The Sugar Quill
Author: Katinka (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Character Development  Chapter: Default
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Subtlety has never been my strong suit

Character Development



By Katinka



An excerpt from the posthumous autobiography of Sirius Black, as begun by Catherine in “My Time in Azkaban” and “Cocoa and Sympathy”.



Subtlety was never my strong suit in the years prior to Azkaban.  At times, I suppose discretion should have been added to that list.  These shortcomings were once merely a source of humour to my school friends, especially when comments to my female classmates – meant as honest observations, though James dubbed them “tactless” – resulted in infuriated huffs and glares.  Still, my temperament worked to my favour on the Quidditch pitch, where impulsiveness served a Beater well.  My play helped win Gryffindor many a match, although my behavior made few friends among those who had, while yet at Hogwarts, chosen Voldemort for their master. 


These people – Severus Snape among them – were convinced that my friends and I were up to no good.  In fairness, their assumptions were often correct.  Midnight forays through the Forbidden Forest and the outskirts of Hogsmeade I can easily attribute to boyish carelessness.  Sending Snape to the arms of the Whomping Willow, and potentially a werewolf, is less simple to rationalize, though my only regrets on that count remain for Remus.  Cleverness in the classroom did not always translate to the best decision-making, though it did help me narrowly avoid a few detentions. 


One might think that now, as a grown man, I would have left these things behind.  I would have hoped for that myself.  I now had the charge of a godson, the responsibility for his welfare, and the challenge of eventually clear my name in society.  But I continued to find in the months after my escape, when my path crossed with that of a Hogsmeade seamstress, twelve years in the soul-sucking confines of Azkaban had apparently done little to better my character. 


I never intended to become fond of Abigail Loomis.   The possibility certainly never crossed my mind that she, in some unfathomable way, might become attached to me.  The very idea was unthinkable – by this point in my hiding, I’d regained enough sanity to be very much aware of the state of filth and infamy in which she first came across me, when, in a fit of anger, I revealed my true identity to her.


Yet somehow, at the instant when a more predictable person might have quickly summoned the authorities or shrieked for her life, she did none of those things.  Abby took me into her home, clothed me, and fed me.  She spoke to me as a man, not as a deranged criminal.  I was wholly unaccustomed to this treatment.  I’d only had brief snatches of such time with Harry, Remus, and Dumbledore before reality and good fortune had sent me off on the back of a hippogriff.  And yet this woman smiled at me, laughed with me, and acted as though she knew me for who and what I truly was. 


I believe my fondness for her ginger biscuits originated from that moment.  Yes, they certainly were an appetizing deviation from the slop I’d existed on for over a decade, but they meant something more.  This had been one of the few times in countless years that some had actually cared for my welfare, had cared whether I lived or died in a dank cell or at the mouth of a Dementor.


Later that night, when the nightmares and horrors of Azkaban faithfully visited my sleep, Abby came to me.  She pulled me from my pit of misery and took me, of all places, to her bedroom.  I’m not sure why I followed her – she was obviously too asleep to fully comprehend what she was doing, and a nagging voice at the back of my mind told me that once I let myself be close to her, my life would inevitably change.  Such voices are easily disregarded in the late hours, however.  I changed into Padfoot and slept alongside Abby, where I felt the comforting presence of human warmth and breath until morning came.  And yes, my life did change.  Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep away from Abby.


I’ve dwelt on that night many times since.  Abby had been so trusting – too trusting, for that matter.  If I’d been anyone else, especially the man the wizarding world believed me to be, she could have been hurt and abused.  But any kind of advances – predatory, amorous, or otherwise – had been the furthest thing from my mind, and somehow, she’d known that.  But to what could I put down her actions, her outward familiarity with me?  I certainly didn’t remember her from Hogwarts.  I finally wrote it off as an odd Hufflepuff trait, or perhaps an aftereffect of her accident in the boughs of the Whomping Willow.  For a full-grown woman, Abby had a surprising amount of childishness to her.  I smile even now, thinking of the way in which sharp table corners and protruding objects seem to magically pull her to them. 


And yet, Abby appeared so weary of the world at times.  I suppose that partly came from the rumours that dogged her, even after so many years of living in Hogsmeade.  Though I didn’t completely believe the talk – I knew Abby to be bright and intelligent, despite what her neighbors thought – I certainly empathized with her predicament.  Despite all I did to combat Voldemort in the years after Hogwarts, many adults couldn’t see beyond the boy who’d once put crimson and gold ink in the Slytherin shower taps.  The Scribbulus brand lived up to its billing of “Couldn’t get it out, even if you tried”, both on Slytherin skin and in people’s minds.  I didn’t know if I’d ever live down my more recent reputation, even if the Ministry eventually exonerated me.  But again, that never seemed to matter to her.  Though I never said a word, Abby simply accepted my innocence.


