Another breakfast came and went without any post for Sirius. It was only out of habit that he glanced up, searching the fluttering mass for Midnight's sleek, black feathers anymore. He had had one letter from his parents -- one -- expressing their disappointment at what Sirius had come to think of as his mis-Sorting, but they had not offered to take any steps in the matter. They had not even tried to tell him to make the best of a bad situation. There was no "best" to be made.
Whether by his own choice, or by injunction of their parents, Regulus had not written to him at all. Sirius had kept his promise for the first few weeks, faithfully owling his brother, explaining what had happened, how it wasn't his fault, how everyone was being horrible, and he hated Hogwarts more than anything. But when September became October, and still there was no word, Sirius had stopped trying. What could he write, but the same misery and anger over and over again? What was the use?
His family had abandoned him to his fate. His own cousin Narcissa would not speak to him, turning up her nose whenever she passed him in the corridors, and making snide comments to her friends about Gryffindor scum.
The rest of the Slytherins were no better, and in fact, many were worse. The same children who had once curried his favour and pretended to be his friends now taunted him in the halls, at meals, in class, saying that they couldn't believe that some brainless, showoff Gryffindor had got away with pretending like he was better than them for so long. No one looked up to him. No one respected him. No one even liked him.
Gryffindor tower became his refuge, the irony of which was not lost on Sirius. At least the other Gryffindors weren't likely to mock him for the House he had been Sorted into, little as they might care for him personally. He had certainly made himself no friends there -- not that he had tried.
Even Peter, who had been friend enough -- or at least thick enough -- to follow him to his ignoble fate, had all but abandoned him for that grinning fool, James Potter. Nevermind that he himself had been planning to dump Peter if the other boy had been Sorted into Hufflepuff. If anything, that made it worse. Since when was Peter the one who got to pick and choose his friends?
And what was so bloody great about Potter, anyway? Certainly he had money, and he came from good family -- blood-traitors, granted, but his blood was still almost as pure as Sirius's own -- and yet he didn't seem to give a toss about either of those things. All that dimwitted buffoon appeared to care about was having a laugh. He spent all of his time teasing and poking fun. Not like the Slytherins did, though; Potter treated everyone like they were in on the joke.
Of his third roommate, Sirius had no idea what to make. It was hard to be annoyed with someone who never said anything, even if he was a Mudblood. Sirius would never have said so to anyone -- not that he said much of anything to anyone these days, anymore than Lupin did -- but he had been just the tiniest bit impressed by the Sticking charm, even if he had been forced to ask Potter for help retrieving his wand, which Potter, to his credit, had done, once he was able to stop laughing.
Sirius had at first taken Lupin's quietness for weakness, or perhaps even fear, but now, he wasn't so sure. There was something odd about the boy, and no mistake. Twice now, he had disappeared from their dormitory overnight, and had missed classes the following day, returning in the evening looking tired and even more pale than usual.
Sometimes, Lupin would spend classes furiously copying down notes, and mastering charms and defensive spells in minutes. On other days, he would stare into space, mind clearly elsewhere, and when called upon, would become too flustered to answer even the simplest questions. Just the other night, he had fallen asleep during Astronomy, right there on the cold stone of the turret. He was an enigma. Sirius couldn't help being a little bit intrigued.
Sirius himself did well enough in his classes. He had a quick mind, but in consequence, was easily bored. Astronomy was his best subject -- no one else even came close -- but in Charms and Potions, he found himself competing with the Evans girl, and frequently coming off the worse. It stung him that a Muggleborn girl could best him in two subjects he should have dominated. Evans' half-blood friend Snape was even better at Potions than she was. It was bad enough that Potter was quicker than he was at Transfiguration. Still, he was at least close to the top of his class in all those subjects.
Defence Against the Dark Arts was one class that Sirius had thought would interest him more. However, Professor Tynedale took a very dry, businesslike approach to the subject, insisting on spending one term on each of the three classes of defensive spells, and they wouldn't be covering the interesting ones until spring. Autumn term was devoted to protective magic, and so far as Sirius was concerned, one Shield charm was much like another. Instead, he would sneak peeks ahead in the textbook to the chapters on hexes.
