The forest was dense and its many-thorned branches gripped and tore at his robes, but Harry Potter could see a glimmer of light ahead of him. He slogged through the clinging embrace of the forest with determination, the kind that had carried him through mortal peril time and again. The atmosphere of the forest was dank and choking and he knew if he could hold out just a little longer...push his way through the closely-interlaced, thorny branches and keep his leaden feet moving, he could break through and come out on the other side.
Harry gasped as he broke through the darkness of the forest into the light. Immediately he felt unfettered and free, plunging from the grasp of the foliage into a grass-filled meadow; his feet carried him several meters beyond the edge of the lasting darkness before he'd realised. He stopped and looked behind him, one finger lifting to push up the glasses that had slipped down his nose, slick with sweat. Behind him, there was no trace of his passage, no broken branches or gaping foliage...the forest seemed to have closed in on itself, as if he'd never gone through.
A path ran through the waistlength-high fronds of meadow grass. It was to this Harry turned with a feeling of relief, finding it there as if he'd known where he was going all along. The path, he could see, led to a comfortable little house alongside a stand of leafy green trees and it was in this direction he set out.
Harry looked at the house with bemusement, a smile spreading across his face. Now, he'd known that house hadn't been there the moment before, but in the wizarding world that wasn't such a significant thing.
He thought he knew where he was now. He broke into a run.
Before he'd quite reached it, as Harry was still jogging along the trampled-grass path that led up to the house, the door was flung wide. A tall, broad-shouldered figure stood in the doorway, a man with long dark hair and a wide smile. "Harry! I've been expecting you, you know."
Time had repaired the ravages of care that had drawn most of the vitality of Sirius Black's face into prematurely-aged lines. He was handsome again, and grinning and an entirely welcoming sight in the big golden square of the doorway.
"Sirius!" Harry shouted, sprinting toward the house and his godfather. He was grinning all over, the torn and ripped hem of his robes threatening to trip him up, but he made it the last few meters and all but fell into Sirius's arms. "I can't believe it! I had no idea you were...you..." He frowned, and almost remembered something that flickered at the edge of his thoughts.
"Well, this sort of thing takes time to set up, y'know?" Sirius said with a chuckle, pulling Harry into the warm honey-gold light inside of the cabin. "Been working on it all spring. I wanted to surprise you."
Something went tight in Harry's throat. "You...you mean...?" He looked around the living room, a place that already looked full of homey clutter though Sirius had implied he'd just finished with the house.
"This is home," Sirius said proudly, steering him into the living room and beyond with an arm around his shoulders. "Remember that night you found out I was your godfather? Remember what I offered back then...?"
Harry nodded, an unbearable lightness suffusing his chest, making him feel as if he were a helium-filled balloon anchored only by Sirius. "How could I ever forget?" he managed. Sirius's words, his promise, were all that had kept him through two more horrible years with the Dursleys. "You said that I could come and live with you, once...once your name was cleared." Almost, something dark winked at the corner of his eye.
"And now you can," Sirius finished up triumphantly. He released Harry, mussed the back of his hair -- not that it much needed mussing -- and led him round through the comfortable den area, a pair of patchy chairs and a set of Wizard chess at the table by the window and a bookcase crammed with dusty old books. Sirius eagerly ushered Harry into the kitchen, with starlike asphodel and lavender peeping through the crowded window and a battered little table snugged up against the door with just enough room for two, maybe three if they were close friends. It was a bachelor's kitchen, all but empty and awaiting a wand's flick to set the pile of dirty dishes into motion.
Sirius showed him through the eating area, where a group of wizards might put their heads together over the spotty chintz tablecloth in smoky evenings, up the stairs and past an open broom closet (even at a glance Harry could spot the Lightningstrike 2004 within) and bedrooms on opposite sides of the hall. Here he showed Harry the tiny bedroom that had been prepared, and now Harry's godfather looked quite anxious.
"It's not much...my carpentry and conjuring spells are a bit rusty..." he said, smile slipping a notch the longer Harry's silence became.
Harry was, quite simply, overwhelmed. He managed to open his mouth to speak. "It's...it's perfect," he croaked, and scrubbed angrily at the left corner of his eye with the back of one hand. Get a grip, Potter, he told himself; would James cry over something like this? Would Sirius have done, the day James took him in after Sirius packed and left his parents'?
