“You have paint on your nose, Ron.”
Ron looks at Hermione in disbelief. “I have paint everywhere. And so does everyone else. Look at Harry!”
Hermione glances at him. Harry shrugs back at her. For once, he doesn’t look out of place in Dudley’s cast-offs; in fact, he’s loaned too-big shirts to Ron, Hermione and Ginny. Last time he saw Ginny, she had soaked a sleeve in paint. He doesn’t think it was an accident.
Harry doesn’t care. Sirius keeps saying he’s going to buy Harry a new wardrobe once they’re settled in. Harry doesn’t care. He’s already pinched several jumpers and cardigans from Remus’s wardrobe. He loves them more than any hand-me-downs the Dursleys had ever given him.
“Harry doesn’t have paint on his face,” Hermione says, looking Harry up and down. “He just … has paint everywhere else. Oh, Harry, really?”
“Stop fussing, ‘Mione,” Ron says.
Harry dips his paintbrush into the tin, letting their bickering wash over him. When they left, he was going to miss this. It would just be him and his new guardians and this big, freshly painted cottage for the first time...
Harry shoves that thought out of his head. He’s been dreaming about this for months. Years, even. So why does he feel so anxious?
Ginny knocks on the doorframe. Since she’s been gone, she’s managed to splatter more paint on her bored shirt.
“Hey, Harry,” Ginny says. “Remus wants to see.”
Harry sets his brush on the tarp. “I’ll be back.”
“Are you sure, mate?” Ron asks. “We can come with.”
“Yeah. Remus probably just needs a hand moving things.”
Neither of them point out that, if Remus did need someone to help shift furniture around, he could have recruited Ginny or Luna.
“Okay, Harry,” Hermione says. “Yell if you need anything.”
He follows Ginny into the hall. Luna is waiting for them by the bannister. Unlike the rest of them, she’s not wearing older clothes. Her dress—a lamp-shaped gown fastened with butterfly clips—is splattered with paint. It suits her.
“Hello again, Harry,” she says. “Is something the matter?”
“Uh, no. Everything’s fine.” Harry musters up a smile for her. She stares right through him, pale eyes unblinking. She’s always been able to see straight through his bullshit.
They head downstairs. And then stop in the entryway.
Remus isn’t outside. He’s standing in front of the cupboard under the stairs. Beside him, Sirius bites back a grin, black paint smeared across his cheek like a bruise.
Sirius spots them, frozen at the foot of the stairs. “There you lot are! Come look at what I made.”
The cupboard door has been removed. The inside has been cleaned out, the walls inside painted black. A dog bed has been squashed into one corner.
“It just needs some finishing touches. A water bowl, maybe a box of toys. I took the door off so nobody could get locked in.” Sirius shoots a pointed look at Remus.
“I wouldn’t lock you in, Sirius. As much as I might want to sometimes.”
“Hey, I wasn’t about to take that chance.”
Faintly, Harry registers Ginny disappearing back up the stairs. As she ascends the stairs, a shower of dust falls from the ceiling onto the dog bed.
Sirius crawls into the cupboard and settles on the dog bed. “Harry, come have a look. Painting this room wasn’t easy.”
Harry crouches down just outside the cupboard. A memory, brittle with age, floats to the surface of his mind: when he was small, so small he could still stand in the cupboard, he didn’t have a skinny camp bed to sleep on. That had come later, after Harry had started school, and Petunia had found the camp bed for cheap at a yard sale.
When Harry was very small, the cupboard under the stairs was still cluttered with boxes. Petunia hadn’t finished cleaning out the cupboard when Harry came to live with them. She figured he was still small enough that he didn’t need that much space.
And so the Dursleys had found a small, cheap replacement for a bed. Something soft and toddler-sized and easy to stuff inside a cupboard, like Harry.
He didn’t know what it was until he was older. Sometime after his ninth birthday, he had been rifling through the shed, looking for the weed killer, when he had found it again. The first bed he had ever had. It was square with little polka dots and the downy lining was matted with dust. Harry recognised it as soon as he saw it, in a way he hadn’t when he was a toddler. It was a dog bed. Years ago, the Dursleys had given him a dog bed to sleep on.
