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The Dog You Feed

Chapter Text

“Regulus! Reg, wait! Please!”

Sirius stumbled down a staircase, barely avoiding one of the vanishing steps as he ran. Ahead of him, his brother showed no signs of stopping or even slowing down. Swearing under his breath, Sirius jumped the last two steps, hit the corridor and sprinted.

“Regulus, stop!

The younger Black brother had just reached another set of stairs when Sirius caught a handful of his robes and yanked him back.

“Let go of me!” Regulus snapped and thrashed in his brother’s grip but Sirius was taller and desperation gave him a burst of strength. The corridor and both staircases were blessedly empty. Most of the students were either camped in the library studying for their very last exams, or had escaped to the warm, sunlit grounds. However, Sirius had just learned better than to trust the security of empty spaces.

Still holding tight to Regulus’s robes, he caught sight of a familiar tapestry. Sirius used his free hand to pull the edge of the wall-hanging aside and shoved Regulus through the archway hidden behind it. Regulus staggered a few steps down the hidden passageway before catching himself against the stone wall.

Sirius let the tapestry fall closed behind him, plunging them into darkness before he pulled out his wand and hissed “lumos.” By the light that shone from his wand tip, Sirius found his younger brother glaring at him, full of anger and confusion. Sirius raked a hand through his shoulder-length hair, trying to mask the terror thumping in his chest with agitation.

“Listen, Reg, I know what you think you saw—”

“You were kissing him, Sirius! Snogging him—a boy!” Regulus snarled, thankfully quiet. He had hoped Regulus had only caught a quick glimpse before bolting, something Sirius could pass off as anything other than what it had been.

“It wasn’t what you think…”

Regulus didn’t reply, instead he very pointedly raked his gaze down Sirius from head to toe. It wasn’t until that moment Sirius realized exactly how he must look. His hair was tangled, robes hanging open, shirt untucked and rumpled, tie long forgotten on the floor of that supposedly unused classroom, and the top button of his trousers undone.

“Fuck,” he swore under his breath and tugged his robes closed to hide the rest of the disarray. There was no hiding the swollen look of his lips though, or the love bite he could feel stinging on his neck. Damn Patrick Sutcliffe…who could have guessed a Hufflepuff would be so aggressive? Not that Sirius had minded, at least until his brother had opened the door and caught an eyeful of Sirius’s greatest secret.

“It’s—it was nothing,” Sirius sputtered. “Just…part of a prank.”

Regulus frowned and looked his brother in the eye again. Doubt flashed like steel in those familiar grey eyes. Doubt…and revulsion. Sirius flinched and pulled the edges of his robes tighter together. This was what he’d been afraid of.

After James had found out and been so accepting…so downright supportive, Sirius had dared to dream it might not be the end of the world if more people knew. Now the truth was staring him right in the face, and he realized exactly how much of a delusion those hopes had been.

“It was nothing, Reg.” Sirius repeated, imploring his brother to believe him. “Just another stupid prank.”

Regulus’s frown deepened, but the repulsion in his eyes relaxed just a bit. He wanted to believe, Sirius realized. It was such a relief that Sirius burst out laughing, which seemed to put Regulus even more at ease. Regulus wanted to believe any excuse Sirius could give him, even a flimsy, nonsensical one.

“Just a prank?” Regulus asked uncertainly. Sirius nodded jerkily.

“Just a prank…I swear that’s all it was…” Sirius lied with a shaky smile.

Regulus nodded slowly, still considering. “I…I don’t get the joke…” he said quietly.

Sirius forced his smile wider, forced his hands not to shake. “That’s because you’re not the one being wound-up.” Sirius was almost amazed by how calm, how confident his voice sounded. He certainly didn’t feel it. No, beneath the hastily erected façade, he was panicking, crumbling.

“Don’t worry about it, Reg,” Sirius said. “Just…don’t tell anyone.”

Uncertainty darkened Regulus’s eyes again, but he nodded. “I won’t.”

“Promise?” Sirius hated himself for asking, for all but begging.

“I promise,” Regulus said. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot for a moment, his gaze drifting away from Sirius to the tapestry covered archway behind him. “Can I go now?” He asked.

“Oh—uh, yeah, of course…” Sirius stepped out of the way. “I—I’ll see you on the train then?”

“Yeah…see you…” Regulus said as he brushed past Sirius and shoved his way out of the secret passageway.

The moment he was gone, Sirius’s knees buckled. His wand fell from suddenly limp fingers and clattered against the stone floor, the light spell going out as it rolled away, leaving him in near total darkness.

What had he been thinking? He should have learned his lesson back in February when James had caught him snogging Bartleby Ibbott further up this same passageway. But no, he’d been careless enough to let Sutcliffe stick a hand down his trousers to celebrate getting through their Transfiguration O.W.L. They hadn’t even remembered to lock the damn door.

“Stupid, stupid randy bastard,” he muttered, not sure if he was cursing himself or Sutcliffe.

Now Regulus knew. He’d accepted Sirius’s lies and promised to keep the whole thing a secret, but he knew. Sirius hadn’t admitted his proclivities to anyone except James and a small handful of other boys throughout the school who shared them. He hadn’t even told Remus and Peter, but now his Slytherin little brother, of all people, knew. Regulus was the last person in the entire school that Sirius wanted privy to his secrets, especially that one.

Not that there was anything he could do about it now. He could only hope Regulus would keep his word.

Still in the dark, Sirius pushed away from the wall, though his knees still felt a bit wobbly. He rebuttoned his shirt and trousers in the dark, straightening both as best he could while he debated if it was worth to go back and find his tie. Sutcliffe would be long gone by now, probably praying Regulus hadn’t recognized him by the back of his head. Sirius knew he should find the Hufflepuff boy and apologize, or at least let him know Regulus wouldn’t tell anyone about what he’d seen. In all honesty though, Sirius had no desire to see the other boy again. Not any time soon, at least.

When he was fairly certain he was as decent as he was going to get without a change of clothes and a few charms to hide the love bite, Sirius bent down to feel around for his fallen wand. He shuffled about the dark corridor for several minutes, swearing as he groped blindly for it before he realized it must have rolled out into the main corridor through the narrow gap beneath the bottom of the tapestry.

With one last curse, Sirius pushed back the tapestry and realized he’d been wrong; Regulus wasn’t the last person in Hogwarts Sirius would want to know his secrets.

Standing a few feet in front of him, a foot resting on top of Sirius’s wand, was Severus Snape.

“Lose something, Black?” Snape drawled. The toe of his shoe pressing down on Sirius’s wand.

Sirius ground his teeth together as his eyes flicked between his wand and Snape’s gloating expression. No interaction with the greasy-haired Slytherin could ever be considered pleasant in Sirius opinion, but this one was bound to be especially nasty after yesterday’s events.

True, it had been James who’d done most of the hexing, but Sirius had helped, and he’d laughed at every second of Snape’s humiliation. He didn’t regret it either, though he had no desire to continue the spat right now. He was wandless and still shaken by everything that had happened with Regulus.

Snape’s own wand was in his hand, tapping idly against his leg.

Pride won out over what little good sense Sirius possessed. His heart was still thundering in his chest, and a feral, thoughtless fear was pumping through his veins. Yet, Sirius drew his shoulders back and raised his chin, pulling on a mask of haughty boredom. Attacking always had been his go-to defensive strategy.

“Snivellus, you’re looking especially greasy today,” Sirius said with mock pleasantness. “Is it the heat or an overactive gland of some sort?”

Snape’s lip curled, and his eyes flashed with anger, but he didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, his attention shifted away from Sirius to the tapestry he’d just emerged from behind. Well damn, there went that secret passageway, and it’d been such a convenient way to get to Charms.

“Sneaking around the castle, Black? Planning another of your infantile little pranks, no doubt,” Snape scoffed. Then his eyes were drawn back to Sirius and one eyebrow slid up his greasy forehead. “Or perhaps not…”

Sirius couldn’t help the flush of rage and embarrassment that heated his cheeks as Snape took in his disheveled robes and the bruised love bite on his neck. His heart felt like it had jumped into his throat. He did not want Snape asking questions, not about that, because Snape would not fall for Sirius’s badly constructed lies like Regulus had.

Faster than Sirius could blink, Snape’s wand swept up in an arc and the tapestry behind him was wrenched to the side. The Slytherin frowned at the narrow, empty corridor stretching beyond. He’d been hoping to catch someone else hiding back there, Sirius realized, a smirk growing on his own face at Snape’s look of frustration.

Sirius clicked his tongue in mocking disapproval. “Trying to play Peeping Tom, Snivellus?”

“Just checking to see what sort of slag would lower herself to fornicate with the likes of you in a filthy corridor.”

“Spoken like someone who’s only ever ‘fornicated’ with his wand hand,” Sirius said. He was tempted to make a comment about Lily Evans leaving through the other end of the hidden passageway, but James was just as likely to murder him for that as Snape was.

Snape’s eyes narrowed even as spots of red darkened his cheeks. He leaned forward, putting more weight on the foot still pinning Sirius’s wand to the floor. Sirius tried not to wince as he imagined the wood groaning. Silently, Sirius promised to rain fire and destruction down on Snape’s slimy head if the git damaged his wand.

“Or perhaps it wasn’t a girl you were hiding down there,” Snape said.

Sirius’s heart skipped a beat.

He’s just having a go at you! A thin voice said in Sirius’s head. He only means it as a taunt, a baseless insult!

That rational voice did nothing to quell the sudden maelstrom of fear, anger, and shame Sirius felt rising within his chest, threatening to drown him from the inside out. He tried to keep his expression from betraying him, but Snape was nothing if not observant.

Snape must have noticed some small sign of Sirius’s unexpected unease because he smiled cruelly and pounced. “You and those little friends of yours are always sneaking off, especially Lupin. Perhaps—”

“Fuck off, Snivellus,” Sirius snarled, though his voice came out breathy and thin because he still couldn’t breathe right. There was something wrong with his throat, with his lungs, with every organ inside of him.

The Slytherin boy’s thin smile grew wider. “Touched a nerve there? Is this how you all get out of the castle?” He tilted his head to look down the hidden corridor again. “I’ve seen Lupin crossing the grounds in the evening sometimes…where ever does he go? The forest perhaps? Do you all get up to forbidden things in the Forbidden Forest? Tell me and maybe I’ll give you your wand back.”

Snape had been poking his enormous nose in their business for far too long. James had said as much only last month when they’d caught him lurking close to Gryffindor Tower after lights out. It had been the night of the full moon, just as it was now, and Snape had obviously been waiting for the Marauders, hoping to catch them doing something worth snitching to Filch or a professor.

Remus had already left for the Hospital Wing, and Sirius, James, and Peter had all been hidden beneath James’s invisibility cloak, so Snape had come up empty handed, but James and Sirius had been plotting to teach the git a lesson about prying into their business. Sirius felt dizzy, but he refused to let it show, not in front of Snape. Instead he smiled, slow and vicious, because he had an idea that should scare the piss out of Snape and make him forget all the things he might be thinking about Sirius.

“All right, Snivellus, you’ve got a deal…”

Chapter Text

The night before the end of term, the Gryffindor common room was full of students celebrating their last evening together. Seventh years were saying their goodbyes to friends while the younger ones discussed summer plans. The pleasant comradery was shattered when the portrait hole opened and James Potter stormed into the room with Sirius Black close on his heels. There was nothing unusual about that in and of itself, but the looks on their faces caught the attention of most of the common room before the two of them had made it halfway to the dormitory stairs.

James looked absolutely furious, while Sirius appeared panic-stricken, almost on the verge of tears.

“James, please! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean—I didn’t know!” Sirius pleaded. No one within Gryffindor could ever remember hearing Sirius’s sound like that before, like he was desperate, begging. It brought every eye in the room to the pair just as Sirius caught hold of James’s shoulder and tried to pull him to a stop.

Fury flashed in James’s eyes just before he whirled around and punched his friend in the face.

Sirius went down, stumbling into the back of an overstuffed armchair before falling to floor. The entire room let out a collective gasp.

Breathing heavily, James watched for a moment as Sirius pushed himself up on an elbow and wiped at the blood leaking from his split lip. Their eyes locked for a moment, neither seeming to realize they were surrounded by a room full of their housemates.

“All right,” Sirius said quietly. “I deserved—”

With a wordless roar, James tackled Sirius back to the floor and drew back his fist again.

It only took half a minute before Frank Longbottom and another seventh year hauled James off of Sirius, but in that time he’d managed to make a complete mess out of his supposed best friend. Sirius’s face was a mask of blood. It flowed from a cut across his forehead, his split lip, and a nose that looked like it might be broken.

“Damn it, Potter!” Frank swore, still holding tight to James in case he decided he wasn’t quite finished. “Gryffindor is already in third place for the House Cup because of you lot, do I really have to take more points because of you?”

“Don’t,” Sirius said from the floor, pinching his nose to try and stop the bleeding. “It’s fine, Frank, you don’t have to do anything.”

Frank loosened his grip on James, who wrenched the rest of the way out of his grip and glared fixedly at a wall. The tall, seventh year prefect looked between the two younger boys, trying to decide what to do. Finally, he sighed and glanced down at Sirius, who was starting to pick himself up off the floor and asked, “Do you need to go to the hospital wing, Black?”

“Don’t you dare!” James roared, taking a step forward and raising a fist again. Frank grabbed him around the chest and yanked him back again.

