The Sugar Quill
Author: Ajax (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Across A Wizard's Heart  Chapter: Chapter 2: Heads on A Wall
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Across A Wizard's Heart by Ajax - Chapter 2
A/N: Thanks to Birgit for her invaluable help, and to Stella, for having the patience to sort out my iffy punctuation. Enjoy the story!

ACROSS A WIZARD'S HEART
A Harry Potter fic by Ajax

Chapter 2: Heads on A Wall

Sirius Black tossed the last of his possessions into his trunk and slammed its lid down, not caring how messily everything had been packed. The stone walls of his dormitory, now bare of the various things he'd hung up during the school year, looked forlorn and cold. Yet, he would have given anything to spend the whole summer holiday within them. It was odd, he supposed, that he should prefer to stay all alone in the empty castle than go home.

On the other hand, few people had a home quite like his.

His friends were moving excitedly around the large circular room, returning borrowed possessions and talking about their summer plans. They wouldn't understand. Not Peter, with his doting widowed mother, and certainly not James or Remus, with their loving parents and sunny houses. But then, his home life had never been something he liked to talk about. Only James had been told some of it. And Remus was probably observant enough to notice that in the stash of presents Sirius had received for Christmas, and then for his birthday two weeks later, there had been none from his father or his mother. Not that he would have had any use for anything bought by them.

Sighing in frustration, he rose from his kneeling position on the floor and glanced around the room. On the bed next to his, James was sitting on top of a large pile of clothes and lovingly wrapping his Comet 15, while Remus was carefully stacking his books inside his trunk. Sirius craned his neck to see Peter's bed in the far corner and grinned when he saw what his friend was doing.

"Can't reach that high, Wormtail?" he called, making his way around James' and Remus' scattered possessions to Peter's colourful corner. The walls around Peter's bed were a flurry of movement, as Quidditch players wearing bright green robes with purple polka dots on them zoomed in and out of five big posters, avoiding Bludgers and tossing each other the Quaffle. Another smaller poster, featuring a handsome wizard sitting astride a sleek-looking broom, had been stuck to the wall just below the ceiling. It was an advertisement for the newest broomstick model to come out ("The Starburst 76 will sweep the floor with your old broom!"). Peter was standing on his bed, trying to reach this poster. However, as he wasn't tall enough, his fingers just kept skimming the top of it, sending the wizard in the picture scurrying at the contact. Sirius climbed up beside Peter and peeled the poster off the wall. Peter smiled thankfully at him, folded it meticulously, and repeated the process for the other posters.

"You and Quidditch," Sirius commented, "you're almost as bad as Prongs. Too bad you can't play."

Peter shrugged. "After I caught a Bludger instead of the Quaffle, I don't think they were going to let me play Keeper. To tell you the truth, watching Quidditch is better; I'd rather not get injured that often. Madam Pomfrey and her vile potions... There, that's done!" He delicately laid the stack of folded paper on his otherwise haphazardly packed belongings and smoothed them down with the flat of his hand. Sirius snorted at this and rolled his eyes at James, but the latter was busy yawning and did not notice. Sirius stifled a yawn himself; they had snuck into Hogsmeade after the Leaving Feast and returned late, putting off packing until the morning.

Much too soon, it was time to leave. Sirius threw a last longing look at the circular room before closing the door behind him. Together, they made their way down the stairs. When James caught a glimpse of Lily, he tried to levitate the cage of his owl, Robert, and rumple his hair at the same time. Unfortunately, all he got from her in response was a dirty look when the bewitched cage practically bowled over a second year in the crowded space. Sirius patted his friend on the arm. He didn't understand why James insisted on constantly making a fool of himself in front of Lily. Normally, he would have come up with a witty remark to tease him, but his heart wasn't in it this morning.

The sight of the Hogwarts Express, its scarlet metal surface gleaming in the bright sunlight, was a very pleasant one in September, when it meant the start of ten months of adventure and friendship. But on this cheery June morning, Sirius mounted the train gloomily, trailing behind his friends as they found and settled in a compartment. Peter launched into an excited discussion about his plans to go watch the Quidditch League Cup finals with his cousins. Sirius forced himself to abandon his glum thoughts and listen as Remus told them that his father had arranged a trip to Stonehenge that would last a whole month.

"...Druid magic, it's fascinating..." Remus was saying, but Sirius had suddenly realised something.

"Moony, what are we going to do about the full moon?"

"Oh no, I forgot about that too, what with the OWLs and everything..." said James, frowning. "I'll Floo to your house to keep you company, is that all right?"

Remus smiled slightly. "I don't think that's possible. In July we'll be away, but Dad says he's found places where I can transform safely, near the inn we're staying in at Stonehenge. In August we'll be home, but Mum always gets stressed at the thought that her son grows very pointy teeth once a month, for some strange reason. I don't think she would be in a mood to deal with any visitors. In any case, you would never be able to sneak out of the house. A giant stag in Mum's flowerbeds would be a little conspicuous."

