Harry remained quite still as the impact of these words hit him. Then he wheeled round.
But Neville had already stretched out his hand, into which his mother dropped an empty Drooble's Best Blowing Gum wrapper.
'Well, you know, they do work well on non-magical wounds,' said Hermione fairly. 'I suppose something in that snake's venom dissolves them or something. I wonder where the tearoom is?'
Sirius looked slightly disconcerted for a moment, then said, 'I'll look for him later, I expect I'll find him upstairs crying his eyes out over my mother's old bloomers or something. Of course, he might have crawled into the airing cupboard and died . . . but I mustn't get my hopes up.'
Thanks for the book, Harry,' she said happily. 'I've been wanting that New Theory of Numerology for ages! And that perfume's really unusual, Ron.'
'Family argument, eh?' smirked the blonde witch behind the desk. 'You're the third I've seen today . . . Spell Damage, fourth floor.'
'What's that supposed to mean?' said Sirius, letting his chair fall back on to all four legs with a loud bang.
Sirius raised his wand.
'Er,' said Harry, to announce his presence.
'And you two are clearly Weasleys,' Mrs Longbottom continued, proffering her hand regally to Ron and Ginny in turn. 'Yes, I know your parents - not well, of course - but fine people, fine people . . . and you must be Hermione Granger?'
'Oh, stop feeling all misunderstood,' said Hermione sharply. 'Look, the others have told me what you overheard last night on the Extendable Ears - '
Sirius pushed his chair roughly aside and strode around the table towards Snape, pulling out his wand as he went. Snape whipped out his own. They were squaring up to each other, Sirius looking livid, Snape calculating, his eyes darting from Sirius's wand-tip to his face.
'It had better not be clothes!' Ron warned her. 'You know what Sirius said: Kreacher knows too much, we can't set him free!'
Harry looked around. The ward bore unmistakeable signs of being a permanent home to its residents. They had many more personal effects around their beds than in Mr Weasley's ward; the wall around Gilderoy's headboard, for instance, was papered with pictures of himself, all beaming toothily and waving at the new arrivals. He had autographed many of them to himself in disjointed, childish writing. The moment he had been deposited in his chair b> the Healer, Gilderoy pulled a fresh stack of photographs towards him, seized a quill and started signing them all feverishly.
After a hurried breakfast, they all pulled on jackets and scarves against the chilly grey January morning. Harry had an unpleasant constricted sensation in his chest; he did not want to say goodbye to Sirius. He had a bad feeling about this parting; he didn't know when they would next see each other and he felt it was incumbent upon him to say something to Sirius to stop him doing anything stupid - Harry was worried that Snape's accusation of cowardice had stung Sirius so badly he might even now be planning some foolhardy trip beyond Grimmauld Place. Before he could think of what to say, however, Sirius had beckoned him to his side.
A thin, pimply, jug-eared youth in a purple uniform leapt down on to the pavement and said, 'Welcome to the - '
'Yeah?' growled Harry, his hands deep in his pockets as he watched the snow now falling thickly outside. 'All been talking about me, have you? Well, I'm getting used to it.'
The feeling of being unclean intensified. He half-wished he had not obeyed Dumbledore . . . if this was how life was going to be for him in Grimmauld Place from now on, maybe he would be better off in Privet Drive after all.
'What?' said Ron, looking amazed. (Harry wanted to stamp on Ron's foot, but that sort of thing is much harder to bring off unnoticed when you're wearing jeans rather than robes.) 'Is that your dad down the end, Neville?'