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

Home for Halloween


by Izhilzha


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Acknowledgements: My thanks to Amanda, who made a couple of very creative suggestions during brainstorming.


Author's Note: This was written as an entry in ladysmith's Barenaked Ladies Lyric Wheel ficathon.


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Gusts of wind tugged at his fur. It smelled sharp and cold, like storm. He padded forward, snorting out the stench of decay that clung inside his nose and coated his tongue, breathing instead the heavy wetness of the night air. The source of that stench was behind him. The sentries had not moved, and he had slid past them with ease.


Not for the first time.


He snuffled at the steps before climbing them. Spiced warmth blasted the last of the offensive smell from his nostrils, and he darted a quick lick to confirm the remains of something sweet. Candy, crushed under a grimy sole. He champed his jaw, letting the taste linger, before bounding up the steps. There were other smells here, not yet blown away. Wet wool, wet human, wet earth; hints of sweets and perfumes. A sudden flash of scent and hearing came, a small shop crowded with voices.


He did hear voices. There was noise, clatter, talking, none of it near. The ancient oaken doors that blocked his way would muffle sound, he knew. But not that much.


A shadow himself in the clouded night, the big black dog reared up on his hind legs and planted both forepaws on the heavy door. It refused to move. He bent his head, seeking the iron handle. Sharp teeth gripped it, shifted it, and the door swung slowly inward.


He fell with it, thumping onto the smooth flagstones of the entrance hall. Not panting, not even breathing, he crouched low and listened.


To the right, a muffled multitude of voices echoed, the controlled chaotic sound of many people sharing space and food.


Here, in the hallway, there were only shadows, and the silent flicker of torchlight.


He stood and padded forward, nails clicking against the floor. Warmth surrounded him. No wind, no smell of death, and the darkness was cut by flames. Lifting his head, he took a deep breath.


Behind the scents he had found at the steps, there were others. Laboriously, he dredged up names to match familiar images. Mince pie, roast ham, something buttery; chocolate, treacle, cinnamon, the hot lightness of baked sweet things. He slurped excess drool back into his mouth.


A slightly scorched smell of pumpkin, with a tingling edge that spoke to something in him, deeper than hunger.


Magic.


And not just magic. Halloween.


Perfect.


"Where'd you go? I needed you tonight, you knew that."


With a sudden wrench, fur and four legs melted, shifted. Crouching on the floor, Sirius stared at his long, dirty fingers as they tightened into fists. He breathed in gasps, not daring to look up and seek the source of that impossible voice.


It was joined by a woman's. "He couldn't find us. He didn't know."


When Sirius finally managed to raise his head, Lily wasn't there. And the casual reproach was older than he had thought it could be: the school-boy sitting several steps up the marble staircase was small and tousle-haired.


"Sirius, mate--" James' mock-serious expression shifted into an eager grin. "I won't ask again, if you don't want to do it. I can take of it." The lenses of his glasses flashed as he tilted his head and waited for a response.


Sirius swallowed, trying to find his voice. He closed his eyes to frame the words he knew were there. When he opened them again, James had gone.


Wind swept Sirius' hair into his face. He had forgotten to close the door.


He stood. Unsteadily, he crossed the hall again and swung the heavy door to, latching it as quietly as possible.


No-one would hear it anyway. Not through the general chaos going on in the Great Hall. For a long, unnecessary moment he stood there, leaning against the solid oak, listening to the babble of voices. Listening to the laughter.


"Last one to the feast's a pile of dragon dung!" James shouted. There was a clatter of feet on the stairs. Sirius turned, startled. He only saw three darting forms in robes, heading for the Great Hall. Behind them, a fair-haired boy panted along. "Wait!" Sirius wanted to see if they would, but when he looked again, they had vanished.


The feast might still be going strong, but Sirius could feel time shifting away beneath him, like sand in an hourglass. This was a hunt that could not be delayed. He pulled himself upright and headed for the stairs. The marble was worn slick beneath his bare feet. The climb began unsteadily, but by the top of the flight, he no longer clung to the banister. There should be forty-two steps, but he had not been counting.


One step below the second floor, he stopped. It had been a long time since he had smelled this. Even without Padfoot's nose, it was unmistakable.


Not the scent he was hunting. But familiar, all the same. Sirius caught himself looking for a window.


No. It was at least two days until full moon. Remus.... Remus would be down in the Hall, sitting with the other faculty, sharing the feast. Moony was the only wizard he'd ever met who smelled like musk and old books. He must have stood here talking with someone.


Sirius dragged himself up onto the landing.


The smell followed him.


It followed him through that entire floor. He walked as softly as he could, alert for any security spells or teachers, trying not to wake the portraits that lined the walls. He managed that on the second floor, and the third was just as deserted.


On the fourth floor, between an office and the infirmary, Sirius stubbed his bare toes against something hard and swore aloud. He bent and fumbled for the object. A student's satchel full of books, left lying in the corridor. Acting on very rusty instincts, Sirius glanced up into the gloom overhead. Peeves was nowhere to be seen. The smell, however, had followed him all the way up here.