Even worse than Professor Tynedale's classes were Herbology and History of Magic. Plants were boring. Even if they weren't, old Professor Beery made them boring. Even Peter had a better Herbology mark than Sirius did. History of Magic might have been interesting in the right hands. Unfortunately, it had rested for a number of years -- or centuries, if the rumours could be believed -- in the translucent hands of ghostly Professor Binns, and he made the subject seem as dead as he was. Hardly anyone managed to stay awake in his classes, and Lupin and Evans were the only ones who bothered to take notes.
Today, Professor Binns was droning on about one of the interminable and indistinguishable Goblin Rebellions. Sirius had parchment out on the desk in front of him, but his quill was engaged in doodling, rather than any more academic pursuit. He was deriving great satisfaction from his sketch of the Sorting Hat bursting into flames, and was just contemplating whether to draw Narcissa's head underneath it, when the bell rang, signaling the end of class for the afternoon.
Professor Binns seemed not to notice, and went right on pointing out boring places on a map of eastern Europe, but the class began stowing away their quills and parchment. Sirius caught Potter glancing at his doodle. The other boy didn't say anything, but his expression spoke of mild annoyance.
Good, thought Sirius, who was frequently galled by Potter's grinning nonchalance.
Exiting the classroom en masse, they turned down the corridor that would take them back to Gryffindor tower. As they rounded the corner, Sirius groaned inwardly. He had forgotten. Again.
Every Wednesday afternoon, the first year Gryffindors passed the first year Slytherins in the halls as they returned to their own dungeon common room from their last class. They never let an opportunity go by to direct their latest "witticisms" at Sirius. He had meant to find another route back to Gryffindor tower, but he kept forgetting.
"Well, if it isn't Gryffindor Black!" sneered Evan Rosier. "Changed your name to 'Godric' yet?"
"Shut up, Rosier!" snarled Sirius.
"Haven't you heard?" Rosier smirked. "No one takes orders from you anymore, Black. You're nothing but a pathetic Gryffindor now. Might as well find yourself a Muggleborn girlfriend and have done with it."
The other Slytherins laughed. A few of the Gryffindors edged past, shooting them looks of undisguised dislike. Lupin and Evans looked at one another, shrugged, and turned away, heads bent in mutual discussion over their History of Magic notes. Peter stood nervously a little way up the corridor, unwilling either to become involved in the confrontation or to abandon Sirius entirely. Potter slouched against the wall, watching, as if merely curious to see what would happen next.
What happened was that Sirius drew his wand and pointed it at Rosier's sneering face.
"Take it back!" he yelled.
"Or what?" said Rosier. "You'll disarm me? Gryffindors are supposed to be so brave, but everyone knows they don't have the guts for real hexes. You're one of them now, Scum. I'm not afraid of you."
Sirius's mind was buzzing with rage. He couldn't think of a single hex. They were all laughing at him, daring him, and he was about to be utterly, utterly humiliated in front of the very people who should have been grateful for his good opinion.
A hand grabbed his wrist, jerking at his wand arm.
"No one talks to my Gryffindor brothers like that!" shouted James Potter, and Sirius found himself being dragged bodily away down the corridor, Slytherin laughter ringing in his ears.
"What'd you do that for?!" demanded Sirius as the other boy propelled him down a side passage.
"Maybe you didn't see," said Potter between clenched teeth, hand still clamped around Sirius's arm, "but three of them were getting ready to hex you while Rosier had you distracted. You should thank me."
There was movement at the entrance to the passage, and both boys glanced up to see Peter hovering there.
"Go away, Peter," Potter said grimly. "I need to talk to Black."
Peter fled. Potter let go of Sirius's arm and shoved him sharply against the wall.
"Oi!" yelled Sirius, indignant.
"Shut up, Black," Potter blazed. "I've bloody well had it up to here with those tossers always thinking they're better than everyone else. And I'm bloody sick of you acting like they're right."
Sirius was mildly stunned. In almost two months of acquaintance, he had never seen Potter display any kind of temper.