The bed Sirius sits on was round, not square, and patterned with green dragons. It looks more like a bean bag than a dog bed, really.
But it is. It is a dog bed. It had always been a dog bed.
Sirius pats the ground beside him. “Come on, Harry. Plenty of space.”
A part of him aches to crawl into that dark, cramped space and curl up next to Sirius. It’s safe in there, his hind-brain reminds him. Adult hands only ever reached in to drag him out.
The rest of Harry is sure that he would break if he went back in there. Especially now, in this house.
A hand rests on his shoulder. Harry jumps, but it’s only Luna, smiling down at him.
“I don’t think you like the colour black much, do you, Harry?”
“It’s comforting,” Sirius defends. “Like black-out curtains.”
“There aren’t any windows in there,” Remus says, looking so fond and tired and old. He looks like that a lot, these days.
The stairs thump again. Sirius seems surprised by the dust that rains down from the ceiling.
It’s Ron and Hermione, taking the stairs two at a time, Ginny on their heels.
Sirius pops his head out of the door-less cupboard. “Oi, you lot, come and appreciate how ingenious I am.”
“It’s not ingenious,” Remus says. “You’ve just always wanted a clubhouse. I remember how many hidey holes you and James had at Hogwarts.”
An image, vivid like a moving photography: a young Sirius and James squashed into a cupboard at Hogwarts, eating snacks and laughing and banging their elbows against Filch’s cleaning supplies. James, a mirror-image of Harry, without his glasses or green eyes or the washed-out pallor of a child raised in the dark.
Ron and Hermione hover behind him, ready to reach out and pull him back. Luna’s hand is still on his shoulder. At Hogwarts, their worry often felt smothering, but right then—right then, Harry didn’t mind.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Sirius,” Hermione says.
“Yeah,” Ron says. “Bit small, isn’t it?”
Harry can feel their eyes on him. Can feel the words they carefully aren’t saying.
Sirius huffs. “You too? Harry, you appreciate my hard work, don’t you?”
“We don’t have a cupboard under the stairs at our house,” Ginny says loudly. “You should get rid of yours too.”
Remus frowns. “We don’t need to go that far. It’s still a perfectly good cupboard.”
Sirius keeps arguing the case for the cupboard-turned-dog-house, and Ginny’s voice climbs higher, her face flushing red, and Hermione and Ron awkwardly try to explain to Remus why the cupboard should go without exposing Harry’s secrets. The cupboard is still there, gaping open without the door. Crouched down like this, it’s directly in front of him. Eye-height. Just like it was when he was a child.
The conversation grows louder and louder above him, until something inside Harry boils over like an overfilled pot.
“I used to sleep there,” Harry snaps.
He’s breathing hard. He feels like he’s run a marathon, even though he’s just sitting there uselessly, staring at a perfectly ordinary cupboard.
“What?” Sirius says. Everyone else has gone silent.
Harry glares at the dog bed. It looks soft and welcoming and makes him want to implode.
“It used to be my bedroom,” he says roughly. “Up until my Hogwarts letters started arriving. They were addressed to the cupboard under the stairs. My Uncle got spooked and gave me Dudley’s second bedroom.”
Remus sucks in a sharp breath through his teeth. Ginny says, “Second bedroom?”
Harry stands. He can’t handle being loomed over right now. He makes the mistake of looking at Sirius and Remus.
Remus’s eyes are burning. He looks like he had three years ago, down in the shrieking shack, learning the truth about Peter Pettigrew. That kind of anger—it transforms the face, makes Harry understand a little better how his cardigan-wearing guardian had fought in two wars and survived.
Sirius looks like he’s been slapped. Like Harry broke him all over again.
“Harry,” Sirius says softly.
He reaches out to touch, but Harry jerks back. He can’t do this, not right now, not with the cupboard right there, exposed and door-less and waiting—
He spins on his heel and runs out the back door before someone can stop him.
The cottage is deep in the English countryside. Rolling fields stretch in front of the house, speckled by grazing cows and homesteads. The back door opens onto dense woodland; the perfect place for a werewolf and dog to roam at night.
