Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to all who read and enjoyed “The Summer of
the Phoenix”, particularly to all those who let me know that they did, and of
course to all who requested “more”! So here we return to Sirius at No. 12,
Grimmauld Place for another “missing moment” - not a “sequel” in the
strict sense of the word though, so you don’t have to read “Summer” before you
- - - * * * - - - * * * - - - * * * - - -
don’t understand – there are things worth dying for!”
Black to the Weasley twins in OOTP, Chapter 22)
Night had once more descended on Grimmauld Place. Down in the kitchen of
No. 12, a solitary man sat at the long wooden table, his brooding face illuminated
by the light of a single guttering candle. Propped up on his elbow, he was prodding
moodily at the plate in front of him with his fork.
Sirius Black wasn’t hungry these days.
After two days of only dry bread and scraps
of cold chicken from the supplies Molly Weasley had brought the last time she
had come to see him – come and, making feeble excuses, left again as quickly as
she could - , he had finally forced himself to cook a warm meal for once. But
the moment he had sat down to eat, he had lost what little appetite he might
still have had for it when he got started.
He picked up a piece of potato with his
fork, ate it, and noticed with distaste that it was cold. He pushed his plate
away with a grunt and reached for his glass instead. At least Ogden’s Old Firewhisky kept him moderately
warm on the inside these days.
He swirled the coppery liquid around in the
glass – not his first glass today, but very likely the last for a while, until Mundungus
Fletcher, the unreliable old rogue, could be bothered to turn up again and
bring him a new supply. Ah well. When he had emptied the remaining
contents of the bottle into the glass a while ago, he had decided he’d start worrying
about this no earlier than tomorrow morning.
Molly Weasley wouldn’t have approved if
she’d seen that – but when had Molly Weasley ever approved of anything Sirius
did? And since when did he care? She couldn’t see him now. Nobody could see
him. People didn’t come to see him any longer. No one had been to the house now
since… Sirius couldn’t remember. The days, short as they were at this time of
the year, were all so much the same Sirius couldn’t tell them apart any more.
They flowed into each other, too, so it became hard to tell where one ended and
the next began. Sometimes he would go to sleep in the dark and wake up again in
the dark, and not even know if a whole day had passed in the meantime or just a
few hours. He had no idea what day of the week it was, or what day of the
month. He only knew from the date on the bits of Daily Prophet that Mrs
Weasley had used to wrap some of the provisions in that they must be in
December. Maybe they were close to Christmas. Maybe it was Christmas
Christmas at Grimmauld
Don’t think about it, Sirius told himself. Don’t think about it. Think about… Harry.
That had always worked to cheer him up over the last months. Sirius hadn’t
spoken to Harry directly since they had discovered that the Hogwarts fires were
being watched. But even if he couldn’t speak with his godson, his thoughts
often went out to him – much more often, it seemed, than Harry’s thoughts went
out to Sirius, given that Harry didn’t even write any more. Not that they could
have risked mentioning anything about the Order in their letters, and Harry would
have to be careful what he said about the new regime at Hogwarts, too. But he
wasn’t even sending a few lines just to say how the Quidditch was going.
Sure, Harry must be busy right now, with
his O.W.L.s coming up next summer, and with the secret Defence against the Dark
Arts group he had started, right under Dolores Umbridge’s nose. That idea had
filled Sirius with a fierce pride in his godson, and with considerable glee at
the expense of the Ministry, when Mundungus Fletcher had first brought him the
news. But now, even that fact only added to his frustration. Harry was at least
able to do something. He had taken matters into his own hands. Harry
was a boy of fifteen, goddammit, he was still at school, and he had still found
a way of contributing actively to the fight against the enemy, while he,
Sirius, was cooped up here in Grimmauld Place, sentenced to inactivity to the end of his days, for all it looked
Albus Dumbledore – don’t think about
Albus Dumbledore, either.
Sirius took another sip of his drink. There
was a soft clatter as his sleeve brushed against his wand that was on the table
next to him.
Remus Lupin – he understood. He
could feel Sirius’s pain, he knew what it was like to be alone. But Remus Lupin
wasn’t there. He actually wasn’t there a lot of the time. Most of the time, to
For a moment, Sirius contemplated his reflection
on the glass he was holding, oddly distorted on the convex surface. Even Remus Lupin
would probably disapprove of him at the moment. A dark shadow of stubble
covered Sirius’s hollow cheeks, and his black hair hung about his face in lank
tangles, unwashed for – well, for a while anyway. As a matter of fact, he had
begun to look disturbingly like – no, don’t think about him, either.
He’s the last one you’d want to see you in this state. As a matter of fact,
it’s probably a good thing that nobody is coming to see you at all, like this.
Christmas or no.
The candle on the table suddenly flickered
and hissed in a draught of air that passed through the room. It had come from -
Sirius raised his head just as the kitchen door closed with a snap.
“Speak of the devil,” he muttered, entirely
unsurprised, when the man who had just entered stepped forward into the
Severus Snape glanced around the room as if
to check who Sirius might have been speaking to. “I see you’re on speaking
terms with solitude then,” he observed. “I don’t expect you have any visitors?”
“Looks like I have one now,” Sirius
grunted, squinting up to the man facing him across the table. “Come to keep me
company for Christmas, have you?”
“Hardly.” A humourless smile curled Snape’s
mouth. “I doubt my commitments would allow me to, even if the prospect seemed
inviting. As it is,” he continued, looking Sirius up and down with cold black
eyes, “you look in no fit state to entertain a guest at any rate.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Sirius
muttered, knowing very well what Snape meant, but trying to ignore the fact
that compared to himself, the man opposite looked indeed almost impeccably groomed
– greasy hair and all. “Look,” he said ironically, pushing his glass towards
his visitor. “I even saved my first drink to have with you.”
Snape gave the glass a disgusted look, and
then abruptly pulled a chair out from under the table and sat down opposite
Sirius. “Listen to me, Black,” he said swiftly, pushing Sirius’s plate with the
half finished dinner out of the way and folding his arms on the table in front
of him. “I haven’t got much time, and you need not pretend that you take any
more pleasure in my company than I take in yours. I’m here to bring you a
“And to gloat over my misery?”
Snape raised his eyebrows. “You’re
beginning to worry me, Black,” he said in a tone of false concern. “Last time I
was here, long ago thankfully, you still had enough self-respect left to want
to make me believe at all cost that misery was a word that didn’t even exist
in your universe.”
Sirius’s right hand had begun to finger his
wand on the table. “What would you do, Snape,” he asked conversationally, rolling
the wand idly from left to right, “if I just picked up this wand and hexed you
“Nothing at all. It would be far too
interesting to see if you could achieve something even remotely resembling a
steady aim tonight to stop you trying.”
Sirius gave him a murderous look, but the wand
remained on the table where it was.
“Your misery, Black,” Snape said
softly, his gaze locked unblinkingly into Sirius’s bloodshot eyes, “is none of my
Something very strange happened then.
The face in front of Sirius swam and merged
into another, that of a girl, dark of hair and eyes, black marble under heavy
lids. She was smiling, but the smile was as cold as her eyes. Then other shapes
emerged around her, but none as clear as hers. There were shouts of laughter on
the air, too, a high-pitched laughter, but Sirius couldn’t take his eyes away
from the girl’s face. He knew it, and hated it, and suddenly he was afraid. A rush
of fear welled up within him, fear and shame, and the next moment, the shapes
were gone, the world went dark before his eyes, and his terror turned into a heavy
wave of water, rolling over him, gurgling and pounding in his ears. It was all
around him, pressing down on him like a hand on the back of his head. He felt
himself drown, and he struggled desperately to get back to the surface, back to
the light, out of the water, out of there.
The room came back into focus, and Sirius
shook his head vigorously, feeling slightly feverish. And then he realised that
Snape was still staring at him intently with his fathomless black eyes.
he snapped, tearing his gaze away with a great effort.