The boy glared at him. "You may not like it, but you're a Gryffindor now, Black. Better get used to it. You can't slide by on money and blood-status anymore; you have to prove yourself like the rest of us. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to wipe the sneers off their stupid Slytherin faces."
Potter shook his head. "It's done. There's no going back to how things were. So what're you going to do about it?"
Sirius licked his lips. "Dunno," he mumbled.
"Are you going to spend the rest of your life sulking?" asked Potter. "Or are you going to show those tossers what a Gryffindor can do?"
Sirius stared. "What d'you mean?"
A slow grin spread across Potter's face. "Revenge, Black. Are you in or not?"
Sirius couldn't help it. One corner of his mouth twitched upwards. "Maybe."
"Right," said James Potter. "Here's what we're going to do ...."
"I hate house-elves," Sirius said for the hundredth time.
"How many house-elves have you met?" asked James curiously. They had been friends for three days, and he was "James" now.
"Well, one," admitted Sirius. "We've got one at home, and he's a right little --"
"So, what you're saying is that you hate one house-elf," James said reasonably. "That's like saying you hate Every-Flavour Beans because you've only ever had the bogie-flavoured ones. House-elves are dead useful."
They were making their way through the darkened corridors of the school, taking the long way to the Hogwarts kitchens, to avoid the elderly caretaker, Apollyon Pringle. If they were caught, it would mean detention, but James apparently had it on good authority that Pringle's patrols of the school were as regular as clockwork, making him easy to elude if one took proper care.
"How d'you know there's house-elves?" asked Peter.
Sirius wrinkled his nose in scorn. "Who d'you think takes care of this place and cooks your meals and washes your robes? Pringle? The ghosts?"
Peter shrugged. "I dunno. I guess I thought they did everything here with magic."
"They do," said James, without Sirius's scornful tone. "It's just that 'they' are house-elves."
Sirius wouldn't have chosen to bring Peter along for the caper. This was his and James's plan, after all, and he had liked the idea of it being just the two of them in on the joke. But when they had left their dormitory at midnight, Peter had asked where they were going.
"Adventuring," James told him with a grin. "Want to come along?"
Lupin, who was lounging on his bed, reading another one of his Muggle books -- as if that was any way to spend a Saturday night -- had glanced up at them, shaken his head reproachfully, and gone back to his reading.
"The Hogwarts house-elves are dead nice," James told the other boys. "They love working here, and they'll do anything for anyone who treats them halfway decent." He shot Sirius a warning look. "Be nice, or keep your mouth shut."
This was clearly not the first time James had visited the Hogwarts kitchens, and Sirius strongly suspected it wasn't his first late-night excursion, either. He tried to keep track of all the twists and turns they took, but in the dark he became hopelessly confused, and had to trust that the other boy knew where he was going.
They stopped at what appeared to be a dead end. James reached up to touch a painting that Sirius could only dimly make out in the darkness, and it swung wide. Light and sound spilled out from a cavernous, bustling space into the corridor that had been dark and silent a moment before. And the smells! Sirius caught the aromas of a dozen different dishes being prepared, each more delicious than the next.
A house-elf, who appeared to be wearing an outfit made up of half a dozen brightly-coloured tea towels knotted together, hurried towards them, beaming.
"All right, Snootles?" James greeted her with an easy grin.
"James Potter has brought his friends to meet Snootles!" the elf squeaked. "Will you be wanting tea and cakes, Sir?"
"That sounds great," James assured the elf. "Snootles, I'd like you to meet Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew."
The elf curtsied. "Snootles is pleased to meet any friend of James Potter."
"Are you lot already working on the Halloween feast?" James asked, looking around.
"Oh, for many days now!" The elf nodded vigorously. "Much preparation is needed for so important an occasion. We has only got a few more hours until it is served. Not a single elf will be sleeping in Hogwarts castle tonight, James Potter."
James flashed her another grin. "It smells great," he assured her. "What're we having?"
Two more elves arrived just then, carrying a silver tray bearing three teacups and a plate of cakes. The boys helped themselves, then followed Snootles on a guided tour of the next night's feast. Sirius had never seen so many pigs being roasted or cakes being iced. Just looking at the abundance made his mouth water with anticipation.
