The Sugar Quill
Author: Jedi Boadicea (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Empty Frames  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

                                                                                                Empty Frames

 

 

            Dawn was breaking, grey and bleak, over Grimmauld Place by the time Kingsley Shacklebolt tapped his wand on the black door of number twelve; the sound of bolts sliding back was dull in the equally bleak silence hanging thick between the three men on the doorstep. Lowering his wand, Kingsley stood aside to let his companions enter the Order’s headquarters before him.

Moody went first, his limp more pronounced than usual, and one gnarled hand pressed to the socket of his magical eye, as though holding it in place.

            For a moment, Remus Lupin made no move to follow.

Kingsley gave him a steady look. Lupin himself looked greyer than usual, as though more of it had crept into his hair, into his eyes, into the lines of a pallid and weary face. It had been in his voice as well, these past hours, as they’d explained, over and over again, what had happened in the Department of Mysteries to men and women with no understanding of their grief. No comprehension of their loss, because even new revelations were not enough to wipe out all misconceptions.

            “You mean to tell me you’ve only been pretending to look for Black all this time, Shacklebolt?”

             Kingsley still wasn’t certain if Fudge truly believed all that they had told him, all of the many truths of the last five years - including the truth about Black and Pettigrew. But there had been questions to answer, and so he and his fellows in the Order had answered them, the look in their eyes as they glanced at each other saying, where words could not -  grieve later.

            Tonks was already at St Mungo’s. Dumbledore was back at Hogwarts, with Harry Potter. But Kingsley had given no thought to returning home - not when there were still people here at headquarters who needed to be told what had happened, not when Dumbledore might yet summon them at any moment. Not when he had friends still to worry for.

            Remus?”

            Remus didn’t even look at him. He only nodded and stepped over the threshold into the building which had been the home of the Black family for generations, and now had no master of its blood.

            Kingsley entered the hall last, and closed the door behind him as silently as he could. The slightly moldy smell of Grimmauld Place, which had grown so familiar over the last year, suddenly felt cloying. It was as though the thorough cleaning Sirius had repeatedly given the place had suddenly reversed itself. As though the house had aged since they had been here last, only a handful of hours ago.

            Only a handful of hours.

            Kingsley secured all of the bolts and locks on the door himself, while behind him he could hear Moody muttering something about his eye, and sudden footsteps heralded the arrival of other Order members.

            Alastor! Kingsley! Oh, we heard, we heard, Arthur came by and he… we…” Molly’s soft and desperate voice became almost breathless. “Remus, I… I…”

            Kingsley turned to see Molly with one hand pressed to her face, the other against her stomach. Her eyes were swollen and red. Bill had a comforting grip on his mother’s shoulder, his expression grim.

            For a moment, no one spoke.

            “Where’s Arthur now, Molly?” Moody asked, and finally pulled out his eye with a soft pop.

            For once, Molly did not criticize his lack of manners. “He’s… he’s at work. He thought that… that he would need to answer questions…”

            “We’ll be doing a lot of that,” Moody grunted. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to give this thing a thorough washing, once and for all. Stepped on, stolen…”

            Alastor!” Molly cried. “For god’s sake, talk to us! Tell us what… what …”

            But her cry had had the unfortunate, expected effect, and her words were soon drowned out by the screams from the portrait at the end of hall as its curtains flew open.

            Traitors! Mutants! Scum! Trespassers in the -”

            Kingsley sighed deeply, closed his eyes, and rubbed a hand wearily over his head, noting the roughness indicative of the need for another shaving charm, the tender spot where he had hit the floor of the Death Chamber after Lestrange had cursed him.

            Shame swept him, fueled by bitter anger.

            He’d let her escape. So much effort put into running her to ground in the first place, all those years ago, and now… now…

            And she’d slipped through his fingers, much as he had pretended for months that Sirius was doing. Slipping through their fingers.

            “We won’t know the full story till Dumbledore tells us what Potter’s got to say,” Moody said roughly. He made no effort to raise his voice over the screaming, but his words carried nonetheless.

            “We had a message from Poppy.” Molly had to raise her voice to be heard; it was high with strain and cracking from the tears she must have been shedding. “She said my children... the children… that they were fine. Did you see - ”

            Filth! Half-breeds! Shame -

            In a sudden, violent movement, Remus pulled his wand.