“N-no, I’m fine,” Sirius said. He got to his feet and looked around, seeming to see the room full of people for the first time. Swearing under his breath, Sirius ducked his head, shoulder-length black hair falling forward to hide his face as he dodged around Frank and James and rushed up the dormitory stairs.

“Are you going to go after him again if I let you go?” Frank asked.

“No,” James replied angrily. “I’m done with him.”

Frank released James again, and the bespectacled boy, hands still clenched into fists at his sides, strode straight back out of the portrait hole into the castle beyond. It was nearly curfew, but no one, not even the prefects, dared to try and stop him.

The silence lasted for a few stunned seconds, before every Gryffindor in the room started speaking at once, all exclaiming over what they’d just witnessed. Every one of them trying to guess what could have possibly brought James Potter and Sirius Black—widely thought to be inseparable, all but brothers really—to blows.

No one could have said exactly who suggested it first, but by the next morning, a particular rumor had spread beyond Gryffindor tower through most of the school.

Lily Evans, who had never cared for gossip, didn’t hear the gossip until she was on the platform at Hogsmeade Station, standing in the shadow of the Hogwarts Express’s scarlet steam engine. She hadn’t been in the common room at the time, but Mary and Alice had been, and they’d relayed the entire story to Lily before bed. Lily had just rolled her eyes and refused to join in their speculation about what had caused the rift between the two.

Potter and Black were trouble; it was as simple as that. It seemed inevitable, in Lily’s opinion, that Potter and Black’s mischief would backfire on them. She even felt a certain amount of smug pleasure that it had happened. Potter had been especially obnoxious lately, pretending to flirt with her just to get a rise out of her, and Lily couldn’t forget or forgive the role he’d played in her catastrophic fight with Severus.

Lily had thought she’d seen a few people giving her strange looks over breakfast, but it wasn’t until she was on the platform with Mary that she knew she wasn’t imagining it.

“Why are those Ravenclaws staring at me?” Lily asked, frowning at a small cluster of fourth years standing halfway across the platform. One of them caught her eye and quickly looked away, clearly embarrassed. However, only a second later the girl was huddled closer together with her friends, whispering behind their hands as they all threw barely concealed glances back at Lily.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked. Lily turned away from the Ravenclaws to where Mary was adjusting a strap on her trunk and very pointedly not looking at Lily. Glaring suspiciously at her friend, Lily scanned the crowd of students gathering in front of the Hogwarts Express. She and Mary had arrived early, and most of the students were still disembarking from a long line of horseless carriages, but more than a few of the ones on the platform were definitely eying Lily curiously.

Just then a pair of Slytherins walked past Lily and Mary. The girl, a curly-haired sixth year gave Lily a disgusted sneer, while the boy raised an eyebrow and smirked at her in a way that made Lily feel like she needed a shower. She heard the girl mutter something under her breath but could only make out the words “disgusting,” “mudwallower,” and “Mudblood.”

Lily flinched at the last term. She’d never thought about the slur much, not even when it had occasionally been directed at her over the years. It had always seemed so…tame compared to some of the Muggle insults she knew. Then, less than a week ago someone she’d known and trusted for years had called her a Mudblood. The word had taken on a new sting since then.

“Ignore them, Lily, they’re all idiots,” Mary said. She’d finished fiddling with her trunk and started walking toward the scarlet steam engine again.

Lily couldn’t just ignore it though. “Does this have something to do with Severus the other day?” she asked. Hurt and anger bubbled up in her chest again. Those feelings weren’t only directed toward Severus though; she was also mad at Potter and his friends for starting the whole thing in the first place.

Mary’s expression shifted into an unpleasant mix of distain and satisfaction. Lily knew that Mary had never liked Severus, most of her friends hadn’t. She couldn’t blame Mary for the enmity, not considering what Mulciber, one of Severus’s other “friends,” had done to Mary last year. Severus had insisted it had only been a joke, a laugh…perhaps Lily should have taken that as a warning sign.

Sighing, Mary tugged Lily into the shadow of the steam engine. “All right, just don’t jinx the owl carrying the letter,” Mary said. “It’s got nothing to do with Snape, but…there’s a rumor going around—it’s stupid though, and everyone will have forgotten all about it by the time school starts again.”

“Just tell me,” Lily grumbled. She didn’t even know what sort of rumors could possibly be going around about her. She’d done very little besides bury herself it books and study for her O.W.L.s for the past few months.

Mary bit her lip anxiously. “Alice and I told you about what happened between James and Sirius last night…”

Lily rolled her eyes. That again. If the school was going to be gossiping about anything today, Lily would have thought it would be about that.

“I don’t know how the rumor got started,” Mary said. “And I swear, Lily, I’ve been telling everyone I can that it’s not true, so has Alice, and—”

“Mary, just tell me,” Lily snapped as her friend began to ramble.

“Well…everyone already knows that James has…er, that he fancies you,” Mary said.

“More like he fancies annoying me,” she scoffed. Mary lifted a doubtful eyebrow, but didn’t push. They’d been down this road before, and Lily had no desire to listen to Mary insist that James Potter wasn’t nearly as much of a git as Lily believed him to be. Mary and Alice even believed he was being somewhat sincere when he flirted with her. Lily didn’t buy it though.

“Somehow people have got it into their heads that James hit Sirius because…er…because he caught Sirius and you…” Mary flushed a deep red and didn’t finish her sentence, not that she had to.

Lily felt her face turn even redder than Mary’s, but fury was mixed with her embarrassment. “Can you make sure my trunk gets on the train, Mary?” Lily asked, her voice was almost deceptively calm. Before her friend could even open her mouth to reply, Lily had turned on her heel and was headed for the closest open doorway onto the Hogwarts Express.

Whispers followed her down the train corridor. Luckily, the quiet rage written across her face had people scrambling to get out of her way. This had to be some sort of joke—a horrible, nasty joke—and she was certain she knew exactly who must have started it.

Chapter Text

Remus made sure to arrive at the Hogwarts Express early to claim a compartment near the front of the train. He’d come straight from the hospital wing and trusted Madam Pomfrey’s assurances that his trunk had been packed and would be loaded on the train for him. The only things he had with him were a change of Muggle clothing for when they reached King’s Cross, and a rather oversized book on advanced arithmancy.

Even as the train started to fill up, Remus’s veneer of aggressive studiousness warded off anyone who might have tried to join him. It was the start of summer, and no one wanted to think about schoolwork. Not even Remus wanted to think about it, but complex number charts were preferable to the other thoughts swimming through his head.

The crash of his compartment door being flung open startled Remus enough to make him jump, which, in turn, pulled painfully at a still-healing cut across his ribcage. He sank further behind his book without looking up, silently praying that if he didn’t acknowledge whoever it was they would go away. Mostly, he hoped it wasn’t Sirius. Remus wasn’t in the mood for more groveling and desperate apologies. In two days he’d had enough of those to last a lifetime by now.

It wasn’t Sirius or any of the Marauders though. Remus saw a flash of red hair out of the corner of his eye before the arithmancy book was wrenched out of his hands, bringing him face to face with a furious Lily Evans.

“Where are Potter and Black?” Lily hissed from between clenched teeth.

For a moment Remus was could do nothing more than blink at her flushed, angry face. He’d never seen Lily so mad before, not even after James had dangled Snape upside down last week. For a moment, his heart seized in his chest. Did she know? Had Snape told Lily what had happened in the tunnel beneath the Whomping Willow?

“They’re not here,” Remus replied miserably. If she was this angry and James and Sirius, what must she think of him? Lily, always so very clever, had known Remus was a werewolf since winter of their fourth year. Remus was certain if she had shared a dorm room with him she’d have figure it out with the first few months of first year. She’d sworn to keep his secret, and had never once treated him like a monster or an invalid. He didn’t want to lose that, not on top of everything else.

Lily’s gaze didn’t linger on him though. Her green eyes swept through the carriage, searching for others, even though Remus was very clearly alone. It almost made Remus wonder if she somehow knew about James’s favorite family heirloom. He wouldn’t put it past her.

“Can I have my book back, please?” Remus asked in a small voice, leaning forward and holding out a hand for the heavy tome Lily was holding like a weapon, ready to bash James or Sirius over the head with it. The movement pulled on his wounds again, and he winced. Ever observant, Lily caught the small sign of pain, and the fire in her eyes died down to a smolder as she gave Remus another glance.

He looked like hell, Remus had seen it for himself in the mirror earlier that morning. There were dark circles beneath his eyes, a bruise along one side of his chin, and his complexion was a sickly greenish-grey. There were other wounds as well, a great many of them, scratches and cuts, bruises and even a few bite marks, but they were thankfully hidden beneath his clothes. It had been a very difficult moon. The wolf had come so close to having human prey that when it had been snatched away he had turned the frenzy of bloodlust on himself.

“Sorry, Remus,” Lily said, sounding ashamed as she handed his book back. He could see her pulling up lunar charts in her head, calculating back and realizing the full moon had only been two nights ago. “Was it a bad night this month?”

She didn’t know…

Remus let out a long, shaky breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in. Somehow though, he didn’t feel as relieved as he thought he would. Instead he felt a pang of guilt. He’d nearly killed Lily’s oldest friend a few nights ago, and now she was fretting over him.

“James and Sirius are probably in the very last compartment at the end of the train,” Remus offered, hoping Lily would take the information and go unleash whatever wrath she had on the pair, leaving him alone with his shame.

Instead, she sank down on the seat directly across from him, sympathy overwhelming the last of her anger. That was always the way it was with Lily. She had a temper, but she let go of it easily, especially when confronted with someone else’s pain.

“Are you all right?” She asked.

Remus gave her a small, careful shrug. “As well as can be,” he muttered.

“Why are you up here by yourself? Usually you have those three stooges of yours fussing like mother hens over every move you make this soon after a full moon.”

He looked away, wanting to pull the book back up and hide behind it again. Even now though, he couldn’t bring himself to be so rude to Lily, not when she was only worried about him. “I needed some time alone,” he said, hoping Lily might take the subtle hint.

Luck was hardly with him though, and Lily could be as tenacious as a bulldog. She stayed right where she was and raised one dark red eyebrow, giving him a piercing stare that reminded Remus rather horribly of Professor McGonagall.

Remus’s nervous fingers found a fraying edge along the spine of his book and began picking at it. “Don’t you need to go rain fire and brimstone down on James and Sirius?” He asked.

“Do you want me to?” Lily asked.

Remus turned away. Lily was far too clever by half. She was already putting things together in her head.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Remus replied, knowing it was a pathetic attempt at evasion. He refused to look back at her, but he could feel her shrewd gazed lingering on him. Neither of them seemed to know what to say next, and the silence, which was usually companionable between them, stretched into discomfort. Finally, for a lack of anything better to say, Lily threw herself on the sacrificial pyre.

“So, have you heard about how I supposedly fucked Sirius Black?” Lily asked with forced casualness.

Remus dropped his book and nearly fell off the seat himself. “You WHAT?” He choked.

The half-angry, half-embarrassed flush came back to Lily’s cheeks. “It’s not true, but that’s the rumor going around school. I’m guessing you were still in the hospital wing this morning, that’s probably why you hadn’t heard it yet.”

Remus could only seem to blink at her, utterly stupefied. “How—why would people ever think that?” He sputtered. “You and Sirius! He’d shag a troll before he’d shag you.”

“Thanks,” Lily said dryly. “Good to know where I stand.”

“You’d take the troll too,” Remus added pointedly. Lily frowned, but she didn’t deny it.

“How—” Remus tried again but cut himself off, shaking his head in disbelief. The world had gone completely mad in the past week, he was certain of it.

“From what I can tell the rumor started last night…right after Potter used Black as a punching bag in the middle of the common room. No one seems to know why, so they made up some theories. Lucky me, I somehow got caught in the middle of it.” Lily’s tone left no doubt about how much she despised being involved. That would explain why she was so angry at the two of them. However, that wasn’t the statement that really caught his attention.

Remus frowned. He obviously hadn’t heard this part either. “James hit Sirius?”

“Repeatedly, and Black didn’t fight back.”

Remus closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath. Several different emotions warred through his chest and head. There was some bleak satisfaction in the thought of James beating the piss out of Sirius. It was fleeting though, and it did nothing to dispel the misery that had been threatening to swallow him whole since he’d woken in the hospital wing yesterday morning and Sirius had started begging for forgiveness before Remus even knew what had happened.

“I’m sorry you got dragged into this, Lily. James and Sirius wouldn’t have started that rumor though. It’s not their style, especially since it makes James look bad.” Remus didn’t know why, but even now he felt the urge to defend his friends.

Lily bit her lower lip thoughtfully and nodded. “Once I stopped for a second and thought about it I kind of realized that on my own.” She sounded embarrassed by her own rashness.

“So, do you want to talk about it?” Lily asked softly.

“Talk about what? I wasn’t there for it,” Remus said. He tried to sound nonchalant and failed completely.

“You were in the hospital wing, I know,” Lily said. “And now you’re here…far away from your best friends, which makes me think that whatever happened between Black and Potter is related to why you’re avoiding them.”

Too clever by far, Remus thought testily. He flipped his arithmancy book open to a random page and tried to focus on the page, but the words and numbers blurred and swam. A gentle hand reached out and rested on top of Remus’s scratched and scarred fingers.

“If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine,” Lily said. “But if you do, I’m here.”

