Susan didn’t see the dog again until late March. She was perched on a stump, working through a Care of Magical Creatures assignment while Hagrid offered advice from where he was weeding in his garden. Like last time, it was after dinner, the sky darkening. The dog came loping up from the forest, this time uninjured, his tail wagging. “’Ello, what’s this?” called Hagrid.
The dog paused at the edge of the garden before trotting over to where Susan was sitting. Susan could have sworn that he was grinning at her as he approached and put his head in her lap. “Well, hello again, you,” she said, scratching behind his ears. “Do you play fetch?” she asked him. The dog cocked his head at her. “You know…” she bent down and picked a stick up off the ground. “Fetch?” He barked at her. Susan threw the stick with all of her might across the grounds, which wasn’t too bad a distance, all things considered. The dog looked at her with an expression that, in some cosmic, canine way, communicated skepticism. She gestured at the stick, now fallen, lying lonely in the grass. The dog walked across the lawn, taking his own ridiculous sweet time, picked the stick up in his mouth, and came back. “You’re supposed to run after it,” Susan explained. “Teaching a dog to fetch,” she mumbled. “Of all things involving creatures around Hagrid’s hut, I’m teaching a dog to fetch. Ridiculous, that is.” Throwing the stick once more, she yelled, “Now go get it!” This time the dog ran off after it, catching it neatly in his teeth. He returned, dropping it at her feet with a look on his furry face that could only be described as smug self-satisfaction.
“Looks like he’s taken a likin’ to yeh,” Hagrid commented from the garden.
“Seems he has,” Susan replied, tossing the stick again.
“’He ‘ave a name?”
“No… but I’m sure I can think of one. What about… Grieg?” She looked at the dog, who looked decidedly unhappy about that particular name. “Like the composer. No? Hmm… What about Peer, then?” He cocked his head again. “Never mind. Percival? Oh come on, he’s a knight, don’t be so picky. Lionel? What about Lamorak?” The dog made a gagging noise. “Lancelot?” He yipped and wagged his tail. “Yeah, I thought so. No. That’s a horrible name, even for a dog,” she said. Shot down, the dog in question sighed and closed his eyes. Susan tapped her chin, thinking. “What about Dodger? Like the Artful Dodger?” The dog opened his eyes, looking like he had no idea what she was talking about. Susan groaned, wondering why she’d expected him to know who the Artful Dodger was. “He’s a character in Oliver Twist. It’s a Muggle story. He’s a mastermind pickpocket sort of person. You strike me as a mischievous type. So what do you think? Dodger?” The dog’s tail wagged, thumping on the ground. “Alright. Dodger it is, then.” He showed his approval by flipping over to be petted again.
“Can you pass me the bottle of salamander blood?”
“Hmm?” Susan looked up from her doodle.
“The salamander blood. Pass. You. It. To me.” Roberta grinned. “Where do you even go in that funny head of yours?”
Susan sighed. “I actually have a whole queendom in my head full of thousands of loyal subjects completely devoted to me. There’s a castle made of chocolate and a menagerie where I visit all my animal friends who poof in and out according to their mood, which is always good. And everyone travels by bubble.” Susan handed the vial to an openmouthed Roberta.
“Merlin’s pants! How many syllables was that? Forget syllables; that was practically a novel! Where did all of that even come from?” She was clearly flabbergasted.
“Well, you asked,” Susan replied, feeling her mouth pull up a little at the corners.
“And you’re smiling!” Roberta suddenly narrowed her eyes, stroking the imaginary beard decorating her chin. “Very interesting. All right,” she said, leaning in. “Who are you and what did you do with the real Susan Ponds?”
“This is the real Susan Ponds, you dolt,” she said. “I should have warned you this would happen. My parents get this all the time.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Well, I know you now. You’re not so frightening.”
“Really? Boo!” Roberta exclaimed, holding her hands up like claws.
“Eek! I take that back,” Susan giggled.
“So wait, you’re only super-shy around people you don’t know? Well, that’s easy to fix! We’ll just introduce you to everyone. Then you’ll be popular. The most popular girl in school.”
“Surely you realize that it’s not that easy.”
“Of course it’s not. I was speaking hypothetically. Theory. Which never works in real life,” said Roberta.
“Except in Potions, I suppose,” Susan said, going back to her doodle.
“Don’t go back to your drawing! Go back to being that fountain of wit!” Roberta poked her insistently on the shoulder.