            STUPEFY!

            The stunner hit the canvas with such force that it blasted a hole in it, right through the old woman’s left shoulder. The portrait’s image froze, pale hands in mid-claw, eyes fixed wide in loathing.

            Remus stared at her, wand held perfectly still and level, at odds with the harsh hitch in his breathing.

            Remus,” Molly whispered.

            Bill’s hand tightened visibly on his mother’s shoulder. Moody shook his head in silence.

            Kingsley drew his shoulders back with a deeply indrawn breath, and racked his mind for something to say. But the words wouldn’t come to him.

            Remus lowered his wand, tucked it away in his shabby robes. Without looking at any of them, he murmured, “Excuse me,” and walked away down the hall and up the staircase, disappearing from sight.

            After a long moment of pregnant silence, Bill shook his head. “That’s never worked on her before,” he said softly.

            “He shouldn’t be alone,” Molly said weakly, wiping at her eyes. “I should - ”

            “No,” Kingsley said, shaking his head slowly. “Leave him for a bit, Molly.”

            “He’s your friend, Kingsley! Surely you can’t just expect - ”

            “He’s right, Molly,” Moody rumbled. “Give the lad some time.” Then he stumped off toward the kitchen without another word.

            “It’s so unfair,” she whispered, staring blankly down the shadowed hall. “And I… I’d just told him… how he shouldn’t expect us to let… let Harry stay in this miserable place for the summer… how it wasn’t… good for him…”

            “Mum,” Bill murmured, pulling her closer to him so that she leaned wearily into his chest.

            “Why did I say it?”

            “It’s all right, Mum.”

            “No it isn’t,” she said weakly. “It’s never all right. Never.”

            Kingsley reached out and patted her lightly on the shoulder. “What did Pomfrey say about the children?” he asked quietly, hoping to shift her thoughts.

            “Not much.” She rubbed briskly at her face, and her voice quickly regained strength as her thoughts turned to her children. “Not nearly enough! I demanded to see them, and I said we’d come as soon as you all arrived, as soon as we knew that someone would be here...”

            “Go now, then,” he suggested gently. “Moody wants to return to the Ministry quickly, but I will stay.”

            “Yes. Good,” Molly said almost absently, nodding. “I’ll just… just send word to Arthur. Bill?”

            “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mum.”

            “Yes. Good. Kingsley, you’ll look after Remus?”

            “Of course.”

            “And yourself.”

            “Yes, Molly.”

            She nodded, then hurried out of the hall, still wiping at her eyes.

            As soon as she was out of earshot, Bill turned to him. “Tell me the truth,” he said, voice low. “About my brother and sister.”

            “I’m afraid I don’t know much, Bill.”

            “What do you know?”

            “They were injured. I don’t know how badly. Dumbledore saw to it that they were removed for care immediately.”

            Bill paled, but said nothing. After a moment, he bowed his head. “I should have been there. If I’d been here, I could have gone with you. I could have protected them. I could have gone instead of…”

            Kingsley shook his head mournfully. “He would have insisted on going, no matter how many of us had been here.”

            Bill raised his head. “Maybe.”

            “He would have,” Kingsley insisted, sadly sure of it. “Not even James could have made him stay behind.”

            “Maybe,” Bill said again, barely audible, the word empty. Then he sighed softly. “I should go to Mum. Look, can you see if you can find Kreacher?” His expression darkened. “Dumbledore’s last message said Kreacher wouldn’t be able to leave the house, but we haven’t seen him since we got here. And if the little bastard starts going through… through Sirius’ things…”

            Kingsley nodded; he didn’t need to hear the sentence completed. Sirius may not have had a chance to gather many personal possessions in this house since his return to it, but the thought of Kreacher pawing through them, doing with them as he pleased now that his master was gone… Dumbledore had told them, before returning to Hogwarts, just how he had learned of You-Know-Who’s plans at the Ministry…

            “Look after your mother.”

            “I will,” Bill said, without a smile. Then he hurried off after Molly.

            Kingsley rubbed absently at the tender spot on his scalp again, then pressed his hand against his chest, where the curse had struck him. The bandages were still good, and the quick charm work Moody had done for him seemed to be holding, but he knew he would have to get some more expert care eventually. Just not now. Now, he thought he ought to dwell on that ache.

