"The sixth step creaks," warned Sirius as they paused at the first landing under the glassy gaze of three generations of extinct Black family house-elves to listen for any noise.
The enormous house was still and silent around them, but Sirius did not relax his guard. Kreacher had a nasty habit of popping up at the least-opportune moments, and if he caught Sirius sneaking out of the house, he was sure to raise the alarm.
It was mid-afternoon the day following Sirius's birthday, and the house was even darker than usual, rain streaming down the windowpanes. Peter's mother had come to collect him shortly after breakfast, but James had delayed his departure, informing Sirius's mother that his parents did not expect him home before tea time. They had retreated to Sirius's bedroom to await a quiet moment to put their plan into action.
As Sirius had expected, his father had left the house for a luncheon meeting -- something about investments and the head of the Wizarding Transportation Department, Sirius dimly recalled him mentioning -- and his mother had taken a Sleeping Draught and gone to lie down and recover from the previous day's excitement, leaving strict instructions with the house-elf to keep an eye on Sirius, Regulus and James.
With a quick glance behind him, Sirius shouldered his bag and tiptoed down the stairs after his best friend, pausing to hop over the creaky step. Together, they rounded the corner and ducked into the parlour, hurrying over to the large fireplace. Sirius had just reached for the decorative jar of Floo powder when --
"What're you doing?"
He swore under his breath, whirling around. Regulus was curled up in the high-backed chair by the door, his diary open on his lap.
"That's none of your business," snapped Sirius.
James laid a quelling hand on his arm. "I invited Sirius over to my house."
Regulus frowned. "Do Mother and Father know?"
"Yes," Sirius lied. "They said it's fine so long as I'm back in time for the Wilkes's party."
"But -- that's in July," said his brother, sitting up, brow furrowed. "Mother and Father would never let you go off for that long."
"C'mon." Sirius turned back to the fireplace. "Let's get out of here."
There was a sudden sharp pop, and Sirius groaned. Kreacher. His clean getaway was going much less smoothly than he had hoped.
"Master Sirius! What is you doing?" croaked the house-elf. "You cannot be going anywhere without the Mistress's permission!"
Long, thin, and surprisingly-strong fingers closed around Sirius's wrist, yanking him back from the hearth. James stepped forwards, hand out, but looked unsure what to do.
"Let go, Kreacher!" Sirius snapped. "Don't touch me!"
But clearly the Mistress's instructions to keep an eye on her sons overrode any order Sirius might give.
"Must take Master Sirius to the Mistress!" squealed Kreacher with undisguised glee. "Master Sirius will be punished for his sneaking."
The house-elf stilled. "Master Regulus?"
Sirius glared at his brother, standing in the middle of the parlour, diary in hand, looking as if he was trying to decide something.
"Go -- go tell Mother what Sirius is doing," he said. "I'll stay here and keep an eye on him."
The house-elf looked back and forth between the two brothers, then vanished with another pop.
"Sirius?" James said.
Sirius lifted his chin defiantly, eyes locked with Regulus's. "How're you going to keep me here, little brother?"
"I'm not," said Regulus. "Go if you like. You don't want to be here, and you'll just keep making trouble."
Sirius hesitated. "Mother and Father will punish you if they think you let me go."
The younger boy's expression mirrored his brother's. "That's my lookout, isn't it? Go if you're going."
"C'mon," said James, shoving the jar of Floo powder into Sirius's hands. He tossed a handful onto the grate -- "Number four, Pumpkin Lane, Godric's Hollow," -- and vanished with a whoosh.
The two brothers stared at one another a moment longer until footsteps upstairs forced Sirius into action. He turned away. "Thanks," he muttered grudgingly, and followed James into the fire.
James was there to catch him as he stumbled out of the fireplace. When he regained his balance, Sirius stared. He knew his friend's family had money. All of James's school things were either new or of good quality, if not as fine as Sirius's own. He had been expecting a better-lit, less-forbidding, more Gryffindorish version of his own home, with lots of warm woodwork and rich velvet drapes at the very least. The reality made him think for a moment that they had somehow ended up in the wrong house.
Woodwork there was, and in plenty, but roughhewn and rustic-looking, with exposed beams in the ceiling, and thick, sturdy lintels on the windows and doors. Instead of priceless family heirlooms, every horizontal surface Sirius could see was covered in clutter. Parchment, books -- both serious-looking tomes and bright, dog-eared paperbacks -- jars, framed photographs, an overflowing mending basket, several interesting-looking carved stone objects, a few sprouting seedlings in eggshell-sized containers, and various implements to which Sirius could not put names.
