A Drift of Azaleas
If Regulus hadn't snitched, he should be fine, whether they were in or not. He could not, of course, tell from across the square. For all he really knew, the house had burned to a cinder while he was in Azkaban. No one would have told him if it had. Keeping prisoners informed about family gossip wasn't a top priority.
As Padfoot, Sirius had less acuity of vision than he had as a human, but his senses of smell and hearing were quite a bit stronger. He could hear a slight motion that didn't seem to be coming from the visible houses, and he could smell... something.
Azaleas, he realized. Mum's azaleas in the courtyard garden. They were overbearing--she must have let them run wild and rot petal by petal in the cold and rainy November.
Why not? She certainly let everything else go to rot, didn't she?
The image of the courtyard came into his mind powerfully--a day in high summer, hiding among the flowers while Regulus blundered about with a blindfold on, stumbling over an old tombstone, giggling as he searched for his brother. The prize, if he won, was to be carried around on Sirius's back for no less than fifteen minutes.
Sirius hadn't put much effort into hiding.
He blinked. That was not a memory he expected, or particularly wanted. He called up other memories. Mum screaming, blasting Andromeda's name from the tapestry. Dad with his endless lists of precisely how to do each assigned chore. Bellatrix coming to visit and twisting his arm behind his back until his shoulder pulled out of place, and, when he'd finally cried and said, "Why, Bella?", laughing and laughing and lightly pushing him down the stairs.
How did Sirius get hurt?
He fell down the stairs, Auntie.
Much better. His vision, which he hadn't realized had blurred a bit, cleared.
He checked the square for people out and about in the neighborhood, saw none, and ran as fast as Padfoot's strong feet would carry him across the barrier. Mum could do a lot of things, but she couldn't vanish the house to blood that belonged in it... a distinct disadvantage to blood spells and blood fetishes, Sirius thought with some satisfaction.
Once he was inside the barrier, he transformed, and flattened himself out beside the steps.
"Come on, Regulus. Don't let me down."
It took a moment, and he had a panicked thought that Reg had snitched after all, that he'd got rid of their secret entrance, but then his hands came across a sodden silk cord, twisted strands of red, gold, green, and silver. He focused on it, wondering if the charm had been cut, or the cord unraveled. But it faded not three feet away, disappearing as it always had.
It was the only magic he and Regulus had ever done together, getting through the blood charms so they could get in and out of the house without Mum knowing. Regulus had come up with the idea, but it had needed a bit of blood from each of them. No one else could use it.
Sirius grasped the cord, closed his eyes, and followed it under the steps, feeling his way, following the cool feel of the silk in his hands, barely noticing the tingling sensation as he passed the barrier, not opening his eyes until his fingers brushed against the back of the stone crest that stood behind the courtyard fountain. It was still damp from the last rain, and as cold as ice. They'd chosen the crest as a re-entry point because it was big enough to hide them from the windows if anyone happened to be looking out when they appeared.
To his surprise, the scent of azaleas was no worse here than it had been across the square. The garden wasn't overgrown with them. In fact, he thought, peeking around the crest as Padfoot, he hardly saw any at all. He looked up at the darkened windows. No sign of movement.
Good. They were out. It would be easier to get to his Gringotts vault key if he didn't have to worry about his parents hearing him lifting the floorboards in his old room. He'd never deigned to go back for it when he ran away--Uncle Alphard had given him money, and surely Mum would try to take it away if he went back--but he would need it now.
All right, buying a new broom for Harry didn't precisely qualify as a need, but it was something he could do, after all. The Gringotts goblins didn't care who brought them a key, as long as it was the right key. They wouldn't ask questions. If Mum had never found the key, it probably infuriated her--she would have been as happy to burn his trust as she was to burn Andromeda from the family tree. She wouldn't even have deigned to spend it.
All clear. He transformed back, and turned to walk the familiar path beside the fountain, only to stub his toe on solid stone.
"What the devil...?"
A sharp black rock rose up a foot from the path. Another like it had been placed less than a yard away. He squatted down to read them.
Loyal and devoted son.
Sirius closed his eyes and rested his hand on the stone. Not all of Reg's body was here. His eyes had been sent to Sirius the morning after he died. Once the screaming had stopped--Sirius hadn't screamed often, not then--he had tried to bring them back, to be buried, but Mum had stopped him in the street and blamed him and screamed at him and refused to allow him anywhere near the funeral.