"Welcome home," Sirius said, relaxing and giving him a sort of half-hug. "Much better than the old house on Grimmauld, eh?"
Harry frowned. Sirius frowned, too, looking strained for an instant before he turned. "Let me show you the backyard...got a neat system rigged out...we'll be able to play Quidditch even if we can't get Moony or someone else to visit..."
With eager steps Harry followed, letting go of the nagging sense that he'd forgotten something just beyond his reach.
The hours passed like a turn down a sun-dazzled park slide, as if slipping quick and golden along the days of summer. Sirius showed him the collapsing Quidditch pitch in the back, something Harry had not thought even possible, and he got to test out the amazing swiftness and precision of the Lightningstrike 2004. When they got hungry afterwards, Sirius demonstrated the methods of a wizarding barbecue (Harry suspected this had less to do with a genuine wizarding tradition than it did Sirius's need to use a wand to cook anything) and they stuffed themselves silly.
When at last they went indoors, Harry insisted that they clean their dishes, which he wouldn't put off until later. Sirius made fun of him but gave in all at once, teasing him about taking certain traits from his mother for a change instead of James.
The light outside was still warm and golden though the hour seemed to be growing late. Harry was certainly growing drowsy, which supported his opinions on the time. "Think I should go to bed soon," he said with a huge yawn, exiting the kitchen for the den and reflecting on how comfortable the armchairs looked.
"Game of Exploding Snap?" Sirius suggested brightly, skirting him and moving for the other chair. "That'll wake you right up."
Harry laughed. "Sirius, you never really grew up, did you?"
"Ah, well, as to that," Sirius said grinning, laying a finger aside his nose, "it's the secret all good godfathers should know. Remus would certainly agree with you, my boy!"
Harry yawned but went to fetch the deck. He didn't want to sleep anymore than Sirius seemed eager to see him go.
A soft tapping came at the den-side window. *Clink clink. Clink.* Looking over his shoulder, Harry saw a great eagle owl mantling its wings, struggling to perch on the windowsill and looking quite affronted.
"Ah, Orpheus, a moment..." Sirius said with a chuckle, springing for the sash.
Deck in his hands, Harry turned to see Sirius liberate the great owl of a tightly-rolled note. The bird that had looked impressive through the glass, he could now see, looked in fact rather sickly, its feathers straggling, its thin head almost skeletal. "Oh, wait," he exclaimed, as the bird unraveled its wings with clear intent to go. "Want to send a note to Ron and Hermione -- let them know where to reach me." He frowned. Where had he left Hedwig?
"Ah...er, Harry, I don't think that's such a good idea," Sirius told him, dark brow knit.
"Well, look at 'im!" Sirius said, now forcing a sort of chuckle. "D'you really think Orpheus would make the trip?"
"Er...good point," Harry said politely, though he didn't see why Orpheus couldn't at least *try.* He'd made it here with whatever note all right, hadn't he? That was a post owl's job.
He watched without another word, though, as Sirius dismissed the eagle owl and the creature flopped awkwardly on its way.
Harry shuffled the deck -- carefully -- as Sirius scanned through his note, surprising him at the end by tearing it into bits.
"Nasty bit of mail," Sirius said cheerfully, seeming unfazed. "Seems someone doesn't want you staying with me."
With a rather hollow laugh, Harry replied, "Can't be the Dursleys."
"No, no..." Sirius appeared to ponder for a moment, seating himself. He cut the deck for Harry, who resumed shuffling. "Dumbledore, actually, if you can believe it."
Anger swelled up inside Harry, sudden and searing. "I believe it," he said coldly, not even sure where his towering anger came from but he felt entirely justified in continuing, "I'm staying here." If the man actually thought he'd stay at the Dursleys' for the rest of his life...
Sirius gave him a tentative smile. "Glad to hear it, Harry."
They began to play, and after the first game or so Harry felt his sleepiness fall away. He was, in fact, becoming more wide-awake with each game. The evening outside was still lambent and golden and after awhile it felt as if they had been playing for-ever.
The knock on the door came as a rude shock.
Harry felt a queer thrill of fear course through him as Sirius leapt to his feet. In the unending light of the lengthening afternoon -- or the early evening, whichever it happened to be -- Harry had begun to suppose that they were the only two in the wide clearing of this meadow beyond the thorn-snarled wood. The languor that had held him up until that moment began to dissipate, leaving him feeling rather tired and strangely frightened.