When I returned to her cottage that spring, after an absence of many months, this all seemed to have changed.  I barely knew what Abby thought of me then.  The first time I’d skulked through her garden gate, I’d sought only a temporary haven from the rain.  The second time, I’d merely wanted to see that she was well and perhaps get a free meal.  We all know how that particular visit ended.  The third and last time, I probably should have known better, though I’m grateful now that I didn’t act on that caution. 


I’m not entirely certain what brought me back.  Perhaps I needed the confirmation that I had made the right choice in leaving before.  I well remembered how I’d made her cry on the second to last night we’d spent together.  I barely understood what I’d done, let alone what I was to do in such a situation, but I’d known then that Voldemort had touched her life, too.  Had they been there, James and Remus would have undoubtedly shaken their heads and asked me why I hadn’t kept my big mouth shut.  I had no idea how to comfort Abby, and I felt miserable and useless. 


And so, when an owl from Dumbledore came the following day, alerting me to suspicions of my whereabouts, I left.  I left Abby’s cottage, with no warning or thanks.  She’d soon see that she was better off without my company, I rationalized.  After all, I brought precious little to the acquaintance.  Moreover, she’d be safer without a wanted felon under her roof.


Dumbledore had warned me weeks earlier that such a day might come, and so I was not entirely surprised.  I had been genuinely taken aback, however, to receive a message from him only days after I began staying at Abby’s.  A Hogwarts school owl had lit on the windowsill in the late morning, after she had already left for work.  I had hoped the bird might leave the letter and depart, but then I noticed my name, unmistakably written in green ink.  As Padfoot, I somehow managed to convince the owl to give the letter to me.  What a trusty dog I could be, fetching newspapers and post.


I opened the parchment to find a brief note from the Headmaster of Hogwarts.  I had not seen Albus Dumbledore since the night Peter escaped from me, and I escaped from the Dementors.  And now he was summoning me for a meeting the following evening.  My first reaction was a rush of nostalgic embarrassment, as if I were again a schoolboy caught in some foolhardy prank.  That then turned to dread, pure dread.  How would I face Dumbledore, knowing that despite the measures he’d taken to keep me alive, I still managed to endanger myself and others. 


But owls were marvelous creatures, I reminded myself, with uncanny abilities to find the intended recipients of their messages.  Dumbledore did not need to know my location in order to owl me.  I breathed a little easier at that thought, although my comfort shortly ended when Padfoot scratched on the door of Hagrid’s cabin at the next day’s end.


“Where’s Hagrid?” I asked, after Dumbledore had ushered me into the dwelling and closed the door.


“I asked him to document the troll population in the Forbidden Forest.  He was more than happy to oblige.”  The lines on the Headmaster’s face seemed to have deepened since I’d seen him last, despite his jovial laugh.


“Trolls finding their way into the dungeons again?”  I’d heard of Harry and Ron’s earlier run-in.


Dumbledore smiled.  “No, I was merely curious, although I do wonder at times if a few of their number have taken up employment with the Ministry of Magic.  Now, please sit down.”  He gestured towards Hagrid’s gigantic table.  “I took the liberty of bringing provisions.”


He snapped his fingers, and a spread of meat pies, breads, and other food began to take over the wooden surface.  I went to the table with haste, my mouth already salivating.  I had eaten a few real meals at Abby’s cottage by this point, but my body still resorted to its long-time custom of devouring any food it could find.  I set into a pie, ingesting it with eager mouthfuls.  Before I could even look around for drink, a tankard of ale appeared in my hand.  The food was delicious, so much so that I barely noticed the contemplative way in which Dumbledore watched me.


“I hope you are well, Sirius,” he said at length.


I looked up from my meal to give a brief nod.  “I am, though this business with the Tournament troubles me.  I just don’t feel that Harry’s safe.”


“A worry I share,” Dumbledore replied.  “Yes, I certainly do.”  The conversation lapsed into silence as I continued to eat, pausing after an especially juicy bite to run my sleeve across my mouth.


“You’ll want to be careful, Sirius.  You wouldn’t want to stain your robes.” 


The Headmaster’s words stopped me cold.  I looked down, and the bit of potato in my mouth almost fell to the floor.  Clean, intact grey wool.  Hardly the frayed and filthy clothing of a madman.  Dumbledore didn’t appear to notice my sudden discomfort.  Instead, he ran his long fingers around the elaborate gold embroidery that circled the sleeves of his own robes.   