Sirius had buried his brother's eyes at Godric's Hollow.
Sirius shook his head and patted his father's tombstone without any identifiable emotion. At his best, Dad had been a weak man; at his worst, he'd been a cold one. Sirius remembered thinking that Dad was just passing through their lives, someone Mum had borrowed from his real life and kept forgetting to return, because he'd slipped her mind entirely. He couldn't remember any conversation he'd ever had with his father, though one or two must have existed, having lived in the same home for sixteen years.
"Finally hounded you under, did she?" he asked.
As usual, Dad had no answer.
Sirius looked around for a third stone, but it wasn't there. Of course. The murderous old harpy would still be here, hatching her mad plots, when the rest of the earth had been left scorched and barren. She would finally die of frustration because there was no one left to exile.
He went carefully around the new stones, and slipped into the back door, entering Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, for the first time since he'd stormed out of it at the age of sixteen.
He nearly vomited.
The scent of azaleas in the house was overpowering, sick and rotten and sweet. And something else. He couldn't place it.
He came into the kitchen first. It was a disaster, but that was hardly unusual. Kreacher, Mum's house elf, had always been a horrible housekeeper (though, Sirius admitted grudgingly, a rather good cook), and he'd left the place a wreck of soot and filthy dishes. There was some fresh food here, and Sirius was famished--he'd been living off of rats and rubbish since he'd swum ashore--but by the look of the place, he thought the vermin in the streets might be a safer bet.
Sirius picked his way through it, trying not to identify whatever sludge was on the floor. This was where Mum brewed her Potions, and it was generally wise not to think about what was in them. He reached the stairs and tiptoed up, not wanting to wake Kreacher if he were here (though he did consider checking the line of house elf heads to see if the miserable thing was dead yet). He had to step over the top stair entirely, as Kreacher had left several mixing bowls full of unidentifiable substances in a line taking up the whole riser.
"What the--" Sirius turned so quickly that he nearly lost his balance. The entrance hall was now dominated by a life-sized portrait, and it was screaming, its eyes quite mad.
"BLOOD TRAITOR! DISGUSTING, FILTHY MAN!"
"Good to see you too, Mum," he muttered. If that scream hadn't woken anything in the house, nothing would.
Oh, well. He wouldn't be here long. He just needed to go up to--
When he turned to go to the main staircase, he saw a flash of red and brown on the dingy carpet. A pile of rotting azaleas.
On the floor? Why would she have flowers on the floor?
Thinking that he probably didn't want to know but unable to stop himself, he went to the pile of flowers, bent down, examined it. A trail of petals went on down the corridor toward the parlor.
Had Mum finally gone around the bend completely when Dad died? Piled her precious parlor full of dead azaleas so she could stare at her ruined family all day in what passed in her mind for a garden?
He followed the petals to another small drift of dead flowers, as though she'd come here with an armful from the garden, and not noticed as clumps fell away. More petals led to the parlor.
Another image came into his mind, the only time he remembered loving his mother without any second thoughts. She had been in her garden, pruning her azaleas, and for once not going on about blood purity. She'd shown Sirius how to pull the weeds out before they choked the flowers, and spent all afternoon teaching him about the precious blossoms she'd collected over the years. He remembered her looking at him in a bemused way when he parroted back all of her instructions to her and saying, "What a very clever boy you are!" And she had smiled, a rare and almost beautiful expression for Walburga Black. He'd felt warm and happy, and he'd gone to sleep that night reciting the traits of the various choker weeds to himself. The next day, she'd been back to her sour self, and didn't care for his help.
He'd been seven then. He remembered nothing else about her without, at the very least, ambiguity. At some point not long after, for reasons he no longer remembered--and didn't want to--he'd realized exactly what sort of witch his mother was, and he understood that he hated her for it.
He reached the parlor door. The stench was definitely coming from there. How many blossoms had she piled in here?
The door met with resistance when he tried to open it, as if a pile of soft clothing had been left on the other side.
"Mum?" he whispered, not entirely sure why. Her portrait was still screaming at the top of its non-existent lungs; if she were anywhere in the house, surely, she'd have come out by now, no matter how mad she'd become.
He took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.