            He turned his head slowly to face the portrait of Mrs. Black; her gaze, though frozen, seemed to bore into him. Frowning, he walked resolutely up to the frame and wound his hand into the curtains. Like all the rest of the Order, he had quickly grown weary of the portrait’s ceaseless screeching, and he could only imagine how it must have grated on Sirius. He did not even want to imagine what it must have been like to live with the woman in the flesh, or to come back to such a place and such a memory after everything the man had been through.

Kingsley shook his head. He looked from the hole blasted in the canvas back to the old woman’s twisted, yellowed face, and said grimly, “I rather suspect you’ve caused a lot of damage yourself in your time. Perhaps it’s time you suffered a bit of it instead.”

He tugged on the curtains and they closed easily, with the source of their misbehavior stunned. He wondered how long the peace would last.

Sighing, he began a slow trek down the hall, fighting his own reluctance. He would look for Kreacher, but ultimately he knew that he’d search out Remus. He had to at least try to offer some comfort, even though he knew very well how fruitless such an effort usually was in these circumstances. He remembered how it had been for him, when Gideon was killed. Not even the knowledge that his best friend had died like a hero had been a comfort. It didn’t change the fact that he was dead.

But at least there had been a funeral then. A body. At least he hadn’t had to lose his friend twice…

Kingsley remembered how close Lupin and Black and Potter had been. And Pettigrew. Inseparable, all of them, even if Black and Potter had shared the closest of their bonds.

And now all Lupin had left was the traitor.

Assuming they could ever find him.

Kingsley thought of his cubicle, wallpapered in pictures of Sirius Black, the fugitive, the hunted man always within his reach. And he made a silent promise, in that moment, that he would take his manhunt duties seriously from this dawn on. It would just have to be another man.

Shacklebolt, isn’t it?”

He had his wand out before he finished turning toward the dry voice, and was surprised to find himself face to face with a wizard in green and silver robes standing in one of the many portrait frames of the hall.

Kingsley knew that Sirius had managed to scour most of the canvases in the house clean of their occupants, or, failing that, had taken them down entirely, frame and all, and destroyed them. Which meant that there was probably only one person this could be…

Nigellus?” he asked, eyes narrowed, wand still raised.

“Naturally. Now perhaps you would be so good as to enlighten me - does my worthless great-great-grandson have any intention of gracing the house of his ancestors with his presence again?”

There was something almost desperate behind the affected casualness of both the question and the arrogant expression on Phineas Nigellus’ face. One hand stroked his sleek and pointed beard, but the movement was not a smooth one.

“Worthless?” Kingsley echoed, lowering both his wand and his voice.

“Do please spare me the indignation and intimidation. It’s a very simple question, and I should think the answer would not cause you too much mental strain.”

Kingsley put away his wand. He turned from the portrait, his eyes locked on the stairs ahead of him, and resumed walking.

“Sirius is dead.”  

He was half-way to the stairs by the time Phineas caught up with him, striding from empty frame to empty frame, his eyes narrowed dangerously.

“You lie.”

“What does it matter to you anyway, Nigellus? Surely, if he was worthless - ”

“He was the last of the line, you ignorant fool! It cannot end like this -”

            “Like this?” Kingsley stopped at the foot of the stairs, facing the nearest portrait again, where Phineas leaned with one hand against the inside of the frame, as though he intended to push it apart and leap out of it right at him. “You don’t even know how he died. You haven’t even asked.”

            Phineas arched a dark eyebrow. “No doubt he carried on in his usual, disappointing tradition.”

            Kingsley opened his mouth to retort, then shut it. He shook his head. It wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t going to stand here and vent his feelings on a damn portrait.

            He could understand why Sirius had fled this house as a boy.

            Nigellus couldn’t follow him up the stairs; there were no portraits here, empty or otherwise. Kingsley half expected to be pursued by shouts instead, but the only sound in his ears now was the creak of his own footsteps on the stairs. He did his best to ignore the row of house-elf heads mounted on the wall beside him as climbed. Why Sirius hadn’t taken the wretched things down, he had no idea…

            The last head, at the first landing, was still wearing a father Christmas hat and beard. Kingsley had noticed, passing through the house in the last several months, that there seemed to be several nooks where Christmas decorations had gone overlooked, and still clung, solitary and bright, to their customarily dark fixtures. In the past he’d thought that perhaps Sirius had simply forgotten to take them down, but now it occurred to him that he might have left them up on purpose. There were too many things in this house which they’d discovered couldn’t be removed entirely; covering them up seemed the only option.