They stopped by a huge cauldron of stew, and James peered into it, sniffing appreciatively. Even Sirius, who was watching for it, didn't see James add their "secret ingredient".
Good, he thought. If I didn't notice, there's a good chance none of these little beasts did either.
They said their goodbyes soon after, and departed, pockets bulging with fresh-baked breadrolls.
"Are you sure the potion won't affect house-elves?" Sirius asked James.
"Positive," the other boy replied smugly. "House-elves eat different stuff than we do. A lot of the ingredients I put in are things they'll be used to. They shouldn't notice the difference at all."
"If you're wrong, we'll never be able to show our faces in the kitchens again," Sirius warned.
"I'm not wrong," said James. "Next stop: the Hogwarts laundry room."
"Do you know where that is, too?" Peter asked admiringly.
"Er --" replied James. "Sort of."
In all fairness, they only got lost once, and there was a very close call when Pringle stepped suddenly into view at the far end of the corridor ahead of them, but they happened to be hidden by a particularly deep shadow at the time, and were able to duck into a doorway, holding their breath until he was gone.
The laundry room, once found, was not quite so bustling as the kitchens, but Saturday was when most of the week's laundry was done, and many of the students had sent down their best robes to be cleaned and pressed before the feast.
"I thought house-elves weren't supposed to touch clothes," Peter whispered as they peered in.
"They can do laundry," James told him. "The clothes aren't really given to them; just sort of left out. It's not like anyone handed a house-elf their robes and said, 'here you go'."
The elves in the laundry room were not quite so friendly or welcoming as Snootles had been. Unlike the kitchens, the boys had had to concoct a convincing reason for their visit.
"I think I left my wand in my pocket," Sirius lied to the head laundry elf, who had introduced himself as Clunky. "Can I check?"
"Which House?" asked the elf tersely.
"Slytherin, if you please." Sirius tried on one of James's winning smiles. It seemed to go over well.
"This way," said the elf. He led them to a large pile of black robes, lying crumpled on the stone floor. "Name?"
Sirius hesitated only a moment. "Rosier. Evan Rosier."
With a nod from the head elf, three others dived into the pile, rummaging and wriggling until it looked like the mass of black was alive.
"Nittle had found them, Sir!" cried a muffled voice. There was a little more wriggling, and a set of robes was proudly presented to Sirius.
"Thank you," he said, taking them from the elf, and making a show of rummaging through the pockets. "No, I guess it's not here. Well, if you find a wand in the wash, it's probably mine."
"We shall be watching for it, Mr Rosier, Sir," Clunky assured him with a bow. "It shall come to no harm."
"Glad to hear it," said Sirius, biting his lip to suppress a smile. "Well, good night, then."
Once they were away and had turned a corner, Sirius burst into laughter. "Right in Rosier's pocket!" he crowed. "Merlin! His will be the brightest of the lot!"
James snorted. "We definitely won't be able to show our faces in there again after this. Hope it's worth it!"
Peter looked back and forth between them, puzzled. "So, what exactly did you blokes do?"
The two boys turned matching grins on him. "You'll see, mate," said James. "You'll see."
Sirius was the first one up the following morning. "Come on," he moaned impatiently. "Let's go down to breakfast and see --"
"When they catch you for whatever you lot did last night," Lupin said drily, "I hope you tell them I wasn't part of it."
"Did you hear that?" Sirius said, turning to James. "He speaks in sentences! Who knew?"
Lupin blushed and turned away from his laughing roommates, pulling on his robes.
When they arrived in the Great Hall for breakfast, it was already abuzz with giggles and whispers and heads craning towards the red faces at the Slytherin table for another look.
Several of the Slytherins had opted to wear rumpled, stained robes that hadn't made it into the laundry the previous night, but a few had apparently had no other choice than to wear the lurid pink robes that had come back to them from the wash.
"What a horrible colour," Lupin murmured.
A delighted laugh burst from Peter's lips. "How'd you do it?"
Sirius looked smug. "A potion with a dying charm added to it. I put it in a packet that would dissolve in the wash."