Snape leant back, an expression of polite
puzzlement on his face, and the connection broke. “Stop what?” he asked
Sirius shook his head again, trying to push
the images he had just seen to the back of his mind. He knew what they were, and
he knew just as well that they were the last thing he wanted to be reminded of,
particularly here in this room, particularly at this time of the year.
“What – what about that message?” he
finally managed to ask, his voice hoarse, struggling to regain his composure.
“They’re making you an offer.”
“Who?” Sirius asked automatically.
It took a moment for Snape’s soft tone to
penetrate the fog in Sirius’s head. “Oh,” he muttered then, understanding.
“Your little Death Eater friends, right?” A corner of Snape’s mouth twitched,
and Sirius registered it with an absurd little jolt of satisfaction. “And what
could they possibly have to offer me?” he asked disinterestedly, reaching for
“Your freedom,” said Snape casually.
Sirius froze, his hand suspended in
mid-air. Then he fell back into his chair. “What?” he asked rather loudly. “What
does it mean, my freedom?”
“In the common definition - ” Snape intoned
as if he was speaking to a particularly slow student. “Ah well,” he interrupted
himself then, as if he’d just remembered that this particular student couldn’t
help being anything but slow, and was to be pitied for it. “I won’t blame you
if you’ve recently lost your grasp of what that could actually mean with
regards to your own life.”
“Then tell me what it means, if you’re so
clever,” Sirius snarled, crossing his arms.
“It means what it says. You’ll get your
life back, your good name, everything you’ve sacrificed to the cause,
Black, to so little avail.”
“Very funny,” said Sirius ironically. He
reached for the glass again and took another sip of Firewhisky. “How is anyone
going to make that happen?”
“I would remind you that some of my little
Death Eater friends are influential enough with the Ministry to have a good
chance of persuading Cornelius Fudge that your conviction and imprisonment was a
tragic miscarriage of justice, and of prompting him to grant you a full formal
rehabilitation,” Snape said smoothly, not bothering to hide how much he enjoyed
the fact that Sirius had to frown in concentration to follow this quick
succession of long words. “You’ll be formally reinstated in your property and
your statutory rights as a member of the wizarding community, your criminal
record will be cleared, and who knows, a clever enough wizarding lawyer might
even be able to push a claim of redress for twelve years of unjust imprisonment
through the Wizengamot for you.”
Sirius snorted. “That’s about as likely as
- “ He cast around for a comparison. “As Arthur Weasley becoming Minister for
Magic,” he said finally.
“Much more likely,” Snape replied dryly. “The
wizarding world finds it so easy these days to close their eyes. They’re in a
mood to forgive and forget. You’ve heard the Minister, Black. The Dark Lord
never came back, and he never will. There’s absolutely no truth in any of these
deluded rumours, no threat whatsoever. No better time than now to make them
forget about you.”
“Right,” Sirius said hoarsely after a moment’s
silence, and he realised that it had become much harder to keep the tone of
indifference in his voice. “Why would they offer all that to me? Not out of
sheer human kindness, right? They’ll want something in return.”
“Of course they do. But no more than you
“What do they want?”
“A few scraps of information, that’s all.”
“Can’t you guess?” Snape was speaking to
the slow student again. “Names, Black,” he said, his voice suddenly
harsh. “Names and whereabouts. Plans. Operations. Dates and times. Means of
communication. Everything. Everything you know.”
That, too, took a while to sink in. “You
mean – “ Sirius began slowly, then shook his head and let out an incredulous
bark-like laugh. “They’re asking me to give up the Order to Voldemort?
They want me to sell out my friends to the enemy?” He snorted at
the absurdity of the proposition.
“They’re not putting it past you, apparently,”
Snape shrugged. “It’s the price for your freedom, Black.”
There was another silence. Sirius began to
absently spin his glass around on the table, staring down unfocusedly at the
rough wooden surface. Then it struck him. “Hang on,” he said suddenly, looking sharply
up at Snape. “How – how do they know - ?”
“About us. About me.” He felt a cold
sweat breaking out on his forehead, and resisted the urge to wipe it away with
“How should I know?” Snape said indifferently.
“Not from me.”
“Why don’t you ask that yourself?” Snape
suggested. “Are you sure you’ve done nothing to alert them to the fact
that you’re back in the country? No? Nothing to draw attention to yourself? Something
rash, possibly? Something downright thoughtless, not to mention dangerous?
A little excursion outside the house, maybe, against Albus Dumbledore’s express
Sirius felt his blood rise into his face.
He remembered the mild autumn sun on his thick black coat of fur, the fresh
air, the cats he had chased to amuse Harry and his friends, the familiar sense
of excitement on the station platform, the wind in his ears as he raced
alongside the train… and then the article in the Daily Prophet a few
days later, Molly Weasley’s reproachful looks, Remus Lupin’s face lined with
worry, and Alastor Moody very much on the verge of hitting Sirius left and
right around the head with the paper, just like you’d do with a disobedient
“Albus Dumbledore,” Sirius grasped at
something that didn’t remind him of just how bad he had felt the weekend
following the first of September, speaking more to himself than to Snape. “Albus
Dumbledore is Secret Keeper for the Order. Even if I wanted, I couldn’t – “ He
broke off. Who was he trying to convince there, and of what?
”Dumbledore is Secret Keeper for the Order, and for the whereabouts of
Headquarters,” Snape reminded him neutrally, “but he’s not Secret Keeper for
all individual members, or their homes and families.”
“Individual members,” Sirius repeated, his
tongue stumbling slightly over the long word. He looked up at Snape again,
struck by the obvious. “That includes you, right?”
“Naturally,” Snape confirmed with a cold
smile. “It does make the offer appear doubly attractive, doesn’t it?”
Another silence fell between them. Sirius’s
hand twitched to go back to his glass, but he held himself back. “Right,” he
said bluntly. “Where’s the catch?”
“No catch,” Snape replied as if the very
notion surprised him greatly. “A fair exchange, one favour for another.”
“Voldemort doesn’t bargain,” Sirius
“How do you know?” came the swift reply.
“If you know him so well, why don’t you
go and strike up a nice bargain with him then?” Sirius snarled. “If you haven’t
already. Go on, why don’t you go and lick his spit, and Lucius Malfoy’s as
well while you’re at it? You’ve got a lot more practice at it than I have,
“Ah, but what would I stand to gain from
such an arrangement?” Snape mused as if he was seriously deliberating the
question. “See, unlike you, I do have a life outside the walls of this house,
and a name that isn’t spoken with disgust and contempt by the wizarding public
wherever I go. As a matter of fact, I would have considered it uncivil not to yield
you the precedence, seeing as you are so much more in need of a bit of recognition
than I am.”
“You have no idea what I need,” said Sirius,
and reached for his drink again, but Snape was quicker. His hand shot forward
and closed around the glass, and with a jerk of his arm he had emptied the
contents into the fire. A blue flame flared up and consumed the liquid with an
“What you need,” Snape said sharply,
replacing the empty glass on the table with a clang, “is a clear head.
You will want to consider this, and have an answer ready when they approach
you. Or you them,” he added in an afterthought. Then he got up from the table,
and made to turn to the door.
“Wait,” Sirius said hoarsely. “What about
“Dumbledore?” Snape raised his eyebrows as
if he was unable to follow Sirius’s train of thought. “What about him?”
“What does Dumbledore say to all this?”
Sirius asked impatiently.
“Dumbledore,” Snape replied pointedly,
“knows absolutely nothing about all this. See,” he continued,
seeing Sirius’s surprise, “I thought it unfair to prejudice your decision in
any way, Black. I would have hated to rob you of your choice.” With
a last smile, he turned and crossed to the kitchen door. There, he halted
again, and turned once more back to Sirius. “Think about it,” he said. “Oh, and
– Merry Christmas.”
The door fell shut behind him, and Sirius
Sirius reached for his glass again and
cursed when he found it empty. He put his elbows on the table and his head in
his hands, fingers digging deep into his unkempt hair. He pulled at it as if he
could force his thoughts into order that way, closing his eyes tightly to shut
out the sight of the empty glass and the flickering firelight that made them hurt.