She could have gotten the full story out of him easily. Remus felt guilty that she’d inexplicably become involved in this whole disaster. If she pushed him he would have told her everything. That simply wasn’t Lily though. She was the sort of girl who abandoned her righteous anger and pain to comfort a friend, who would probably even stop fighting the rumors circulating about her if she thought it might keep attention away from him.

Despite his fear of what she might think of him if she knew he’d almost mauled Snape, a part of Remus wanted to pour the story out to Lily. He couldn’t bear to talk about it with his other friends, and he didn’t dare tell his parents anything at all for fear they would decide to pull him out of school for his own safety. Lily was the only one he had left.

The decision was taken out of his hands when the compartment door slid open and Mary McDonald entered, followed closely by Alice Fawley, who was leading Frank Longbottom by the hand.

“There you are, Lily!” Mary said. She sounded nervous and looked around the compartment quickly, like she was checking to see if she needed to help Lily hide a body or two. “Everything all right?”

Lily sighed as she turned to her roommates. “I’m pissed, but you’re right, Mary; people will forget all about this by September,” she replied.

“Still though! I almost cast a horn tongue hex at a few girls I heard repeating it, but he stopped me!” Alice grumbled, glowering at her boyfriend. Lily smiled, her petite, round-cheeked roommate looked cherubic, but Alice could be downright savage.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Lily said.

All three greeted Remus happily, and if they wondered why he was far away from his friends and his usual train compartment, they didn’t ask. The five of them spent the next few hours making idle conversation, or, rather, Mary and Lily did most of the conversing. They attempted to include Remus, and he made a few half-hearted efforts to be social, but he often lapsed into clumsy silences. Frank and Alice, realizing this would be their last trip together on the Hogwarts Express, began snogging ferociously, to Mary, Lily, and Remus’s mutual discomfort.

At some point, Remus’s injuries and anxiety caught up to him and he dozed off, waking only when the Hogwarts Express shuddered to a stop at King’s Cross. Nightmares had made his sleep anything but restful. He plastered on a tired smile and said his goodbyes though, wishing Mary and Alice good summers, and shaking Frank’s hand for a more final farewell since Frank was done with school and—provided his N.E.W.T.s came in high enough—off to start Auror training in a few months. Lily threw her arms around him, careful of his injuries, but still holding tight.

When he pulled away, she grabbed his hand and slipped a scrap of parchment into it. There were two phone numbers written on it. “The first one’s my home number,” Lily explained. “The second is for my Great-Aunt Violet’s house in London. I’m going to spend a few weeks there this July with my mum and sister. If you need to talk—if you need anything¬—call me, please.”

Remus pulled her into another hug. “Thank you, Lily,” he whispered. “I will…if I need to.”

She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek when they parted again, much to the giddy shock of several students passing by on the platform. No doubt they were adding another layer to Lily’s new scandalous reputation. “This whole thing really had better blow over by next year, or I won’t stop Alice from hexing people to defend my honor,” Lily huffed. They both smiled at the thought. Their petite, round-cheeked classmate looked cherubic, but Alice was devilishly fierce when it came to defending her friends.

Remus bid Lily a final goodbye as she spotted her parents and her rather sullen-looking sister down the platform. He still hadn’t seen his own parents, but as he turned around, searching for them, Remus did find his friends. James had both hands on Sirius’s shoulders, speaking low and fast. They were too far away for Remus to have any clue what was being said, but James looked troubled. For his part, Sirius looked numb. He was standing unnaturally still, his eyes fixed on the ground. Between strands of his long hair, Remus could see that his face was swollen with bruises.

James really had hit him. It wasn’t that he hadn’t believed Lily, but it was one thing to hear it, and another to see the evidence discoloring Sirius’s aristocratic features. Pity swelled in Remus’s chest, but he forcefully stamped it down again. He was supposed to be angry with Sirius’s reckless, cruel stupidity, and he was angry, but…

James finished whatever he was saying and Sirius nodded but still kept his eyes downcast. Remus could see James frown before he pulled Sirius into a brief but tight hug. When he stepped back he said something else and Sirius nodded again, replying this time. Whatever he said was enough for James to nod in return and finally turn away, leaving Sirius standing on his own in the middle of the swirling crowd of students and their families.

As Remus watched, Sirius lifted his head and turned, his eyes—one of them ringed in shades of black and purple—instantly locked with Remus’s. Remus swallowed the lump that rose in his throat and refused to look away. Something shifted in Sirius’s face and he took a step toward Remus, only for a hand to clamp around his bicep and jerk him backward.

The hand belonged to a stately older woman whose silver-streaked black hair was pulled into a severe bun. She had eyes that were a familiar shade of grey, but that somehow lacked any of the warmth or humor that always sparkled in Sirius’s own. Remus had only seen Sirius’s mother a few times, always on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. He had spoken to her only once, offering a polite greeting that had been met with an upturned nose and condescending silence as Sirius mouthed silent apologies behind her.

Walburga Black’s cold eyes swept across the platform, trying to locate whatever her son had been staring at. Sirius instantly broke eye contact with Remus and turned away. After a moment his mother followed suit, her hand still holding Sirius in an awkward, painful looking grip.

Remus watched as they walked away, joined by Sirius’s younger brother as they neared the Floo exit. He was supposed to be angry with Sirius, but, suddenly, Remus found that felt a troubling pang of worry for the other boy.

Chapter Text

At the start of their second year, James Potter and Sirius Black had claimed the very last compartment on the Hogwarts Express as their own. Since then, they had defended their territory fiercely—usually by pelting anyone who dared sit there with stink pellets and dungbombs. By the end of third year, the Hogwarts student body seemed to have collectively agreed that it was more trouble than it was worth to try and take the compartment back.

James found Sirius already sitting there as the train pulled away from Hogsmeade Station. Sirius had his bruised face pressed against the window and looked like he wanted nothing more than to sink into the wall. When he saw James standing in the doorway, his expression shifted. Now he looked like he wanted to throw himself out the window once the train picked up speed.

Several seconds passed as the two friends stared at each other. Sirius broke first, his head dropping forward, shoulders slumping. “I’ll leave,” he said quietly. There was a part of James that wanted to step out of the compartment doorway and let Sirius go. Never in his life had James been as angry with anyone as he was with Sirius right now.

However, some instinct warned James that if he let Sirius leave now, he would lose his best friend for good. Despite what he’d told Frank the night before, James was not ready to be done with Sirius quite yet. Sirius had already hauled his trunk down from a luggage rack and moved toward the door, but James stood firmly in his way.

“Sit down,” James ordered. Sirius eyed him suspiciously, but obeyed, shoving his trunk back and retreating to his corner by the window again. He watched as James stepped inside. Peter followed a step behind James, chewing his lower lip anxiously as his eyes darted between James and Sirius. Poor Peter, James thought as he shoved his trunk into place. Peter had been the least affected by Sirius’s idiocy, but the shorter boy never knew what to do when his friends were fighting. He’d been clinging to James all morning, barely giving him enough privacy to use the loo, just looking for guidance, for stability.

James chose a seat on the cushioned bench across from Sirius, halfway between the window and the door. Peter sat on the same bench as Sirius, but at the opposite end. It gave him a good view of both James and Sirius as he watched and waited to see what happened next.

Sirius had turned back to the window. His knees were drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around them. The almost fetal position was so unlike him, or rather, it was unlike the image Sirius allowed himself to present in public. Normally, Sirius never so much sat as he lounged, relaxed and carelessly elegant. It was only ever in the privacy of their dorm room, usually with the curtains drawn around one of their beds and silencing spells in place that James had ever seen Sirius physically draw into himself so much.

An hour passed in utter silence. Remus never showed up at their compartment, but James honestly hadn’t expected him to. Peter fidgeted, bit his fingernails, and ate his way through half a dozen stale cauldron cakes he found in his trunk. James tried to play with his stolen Snitch, releasing it and catching it, but his reflexes were off, and he grabbed the golden ball so roughly he bent one of its wings so badly it could only list crookedly to the right afterward. He put the Snitch back in his pocket and sighed. The quiet and the tension were getting to him. James was loud and active by nature. He wanted to be moving, doing something. He wanted to be talking and laughing or playing games with his friends.

Sirius had spent the entire silent hour staring blankly out the window. What little James could see of Sirius’s face was badly swollen motley of black and blue. James had done that. It seemed almost surreal. Sirius had deserved it though.

With that thought anger bubbled up in James’s chest again.

“What the fuck were you thinking, Padfoot?” James blurted out, unable to keep the question in. He hadn’t been ready to listen when Sirius had tried to talk to him yesterday, but now he needed to hear it all, so he could know if this was something he could forgive or not.

Sirius didn’t look at him, just kept staring out the window as they passed along the side of a deep black loch. “At the time, I wasn’t really thinking at all,” Sirius said quietly. “I knew it was a mistake two seconds after I’d told him, but it was too late by then.”

James sighed. “OK, let’s start from the beginning then.”

“Why bother?” Sirius scoffed. It lacked any real scorn though. “What’s left to say?”

Irritation spiked through James, and he slammed a fist down into the bench he was sitting on. It was thickly padded, but sent needles of sharp pain up through knuckles James had bruised against Sirius’s face. In his corner, Peter cringed and began to gnaw on a thumb nail.

“Damn it, Sirius!” James shouted. “I love you like a brother and I am trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here and believe that you didn’t do something so stupid and so cruel on purpose! If that’s not a good enough reason then try this: you almost got me killed too, so I think you owe me an explanation.”

Sirius didn’t even blink at James’s outburst, he just continued to stare out the window. For almost a minute they sat in taut silence. Just when James was convinced Sirius would never speak, he sucked in a long, breath and began. “Right after our Transfiguration O.W.L, I went to meet someone…”

He trailed off, but finally turned away from the window. The look he gave James was pointed. It took him a second to make the connection between Sirius’s words and what he wasn’t saying. He’d gone to meet someone. When he saw the understanding in James’s expression, Sirius turned back to the window and James glanced over at Peter, whose brow was creased with confusion. Aside from the boys he occasionally met with in broom closets and hidden corridors, James was the only one who knew Sirius was gay, and he wasn’t about to come out to Peter right now.

“Hey, Pete? Could you do me a favor?” James asked. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a few Galleons. He tossed them to the anxious, towheaded boy. “I don’t want to wait for the trolley to get all the way back here. Could you go buy us all some snacks?”

It was a sign of exactly how tense things were that Peter, who hated to be left out of anything, nodded and beat a hasty retreat out of the compartment. When the door had closed behind Peter, Sirius took another deep breath and continued. “Neither of us remembered to lock the damn door and…someone came in…”

“Snape?” James’s eyes went wide, but Sirius shook his head.

“Regulus.”

That was almost as bad, if not worse. Most of the wizarding community, including James’s family, didn’t hold strong prejudices against homosexuality, but old Pureblood families like Sirius’s tended to be the exception. There was a deep obsession with breeding and bloodlines in their circles that had no place for men or women who were attracted to their own sex. Sirius didn’t like to talk about it, but from what little he’d said, James knew the Blacks would react badly if they learned their oldest son had no desire or intention to ever marry a good Pureblood girl and give them slightly inbred grandchildren.

“I think I convinced Reg it was part of a prank, or at least convinced him not to tell our parents anything,” Sirius said. Now that he’d started speaking the words seemed to come in a flood. “I was really freaked out though. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking, I could hardly breathe. I dropped my wand, and when I went to get it, fucking Snivellus was standing on it!”

Sirius closed his eyes and pulled his hands through his hair, a habitual sign of anxiety or stress. James could see where this story was going.

“He kept saying things…things that made me think he knew, that he might tell. I couldn’t think straight, James! I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and he was asking about where we all went when we snuck out of the castle and…and I just—I didn’t want to hurt him, James, I swear I didn’t—I just wanted him scared, scared enough he’d never think of spreading rumors or asking questions.”

He exhaled a deep breath and his head fell forward until his forehead rested against his knees and James could barely see the tears that were leaking from the corners of his tightly closed eyes. When he spoke again it was slow and quiet, as though he barely had the energy to finish the story and every word cost him enormous effort.

“I realized what I’d done…how monumentally stupid I’d just been, almost immediately. I…I tried to stop him, but I still didn’t have my wand, and when I grabbed for his robes he hit me with a full body-bind—said it was payback for doing the same to him a few days ago.”

James grimaced. Had he set this entire catastrophe in motion when he’d picked that fight with Snape after their Defense O.W.L.? He’d been bored and wanted to show off, wanted to knock his nemesis down a peg. It all seemed so petty and spiteful now. Sirius had made a terrible, thoughtless choice, but so had James.

“I fell back into the hidden corridor,” Sirius said. “It took hours for the curse to wear off, by the time it did the sun was already down…I should have gone straight to McGonagall or Dumbledore, told them what I’d done, but I went to find you instead…”

James knew everything that had happened after that.

“I’m sorry,” Sirius said. “I never meant to put you or Moony in danger—I didn’t even want Snape to get hurt. I got scared and I panicked…and I’m so sorry…”

Making his decision, James slid down the bench until he was sitting directly across from Sirius. His friend looked up, eyes red and face a rainbow of bruises. Sirius held himself perfectly still, poised as a hunting dog, waiting for James’s judgment and clearly expecting the worst.

“This is going to be difficult to get through, Sirius,” James said honestly. He believed Sirius, believed that he’d made a dumb and malicious mistake, and moreover that he was genuinely remorseful. “Dumbledore may have tricked or blackmailed or…did whatever it was he did to make Snape agree to keep all of this a secret, but Snape’s not going to forget or forgive any of us—”

You saved him though!” Sirius protested. James laughed without any humor.

