weasley herself smelled nervous, he realized. Padfoot sat down on the towel and whimpered softly, his ears lying flat, the fine hairs on the base of his spine lifting. All his earlier fears rushed back in toward him, and his whole body tensed. Was there something wrong?

Mrs Weasley nodded at him, and he relaxed a little. "He was outside the kitchen, Arthur, I think he was trying to find some food," she said. "Look at him! All skin and bones; he's far too thin, and the state of his fur! Honestly, Arthur, the way some people treat their pets! It just makes me want to…" She broke off abruptly, and began rattling through cupboards and drawers. Sniffing the air discreetly, Padfoot could not smell anyone else currently in the house, and he relaxed still more. –I hope she's getting breakfast ….

Mr Weasley was eyeing him dubiously, and Padfoot thought that it would be a good idea to appear non-threatening. He settled to the floor, his forelegs stretched in front of him, his chin on his paws. His tail thumped once, twice, and then stayed quite still, save for a faint quiver at its very tip. --Amazing things, tails, he thought. --Very useful, but they do have a life of their own sometimes. Somehow he managed to look up winningly at Mr Weasley. --I'm glad Remus isn't here. He'd give me a full month's worth of grief over "puppy-dog eyes."

Mr Weasley did not succumb to imploring looks. "I think it's best for him to be out in the barn, Molly. He might be ill, or dangerous."

Her tone was determined, bright. "He must have been someone's pet, he's far too used to people. Look at him, Arthur, he’s sitting right where I told him to, polite as anything." She had been tossing various things into a large soup pot, and now pointed her wand at the base of the pot. A small fire appeared, and Mrs Weasley turned back toward the table.

Mr Weasley was still considering Padfoot, although to Padfoot he smelled as if he were becoming less suspicious. Mr Weasley reached for a piece of dry toast, and carefully placed it on the floor in front of Padfoot. Padfoot thumped his tail, and made a point of waiting until Mr Weasley had sat back in his chair before nosing the toast and then disposing of it without delay. "Good dog," Mr Weasley murmured, clearly somewhat more relieved. "Well, he seems to be moderately well behaved; doesn’t snatch at your hand along with the food. Still, he’s not in very good shape, is he?" Mr Weasley asked.

--You will never understand just how self-controlled that was; any chance at more toast?

"I'll attend to that directly," Mrs Weasley said. "If I can get him cleaned up a little I'm sure I can find someone to take him in. --Arthur, aren't you going to be late?"

Mr Weasley shook his head. "I've got a little time yet before I have to be at the office. I thought I'd sit here a while and read the papers. The Ministry these days … well, we've talked about that, Molly, we’re both only going to get angry if we go over it again."

Padfoot put his head down on his paws and sighed softly. He had been hoping to be able to transform out of his canine shape, at least for a little while, and sit on a chair, not the floor. --Oh, well, it's only for another half-hour or so. Wish Mrs Weasley would give me some of those leftover eggs. She may be waiting so I can eat them like a human being, but right now I'm so hungry that I don't care how I get to eat. A bowl on the floor would be just lovely.

Mr Weasley began to unfold The Daily Prophet. Looking up, Padfoot noticed several other papers at Mr Weasley's right. --On the other hand, this may take longer than I'd thought. He looked up at Mr Weasley as soulfully as he could manage, and thumped his tail. When Mr Weasley looked at him, Padfoot eyed his plate meaningfully.

Mr Weasley sighed, and, tipping the remaining eggs onto the plate, put it in front of Padfoot. Again Padfoot waited until Mr Weasley's hand was well away, and then nearly inhaled the eggs. -- Things taste … different … when I'm Padfoot. Guess the experts are right about the sense of smell changing the way we perceive taste. Thank Heavens for Padfoot's ability to eat things I'd ordinarily balk at. Once term was over, no more care packages from Harry… . He polished the plate, thinking ruefully, --We're not even going to mention the topic of pride.

"Arthur!" Molly came over and snatched the clean plate away from Padfoot. "The poor thing doesn't need your leftovers, dear; I'm making him something fresh."

--Eggs now are better than pride and food later. Of course, eggs now and more food later is even better …

"Now, Molly, they were just going to waste. Was he wearing a collar or some tags? Or an attached name and location spell so we could trace the owners? We might be misjudging his people, after all. He might have gotten lost, or run off to find where he used to live."

Padfoot had to work to suppress a growl. --Not bloody likely. At least, not to my most recent address.

"If the poor thing had a collar, it's long gone," Mrs Weasley said. "And whoever owned him hadn't thought to attach name-spells; they’re rather new, from what I hear from Clarissa. I'm going upstairs for a little bit, Arthur, let me know when you're ready to leave." She clucked her tongue at Padfoot. "Come along, Blackie, we're going upstairs."

--Mrs Weasley! Padfoot stayed quite still, and his ears went back again. There was that nervousness again, a little stronger now. --I hope Dumbledore was right to trust her, he worried. --He usually is, but he's been known to be wrong on occasion.

"I thought we didn't know the mutt's name?" Mr Weasley asked, looking over his paper at Mrs Weasley.