“You should work on the assignment.”
“Strengthening potion, shmengthening potion. I want to talk.”
“Come off it; I don’t know you that well,” said Susan, suddenly recoiling back within herself. She still had a small smile on her face.
Both girls jumped when Slughorn clapped his hands together. “Alright, class! That’s the end of it. Finished are we? Miss Ponds!” He leaned over her cauldron, prompting her to scoot back a little in her chair. “Quite nice, Miss Ponds, quite nice indeed. Five points for Gryffindor. Now, I hope the rest of your potions are up to par!” He turned to Roberta’s potion. “Miss Brandish, keep up the… work. Well, now, Mr. Snape, this is also quite good.” He continued on, appraising each individual cauldron.
The class was soon excused, though Susan stayed a bit behind to avoid the crush of students rushing through the door. Roberta, having braved the crowd, waited for her in the Great Hall.
At the end of lunch, they said their goodbyes to Hagrid and went their separate ways. Susan made her way to the greenhouse. Hopefully this class would be as uneventful as the week before; Susan crossed her fingers and wished even harder than usual, hoping it would work as well as it had earlier. It didn’t.
“Settle, class. Quiet. Quiet!” yelled Professor Sprout. After a roar of shhh’s, the sixth-year Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs finally quieted to a tolerable level. “Now,” started Sprout. “We’ll be starting a short, in-class project. You will be in pairs…” The class began to cheer, students sidling up to their best friends. “… of my choosing.” There was a collective groan. “Now, hold still.” Sprout went around, pointing to each student and giving each a number. “Six, seven, eight, nine, and ten, and you’re also one, McKinnon, two, three… And so on. You can count. Now, pair up with the person with the same number as you. No trading, I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on all of you.” Susan, at the end of the row, was the second ten. She held up both her hands with fingers splayed, walking along the fringe of the class, waiting for someone else with her number.
“Ten? Ten? Ten!”
Oh Merlin. Not him.
Anyone but him…
Sirius Black and his enormous ego found their way through the class towards her, united by that grin of his. “Hello, partner mine,” he said, swinging an arm over her shoulders. She froze, extremely uncomfortable with the situation. He smelled vaguely like a cupcake. A manly cupcake, but a cupcake nonetheless.
“Each pair, come up in numerical order and get a seed. Your assignment is to research its properties, identify it, and properly raise it to maturity. I will tell you that this assignment should take no longer than one week, which should considerably narrow down the number of plants you could be researching. Each of your seeds is different, so don’t even try to cheat. It will be harshly punished. Ah, here you are, Bryant, Evans, and you, Potter- stop trying to switch partners- and Lou…”
Sprout gently placed a seed into Susan’s hands. Susan turned to Sirius, sighing. “Well, at least we got a distinct one,” he said, looking pointedly over to where Remus Lupin was rubbing his temples, his partner Greta Catchlove holding a nondescript brown oval. Susan and Sirius’s seed was greenish, with yellow speckles, and shone in the bright light of the greenhouse. “Easier to figure out what it is. Here, let me see,” he said, reaching for the seed.
Susan recoiled, cradling the seed against her chest. “You have to be careful with it. Some of them react to motion or pressure,” she said softly.
“I’ll be careful. What makes you think I won’t be careful?” Sirius asked.
“You were reaching for it like Iago Crabbe for a ball of cheese. Gently. Like you’re holding an endangered bird’s egg. Or a duckling. Or a crucial part of a prank of yours or something else fragile and extremely important to you,” she said, gingerly placing the seed in his cupped palms.
His head tilted a little as he looked at her. “I think that’s the longest chain of words you’ve ever said to me.”
“Why is everyone so interested in the length of my sentences?” Susan mumbled, rummaging through her bag for a quill.
“What was that?”
He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Still holding the seed in one hand, he held a piece of parchment down with his elbow. Susan had already begun to take her own notes on the seed’s appearance before she noticed what he was doing. When he saw Susan trying to peek at his parchment, Sirius asked, “Can you hold this? It would help.” Susan nodded and took the seed, holding it in her flat hand so that it was easily visible. Sirius continued to scratch away at the parchment with his quill.
“W-What are you… doing?” she asked.
“Well, we’ll need a reference after we plant it, so…” He turned the parchment so she could see. It was an ink sketch of the seed, complete with cross-hatch shading and tiny detail. The sketch was nearly photo-realistic. Since when could Sirius Black draw? Sirius, noting Susan’s raised eyebrows, said: “It helps, when planning mischief, to be able to recognize what the diagrams are supposed to depict.” Susan merely nodded in response.