He had a decision to make. He needed to think.
But he couldn’t. His brain had quit
service, refusing to function properly. All that filled his head was an
impenetrable, heavy fog, clouding his senses. And then through that wall of white
swirling mist, the flashes of faces and sounds that had raced through his mind
while he’d been talking to Snape came rushing back to him, unbidden, but with a
force against which he was powerless. He felt the same wave of fear and hatred
coming over him again, but then suddenly, another face appeared and replaced
the others, a friendly, open face with pale, almost melancholy eyes, and a
voice to go with it, speaking kind, quiet, soothing words to him, words that were
coming back to him as clearly now as they hadn’t in years. Words that had once
meant the world to him.
Sirius put his arms on the table, rested
his forehead on them, and let himself be swallowed into the whirling vortex that
was his memory.
It had been his last Christmas at No. 12, Grimmauld Place, two decades or more ago.
Sirius remembered it clearly now, piecing together the faces and voices he had
just seen and heard in his mind. His last Christmas at No. 12, Grimmauld Place,
and in his memory, which didn’t exactly hold a big store of happy family
festivities, the worst of all.
Christmas at No. 12, Grimmauld Place always followed the same
pattern. Kreacher the house-elf would be set to work around the middle of
December to scrub the house sparkling clean, to decorate the stately rooms on
the ground and first floor, and to start preparing large amounts of exquisite
food, all under the stern eye of Mrs Black, who would not allow him a single
minute of rest. A few days before Christmas, her sons would arrive home from
school, only to dump their trunks in their rooms and be sent to supervise
Kreacher in her stead while she went off on extended shopping trips to the most
exclusive shops in Diagon Alley. And whatever her sons did while she was away,
on her return she would invariably kiss her younger son on the cheek and thank
him for his invaluable contribution to making his family appear in the best
light at the Black’s traditional Christmas day reception. And equally invariably,
she would then move on to lament the lack of effort her older son was putting
into even the minimum of support he owed his parents as a filial duty. A lack
of effort that over the years faded into what began to resemble a silent but
active boycott, as Mrs Black noted with growing displeasure.
Sirius passionately hated Christmas, and
hated it more every year. Other families, Sirius had heard from his friends at
school, celebrated the holiday in a much quieter fashion. For them, Christmas
was - from what especially the Muggle-born of his classmates told him - an
occasion to simply enjoy company and food, or even just a good book, and a great
time to talk over the year that had passed and the plans they had for the new
year that was about to begin. Some of them would play music and sing. Some of
them would invite their neighbours or friends whom they knew to be without a family
of their own and bound to be very lonely at this time of the year. But none of
his friends seemed to be obliged to spend the lead-up to the holiday engaged in
cleaning work worthy only of house-elves, and to spend the day itself hiding
behind the stiff mask of a fake smile, shaking hands and making polite but
meaningless conversation with their parents’ equally stiff friends and acquaintances.
At Christmas at Grimmauld
Place, the Blacks celebrated nothing but themselves,
for all the wizarding world to see, or at least for the part of it they considered
worthy of this privilege. They always invited the extended family, or the part
of it they could bring themselves to admit their relation to, as well as other
old pure-blood families of wealth and influence, surrounding themselves with
names as ancient and renowned as their own. If the lonely and needy were
remembered at all, it was only in the mentioning of the family’s generous
annual donation to St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries –
mentioned casually, almost dismissively, but mentioned nonetheless whenever the
opportunity arose. And if there was any talk of the year past and the year
ahead, it was largely a question of the male guests exchanging notes on their
careers and discussing wizarding politics, while the female guests gabbled away
about their perfect little children. And once the children were old enough to
be a factor to be reckoned with when it came to establishing or fortifying
profitable alliances, the gabbling turned into whispers about possible arrangements
and matches between sons and daughters, which Sirius found even more sickening.
Sirius had been through this so many times
before, and had come to hate the very idea of Christmas so much, that when the
holidays had finally approached that year, his fifth at Hogwarts, he had almost
begged his best friend James to ask his parents if he couldn’t come along to
their place instead. But the Potters, with a regret as sincere as the
warm-hearted generosity they usually extended to him, or indeed any of James’s
friends, had had to turn him down. They were going to visit the Irish branch of
the family this year, arrangements had already been made, and he would surely
Sirius had then considered the obvious alternatives
and dismissed them almost immediately. Peter’s parents, he knew, didn’t approve
of the friends their son had made at Hogwarts. The frequency of their Howlers,
which followed the Marauders’ more daring and outrageous pranks (those they got
caught at, anyway) as regularly and inevitably as the detentions, had told him
(along with the rest of the Great Hall) as much, without any need for further
clarification. And Remus – well, Christmas being at the full moon this year, as
Sirius had checked first thing after the Potters’ kind but disappointing letter
had arrived, Remus and his family had enough troubles of their own to deal
But there was always the option of staying
at Hogwarts, and that was what he was going to do. Dull as it was bound to be
without his friends, it was far better than being stuck in Grimmauld Place. Sirius had written a few
lines to his own parents then, announcing his plans to them as a fait
accompli, and waited stoically for his mother’s howls of protest that were
bound to come back by return owl, determined not to let them shake his decision
in the slightest. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d be accused of caring
nothing for the happiness of his mother. He was used to hearing it by now, and
the fact that he quite agreed with this assessment made it much easier to bear
than any truly unfounded allegations would have been.
But the owl that returned this time did not
bring another outburst of disappointment from his mother as he had expected. It
brought a very short letter from his father instead, which consisted of only one
cold and perfectly clear line. You’re coming home, or you’re not going back
to school after O.W.L.s.
It had shaken his decision. He had
not shown the letter to James or his other friends, but he had told them that
he had changed his mind after all, that he didn’t fancy staying at Hogwarts on
his own much more than going home, and that he’d be all right.
For the last time in his life, he had let
his parents – or anyone, really – take a decision out of his hands.
He knew that coming home after all had been
a mistake the moment he had set foot in the house. His mother greeted him with the
expected careless cold that completely belied the frequent protest of motherly
feelings for him in her letters. But in the looks that his father gave him at
mealtimes or whenever else Sirius could not avoid his gaze, there was something
else, something Sirius had never seen there before. It was a strange
satisfaction, almost a glint of triumph that, Sirius felt acutely, could only
come from what his father perceived as a victory over his son’s will. That hurt
– it hurt more than all the years of his mother’s complaints combined had ever hurt
him. His friends, his life at Hogwarts, all that made her so furious, had
always been a source of pride for him, and all her criticism had only caused
him to value them even more. His father’s triumph, on the other hand, did not
glance off the invisible shields Sirius had begun to put up around himself, it
didn’t strengthen his defences the way his mother’s accusations did with every
new onslaught. On the contrary. Weakness, Sirius felt painfully, didn’t make
for a good defence. Failure was nothing to be proud of.
These were the thoughts that went through
Sirius’s mind as he sat alone in a corner of the stately drawing room on the
first floor of No. 12, Grimmauld Place, on the afternoon of the Christmas reception. He was watching the
guests – the room was full of witches and wizards standing or sitting together
in small groups, all with goblets or glasses in their hands, all in their best robes,
a colourful assembly in which green and black dominated nonetheless. The place
was buzzing with their excited talk. Sirius could see his father with two of
his closest confidants, his own brother and his lawyer, Mr Lestrange,
conversing in low voices. At the other end of the room was Sirius’s mother,
pointing at the large tapestry displaying the Black family tree with a short
thick finger. Her shrill voice carried across the room as she talked to a tall,
blonde, rather forbidding looking woman. “Yes, our Narcissa, our lovely niece,
she’s really blossomed into a beauty, hasn’t she, Mrs Malfoy?”
The object of their conversation, the
lovely niece that had recently blossomed into a beauty – which was largely a
matter of opinion, or so Sirius thought – was standing at one of the large
windows, a glass of Gillywater in her hand, talking animatedly to a young man
with a pale, pointed face and white-blond hair whom Sirius recognised as Mrs
Malfoy’s grown-up son Lucius. Narcissa didn’t seem at all happy when suddenly,
the voice of another girl called her name across the room.