They all laughed, James with a sheepish expression on his face.

"And you," Remus continued, turning to Sirius and grinning, "would probably give my poor mother a heart attack if she saw you, so I'll thank you to stay away from her!"

"He nearly gave me one the first time!" Peter ventured, his eyes opening wide. "Mum says Aunt Bessie saw a Grim the morning she died!"

Sirius huffed and looked out the window, pretending to be hurt.

"Load of tosh," said James, throwing an arm around his shoulders. "If people would only take a good look at Padfoot they would know that he's just a harmless slobbering mongrel. Still, Moony," he continued, "I don't want you to spend the whole night locked up alone and hurt yourself. We'll find a way."

"I've managed for all these years, Prongs. It'll be all right."

"I could probably get away for a night," Peter said shyly. "If you can distract your parents long enough for me to Floo in, I'll transform as soon as I arrive. Then nobody will notice me. Obviously, I'm not very good at restraining you, but since we will be locked up--"

"That would be great, Wormtail. Thank you." Remus smiled gratefully, reaching out to briefly clasp the smaller boy's shoulder. "We'll owl each other, then."

"That's good, Wormtail," Sirius said, noting Peter's pleased smile. "I'd never have been able to get away from home. My mother's summer hobby is to lecture me about the importance of being a Black, she'd never let me out of her sight."

The conversation drifted to more inconsequential topics and Sirius found himself staring out the window for increasing periods of time. A couple of hours into the journey, Peter excused himself to go sit with his girlfriend, Anna, a Hufflepuff who was a year younger than them. A young, sullen-looking wizard passed with the food trolley, then Snape was seen for a moment in the corridor, prompting a catcall from James. Sirius sulked and had started wondering if spending the summer with Snivellus would be better than being around his parents when their compartment door slid open.

"Hello, Sirius," said a soft voice.

Sirius looked up into the handsome features of his brother.

"Hello, Regulus. Come on, have a seat."

Regulus closed the door and sat down beside Sirius, taking the Pumpkin Pasty the latter offered him.

"So, how did the OWLs go? Were they as difficult as they say?" Regulus asked. "Some of our fifth years burnt their books, they were so relieved at them being over. I hope I don't suffer that much next year."

"Nonsense. OWLs are easy. I'm expecting seven Outstanding grades, at least."

"He did really well in Muggle Studies," said James suddenly, a wicked gleam in his eye.

Regulus didn't look at Sirius. An odd expression flashed across his face, but it was gone as suddenly as it had come, and he didn't speak.

"You shouldn't listen to Sirius," Remus said mildly. "He's disgusting. He barely studies but he still gets these absurdly high marks."

"Jealous?" Sirius asked, grinning.

"Not as jealous as he is of my prefect badge," said Remus importantly, then winked at Regulus. "He knows I can give him detention." Sirius snorted, but Remus continued, pretending not to notice. "Fancy a game of chess?"

Regulus nodded, and soon he and Remus were engaged in a fierce match, brows furrowed in concentration. Sirius wondered what his brother would say if he knew he was playing chess with a werewolf.

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, and much too quickly for Sirius' liking. Almost before he knew it, Regulus had gone back to his compartment and Peter had returned from his girlfriend. Then they were off the train, standing on Platform Nine and Three Quarters amidst a jumble of trunks and owl cages, exchanging goodbyes. Sirius felt his dread settle heavily inside his chest as he watched Remus and Peter make their way towards the barrier that separated the platform from the Muggle station. He stood, staring - unwilling to move.

"You OK?"

Sirius turned to face James, trying not to show his despair, only to find him rummaging inside his pockets.

"Here," said James, and thrust a small, flat package in his hands, wrapped in brown paper.

"What's this?"

"Something to communicate with. It's a mirror, if you say my name into it, I'll appear on the surface and we can talk to each other. This way's much better than using owls."

Sirius looked at the package, impressed. "Blimey... Where did you get this?"

"Made it. Found the Charm in a book we'd filched from the Restricted Section, it took me bloody three weeks to manage it properly. Look, if it gets too bad you know you can always come to Godric's Hollow, or just contact me on this and I'll come set fire to your house, all right?"

Sirius stared at his friend, oddly touched. "Thanks, Prongs," he said, feeling his dread lighten, just slightly.

"Don't be daft, it's nothing - Hey, watch it!"

Something hit Sirius' shoulder forcefully. He saw a flash of black robes out of the corner of his eye, then Severus Snape swept past them, dragging his chipped old trunk behind him as he went.

"Have a horrid holiday, Snivelly!" Sirius called after him, but Snape paid him no heed. They watched him walk towards a weary looking woman waiting on this side of the barrier. She was wearing pale robes that hung awkwardly around her thin frame, as if they had been torn and stretched and mended a few times too many. Her hair was streaked with grey and there were faint circles below her eyes, but she smiled as the boy reached her and gently put her arms around him for a moment, murmuring a quiet greeting.

"That's sick," muttered James. "I can't believe she's hugging that greasy slimeball."