“And I’m pretty sure he hates me more than ever for it. It’s going to be difficult for Remus to forgive you too. You almost made him a killer—almost made him the monster we’ve been trying to convince him he’s not for the last four years.”

Sirius’s head dropped to his knees again, hair falling forward to hide his face. “I don’t deserve his forgiveness,” Sirius said miserably. “I don’t deserve yours either. You were right last night…”

James closed his eyes and knocked his head back against the compartment wall. Sirius wasn’t the only one who’d said something terrible, wasn’t the only one who’d hurt someone he loved.

After he’d left Sirius bleeding in the common room, James had wandered the castle for several hours. He’d wanted to sneak back into the hospital wing, to be there for Moony, who had looked so pale and hurt against the white sheets of his narrow hospital bed. Remus had asked that they give him some time alone though, and James forced himself to respect that, even if he knew Remus was lying awake somehow blaming himself for everything that had happened.

It had been well after midnight when James finally returned to their dorm room, only to find Sirius still awake, sitting just like he was now. He’d started to apologize, to explain, but James hadn’t wanted to hear it. He was exhausted and angry, and the words had slipped out of his mouth before he could think.

“Your parents would be so fucking proud! You’re just like them now, aren’t you?”

With those two sentences, James had done more damage to Sirius than his fists ever could.

“I didn’t mean it,” James tried to assure him now.

Sirius shrugged without raising his head. “That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Sirius had been struggling to escape his family’s reputation and expectations for the past five years. It had never been easy for him; how could it be for a boy to stand against the weight of centuries of tradition and legacy? He didn’t know what happened when Sirius went home, but he knew it wasn’t good. James knew that every holiday haunted Sirius, and he always returned to Hogwarts with a desperate relief in his eyes.

For years, James had done his best to keep Sirius away from home as much as possible, always inviting Sirius to his house for Christmas or Easter or for weeks during the summer. This summer James wouldn’t be there though, not for the better part of a month. He and his parents were going to visit some of his mum’s cousins in Punjab. If Sirius needed him, he would be too far away to help.

Hitting his head against the wall again, James groaned and wondered how things could possibly get any worse.

That was when Peter burst back into the compartment.

The stocky boy was panting for breath, chocolate frogs and licorice wands spilling from his arms. His eyes were round with shock.

“James!” Peter wheezed. “People are—they’re—they’re—”

James got to his feet and steered Peter onto a bench before he collapsed. Even Sirius seemed to have forgotten his own self-loathing for a minute, watching Peter with concern as the boy struggled to speak.

“What’s wrong, Wormtail?” James asked, taking one of the chocolate frogs Peter had dropped on the floor, unwrapping it and offering it back to Peter.

“Veronica Abbott—she told me—a rumor—”

James and Sirius both froze. Identical looks of horror crossed their faces. Had Snape broken his promise to Dumbledore?

“Remus…” Sirius’s voice sounded strangled when he spoke the other boy’s name.

Peter shook his head though and seemed to get a good breath in, because he managed to string a few more words together. “Not about Remus—about you two and Lily Evans!”

It took some effort, but they finally got the whole sordid story out of Peter. By the end James wanted to hit something again. He’d fancied Lily Evans in a casual way since the end of third year, and his feelings had started to feel a little more…real over the past few months. However, he’d so far managed to botch every attempt to flirt with her, to get her attention, to make her like him. Now this! There was no way the redhead was ever going to look at him with anything but loathing after this.

James was so caught up in his own maelstrom of thoughts that he didn’t notice Sirius’s reaction until the long-haired boy leaned forward and buried his face in his hands with a groan. “She’s going to kill me,” Sirius whispered. He didn’t sound like he was exaggerating at all.

“Evans?” Peter asked. He’d regained enough breath to begin stress eating his way through the armload of sweets he’d brought back.

“My mother,” Sirius replied. He lifted his head and beneath the bruises he’d gone ghostly pale.

James cursed himself for not having thought of that. In the eyes of Sirius’s bigoted parents, their son shagging a Muggle-born girl was almost as bad as him shagging other boys. He reached across the space between them and laid a hand on Sirius’s arm. The other boy recoiled and began to pull into himself again, shoulders hunching over.

“It’s all right, Padfoot, she doesn’t know—Pete, how widespread would you say this rumor is?” James asked.

Peter gulped down a mouthful of chocolate. “Pretty bad. A whole lot of people stopped me asking if it was true, or wanting details. Everyone had a slightly different story, but they were all variations of the same thing.”

Sirius swore beneath his breath and ran his hands through his hair, tugging at it almost violently. “Regulus will have heard it…”

“Talk to him,” James said quickly. “You already convinced him…of one thing. You can convince him this isn’t true either.”

“And if I can’t?”

“You can!” James assured him. “If—if he does tell though, tell them it’s not true, swear to it, make an oath or vow if you have to! You can make them believe you, Sirius!”

“That’s extreme, Prongs!” Peter squeaked, looking appalled at the idea. “What if he—”

“Not now, Wormtail!” James interjected. He couldn’t explain to Peter that Sirius could easily make such a promise, even a magically binding one, since he was never going to want shag any girl, Muggle-born or otherwise. Peter instantly stopped speaking. He looked chagrined at being shut down, but James didn’t have the time to worry about that now, because Sirius’s breath was coming fast and shallow and his eyes were wide and wild.

The rest of the train ride was a miserable blur. A few poor souls were either brave or stupid enough to come and ask if the rumors where true. All of them left jinxed or hexed. James and Peter tried to talk about Quidditch or Bertie Bott’s flavors, or other banal things, but they couldn’t even keep up a conversation between themselves, let alone draw Sirius into one. The closer and closer they drew to London the more miserable Sirius grew.

It wasn’t until they were off the train and Peter had already bid them nervous goodbyes, promising to write, that Sirius spoke his first words in hours. “Maybe it’s better this way,” he said, glancing around the platform. More than a few people were throwing looks toward the pair of them.

“What?” James asked, startled.

“Maybe it’s better this way,” Sirius repeated. For the first time in days a corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. “If people are running their mouths off about some imaginary love triangle between you, me, and Evans they won’t go looking for answers, and they won’t find anything resembling the truth. They won’t look in Remus’s direction. Like a decoy…it’s not a bad plan, really.”

“What about your parents?” James asked. He didn’t trust the smile on Sirius’s battered face. He was pretty sure people went to the gallows wearing smiles like that one. “You’re not worried about them anymore?”

Sirius shrugged. “Better this than the truth, than any part of the truth.”

A shiver went down James’s spine. He stepped forward and grabbed his friend by the shoulders. “You don’t have to go back,” James said quickly, jumping on the sudden, impulsive thought. “You can come home with me, we can make it work—my mum and dad can make it work, make your parents agree to it—and you turn seventeen in November, and then you’ll never have to go back again. I don’t have to go to India with my parents—or you could come with us. I know they wouldn’t mind, my parents love you. If you’re worried—if you’re afraid—please don’t go back there, Sirius.”

The smile had fallen from Sirius’s face while James spoke and he’d gone almost eerily still beneath the tight grip of James’s hands. He didn’t look at James, instead he stared at the ground.

Sirius nodded, but James knew he wasn’t agreeing the offer of refuge in the Potter household. James could read the grim acceptance and determination on his friend’s downturned face. Sirius didn’t have to say the words for James to know what he was thinking. It was a nice thought, but they both knew it wouldn’t work. Whether his parents ever heard the rumor about Sirius and Lily Evans or not, Sirius was already in deep trouble for nearly being expelled. The Blacks would never allow their wayward son to spend the entire summer hiding with James’s family. They wouldn’t allow him to escape punishment.

James threw his arms around his best friend, pulling him into a hug. He hated that Sirius stood rigidly still within his arms, not hugging him back. “Promise me something,” James said when he let go. “Promise me you’ll just keep your head down. Don’t pick fights or annoy them on purpose, just lay low, at least until I get back from India, please, Padfoot?”

He nearly sagged with relief when Sirius nodded. “I promise,” Sirius said so quietly his words were almost lost beneath the din of the platform. “Now go and have a good summer—I can hear your mum calling and I don’t want her asking about the bruises.”

James stepped back reluctantly. He hadn’t heard his mother’s voice calling his name until Sirius mentioned it, but now he could. Selfishly, he didn’t want his parents to see the bruises on Sirius’s face either. He didn’t want to have to explain any part of what had happened in the last two days, and neither did Sirius.

Before the sound of his mother’s voice could draw any closer, James turned away and started toward her. He threw one last look over his shoulder, and nearly stopped in his tracks as he saw Sirius’s mother seize him by the arm. It was too late to do anything now. Walking away from his best friend was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do.

Chapter Text

Sirius barely had time to step out of the fireplace before his mother’s long fingernails sank into his shoulder and dragged him into the drawing room. He braced himself for a backhanded slap, for the slice of her heavy rings across his cheek. What was one more bruise? He was already wearing the marks of James’s anger, why not his mother’s as well?

Regulus was already gone, fleeing the storm both boys had known was coming since their mother had found Sirius on the train platform. His little brother always had been the one with a functioning sense of self-preservation. Sirius wouldn’t have fled his mother’s wrath even if he could have though. I deserve it, he told himself, just like he’d told himself as James hit him, as McGonagall lectured him, as Remus turned away from his apologies. His temper and a moment of panic over his own secret had nearly killed three people, two of whom he loved far more than he valued his own life. He deserved all the hate, all the pain.

“—disgrace to your noble ancestors!” Walburga howled. Sirius realized he’d missed the first part of her rant. Not that it mattered; he’d heard it all enough times he could almost predict the next insult she’d spew. Blood traitor, he guessed. “Shame of my flesh—” Walburga screeched. That was a new one. “—nearly expelled! The embarrassment you’ve caused this family!”

Sirius bowed his head and stared at the familiar dark wooden floorboards beneath his feet. James might have regretted the words he’d said to Sirius the night before, but they had been true. If his mother knew what he’d actually done, she wouldn’t be half so angry. She might even be proud that he’d endangered the lives of a blood traitor, a half-blood, and werewolf. His parents would never know though. Dumbledore’s letter had been intentionally vague to protect Remus, and Sirius would never ever tell them. Let them think what they would, it didn’t matter in the end.

Walburga was winding down, panting heavily through shouts of “Miserable child!” and “Vile disappointment!” She was getting old, her stamina fading. Sirius could remember when she could yell for hours straight.

He kept his eyes downcast, but he saw her hand twitch in his periphery vision. She wanted to hit him, he could recognize the signs. His mother’s fingers, with their gaudy, sharp-edged rings, twitched again, but stayed by her side. For some inexplicable reason, Walburga was restraining herself. The realization caught Sirius so off-guard he was still pondering it when the fingers of his mother’s other hand caught hold of his chin and raised his head none too gently.

He had his mother’s eyes. Sirius hated that. It wasn’t just that they shared the same shade of pewter grey irises; Sirius could recognize the anger, the rashness, the capacity for cruelty he could see in his mother’s eyes when he looked in the mirror sometimes.

“Look at me,” Walburga demanded. Her fingers tightened around his jaw when Sirius tried to turn away. Sirius grimaced but obeyed. That seemed to surprise her. She was used to his resistance, to him shouting back and fighting her at every turn. Strangely, his sudden compliance didn’t seem to make her happy. Her familiar eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Sirius couldn’t help but flinch when his mother raised her wand and pointed it at his face, but her grip tightened again, holding him still as she hissed a spell. The pain around Sirius’s swollen eye faded, and when he blinked he was surprised to find the eye opened all the way again. Walburga repeated the spell three more times before releasing her son. Sirius staggered and caught sight of his reflection in a mirror on the far side of the drawing room.

His mother had healed the cuts and bruises across his face. Every single one of them.

He couldn’t remember her ever healing him before, not even when he was a small child crying over a scraped knee.

“We are expecting guests for dinner tonight,” Walburga said tightly. “Your presence is required, and your father and I expect you to behave in a manner befitting your place in this family.”

Sirius nodded mechanically and stared back down at the floor, unwilling to look at either his mother or himself. He’d refused all offers from friends and teachers alike to heal his face before this, believing the pain and the bruises were part of his punishment, another thing he deserved. He hated his mother just a little bit more for taking that away from him. She hadn’t even done it to spare him the pain, rather so he wouldn’t look like a mess in front of her guests.

A tug on his hair brought him back to reality once more. “—have to cut this,” his mother was muttering, a lock of Sirius’s shoulder-length black hair wrapped around her fingers. Instinctively, Sirius jerked back. Pain flared along his scalp when his mother did not let go of his hair.

“No,” Sirius said. His voice sounded quiet, broken. It shouldn’t matter, it was only hair, but somehow it did. Sirius had been growing it out all year. He liked the weight of it, the way it made him look. It was important. It was part of him, and the thought of her cutting it, taking it away from him, made him feel sick.

Walburga’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

Remembering his promise to James, Sirius swallowed his pride and pleaded. “Please don’t,” he said. “I promise I’ll behave tonight if you don’t cut it!”

“We’ll see,” his mother said. She let go of his hair, and Sirius took a hasty step back, putting himself out of the reach of her hands, if not her wand. “I expect you to be downstairs precisely at seven o’clock wearing proper dinner attire.”

Sirius nodded meekly and hurried from the room when she gave a dismissive flick of her hand.