"Oi, there." The words were cross, and in the shadows to his left Sirius just made out the portrait of a cadaverous old man. "Mister Not-Quite-A-Ghost," Remus had once named him. "Who're you, then? Sneakin' around in th' middle of th' night?"


Sirius did the one thing that seemed sensible at the time; he whirled towards the portrait and growled, low in his throat. Not-Quite-A-Ghost became very still, and Sirius kept going. A few more feet, and a particular tapestry caught his eye. He reached for the edge and tugged it upward, revealing the blackness of a narrow passage.


He ducked inside, letting the tapestry fall behind him, and then froze.


The slightly bowed form, the sad eyes, the scent that had followed him from the staircase. Moony wasn't at the feast after all, he was here, it was over....


But Remus' wand was pointed at the floor, giving just enough light to show them to each other. "Do I really smell different closer to full moon?" he asked, doubtful.


Sirius relaxed against the wall of the passage, flattening his hands against rough stone and mortar. Remus' voice sounded young, and tired, and that looked like the flash of a red-and-gold prefect's badge pinned to his robes. Then light and shadow shifted imperceptibly. "Why?" Remus asked, in a tone carefully empty of expression. His steady gaze unnerved Sirius nearly as much as the question. "I don't understand why you did that."


Again, Sirius fought for words. "I didn't, I didn't think he...." The confession caught in his throat, dry, rasping, dull.


"I don't suppose you thought at all." Remus stated the condemnation as a fact, then walked straight past Sirius. The light from his wand went out, but the tapestry never moved. The only change Sirius noticed was that the smell had faded.


"I didn't know. I didn't...." The words fell dead at his feet.


Time was still sliding away, and he had not found his quarry.


Sirius felt his way forward, through the passage and up the narrow, winding staircase. It ended at the seventh floor. Too near the Astronomy Tower, though, he would have to go around.


He hadn't gotten far when he heard running footsteps pounding down the corridor towards him. Sirius shrank against the wall, in the shadow of a pillar. Red hair flew past him, and then spun around and came back. Lily Evans stopped right in front of him, gasping for breath. "Where is James?" She hurled the question at him.


"I don't know." The cocky answer came from Sirius' mouth almost without volition.


"Bollocks." Lily stomped her foot. "I know he's up to something, and where he goes, you follow. The more foolhardy the idea, the better."


Sirius' mind spun in a reflection of Lily's panic, until he recalled exactly what sort of surprise James was preparing for his proposal. The unfamiliar smile cracked his dry lips. "Don't worry, lass," he drawled in imitation of one of the Hogsmeade shopkeepers. "I imagine ye'll be the first told."


"Why aren't you with him?" Lily demanded. He nearly laughed...until her face changed, becoming older, with lines around the bright green eyes, eyes that abruptly filled with tears. The tone remained the same, even as the words altered. "Why weren't you with us?"


Sirius clapped the heels of his hands over his eyes, shutting her out. No sound, except for the echo of her accusation in the long, empty corridor. Nothing to touch except the chill stone at his back and beneath his bare soles.


Nothing to be done, except keep hunting.


Sirius peeled himself away from the wall and set his face towards the end of the corridor. Towards Gryffindor Tower.


The way was long, and quiet, and dark. He was nearly there when he saw the lantern flicker. He crouched and listened.


"Good evening, Mister Filch." Sirius knew that voice; the portrait of the Fat Lady had been guarding the entrance to Gryffindor Tower for a long time. "Why, may I ask, aren't you at the feast tonight?"


A grunt answered her. "Someone has to keep an eye out around here," the caretaker said gruffly. "With that criminal on the loose, and students just looking for a chance to sneak about behind my back."


Bugger. Sirius couldn't simply walk past him. There was only one way to and from the portrait hole, and when the caretaker came back down the corridor, he would almost certainly spot an intruder. Sirius' hands clenched into fists. It would only take a few moments to make sure Filch couldn't stop him. Time was slipping away again.


Something soft brushed his ankle, and Sirius bit his tongue. Swallowing the faint taste of blood, he turned his head to see a furry, feline face looking up at him. The cat was orange, huge, and scenting delicately. Sirius recognized it. He'd met the tom once or twice as Padfoot, near the Hogwarts grounds. After a moment of hesitation, he lowered his own face and let the cat brush his cool nose against it.


That over, the cat seemed satisfied. It turned, paced a few steps away, and looked back at Sirius. Waiting.


All right. Sirius followed the tomcat, still crouching, bracing his hands against the walls and floor for silence and balance.


Several yards down the corridor and around a bend, the cat made a quick turn, vanishing between another carven pillar and a winged statue. Sirius paused, listening. They had not been followed. And this, this looked familiar. He reached a cautious hand into the dark gap and felt his fingers brush fur.


He jerked his hand out again as James, bent over his shoulder, whispered, "Damn, this could be all kinds of useful. It's always a risk going through the portrait hole. Splendid work, Wormtail."