“Narcissa, hey! Come over here for a
second!” Narcissa’s sister Bellatrix, as dark of colouring as Narcissa was
fair, waved to her from the sofa where she was sitting with a group of friends.
Sirius had so far avoided looking in their direction at all. Close to him in
age, they were all either family or sons of his father’s friends, and fellow
students at Hogwarts. But without exception, they had been sorted into
Slytherin, and – Sirius thought – it showed.
There were Rodolphus Lestrange, like
Bellatrix now in his sixth year at Hogwarts, and his brother Rabastan, who had
graduated a year or two ago. They were as unlike in appearance as Bellatrix and
Narcissa were, Rodolphus rather thickset and burly, Rabastan tall and lean, but
just like Sirius’s cousins, they were very much alike when it came to
displaying that sickening superiority that came in green and silver. There was
also a boy from Sirius’s own year, Evan Rosier, and Sirius’s own younger brother
Regulus, who was aglow with the excitement of being allowed to sit with the older
students and be part of their conversation. They had all put their heads
together in conspiratorial whispers when Bellatrix had called over to her
sister, and Narcissa reluctantly came over to join them. The pale young Malfoy
followed in her wake, apparently equally displeased to be interrupted, and
unwilling to give up his pretty companion to anyone else.
Sirius looked away and ignored them, which
was the usual basis on which he dealt with them during holidays, when they were
under the watchful eyes of their parents, and any attempt at picking a fight
with them was like to be quenched immediately by adult intervention.
“Hullo, Sirius,” said a deep, warm voice at
his shoulder. “Mind if I sit down?”
Sirius looked up and met the pale but
friendly eyes of his uncle Alphard.
At first glance, Alphard was not a very noticeable
person. Silvery white, sparse wisps of hair encircled his bald pate. His round
face, sagging with age, and the bags under his eyes gave him the slightly
melancholy appearance of an old spaniel. But Sirius knew him better than that. Often
enough, he had seen a sudden spark of light in those eyes that neither age nor
melancholy would ever extinguish. He had always known Alphard for a
surprisingly energetic man despite his age and his looks, quick of mind and unorthodox
in his opinions. Alphard had a way of always expressing himself politely, but
freely nonetheless. He was not a Black by birth, and in spite of his marriage
to Sirius’s mother’s sister he had proved immune to all attempts to make him
one, which was something Sirius admired.
His uncle didn’t wait to be invited, but
took the empty seat next to Sirius, and smiled. “Had a good Christmas so far?”
“No,” Sirius said morosely. “I never have.
I should have stayed at school.” He wouldn’t pretend he was enjoying the topic
of conversation, but he knew that Uncle Alphard was the only member of the
family he could talk to openly about these things, and it was a relief to say
it out loud for once, instead of swallowing it down as he had done over the
“But then your mother would have been very
disappointed,” Alphard was saying.
“I know,” Sirius replied. “There’s nothing
new in that, she’s always disappointed whatever I do.”
“But you still came,” Alphard observed, and
looked so intently into his nephew’s dark eyes that Sirius turned his head
“Yes,” he said curtly, not keen to pursue
the subject, and cast around for something else to say. “So, have you heard
from Andromeda and her family lately?” He had instinctively lowered his voice
when he spoke the name, and instantly regretted it. It wasn’t his fault that
his oldest cousin had proved, in his mother’s eyes, almost as great a
disappointment as her own eldest son. He liked Andromeda, and he could find no
fault at all in her decision to marry a Muggle-born wizard like Ted Tonks. Ted
Tonks had not only been a legendary Gryffindor Quidditch captain that Sirius
and his friends had looked up to when they had been in their first year at
school and he in his last, but he also had a great sense of humour, and was,
according to Alphard, apparently a wonderful husband and father. So why
couldn’t Sirius even bring himself to speak his cousin’s name loud enough to be
“Andromeda?” Alphard asked loudly and
cheerfully as if to show Sirius how it was done, and completely ignored the
heads of his wife and Mrs Black jerking around irritably at the sound of the
name. “Why, she’s fine, they’re all fine. I just saw them last Sunday, I
thought I’d look in for tea, and all’s well there. Nymphadora really is an
adorable little nymph. And guess what? They’ve been worried for so long that
she didn’t seem to settle for a steady eye colour, and that she was growing so
erratically, you know, one day taller, one day shorter, one day this nose, one
day that – but the specialists at St. Mungo’s are actually telling Andromeda
and Ted now that she’s almost certainly a Metamorphmagus!”
“Wow,” said Sirius, but with a kind of
detached interest. He hadn’t been able to help shooting a glance in the direction
of the group on the sofa now and then, and he had noticed that they were
furtively looking back at him, and not in a friendly way. “Yeah, great news,”
he said distractedly. “Should be exciting. Look, I’ve run out of butterbeer,
mind if I go and get another one? D’you want one, too?”
Alphard looked around at the sideboard
where the drinks stood. “Yes, I would,” he said. “Only there’s none left, only
“Gillywater’s for girls,” Sirius said
dismissively. “I’ll just go down to the kitchen and get some new ones. I’ll be
back in a minute.”
Alphard nodded pleasantly, and Sirius got
up, glad to have an excuse the leave the room for a while. The darkness and
silence of the entrance hall was a relief from the stuffy air and the buzz of
voices in the drawing room. Sirius didn’t bother to light the lamps along the
wall. His feet, familiar with the house in spite of the fact that he hated
setting them into it at all, would find their way across the hall and down to
the basement kitchen without light.
Down there, Sirius found Kreacher the
house-elf standing on a stool at the sink, doing the washing-up now that he was
no longer needed upstairs to relieve the guests of their cloaks and coats.
“We’ve run out of butterbeer, Kreacher,”
Sirius told the elf, making straight for the pantry where the bottles would be
stored, not bothering to wait and see if Kreacher followed. To his surprise, it
appeared that the elf didn’t. “Come on and help me take a few more upstairs,”
Sirius called to him over his shoulder. Since when did that dratted creature
need telling twice?
If Sirius had been allowed to use magic
over the school holidays, there’d have been no need to call on that bloody elf
for help at all, he could easily have locomotored the whole crate upstairs all
by himself. But as it was, Sirius could do nothing but curse the existence of
the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery and return to the
kitchen, carrying three bottles of butterbeer in each hand, kicking the pantry
door shut behind him.
And there was the explanation for
Kreacher’s unusual lack of immediate obedience. Kreacher was no longer alone.
Lined up facing Sirius and blocking the way
to the door were his cousins, his brother, and their school friends, the
younger Lestrange and Evan Rosier. Lucius Malfoy, the young man who had
appeared so enraptured with Narcissa, had also joined them. All their faces
bore the same expression, and it was one that boded no good for him.
“What do you want?” Sirius asked in an
unfriendly tone, advancing to meet them, but they made no move to let him pass.
There was something ominous about their silence, but Sirius was sure that they
were only trying to unsettle him, and they weren’t going to succeed.
“Get out of my way,” he snarled at
Bellatrix, who was in front. She looked at him with her dark, hooded eyes,
tossed her long hair over her shoulder, crossed her arms and still said nothing.
The silence began to irritate Sirius now. If all they had planned was to
exchange the usual few snide remarks, they should have started by now.
Sirius sensed as well as any, or probably
better than any other Hogwarts student, when there was a fight in the air, and
with the eye of an expert he evaluated his situation. He was outnumbered six to
one, assuming Lucius Malfoy would be taking sides, and with his hands full of
butterbeer bottles and his wand somewhere deep in his back pocket under his
robes, it didn’t look too good for him. But even so, with a few quick and
well-aimed hexes – there, he knew there had to be a catch somewhere. A minor
inconvenience in the form of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of
Underage Sorcery, which had never seemed more unreasonable to Sirius than just
now. A few quick well-aimed hexes during the holidays would just spare his
father the trouble of having to wait until after O.W.L.s to take Sirius out of
Bellatrix seemed to have read his thoughts.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said with a sickening smile, and turned around
to her friends. “We don’t want our cousin to get in trouble with the Ministry,
do we?” She couldn’t have made it plainer though that she did plan to get him
into trouble of another sort.