By the time he reached his bedroom on the top floor, Sirius was exhausted. He had barely slept in two days, barely eaten either, and all of it seemed to hit him at once. Someone might as well have hit him with a Jelly-Legs Curse his knees were wobbling so badly as he pushed open the door to his room.

The bedroom was familiar, but even with its Gryffindor banner and Muggle posters it was not a comforting place. It wasn’t the sanctuary that his dorm at Hogwarts was, at best his bedroom was a hiding place, and a poor one at that since everyone from his parents to the blasted house elf knew exactly where to find him and the meager lock on the door could do nothing to keep them out.

Outside Number Twelve Grimmauld Place it was summer, full of warmth and sunlight, but inside, even on the top floor, it was perpetually gloomy and cold. Every breath of the clammy air felt heavy in Sirius’s lungs, and even with the heavy velvet curtains open the light that came through his tall window was thin and watery, leaving the room dim and dismal. Normally, Sirius hated it, but now he found that it suited his mood. He wanted to climb into bed, bury himself beneath a pile of blankets and heavy down duvets, and sleep for hours and hours, possibly for days on end.

That wasn’t an option though. He’d promised his mother he would attend her dinner and behave. If he failed to do either of those things perfectly he had no doubt she would curse the hair right off his head and probably do worse just for spite. Usually Sirius fought his parents tooth and nail on things like dull, toffee-nosed dinners with their wretched Pureblood acquaintances—acquaintances, not friends, his parents wouldn’t lower themselves enough to have actual friends—no matter the consequences. Right now, even if he hadn’t promised James he would keep his head down, Sirius didn’t have the will to struggle. The most offensive thing he could envision doing that evening was accidentally falling asleep with his face in the pudding.

Sirius sat on the edge of the bed and was evaluating whether he could chance a nap before dinner when a quiet knock echoed through the door. He knew exactly who it was, there was only one person who would bother to knock rather than barge straight into his room. Still, when Sirius didn’t move to open the door or call an invitation, Regulus opened the door and stepped gingerly over the threshold.

Regulus looked around the room in distaste, but Sirius noted that his brother’s gaze seemed to linger on the Muggle posters of scantily clad women. Sirius had put them up when he was fourteen, back when he was still trying to convince himself that he was—or at least that one day he would be—attracted to women. It had also had the bonus of nearly shocking his mother to death, especially when she realized she couldn’t remove them thanks to the permanent sticking charms Sirius had used.

Sirius regretted the posters now, of course. He’d given up believing he would somehow wake up straight one morning; for the most part he’d even given up wanting that to happen. However, he wouldn’t have taken the posters down even if he could have reversed the permanent sticking charm. To do so would be admitting defeat to his parents, and possibly admitting something else to Regulus now. Besides, he always enjoyed the pink blush that crept up over his little brother’s cheeks at the sight of so much female flesh.

“What do you want, Reg?” Sirius asked. He knew he needed to talk to Regulus, to convince him the rumors he’d no doubt heard on the train weren’t true, or at least to convince him not to share them with their parents. Yet, he just wanted his brother gone, just wanted to be alone and asleep.

Regulus’s blush deepened. “I-I just wanted to see if you were all right.”

“I’m fine,” Sirius said without putting even the slightest effort into making the lie sound convincing.

“Mum healed you,” Regulus pointed out.

Sirius only nodded, and they lapsed into silence again. Regulus shifted uneasily in the doorway and his eyes drifted back to the posters.

“Sirius,” he said when he finally gathered the courage to speak again. Regulus kept his voice low and glanced over his shoulder, pausing to close the bedroom door. The walls had ears in their house, or at least Kreacher had an enormous pair of them that tended to pick up far more than they should. “I heard something on the train home—”

Sirius sighed as he let himself flop back onto the bed. There it was then.

“It’s not true,” Sirius told his brother. "I don't have the slightest interest in Lily Evans. Never have, and I never will."

He could hear Regulus’s shoes scuff lightly against the floor as he moved into the room. “Why did Potter hit you then? Or is that not true either?”

It was a test, a stupid little Slytherin mind game to see if Sirius was going to lie to him about something they both knew was true. Half of Gryffindor had seen James thrash Sirius, there was no pretending it hadn’t happened.

“It’s nothing, Reg,” Sirius said. “We had a fight, but it wasn’t about Evans or any other girl.”

“Then what—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sirius said sharply, dredging up the strength to push up onto his elbows so he could see what his brother was doing.

“If you say so,” Regulus replied with a shrug. He had moved to stand in front of the window, squinting through the age-warped glass at the little garden square across the street. “How did your prank go?” Regulus asked.

For a moment Sirius’s heart stopped. Had Snape told? Dumbledore had sworn he wouldn’t, but Sirius should have known better than to trust the old bastard and—

Oh.

Right…

That wasn’t the prank Regulus was referring to. He was asking about the prank Sirius had sworn he was playing on Patrick Sutcliffe, a prank that somehow involved Sirius kissing the other boy.

“It…it failed,” Sirius said hesitantly. He wasn’t sure if that was the right answer, but he couldn’t think of a story to account for a successful prank.

Regulus’s frown was lit by the pale sunlight that filtered through the grimy window. Sirius couldn’t read the emotion behind his brother’s scowl. Once upon a time, he’d known the meaning behind every tiny twitch Regulus made. It had been how he’d protected his little brother from their mother’s wild mood swings. They’d grown so far apart in the past five years though that most of the time they felt more like strangers than brothers.

“I’m tired, Regulus,” Sirius said with a sigh. “You’ve seen that I’m all right, now do you actually need anything or can I take a nap before Mum’s horrible dinner party?”

“It won’t be so bad,” Regulus offered, ignoring Sirius’s tacit request to be left alone. “Mum told me she invited the Rowles. I know Stheno and Euryale from school.”

Right, Slytherins of course. “Which is the one that looks like a lizard?”

“That’s not nice, Sirius,” Regulus chided. “Euryale had a bad case of Dragon Pox when she was nine. She can’t help the pockmarks, and she’s actually quite nice.”

Closing his eyes, Sirius cast his thoughts back to school. He could vaguely remember Euryale Rowle, who was the same age as Regulus, and it was not a flattering picture, even if he discounted the lingering greenish scars across her skin. “Yes, she’s so nice she hit Annabelle McMillan with an Ear-shriveling Curse so bad she was deaf for two weeks.”

Regulus was quiet for so long Sirius had started to drift off when his brother’s quiet voice jarred him awake. “You’ve done worse to people,” Regulus said tetchily.

Sirius couldn’t stop the bark of bleak laughter that slipped out of his throat. His brother didn’t even know the half of it. What would Regulus think if he knew the entire truth? Sirius recalled the look of mingled confusion and disgust on Regulus’s face in that corridor behind the tapestry and thought that seemed about right.

“Well, I’m not a nice person either,” Sirius replied.

Chapter Text

“Your friend is lurking out by the gate again.”

Lily’s brow wrinkled in confusion as she looked up from her half-packed suitcase at her older sister. Petunia stood in the doorway, arms crossed over her chest and a sneer on her face. It wasn’t until she saw her sister’s very particular look of disdain that Lily realized who she was talking about. Not even a month since they’d fought and she’d already stopped including Severus when counting her friends.

“If he’s bothering you, tell him to go away,” Lily said as she went back to arranging blouses and t-shirts in the suitcase. She’d been trying for indifference, but the words came out bitter and frosty. Glancing up through her fringe, Lily saw Petunia’s eyes narrow suspiciously.

“I did,” Petunia sniffed, “but he insists on speaking to you. He says it’s about your school.” Their mother had lectured Petunia the other day for calling Lily a freak—again¬—so instead, Petunia was working to inject as much disgust and scorn into any word related to magic. Lily turned to grab a skirt from the wardrobe so Petunia wouldn’t see her roll her eyes, or see the flash of pain that shot across her face. So many years and somehow her sister still had the ability to cut her with a single snide word.

“Severus is perfectly capable of doing his summer homework all on his own, and there’s nothing else I could possibly have to talk to him about,” Lily replied.

She looked up and found Petunia staring at her with a puzzled expression. Lily wasn’t sure she liked it any better than her sister’s sneers and scowls. It surprised her even more when Petunia uncrossed her arms and her frown softened. “You’re fighting with him, aren’t you?”

Lily shrugged nonchalantly, though she shut her suitcase with far more force than necessary.

Petunia didn’t go away like Lily had thought she would. She continued to stand in the doorway, looking at Lily like she didn’t quite know what to do. Lily met her sister’s eyes, and for the first time in over a year, she felt a genuine connection. Suddenly, Lily wanted to run to her big sister and tell her everything, just like they used to. She wanted to forget the years of ever creeping hostility that had been slowly but surely dividing them.

Tears welled in her eyes, but Lily blinked them back and turned away from Petunia. She couldn’t burden her sister with all of her worries. She couldn’t even fully explain her fight with Severus without delving into the rising tension and violence sweeping through the wizarding community. Petunia already resented and feared magic, what would she think if she knew it was far more dangerous than Lily had ever let on? That Lily, simply by being a Muggle-born witch, put her family in danger. Attacks on Muggles, especially those related to Muggle-borns were on the rise, according to the Daily Prophet. If Petunia knew the truth it would sever the last fraying bonds between the two of them, and Lily wasn’t quite ready to lose her sister completely.

“It’s nothing,” Lily lied. “He called me nasty name, that’s all. I don’t want to hear him apologize again.”

Petunia huffed. “Well, even if you don’t want to talk to him, you’re going to have to go tell him that in person, because he looks ready to spend the night out by the gate. What would the neighbors think?”

Lily sighed but nodded. If she didn’t go out and see him Severus probably would camp outside her house, just like he’d threatened to do back at school right after their fight. She couldn’t wait for tomorrow when she’d be on a train down to London with her mother and Petunia. Flat hunting for Petunia sounded like a nightmare, but at least she would have ten days away from Cokeworth, away from Severus lingering and ambushing her with increasingly melodramatic pleas for forgiveness.

She left her room and headed downstairs. In the fading light of evening she could see Severus leaning against the garden fence, staring at the ground as he toed at a tuft of grass. He looked miserable, especially back in mismatched Muggle clothing. The coat he wore despite the warm weather was the same one he’d been wearing when she first met him at eleven years old. He’d finally grown into it, but it had grown increasingly shabby from years of wear. Lily felt a familiar flicker of compassion in her chest at the sight of him, dejected and threadbare, but she smothered it quickly. She had let her sympathy and affection for Severus cloud her thinking too many times, forgiving or laughing off things she should have taken more seriously.

Still, she opened the door and stepped outside, determined to make this the last time she had this conversation with her old friend. Severus’s head shot up at the sound, his black hair falling in front of his face and half masking his suddenly hopeful expression.

“Lily!” He said her name with a great sigh of relief and hopped the short garden fence to stand before her. A small smile flashed across his face, but it faltered when Lily took half a step back and crossed her arms over her chest, mimicking Petunia’s stance. Severus dropped his head to stare down at his shoes again, trying to hide his hurt behind the curtains of his hair.

“What are you doing here, Severus?” Lily asked. Her voice sounded tired, and all of the sudden she felt tired.

“I…I wanted to talk to you,” he said, suddenly hesitant. “I haven’t talked to you all summer and…and I heard—”

Anger boiled through Lily’s veins in an instant and she felt heat rise in her cheeks. “If you repeat that horrible rumor I swear I’ll hex you now and worry about getting expelled later!” She snapped.

“No!” Severus said quickly. “I know that’s not true! I told everyone I could on the train ride home that you would never—”

“Don’t! Just, don’t finish that sentence,” Lily said with a wince. Severus closed his mouth instantly. She couldn’t help but notice that despite his words, he still looked relieved to hear her denial out loud.

“I was just going to say that I know you would never give the time of day to someone as...as vile as Black…or Potter.” His eyes had taken on a new, feverish light, one that made Lily want to recoil. Hate, she recognized. It wasn’t the childish animosity she’d always seen displayed by both sides of Severus and the Marauders in the past. Severus genuinely hated them now. It twisted his face, stripping away the familiar lines and angles to expose something strange and frightening.

Oblivious to Lily’s discomfort, Severus continued to speak. “I know what Potter and Black were really fighting about anyway,” he said, somehow managing to exude both loathing and smugness.

“You do?” The words were out of Lily’s mouth before she could stop them, and she nearly clapped a hand over her mouth in horror as soon as she spoke. She didn’t know exactly what had happened, but her conversation with Remus on the train had led her to believe the fight between Potter and Black had something to do with Remus or his condition. If that was the case and Severus knew the truth…

Oh no! Remus!

“Who have you told?” Lily demanded. If Severus had let Remus’s secret loose the werewolf could be in trouble with the school, or even in real danger from some of the Slytherin brutes Severus called friends.

Confusion wrinkled Severus’s brow. “Told? I can’t tell anyone, Dumbledore—” Then it clicked and his jaw dropped. “You know!” He gasped. “You know about Lupin—that monster!

“Don’t you dare call him that!” Lily retorted, uncomfortably aware that both of their voices were getting louder. She wouldn’t put it past Petunia to be listening from just inside the house. Neither did she want her parents to hear and come out to see what was wrong.

“You don’t understand how dangerous he is, Lily,” Severus insisted. He reached out for her. She was sure he’d meant to take her hand, but she moved and he wrapped his fingers around her wrist instead, gripping tight enough it almost hurt. “You need to stay away from him and his friends!

Lily tore her arm out of his grasp and took a step back. Her face felt like it was on fire with anger and her eyes narrowed dangerously. How dare he!