“Beautiful workmanship, isn’t it?” he mused.  “A dear friend of mine from the village made them for me – Miss Abigail Loomis, who operates the Gladrags establishment there.  She brought them by the week before last.”


I couldn’t meet his eye, my own gaze still affixed on my clothing.  How could I have been so foolish?  “I’ll leave there at once, Dumbledore,” I mumbled.  If he could tell that these robes came from Abby, then others would also be able.  I couldn’t let that happen again.  As he had many times before, Dumbledore proceeded to surprise me.


 “Now, why is it that people always feel they must read additional meaning into my words?” he replied, sounding rather affronted.


I snorted out loud and jerked my head up.  Surely Dumbledore understood that this usually was the result when one made a regular habit of cryptic utterances and eccentricity.  But when I looked at his face, the slight upturn to his bearded mouth let me know that he’d understood his own joke; he merely wanted me to face him.


“Sirius, I did not say you should depart Abigail’s company immediately,” he continued, his face looking more worried than recriminating.  “However, that time may come.  I know of a certain cave that is not far from Hogsmeade, but which will be sufficiently secluded for you and Buckbeak.”  He paused.  “Miss Loomis is a dear girl.  I would hate to see her, and all for which she’s worked, fall into harm’s way.”


Dumbledore then imparted what information he could about Harry’s situation, and, without further discussion of Abby, sent me on my way.  It wasn’t until much later that I really gave thought to what he’d said about her.  What had she worked for?  The manager’s position at Gladrags?  Why was Dumbledore so concerned about this one woman’s career?  No answers were readily available, and so I let the questions drift away as I concentrated on keeping Buckbeak and myself alive.


Though I tried to keep to my cave and the woods as much as possible, I had made occasional ventures into Hogsmeade for newspapers and scraps.  But when I managed to tear my mind away from Harry and the constant danger that I knew surrounded him, Abby was often in my thoughts.  I could have chosen from a myriad of names, but somehow I found myself telling Harry and his friends to call me “Snuffles”.  Snuffles?  I never thought that I’d miss that ridiculous moniker. 


But while in Hogsmeade, I caught glimpses of Abby from time to time, walking along the street with her head downcast, her shoulders slightly slumped, as though she didn’t want to call attention to herself.  But even then, she always presented herself perfectly – hair, robes, everything in order. 


That’s why I remembered one day in particular quite clearly.  Abby was storming down the lane, her hair skewered by a quill into a messy knot.  It seemed so out of place.  And though I knew I should retreat further, to where she wouldn’t see me there in the alleyway, I felt compelled to stay.  I couldn’t make out all her words, but I heard one name very distinctly as she tugged at the quill crossly – “Lucius”. 


Lucius Malfoy.  I remembered him well enough from Hogwarts, but I’d heard his name with even greater frequency in Azkaban.  While many of his former Death Eater cronies had gone to prison with Lord Voldemort’s praises still on their lips, Lucius had made quite a concerted effort to stay out.   But I had no doubt as to his allegiances, and I didn’t need Remus or James to explain Abby’s words to me on this occasion.  Lucius Malfoy had been near her, or worse, had touched her.  Even now, my mind easily sees the way in which her hair, seeming livid itself, spilled down around her shoulders as it escaped the quill.


Now Abby’s hair, much like the rest of her, did little to stand out.  It was a normal colour – a light brown – and straight.  But I knew the way the firelight glinted off of it in the evenings.  I knew the way it shook back and forth when she laughed.  I knew the way it looked on lazy weekend mornings, as if the entirety of it had doubled in volume overnight.  I knew the way little pieces were always escaping and getting in her way as she worked around the house.  I knew the way it smelled.  I knew the way it held itself in heavy waves after she’d taken it down at the end of the day.  I knew all these things, and the thought of Lucius Malfoy anywhere near Abby or her hair made my hackles rise, both as man and dog.


With this in mind, I suppose I must admit that I had a second, equally selfish reason for returning.  I had to know what had happened with Malfoy.  She would turn me out the minute she saw me, I told myself with little enthusiasm – but then my conscience would be assuaged, my doubts would leave, and I could return to my cold, uncomfortable life in a cave.  One spring night, I looked around at the damp stone walls, Buckbeak spitting out the remains of small animals, and the incessant rain outside.  I wanted to escape this life, if even for a moment.  And so, I left the cave and journeyed to Abby’s cottage. 


