The Sugar Quill
Author: Jolie Black (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Bleak Midwinter  Chapter: Default
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Bleak Midwinter

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 read this.

 

 

- - - * * * - - - * * * - - - * * * - - -

 

 

Bleak Midwinter

 

 

“You don’t understand – there are things worth dying for!”

(Sirius 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 right now.

 

Christmas at Grimmauld Place

 

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 like.

 

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 be accurate.

 

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 firelight.

 

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 message.”

 

“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 past redemption?”

 

“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 doing.”

 

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.

 

“Stop it!” 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 innocently.

 

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.

 

“They are, Black.”

 

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 his glass.

 

“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 can give.”

 

What do they want?”

 

“A few scraps of information, that’s all.”

 

“What information?”

 

“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 - ?”

 

“Know what?”

 

“About us. About me.” He felt a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead, and resisted the urge to wipe it away with his sleeve.

 

“How should I know?” Snape said indifferently. “Not from me.”

 

How then?

 

“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 orders?”

 

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 dog.

 

“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 snorted.

 

“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, anyway.”

 

“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 angry hiss.

 

“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?”

 

“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 was alone.

 

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 understand…

 

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 with.

 

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 last days.

 

“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 away.

 

“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 heard?

 

“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.”

 

“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 school.

 

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 back.

 

“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 way forward.

 

“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 blood.

 

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 order?”

 

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 along.

 

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 lesson, cousin.”

 

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 guarded.


”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.

 

“Who’s us?”

 

“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 calmly.

 

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 back.”

 

“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 abruptly.

 

“Why?”

 

“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?”

 

“Exactly.”


”What 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 is.”

 

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 forehead.

 

“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 don’t care.”

 

“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 tonight?”

 

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 replied dully.

 

“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 my own?”

 

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 instead?

 

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.

 

My freedom.

 

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.

 

I know.

 

It’s in your hands.

 

I know.

 

Then make your choice.

 

I have.

 

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 go.

 

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 snapped.

 

“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.”

 

“What times?” 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.

 

Sirius shivered.

 

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 would.

 

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.

 

 

 

THE END

 

April/May 2004

 

- - - * * * - - - * * * - - - * * * - - -

 

 

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 appreciated!

 

Jolie

lajolie7@hotmail.com

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