"I hope she knows a couple of good cleaning spells," Sirius said in agreement.

"You think his mother shouldn't hug her son?" demanded a loud voice behind them.

Lily Evans was standing only a few feet away, glaring at them with disgust clearly written on her face.

"You two are the sick ones!" she snapped, and stomped towards the barrier with her trunk. "I don't see why any mother would want to hug you!"

"Don't worry, mine doesn't," Sirius muttered bitterly. James was staring after Lily with a comically stricken expression on his face. "Come on," Sirius said to him, and they followed the redhead. She pressed against the barrier and disappeared, leaving the space empty for them to do the same.

Regulus was waiting for him on the other side, calmly sitting on his trunk. James clapped Sirius on the back, murmured a few reassuring words, and then he was gone, leaving Sirius alone with his brother. Slowly, they wound their way through the crowd of passengers and emerged outside into Muggle London.

Sirius never ceased to be amazed by the Muggle world, with its roaring vehicles and bright lights and the teeming masses of people dressed in dozens of strange ways, too concerned with their own lives to notice a couple of kids with big wooden trunks. Although a few people shot them odd looks, Sirius and Regulus walked rapidly, and within twenty minutes had arrived at Grimmauld Place. They waited as a couple of Muggles passed number twelve, hardly seeming to notice its presence there, then they entered quickly, setting their trunks down in relief in the ill-lighted corridor. A few portraits called out greetings, though most were content to glare disinterestedly at the two boys.

"Mum? We're home!" called Regulus.

"Mistress is outside," squeaked a voice at Sirius' feet. Looking down, the boys saw the young son of their house-elf, his eyes wide open and the nostrils of his snout-like nose trembling.

Sirius kneeled to see the elf better, wondering why he looked frightened. "Hello, Kreacher," he said gently. "What's happening? Is there something wrong?"

"Mistress tell Kreacher to bring young masters outside!" the elf squeaked and scuttled down the hall, disappearing through a door that led into the back garden. Sirius looked inquiringly at Regulus, but his brother shrugged. Perplexed, they stepped outside.

The garden had never been particularly well tended, its flowerbeds overgrown with weeds for as long as Sirius could remember. Their mother stood in the middle of the stone path that wound its way through the tall, yellowed stalks of grass. She was levitating a wooden block; it dropped down with a thump in front of her when she moved her wand.

Regulus took a step forward. "Hello, Mum."

"Regulus," said Mrs Black, turning around and stiffly bending her head for Regulus to kiss her on the cheek. "I hope you had a good journey."

"It was all right."

His mother straightened up and looked at Sirius. Her eyes narrowed.

"Hello, Mother," said Sirius. "Don't bother jumping around in joy, you old hag," he thought vehemently as his mother nodded at him, unsmiling.

"What are you doing out here, Mum?" asked Regulus.

Mrs Black smiled a wide smile that bared her teeth. Sirius thought that this made her look even more unpleasant.

"You'll see, Regulus. You'll see... Fetch the axe, Hattie."

Something moved in the grass next to her and Sirius saw Kreacher's mother. She was crouched low and her hands were spasmodically clutching the dirty rag she wore, but at her mistress' order, she got up obediently and trudged into the small shack at the edge of the garden. They waited a couple of minutes. Hattie re-emerged, dragging a big axe that seemed too heavy for her.

Something ugly coiled in Sirius' stomach as he began to comprehend. Next to him, Regulus gasped softly and grabbed Sirius' arm. Surely she didn't mean to...

A minute passed with agonising slowness. Silence loomed over the garden, broken only by the sounds of Hattie struggling to carry the heavy instrument, her breath catching painfully.

"Hurry up, we haven't got all day!" called Mrs Black. She was tapping her wand against her leg. When the elf had finally reached her, she took the axe and propped it up by the wooden block.

"Old, weak and useless... Kneel, put your head there," she tutted, then glanced at Kreacher. "You, take care that you stay useful longer than your mother did. Now, boys, always make sure you obtain a good quality elf. This one barely lasted fifteen years, after all the money we paid for her..."

Sirius and Regulus stared at her, petrified. As if in slow motion, Hattie kneeled. Her face was blank. Their mother reached her hand out and grabbed the handle of the axe.

"You can't be serious!" Sirius yelled. "Don't do this! Give her clothes!" He took a step towards his mother intending to snatch the axe out of her hands, but suddenly, he froze.

Her eyes gleaming evilly, his mother had pointed her wand at him.

"Show some respect for traditions, boy," she spat. "Our family does not spare clothes for useless creatures." She eyed him contemptuously, then muttered a spell, and he found he could not move.

Mrs Black pocketed her wand. She pivoted, grasped the axe, and hefted it over her head. Sunlight glimmered on the metal.

Regulus' grip on his arm was painfully tight, now. Sirius closed his eyes frantically. This couldn't be happening, he did not want to see--

Thunk.