            Rubbing his hand over his scalp again, Kingsley stepped off the landing and started reluctantly down the first floor hallway.

He felt like he ought to have his wand in hand. A part of him still expected curses to fly past his face. A part of him was still reliving the battle of hours ago, and not walking here, searching Sirius’ house when Sirius would never return to it.

He pulled his wand, telling himself it was only because he wanted light to see by, to peer into the darkened rooms he passed, searching for Kreacher.

But he found Remus first.

            A pale light poured out of the drawing room doorway, from a dusty candelabra lit by ghostly white flame. Remus was a dark shape in the light where he stood at the far end, staring at a tapestry-covered wall. Kingsley had only been in this room once; his usual business at headquarters kept him in places better fit for comfortable gatherings. But he thought he knew what the tapestry would depict.

            He watched Remus for a moment, and almost turned to leave. There wasn’t, after all, anything he could think of to say. But Remus lifted his head and said, still facing the wall, “I’m fine, Kingsley.”

            Kingsley crossed his arms over his chest, but made no move yet to enter the room. He chose not to call Remus on his lie. Instead he said slowly, “If you need to be alone, I can respect that. But you don’t have to be.”

            When Remus said nothing, Kingsley stepped through the doorway and into the drawing room. He’d been trained to keep his steps quiet entering rooms like these, but now he let each footfall herald his approach. He didn’t think he even had the energy to do otherwise. He felt heavy. Death always did that to him.

            Kingsley came to stand beside Remus, who remained motionless. He shot the man as unobtrusive a glance as he could manage, but quickly looked away. He would not have been surprised to see silent tears there, but the grey and haggard set to the frozen profile was worse, and more eloquent, in its way, than tears would have been.

            “I was on my way to see Buckbeak,” Remus said in a painfully level voice.

            “The hippogriff?”

            “Yes.”

            Kingsley said nothing, but could not help the slight smile which turned his lips. Only Black, he thought, would have kept a hippogriff in the master bedroom of a house like this.

            “But I…”

            The vague jerk of movement he made was startling. One hand lifted as though to gesture at the tapestry, then stilled again.

            Kingsley let his gaze travel down the tapestry, tracing the gold embroidery which wove the bloodlines of an ancient wizarding family. They made a pattern he knew better from his work than he did from his acquaintance with Sirius; he’d seen many of these names on reports in his cubicle.

            And there - Phineas Nigellus. At another time, he might have had a laugh with Remus about the long-dead Headmaster’s arrogance downstairs. But not today.

            His eyes found Bellatrix Lestrange’s name too quickly. The wound beneath his bandages seemed to throb.

And then he looked to where Sirius’ name should have been - except that it wasn’t. There was only a hole burned into the fabric.

            Remus’ voice, when he spoke again, was suddenly hoarse.

“It won’t even record his death.”

            Kingsley bowed his head. After a moment, he lifted his hand to rest it on his companion’s shoulder, but Remus took a sudden step forward to place his palm flat over the burn mark where Sirius Black’s name should have been.

            “I hate this place,” he whispered.

            Kingsley let his hand fall silently back to his side.

            “I hate this place.” Remus’ fingers curled into the tapestry so that it stretched under his grip; even in the pale lighting his knuckles shone white, and the sound of tiny, snapping threads seemed to echo in the room. “I hate this place. I hate it.”

            Kingsley said nothing, because there was nothing to say. He would have known, even if he hadn’t been familiar with the man before him, that his hate encompassed more than just this house, with its damning tapestries and its screaming portraits. After death, there was only one place, and that was a world empty of something which took sense with it in its passing. Every death existed in that place; it didn’t matter how many times you visited it. And Lupin, he knew, had visited it many times.  He was, Kingsley thought, at this moment probably the loneliest man he’d ever seen.

            He thought of Gideon, as he hadn’t thought of Gideon in a very long time. After all these years, Kingsley still missed his friend’s obnoxious laugh.

They’d found the Prewetts’ bodies mangled and abused. But at least they’d found them, not like Dearborn. Not like Sirius. And there had been loving hands to record their names after they had gone.