“Rules are made to be broken,” Sirius snapped
at her, painfully aware how feeble the Marauders’ creed sounded when it wasn’t
followed by instant and eager applause from James, Peter and Remus. In fact, it
was disquieting how feeble he felt without the other Marauders at his
“Well, so are wands,” Bellatrix replied softly.
“At least some of them are.”
All right, if he wasn’t allowed to use his
wand, at least neither were they, and Sirius was about to tell his cousin so
when his eyes fell again on the pale, pointed face of Lucius Malfoy, and he
realised with a little jolt of his stomach that Malfoy had been out of school
for several years and was entitled to use his wand any time he pleased. It
really didn’t look good for him at all. Well, the only way out of this was the
“I don’t have time to play games with you,”
he said brusquely, and pushed ahead past Bellatrix.
With annoyingly slow deliberation, burly
Rodolphus Lestrange stepped in his way. “Oh, but we do,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Sirius snarled, but
couldn’t help registering that Lestrange was at least half a head taller than
he was, and a good deal wider. Logic might not be his strong point, but his
size and weight were to be reckoned with.
“We want to play a little game with you,”
Bellatrix elaborated sweetly. “And you’re actually playing the main role.”
“Am I?” Sirius snapped at her. “I don’t
think so. Now get out of the way.”
Naturally, none of them moved.
“He’s a bit of a spoilsport, isn’t he?”
drawled Lucius Malfoy.
He was taking sides.
Sirius registered that the palms of his
hands were feeling rather sweaty now, and were beginning to slip on the bottles
he was holding. “Go to hell, Malfoy.” His voice hadn’t trembled, had it?
“He’s not going anywhere,” Rodolphus
Lestrange said, and almost casually took hold of Sirius’s upper arm. “And
neither are you, until we say so.”
The touch sent an almost electrifying shock
through Sirius. “Let go of me!” he hissed, but the next moment, Evan
Rosier had closed in from the other side and taken hold of his other arm. They had
crossed the line - it was high time to put a stop to this, one way or another. Forget
reasonable, Sirius thought. If he could only get his wand –
Without warning, he let go of the bottles, flinging
them down as hard as he could, and wrenched his arms out of their grip. The
bottles smashed on the floor, splinters flew everywhere, foaming butterbeer
sloshed all over the stone tiles, and a loud howl of pain told Sirius that at
least one of the bottles had found a foot to land on. For a moment, he wished
wildly that it was Regulus’s, and then they were on him.
At least three of them threw themselves at him
with full force, and the impact brought him crashing down to the floor. He
landed on his side and only just avoided hitting his head on the tiles, as if some
healthy instinct had told him that it would not be a good idea to get knocked
out just now. He groped around, trying to steady himself and push himself up
again, and all but impaled his hand on the shards of glass that littered the
ground. Someone grabbed his wrist as if to keep him from injuring himself, but by
the vice-like grip he knew better than to hope that they were concerned for his
health. Before he could summon the strength to pull his hand free, a knee had
come down heavily on his side, knocking the air out of him, and his arm was
twisted painfully behind his back. Rodolphus Lestrange’s weight pinning him to
the floor, Sirius gasped for breath, the side of his face in a puddle of
butterbeer and much too close to Bellatrix’s shoes for comfort.
“Well done,” said his cousin’s voice above
him, as if she was applauding a pair of loyal hunting dogs that had just returned
to her with a limp fowl dangling from their mouths.
I’m not a limp fowl, Sirius thought. I’m Padfoot, and I could be at all your precious
little throats with inch long fangs in a second, feasting on your sweet pure
He let out a low growl, struggling to throw
his captors off. But with another twist to Sirius’s arm that told him very
plainly that he’d better lie still if he didn’t want it dislocated, Evan Rosier
reduced Sirius’s efforts to hardly more than a feeble twitch.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Rosier advised in a
tone of mock concern when Sirius bit back a cry of pain.
“Touching,” Lucius Malfoy commented.
“Get him up,” Bellatrix ordered her loyal
hunting dogs, and the dead weight was lifted from him and Sirius was hoisted to
his feet. His arms, still locked behind his back by two pairs of strong hands,
were almost numb with pain. Butterbeer was dripping from his hair and running into
his eyes, where it mixed, maybe, not that Sirius would ever have admitted it,
with something else.
Bellatrix wrinkled her nose. “Urgh,” she
made, and Narcissa at her shoulder giggled. “Is that only the butterbeer, or is
that the smell of a bold Gryffindor wetting himself with fear?”
“You wish,” Sirius snarled through clenched
teeth, furiously blinking the sticky liquid out of his eyes.
”Am I so far from the truth?” Bellatrix asked innocently. “Not such a big man,
are you, when you’re without your filthy little friends and admirers? What,
Gryffindor bravery going out of the window when Daddy calls you to
Sirius looked at her incredulously for a
moment. She grinned broadly back at him. Next to her, so did Regulus, and
Sirius hated them both.
“Yes, that’s the smell, isn’t it?”
Bellatrix continued. “It must be the stench of all that Mudblood filth that
fills Gryffindor Tower, or so they tell me. You must have
been rubbing shoulders too closely with those Muggle-loving scumbags in your
house… Quidditch hero Potter, and that ratty little – “
“They’re as pure blood as you are!” Sirius
shouted at her, and instantly hated himself for it. Since when did he care
about the family background of his friends? He didn’t need to descend to their
level, and he certainly didn’t have to justify to them who he chose for
his friends, not even when they made him drip butterbeer for their amusement.
“Oh really?” Bellatrix replied, raising her
eyebrows. “Not that you could tell from the way they behave… well then maybe
the fourth of your pathetic little bunch, the thin one who’s always in and out
of the hospital wing… weak blood, Sirius, those half breeds, too weak to live…”
Another low, deep growl welled up inside
Sirius, and he bared his teeth at her in a very doglike fashion. I’d like to
see who’s more likely to live, you or the half breed, at the full moon. For
a moment, he wanted nothing more than to let Padfoot jump for his cousin’s
throat. But he couldn’t – he couldn’t give himself away. For the sake of Moony
and his secret, he couldn’t.
“Or are you telling me he’s a pure-blood,
too?” Bellatrix continued. “You’re making progress. Seems you’re beginning to acknowledge
what really counts. But you still stink. It offends me. What do you say?” she asked
her little gang. “Shall we see if we can wash that Mudblood stench off, at
least for the holidays?” And without waiting for an answer, she turned to the
kitchen sink. “Stand aside, Kreacher.”
The house-elf, who had interrupted the
washing-up to watch, jumped down obediently from his stool, grimacing at
Sirius, his face gleaming almost hungrily. Bellatrix beckoned to Rodolphus
Lestrange and Evan Rosier. They began to push Sirius forward, and his stomach
clenched as he finally realised what was coming, what had been coming all
It had still taken, so much would have to
be said for him, quite a while and the combined efforts of Lestrange, Rosier,
Bellatrix and Regulus to drag him over to the sink. He fought like mad
to break free, writhing under their hands, digging in his heels on the slippery
ground as hard as he could, making the short distance seem five times as long as
it was, until they finally had him where they wanted. Rodolphus Lestrange kicked
aside Kreacher’s stool to make room while Bellatrix grabbed a handful of hair
at the back of Sirius’s head, and with surprising strength forced him to double
over the edge of the sink, until his face was mere inches away from the murky
surface of the soapy water in there.
”Toujours pur,” Bellatrix intoned. “It’s never too late to learn that
Sirius had only just time to take a deep
breath, then his head went under.