Harry darts through the trees, kicking up mud and wet leaves as he runs. He doesn’t stop until he reaches a small, dried-up stream. He kneels on the dry bank and feels the moss seep into his jeans.
He’s shaking, and he feels like he’s going to tear in half at any moment, and it doesn’t make sense. Voldemort is dead. He escaped the Dursleys for good. He has a new house with an eggshell-blue bedroom. So why does he keep seeing Sirius sitting on that overstuffed dog bed? Why do the gentle bird calls remind him of running through distant forests, half-blind with terror as Death Eaters chased him and his friends down?
A twig snaps. Harry whirls around, hand flying to his pocket, only to panic when he grasps empty air. He left his wand back in the cottage.
But it’s only Ron and Hermione. He should’ve known they’d come after him.
They don’t say anything. Hermione comes and sits beside him on the rocks. Ron reaches into his jacket and pulls out Harry’s wand.
“Not going to need it out here,” Harry says, gripping his wand tight.
Ron leans against a gnarled trunk, shrugging. “It helps though, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Harry says. “Yeah, it does.”
The lapse into silence. Hermione is eyeing the dried-up stream like she’s working through spells that could bring it back to life. She doesn’t hassle Harry into going back to the cottage and making amends with Sirius and Remus right away. Since the war, she’s been good like that. And while Harry appreciates this newfound respect for his space, he hates that she had to learn firsthand how choking trauma can be.
Harry’s muscles are starting to feel cramped. He stretches his legs out, exhaling roughly. “Are they upset?”
“They’re not mad at you,” Hermione says. “They’re angry that anyone could treat a child the way the Dursleys treated you. They’re upset that they didn’t realise what was happening sooner and help you sooner.”
Harry shrugs. “It’s okay. No one knew.”
“Oh, Harry,” Hermione says, laying a hand on his damp knee. “No. It was never okay.”
“No one else did anything about it either, though,” Harry says.
“That’s why they’re pissed,” Ron says. “Someone should have known. An adult, anyway.”
“It’s different. You saw Privet Drive that summer after first year, and you were with me all the time. Of course you’d figure it out.” Harry pauses, considering Ron. “But Ginny ...”
Ron raises his hands up defensively. “Hey, I didn’t tell her.”
“He did tell me, though,” Hermione admits, sounding shy.
“That’s different, ‘Mione. You don’t count.”
Harry bobs his head, and Hermione shoots them both a small smile. There’s no secrets between them. What one person knows, the others know. It’s a given.
“I think the twins told her,” Ron goes on. “They saw the cupboard downstairs, right? And the Burrow’s not that big. She probably overheard a lot.”
Harry doesn’t know how long they sit together, listening to the forest moving around them. But when he stands up, his tailbone aches and his jeans are dyed green from the moss.
They make their way back towards the cottage, carefully stepping over twisting roots and fallen foliage.
Harry stops. Remus is waiting for them.
“Harry,” Remus says. “Are you alright?”
Harry looks at his muddy sneakers. “Yeah. Fine.”
Silence washes over them. If Harry were to step back, let himself fit neatly between Ron and Hermione again, he knows that they would make excuses for him. They would bustle him upstairs, where he doesn’t have to talk to anybody.
But Harry doesn’t want to do that.
He takes in a deep breath. “I’m sorry for running off.”
“No,” Remus says. “No, Harry, don’t be sorry. Merlin, I should be the one apologising. I can’t believe we put you in that situation and didn’t realise how upset you were.”
“It’s okay. It’s a strange thing to be upset by.”
Remus shakes his head. “What else is there that we should know? This is your house too. You deserve to feel safe here.”
Behind him, Ron clears his throat. “We’ll just, uh—
“Check on the wards,” Hermione covers.
“Right. Yeah.” Ron’s eyes flick to Harry. A wordless conversation passes between them—Ron asking if Harry will be okay on his own, Harry promising that he will, that he’ll shout if he needs them—and then he and Hermione are setting off towards the property’s permetre. Harry and Remus are alone.