Someone, whether Regulus or Kreacher he did not know, gave a strangled cry, and something wet and warm splashed against his cheek. Unbelieving, Sirius opened his eyes.

A little blood was splattered on his mother's robes. Something small and grey and misshapen --that couldn't be Hattie's head, it wasn't possible-- lay at the foot of the block. With a flick of her wand, his mother got rid of the blood on her clothes, then she pointed at Hattie's body, making it burst into flames.

"Clean everything up," she told Kreacher, and faced her sons. Another flick, and Sirius' body unfroze.

"Dinner should be ready. Go and wash your hands," she called, grabbed the elf head, and strode into the house.

A few moments passed before either of them moved. Sirius turned to look at his brother's face, pale and young and so much like his own. Wordlessly, they went back inside and entered the nearest bathroom, where Regulus sat down on the edge of the tub and lowered his head into his hands.

"I think I'm going to throw up," he muttered, almost too low for Sirius to hear. "Please tell me you'll discontinue that particular tradition when you inherit the house."

Sirius nodded dumbly, not caring that Regulus couldn't see him. He caught sight of himself in the mirror. A small splash of blood stood dark red on his cheek. With a ferocious snarl, he grabbed a towel and rubbed his face until the skin became raw and ruddy and no trace of the blood remained.

*

Dinner was a glum affair. After what he had witnessed, Sirius had lost all his appetite. He sat in the tall, straight-backed chair, picking at his food as his mother questioned Regulus about his exams and praised him on all that he had learnt during the school year. Sirius glanced up from his plate at his father, only to find him fixing his eldest son with steely eyes.

"Why aren't you eating?" Mr Black demanded, setting down his silver goblet.

"I... ate too much on the train, I'm not hungry, now," Sirius lied. His mother gave a derisory snort, but continued talking to her younger son.

"Let Regulus eat," Mr Black chided her, then turned back to Sirius. "How about your schoolwork? How did the OWLs go?"

"They were OK," muttered Sirius. He wanted the dinner to be over; he needed to be alone in his room and talk to James' friendly, honest face in the mirror, and forget about the blood-stained body of the elf.

"It's a wonder he hasn't been expelled from school," said his mother suddenly, glowering. "Do you know how many owls I have been sent, this year? Forty two!"

Sirius winced. His mother's voice was turning more and more into a shriek with every word, and after sixteen years, he recognised the signs when she was about to launch into one of her vicious rants.

"You have been a disappointment from the moment you were put in Gryffindor - Gryffindor! No Black has ever sunk so low, not even the blood traitor, Andromeda! You're a disgrace to the family, consorting with Muggle-born filth! At least have the dignity to behave properly--"

"SHUT UP!" Sirius sprang to his feet. His fists clenched with rage, he wanted to lash out and hit the twisted grey face of his mother--

"Sit down, Sirius!" his father said sharply. "Apologise to your mother."

Sirius remained standing, silent.

"Apologise to your mother, boy."

His mother scowled at him from across the table.

"Very well, then," said his father. "If you insist on behaving like a child you shall be punished like a child! Go to your room."

He turned and fled the hateful table, not caring that his chair had crashed into the ground. Shaking, he ran up the stairs and into his room and threw himself on his bed, burying his head in the pillow.

A few minutes passed before he was able to calm down. He rolled onto his back and gazed out his window at the night sky, trying desperately to think of anything that did not belong in number twelve Grimmauld Place.

He did not know how long he lay there, contemplating the dark sky outside, before a grumble from his stomach reminded him that he had eaten practically nothing since the afternoon. A quick glance at the ornate clock on the wall told him that his parents should have long since gone to bed. Hoping to sneak down to the kitchen, he walked towards the door and grasped the serpent-shaped doorknob.

The snake's eyes flashed green, and with a horrible hissing sound, the doorknob uncoiled and slithered up his fingers. He bit his lip, trying not to yell. His hand was trapped in the cold metal.

A voice sniggered behind him.

Growling, Sirius yanked his hand back and the snake unwrapped itself from his wrist, snapping back into its usual shape. He whirled around. On the wall opposite the door hung a blank canvas.

Of course. How could he have forgotten the joys of living with a portrait of his great-great-grandfather? Sirius let out another growl and stalked towards the picture, yanking it off the wall and holding it close to his face.

"Shut up, before I make paper dolls out of you, Phineas!" he said venomously, then opened the door of his wardrobe and threw the portrait onto the top shelf, noticing with a grim satisfaction that it was crawling with spiders.

"And ask Dumbledore if Hagrid needs an assistant for the summer!" he added before slamming the door shut.

Sirius decided to try his luck at getting out of his room again and cautiously touched the doorknob, only to have his hand trapped once more. Another yank freed him, but it was clear that he wasn't going to be able to exit through the door unless he used his wand and risked getting a warning from the Ministry of Magic. An idea struck him and he transformed into Padfoot, but his paw suffered the same fate as his hand.