Mrs Weasley shrugged. "I have to call him something, Arthur. Anyway, he's a large, black dog; Blackie's a perfectly natural name." She clucked her tongue again and patted her thigh. "Come on, boy," she said, a little more firmly, and this time Padfoot slowly rose and began to follow her. As he passed the mirror on the kitchen mantelpiece, it shouted, "Hey, boy, you’ve really gone to the dogs!" Up the stairs, down the hall, into a bedroom. Mr Weasley and Molly's; their mingled scents overlaid everything in the neat, shabby room. Molly closed the bedroom door and turned toward him. "Don’t change yet. I am going to see Arthur off," she said softly. "I put one of Arthur's old robes there in the bathroom for you to wear while I wash your robe." A door to Padfoot’s left opened into a small bathroom. Molly flicked her wand, and Padfoot could hear water beginning to fill the tub. He whined softly. --Food would be a better idea.

"I'll make sure Arthur doesn't come up here, and I’ll let you know when you can come down." She flushed a little, and Padfoot's nose twitched. There it was again, that nervous scent. What was the trouble? He shifted his weight, ready to transform into himself and reassure her, but he froze when he saw her muscles tense at his movement. There was something bothering Molly, but he couldn't place it.

Apparently misinterpreting his abortive movement for dissent, she said, her tone soft but brisk, "Boys. You don't really change when you grow up, do you? You need to get yourself clean, Mr. Black. Either you are going to wash yourself when I leave, or I will drag you into that bathroom by the scruff of your neck and wash you myself. You are filthy, and, in case you hadn't noticed, you are crawling with fleas! And who knows what else has taken up residence in that rats' nest you call fur! You can't possibly be comfortable like that; your fur is all stiff and matted and it must pull abominably. That dirty, unkempt, dangerous-escaped-convict act may seem romantic to you, Ron, and Harry, but it can't possibly be healthy." She glared at him for a moment, and then added, "And it's not very smart, either; if it were me, I'd make sure I looked as little like official pictures as possible. But it is your choice. Just remember that I won’t warm up the water for you again if you let it get cold." With that she left the room, carefully closing the bedroom door again behind her.

Even with the security of the closed door, her reassurances, and his own trust in Dumbledore’s judgement, it took four transits around the room, sniffing under the bed and into every corner, before he felt certain enough of his surroundings to transform. Even then he was uncomfortable enough that he went first into the bathroom. --I could have done this after I ate, he thought, a little plaintively, nosing the door shut behind him.

-----

The warm water did feel good, particularly on his hands and feet, and after he scrubbed off most of the dirt, he had to fight to keep himself from drifting off. It did feel good to be clean. Well, mostly clean. He had despaired of ever scraping off more than a surface layer of thirteen years of encrusted filth. After some time he pulled himself out of the water, and had just finished drying himself when he heard a voice outside the door. "Mum?"

His transformation into Padfoot was instantaneous, almost without conscious thought. He stared at the door, nose twitching, hackles up. –Lovely. Just brilliant. Everyone’s supposed to be gone, and instead I’m in the center of Weasley Station. He had to work to suppress a whimper as he realized that he had shed his own robe but had not yet put on Arthur’s. It was a small thing; he was still covered in Padfoot’s thick fur, after all; but knowing that his human form was naked did not increase his confidence. All thoughts of food left Padfoot’s mind.

Quick, light footsteps. "Percy! What on earth are you doing home, dear?" Mrs. Weasley.

"Tompkins tripped and spilled chili oil on me, and I don’t know the spell to remove it."

He could hear her moving to stand in front of the bathroom door. "Honestly, Percy, didn’t I tell you just last month? I think your next Christmas present had better be Mother’s Simple Housekeeping Spells. Amove capsaicin. Next time, do try to stay out of Tompkins’ way; he’s such a bungler, and this is at least the third time he’s spilled something on your good work robes."

"Thanks, Mum. Say, Dad said something about a dog …"

"Oh, yes; he’s there in the bathroom, but under no circumstances are you to go in, Percy. The bathroom’s probably awash, and you’ll get wet dog hair all over your robes that I’ve just cleaned, and if you muss them you can just fix them yourself. --He seems like such a sweet dog, but utterly filthy; I had set the washrag to scrubbing him while I checked on your father."

He heard the bedroom door open again, and his muscles tensed once more. "Percy, what are you doing home already? I thought you were spending a long day at the office again."

--Mr Weasley. At least it isn’t another Weasley. Although right now Ron might be a help. Where is Ron?

"Oh, I am," Percy was saying. "I just came home to get a stain removed; I have a meeting with Justice Ambrister later. He really relies upon me." The last was said with unmistakable pride.

"Well, I just hope he remembers your name," Molly said, her tone tart enough to pucker lemons. "Although I’m sure the real Mr Crouch would have, had he been there. Now, are both of you going to be back at the usual time tonight, dears? It’s just that I’m going to be rather busy, what with all those HOWL letters I have to finish this afternoon, and I’m afraid I’m getting rather a late start."

"You’re sending HOWLERS?" Percy asked, clearly alarmed. "To whom?"

"Not Howlers, dear, HOWL. H. O. W. L."

"What’s HOWL?" Percy asked. "I don’t remember a Ministry division with those initials."

"HOWL is what we call the Hogwarts Old Witches' League; now that Ginny is at Hogwarts, the house is just too empty for me to rattle about in all day long, and, really, you and Arthur don't take that much looking after. I was always good at organizing social events, and Paraisa Smythe-Summitt asked if I would consider being the new secretary for the South of England. You know, Hogwarts reunions, St. Mungo’s fundraisers, the Displaced Warlocks' Jumble Sale … "

--Very clever cover! He was fairly sure that neither man planned to enter the bathroom, and he began to relax slightly. --But please don’t explain right now, I’m still hungry!