He came up again coughing and spluttering
as Bellatrix jerked him back by his hair, lukewarm greasy water running down
his face and neck and under his robes, stinging in his eyes. He could hear them
laugh, his brother Regulus’s high-pitched cackle the loudest of all.
“No, that can’t have done it yet,” Evan
Rosier joined Bellatrix’s taunting. “Four and a half years in Mudblood company
won’t come off so easily.”
Sirius felt Bellatrix’s grip on his hair
tighten and readied himself for another round. She held him down longer than
before, and when he emerged, gasping for breath, his heart had begun to hammer
very hard and fast in his throat. Their laughter had risen to a raucous volume.
“Got it yet?” Bellatrix hissed in his ear.
“No,” Sirius made to say, but opening his
mouth proved a very bad idea. Bellatrix did not give him the time to reply. Soapy
water filled Sirius’s mouth when he went down for the third time, making him gag.
He tried to spit it out, but only swallowed more. It was all around him now, in
his mouth, his nose, his ears, choking him. Panic rose inside him, constricting
his throat. He thrashed wildly, came up, and went down again with no time to
breathe. Air and water mingled, a gurgling rush pounded in his ears, up, down,
up, down, he couldn’t breathe… Help me, someone, a feeble voice within
him wanted to cry out. I’m drowning, Prongs, Moony, Wormtail, anyone,
they’re drowning me for Merlin’s sake, you can’t let them drown me! But
under water, his voice would not be heard.
Just then, as he felt his lungs were about to
explode, the hand on the back of his head was suddenly gone, and he was pulled
back out of the water so roughly he almost slipped on the wet floor. The raucous
laughter had given way to furious shouting. Someone put a firm arm around his
shoulders, and he opened his eyes to find that it was his uncle Alphard, holding
him upright with his left, his wand in his right hand.
“Shame on you!” Alphard thundered in a
voice Sirius had never heard him use before, and white hot sparks flew from the
tip of his wand as he pointed it around at Bellatrix and her gang. “Shame on
you! What do you think you’re doing, six against one!”
They were backing away, their faces wary
”And you!” Alphard rounded on Lucius Malfoy, who gave a start. “Shame on you,
too! Entitled to use your wand, and standing by doing nothing!” Unlike those of
Bellatrix, Lestrange and Rosier, the sleeves of Malfoy’s robes were not soaked
in water, as he had obviously found it below himself to dirty his hands, but
Alphard’s fury wiped the smirk off his face all the same.
“Now, out of our way!” Alphard barked at
Sirius’s fellow students, who hastily drew back several more paces, apparently
impressed by this unexpected outburst of rage from such a harmless looking old
man. And without another word, Alphard tightened his hold and half led, half
carried his dazed nephew out of the now completely silent kitchen.
They didn’t stop, and Alphard didn’t take
his arm from Sirius’s shoulder, until they had reached the bathroom on the
second floor. Alphard directed his nephew inside, closed the door with a snap
and sealed it with a muttered Colloportus.
“Go on, get out of these robes, they’re
soaked, and wash that filth out of your hair,” he said briskly. “Then we can
talk.” He motioned Sirius over to the wash basin and turned on the tap.
Still in a daze, Sirius obediently took off
his robes, and his shirt as well, which was clinging to his back, wet through.
He cupped his hands and took several mouthfuls of water, gargling and spitting
until the soapy taste began to fade, and rubbed savagely at his face with both
hands until the skin felt raw. The water was so cold it stung, but he hardly
noticed. He then stuck his head under the tap and ran his fingers fiercely
through his hair, again and again, as if he wanted to tear out whole handfuls
of it by the roots. After a while, it began to feel less greasy, and the water
that was gathering at the bottom of the basin was clear again. Sirius fumbled
to turn off the tap.
Alphard handed him a towel from the rack
next to the basin, and his nephew sat back on the edge of the bathtub, took a
few deep steadying breaths, and then began to furiously rub his hair dry.
“Here,” said Alphard, drew out his wand,
gave it a little wave and pressed it into Sirius’s hand, hot air streaming out from
its tip. Sirius held it up to his hair, and Alphard settled down on the edge of
the bathtub next to him.
“Do they do that to you at school, too?” he
asked after a moment’s silence.
“No… not like that,” Sirius said hoarsely,
combing his hair with his fingers in the warm stream of air. “I mean, we get
into fights with them, and sometimes things get a bit ugly, but not like this.”
“We?” Alphard enquired mildly.
“Yeah, Bella and her friends aren’t all
that keen to have a go at me when there’s more than one of us to deal with,”
Sirius said bitterly.
“The – the others. The other Gryffindors in
my year.” Something like a grin flitted across Sirius’s glowing face. “We hunt
in a pack.”
“You hunt,” Alphard repeated.
“Yeah, we do. We’ve got a bit of a
reputation, really.” He grinned again, but Alphard’s face remained impassive.
“So we’ve just had a little change of roles
today, have we?” his uncle stated, his voice suddenly rather cool. “Do you
know, Sirius, I have half a mind to send you straight back down to the kitchen
to get your head dunked a few times more, just to make sure it sinks in
properly what it feels like to be hunted,” he almost spat out the word,
“by a pack.”
His nephew raised a very angry face to him.
“What are you telling me to do, hand out invitations to them?” he snapped.
“I think you already do,” Alphard replied
Sirius lowered the wand, his face burning. “It’s
all my fault then, is it?” he almost bellowed. “It’s always my fault,
right? It’s always me, never them! They’re perfect. I’m the
problem. God, you sound just like my mother!”
“Well, so do you, shouting at me like
that,” Alphard retorted rather sharply. “At least that explains where you got
that lovely sweet temper of yours from, Sirius. I don’t like that tone, no more
from you than from her.”
“Nobody asks you to listen!” Sirius
shouted. “Nobody asked you to interfere!”
“Interfering, was I?” said Alphard evenly.
“Like those stupid teachers up at school, when they dare step between the
Gryffindor and Slytherin packs merely because they value a student’s
life more than house honour, and who wins at Quidditch?”
Sirius’s angry face blanched to an almost
ghostly white. His hand was clutching his uncle’s wand hard. It was pointing to
the floor, a few angry red sparks spraying from it. “This isn’t about Quidditch,”
he spat. “And anyway, what business of yours is it what I get up to at school?”
“You’re going to set your shoes on fire,” Alphard
warned him calmly. “It’s none of my business what you get up to at school, but
I’m not going to watch my nephews and nieces half drown each other just for the
fun of it during the holidays, and I want this particular nephew to start
standing up for himself, even without a wand in his hand and his friends at his
“Stand up?” Sirius repeated heatedly. “You
didn’t see me fall down, did you?”
“No,” said Alphard quietly, “I believe I came
a few minutes late to see that.”
Sirius hung his head, for a moment
silenced. He held up the wand to his hair again, looking sullenly at his feet.
“What do you mean, stand up for myself?” he
asked finally. “I didn’t make it easy for them, you know. Took them a damn long
time to get where they wanted, given that they were six and I was only one.”
“And still they got there in the end.”
There was another silence. Sirius’s black
hair, almost dry now, was quivering in the stream of hot air from his uncle’s
wand, and he kept his face down, trying to hide the fact that his lower lip had
started quivering, too.
“And they always will,” Alphard continued
very quietly, and gently took his wand out of Sirius’s hand, who let it go
without protest. “Unless you stop handing out invitations.”
“Ah. Right.” Sirius looked up at his uncle
again, and the look of grim defiance was back on his face. “So you want me to
sit and wait for them to take out their sick pure-blood obsession on me?
Smile, possibly, and nod politely when they drag my friends through the mud and
heap abuse on me? Agree when my mother shouts at me, and Kreacher mutters it
under his breath, what an ungrateful brat I am, what a disgrace to the family? You
want me to put up with all of that? Is that what you’re telling me to do?” He
was truly talking himself into a rage now. “Well, I’m not going to. There are
things worth fighting for, Alphard. Worth dying for.”
“Such as?” asked Alphard mildly.
”Being true to yourself. And to your friends.”