Human again, dejected, he reached for the jacket he had worn on the train, hoping to find a leftover Chocolate Frog or Pumpkin Pasty inside a pocket. Instead, his fingers closed around the package his best friend had given him. Smiling, he pulled it out, carefully took off the wrapping, and said his friend's name at its surface. His reflection in the mirror blurred for a moment. When it cleared, he was staring at a featureless expanse of white. "James?" he called again. The view in the mirror tilted crazily and suddenly James popped into sight, fumbling to put his glasses on with one hand, his hair more dishevelled then ever.

"Sirius, you git!" he said grouchily. "Why on earth did you wake me up at sodding-" he looked at something out of sight- "midnight? Haven't they invented clocks in London yet?"

"Hmph!" Sirius mocked. "Only wimps go to sleep this early. Here life is such a thrill ride, you can't imagine..."

"Sirius--"

"Why sleep when you can spend time with your banshee of a mother or grapple with magical doors that lock you in your room or, better yet, assist an elf-beheading?"

"What?" James was no longer trying to blink the sleep out of his eyes. His face was aghast.

"It's the high life, I tell you," Sirius muttered darkly. "James, I'm locked in my room and I'm starving! I can't stay here, they'll drive me mad--"

Somebody knocked softly on his door.

"Talk to you later!" Sirius whispered to James. He slid down onto the floor to hide the mirror under his bed. The knock was repeated; he heard his brother's voice, asking to be let in.

Sirius approached the door. "I don't think you can come in," he said, "someone's done something to the door, it won't open--"

The knob turned with a tiny click and the door was pushed ajar from the outside, Sirius scrambling to avoid colliding with it.

"What are you talking about?" asked Regulus, entering the room and pushing the door shut.

"You idiot, it doesn't open from this side!"

"Oh. So that's what Mother was doing earlier..." Sirius saw that Regulus was carrying something wrapped in a white napkin, which he placed on the small bedside table. "I saw her pass by here before she went to bed." Regulus reached out and grasped the doorknob. It twisted in silence and the door opened. Regulus gave him a perplexed look, eyebrows raised, and closed it again.

"What on earth - Here, let me try." But the silver snake wrapped itself around his hand once more. Sirius swore and jerked back, throwing himself onto his bed in frustration. "What do you want?" he snarled at his brother.

Regulus quietly sat on the edge of the bed and took the package. He didn't seem at all perturbed by his elder brother's snappish mood. "I brought you something to eat," he said. "I thought you'd be hungry." Calmly, he unwrapped the napkin and held out a sandwich. Sirius grabbed it and tore into it, pausing just long enough between bites to mutter his thanks. Regulus shifted so that his back was leaning against the wall, took out a second sandwich from between the folds of the napkin and began to eat it.

When at length they had finished and were wiping the crumbs from their hands, Sirius glanced up at his brother. "Thanks again," he said. "I was hungry. I should have eaten at dinner, but what with - you know. And now she's gone and locked me in." He clenched his fist and drove it into the mattress, then again. "What's her bloody problem?"

"Well, I don't wonder that she was angry," Regulus grinned. "How on earth did you manage to get in enough trouble for forty two owls?"

Sirius grinned back and lightly punched Regulus' arm. "Be a good little brother and I'll tell you, sometime." He glanced at the bewitched door again and the grin left his face. "I know she's not angry about those owls," he grumbled. "She's just dead annoyed that I don't think and act like our slimy Slytherin ancestors, as if -"

"Don't insult my house, Sirius," said Regulus, quietly. "I don't insult yours."

Sirius apologised, but he didn't really mean it. There was an uncomfortable silence. After a few minutes, Regulus moved off the bed.

"I should go to bed... Um, good night..."

"Night," said Sirius, watching Regulus leave. His eyelids felt heavy, but he didn't want to sleep, for he knew that he would dream about snakes and blood and sniggers.

It was a long time before he finally succumbed to his tiredness.

*

Morning dawned bright and clear, but Sirius woke gloomily, disoriented at first from opening his eyes to white walls instead of scarlet curtains. The clock opposite told him that it was eleven o'clock. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up in bed, yawning until the muscles in his jaw could stretch no further.

There was a sound, as if something was being dragged, and a tiny, wheezing cough. Kreacher was pushing a chair across the floor, pausing every few seconds when its legs snagged on the dark green carpet.

"What are you doing?" Sirius demanded of the elf, but Kreacher continued as if he hadn't heard. Nonplussed, Sirius watched him lean the chair against the wall and climb up with jerky movements. The elf tottered on top of the chair and his nose brushed a patch of paint which was lighter in colour than the rest: a large square where Phineas Nigellus' portrait had hung, protecting the wall from dust. Kreacher snapped his fingers. The wardrobe door sprang open and the portrait he had stashed there floated out. For a moment, Sirius was struck by the resemblance of the elf to Hattie, who had levitated objects exactly the same way until she had got old and her magic had run out, to the point where she had hardly been able to float his dinner plate to the table when he had visited at Easter. Still ignoring him, Kreacher waited until the frame had reached the wall and plucked it out of the air, turning to hang it onto the waiting nail.