A thicket of wildflowers grows between the treeline and the cottage. Harry and Remus stand on the edge of it, pretending to examine the flowers. They’re lovely, overgrown and still damp from last night’s rainfall. Not a traditional garden, but still the kind of place Harry dreamed about living when he was younger.
“James and Lily would have killed me,” Remus starts, “if they knew you were living like that and I had done nothing.”
Harry scuffs the dirt with his trainers. “You didn’t know. There was nothing you could have done.”
“I’ve been hearing people say that for fifteen years. It doesn’t make me believe it any more.” Remus sighs, running a hand through his greying hair. More grey than not, these days. “I’m sorry, Harry. You should have lived with me from the start.”
What would that have been like, growing up with Remus? Learning about magic and hearing stories about his parents, always knowing his place in the world…
Harry closes his eyes. It hurts to think about.
“It wasn’t just the cupboard that set me off,” Harry admits. “I’m not claustrophobic or anything. But, uh. Sirius had a dog bed in there too. And when I was little, that’s what I used as a mattress. It fit so well in there, I guess.”
Remus clamps a hand over his mouth. He’s been pushed past anger, and now he just looks like he’s going to cry. Harry regrets saying anything.
Remus pulls his hand away and takes several shaky breaths. “Sorry. Just remind me that I can’t murder anyone. You already lost one guardian to Azkaban.”
Harry laughs. Remus isn’t smiling. That was a joke, wasn’t it?
They stand out in the unseasonably cold air for some time. Slowly, Harry finds the strength to tell Remus that he has been worried about moving into this new house. Not because he thinks it will be anything like Privet Drive, but because the Dursleys and Voldemort and the war are all he’s ever known and his body doesn’t know what to do with itself in this new reality. He doesn’t know how to feel safe.
He tells Remus, piece by piece, the things that might trigger him. Locks on bedrooms. Food shortages. Dropped plates and the smell of bleach.
It’s hard to say and, from the devastated look on Remus’s face, it’s hard to hear. He doesn’t manage to get through his entire childhood—or even most of it—but Harry still feels better when he’s finished.
A sudden crash echoes through the house, followed by vehement swearing. That’s definitely Sirius’s voice.
Harry ducks back into the house, Remus on his heels. Then stops.
Sirius is clutching at his hand, wincing. Luna holds out the water bottle, and Sirius freezes it with a flick of his wand before holding it against his fingers.
And, behind them, the stairs have been gutted. The skeleton outline of them is still there, the bannister and carpeted steps untouched, but the cupboard under the stairs has been ripped out. The dog bed is gone.
The yawning space can’t be structurally sound, but Ginny, covered in sawdust and holding a sledgehammer, looks very pleased with herself.
“What did you do?” Remus demands.
“What I should’ve done from the beginning,” Sirius says. “Even put up a muffling charm so you couldn’t stop me.”
“That was my idea,” Luna says proudly.
“Would’ve done this with magic,” Sirius says, nodding his head towards the gutted stairs, “but you’re much better at transfiguration than me, so the girls helped me get a head-start on the renovations.”
Harry swallows. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did,” Sirius says, face softening. “I’m sorry, Harry. I’m so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have done that to you.”
“You didn’t know.”
“That’s not an excuse.”
Harry stares at the drywall littering the ground, eyes stinging. Ginny clears her throat, sensing his discomfort.
“Don’t worry about it, Harry,” she says, swinging her sledgehammer onto her shoulder, the way she holds her broom. “It was heaps of fun. I might have to consider a future in muggle renovation.”
“It was cathartic,” Luna agrees. “I think Sirius was picturing Harry’s relatives as he was smashing the walls. It was rather violent.”
“Yes,” Sirius says without shame. “Yes, I was.”
Harry laughs. The sound gets caught in his throat, and he claps a hand against his mouth to stop himself from crying, but it’s too late.
Sirius drops the frozen water bottle and steps forward. Carefully, he enfolds Harry into a hug. Harry sags into the hold.
“Come on,” Remus says quietly. “Let’s go finish the kitchen.”
Remus bustles Ginny and Luna out of the living room. Harry holds onto the back of Sirius’ shirt, and for the first time since he was nine years old and staring down at the dog bed abandoned in the Dursley’s shed, he lets himself cry.