“Give me your wand for a moment,” Alphard said
“Just give it to me.”
Sirius reached for his wand and drew it out
of his back pocket, but hesitated when Alphard held out his hand for it. “Why?”
he asked again.
“Because I’m going to say a few things now
that you won’t like to hear, so I’d rather not be talking to an armed man.”
With surprising agility for his age, Alphard
snatched the wand out of Sirius hand, and placed it out of reach on the edge of
the wash basin. “Now, listen to me,” he said, ignoring that his nephew’s eyes were
looking daggers at him. “Your friends gain absolutely nothing
from you almost drowning in a kitchen sink. If they will ever even hear of it,
which I doubt, am I right?” Knowing that he was, he didn’t wait for an answer.
“And as for being true to yourself, do you really think that you will
ever make your parents and your cousins change their minds, just by refusing to
change yours? No, Sirius. What you’ve got to understand is that there’s no
point in fighting a battle you can’t win. It’s all very well for being noble
and heroic, it’s no doubt what they’d say a true Gryffindor would do and all
that – “
“Don’t insult my house!” Sirius snapped.
“I don’t,” Alphard said calmly. “But I’d
like to point out that it’s not Gryffindor house, but the noble and most
ancient house of Black you’re dealing with at the moment, where hot-headed Gryffindor
stubbornness – all right, call it pride and determination if you like, it’s
all the same to me – aren’t valued and won’t get you anywhere.”
“But I value them.”
“Sirius,” Alphard said with a sigh,
“please, try and think of yourself as just yourself for a moment. Neither
a Black, nor a Gryffindor, just Sirius who still has his whole life before him.
And who will have to make up his mind, and the sooner the better, whether he will
ever take it into his own hands, or whether he will let himself be tied down to
the end of his days by that strange quirk of nature that made him both a
Gryffindor and a Black.”
“But I am. That’s a fact.”
“Then make your choice.”
“I have. You know that. I hate them.”
“That is not enough.”
“What do you mean? Do you think anyone
could possibly hate them more than I do?”
“No. That’s exactly what I mean. All I ever
hear you talking about, Sirius, is them, and how you hate them.
Don’t you see that they’d be proud if they could hear you? That’s
exactly what they want – to dominate your thoughts, to be the driving force
behind everything you say and do, in the good or in the bad sense. To define who
you are. And you’re letting them. You’re playing into their
hands. The more you’re hating them, the more you’re proving them right. You’re
so busy hating them and opposing them that you’re forgetting to be yourself. You’re
running your head against their walls, when you could go looking for a door
instead. That’s the choice I want you to make.”
“What, go looking for the door?”
“The door to freedom.”
“Freedom,” Sirius repeated quietly. He
looked at the tiles on the wall opposite, as if he was gazing into a far
distance. “Great,” he said abruptly. “You want me to run. Leave the field to
them. Like a coward. If that isn’t proving them right, I don’t know what
Alphard sighed again. “That field,”
he said urgently, “will never be a field of victory. Not for you. All it would ever
be for you, Sirius, is a graveyard. A graveyard of dreams. If you don’t go
looking for a way out, you will be stuck in this house, stuck in their world,
forever. A proud prisoner, a stiff-necked prisoner maybe, full of righteous
anger, but a prisoner all the same.”
He paused. Sirius was still staring at the
bathroom wall, and Alphard watched his nephew’s thoughts work behind his
“There’s nothing in the world that matters
more than your freedom, Sirius,” he continued after a moment. “Don’t let anyone
ever tell you otherwise. Don’t let anyone else decide for you what to do with
your life. Leave this house behind, and everything it stands for. Forget about them.
They don’t matter. It’s your life, and it’s the only one you have.”
There was a long silence. Then, suddenly,
Sirius got to his feet. “You’re right,” he said curtly. “I’ve had enough. I’m going.
I’m going right now.” It seemed so simple all of a sudden. He reached out to
pick up his wand and his shirt. “Let me through,” he demanded when Alphard made
no move to draw aside to let him pass to the door.
“You most certainly aren’t going anywhere
right now,” his uncle replied calmly.
“One minute you’re telling me that nothing
matters more than my freedom, and now you’re telling me to stay put!”
“And stay put you will, and listen to me
until I’ve finished,” Alphard said firmly. “And besides, where would you go?”
“Away. I don’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere.
My friend James’s house.” It was a long way to Godric’s Hollow, but as Padfoot,
he might be able to make it there in a few days. He could easily get into the
Potters’ house with the help of his special knife that opened all doors, and
wait there for their return from Ireland. He would have a lot to explain then, but he was certain Mr and Mrs
Potter weren’t going to dunk his head in the kitchen sink for it.
“And how exactly would you get there, with
no money and no roof over your head?”
“I’ll sleep in caves. I’ll eat rats. I
“If I were you, I’d grudge them that triumph.”
“I thought they didn’t matter?”
“They don’t, but only if you make sure that
you won’t end up slinking back to them with your tail between your legs. You
want to plan this more carefully. If you’re going, you’ve got to make sure you
won’t ever need to come back. Not even for a change of clothes,” he added,
nodding at the bundle of wet robes on the floor.
Sirius came back to where his uncle was
sitting, and slumped down again next to him, his shoulders hunched, kicking at
the tiled floor in frustration. “But I want to go,” he finally said in
an almost pleading tone. “I want it so much.”
Alphard glanced sideways at his nephew, a
sad smile on his face.
“Can’t I come with you, Alphard?” Sirius
asked in a small voice. “Can’t you just take me along when you go home
Alphard shook his head. “Eugenia wouldn’t
approve,” he said with genuine regret. “No, we’ll have to make a better plan.
How old exactly are you now?”
“Fifteen years eight months,” Sirius
“You wouldn’t be allowed to get your own
place until you’re of age, so that leaves us with a little more than a year to
gap,” Alphard mused.
At that, Sirius looked up sharply, his eyes
wide. “My own place?” he asked, feeling a sudden quiver of excitement pass
through him. Had he heard that right?
“Be patient, one thing after another. Your
next school holidays are when?”
”Easter,” Sirius said, a great deal less dully. “I can come with James then,
that’s already arranged.”
“So we’re looking at another year.”
“Alphard,” Sirius said suddenly, his
spirits sinking again. “I don’t have any money. How could I afford a place of
But that, Alphard had brushed aside as a
minor obstacle, something that could be set right with a wave of a wand, or
rather a stroke of a quill. They had sat in the bathroom for half an hour more,
making plans and weighing options that left Sirius, in the end, with the exhilarating
promise of a place of his own as soon as he was seventeen, and without the need
to beg or bargain with his parents for the money.
And Alphard had proved as good as his
promise. A few days later, an owl had arrived for Sirius from Gringotts,
informing him that his uncle had opened an account in his name, vault 711, and
deposited a handsome sum there, to be released to Sirius on the day of his
seventeenth birthday, and to be used entirely at his discretion.
For the rest of the holidays, Sirius had
carried the letter around with him like a talisman. He pulled it out to read it
at least twice a day, when he was unobserved in his own room, and his hand
secretly went to the pocket of his shirt where he kept it whenever his mother
found something to criticise about him, his father glared at him across the
dining table, and Regulus shot him furtive malevolent looks behind their parents’
backs, reassuring himself that there was a way out now. He only had to wait for
the right time to go.
Back at Hogwarts after the New Year, however,
he had not mentioned it to any of his friends, not even to James, who he
normally shared everything with. When they had asked him if his holidays had really
been all right, he had merely muttered, “I’m not going back there. Not ever.”
Well, he’d been wrong.
Sirius opened his eyes, raised his head and
looked around the gloomy kitchen.
He was back.
He had taken his life into his own hands,
he had run, he had slept in caves, he had eaten rats, and still he hadn’t got away.
He had been to the ends of the earth and into the depths of hell and back, and
all to end up again where he had started. He had come the longest way, and only
to find that all the time, he had been going around in a circle.