"Don't put it back up, Kreacher," Sirius ordered firmly. What did the elf think he was doing?

At his command, Kreacher dropped the portrait as if he had been burnt and jumped down, muttering frantically to himself.

"Mistress ordered Kreacher to hang the portrait, but young master says no, why doesn't master Sirius listen to his mother, Kreacher wonders... Must be why mistress doesn't like the young master, oh yes... But Kreacher must be a good elf, Kreacher's mother lost her head, Kreacher must do what mistress asks, oh poor Kreacher, now he must hang up his mother's head, his mother's dead..." The elf left the room and his words faded into silence.

Sirius stared after him, eyes wide. On the floor, the empty portrait snorted, prompting him to jump off his bed and dash for it. Thinking that the day had got off to a bad start --but then, what had he expected?-- he threw the frame back into the wardrobe and dressed. At least the doorknob was no longer charmed to confine him to his room, he thought, as he made his way downstairs.

*

The following few days, Sirius was roused from his sleep in the exact same manner. Every morning, each time slightly earlier, Kreacher dragged the chair and levitated the portrait, only to have his attempt thwarted by Sirius' orders and end up leaving the room muttering about both their mothers.

Sirius was finding it harder and harder to tolerate the house- elf's intrusions into his sleep. That first morning, he had felt something twinge within him as he had watched the elf scuttle across his carpet, something that might have been pity. But now, as the days turned into identical stretches of tedium and each hour of sleep became a blessed period of relief from his family, the elf's mutterings became more and more irritating, until one morning Sirius grabbed him around the neck and hurled him out of the room, yelling that he should never enter it again while Sirius was asleep.

That night at dinner, Sirius noted with a small amount of satisfaction that Kreacher was sporting an ugly purple bruise on his shoulder. The elf threw him a vicious glare as he cleared the table, keeping up a litany of unflattering comments under his breath. Sirius ignored him and followed his parents into the drawing room. His father always insisted that the whole family be present while he smoked his foul-smelling pipe and talked about his day at the Ministry. Sirius would have loved to escape to his room and chat to James, write letters to Remus and Peter, or go over his summer homework --which he had finished in the first three days of holiday-- once again. Even his Astronomy essays were more interesting than his father's work. However, spending the hour after dinner in the stuffy, smoke-filled drawing room was a tradition, and the Black family took its traditions very seriously. "Never mind that all of it's rot," thought Sirius as his father ranted about the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad's incompetence at sorting out an unlicensed wizard whose nose had Apparated into the bedroom of some Muggle while the rest of him remained behind.

Just then, something tapped against the window. Welcoming the distraction, Sirius went to open it, relishing the cool air as he grabbed the owl perched outside. It was carrying a large, thick envelope that it seemed very glad to get rid of. As soon as he had relieved the owl of its burden, it hooted, dipped its beak in his mother's teacup, and flew back out the window.

Sirius turned the envelope in his hands. It was from Hogwarts and addressed to him. "Must be my OWL results!" he exclaimed, prying the seal. A sheaf of parchments fell out, some of them with gilt edging that gleamed in the dim light. He had just unfolded what looked to be a letter when the whole stack flew out of his hands and into his father's lap.

"OWL results, eh?" Mr Black took a long pull from his pipe and blew out a cloud of blue-tinged smoke before Summoning his reading glasses from a shelf nearby. Another pull, and Sirius fidgeted impatiently. Regulus rose from his seat and leaned against the back of his father's armchair, peering at the papers with interest.

"Let's see, then." His father put on his glasses and started reading the parchment at the top of the pile. "Dear Mr Black... We are very pleased to inform you that you have received nine Ordinary Wizarding Levels and would like to congratulate you on your outstanding performance. Pleased find enclosed your certificates..." Mr Black paused and shuffled the stack, pulling out the group of gilded papers, which must have been the said certificates. "Outstanding in Care of Magical Creatures... Outstanding in Charms... Outstanding in Defence Against the Dark Arts..." There was another pause. "Only an Acceptable in Divination... What's this?"

"I don't like Divination!" said Sirius, raising his jaw stubbornly. "It's a load of rubbish, not to mention that it's boring. I should have just taken Arithmancy, but I thought that Divination would require less work."

Mr Black looked like he would argue for a moment, but then lowered his eyes back to the certificates and nodded. "Fair enough. It wasn't one of my best subjects either... Outstanding in Herbology... Another Acceptable in History of Magic--"

"Can't be bothered to study for history, Sirius?" his mother interjected before his father could ask for an explanation. Her mouth had thinned and she was glaring at him over her knitting needles as though she would have liked stab him with one. "Our ancestors' power runs in your veins, yet you squander it on worthless pranks! If only you applied yourself to your studies with as much determination, you would see how capable a Black can become! Is it too much to ask you to be like your brother? He studies enough to be worthy of our name!"