“When you are done noting your seed’s properties, you may begin research,” announced Professor Sprout. “There are textbooks in the cart at the back, to the left… Yes, that cart, Willaby. No, turn back around, the one that you were just pointing to. Willaby!” Sprout groaned, some students giggling, as Marlene McKinnon grabbed her partner by the shoulders and turned him around to face the books.
“No worries, I’ve got it,” Sirius said. Susan hardly noticed him, as invested as she was in her note-taking. Herbology had never been Susan’s strongest subject, but surely a shiny, speckled, green seed couldn’t be that hard to identify and plant. Sirius promptly returned with a copy of Seeds to Stalks: How to Grow Your Magical Plant, which he dropped on the table, dangerously near the seed. Susan tried not to glare. “I’m hoping that it’s something dangerous, myself,” Sirius said. “It looks like MacDonald and Markwell got a fanged geranium seed.”
Susan turned to him. “And… y-you know what that looks like, right off the top of your head?”
“Oh, my dear lady, you wound me,” he said, placing a hand over his heart. “Your underestimation of my knowledge greatly pains me.” Susan tried to stop her mouth from twitching. “Ah-ha!” Sirius cried. “Is that a smile I see you trying to hide?”
“No,” Susan mumbled, putting a hand over her mouth.
“I think that it was.”
Sirius could practically see her retreating back into herself, like it was a physical change. He sighed. This would be a tough one to crack, but he was confident in his abilities to bring out the best (or worst) in people. Susan flipped the book open, scanning the table of contents. Her shoulders slumped and she rubbed a hand across the back of her neck, reminding him of that same hand scratching behind his ears. What he wouldn’t do for a quick run, right then, through the woods… He realized that her body language suggested disappointment. “What is it?” he asked.
“Hm? Oh… W-well, I mean…” She gritted her teeth for a second, her eyes squinched shut. Then she continued, this time sounding less like a breathless mouse and more like a breathless human. “This book is organized alphabetically.”
“So we’ll have to go through each entry one by one, reading about its properties, until we find a match.” She was frustrated, both with the book’s author’s completely logical organization system and with herself. Why couldn’t Herbology be easy? Why couldn’t she just say what she wanted to say and be done with it? Why was she so scared of people as a general entity?
“Oh, that’s no matter, look,” Sirius said, pointing to the very first entry. “Abagridine Broadleaf… green, speckled seeds, light, glossy wax coating. Perfect match.”
“Maybe… Does it, er, say what color the… speckles are?”
“Well, no, but everything else fits, so I say we’re done. Let’s plant this little solidified troll bogey and be done with it!” Sirius grinned.
Susan tried not to roll her eyes. “I’m just going to check to make sure there isn’t a plant that’s described as having specifically yellow speckles. Don’t touch it just yet!” she exclaimed as Sirius reached for the seed. He put his hands up in exaggerated resignation. Susan flipped another two pages before she groaned.
“What is it?” asked Sirius, coming to peek over her shoulder. She shifted uncomfortably away from him.
Sirius took the book from her hands, ready to smack his forehead with it as he saw what was written on the open pages.
Babbling Crocus seeds have a greenish tint, with light-colored speckles…
“It’s lying, right?”
“No…” Susan groaned, her head falling forward to hit the table. A muffled “ow” escaped from the curtain of her hair. Sirius had to admit (mentally, of course), it was kind of cute.
As it turned out, quite a few magical plants matched to some extent the properties of their little seed. By the end of class, both Sirius and Susan were shooting envious glances at the previously pitiable pair, Remus and Greta, who were now picking out a pot for their Snarling Snapdragon seed. “Alright,” said Sirius, holding up a list. “So far, possible matches are: Abargridine Broadleaf bush, Babbling Crocus, Bane of Kneazle, Draping Drizzlevine, Egreknot, Flutterby Bush, Lagamonde, and Zebra Flower.”
“I guess we’ll… have to work on it outside of class. I- I think the library would… be a good place to start,” Susan managed. “We could… meet. Perhaps during lunch…”
“Yeah, sure, great,” said Sirius, walking off towards James as Professor Sprout announced the end of the period. Susan stopped staring at his retreating back and collected her things.