            He hated that he would have to add another name to a list already too long. He understood that sort of hate.

            Kingsley knew he ought to leave Remus privacy in which to grieve, that it was no doubt what the man would prefer. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he left Remus like this. He wouldn’t be able to grieve in his own, less painful way, knowing that he’d just left without at least getting the man away from that unforgiving piece of fabric.

            Remus. He would not have wanted you to mourn him here.”

            “And if he’d only - stayed - here - he wouldn’t be - dead.”

            His shoulders were hunched into his grip on the tapestry, and his graying hair hung forward, obscuring his eyes completely in the pale light.

            Kingsley flexed his fingers helplessly around his wand. “The boy’s safe,” he offered, slow and quiet.

            Just as slowly as he’d grasped it, Remus released the tapestry. “Harry,” he whispered hoarsely. “Yes. So much. For Harry.”

            He was in too deep, Kingsley knew that. He might have worked alongside these people for many years, but that didn’t mean he knew - or had a right to know - just which emotions rasped so raw and jumbled in Remus’ voice.

            But he’d never been a man to walk away.

            “And would any of them have wanted it otherwise?”

            Remus put a hand to his face, shielding his eyes with pale fingers. He stood so, caught between tapestry and man and memory, for many silent moments.

            “I don’t have any answers for you,” he said finally, a weak murmur. “There’s no point. What do you want me to say?”

            “I think you should leave this room.”

            “Yes. And go where?”

            He was about to say ‘home’, when it occurred to him that Remus had no home, that he’d been living here at headquarters, and that in all likelihood, he would be left as proprietor of headquarters here in Sirius’ place. Trapped.

            Remus made a soft sound, like a laugh, and dropped his hand from his eyes. “I’ll go upstairs. Let the hippogriff know he won’t be coming back. He’ll care more than Fudge did.”

            Kingsley shook his head slowly, knowing that the only consolation he could offer on that bitter score was small consolation indeed. Few were in a position to know that better than he. “They’ll accept the truth soon, Remus. Soon.”

             “The truth only ever matters to those who already know it, Kingsley. It’s too late for his freedom now.” He stared blankly toward the candelabra, his eyes glassy. “I should feed Buckbeak.”

            It hurt to see the man like this. But Kingsley was too anxious now to get him out of this room not to latch onto the escape; he thought some time alone with that hippogriff might be the only way to get Lupin to break. And this might offer him his own escape, besides.

            “What does he eat? I’ll get it for you.”

            Remus looked at him, for a moment as though he didn’t understand the question. And then he looked away. “Rats,” he said. “Rats.”

            And then, inexplicably, he began to laugh - but Kingsley could never have mistaken the sound for mirth. Remus lifted a hand again and wiped at his eyes. He swallowed the laughter just as it became something more raw.

            “Kingsley,” he said, the effort of restraining his grief roughening his voice. “I understand what you’re trying to do. But I can’t. When they sent him to Azkaban, I cursed him. I couldn’t even mourn James properly, because there was too much anger in it. And then he came back, and I have to mourn him now. I’m the only one left who can. Do you understand?” His voice broke, so that the words which followed sounded as though they choked him. “Please. Don’t follow me.”

            Remus didn’t give him the time to respond, but Kingsley knew he would not have been able to think of a response regardless. He stood in stillness as Remus walked past him, until the sounds of his footsteps faded from the room and down the corridor, and for several long minutes after. He stared at the tapestry in front of him, and remembered the first time he’d seen this house.

He had known, of course, what the Black family was, but somehow he had never truly made the connection between their legacy and Sirius; it was, perhaps, a perception even an Auror might be forgiven for, given how much work Sirius himself had put into distancing himself from his blood-kin. But when the Order had first moved into 12 Grimmauld Place as their new headquarters, Sirius had caught him staring aghast at the mounted house-elf heads and said, “When I was a kid, I used to imagine what it would be like to have my head up there. One Christmas break I snapped. I told my mother that if she was so unhappy with me as a son, she should just cut off my head and put up with all the rest of them who couldn’t serve the family properly anymore.” He’d grinned rather manically. “Told her that the whole family had lost their heads anyway, we might as well follow in the tradition. I thought I was being very witty, naturally. But once she started talking about it like it might be a good idea, I decided it was time to leave. I mean, honestly, can you see my face up there? I’d hate to be immortalized in such company. Talk about an appalling epitaph.”  Then he’d pivoted on his heel and glowered down the stairwell. “I just hope she can HEAR ME DOWN THERE. It would kill her to know I’m pounding these old hallways again. Just wait until I’ve scoured this place clean, you old bat! We’ll see the mark I leave behind then.”