"Dad won't let us touch anything," James explained, scratching the ears of a large ginger Kneazle stretched out on the back of the sofa. "Says he knows exactly where everything is. But Mum's almost as bad, so it doesn't really matter."
It explained a lot about how his friend could sleep peacefully, sharing his bed as he often did with his school books, half-finished essays, and clothes he had not bothered to put away. Sirius hardly ever put anything away either when he was at school, but his own possessions usually littered the floor around his bed, rather than the bed itself.
"Jamie, is that you?" A smiling, dark-skinned woman poked her head into the room. Her tightly-curled black hair was cropped short and threaded with silver, and she wore it tied carelessly in a brightly-coloured kerchief. A heavenly scent wafted around her.
James's face split into a grin. "I've brought Sirius, Mum. It's OK if he stays for a bit, isn't it?"
"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am." Sirius bobbed his head awkwardly.
The woman's smile widened, echoing her son's. "Sirius! How wonderful to finally meet you! I hope you like treacle tarts; I think I've made too many." She disappeared, presumably back to the kitchen, leaving the scent of treacle in her wake.
"That's my mum," James said unnecessarily.
Sirius shuffled uncomfortably. "She seems all right. Is it really OK if I stay? Your dad won't be angry you didn't ask first?"
James shook his head. "Nah; they're always saying I should invite my friends over. I think they worry about me getting lonely. Want to see my room?"
Sirius followed his friend down a narrow corridor and up the stairs, casting a nervous glance into the kitchen -- every bit as cluttered as the sitting room -- as he passed. Do they not even have a house-elf? he wondered. Much as he loathed the little beasts, he couldn't imagine living in a house of this size without one. Clearly Mrs Potter enjoyed a bit of baking, but who did the other household chores?
James's room carried on the theme of the rest of the house. His bed was neatly made, but it looked as though his school trunk had exploded in the middle of the room. The walls were a riot of brightly-coloured, moving, flashing Quidditch posters, documenting the high points of the past five seasons for the Falmouth Falcons. It was a wonder his friend could sleep.
James turned and caught Sirius's dubious expression. He gave his friend a wry smile. "Don't worry; you'll be in the guest room. It's not quite such a mess as the rest of the house."
Sirius bit his lip. "I don't mean to -- It's just not what I expected."
"It's home," said James with a shrug. "You get used to it. Have you ever played Odin's Eye?"
Sirius shook his head, and James rummaged under the bed for an old wooden box which turned out to contain a boardgame. They each chose a Norse deity, and drew a card telling them their secret goal for the game. The objective was to either achieve one's own goal, or to prevent the other players achieving theirs.
"It's more fun with more people," James told him as he nudged his Baldr counter in amongst the Valkyries. "Maybe if Dad's not too tired one night, we can get him and Mum to play."
Sirius paused in the midst of trying to work out the best way to get his Hodr around the Midgard Serpent without waking it. "You play games with your parents?" he asked incredulously. Such a thing was unheard of in his own home.
"Sometimes," replied James. "When they're not too busy. Sometimes I play with the local kids, too. Muggle games, mostly. There are only a couple of wizards our age around here."
Sirius felt a small twinge of jealousy at the thought of James having friends he didn't know. "Who lives here?" he asked, barely noticing that Hodr had just lost an arm.
"Giles Ogilvie and Davey Gudgeon," said James, naming a Slytherin two years ahead of them and a Hufflepuff in their own year. He had just landed on the space giving him the secret of ale brewing, and was in the process of putting the dragon Fafnir to sleep with the results. "Ogilvie and I used to play one-on-one Quidditch, but we haven't really spoken since I was Sorted. Gudgeon's a bit thick, but he's all right to go exploring with sometimes."
James had almost made it into Asgard to ask a final favour of Odin when Mrs Potter called up the stairs that tea would be ready in ten minutes. His friend called an immediate halt to the game and rose.
"C'mon," he said. "I have to set the table."
Sirius stared at him. "You're joking." This obedient son could not possibly be the same rule-disregarding prankster he knew from school.