"… They’re really not my usual crowd, I don’t usually get along well with people that are so wealthy they've never had anything to do with themselves but charity work, but they asked me because I once managed the Saint Mungo's Annual Benefit--remember those, Arthur?--and I do so enjoy the challenge …Now, both of you, go on; you don’t want to be late."

Mr Weasley asked innocently, "Ahem … Molly, you know your business, of course, but have you considered sending out HOWL letters in red envelopes to enhance old school memories?"

Muffled laughter from both men; quick steps, dodging something—Mrs Weasley’s towel? Two soft pops, almost inaudible to a human ear, as the men Apparated. He remained absolutely still.

A light knock at the door. "They’re both gone, dear."

He barked once, by way of acknowledgement, still a little too shaken to transform back into his human self.

That seemed good enough for Mrs Weasley. "Come downstairs when you’re ready, and I’ll give you something to eat and draw up that list of names for Professor Dumbledore, all the people who I think could be persuaded to act sensibly now that …. He said they were to be hand-delivered to Mr. Lupin, mind. Only for the Headmaster would I bother with so many utterly silly women." A pause, and then she said, "Oh, and, dear, there’s shaving gear on the counter."

Footsteps retreating from the room at a brisk pace. Padfoot was reminded of the round, short-legged sea birds he had seen along the coast, and he smiled at the image as he transformed, and dutifully shaved and changed.

***

When he poked his head cautiously into the kitchen, he found that Mrs Weasley had cleared the well-scrubbed table and laid a fresh place. The kitchen smelled just as aromatic as it had when he had first entered as Padfoot, and involuntarily he licked his lips. Mrs Weasley herself was standing at the stove, her back to the kitchen door. Not wanting to startle her, he knocked softly.

She still jumped, and as she turned, a little too sharply, he was reminded of that nervous scent Padfoot had smelled earlier. For a moment or two she just looked at him, considering, eyes a little wary. –All she really knows about me, besides the fact that Dumbledore trusts me, is that I’m supposed to have murdered thirteen people with one curse, he realized suddenly. –Of course she's nervous. She’s taking me on faith as much as--more than—I’m accepting her. It’s my life … but hers, too, and her whole family … He wished that humans had the equivalent of a tail to wag, but he settled for a tentative smile. "Umm … thank you for the bath," he said, trying to sound as rational, as civilized as he could. "And food. It’s really very kind of you."

"Put your old robe on that stool there," Mrs Weasley said at length, indicating one in the corner with a wave of her hand, "And sit down." He did so, conscious of the unaccustomed feel of the loose borrowed robe. What was really bothering him, he decided, after a moment's further reflection, was not so much the state of his clothing--or lack thereof--but the unfamiliarity of the kitchen. --And sitting here in the daylight as myself, not as Padfoot. Even though I'm inside, and the windows in here only open onto a well-screened private garden, this is a little nerve-wracking. Nothing has gone as I've expected today, but now I'm myself; and if anyone walked in … He tried to think back to the last time he had stood in the daylight, as himself, but couldn't come up with a memory. Then Molly placed a large bowl of steaming chicken soup in front of him and all his thoughts vanished.

"I do hope it tastes all right," she said, as he picked up his spoon and began to eat, wishing it were not impolite just to raise the bowl and drink the soup directly from it. As Padfoot he would not have cared. "I was short on celery and pepper when I made the stock, and I really think I put in too many egg noodles … "

--Really, Mrs Weasley, it would be lovely if it were instant soup from a package--and this is magnificent, noodles or no! He said, through a mouthful of noodles and thick chicken pieces, "It's fine. Wonderful. Thank you--I feel better already."

"I am so sorry about Arthur giving you his leftovers, Mr Black," she said. "That he had eaten from! I treat guests better than that …"

He put down his spoon and looked up at her. She stood easily, but her hands were pressed hard and flat against her apron, and he could see a rapid pulse at her neck. Hoping to put her more at ease, he said, "It wasn’t insulting, if that’s what was worrying you. Really, leftovers are fine for Padfoot, Mrs Weasley. I’m not trying to be polite, either. It’s hard to explain about canine tastes, but they were rather good, even if your husband had eaten from the plate. Dogs don’t really care, you know."

"But you’re not really a dog, dear," she said, her voice still sounding troubled, but her hands relaxed.

"Yes and no." He smiled at her. –She’s never really had to deal with an Animagus before, either; I can hardly see her asking McGonagall questions. "Padfoot is me, but he's also not really me. I even think of him as a different being … definitely a dog, with a dog’s reactions … sometimes I think I’m just along in his head somewhere for the ride. Except Padfoot is definitely housetrained." He took another huge bite of the thick soup, slurping up some of the noodles that threatened to escape the spoon. --Silly things, spoons. "How’s that for clarity? All this time, and I still haven’t sorted out me and Padfoot. The Muggle psychiatrists would have a field day."

"It must be very strange," she said. "Mr Black …"

"Sirius, please." His soup bowl was almost empty—when had that happened?—and Molly took it and re-filled it.

"Ron told me -- that's my youngest son, you know --" she paused, biting her lower lip, and then continued, more firmly and a little more swiftly as she set the bowl back in front of him, "Ron told me that you had a hippogriff. Is it … ?"

"Buckbeak? I tethered him out in the garage. He won’t need to eat again until tomorrow, so you shouldn’t have to worry about him. I used him so I could travel quickly and alert as many former members of the Order as I could--and disappear quickly if they didn't believe me." He rubbed at his thigh where he had scraped it on a fence. "That happened in only two instances, I'm happy to say. But I need to find a place to let him go safely; a hippogriff's too conspicuous. And," Sirius grinned at Molly, "he’s getting just a little too hard to feed."