            Kingsley shook his head somberly, then turned and left the drawing room behind him. He extinguished the candelabra with a wave of his wand and a murmured word, and would have gladly darkened the tapestry in a similar manner if only he could. If only it was his to do.

            He knew Remus had probably gone to the hippogriff after all. It was, in all likelihood, one of the few places in the house where he could be guaranteed privacy from other human intrusions.

            But there was still Kreacher to think about, and Kingsley decided he’d have to keep on with his search and just hope that Remus didn’t notice him. He would avoid the master bedroom. He’d make the search quick. But he wasn’t about to leave that hideous little elf to his own devices, to gloat over Sirius’ death wherever he was hiding.

            He peered into the rest of the rooms on the first floor, scoping out their dark corners by wand light. Several months ago, this sort of search would have turned up a mess of dark creatures or troublesome pests, but now there were only still and silent shapes under layers of dust. Sirius had done as thorough a job at scouring the place as could be expected, given the building’s history. It couldn’t have been easy. Kingsley suspected that Sirius would probably have preferred burning the place down to its foundation, but instead he’d haunted its halls alone for a year, while the rest of them had pursued their goals in the world beyond. They’d done him no kindness; Kingsley could see that now. He’d seen it earlier, perhaps, but he’d had other things on his mind, and he realized now that he had probably never truly appreciated what it cost Sirius to stay trapped in this place. He hadn’t known Sirius well enough, perhaps, but he knew he wouldn’t have taken well to it. Was it any wonder that Black had jumped at the first really worthy excuse he’d had to go out and join the battle?

            It was the sort of thing Kingsley suspected James would have done. The responsibilities of family and duty had mellowed Potter in his final years, but Kingsley could imagine him, as intent and excited as Black, charging into the fray as they had done tonight. And if not Sirius, would James have been the one to fall?

            But they’d lost James years ago. And tonight they’d lost Sirius. So fast. The Death Eaters had landed the first blow, and they had struck right at the heart. Damn them.

            Giving up on the first floor, Kingsley climbed the stairs to the second and tried to ignore the growing pain in his chest and bruised head. He knew that he ought to be resting, not exacerbating his injuries in a pointless search. But he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t feel what Remus was feeling, but he had to grieve in his own way.

            The rooms passed, still and silent and empty, and then his wand light illuminated a bedroom which had clearly been in recent use. Though scoured almost entirely of furniture it was also free of cobwebs, and the coverings on the bed were crumpled in the sort of disorder only caused by careless use.     This, then, must have been where Sirius was sleeping.

            Kingsley stepped into the room, and a glass-blown lamp on an otherwise empty desk came to life, casting a warm yellow glow over the dark carpet. He turned in place, staring into shadowed corners, looking for Kreacher or any sign that he had been here to foul his master’s possessions. But he saw no sign of either. In fact, it didn’t seem like Sirius had kept anything but the bare necessities of furniture in this room. It was the dark skeleton of a grand chamber, and Kingsley couldn’t imagine Sirius living here any more than he could really imagine him dead. Not yet.

            He turned to go, and spotted, on a table to the side of the door, the first splash of real color in the room. With a sinking certainty, he stepped closer and picked it up, turning paper in his hands to see what he’d already guessed he would see - the cover of The Quibbler he had sent to Sirius with Arthur Weasley.

            Sirius Black: Villain or Victim?

            Kingsley closed his eyes on a deep sigh, then opened them again and flipped the pages in his hands. He could hardly remember what the article had been about, only that he’d thought it would make Sirius laugh…

            “Innocent singing sensation,” he read aloud, in a low murmur. A chuckle came upon him unawares, from someplace deep and painful, but welcome. He read through the whole article with a pained smile on his lips, and then a low sound of bitterness at the end. I have written to the Minister of Magic and am expecting him to give Stubby, alias Sirius, a full pardon any day now.