Her voice was becoming shrill, now. Regulus shot him a sympathetic glance over their father's shoulder, but Sirius had also noticed a shadow of a smile pass across his face when their mother had inadvertently praised him. She continued ranting, and Sirius felt his blood being to boil. All this for a bloody examination... True, he had found the subject too boring to dedicate more than a couple of hours' study to it, but he had at least passed, hadn't he?

"It's just a stupid History of Magic exam, you old hag!" he yelled, springing to his feet. "And it's not like I even failed it!"

"SILENCE! How dare you speak to me this way? You should be ashamed of yourself!"

"WHY SHOULD I, WHEN YOU'RE ASHAMED ENOUGH FOR BOTH OF US!" Sirius took a deep breath to continue shouting, but what came next out of his mouth was not a sentence, but a hacking cough. He had inhaled a cloud of pungent smoke that his father had blown his way.

"Unless you want to suffer a repeat of your first night here, Sirius, sit down," drawled his father, his face barely visible through the haze of pipe smoke. He began reading Sirius' grades again, not giving Mrs Black a chance to continue her tirade.

"Outstanding in Muggle Studies..."

Regulus burst out laughing, but quickly clapped a hand to his mouth. Sirius could barely suppress his own smile. A glance at his mother's contorted face told him that she had understood very well just how diligently Sirius could study when he had an interest in doing so.

"Outstanding in Muggle Studies?" she asked in a dangerously low voice. "Are you trying deliberately to spite us, boy?"

"Not really, no," said Sirius. "I think Muggle Studies is great. I love studying for it." And that was the truth. Although he had chosen the subject as a way of defying his Muggle-loathing parents, he had quickly grown fascinated by it.

"You like studying Muggles?" asked Mr Black, very slowly. "Muggles and all their pathetic ways, when they are the reason our kind has to live in hiding? When they dare to infiltrate our world and contaminate it with their filthy Mudblood offspring?"

Sirius stared, incredulous. "Contaminate?"

"Clearly, you haven't grasped the lessons we have been trying to teach you for years... Muggle-borns," he spat the words out as if they tasted like pus, "are no more worthy of the name 'wizard' than the common Muggle on the street! They are a stain on our society and they should be wiped out, the whole lot of them!"

"Muggles encroach on our world as if they own it, Sirius!" snarled his mother. "I'm beginning to think cousin Araminta had the right idea, when she proposed that bill to legalise Muggle hunting!"

"Muggles are people too!" yelled Sirius. How could they sit there with their haughty faces and not see? "How can you talk about killing them as if they were mere animals? Those Muggle-borns and half-bloods you hate so much - there's a Muggle-born witch in my year who could wipe the floor with both of you! You think she should be put down, when she's just as much human as you or I? Who gave you the right to decide who should live and who should die? Your rotten blood makes you better than everyone, is that it?"

His father was looking murderous. "Yes, that is exactly it, Sirius!"

"WELL THEN I WANT NO PART OF IT!"

The tension that had been building up in Sirius' body snapped like a taut elastic band. He was off his chair, snatching his certificates from his father and dashing to the door in a flash. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him, barely remembering to breathe until he had reached his bedroom and collapsed on the floor. He lifted his head; the walls seemed to press down on him with the iron weight of his parents' stupid, stupid convictions. He thought of the scowling face of Lily Evans, the genial laugh of Ted Tonks, the disembodied head of Hattie up on the wall and the glowing yellow eyes of the werewolf, and felt sick with the knowledge that his parents would cheerfully applaud if all these people disappeared off the face of the earth.

"Damn it, damn it, damn it!" He gave the bedframe a vicious punch, not caring about the pain it caused his fist. The skin on one of his knuckles ruptured with the force of the blow and a tiny drop of blood oozed out. He stared at it, this fabled Black blood that had only managed to produce a couple of fools for parents, a brother who remained silent, and himself, a misfit lost in a sea of elf-killing, Muggle-hating ancestors. He wondered if Andromeda had felt this way, and if that had been the reason she married a Muggle-born. She hadn't belonged here, not cheerful Andromeda with her Ravenclaw brains.

"You can always come to Godric's Hollow," James had said to him.

Could he get away, like Andromeda had done? He didn't belong here any more than she had.

Well, anything Andromeda Tonks could do, Sirius Black could do just as well.

Glad to have reached a decision, he got up and dragged his trunk to the middle of the room before beginning to chuck his possessions into it. From the wardrobe, he took out the jeans and shirt he'd worn coming home from King's Cross and slipped into them with relish. The robe he took off was stuffed into the top shelf of the wardrobe. He paused for a moment to arrange it carefully on top of Phineas' portrait until every inch of canvas was covered. He had just bent to check if anything was left in the dusty space under his bed --Kreacher hadn't cleaned the room in days-- when a sound startled him, making him bang his head on the frame.

"What are you doing?"

Sirius rubbed the back of his head. Regulus was standing by the door, staring at the open trunk stuffed with Sirius' belongings.

"Leaving this bloody place, what does it look like?"