"Not everyone has a house-elf to wait on them hand and foot, Black," said James, shooting Sirius a dirty look. "Mum's got enough to do, and if I don't do my bit, I don't get any pocket money. Anyway, it's not hard."
In the dining room, James handed Sirius a stack of plates and pointed at the table.
"Is Dad coming?" he called into the kitchen.
"Don't know," called back Mrs Potter's voice. "But set a place for him just in case, won't you, Jamie dear?"
"'Jamie dear'," Sirius echoed mockingly.
James's ears went pink as he distributed cutlery to the four place settings. "What? Your parents never had any embarrassing pet names for you and your brother?"
Sirius shook his head, unsure why he should envy his friend that. "They don't even like it when I call Regulus 'Regs'. 'Informality is just another name for disrespect'," he said, putting on the snooty falsetto he used to mimic his mother.
They ate egg mayonnaise sandwiches and vegetable soup, followed by the best treacle tarts Sirius had ever tasted. As Mrs Potter served him a third one, unasked, Sirius noticed that her eyes kept wandering back to the empty fourth place setting. He found this very odd behaviour indeed. His father was often away from home on business, but his mother never seemed to care or notice, even when he was late returning. He supposed it was to do with James's father being an Auror. It was a dangerous job, after all.
When she wasn't casting distracted glances, Mrs Potter asked Sirius polite questions about his family, where they lived, and what sorts of things he liked to do. Some of the questions made Sirius squirm uncomfortably, as he was becoming self-consciously aware of how different his own parents were from this kind, smiling woman.
He was relieved when James rose from the table, and quickly followed him to the sink with his plate.
"Thanks, Mum," James said, kissing the cheek she offered him. "Your tarts are the best."
"Thank you very much for the lovely tea, Ma'am," Sirius babbled before fleeing the dining room after his friend. He thought he heard a giggle follow him out of the room.
James snorted. "Why're you acting like that?"
"Like what?" In his discomfort, Sirius had resorted to the polished good manners instilled in him from his early youth, hoping they would carry him through the awkwardness of the situation. Having his behaviour mocked made him feel a bit prickly.
James gave him a you're joking look. "Like you're at tea with the Minister for Magic."
Sirius shrugged uncomfortably. "It's parents, isn't it?"
"It's not your parents, mate," James replied reasonably.
"So sorry if I don't know the correct method of address for your mother," Sirius scowled.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!"
Sirius jumped as Mrs Potter appeared in the doorway.
"How rude of me not to introduce myself properly." She held out her hand to him. "Eleanor Potter. But you can call me Ellie."
Sirius shook her hand automatically, but no words emerged from his open mouth. Ellie? ELLIE?! In twelve years, he had never been invited to address an adult by their given name, unless it was preceded by an honourific like "aunt" or "uncle".
James raised his eyebrows, perplexed by his friend's obvious distress. "We'll be upstairs in my room, Mum. Call us if Dad comes home?"
Once back in James's room, Sirius breathed a sigh of relief. He wondered whether his friends had felt this uncomfortable at his own house. No wonder Remus ran. He quickly squashed the thought. He wasn't about to run away. He was a Gryffindor. Surely he could stand a little awkwardness.
The two boys finished their game, and Sirius privately blamed his loss on his lack of composure. When James asked if he'd like to play again, Sirius replied with a somewhat surly "no". Easy-going as ever, James only shrugged and offered to show Sirius to the guest bedroom to drop off his things. The room was a bit frilly for Sirius's tastes, complete with lacy curtains and bedspread, but at least it was an escape, if he needed it. He rummaged around in his bag for his set of Gobstones and took them back to James's room where they spent the afternoon a little closer to Sirius's comfort zone.
Somewhere in the middle of the fourth game, James's head jerked up, listening intently.
"Ellie?" came a muffled voice from downstairs.
"Dad's home." James scrambled to his feet and hurried down the stairs, Sirius following on his heels.
They halted in the doorway of the sitting room and Sirius blinked in amazement as Mrs Potter flew to her husband's arms. Could these people be any less like his parents? Sirius could not remember the last time he had seen his mother and father so much as touch one another. In fact, the thought of it made his skin crawl.