            Fudge was more likely to give Stubby Boardman a pardon than he was to clear Sirius’ name. Not yet, at least. But Kingsley was not about to let that condition last. None of them would, of that he was certain. Sirius might be beyond caring now, but for the sake of those who had known him the truth had to be known. For young Potter’s sake. For Lupin’s.

            Kingsley stopped, the magazine half-way in his pocket, and slowly put it back on the table. Better to leave it here, he thought. To leave something of laughter in this black place.

            The lamplight faded on its own as he left the room, closing the door securely behind him. With another sigh, and another twinge of pain in his chest, he moved quietly down the hall and opened the next door.

            This room had two beds in it, a wardrobe, and an empty picture frame. He peered into each corner by wand light, and, finding nothing, was about to leave when a voice spoke from the shadows.  

            “If you’re so certain he’s dead, just what are you hoping to find?”

            He recognized the voice this time, and was unsurprised, on turning back and shining wand light on the portrait, to see that it was now occupied by Phineas Nigellus.

            Nigellus stood with his arms folded, leaning with one shoulder against the side of the frame, as though the casual pose could somehow make the grayness of his neatly bearded features less noticeable.

            Kingsley almost turned his back on the portrait, more than willing to let him stew in his own bitter juices... but it occurred to him that Nigellus might be able to help him find Kreacher, and so he remained where he stood, consciously relishing the fact, as he rarely did, that he was tall enough to look the mounted portrait directly in the eye.

            “I’m looking for the house-elf. Kreacher. Do you know where he usually hides?”

            “Hunting for house-elves. Hardly a pursuit I would expect from a noble Auror.”

            “Hunting anything in this house would be a worthwhile pursuit for an Auror,” Kingsley replied coolly. “Portraits included.”

            “Ah yes, the threats,” Nigellus settled himself more comfortably against the frame, his black beard split by a cool smile. “I’ve grown quite used to them this last year. He spent an awful lot of time running about the house and threatening inanimate objects. One might think he was quite mad.”

            Kingsley let the light from his wand hit Nigellus square in the face - which had the added advantage of leveling his wand at readiness. “Your portrait here survives only because Dumbledore needs it to communicate with headquarters.”  

            “Ah, you are quite unsubtly insinuating that Sirius would have destroyed me given half a chance, perhaps? Believe me, young man, I labor under no delusions on that score.” He ran a gloved hand along his beard, then spread his fingers wide before his eyes in idle examination; it was clearly a much practiced pose. “Then again… you didn’t know him as well as I did.”

            Kingsley lowered his wand, and this time he did turn to leave. He had no desire to listen to the arrogance of a man who had so blithely maintained assertions of Sirius’ worthlessness upon hearing of his death.

            But as he started toward the door, Nigellus continued speaking, and there was an edge of desperation to his cultured voice.

            “He used to sleep in this room, you know. When the house was full of visiting relatives, he and Regulus would share this room. It was quite amusing to watch the pair of them, I must admit. One so oblivious he might have been wearing a blindfold and the other so blinded by his own perceived brilliance that he never noticed the way he goaded his brother into foolishness. I daresay the idiot never realized that Regulus joined the Death Eaters partly to prove that he could be better at something than his brother. What was the good, he thought, of being more worthy of the family name if he couldn’t manage the sort of accomplishments that his traitorous, filth-stained brother could achieve without effort? O.W.L.s, Quidditch, all such piddling nonsense. They are so pathetically preoccupied by inanities at that age. So easily manipulated by their own feelings.”

            Kingsley turned slowly back, frowning at the portrait. But Nigellus went on.

            “And of course, some people never grow out of that stage.” He pushed off from the frame and paced to the other edge. “Like my worthless great-great-grandson. Arrogant up till the very day he left this house.”              

            Kingsley made a low, derisive sound. “Such an unexpected family trait.”

            “There is arrogance, my slow friend, and then there is arrogance. Or was it something else that led him to leave this house on a fool’s mission?”

            “It was something else,” Kingsley said, knowing that he wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping the anger from his face. “But I don’t imagine you’d understand it any more than that old woman downstairs.”

            “Ah.” Nigellus smiled slyly. “I’m heartless, of course. One labors to create that impression, and I’m quite gratified to know that it lives on after me so vibrantly.”

            “If you want to know how he died, then you’re going to have to ask,” Kingsley said firmly. “Otherwise, I have nothing to say to you.”