"I had wondered. Ron told me that you've been living off rats. Rats! Why couldn't the Headmaster have sent you some food, they have so much at the school …" She surveyed his robe, her eyes narrowed, and he looked down at himself to make sure he had fastened it properly. "Oh, you’re just skin and bones. Ron told me that you were about Arthur’s height, so I thought that robe would fit you. But it’s just hanging on you; you don’t take up nearly enough space in it. Oh, do go on and eat, Mr Black—Sirius," she added, as he quirked his eyebrows at her, "but not too fast, mind, you really haven’t been taking good care of yourself at all.…"

"Harry and Ron sent me packets as often as they could," Sirius said hastily. "And I don't think Dumbledore could have gotten involved that openly; it would have been too dangerous. Really, Mrs Weasley, I was fine." He took another large slurp of soup. It felt so good to eat something that was not only fresh, but hot. While Harry's packages of food had literally allowed him to survive during the winter and spring months, they had remained cold food.

"That poor boy! On top of everything else … so thoughtful ….And you---you don't eat like you're fine."

"It'll pass. The soup is definitely helping. "

The timer on the oven dinged. Silencing it with a quick wave of her wand, Molly pulled out a sheet of muffins and dished a few onto a small plate. Sirius ate the first one before he really looked at them, but then he held the second one in his hand and examined it. It was some sort of roll, he supposed, unevenly shaped, with a brown, rough, uneven texture, as if someone had just dropped some flour onto a plate and let it spread. Breaking it in half and biting into it more carefully, he realized that it was savory, not sweet, with a hint of onion and cheese.

"Drop biscuits," Molly explained. "An American recipe, not at all like a proper biscuit. They eat them with dinner, apparently, but they are good. I got the recipe from a neighbor some years back; she'd grown up in America and made these occasionally to go with soups. More substantial than oyster crackers, and Heaven knows you could do with a bit of substance!" She had been assessing him for some minutes, and now stood up and produced a pair of scissors from the pocket of her apron. "While you’re sitting here I ought to cut your hair. Do try to hold as still as you can."

"Really, Mrs Weasley, you don't need to … "

She interrupted. "I know you don't want to be any bother, dear, but the Ministry is looking for a man with long, unkempt hair, not someone with shorter hair … and I must say yours is the worst I've ever seen …." She had tapped his head with her wand as she spoke; Sirius could feel his hair disentangling itself from its tight mats. It felt rather like spiders crawling over his scalp, and he shivered. "If you have to change back into your human form, people will be less likely to notice you if you look more … well, normal. And you won't pick up fleas as easily, either; I hope you got a good look at the water in that tub--you really need to take better care of yourself."

Sirius ate another drop biscuit, again soaking it in the remains of the broth. "I could hardly use a public facility, even a Muggle one," he reminded her, but he found that he could not muster up much annoyance any longer. He was beginning to feel pleasantly full, and that, added to the unaccustomed warmth of the kitchen, made him want to set his head down on the table and just go to sleep, creepy crawlies in his hair notwithstanding.

"Of course you couldn't, dear," Mrs Weasley said, fingering a particularly difficult tangle. "When I think what you must have gone through … But no matter what someone's done, or not done, in your case, you'd think that those terrible creatures could at least have let you keep yourselves clean and tidy. It isn't decent." At length Mrs Weasley tapped his head again. "There, that's the best I can do with that mess." She flourished the scissors, and as the rough hair fell to the floor Sirius felt that his head had become far lighter. "Do you want it shorter? I would; men with long hair can look so bedraggled, but as Bill refuses to have his hair as short as I would like, I thought you might also … "

He shook his head experimentally. She had gotten the length just about right, a little above the top of his shoulders. "It's fine, Mrs Weasley."

She stepped back, just watching him, hands on her hips, still holding the ladle so that it stuck out from her hand at an angle. He spooned up part of a broth-saturated biscuit. "These are magnificent, Mrs Weasley," he said through a mouthful.

"Usually they're eaten with butter, but packets from Harry or no packets from Harry, something too rich could give you problems, you're not used to eating anything solid on a regular basis--rats! My heavens. When I think of the diseases you could have caught! And as run-down as you are … Not to mention that it can't have done your digestion any good whatsoever. You have to be careful, now that you have a child to consider. Well, young man, I suppose; they grow up so fast, don't they?"

Sirius didn't care about his digestion or the rate at which boys grew; he was using the third drop biscuit to mop up the last of the stock from his plate. He decided to change the subject. "Where is Ron?" he asked.

She picked up his soup plate and turned away to the stove, apparently nervous again. He remembered her reaction when she had first seen him, there in the Hogwarts hospital wing, and wondered suddenly what she had said to Ron when the term had ended. He thought about what his own mother would have said had he confessed to befriending an infamous wanted criminal, and decided on balance that he didn’t want to know about that conversation after all. Ladling out another helping and then placing the plate in front of him, she said, "Ron and the twins have gone on a week-long camping holiday with the Jordans; so nice of them to take both twins and Ron, and Ginny is spending a few days in London with her friend Emily's family. So that left Percy and Arthur; I'm sorry they were still here when you arrived, dear, you must have had such a fright … "

--That's an understatement, Sirius thought, spooning up noodles, but, aloud, he said reassuringly, "It worked out all right, Mrs. Weasley."