In the back of her mind she remembered a similar incident earlier in the year. Severus hadn’t grabbed her then, but he’d spoken like he had some say, some right to tell her what to do. That conversation had been about Potter and his friends as well. After a sharp flash of anger she’d mostly forgotten about it since Severus had been trying to stop her from getting involved with James Potter, something she found repugnant all on her own. This was different though.

“You have no right—Remus is my friend!” Lily snapped. “I would never abandon him because of something he can’t control.”

Severus grimaced, realizing he’d crossed a line. “I thought I was your friend too?” He said, unable to keep the indignation out of his voice. “Your best friend. I’m just trying to look out for you, Lily, trying to keep you safe.”

The fire of Lily’s anger still burned, but something cold and stony rose up beside it. “If you’re so worried about my safety maybe you should look more carefully at your friends rather than mine.”

“Is this about…You’re still mad about…” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word or admit what he’d done. “I’m so sorry, Lily! You don’t know how sorry I am—I never meant to say it, to call you that! I’ll apologize a hundred times—a thousand—if that’s what it takes to make you believe me!”

“I already believe you,” Lily said. She said the words so quietly Severus nearly spoke right over the top of them, only just skidding to a halt. A smile bloomed across his face and his shoulders straightened as he looked up at her.

“You do?” He asked, not quite sounding like he dared to believe it, especially as the unyielding expression hadn’t left Lily’s face.

She nodded and brushed her hair back behind her ear. “I do. I believe you’re sorry and that you never meant to call me a Mudblood…but what about all the others?”

She’d asked him this same question that night outside of the portrait hole, but the anger and hurt had been too fresh. When he’d struggled to give her an answer, Lily had turned her back on him and left. Now she felt calm enough, cold enough to stand on the front step and wait.

“I…I don’t—” Severus sputtered. She waited, but when no other words seemed to be forthcoming, Lily took a step forward and held his dark eyes.

“What about Mary McDonald, Severus? She’s my friend, is she a Mudblood? How about Dirk Cresswell from Slug Club? Agatha Wrightwood, the Hufflepuff prefect, and her little first year sister? What about all the other people exactly like me at school and beyond? I know you’ve called other people Mudblood and all sorts of nasty names; are you sorry for what you did to them?”

This time he didn’t even try to speak, didn’t protest or even try to defend himself.

Lily squeezed her eyelids shut to hold back the tears stinging her eyes. “I can’t change what I am, Severus. No Muggle-born can, just like no Muggle can. You have been my friend, Sev—my best friend—for years and that means so much to me, but I refuse to be the exception to a despicable rule. Not for you or anyone else. If you want to keep being my friend you’re going to have to find room in your heart for all the other people just like me.”

Severus hung his head, his hair hiding his face from her. “Lily, you don’t understand…you don’t know what I know…don’t know what it’s like out there.”

“I have a fairly good idea,” Lily retorted, crossing her arms over her chest again, although this time it felt more like a gesture of self-comfort than hostility. “I may not hear the reports straight from the mouths of will-be Death Eaters like Avery and Mulciber, but I can read the Prophet. Just last week three Muggles were murdered, and a shop owned by a Muggle-born witch was burned to the ground. I know enough, Severus.”

“Then you know how dangerous it is out there, Lily,” Severus cajoled. “I only want to look out for you, to protect you…”

Lily let a bitter laugh slip out. “And how do you propose to do that, Severus? Do you think you can convince You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters to spare your favorite Mudblood if you cozy up to them…if you…if you join them?”

She’d meant the last bit as an insult, but a twitch along Severus’s jaw revealed she’d hit closer to the truth than she’d been aiming for. It felt like a slap across the face, and this time Lily couldn’t stop the tears from falling.

“This isn’t a game, Lily,” Severus snapped back. “People are dying, and it’s only going to get worse.”

“I won’t turn my back on my fellow Muggle-borns,” Lily said, lifting her chin defiantly. “I’ll fight for them, and for myself, to keep all of us safe. I’d rather I didn’t have to fight you to do it, Sev, because you really have been my best friend, but…well, I guess that’s up to you.”

Pushing his hair back, Severus looked up at her like he didn’t quite recognize the girl standing before him. It broke Lily’s heart that she felt the same way about him right now. They’d been so close for so long…He was the very first person to accept the parts of her that other people had always scolded or scoffed at. He’d made magic real for her.

“Lily…” He said her name like a plea, but that was all he said. He couldn’t even bear to look her in the eye any longer.

Lily wiped away her tears before turning away. As she opened the front door though, Lily paused and looked back to find Severus watching her like she’d just torn him to shreds, heart and soul. She gave him a wistful smile. “Let me know if you change your mind, Sev. I’ll always be here if you do.”

Chapter Text

There was a red slash high on Sirius’s right cheek. He stared at it in the mirror and raised a hand to gingerly touch the mark. The bruising around it was finally fading, but the cut itself was still open and angry. He winced as his fingertips made contact. Almost a week later and it still hurt.

Over his shoulder, Sirius saw the door open and his brother slip inside. Regulus closed the door quickly and frowned at the sight before him.

“Why aren’t you dressed? The Selwyns will be here soon,” Regulus asked. He sounded fussy, more like a mother hen than their actual mother ever had. The thought made Sirius smirk, which only deepened Regulus’s disapproval.

Still smiling, Sirius looked his reflection over. He was still in nothing but a pair of Y-fronts. The heavy black dress robes Kreacher had set out for him were still hanging on a valet stand alongside a valet tray bearing an ostentatious silver and jet signet ring, a matching set of cufflinks, and an equally ornate pair of silver scissors. Sirius rolled his eyes at the lot of it.

The scissors were meant as a threat, a less than subtle reminder of the conversation Sirius had had with his mother the first day back from school. Sirius had followed through on his end of the bargain that evening, and thus far Walburga had left his hair as it was. However, she’d trotted the same threat out so many times since then that Sirius was half tempted to grab the scissors and just get it over with himself. Besides, the stakes had been raised far beyond anything as petty as the length of Sirius’s hair. Now, Sirius and his parents were waging a war over the rest of his life.

“I thought I might go down to dinner like this,” Sirius drawled. “Might as well look the part Mother and Father want me to play, show the buyers what they’re paying for.”

He twisted and posed in front of the mirror like he was admiring himself. In truth, Sirius was checking to make sure the rest of his bruises were healing better than the cut on his cheek. There were a few nasty ones on his back from where he’d collided rather violently with the wardrobe. They were fading naturally though, and only twinged a little when he moved.

Even without the bruises there wasn’t much to admire right now. Weeks of confinement within the dark walls of Grimmauld Place had leached away what little color Sirius’s naturally fair skin had had to begin with, leaving him looking sallow where he wasn’t covered in a rainbow of bruising. The lack of activity, stress, and an irregular meal schedule had begun to take their toll as well. Sirius had lost weight and muscle to the point where his ribs were beginning to show.

Some prize he was right now. Of course, his parents were peddling his surname, his blood status, and the fortune he was set to inherit, not his pretty face. That seemed to be a universal truth given some of the tragically malformed young women they’d been parading in front of him that summer. His mother obviously cared more about her theoretical grandchildren having pure blood than she did about them having the proper number of fingers and toes.

“Stop being dramatic,” Regulus chided, echoing their father’s words if not Orion’s icily aloof tone.

Turning away from the mirror, Sirius glowered at his little brother. “Easy for you to say now, just wait until it’s you they’re trying to sell off to some toad-faced second cousin once removed. I give it until this time next year before they try and put you out to stud too.”

Sirius took a nasty sort of pleasure in the way his baby brother flushed pink around the high collar of his dress robes. Seemingly against his will, Regulus’s eyes drifted to the Muggle posters on the walls again. His blush deepened until he looked like a badly transfigured tomato.

“Stop saying things like that,” Regulus said. “It’s not like that…it’s just marriage.”

“Just marriage,” Sirius scoffed. “Not like that’s a binding, life-long commitment, eh?” Especially the way the old Pure-blood families practiced it, taking the “until death do us part” bit of the wedding vows very seriously. Divorce was a rare and scandalous thing among the Sacred Twenty-Eight, one that usually ended in curses, duels, and at least one death.

Better to avoid that trap in the first place, because if those iron jaws caught him, Sirius was pretty sure he would chew own his foot off to get out of it. Luckily, Sirius was very good at pissing people off. If he couldn’t dissuade his parents from forcing an arranged marriage down his throat he was fairly confident he could drive off any would-be Mrs. Sirius Blacks.

The reflection in the mirror smiled darkly. He definitely had his mother’s eyes tonight. Rage and madness burned behind the steely grey irises. Sirius suddenly hoped the cut across his cheek would leave a scar. Walburga would see it every time she looked at him, and he would be reminded of how much he hated her every time he looked in the mirror. Maybe it would even be a good conversation starter tonight at dinner. “Oh this dreadful gash? Yes, mumsy dearest gave it to me when she got a little cranky. Bet you can’t wait for her to be your mother-in-law, eh, darling?”

Regulus must have recognized some hint of malevolent mischief in his brother’s face, because he winced. “Whatever you’re thinking, Sirius, don’t do it. Mum and dad are not in the mood tonight. Not after the way you behaved with Ursula Bulstrode the other day.” Regulus sighed. “Can’t you just stay quiet and keep your head down for once?”

Sirius barked out a laugh. Didn’t Regulus realize he’d already tried that? Sirius had honestly tried to keep the promise he’d made to James back on the train platform. He had tried to retreat into self-imposed exile in his bedroom to sleep the summer away, but their parents had other plans. The dinner with the Rowles had only been the beginning. Almost every day since he’d been home Sirius had been dragged out of bed and stuffed into dress robes to attend a dinner party, or a formal luncheon, or afternoon tea with his family and various guests. All of which were thinly veiled attempts to push Sirius toward proper Pure-blood girls, because Orion and Walburga had decided it was high time for their heir to start thinking about the future of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.

Sirius was done keeping his head down now.

“I’m not going to let them decide the rest of my life for me,” Sirius told his brother. “Now, were you able to get what I asked for or not?”

Regulus reached into his robes and pulled out a vial with an ornate crystal stopper.

“Ta, Reg,” Sirius said, holding out his hand, but Regulus just shook his head and tucked the vial away again.

“Not until you at least put on some trousers and a shirt.”

He grumbled, but Sirius yanked a pair of heavily starched trousers off the valet stand and began pulling them on.

“I don’t know why you’re fighting this so much,” Regulus said as Sirius buttoned his fly. “It’s how things are done.”

Sirius snorted as he shrugged on an even starchier dress shirt. “Only among crusty old wankers. For everyone else arranged marriages are horrifically outdated, and let’s be honest, they really haven’t done our family many favors in the last few generations.”

It was true; their parents were more business partners than spouses, cold and disinterested in each other except to feed their shared ambitions. Their uncle Cygnus had been married off at the ripe old age of thirteen to Druella Rosier, a woman five years his senior, who was rumored to be the mistress of Pollux Black, Cygnus’s own father. No one dared to question the reasons behind it, though some simple arithmancy could make the connection between the hasty nuptials and Bellatrix’s birth date. Bellatrix herself viewed her husband as something between a pet and a favorite purse. Only Narcissa seemed content with the marriage she’d been sold into, and Sirius was still half convinced that Lucius Malfoy had her under an Imperius Curse.

Regulus frowned thoughtfully like the idea had never occurred to him. “Well, who would you choose to marry then? You made it quite clear the rumors aren’t true and you’re not dating that Evans girl.”

Sirius wrinkled his nose and sniffed derisively. It had taken almost two weeks for that rumor to make its way to Walburga’s ears, but when it had his mother had exploded. That was how Sirius had picked up the cut across his cheek and the rest of his bruises. His parents had come damn close to demanding a magically binding oath before they finally believed Sirius when he said he’d never so much as kissed Lily Evans or any other Muggle-born girl.

The wording of that promise had been very important, but his parents hadn’t thought to question it. The idea that Sirius might have kissed Muggle-born boys never even occurred to them.

Under the guise of buttoning his shirt, Sirius ducked his head, allowing his hair to hide his face. “I’m not even seventeen, Regulus. I don’t want to marry anyone right now, not for a long time…or maybe I’ll follow Uncle Alphard’s lead and never marry at all.”

Eternal bachelorhood was likely Sirius’s fate whether he wanted it or not. Even after he avoided an arranged marriage contract, came of age, and got out from beneath his parents’ control, Sirius knew it would be difficult for him to ever live or love openly. The Blacks didn’t like to be embarrassed, especially by their own.

“They won’t let you do that,” Regulus said firmly. “You’re the heir. You have to marry so you can have children and continue the family line.”

Despite himself, Sirius snorted as he did up the last button on his shirt and reached for the cufflinks. “Morgana’s tits, Reg! Is that what they teach you down in Slytherin? That you can’t get a girl pregnant without putting a ring on her finger first? If so it’s a wonder there aren’t serpent spawn hatching all over the dungeons. Do us both a favor and talk to Madam Pomfrey about certain potions before you start playing ‘hide the wand’ with anyone. I’m far too young to be anyone’s ‘Uncle Sirius.’”

He purposely didn’t tell Regulus that if the main point of marriage was to breed legitimate children then it really was a waste of time for Sirius on all levels. Even if their parents somehow succeeded in marrying Sirius off against his will they would be very disappointed with the results. There were more permanent versions of the contraceptive potions that Madam Pomfrey quietly handed out at Hogwarts, and the moment Sirius turned seventeen he intended to ask the matron for one. Sirius never wanted to be a father, and, queer or not, he wasn’t going to risk it ever happening. Not if there was even the slightest chance he could turn out to be half the monster his own parents were.