The next day, Susan went straight to the library after Defense Against the Dark Arts. She set her bag down at a table and went off to look for relevant plant literature. Fifteen minutes later she figured Black would have arrived, and went back to the table. He had not. She sat down, flipping open one of the books, and waited. Another quarter hour passed, still with no sign of her partner. Another thirty minutes later, she had finished researching the first three plants and only ruled out one. Mentally declaring Sirius Black a no-show, Susan walked back to the dormitory to change books. As she made her way down the changing staircases, she couldn’t decide whether she was more hurt or satisfied. Hurt, because he had deliberately stood her up for a meeting to work on a project that could bring her grade up. Satisfied, because she had been proved right- he was the arrogant prick she had always known him to be- and who doesn’t enjoy being right?
Susan was on her way to the hospital wing hours later when she bumped into the one person she least wanted to see. She hit the ground with an uncomfortable thud, her books scattering on impact. “Oh, hello there, Turtle. Need a hand?” Susan stared stonily at the flagstone next to her left knee, determined not to interact with one Sirius Black. “Hey, the seed isn’t hurt, is it? Didn’t want you to land on it or something.”
This particular inquiry infuriated her. “You,” she spat, snatching her books away from his reaching hands, “have no right, whatsoever, to ask me about our project. If you couldn’t be bothered at lunch, you shouldn’t be bothered now.”
“Well, sorry. What happened to your hand?”
“Your hand,” he said. “It’s bleeding onto your Transfiguration book.”
“I got bitten by a doxy. It’s a hazard in Care of Magical Creatures. Now leave me alone.” Susan stalked off towards the hospital wing, hoping that would be the end of it.
“Hey, Turtle! Wait up!” He caught up to her in three long strides. “At least let me walk you.”
By the time they had arrived, Susan had calmed down. “Look,” she said.
“I know, about lunch. I forgot.”
“Yeah, it completely slipped my mind. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Well, good. Tomorrow is Saturday, luckily for us. We can meet tomorrow morning in the library. There’s a table right next to the Herbology section.”
“What? But tomorrow’s a Hogsmeade day!” Sirius exclaimed. “And- wow, okay, your hand is really swollen… you say a doxy did that?”
“So? We need to get this done. There will be other Hogsmeade days. And if we work hard, we might still get the afternoon.”
“Okay, Turtle, look.” He leaned in the doorway, crossing his arms in front of him. “I understand that you don’t really see the necessity of Hogsmeade. Who could blame you? You don’t have a life. Me? I have a life. A very active one. Of which Hogsmeade and Saturdays in general are very much an integral part. I’m not going to waste my time on a Herbology project.”
Susan couldn’t help her mouth falling open a little as he pushed himself off the wall and walked away. Who the bloody hell did he think he was? Waste his time? And… she did have a life! It was when she tried to argue this point to herself that she realized that she didn’t.
That night, Sirius decided to go for the run he’d been dying for all week. After James dug his cloak out of its hiding place under his mattress, he threw it across the room and into Sirius’s eager hands. Now thoroughly invisible, Sirius snuck out the porthole, checking the map every so often on his way down to the entrance hall. With one last glance at Filch’s tiny ink footsteps, Sirius pushed open the massive door to the castle, wincing at its equally massive groan. He didn’t take of the invisibility cloak until he was safely past the forest’s edge, where he folded it neatly and set it at the foot of a tree. Melting into his Animagus form, he took off running.
There were few joys in the whole world comparable to the feeling of a good run. He dashed around trees, leapt over roots, the impact of each swift paw no louder than the breath of a bird. Small creatures scattered as he ran by, their scurrying scents whipping at his face like ribbons. Better than anything, he was free. No responsibility, no restraints, nothing to burden him but gravity, and even that seemed only to have the slightest of holds on him as he flew across the forest floor. Partway through his wide loop of the castle grounds, a foreign sound perked his ears. Slowing to a halt, he listened more closely. It was kind of squeaky, a choked, airy sound that could only mean one thing. He padded closer to the edge of the trees, seeing a hunched-over figure huddled into the rocky slope to the west of the castle. The spot was completely shielded from view off the main grounds, the perfect hiding spot. The girl’s form trembled with her light sobs. With a guilty pang, Sirius caught her scent and realized who it was.