She sat across the table from him. "But when the children get back, I'm going to write to the Headmaster. Harry ought to stay here at least part of the summer; those awful relatives of his don't feed him properly, and as for anything else! I assume you'll help us with any added protections now that …" She stopped short, and fell silent. After a moment he turned his chair around and found her looking at him awkwardly, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. "You know, dear, I’d been thinking of you as older," she said slowly. "About my age, or Arthur’s. With all they claim you’ve done …" She frowned. "But you’re not, you couldn’t be. Sometimes we forget just how young the Potters were, and you were in their year, weren’t you?"

He looked away. "I feel much older," he admitted.

"It must have been so frightening, alone in that place … why, you were only just a little older than Percy, weren’t you, when they … ? And you survived …"

"I had to," Sirius said. His feelings were still too raw, even after two years, to say more. He didn’t want to scare her, upset her with the details. –Be fair, Sirius. She’s compassionate, smart, and tough; she can handle anything you tell her. With the appropriate exclamations, that is. You’re the one who doesn’t want to delve into that material. He was a little afraid that if he did more than pick at his memories before he reached some sort of safe place that he would collapse under their collective weight; he needed somewhere he could take whatever time it took to gather himself and dig himself out again. If the only thing holding his old robes together was dirt, he thought grimly, the only thing holding his mind together was the edifice of sheer determination he’d built. And habit. "I promised James I’d look out after Harry if anything …. Listen, thank you for taking care of Harry. I’ve made rather a mess of it so far." He put down his spoon, turned so that he was facing her, recognizing on her face as fierce a determination to keep Harry safe as he himself felt. "I'm so glad you are here for him, Mrs Weasley."

"Oh, do call me Molly, dear."

He must have passed the test. "I wish I could give Harry a respite … Remus and I were going to ask if we could have Harry to stay this summer, but … we could be called out on Dumbledore's business at any moment, and there are other problems … I know that Dumbledore wants Harry to stay with his relatives for at least part of the summer, although I'm damned if I can tell why. Now that Voldemort has absorbed some of Harry's blood …"

"Oh, that poor boy!"

"…I'm not too sure what sort of protection the Dursleys really are. But when he can come here, where he has friends his age…. Parents …. A normal family." He trailed off; it was his turn to be embarrassed.

"What some of my sons get up to is decidedly not normal," Molly said, her voice suddenly brisk. "If you ever come visiting when Fred and George are around, do not eat so much as a piece of lettuce." Her face and voice softened. "We're always happy to have Harry, Sirius. Such a nice boy, especially when you consider what sort of people raised him. And that makes me all the more determined to have him here for at least part of the summer."

"Let me know when you want him to come," Sirius said, stretching. "I'll ask Dumbledore, too; both Remus and I will help you with any wards Dumbledore may require around the house, and … how would Arthur feel about you acquiring another stray?"

Molly laughed. "Well, you could always 'run off' from your people again."

He reached for another drop biscuit, only to find that there were none left on the plate. --I was hungry, but when did I eat all of those?

Molly brushed the remaining hair off his back and, without saying anything, placed another onto the bread plate. "It might be a good idea to wait a little and let this lot have a chance to settle."

"Thank you--that soup was wonderful, you really didn't have to make it …." --but I'm so glad you did!

"All right then, dear. You should take a nap now … you can't just go, I haven't made out the list for you yet, anyway, and you shouldn't move around in full daylight, it's too dangerous. What Harry would say if you were caught! …but I'll make sure to wake you up before Arthur and Percy arrive. You should eat some more before you leave again; you're far too thin."

He felt as if he had just come out of a pool after having swum laps until his arms trembled, but now needed to swim home. The warmth of the kitchen began to creep over him again, and he pushed the soup plate out of the way and gave in to his exhaustion. As he dropped off he vaguely heard Molly continuing on. Somehow her voice seemed more measured, the relentless cadences of it very soothing.

"…And since you'll have to walk down to Devon … I tried to organize a broom for you, but no matter how much I told Mrs. Linfield it was going to a good cause--although she thought it was for the St Mungo's fund-raiser, of course, I couldn't tell her I wanted it for you--at the last minute she decided to hold on to her old one, as if she needs another broom, with all the ones she's got …"

-----

For quite some time he thought he was floating. He couldn't remember a time when he had felt quite this comfortable. He turned slowly to his side, and nothing moved under his hip or rustled at his knees or dug painfully into his shoulder; no sudden cold washed his newly exposed back. He felt a little stiff, as if he had not moved for a very long time. As he came nearer waking he began to pick out details--the softness of the worn cotton pillowcases and sheet (--Sheet? How civilized … ), the faint hint of lavender in the pillow, the amber afternoon light slanting across the coverlet. ---This is a bed. Not rocks or dirt, not straw, not planking. How did I get into a bed? Where would I even find a bed? Waking further, he stilled the circular, inane thoughts. He slowly, slowly sat up, relishing the softness and warmth around him, and realized that he was lying in Molly and Arthur's bed. --Of course. Molly used Mobilicorpus and moved me up here. He glanced down at the coverings over his legs; even though he had disturbed them when he rolled over, it was clear that they had been tucked firmly around his legs. --I am only twelve years or so younger than you are, Molly, he thought, --not in my infancy. He had not had that sort of attention for so long, and at first it made him just a little nervous. Part of his mind, though, felt touched, grateful, a sudden flashback to being eight? seven? years old, tired from playing on the beach in the strong sun, drowsily being tucked into bed in the warm summer twilight.