The world inside was azalea petals, years worth of them, piled over the carpet, brushing against the walls. A few doxies were at work, gathering the deadest of them and taking them over to a nest in the curtains. Chairs were buried all the way up to their seats. Only the area directly in front of the family tree tapestry remained fully and reverently clear.
All of this, Sirius registered in an instant. He would carry the exact details of the parlor with him until he died, as fresh as the moment he opened the door. But only one detail really mattered. Only one defined the room.
She was sitting in her armchair like a queen, wearing her black ceremonial robes with silver trimming. Someone--Kreacher, probably--had put one of her daggers on her lap, lying across her wrists. Azalea petals had buried her up to her knees, and were lodged around her in the chair. Sirius could see it clearly--Kreacher coming in with gifts for Mistress, over and over, not able to reach, but tossing his armfuls in exuberant glee as she...
He closed his eyes.
Mum was smiling again at last. All skulls smiled.
In damp London--who knew how many summers?--she had certainly not mummified. There was a drift of mold on her hands, but otherwise, she was no more than a skeleton. Sirius looked suspiciously at the doxy filled curtains, then looked away, not wanting to think about it.
Sirius turned. Kreacher was running through the azaleas, waving a rolling pin like a deranged fishwife. He caught the house elf easily and disarmed him.
"What've you been doing here?"
Kreacher didn't answer, just stared resentfully. "Master is a murderer. They all say so."
"Master was framed, not that it matters. I may kill you. Why didn't you see to Mistress?"
"I brought Mistress her flowers! Just as she asked."
"Mistress's portrait told Kreacher to bring flowers."
"Mistress's portrait is short a brush stroke or two."
"Master mustn't speak that way."
"Will you stop calling me 'Master'?"
"You're the last. Murderer Master."
"I'm sure I'm off the will."
"Mistress thought you would come back. Master gave up Potter."
"I did NOT!"
Kreacher shrugged, supremely unconcerned.
Sirius clenched his teeth and tried not to reach out and strangle the house elf. It was a battle. Not only had Mum believed he'd betrayed James and Lily, she had rewarded him for it. Not quite put him back in the family, not yet, not without talking to him first. But she believed he'd repudiated the hated blood traitors, and so she had named him an heir once more.
So Number Twelve was his.
It was obscene.
His mother's skeleton seemed to laugh at the very idea.
"Kreacher," he said, "you get these bloody flower petals out of here. I'll... take care of Mum."
"Master will not touch her!"
"Master should bloody well throw her in a rubbish heap," Sirius said, but knew he wouldn't.
While Kreacher began to clear away the many years of flower petals, Sirius went upstairs and took a now-moldy sheet from the linen cupboard. He brought it to the parlor and very, very carefully lowered Mum's bones onto it. The head rolled away and some of the finger bones slipped off, but her robes kept most of her together for the last journey. He picked up the stray bits without letting himself think of them as her sharp fingers, or the harsh angle of her jaw, and placed them on the sheet.
"Get me a wand," he said.
"Master may not use a wand," Kreacher said. "Master is meant to be in Azkaban."
"Get me her wand. I'll send it with her."
Kreacher looked at him suspiciously, but scurried out. He came back a moment later with Mum's ebony wand (dragon heartstring core). Sirius used it to seal the shroud then levitated the whole thing, wafting it out to the garden, trying not to shatter it against any doorframes.
He used the wand to hollow out a grave between Dad's and Regulus's, and while it was working, found a large stone beside the fountain to be a marker. Perhaps it was just the good feel of doing magic again, but he took the wand in his hand and shaped the stone into in a suitable gravestone before he put Mum's body into the hole. It was full night now, and the November chill, which had been mostly outside of his consciousness earlier, was starting to creep in.
He set the stone, and used an Engorging Charm to drive it into the earth.
"Master must leave Mistress's wand. Master promised."
Kreacher had come out, covered in rotting azalea petals, and was staring at the grave with petulant grief.
"I will," Sirius said. He thought for a moment of breaking his promise--a wand would come in handy--but knew he wouldn't. He didn't want to carry his mother's wand. "I just need to put something on the stone, then I'll set it to cover her and put it in."
But he didn't know what he intended to write on the stone. "Loving mother"? That was a laugh. "Loyal matron"? Not much better. "Nasty old cow" would be honest enough, but Sirius didn't want to attack her, now that she was just a fragile bag of disconnected bones. Finally, he raised her wand at the stone, and engraved,
Mistress of this house.