Nothing had changed, nothing at all. He was
back in the same house, the same kitchen, and even his mother was still
shouting at him, and Kreacher was still watching from the sidelines, muttering
agreement under his breath. Back to staying put and keeping his head down at
other people’s orders. A proud prisoner, a stiff-necked prisoner maybe, but a
prisoner all the same.
And he was alone, alone as he had always been
here. He could have cried out as loud and as long as he wanted, but under
water, his voice would not be heard. There was no one to come to his aid, no
one to rescue him, no one even to ease the pain.
No one, really? said a little voice in his head. What about yourself? What if
you just stopped running your head against walls, and went looking for a door
What door? asked
another voice, the voice of a fifteen-year-old boy.
The door to freedom.
And then? the
boy retorted, but his voice was no longer young, but had become much older, lower
and harsher. Turn to them for help? Play right into their hands? Never.
I’d rather take all this pain, and more, than sink that low.
Oh, now we’re being noble and heroic
again, are we? the little voice mocked him.
You’re forgetting that this is the most ancient house of Black you’re stuck in,
Sirius, where hot-headed Gryffindor stubbornness isn’t valued. Look where it
has got you. Sink low, indeed. Is there any lower you can sink than
this? It’s about time you got to your feet again.
Great. So you want me to run. Leave the
field to them, like a coward.
But that field will never be a field of
victory. Not for you. All it will ever be for you is a graveyard, Sirius. A
graveyard of dreams.
I buried my last dreams years ago.
All except one. The one dream they could
never take from you.
Yes. Your freedom, Sirius. And there’s
nothing in the world that matters more than your freedom. Don’t let anyone ever
tell you otherwise. If you don’t go looking for a way out, you will be stuck in
this house forever. A proud prisoner, a stiff-necked prisoner maybe, but a
prisoner all the same. Forget about them. They
don’t matter. Put an end to it, now, while you still have the chance, or it
will be too late. Leave the house behind, and everything it stands for. It’s
your life, and it’s the only one you have.
It’s in your hands.
Then make your choice.
Sirius rose abruptly from his chair. He had
half expected the room to start spinning around him, but it didn’t. He felt quite
steady on his feet. All the better, he thought grimly. No one shall
say I wasn’t in my right senses when I did this.
It would end, here and now. There was
a way out now, and he had waited more than long enough for the right time to
He picked up his wand, pushed his chair
aside and made for the door. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of
Kreacher peering out at him from his boiler cupboard, but he paid no heed to the
elf, determined not to let anyone or anything stand in the way of his
resolution. No one was going to stop him now. He didn’t look back once when he
strode out of the room and up the stairs, two steps at a time, not bothering to
even close the kitchen door behind him. He swiftly crossed the silent entrance
hall, his feet easily finding their way through the darkness. He didn’t need
light. He knew where he was going. The door was there, in front of him. He was
going to be free.
His hand was on the doorknob when a voice
spoke up behind his back.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Sirius whipped around. Leaning against the
frame of the painting closest to the front door was the dark outline of Phineas
Nigellus, the former Hogwarts headmaster, stroking his pointed black beard. He looked
smug as ever, and Sirius had never been less pleased to see him.
“Nobody asked your opinion,” Sirius
“I know you never do,” Phineas replied smoothly.
“Which is precisely why I never wait for you to ask before I give it. So, if I
were you – “ Sirius opened his mouth to cut him off, but Phineas Nigellus
overrode him, “ – I would at least take a warm cloak. You might not be aware of
it, but it’s actually December outside. Bleak midwinter. So if you’re planning to
run away, you should at least make sure you don’t freeze to death the minute
you set foot outside your house.”
“Who said I was running away?” Sirius
barked at him. He felt his grim determination wear off already, and he hated
Phineas Nigellus for interfering, and hated him even more when the former
headmaster gave a fake high-pitched laugh.
“Of course you were,” he said, as if the
fact that Sirius felt the need to deny it amused him greatly. “And a very
unfortunate moment you chose for it, too, as you’re about to receive a visit.”
“Not another one.”
“Yes, another one,” said Phineas Nigellus evenly.
“And I assure you that your visitors would be absolutely inconsolable if
they found this hospitable house empty and their esteemed host gone at such trying
times as these.”
Sirius asked, almost against his will. “Who’s coming?”
“Let me see.” Phineas Nigellus began
ticking them off on his fingers. “One, a red-headed, probably sobbing bundle by
the name of Molly Weasley, in dreadful fear for the life of her husband, who
has just been found ripped open from neck to – I’ll spare you the details - by
a giant snake in the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic. Then, a whole
bunch of equally red-headed, probably equally distressed little Weasleys, still
in their pyjamas and in much need of comfort, as far as I could see. Oh,
and I almost forgot, your little godson, too. He’s just been very conveniently
visited by a vision of that snake I mentioned, courtesy of the Dark Lord if you
ask me, which luckily allowed him to immediately report this unhappy event to
Albus Dumbledore - once he’d stopped vomiting all over his dormitory floor,
that is. They’re coming to stay, and they’ll be here any minute. I’m sure
they’d greatly appreciate it if you didn’t turn tail and go over to the enemy just
now. There’ll still be enough time for that later, if you insist.”
But Sirius was hardly listening. He had turned
away from the door and sank down on the lowest step of the stairs, clutching
his head in both hands to keep it from exploding.
Arthur Weasley injured, bitten by a snake
while on guard duty for the Order. His wife and children in a panic for his
life. And Harry, hallucinating about it the very moment it had happened,
courtesy of the Dark Lord… this had to be a bad dream.
But then, something in his brain seemed to
click into place, and with a clarity that made his head hurt, Sirius knew what
had been the bad dream, and what was real.
Arthur Weasley, a husband and father of
seven, had been ready to put his own life in peril for the Order, protecting a
terrible and powerful weapon from falling into Voldemort’s hands. And he,
Sirius, had been only one step away from destroying every little hope they still
had of standing their ground against those that were evil. Harry, the godson
Sirius had sworn to protect with his own life, was having visions that could
only mean that Voldemort was working his way into his very mind. And he,
Sirius, had only had to take one more step, and he would have abandoned Harry,
and all of them, to the dark powers that were rising again, to their
destruction. He would have paved Voldemort’s road to victory, he would have
brought down ruin on them all, and all for a vague, shadowy, elusive phantom,
an illusion, a lie called freedom.
How could he, even for one single moment,
have forgotten the truth that had kept him going all his life? How could he
have let the mere memory of long past pains drive it so completely from his
mind? He had stood by it through more than twenty years, and even now, he still
knew it with a certainty that was beyond reason, and far beyond all doubt.
Dreams might not survive, but hope always
There was no point in fighting a battle you
couldn’t win, but even so, there were things worth dying for.
“Sirius?” Phineas Nigellus’s voice roused
him from his thoughts. “I didn’t expect you to be out-and-out delighted at the
prospect of having the house full of Weasleys again, but you did use to
have a soft spot for your godson at least. What will I be telling Dumbledore
about their coming, that you responded to it by turning silent and ashen-faced,
and all but threw up on the doormat?”
“No,” Sirius croaked, and pulled himself to
his feet. “Tell him that… that I’ll be – yeah, delighted.”
And slowly, swaying slightly as if he was walking
on uneven ground, he turned and made his way back down to the kitchen.
- - - * * * - - - * * * - - - * * * - - -
Credits & Sources:
Heartfelt thanks to my beta-reader
Seldes Katne, and thanks also to the wonderful regulars of the “Pensieve” Forum
here at the SQ for their Brit-Picking and Canon-Quick-Check help!
Sirius’s line “We hunt in a pack” was
inspired by Tybalt-Quin’s fantastic piece, “They are the Marauders and They
Hunt in a Pack”, the most intense account of a hunt through the eyes of the
hunted that I’ve ever read. Obligatory quote from “Casablanca” courtesy of
Humphrey Bogart. The opening line is my own.
If you were looking for another fic of a
similar title, try “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Morgead, here on the Sugar
Quill, a touching story about Ron and his feelings for Hermione.
As always, your feedback is much