He stretched, took a deep breath, and climbed out of the bed; stretched again, and looked around for his old robes. Nothing. Molly probably had them, he realized. --She said she was going to clean them. He looked at the small clock beside the bed, which obligingly scrambled to its miniscule feet and told him that it was three-thirty. He opened the door slowly, peering out into the hallway, but then stopped. The bed. He never made beds (what was the point, when they were going to be used again each night?)--but Molly and Arthur did. And she'd gone to such trouble over him, it seemed rude to make extra work for her. He slowly walked back to the bed, considering where he should begin. He must not have moved much at all; the covers at the bed's base were hardly rumpled--perhaps he could just smooth them out? His mother had taught him how to make a bed when he was a small boy, but he had rarely made one voluntarily unless she was standing over him. As an adult he couldn't remember the last time he had bothered to make a bed, with or without magic. --Of course, beds haven't figured largely in your life for a while, he thought ruefully.

A knock on the door, followed by Molly herself. "You're up already! I was just coming to wake you; I do hope you've had a good sleep," she said, directing her wand at the bed, which to Sirius' relief obligingly re-made itself. "I've washed your own robes--Heavens, they were in such a state--and I've made up the list the Headmaster wanted you to take to Mr. Lupin." She examined Sirius, and added, "I wanted to let you sleep some more--you certainly look as if you could stand some more rest--but Arthur and Percy will be home in a couple of hours, and I wanted to give you enough time to eat something else and to get well away before they arrive." She led the way out of the bedroom; bemused, Sirius followed. "Although I do with you’d reconsider leaving, dear; the WWN is forecasting rain for tonight, and you're not in very good shape to be wandering about in the rain and the cold."

"Well, it is easier to travel at night," he said. "Less chance of being observed. Particularly on a rainy night."

They reached the kitchen, and Sirius smiled as he saw the place laid for him, this time with a solid roast-beef sandwich, salad, and more drop biscuits laid out. Chuckling, he sat down, saying, "Molly, you must think I don't do anything but eat."

"You certainly could stand to eat. You're making up for lost time."

She sat down opposite him, and he realized that one side of the table was covered with pieces of parchment, several quills, and at least seven inkpots. A stack of completed letters teetered in one corner. She jabbed her wand at the quills, and they obediently dipped themselves into the inkpots and began to write. Each quill was composing a completely different letter, and Sirius' assessment of Molly's abilities went up several notches. Meanwhile, Molly herself was making notes in fuschia-colored ink.

Sirius began working his way through the sandwich. "What are all those letters?" he asked, through a mouthful of roast beef.

"Honestly, Sirius, you're as bad as Arthur; he will talk with his mouth full," she said briskly. "And you need to be careful about the example you set, now that you've got Harry; he really looks up to you, I'm sure." She passed him the top letter in the pile, and he scanned it; a standard letter informing a Mrs Elton Grubfeather about a Hogwarts reunion, class of '15. He replaced it and returned his attention to his sandwich. "These are for H. O.W. L.--the Hogwarts Old Witches' League," Molly continued. "A social club. As you've probably guessed, it is a good cover that allows me to meet regularly with some of the people who might prove sympathetic to Headmaster Dumbledore's plans. I have some of their names and addresses here for you." She set a roll of densely written and heavily annotated parchment in front of him. "But that means I do have to do a fair bit of organization, and after I've finished with this reunion, the Old Girls of 1942 and 1943 want me to manage their fundraiser, and that means such a jumble of letters to write."

Sirius looked at the parchment as he finished the sandwich and made rapid progress through the salad. He would have settled for anything fresh, … back there, but he had longed for green stuff especially. The parchment listed every individual Molly had contacted, together with notes about school House affiliation, known family, attitudes toward the Dark Arts, and opinions about both Dumbledore and Cornelius Fudge. "This is incredible, Molly," he said finally. How did you get all this?"

"It's only a little over a half roll of parchment; I haven't been doing this very long," she answered. "It's amazing what comes up in casual conversation. Where are you going to put it? I noticed holes in the pockets of your robes."

"Really?" Sirius asked, smiling. "I'll have to get after my tailor right away." He spread honey on a drop biscuit and asked, "Er .. is there something I can do to help? Stuff envelopes? Take a delivery to the post office? I don't slobber on important mail, I promise."

Molly smiled. "Well, since you mention it, Sirius …. Accio robe." His grey robe, now clean, plopped into his lap. "Shake it out, please," Molly directed.

Puzzled, Sirius did so, and to his dismay found that much of the material frayed in his hands. He examined it for a moment, and then looked over at Molly. "Well, I suppose I was right when I thought that the only thing holding it together was dirt."

"You're lucky it lasted as long as it did." She waved her wand again. "Accio basket."

A compartmented wicker basket floated from the living room. Draped on top of it was a plain, rather faded green robe. Molly waved her wand again and the basket dropped to the table in front of Sirius. "There you are, dear. I'm sorry the robe is so shabby, but I had to choose something Arthur wouldn't need--I told him it was going in the box for the Saint Mungo's Thrift. Now, you're a little taller than Arthur is, by just an inch or so, and I ripped out the hem so the robe wouldn't be too short for you. I pinned it to the right length, but it needs to be tacked into place. And there's a hole in the right-hand pocket that you might as well sew shut, and if you have time I have a patch to go on the left elbow."

Sirius gingerly lifted the lid of the sewing basket and stared in disbelief at the sewing implements. --It would have been easier to make the bed. "Molly," he began, but Molly cut him off.