"I think it rather suits them," said James, admiring Sirius's handiwork. "Lockhart looks almost pleased."
"Oi! Narcissa!" Sirius shouted across the hall to his cousin. "I'd hex whoever told you that was your colour!"
"C'mon," said James, punching him in the arm. "Let's get something to eat."
By supper time, the Slytherins were in a foul humour, but they still had not managed to discover who was responsible for their ruined robes. As the Gryffindors arrived in the Great Hall for the Halloween feast, James laughed out loud.
"Look at Dumbledore!" he said gleefully, nudging Sirius.
The headmaster was seated in a high-backed chair at the centre of the staff table, beaming at the students, and dressed in the same ghastly shade of pink as half of the Slytherins.
"Time for Phase Two," muttered Sirius.
The three boys split up. James wandered casually down the Gryffindor table, every now and then pausing to greet someone, while Peter ran over to Hufflepuff.
At the end of the Ravenclaw table, Sirius bent his head and whispered to the girl sitting there, "Don't eat the Slytherin Stew. Pass it on."
"What?" said the girl, confused.
"Trust me," Sirius told her. "You don't want the stew."
Once he was confident that the message would be spread throughout Ravenclaw, Sirius glanced nervously up at the high table, where the Hogwarts staff were seated. He had volunteered for this, after all. Fortunately for him, the seat at the far right end of the table was occupied by Professor Celestria Lindsay, the Astronomy mistress. Sirius was a particular favourite of hers.
"Professor Lindsay," he whispered, leaning close so as not to be overheard.
She smiled at him. "Can I help you, Mr Black?"
"I -- er -- just wanted to tell you," he mumbled. "The stew. It's -- ah -- probably better if you don't eat it."
She gave him a suspicious look.
"You'll -- er -- pass the message along?" He blinked as winsomely as he knew how.
She nodded slowly. "I may be having a word with your head of House later, Black," she warned.
"OK," he said. "Just so long as you don't eat the stew."
He rejoined the others, who had found them seats at the Gryffindor table with a good view of the Slytherins.
"I hope we're upwind," James whispered.
When the food appeared, everyone dug in. Everyone except Sirius and James, that is. They absently loaded food onto their plates, but their posture was tense, waiting.
A loud fart rent the air. It was followed by another, and another.
Giggles echoed around the Great Hall. All eyes turned to the Slytherin table.
"What the hell?!" shouted a Slytherin fifth year, interrupting himself with another burst of flatulence.
Every time one of the Slytherins opened their mouths to speak, the result was the same.
Peter fell off the bench, tears of mirth streaming down his cheeks. Evans looked mortified, but Sirius thought he saw Lupin hide a smile in his pumpkin juice.
Gryffindor prefect Fabian Prewett and his twin brother Gideon pounded the table, roaring with laughter.
"I always knew those Slytherins were full of hot air!" cried Gideon.
"At least now we can smell them coming!" Fabian wheezed.
The laughter continued for a long time before the Slytherins realised that the only way to control their unruly bodily functions was to keep their mouths clamped firmly shut.
James hooked an elbow around Sirius's neck and yanked him down, mussing his hair with his other hand. "We are brilliant!" he declared.
That night, back in their room, they burned Sirius's Slytherin scarf. Lupin claimed that the smoke was making his eyes water, and disappeared behind his bed hangings, but Peter stayed up to share in the pitcher of pumpkin juice that James and Sirius had smuggled up after the feast.
"A toast!" declared Sirius, raising his goblet. "To Gryffindor. My House and my home. Better than stinking Slytherin any day! And to James Potter," he added with a grin, "who showed me the way."
"To Gryffindor!" James and Peter shouted, clinking their goblets together. They all drank long and deep.
A long time later, Peter snoring on the bed by their feet, James said, "You know something?"
"Hmmm?" Sirius was lying with his hands folded behind his head, staring up at the canopy above his bed, contemplating the fact that he had never before had a friend -- or anyone, really -- whom he considered his equal.
"We make a pretty good team," James sighed sleepily. "What say you, Black?"
Sirius's mouth curled into a slow smile. "I think you may be right, Potter."
"I almost always am," said James smugly.