"Moony!" Sirius exclaimed, throwing the door wide open much as he had when Harry had approached from across the meadow. "Didn't expect you here so soon...come in, come in..."
Harry put aside the deck and stood.
Remus Lupin entered the cabin, smiling benignly, his hazel eyes crinkling as he regarded Sirius, then Harry. "I might have known you'd be here," he said directly to Harry, his voice soft and thoughtful. He looked as if years had fallen away; his hair had gone from silver to youthful brown and most of the age-lines Harry remembered had vanished as if he'd taken a Rejuvenation Draught on the sly.
"You're here for supper, of course," Sirius said to his old friend, "then to stay." He clasped Lupin's arm and grinned from the man to the boy, looking immensely pleased, all but lolling his tongue as Padfoot might.
"No, I'm sorry, Sirius, I'm not to stay," Lupin replied, and now his voice was full of regret.
The sound trickled through Harry like ice-water. "Professor Lupin," he tried his voice twice, and came out sounding hoarse and scared.
"I'm sorry," Lupin repeated, looking to his old friend with a kind of faded pain in his eyes.
Sirius tore his hand away, breathing hard. "No," he said.
"Sirius!" Harry said now, stumbling a step forward. His heart was rushing fast and fluttery in his chest like the rapid wings of a captured Snitch. "I..."
"No, don't you start too," Sirius said with a snarl, pulling away from them both. His hair fell darkly in disarray about his shoulders; he flushed as he looked from one to the other. "You were to stay, don't you see, Harry? Both of you, come to stay forever. That's how it works. I built this house for the three of us, together at last, to put everything behind."
"We can't," Lupin told him, and without seeming to move very much he was beside Harry, putting a hand on his shoulder. "We have to go back, Sirius...you know we can't stay."
Sirius turned his back on them both, breathing hard.
Harry looked up at Lupin from the corner of his eye. "Sirius," he repeated pleadingly, stretching a hand out to his godfather. He thought he *had* come to stay, had been so glad to see him again; he wanted to tell him all of this but--
"Go," Sirius said flatly.
Harry would have stepped forward then, putting it all behind him for good as Sirius had suggested but Lupin's hand tightened on his shoulder like a vise.
"Wait," Sirius said hoarsely, whirling, a fringe of dark hair nearly obscuring his eyes. "Wait." He looked at Harry fiercely, scrutinising, then caught him up in a vigorous hug.
Harry's arms tightened with desperate force round his godfather. This was it; he would have to go back, and it was like swallowing the promise Sirius had made all over again, to hold inside of him for another day. It would be far longer than a summer to see Sirius again. "I want to stay, you know," he whispered.
"I know," Sirius whispered back. He fussed with the collar of Harry's robe for an instant as he released him, smile brimming with pride and...and something else, regret perhaps, that he and Remus were going someplace that he could not follow. And Harry *knew,* all at once, and he wanted to cling to Sirius again and say fiercely that he *wouldn't* go after all, but Lupin's hand was prising them apart.
Sirius turned, and as he walked away from them into the cabin this time he did not turn back.
"We have to go," his former professor said quietly, more sorrowful than ever, "else we can never return to ourselves. And Sirius would not want that, Harry, believe me."
Then Lupin was drawing Harry along with the unexpected strength in his skinny arms, and Harry went along unresisting. They shut the door and left the cabin behind them in the unrelenting old-gold light that filled the meadow like the color of joy, and home.
"Home," Harry mumbled, paying no heed to the path as Lupin pulled him along by his sleeve. "He said...I was home."
"And so you will be, Harry, some day," Lupin said kindly, "But even Sirius realized it was not yet time."
He tried to summon a gout of anger to direct at Lupin, at Dumbledore who was surely behind this, at anyone, but the only feeling left inside of him was that of being utterly drained. "I'm tired," he said at the edge of the forest. He hadn't the heart to push his way through once more.
"I'm here," Lupin replied, and pulled his wand free. "Close your eyes, Harry."
"Dissendio!" Lupin's voice cried strongly, and Harry felt something seize him by the hand and pull, dragging him along so swiftly he felt he would be dashed to pieces if he stopped.
"Harry..." "Harry!" "Harry, hang on then!"
Harry opened his eyes and the golden light was gone. The sense of Sirius, and coming home, took far longer to fade.