“There, I’m decent if not dignified,” Sirius said as he finished with his cufflinks. “Now, can I please have the dittany?”

Regulus was blushing an even deeper shade of crimson now. He fumbled as he pulled the vial back out of his robes and tossed it to Sirius.

“Thanks,” Sirius said sincerely as he caught it and turned back to the mirror. He unstopped the essence of dittany and tilted his head back and to the side to allow a few drops of the potion to fall on the cut across his cheek. Sirius swore and hissed in pain as a tendril of greenish smoke rose from the wound.

“And what if I don’t want to…to do any of that…until I’m married?” Regulus asked, a defiant note in his hesitant voice, like he expected Sirius to laugh or insist he would change his mind or even get angry.

Instead, his older brother shrugged. “If that’s what you want, then that’s fine, Reg,” Sirius said through gritted teeth as the dittany continued to smoke. “Just so long as it’s what you want, not what someone else wants for you. It’s your life, your choice.” Not Mother’s or Father’s, he added silently.

The cut stopped smoking and Sirius sighed in relief before tossing the bottle back to Regulus, who fumbled it again, but managed to get a hold before it fell. The newly sealed wound was more pink than red now, and it no longer looked like it might be infected.

“I think one of Mum’s rings must be cursed,” Sirius mused as he carefully poked at his cheek. “Can’t figure out why else this thing refused to close on its own. Probably leave a scar even with the dittany.”

Unbidden, his thoughts turned to Remus, as they often had during the past few weeks. How many times had he watched as Madam Pomfrey applied dittany mixed with powdered silver to Remus’s wounds? When he’d been conscious, Remus had always endured the process stoically, even managing a weary smile if he noticed a hint of worry on the faces of the matron or his friends.

Hardly the same, Sirius thought as he poked at the cut on his cheek again. A short little scar was nothing compared to the slashes that cut across Remus’s skin. Remus earned his scars trying to control and confine his werewolf side; he sacrificed his own body to keep the wolf from hunting others. In contrast, Sirius got his during a spat with his mother. She’d backhanded him, and one of her rings had cut deep enough to bleed.

“Can I ask you a question, Sirius?”

Sirius shrugged. He was grateful for the distraction of whatever his brother wanted to ask. Thinking about Remus was rather like a whirlpool these days; it sucked him in and tried to drown him in guilt and shame and the fear that he’d lost one of his best friends forever.

He turned away from the mirror to find Regulus had taken a seat on the edge of Sirius’s unmade bed. The younger Black brother was chewing the inside of his cheek, his fingers teasing at a loose thread in the scarlet bedsheets. Regulus had picked up that habit from him, Sirius was fairly sure. They always had to find something to do with their fingers when they were nervous, the more destructive the better. Sirius had taken up smoking in part to satisfy his fingers’ idle need to destroy something. Absently, he wondered how Regulus would respond if he offered him a cigarette. Sirius could certainly use one himself right now.

His stash of cigarettes and a lighter were hidden beneath a loose floorboard that was itself hidden beneath the bed. When Regulus showed no signs of asking his question any time soon, Sirius got down on his knees, heedless of the dust that his trousers and shirt picked up as he reached into the gap and felt for the loose board. There was a dust bunny clinging to the stainless steel lighter Peter had given Sirius for his last birthday, but his few precious packs of Woodbines were unharmed.

“You weren’t playing a prank on Patrick Sutcliffe.”

Startled, Sirius jerked up, smacking the back of his head against the footboard of the bed. The sharp flash of pain made him swear, and Sirius could barely focus on his brother’s words as he rolled away from the bed and up to his knees. Regulus was there to meet his eyes though, accusation darkening the normally pale grey.

Fuck the cigarette, Sirius thought as he shoved the pack and the lighter into his trouser pocket. He needed a drink. Merlin, he needed an entire damned bottle of something strong and bitter.

“That’s…that’s not a question, Regulus,” Sirius said, still kneeling on the floor.

Those weren’t the words he’d meant to say. He’d meant to scoff and laugh and deny it. He’d meant to lie yet again. His heart was beating faster by the moment. Why hadn’t those words come out?

“I suppose it’s not,” Regulus replied. He looked away from Sirius and fixed his gaze back down on the small hole he’d worried into his brother’s bedsheets. “Sutcliffe chased me down on the train ride home, begged me not to tell anyone about the two of you. He said his Muggle parents would toss him out if they knew.”

Sirius winced. One of the few actual conversations he’d had with Sutcliffe had been all about how, despite all their other differences, their respective parents both felt the same way about homosexuality. The Muggle-born boy had been so happy to discover, barring a handful of Pure-bloods, the wizarding world wouldn’t discriminate against him like the Muggle world would. Sutcliffe was keeping quiet about it though, at least until he was out of school.

Sirius should have talked to the Hufflepuff after Regulus had interrupted them, should have let him in on the lies he’d told. He should have spared even a thought for Sutcliffe, for someone else’s fear and potential suffering.

Merlin, I really am a selfish bastard, Sirius thought. His chest felt tight, and he had to use the bedframe to climb back to his feet.

“Did you tell anyone?” Sirius asked his brother. He had to cling to the bedpost to keep his knees from giving out.

“No.” Regulus said so quietly Sirius barely heard the words.

A fraction of the tension in Sirius’s chest eased.

“Are you planning to?”

“I don’t know.”

It was an honest answer. Regulus hadn’t made up his mind yet. Sirius looked down at his little brother. Regulus was still sitting on the edge of his bed, still destroying the sheets thread by thread. His eyes were on Sirius though, wary and confused, but beneath that innocent uncertainty Sirius spotted something familiar, something calculating.

“What do you want, Regulus?” Sirius asked. The words tasted sour as he spat them out. Fucking Slytherins.

Regulus’s hands abandoned the scarlet bedsheets and he clasped them together across his lap, a perfect imitation of their father. The serpentine glint in his pale grey eyes sharpened.

“I want you to stop being so damn selfish,” Regulus said primly. “Do you know what would happen if anyone else found out about this? The trouble you would get into?”

I wasn’t planning on telling anyone,” Sirius retorted.

“You’re missing the point.”

“So you think I should just go along with Mother and Father’s plan then?” Sirius scoffed. “Find myself a proper little pure-blood wife and settle down for a life of misery just so the family doesn’t suffer a little embarrassment?”

Regulus’s eyes flashed, and Sirius could see a bit of their father in him at that moment. It hurt to see any part of their parents reflected in Regulus. Sirius knew that he personally had inherited more of both Walburga and Orion than he would ever be comfortable with, but Regulus had always been better than him, better than all of them.

“You think this is about embarrassing the family?” Regulus shook his head. “And you act like I’m the naïve one…Sirius, changes are coming. You won’t be able to get away with this sort of behavior when they do, and…and I don’t want to see you get hurt or worse.”

Anger blazed through Sirius’s stomach like a shot of firewhisky. “Is this about your little craft project then? I’ve seen the articles and the pictures you’ve been pasting on the wall in your bedroom. Tell me, Reg? Are you getting off to Dark Marks and Muggle murders? Thinking of Death Eaters and Voldemort when you wank at night?”

Sirius smirked as his little brother flinched. “Don’t say that name!” Regulus hissed, leaping to his feet, hands balled into fists. “And don’t turn this back on me! I’m trying to help you! Trying to keep you safe because you’re too stupid and too stubborn to accept that whether you like it or not you’re a part of this family! This isn’t a joke, Sirius—this is dangerous!

Regulus was flushing red again, but Sirius didn’t think it was from embarrassment this time. He’d never seen his baby brother truly lose his temper. If Sirius didn’t have years of experience spitting in the face of Walburga’s rage, he might have been cowed by it. Instead, he took strength from his own anger and laughed.

“Trust me, Regulus, my homosexuality wouldn’t even rank among the top ten things your precious Voldemort would find objectionable about me.” Sirius grinned spitefully when Regulus flinched again and took a step back.

“This isn’t just about you, Sirius!” Regulus shot back.

“Of course it isn’t,” Sirius drawled. “It’s about the family. It’s always about the family, all about appearances. What about you, Reg? Do you honestly buy all their shite about being better than everyone just because your last name’s Black?” Sirius pressed, hoping to poke just enough to get an honest answer out of his brother.

He had to hope, had to believe that his brother wasn’t too far gone, that the grotesque collection on his wall was a phase, was something he did to fit in with other Slytherins or to keep his status as favorite son.

For a fraction of a second Sirius thought he saw something slip in Regulus’s face. Then it was gone, and Regulus drew his shoulders back, lifted his chin, and slid behind that bland mask of the perfect son he wore so well.

“The Black name you hate so much has kept you safer than you can imagine,” Regulus said tightly. “Your little friends too. Or did you really think you could pull all your pranks, humiliate the sons and daughters of so many great houses for years and never suffer any consequences beyond a few retaliatory jinxes and detention?”

With every word Regulus’s tone grew sharper and took on an almost mocking edge as he sank further and further into the role they’d both been born to play. It was painful to watch. “Everyone knows what it means to cross the House of Black, Sirius…everyone, it seems, except you. Do you really think you can survive without that protection, especially if the wrath of the family you so distain was turned against you? They would turn against you too if they find out you’re—you’re…shagging Mudblood boys…and…and I don’t want that to happen!”

Regulus drew his monologue to a close, trembling with anger and frustration, breath coming fast and shallow. His hands balled into fists so tight his knuckles were white and his fingernails threatened to break the skin of his palms. He looked up, clearly expecting laughter or anger from Sirius. His small tirade was nothing compared to their mother and father, and Sirius had always fought them tooth and nail, even when he knew he would lose. It seemed to startle Regulus when he found Sirius watching him with a small, melancholy smile and genuine affection in his eyes.

“I Love you too, Reg,” Sirius said. His tone was mocking, but the truth was obvious in his eyes. He turned away before Regulus could look deeper and see the pain behind the affection. “Let’s get this fiasco with the Selwyns over then, shall we? I have the feeling I’ll be sleeping in the cellar again tonight, so I might as well dress in layers.” He reached for the waistcoat hanging off the valet stand.

“What are you going to do?” Regulus asked, suddenly worried.

Sirius shrugged. “I’m going to behave like such a horrendous bastard that no one in their right mind would ever consider letting their precious daughter marry me. Unless, of course, you’re going to tell Mum and Dad about all of this. Then I should probably pack my trunk and get the hell out of here.”

“Sirius, you can’t! Didn’t you hear a word I just said?”

“I did,” Sirius replied matter-of-factly as he fastened ivory buttons and smoothed his hands over green silk. His mother was ever unsubtle, even when it came to clothing. “But I can’t play their game, Regulus. I can’t give them what they want from me.”

“You can’t,” Regulus repeated. “Sirius—we have to fix this.” The unspoken words hung between them. We have to fix you.

Sirius shot Regulus a smile over his shoulder, even as his eyes hardened. “And what would ‘fixing’ this look like, Regulus? A lifetime of closing my eyes and picturing Ludo Bagman’s arse while trying to impregnate a wife I can’t stand? Maybe a witch tipping a bit of Amortentia into my teacup every morning to ensure herself a devoted husband? An Imperius Curse would probably be the most straightforward solution. I bet Father could keep one going at least until I signed a marriage contract in blood or made an unbreakable wedding vow.”

I don’t need to be fixed, Sirius added silently. He was probably warped and broken in a dozen other ways, but this wasn’t one of them. And, as much as he loved his brother, a small piece of Sirius wasn’t sure he could ever forgive Regulus for suggesting it.

“I didn’t mean anything like that,” Regulus huffed. “You’re being dramatic again.”

“It must run in the family. Now, will you at least do me the courtesy of telling me if you’re going to go blabbing my secrets over digestifs tonight?”

“Would you really leave if I said yes?”

Sirius turned around and looked his brother straight in the eye. “What other choice would I have? Mum and Dad would kill me if they knew, and I’m not being melodramatic when I say that.”

Regulus frowned, and Sirius knew his little brother didn’t really believe him. Regulus had never been the target of their parents’ wrath, not like Sirius had. He still believed that, deep down, their parents wanted what was best for both of their sons, that Orion and Walburga loved them. That they were something more than pawns in a dynastic chess game. Maybe, Sirius considered, he was half right, maybe their parents really did love one of them, but it certainly wasn’t Sirius.

“I won’t tell anyone about Sutcliffe,” Regulus promised. “Just…try to behave tonight, all right? And finish getting dressed.”

Sirius nodded his thanks, refusing to let his relief show. He’d bought himself a little time at least. “All right,” he agreed. He could bite his tongue for a night if it helped keep Regulus on his side. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Regulus slipped back out the door without another word while Sirius reached for his tie. Despite his assurances to Regulus, Sirius didn’t hurry putting on the rest of his robes. The truth was, his brother had rattled him more than he’d let on.

Sirius had known he would be leaving his family for years. He’d thought it over carefully, originally hoping he could make it all the way through school before he officially spurned them, but for the past year he’d known he couldn’t last that long. This summer was supposed to be the last time he ever returned to Grimmauld Place. He would come of age in early November, and after that his parents had no legal claim to him. There was some money hidden away in his trunk, enough to keep him going until he was out of school and could get a job. James swore his parents would happily take Sirius in, but Sirius felt uncomfortable putting the Potters in such a position.