I questioned my decision the moment I saw the look on her face.  What had I expected?  Joyful, open arms?  A cheerful exchange of pleasantries?  I tried to speak, but my voice, hoarse from disuse, could barely choke out “hello”.   Just as I began to wonder about the advisability of turning tail and fleeing the garden, she spoke.


“I haven’t any raisins on me.  You needn’t fear for your safety.”


I wanted to laugh.  The raisins – how could we ever forget that episode!  Trust Abby and her quirky manner to bring that up.  I took her comment as a friendly gesture, though I soon found I was mistaken.  She continued on, bitterly.


“You could have left a note, at least.  That’s what decent folk do.  And if you can’t treat your robes any better, you’re not getting any new ones.”


I looked down, realizing for the first time that evening what I must look like to her.  I hadn’t even taken a second’s time to clean myself up.  But she was confusing me.  No man in his right mind, even a man in my own wretched state, would willingly choose Azkaban robes and all they stood for over the soft, comfortable clothing she made.  Abby was no fool; she had to know that I would not have abandoned her gifts without good reason.


“Abby, these aren’t the robes – ” I tried to explain, but she cut me off angrily.


“Oh, shhh.  I know that.” 


At this point, I began to feel as though nothing I might do or say at that moment would help her, and I decided to keep quiet.  My voice would not have been able to defend me from her biting accusations anyway.  But at the sight of the obvious hurt in her stare, I found I didn’t want to talk about Lucius Malfoy.  I wanted to sit by the fire with her, hearing her friendly voice, eating her ginger biscuits and pretending that I wasn’t a fugitive. 


When Abby inadvertently doused herself with pumpkin juice, I almost laughed at loud, remembering just what I’d missed about her company.  The fury in her voice stopped me short, though, and I knew this encounter would be short-lived.  I really didn’t have to right to expect things to occur any differently.  When she brought up Dumbledore, I knew that she was equally tired of the unanswered questions and half-truths we’d happily existed on earlier.  I braced myself for the moment when she’d fling me out, glad that at least I’d been able to see her for a few awkward minutes. 


But then, despite every reason she had to the contrary, Abby took me in again.  She let me into her home each evening, even though she seemed to wait until the last possible minute to do so.  She made meals for me – delicious meals that the knots in my stomach rarely let me enjoy.  Yet this visit was so different than our previous weeks together.  She barely spoke to me.  There was no camaraderie, no laughter to gloss over the secrets we both so obviously held.  I wanted that back so badly.  After letting me in, Abby would leave for her bedroom, spending the remainder of the evening there.  Despite our close proximity, I felt as though I barely saw her.


On many of those nights, I stood outside her door, wanting to know what troubled her.  I imagined how I’d politely knock, how she’d let me in, how we could finally talk…  Truth be told, a more likely course of action for me would have been to just beat down the door and demand, with sensitivity of a Bludger, that she tell me what was wrong.  But each time I raised my hand, the stench of acrid smoke would waft past my nostrils, the vision of a smoldering ruin in Godric’s Hollow would come into view, and I would remember that bad things happened to people who trusted in me.  How dare I ask Abby for her confidence!  Each time, I would leave the door and retire to the sofa for a night of troubled sleep. 


All this time, I scarcely believed that I could be a factor in this worry of hers.  She knew my name and reputation; in the past, I’d brought her nothing but inconvenience and possible danger.  But she’d had no choice in my previous departure.  While almost every indication said that I was an unwelcome presence in her cottage and life, she still opened the door each day.  I felt I owed her some degree of agency.  I would let Abby tell me when to go, and I would leave directly when she did.


But while I had food to eat and a roof over my head each night, one specific thing – a thing I couldn’t seem to shake from my mind – remained missing.  Ginger biscuits.  I missed them.  I could almost taste them each time I sat at the kitchen table.  As Abby had since cooked up every other dish I’d enjoyed before in her home, I didn’t think she could have forgotten them by accident.  However, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.  It was remarkable enough that she hadn’t thrown me out on my ear by now; I wasn’t going to tempt fate by making demands of her in the kitchen. 


Instead, I determined to trigger her memory by other, subtler methods.  I positioned the container of ginger in the very front of her pantry, where she’d see it every time she opened the door.  I made my move, and then I waited.  And I waited a few days more.  And still, no biscuits.  Their absence ate at me, as though Abby’s approval and acceptance were gone with them. 


Finally, I reached a breaking point.  This had gone on long enough.  I was Sirius Black, I told myself, a man of action.  A man who had mastered the Animagus transformation as a schoolboy.  The first man to escape from the festering hole that is Azkaban.  Surely, I could overcome this.  With that in mind, I went to the kitchen one afternoon and seized an apron.