"I don't have the time to do it, Sirius dear, and at the very least that pocket has to be patched--if you lose my hard work, I shall be very angry."

Sirius didn't doubt that. After several attempts he got a needle threaded, although he had to have her show him how to make a small, neat knot in the end.

"Really, why you men think sewing is such a mystery is beyond me. It's just engineering in soft material. Although I do suspect it's because it isn't exciting enough for men to bother to learn, is it … safer just to be ignorant." She smiled at him, taking the tartness out of her words. "I know some men who just love to do complicated cross-stitch."

Sirius allowed that he wasn't yet in that category. For some time they worked in companionable silence, Molly writing her letters, and Sirius concentrating on making as neat a job of the pocket and hem as his inexperience allowed--Molly was right, it was simple once you got the hang of spacing the stitches and holding the needle. He was so involved in reinforcing the stitching in the corner of the pocket that he didn't realize that Molly's quills had stopped and that she was fingering the hem of the green robe.

"Is it all right?" he asked.

"Especially for your first time, you're doing a good job," she replied. "But … " Her forehead furrowed.

"What is it?" he asked quietly.

"I was just noticing … " she began. He noted that her words came out hesitantly, not at all like the constant nervous stream he'd heard at first or her more relaxed manner. "These are so thin, and your old robes even more worn. You must have been so cold … how did you survive the swim? In that icy water! Without a warming spell--how did you keep from freezing within seconds? And afterwards, at least two winters … " She broke off, still running her fingertips over the robe's surface. "I worry about the boys, and they have sweaters, and woollen robes, and thick socks and wool pants under that …. "

The pocket was as strong as he could make it; he eyed the sleeve, and decided that patching the elbow would take too much skill. Replacing the needle and thread in the basket, he said at length, "Molly, I don't know. I just did it. Padfoot … just doesn't get as cold … he has all that fur, you know. Rather like carrying around a permanent coat. But swimming … I didn't even think about freezing … didn't feel the water temperature … the summer after I became an Animagus I asked a Muggle veterinarian about big dogs, just curious about myself, I suppose; and he said some of them circulate their blood differently ... they stay warmer, they don't freeze nearly as fast as humans do … and I have spent much of the last two years … much of the time before that, really … as Padfoot … I suppose he's like that … the dogs the veterinarian told me about … "

She looked across the table at him, her eyes suspiciously bright, but when she spoke her voice was brisk. "Hand me the robe, please," she said, and when he did so, tapped it with her wand and murmured, "Calefacere." Handing the robe back to him, she said, "That ought to keep you a little warmer when you're yourself, Sirius. Now, go on and change, Arthur will be here in a little while. Just hang his robe in the closet, dear."

He carried his dishes to the sink before taking the pieces of his Azkaban robe and tossing them in the sitting room fire. Then he trotted up the stairs to Molly and Arthur's bedroom to change.

When he re-entered the kitchen he saw a small, neat burlap sack with a long handle. Inside were several sandwiches, wrapped in WizardWax Paper, and a wrapped bundle of drop biscuits. "Oh, Molly, you didn’t need to … I've put you to so much trouble already … "

"If the state you were in when you arrived here was any indication of your ability to scrounge for yourself, then I've put in too little food," Molly replied. "Besides, the fewer times you have to scrounge, the faster you can reach Mr. Lupin's, and the less dangerous your trip will be." She glanced out the window. "I do hope it doesn't rain; the WWN was forecasting heavy rain. At least they say it will be dry where Ron and the twins are … "

Sirius quirked his eyebrow. "Has WWN become more reliable about forecasting the weather than it used to be?" he asked. "Because, if not, I don't think I'll have any problems tonight."

"I do wish you'd stay overnight … let me feed you breakfast in the morning … you could sleep in the barn … "

Reluctantly Sirius shook his head. "Thank you, Molly, really--but it's better for me to move at night. Less chance of running into anyone--especially Muggle dog-catchers."

"Well, you know best, I suppose, you've stayed free this long. And I suppose the sooner you reach Mr. Lupin's the better. You will be able to stay there for a while? Safely?"

"Tell you the truth, I'm looking forward to a solid rest," he said.

"And you deserve one. Sirius … we'll all take good care of Harry this summer. And I'll write and let you know how he's doing … Harry's owl will find you? Oh, Sirius, I'm so worried about him, what that boy has had to bear, and so young … " She looked sadly at him. "What all of you have borne … we've really been lucky, haven't we?"

He reached for her hands, held them in his own. "I'm just glad you're here. And thank you. For everything. For the soup, the robes, the soup, the bed, the soup … " She was laughing, as he had intended. "Oh, and did I mention the soup?"

"Well, if you men can manage to cook … "

"Remus is a very good cook!" he protested.

"--the soup recipe is on the back of the parchment roll I gave you. -- you do have the roll?"

He patted the pocket, hearing the rustle of the parchment.

"Oh, good. And, Sirius … you had said that you were thinking of finding a home for your hippogriff?"

"Yes, I had hoped to find a safe spot to let him loose before now."