            He waited for a moment, wand half-raised, and in the shadowy illumination he could see Nigellus’ narrowed eyes glinting at him. Then, with a sharp shrug, he turned again to leave.

            “How did he die?”

            It was more of a drawl than anything else, but it was enough.

            So Kingsley told him. In quick and sparse detail. But it was enough. There wasn’t, in truth, much to tell. Not as much as there should have been. Somehow it always seemed that way, with the good people. There never seemed to be enough of a way to explain, to justify. When acquaintances had asked him about Gideon’s death, all he’d been able to say was, “They killed him. He fought till the end, but it wasn’t enough.” Sometimes, it simply wasn’t enough.

            Nigellus was silent for a long moment after Kingsley finished, his green-clad back half-turned so that all that could be seen was a sliver of his face, a sliver of dark beard.

            Then he fluttered one gloved hand in an idle motion. “I was quite right, of course. He carried on in his usual tradition. Utterly foolish.”

            But Kingsley could hear the unspoken as clearly as though it had been painted across the canvas, bold and precise as Nigellus himself. Perhaps he didn’t understand what emotions exactly motivated the old portrait, but maybe it didn’t matter. Everyone had to mourn their particular losses in their own ways.

            Instead, he asked quietly, “Do you know where I would find the house-elf?”

            He wasn’t sure if there would be an answer, but it came swiftly, and in cool tones.

            “He’s probably hiding in his hole under the kitchen boiler. If Dumbledore’s left anything of him, that is.”

            Kingsley wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard a touch of relish in the voice at the last words. He nodded, then, moving to leave, he said, “Tell Dumbledore that we’ve all… that we’ve returned safely to headquarters. If I’m gone by the time he can send word, then Remus will be here to receive it.”

            “Ah yes. One of those little friends he ran to, after abandoning the family name.”

            “Yes. And if you’re wise,” Kingsley couldn’t resist the bitter urge, “you’ll respect his mourning. He’s already made his willingness to silence unpleasant portraits clear.”

            “Has he now?”

            Kingsley couldn’t help turning, already half-way to the door, to see Nigellus’ face; his thin, dark eyebrows were raised in sharp amusement.

            “I wouldn’t worry about him if I were you, Shacklebolt.” He stroked his beard again, smiling faintly. “Any friend of my great-great-grandson’s isn’t going to crack easily. Not if they could endure him well enough to save him from the dregs after he abandoned his family honor.”

            Kingsley almost smiled, and almost said something in reply to what sounded suspiciously like a sly sort of praise -  but there was really nothing more to be said. Not now. Not for Remus, nor for any of them. Not about Sirius, who had left, it would seem, enough of a memory in this house to mark his passing after all.

            He found himself exchanging an unexpected nod of understanding with the portrait’s snide occupant, and then he turned and finally left the room. As he closed the door behind him, he noticed that the portrait frame was empty once again, in an empty and silent room.

He made his way down the stairs, heading toward the kitchen, relieved that he could stop sneaking about the second floor and leave Remus to his privacy.

            But he didn’t go to the boiler. He’d be able to see from here if the elf left his hole; he had no desire to deal with him directly if he didn’t have to. Instead, Kingsley sat down at the dining room table, where someone - Molly, probably - had left the room’s hearth fire burning, and a bottle of Ogden’s best on the table beside plain glasses. Not the silver goblets of the Black dynasty. Not tonight.

            Kingsley set his wand on the table and filled a glass; drank down the contents, feeling it burn in his wounded chest, a welcome warmth. Leaning on the table, he ran a hand over his scalp again, probing carefully at the lump. Then he rubbed at his sore neck, caught a finger briefly against his earring, and finally lowered his forehead into his hand, resting the weight of pain and loss and memory there.

            Tomorrow…

No, it was already tomorrow. It was already morning. The night had passed too quickly for them to give it its proper due. Tomorrow was here. Today. And sometime soon, the call would come again. Quietly. A subtle call, a summons to regroup. And they would.

            And Sirius, he thought, would understand that necessity as well as any of them. Better, perhaps.

            Without lifting his head from his palm, Kingsley used his free hand to pour himself another glass. It would be his last. He knew better than to drown his sorrows in such a fashion at such a crucial time. But one more glass, raised in silent memory…

That he could do.

           

 

                                                                                                            ***

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