The furry thing Sirius had touched scurried out into the deserted corridor. It twitched and grew into a plump young man, his fair hair full of cobwebs, beaming proudly. Sick fury roared in Sirius' ears. James flung an arm around Peter's shoulders. "Head on back, show Moony the other entrance, and we'll meet you there."


The boy was a boy, was shrinking, was a rat darting back into the dark hole. Finally able to move, Sirius lunged forward, grimy hand reaching for the traitor. His fingers closed on fur. Pain slashed across them. Sirius pulled his hand back, and without regard for the blood welling from deep scratches, he transformed and thrust his head into the passage. It barely fit, ears scuffing against plaster and bricks. His solid shoulders stopped firmly outside. He pushed forward, again and again, teeth snapping after the miserable little rodent. Wormtail would not escape, Sirius would find him, tear him paw from tail.


The hole was too small, or Padfoot was too big. He sat back on his haunches, head down, panting in exhaustion and despair. The hunt had failed.


An orange tomcat's face sniffed at his, not backing down even at Padfoot's best low growl.


He panted a few more times, then let the dog's form melt away, and crouched on his heels for some time. Absently, his fingers answered the cat's nudge and he stroked its fur with his bloodied hand. His shoulders were warm with bruising. A sandy tongue licked at his hand, and he opened his eyes to see the tomcat delicately cleaning the wounds.


No. The hunt had not failed.


Swaying, Sirius stood. Once he had his balance back, he simply walked towards the portrait hole. Whatever he met would be dealt with. The cat scampered to keep up.


It seemed to take forever. Every breath huffed ragged in his own ears, and at any moment he expected to meet the caretaker. If time had streamed away before, now it was dammed up and trickling along.


There was no-one at the end of the corridor. No lantern light, no voices. The gilt-framed portrait of the Fat Lady looked indisputably peaceful: she was dozing, hands folded beneath her ample bosom.


Sirius stopped in front of her, and cleared his throat sharply.


She jumped. "Goodness, dear, you quite frightened me." The Fat Lady gave a genteel yawn.


"I need you to let me in," Sirius said.


The Fat Lady sat up a little straighter. "Password?"


"Dragon's dung," Sirius guessed. "Moonflower. Twaddle."


"I'm sorry, dear, I haven't heard those passwords in, oh, about twenty years." She was staring at him openly now, frowning and fidgeting with her handkerchief. "It's young Sirius Black, isn't it?" she finally said.


"Yes." Sirius tried to find the flattering words that he had used to wheedle entrance long ago, but they were too far buried. "I need to get into the common room."


"Do you know the password?" Her silken voice had iron in it.


Sirius breathed a sigh that was half snarl. "I left something there. I need it back, please...."


The Fat Lady shook her head. "I'm sorry, dear. You're not at school now, and even if you were you'd still have to know the password."


Sirius slammed both hands against the sides of her frame and leaned in close. "You don't understand. You have to let me in." Behind that portrait was the end of the hunt, the end of it all.


"I can't." The Fat Lady sounded infuriatingly sincere and unafraid.


Blind with the anger that beat behind his eyes, Sirius plunged a hand into the one intact pocket in his robes. The knife gleamed dully in the torchlight as he rested its tip against the canvas. "Let. Me. In."


Mute, afraid now, she simply stared at him.


No, no, no.... The pain of failure twisted his stomach, and the knife slashed once, and again, and again. He would go through her if he had to.


But beyond the shredded canvas were solid stones. Sirius dropped his knife and ripped at the pieces, tearing them away, baring the unforgiving wall. Barely aware of the Fat Lady's screams, he pounded at the stone with both fists. Nothing yielded. He kicked furiously at the bits of painted cloth that littered the floor.


Failed. Failed. The hunt had failed. There was no other way in, none.


A cool nose touched his bare foot. Suddenly, Sirius was aware of the castle itself. It loomed around him. An effective prison, if he were caught here. Time was pouring out from beneath him, a flood that would end when the feast did, when the Gryffindors returned to their common room.


If he could get out, there would be more time. Time to think, time to watch, time to hunt. The tomcat nudged his foot again, and Sirius nudged back.


He made himself take one last look at the ruined portrait before he turned to go. Apart from a small twinge of regret, he felt nothing.


Hollow, bent, and bruised, Sirius followed the cat back to the tapestry passage. It hung back, and he reached down to rub its ears in thanks. Its enormous purr echoed after him all the way down to the entrance hall.


Still in his human form, Sirius fumbled with the iron latch. The timbre of the voices in the Great Hall had changed, had gone quiet, content. The students would be emerging any moment. Sirius swung the heavy door open just enough to slip through, and hesitated on the threshold.


Within, warmth and a fragile peace reigned. Sirius toyed with the idea of waiting long enough to see Harry come out and head towards the stairs. No, that would be sheer madness. Outside, rain was spitting from the sky, a prelude to the full storm.


Sirius took one last look inside, one last deep breath of singed-pumpkin air, and closed the door behind him. Shifting into the black dog, he loped down the steps into darkness and the smell of death.


~~~~~


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