Susan looked up. “Dodger?” Her face was red and blotchy, her cheeks wet. Sirius wasn’t sure what to do, feeling awkward in that he wanted to comfort her, but also knew that she wasn’t exactly a fan of him, and… Wait, what was he thinking? She disliked Sirius. She loved Dodger. With this in mind, he bounded up to her, placing his shaggy head on her knees. He wagged his tail slowly, unsure. She smiled weakly, her lips quivering, but the effort was broken by a hiccup and more tears. “D-Dodger…hic… Hi-hic-there…” she gulped. “I’ve just…” she sniffed heavily. “I’ve just had a really, really, bad day, you know?” Her voice broke. “First, that complete git Black forgot about our project in the library today,” she scoffed. “I mean, he forgot? Forgot?! He couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a decent…decent excuse!” Her tears started back up again in force. “And a doxy bit me, and it hurt worse than anything, and my hand was all swollen and that complete, utter, total, blindingly arrogant toe rag of a human being tells me that I have no life and I mean, it’s true! That’s the worst part!” She began to sob again. Sirius felt like she’d just punched him in the stomach. He was the reason she was out here? He’d never meant to hurt her feelings, let alone do something like this… Now that he thought about it, he had been feeling particularly mean, ever since Snivellus managed to land a hex on Remus earlier. Remus never even teased that grimy git, anyway. His mind went back to the crying girl in front of him. “And then, when I got closer to the Great Hall,” she sputtered, “Rienne Halloway and Gretchen Summers and some other Ravenclaws and Slytherins were all crowded together in the doorway, and I had to go through them to get to dinner, and when I asked to get by Rienne said, ‘Sure, beanpole,’ and Gretchen muttered ‘gutter troll’ and ‘no-mates’ and they were all laughing at me, and I couldn’t even get through, and I was actually hungry for once, and there was apple pudding, but I couldn’t even go in, and when I walked away, someone tripped me and I… I… I mean, what is it with tripping me, anyways?!!” She clenched her fists. “What is wrong with me?! I mean, am I really so… so… Rrrrrrrrrraaggh!” she cried, falling back against the rocks. If the landing was painful, she didn’t show it.
Sirius nudged her shoulder with his nose in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him in for a bone-crushing hug. Her ribs poked at his shoulder awkwardly, but he let it happen. He was partially at fault, and therefore needed to do penance. It was just then that he had a brilliant idea. He leapt up, causing her to flinch a little, and started to run back towards the woods. “Wait!” Susan cried. “Don’t…” She trailed off as he came back to sit by her. How was he supposed to tell her to wait where she was? Sirius started to trot off again, but Susan stood to follow. He turned around and yipped. “What?” she asked, looking to the woods like she was expecting to see a monster looming in the trees. Sirius rolled his doggy eyes. He padded back over to where she stood, gently took her hand in his mouth, and led her back to where she’d been sitting. He then walked off again, periodically glancing back at her to make sure she wasn’t going anywhere. Once he entered to forest, he sprinted at top speed back to where he’d stowed the invisibility cloak.
Once again an invisible human, Sirius jogged back to the castle. Following the map, he made his way down the many winding corridors to the still life painting that he knew so well. Reaching up, he brushed his fingertips across the pear, waiting for it to giggle and admit him entrance. The frame swung open, revealing the kitchens. The rooms were dark and sleepy, most of the house elves done with the dishes from dinner and not yet cooking for breakfast. However, one or two always hung around, ready to serve any student who happened to pop by. “Spindle?” called Sirius into the shadows. With a loud crack, a bright-eyed, wrinkle-faced elf appeared in front of him.
“Oh, glorious to see you, Mister Black!” Spindle chirped. “Some jam doughnuts for you, then, sir?” The house elf was already making to fix them.
“Ah, not tonight, Spindle,” said Sirius. The house elf immediately zoomed right back to Sirius’s side. “I’ll need a… an apple bread pudding. That was served a dinner, right?”
“Oh, yes, sir! Be right back, sir!” Spindle Disapparated with a snap, reappearing only moments later, with a platter of pudding in hand. “Here, Mister Black! Is there anything else you need?”
Sirius looked at the platter, realizing the dilemma that that particular mode of food transportation posed to a dog. “Spindle…”
“Is there… I need a basket, as well. To put the pudding in. And a fork.”
“Right away, sir!” Spindle once again popped away and back, this time with a covered basket. “Will that be all, Mister Black?” he squeaked.
“Yes, Spindle,” said Sirius, taking the basket. Within minutes he was trotting back across the grounds, the basket clutched between his canine teeth.