As the fates would have it, this would be the day when Abby would unexpectedly come home to fetch some forgotten robe designs.  I felt like a prat standing there, a recipe card and a wooden spoon in hand.  And yet, equally unexpectedly, this seemed to soften her towards me.  My flour-covered state brought out the first genuine smile I’d seen from her in months.  And with a bit of triumph, I enjoyed a plate of freshly baked biscuits that evening.


Now that things between us were amicable once more, I suppose I should have let all these unresolved matters rest.  I managed to, for a few weeks, until one night when we sat reading by the fire.  My eyes wearily scanned the newspaper, barely reading the words, just waiting for some new clue or morsel of information to reveal itself.  Harry had kept himself alive through the first two of his three tasks, but I couldn’t breathe easily just yet.  James would have laughed at me, fussing over Harry like a mother hen.  But then, I told myself, if James were alive, Harry probably wouldn’t be in this mess.  All these thoughts sufficed to put me in a foul mood, which only grew when I saw the book Abby was reading – a beginner’s guide to sewing.  As if she was some sort of “beginner”.  I’d had enough of this charade.


I know there would have been more diplomatic ways of plying Abby for this information, but in my impatience, I didn’t seek them out.  I only managed to start a blazing row.  Of course, it was also not the time to bring up Lucius Malfoy, but I did that as well.  He was not the sort with whom she should trifle.  Angered, Abby began to throw back taunts and accusations herself.  Why did I prefer the Azkaban robes to those she made for me?  Why did I break into the Boormans’ house?  And lastly, the question that finally stopped my inquisition –


“Why do you trust me?”


My mind and mouth ground to a halt at that, a question that I couldn’t answer.  I didn’t quite know why I trusted her.  Perhaps it was because she’d never given me a reason not to.  As Snuffles, she’d taken me in and cared for me.  As Sirius, she’d done the same, and more.  She’d helped me remember what life had been like before Azkaban, and she’d given me an idea of my future could be, once Voldemort was destroyed and Harry was safe.  Perhaps I turned to her out of my own desperate need to trust, to feel human and whole again.


Tongue-tied, I didn’t reply for several endless seconds.  In one of her endearing little gestures, Abby finally threw her hands up in the air and pulled me toward the fire.  I wondered for a moment if she was going to pitch me headlong into it, but she pulled out her wand and began to cast a spell.  I almost laughed as I heard it.  Dissendium…how many times had the Marauders and I used that incantation for our own mischievous purposes?  Yet as I discovered seconds later, what lay underneath her cottage was much more than a secret path to Honeydukes. 


In fact, this unassuming woman, considered a bit simple and dim by the townspeople, possessed an ancient magical ability.  She was a Weaver.  She made invisibility cloaks.  Decades ago, Abby’s grandmother had even made James’ cloak.  I knew little of the actual craft, but my schooldays had given me a firsthand appreciation for its final product.  I was not alone in that regard –Voldemort’s followers also valued the rare cloaks, reason enough for Abby to be secretive about her skill.  And yet, for whatever reason, she chose to share this information with me, the convict.  I now knew why she hadn’t completed her education, why she hadn’t left Hogsmeade after all these years, and why she would befriend and believe in such a sorry case as myself.


I don’t remember how much time we spent talking down there in Abby’s cellar, but I remember feeling much more at peace than I had in years.  I found out that she’d watched my friends and me at Hogwarts, since her magic made her able to detect our movements under the cloak.  She told me of pranks and stunts I’d forgot long ago.  I wondered if I would have acted differently, had I known that a quiet, younger Hufflepuff girl was observing us in our antics.  Three years would have been such a chasm of difference at that time – I’m not sure I would have given her much heed.  Now, I couldn’t help but want to know everything I could about her, even though I knew the Third Task would pull me away the next day. 


As our conversation lulled, I became suddenly aware of a soft, comforting warmth nearby.  It was Abby leaning against me, her head on my shoulder, the sweet scent of her hair drifting through my senses.  She stirred, as if to move, and I found myself wanting very much for her to stay.  In a move of daring, I maneuvered my arm around her, and, for the second time in my life, I fell asleep next to Abby Loomis.  This time, I closed my eyes and welcomed any changes that might develop.








Author’s Notes:  Many beta thanks to Lallybroch and soupytwist!  I’m also grateful to Catherine, for helping me realize that this wanted to be twice as long as originally planned, and to Alkari, for steering me clear of serious Sirius clichés.  J

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