Molly flushed. "Well, while you were asleep I checked with David, one of Charlie's school chums--Charlie's my second-oldest boy, you know, although we rarely get to see him; he's always off in Eastern Europe working with one dangerous species or another. Dragons! I ask you." He looked up in alarm, but she put her hand on his shoulder in reassurance. "I told young David that I thought that I had seen a hippogriff in the forest beyond the house last week, and that I had sighted it again today when I took my exercise. A hippogriff, of all things!" Sirius found himself grinning, both at the mock-indignant tone of Molly's voice and the cleverness of her solution. "David said that they do show up in odd places, apparently; there's some blight or other on their normal food supply and they're moving into more settled areas. So he sent me a Humane Hippogriff Lure and told me that if I saw it again, to lure it into the barn and call him. Such a nice boy, so helpful! I couldn't tell him that I didn't need to use that lure of his … I suppose I'll hide it up in the attic and just hope the ghoul doesn't get caught in it. So you just leave your hippogriff in the barn, Sirius, and I'll call David in the morning and tell him I caught one for him. They'll feed him and release him into a more natural habitat someplace on the Continent."

"I'm really amazed, Molly," Sirius said. "Harry and Ron told me that Buckbeak was under a death sentence by the Ministry, though--something about a student provoking him and getting nipped for his trouble. Do you think they'd be able to recognize him? Because, if so …"

"Oh, no," Molly said comfortably. "Charlie told me once that he kept getting the hippogriffs confused when he was working with a flight team, so I think your … Buckbeak? .. is fairly safe."

Sirius nodded. He grasped Molly's hands once more, and to his surprise found himself being pulled into a fierce hug. "Now, you let me know if you need anything. And I'll keep you informed about Harry."

"Thanks," Sirius whispered. So strange, he thought, to have another friend. And one this determined … maybe things would work out after all.

They broke apart, and Sirius reached for the burlap bag. As he drew the handle over his head and settled the bag at his chest, he said, "What will you tell Arthur?"

Molly was checking the kitchen, making sure that no traces remained of Sirius' visit. " I'll just tell him that I called around and found Blackie a good home," she said. "With some wizard down in Devon that Alison Archer knew … she stopped by and took you this afternoon … Arthur never talks to Alison unless he's absolutely cornered; he won't ask … "

"Well, actually, I meant about Buckbeak. I mean, a stray dog was bad enough; what will he say when you tell him you've found a hippogriff?"

Molly laughed. "With luck, he'll never know; it's only Tuesday, and he never goes out into that garage until the weekend." She glanced up at the clock; the hand labeled "Arthur Weasley" clicked over to "Travelling." "He's early. You'd better go, dear," she said, "you're supposed to be on your way to Devon. It's only a slight stretch of the truth," she added.

He noticed that she had colored a little. He wanted to ask her about it, but there was not time. Mouthing, "Thank you," he transformed into Padfoot. He nosed Molly's hand briefly, and then she opened the kitchen door and he trotted out, the burlap sack bouncing against his chest. He looked back, saw her still standing there, and he voiced a soft "huff". He hadn’t thought he would find an ally, not a real one --An ally who cooks. Lots--and he realized that he was feeling better, stronger, than he had before, and not just physically. The trip down to Devon might be less onerous than he had anticipated. --Wonder what she'll cook the next time I visit?, he thought. --Oh, do get your mind off food, Padfoot!

He heard Arthur call out to Molly from the living room, and, turning, Padfoot trotted briskly into the garage before Arthur could look out the kitchen window and see him. Transforming, he bowed to Buckbeak, scratched his scaly head, and told him what would happen the next day. And when dusk fell he sidled out of the garage and began his journey to Devon.

--END--

DROP BISCUIT RECIPE

For readers from outside the United States (or from outside the south and west, for that matter!), here's the recipe for drop biscuits, if you're curious and minded to try it. It is one of my favorite breads to accompany soup or stews. These are not sweet in the slightest, and not at all like a British biscuit. They're basically a quick-bread (a non-yeast-based bread). I usually add half a cup (or a whole cup) of shredded cheddar cheese, the sharper the better, and a little bit of chopped onion. Best make it straight, though, the first time. The recipe is taken from the 1960 version of the Ladies’ Home Journal cookbook.

2 cups flour (473.18 ml., or 16 oz., or 450g)

3/4 teaspoon salt (3.70 ml)

1 tablespoon baking powder (14.79 ml.)

1/4 cup shortening (I use canola oil) (59.14 ml, or 2 oz., or 50g)

1 cup milk (236.59 ml or 8 oz. or 225g)

I included metric equivalents for the US measurements; go ahead and round up / down (uniformly) to a standard measure. The ounces and grams I got from perusing the recipes in Jenny Baker's Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool: A Celebration of SImple English Cooking, Faber and Faber, 1996.

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder into a mixing bowl (I fluff the dry ingredients with a fork). Cut in shortening thoroughly (if you are using butter or other solid shortening), or mix it in thoroughly if your shortening is liquid. The mixture should look rough but relatively even, like American cornmeal. Add the milk all at once. (If you are adding cheese and onion, you would add them here.) Stir JUST until the milk is blended. The dough should be light and soft. Drop by tablespoons onto a greased baking sheet or into a greased muffin pan (hence the name "drop biscuits"). Bake in a very hot oven, 450 degrees Fahrenheit (232.2222222 etc. Celsius) , for 10-12 minutes. Makes about 12 biscuits.

I found a page that has metric equivalents for common U.S. measurements:

http://www.epicurious.com/db/dictionary/refguides/convertmetric/appmetricequiv.html

A cup is 236.59 milliliters; two cups is a tablespoon is 14.79 ml., and a teaspoon is 4.93 ml. Basically, the way I cook: a larger soup spoon is a good approximation of a "tablespoon," and a regular spoon makes a good "teaspoon".

 

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