"What do you mean, leaving?" asked Regulus, his forehead creasing.

"Work it out, if you're as clever as our dear old mum says you are."

"Is this because of the fight? Aren't you a bit old to be running away from home because your parents yelled at you?"

"This isn't because of the fight, Regulus! Don't you understand I can't stay here because they are blind? You saw what they did to Hattie, they would do the same to Muggles and even other wizards in a heartbeat! To human beings! All this because of some snooty, idiotic idea that their pure blood makes them special and superior; it's utter rubbish!"

"Sirius, don't say that," said Regulus in an odd, pleading tone. "Look at yourself! You're a great wizard, one of the most powerful wizards in school; everyone says so. Where do you think that comes from, if not from your blood? You should be proud of what being a Black has given you! I know I am, even if I'm not as good as you are!"

"I'd rather be a Squib, if it means I have to act like those two snobs we call our parents. They may have given me power, but as long as I don't use that power to chop Muggles to bits, I'll always be a disappointment."

Regulus slipped one finger beneath the lenses on his glasses and rubbed his eye wearily. "You're exaggerating..."

"You can ask Mother next time she coos at you!" snapped Sirius.

"They're not completely wrong about Muggles, you know," murmured Regulus. "We read in History of Magic about how Muggles persecuted us, chased us out of everywhere and tied us up to be burnt, Hengist of Woodcroft--"

"Learnt about bloody Hengist in history, did you? While you were studying for your bloody exam? I'd pick up that history book and chuck it at Mother's face and spit on her! I wish you would, I wish you would see the truth."

"Are you mad? You're talking about our mother!"

"No, I'm talking about an ugly bigoted crone who wouldn't care if I dropped dead! If you could see that, you would know she doesn't deserve to be loved or--"

"HOW CAN YOU ASK ME TO HATE MY OWN MOTHER?"

A stunned silence followed Regulus' outburst. Sirius gaped, surprised beyond words, at the livid face of his normally mild-mannered brother. He couldn't remember Regulus raising his voice since he had started Hogwarts.

The shock of it had deflated all of Sirius' anger. His shoulders slumped and he took a step towards his trunk to close it.

"I can't ask you to do anything, Regulus," he muttered. "You have to decide for yourself, you're old enough. But I am leaving." Straightening up, he reached out a hand to open the door.

"You can't touch it, she's charmed it again," said Regulus. Then, suddenly, "They are my parents," he blurted out. "I respect their beliefs."

Their eyes met, blue staring into blue. When they had been little, people had sometimes mistaken them for twins, they had looked so much alike. Sirius was taller now, and had to bend his head slightly to meet his brother's gaze, but apart from that, their features were still eerily similar. "How strange that he can think so differently," Sirius thought. He opened his mouth to speak, but then Regulus did something Sirius could not have expected.

His brother reached over and opened the door for him.

"How are you going to get where you're going, then?" he asked quietly.

Sirius exhaled. "Floo'ing, I s'pose."

"She locks the Floo powder at night."

"What? Why?"

"Dunno. Afraid you might sneak off to see Uncle Alphard again, maybe."

"Like that'd stop me!" snorted Sirius. "I'll just have to fly then." He pushed the door closed with his foot and strode over to open the window, then dragged the trunk over to it, stooping to tie it to the end of his broom. Regulus moved over to help him hoist the ensemble onto the windowsill. Sirius climbed up beside it and turned to look one last time at his brother.

"Look," he said suddenly, "if it ever gets bad for you, if you change your mind--" he jumped back into the room and taking out a scrap of paper from the bedside table, scribbled '8 Raven Road, Godric's Hollow'. He thrust it into his brother's hand. "This is where I'll be, you can come find me whenever you want, all right?"

Regulus clenched his fingers around the parchment for a long moment, but then reached out and placed it in the pocket of Sirius' shirt. "I'd better not take it," he said, averting his eyes. "If Mum or Dad ask me about you, it's best for both of us if I don't know where you are."

"If you say so." There was an awkward pause. "Well. Bye then."

"Goodbye, Sirius," said Regulus, and walked out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Sirius mounted his broomstick and kicked off. Within a few minutes, Grimmauld Place was a mere speck in the distance.

He didn't look back.

*

Even years later, Sirius could never remember how long he had flown that night. In the beginning, he had felt exhilarated and free, despite the weight of the trunk constantly dragging his broom down. After a while, however, the chill of the night began to seep into his skin, reaching deeper and deeper until he thought it had frozen the marrow in his bones. He pushed on, trying to fight off the cold and his slowly growing tiredness. Landscapes blurred beneath him, woods and mountains and rivers jumbled into a multi-coloured whole.

Towards the morning, his hands numb, his body barely holding up, he finally reached the sea. A little later, he arrived at Godric's Hollow. His muscles protesting all the way, he steered his broom into a slow descent and landed in the Potters' garden. The sun was just coming up. His legs trembling, he got off the broom and walked a couple of shaky steps.

And promptly collapsed on the doorstep.

17.9.2003

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