Mr Potter was a tall, thin man whose short, greying hair stuck up in all directions, rather like his son's. He wore a neatly-trimmed beard and gold-rimmed spectacles and looked nothing like Sirius's expectations of one of the Ministry's top Aurors. He had met an Auror once when his father had allowed Sirius to accompany him on a visit to the Ministry. That Auror -- Mr Moody -- had been a lumpy, lopsided man, who had glared at his father suspiciously, as if about to start interrogating him. There was no resemblance between Sirius's impression and the open, smiling -- if tired -- face of the man before him, warmly embracing his wife.
Sirius elbowed James and raised his eyebrows. His friend shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed, but was not quite able to suppress a smile.
"Where's my boy?" Mr Potter asked, letting go of Mrs Potter at last. "Jamie!"
Sirius trailed after his friend, who allowed himself to be captured in a one-armed hug.
"And who's this?" asked Mr Potter, turning his smiling blue eyes towards Sirius.
"I brought Sirius back with me, Dad," James told his father. "He'll be staying for a while."
"Wonderful!" beamed Mr Potter, holding out his hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Sirius. We were just saying the other day how Jamie needs to invite his friends over. Call me Joe."
Sirius was speechless as he shook the man's large hand. He was certain that, whatever syllables eventually managed to make their way out of his mouth, "Joe" would not be among them.
Supper was, if anything, even more awkward than tea had been. Mr Potter posed many of the same sorts of questions to Sirius as his wife had done, and when Sirius gave the names of his parents, he could have sworn he saw a slight tightening around the man's eyes.
Whatever Mr Potter might think about Sirius's family, he was utterly cordial towards Sirius himself. Sirius, unable to converse easily with these strange adults, retreated further and further into formality the more flustered he became, not speaking unless asked a direct question, and addressing his hosts as "Sir" and "Ma'am". His own parents, he reflected ironically, would have been quite impressed. James, on the other hand, looked as if he was trying very hard not to laugh.
After supper and another round of treacle tarts, Sirius pled the excuse that he hadn't slept much the previous night -- which was true -- and escaped to the frilly sanctuary of the guest room. There, he collapsed onto the bed with a sigh of relief. A knock on the door made him tense, and James poked his head in.
"You OK, mate?"
"Yeah," Sirius replied, faking a yawn. "Just tired. See you tomorrow."
James hesitated, then shrugged. "All right. G'night."
"Night," echoed Sirius as the door closed.
Sirius was tired, but it wasn't sleep he needed so much as room to breathe, and a chance to sort out exactly why James's family made him so uncomfortable, when they were clearly such nice people.
What it came down to, he finally decided, was that "parents" and "nice" were mutually exclusive terms that would not sit comfortably side by side in his mind. Last year, when he had worried that Remus's parents were abusing him, Sirius had accepted the idea easily. As soon as he had discovered Remus's secret and realised that the Lupins could not possibly be hurting their son, he had felt every bit as awkward around them as he felt around the Potters.
Parents are parents, he thought. They don't act like that and they don't talk like that and they don't ask their kids' friends to call them by their given names.
But apparently some of them did. Last year, he had had to readjust his ideas about Gryffindor House, half-bloods and Muggleborns. If he was ever going to feel at ease in the Potters' home, he would have to get over the belief that adults were to be deferred to when required and avoided when possible, but never liked or trusted in the same way Sirius might with someone of his own age. That was asking a bit more than Sirius was willing to give at the moment.
He briefly considered just going home. He'd be miserable there, but at least he knew where he stood. More than anything, he wished he were back at Hogwarts. He had been happy at school. He had known where he fit. But Hogwarts was more than two months away, and for now, he was stuck in a frilly bedroom in a house full of very nice people whom Sirius did not understand at all. With a sigh, he turned on his side, curling up into a ball of misery.
On the nightstand beside the bed was a worn old teddy bear -- probably a relic of James's childhood -- and a stack of books. Perhaps reading would take his mind off his problems. His hand hesitated over the titles. A few were Wizarding romances of the kind which Sirius felt no self-respecting boy would ever touch. The others appeared to be Muggle novels. He recognised one of the titles: The Three Musketeers. It was one of the books Remus liked. His thumb brushed across the gold lettering on the spine, and he remembered the look on Remus's face the previous afternoon, miserable and defeated. Remus probably hated him now, and Sirius could not really blame him. He picked up the book and dropped it into the nightstand drawer, shutting it firmly out of sight.
Then he picked up the bear and turned over, curling himself around it and wishing that his life were as easy as he had been brought up to believe it would be.