He’d given a great deal of thought to the logistics of leaving his family, but had he truly considered the consequences of doing it? Sirius had imagined he would be blasted off the family tapestry, just like Andromeda. He’d also suspected he would have to remain circumspect about his sexuality, and possibly some of his politics as well. Would there be other consequences though? He hadn’t thought of his family name protecting him from retaliation at Hogwarts, but Regulus’s words made a certain amount of horrible sense. No one fucked with the House of Black, not even a disgraced Blood Traitor like Sirius, unless they wanted to feel the ire of the entire family. When Sirius left would he feel that collective wrath turned against him? What about his friends?

Sirius shook his head as he reached for the last piece of his ensemble, the jet and silver signet ring bearing the Black family crest. Consequences or not, he couldn’t stay. If need be he would run further than he’d originally planned. He could leave the country, maybe even convince his friends to leave with him. It could be their greatest adventure ever…

He smiled as he slipped the heavy ring on his finger, feeling it shrink tight enough to pinch.

It was suspiciously quiet as Sirius made his way downstairs toward the drawing room. The door was open, and he stopped just inside of it, surprised to see only his mother, father, and Regulus present. His mother was pacing in front of the family tree like a caged dragon, while his father stood still and silent as a stone in front of the fireplace, staring into a glass of firewhisky. Regulus sat on the couch, head hanging down as he stared at the weave of the carpet.

“Are the Selwyns even later than I am?” Sirius drawled. It was only when Regulus glanced up, a look of mingled regret and terror on his face that Sirius realized something was very wrong. He froze as all eyes fixed on him.

“I won’t tell anyone about Sutcliffe,” Regulus had promised. Tricky, slippery little snake. Sirius should have payed attention to his brother’s exact words, not the implication behind them.

It wasn’t until his back hit something solid that Sirius realized he’d taken a step back. He hadn’t heard it move, but the door was now closed behind him. The click of the lock sounded thunderously loud in the silent room.

Never setting his tumbler down, Orion cleared his throat. “We’ve rescheduled our dinner with the Selwyns,” Orion said levelly, calmly, icily. “Regulus has brought something to our attention that we need to discuss…as a family.”

Chapter Text

If one thought about it, 12 Grimmauld Place was a bizarre location for the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black to make its home. Most of the old, wealthy pure-blood families maintained large country estates and lived in opulent mansions or castles rife with magical history. Grimmauld Place was smack in the middle of London and surrounded on every side by Muggles. Open the curtains and their electric lights shone in at night. Open a window and the thrum of traffic and the beat of Muggle music could be heard.

Many people over the centuries had questioned or sneered at the Blacks’ decision to root themselves so close to the Muggles they detested. Sirius knew the excuses and lies his family had given for it over the years. He also knew the truth.

Running his hands blindly along the cellar wall, Sirius’s raw fingertips found what they were looking for. Rummaging in the pocket of his robes, Sirius pulled out his lighter. He was clumsy with his left hand, but the swollen fingers of his right hand were even more useless at the moment.

It had been a stroke of luck—his only bit of good luck all summer—that he’d shoved the lighter and an open pack of cigarettes into his pocket while talking to Regulus and had forgotten to take them out before heading downstairs to dinner. He’d been careful to ration the cigarettes, but the few he’d allowed himself had helped calm his nerves and had taken the worst of the edge off his hunger. The lighter was the real boon though. Peter had given it to Sirius for Christmas, despite hating the smell of Sirius’s cigarettes. It had the outline of a dog’s paw engraved on one side and had been illegally charmed to never need any of the fluid Muggles used for fuel. It was also charmed to turn the flames different colors, though that was proving to be less useful right now that it was Sirius’s only light source.

The little flame burned a bright scarlet when Sirius struck the flint-wheel. It cast deep shadows and painted the wall in front of him the color of blood. Holding the light close to the stone, Sirius squinted at the intricate spiral pattern of runes he’d found by touch. He traced them one by one, chapped, split lips moving silently as he translated. There had never been a need for Sirius to take an Ancient Runes class at school. He’d studied the subject intently before he’d ever stepped foot in Hogwarts with the cellar serving as both his textbook and tutor.

“Merlin’s poxy cock,” he swore quietly, pulling back and letting the lighter flame die again. It was another protection spell.

This was the reason his family had made their home at Grimmauld Place. Muggles had unknowingly built the long row of elegant Georgian townhouses atop pre-Roman wizarding ruins still rife with ancient magic. Sirius didn’t know how his ancestors had learned of it, but they had been eager to take advantage and harness the magic still contained in the old walls buried beneath the new house at Number 12.

“Where is it?” Sirius whispered to the walls, sliding his hands lightly over the stones, searching for the rough edges of the runes engraved into the walls. He bit back a yelp and cursed as the back of his injured hand hit the sharp edge of an old wine rack.

The coffee table collapsed as Sirius fell onto it. Sharp splinters of wood jabbed into his skin and caught at his robes. His head was spinning and his back screaming, but Sirius was already moving. Two years as a Quidditch beater and a lifetime in this family meant he knew how to take a hit and keep going. Rolling off the pile of Rococo kindling, Sirius pulled his wand out of his sleeve and—

He screamed for the first time that evening as the heel of his father’s dragonhide boot stomped down on the back of his hand. The pressure only increased when Sirius tried to twist away, and the edges of his vision darkened. Orion leaned down and casually plucked the dogwood wand from between Sirius’s splayed fingers. “This is not a duel, Sirius,” his father said calmly as he took away Sirius’s only weapon. A small shift, and Sirius choked as his father’s weight pressed down on his fingers.

“Stop it,” Sirius hissed aloud. “Focus.”

The pain in his hand helped to ground him as he carefully ran the fingers of his left hand over it, wincing as even the lightest touch caused a sharp sting of pain. His hand was swollen and bruised and hurt like hell, but he was fairly certain nothing was broken…at least not too badly. All of his fingers still moved, albeit stiffly and with barely half their usual range of motion. He could worry about it later, right now he needed to get out of this damned cellar, and out of this cursed house.

Despite the pain still pulsing through his hand, Sirius was glad he’d found the old wine racks. He thought he remembered seeing the runes he was looking for near them. The racks of rusted iron and rotted wood were left over from when his great-grandmother, Hesper Black, had tried to repurpose the underground chamber into a proper wine cellar. Tragically, the magic in the room had turned her priceless collection into vinegar and poison within a fortnight.

Feeling carefully along the edge of the old racks bolted into the wall, Sirius began searching for more runes. Without a doubt, Sirius knew more about the cellar and its magic than all his living relatives combined. His parents had neither the time nor the inclination to bother with such obscure and convoluted magic. The only use Orion and Walburga had for the cellar was as a convenient place to lock away their disobedient son when Sirius had exhausted their more creative punishments. With nothing better to do while serving various sentences over the years, Sirius had investigated the runes carved into the cold stone walls, learning what they meant, and what functions they served.

Most of the runes were for protection. They had all been linked to the house above in ways that Sirius suspected made 12 Grimmauld Place one of the safest places in Britain. There were other runes though, some that amplified certain types of magic, some that dampened or negated other types, and others that controlled or influenced very specific and sometimes peculiar aspects of the house. There was a long line of diagonally inscribed runes that kept milk from spoiling, a circular design that cursed thieves, and a complex charm that prevented house elves from getting fleas.

While studying the functions of the cellar runes, Sirius had also discovered what happened when the spells they anchored were broken. Great-grandmother Hester’s wine had gone sour because a piece of the stone containing runes to preserve wine had been carelessly chipped away when the wine racks had been installed. He also discovered that Grimmauld Place was always cold and clammy because there was a hairline crack running through the piece of a byzantine spellwork meant to regulate temperatures in the house.

Sirius had considered trying to fix the temperature runes in the past, if only to keep his bedroom warm over the Christmas holidays. However, the cellar was the backdrop of at least half of his nightmares, and Sirius had decided he would rather freeze half the time than spend an extra minute down in the musty, moist darkness.

When Sirius and Regulus had been young, Bellatrix had delighted in telling them stories about one of their forefathers who had supposedly turned the cellar into a dungeon for a while. According to her, dozens of Muggles and Blood Traitors had died there strung up on racks or mutilated in iron maidens, their souls forever trapped within the cellar walls. Any chains and torture devices had long since been removed, but Sirius wasn’t so sure his cousin had been making up the bit about trapped souls. There had always been something unsettling about the cellar beyond the dark and the cold.

He shivered now, telling himself it was only the chill in the air, even as he resisted the urge to throw a fearful glance over his shoulder. The darkness was near absolute, only relieved by a thin crack of light outlining the trapdoor in the ceiling that let out into the kitchen. Even the flame from his lighter couldn’t banish the shadows, and the flickering, moving light often made them worse, turned them into monsters Sirius knew he should be too old to believe in or to fear.

Of course, Sirius would take whatever monsters his imagination could spawn over the ones living and breathing upstairs. He sighed and raised his good hand to his head to pull the fingers through his hair. Since gaining his Animagus form Sirius found hands in his hair, even his own, to be comforting, like an echo of someone stroking Padfoot’s shaggy fur. When his fingers hit only bare scalp and spiky stubble, he winced.

“Abomination!” Walburga screeched. Fast as any snake, her hand lashed out and caught Sirius across the mouth, knocking him back against the locked door. “Befouling the blood of this noble family!”

“…’s not true…” Sirius mumbled, his voice muffled by the blood in his mouth and the hand pressed against his split lip. A terrified glance told him they didn’t believe his denials. Of course, they would believe Regulus over him. Over his mother’s shoulder, Sirius could see his brother, still sitting on the couch, a look of baffled horror on his face. This obviously wasn’t what Regulus had expected.

“Wretched liar!” Walburga shouted. “You would do this just to spite me, to shame me!”

Wiping at the blood with the back of his hand, Sirius scoffed. If he was going to go down, he might as well leave them something to remember him by. “Trust me, Mother,” he snarled. “You’re the last thing I think about during sex.”

Walburga let out a howl that could have frightened off a pack of werewolves on a full moon. This time she pulled out her wand and a stinging sensation slashed along the side of Sirius’s head as hanks of shoulder-length black hair fell to the ground at his feet. His mother’s wand flashed again and again as she yelled “Diffindo! Diffindo! Diffindo!” catching Sirius’s scalp and ears and even the arm he threw up to protect his face as Walburga wildly cast severing charm after severing charm, finally fulfilling the threat she’d made the first day of summer holidays.

Sirius pulled his hand away from his head and pressed it back against the wall. He needed to focus.

It was easy to lose track of time in the cellar. It was easy to lose track of everything down there, but, by his best guess, Sirius had been down in the cellar for a little over two days. He was starving and dehydrated, cold and exhausted, and in quite a lot of pain. However, he’d already wasted too much time wallowing in the misery of his predicament. Unless his parents intended to let him die of thirst they would be coming for him soon.

Of course, Sirius thought cynically, that might be their plan. The only reason Sirius was still on his feet and mostly lucid was because he’d found a few mouthfuls of water in a flask left over from one of his previous stints in the cellar, back when his parents still provided him the bare necessities like sustenance and a few small candles for light. The water had acquired a nastily metallic taste, but Sirius was certain he’d never felt anything better than the trickle of it down his parched throat.

The flask was now empty though, had been for more than a day, and Sirius was getting tired and lightheaded again. He needed to find the right runes, and find them soon, before his parents decided to go three for three with the Unforgiveable Curses.

He clicked the lighter back on but shuddered when the flame came out the same vivid green as a killing curse. Quickly, he flicked the lid closed and open again, sparking the lighter once more. This time the flame was an innocuous shade of pale violet.

Sirius stumbled across three more patches of runes—two for protection and one that stopped silver from tarnishing—before he caught sight of a lopsided helix just below the broken shelf of a wine rack. He didn’t dare breathe as he squatted down to take a closer look. His bruised fingers touched every rune, one by one. His shoulders started to sag as he noticed several familiar shapes common to all the security spells, but…no.

There it was!

He had to bite his tongue to keep from whooping with joy. This was exactly what he’d been looking for. The spell was an intricate one, and closely related to the protection spells, but it dealt with only one aspect of fortifying the house.

It reinforced the locks in 12 Grimmauld Place.

The thumb on Sirius’s good hand was beginning to ache from keeping the lighter lit, but he ignored it as best he could while he read back through the runes. His quick burst of hope was already fraying at the edges. Finding the right spell was the easy part of his plan. The hard part would be getting around it.

In theory, if Sirius interrupted the spell in exactly the right place he could reverse its effect, could break every lock in the house. It wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish though. The spells carved into the walls of the cellar were more than two thousand years old, and only a handful of them had broken in all that time. He didn’t have his wand or the tools to split magically-reinforced stone, so actually breaking the spell was out of the question. However, Sirius had had some limited success in the past with temporarily disrupting a few of the rune spells.

Three years ago, he’d managed to throw the balance off the already finicky temperature runes, plunging the house into near arctic temperatures. That one had backfired on him since he’d been locked down in the cellar and had been near hypothermic by the time his parents finally thought to let him out. Still, he’d caused the milk to spoil a few times, and had made all the candles impossible to light once. The effects had always been temporary, barely lasting an hour or two before their function slowly returned to normal. Most of the time, Sirius hadn’t even been able to witness the mild havoc he caused, but he did hear his mother bellow at Kreacher when the cream in her tea had instantly curdled.

The disruption on the locking charm won’t have to last very long though, just long enough for Sirius to get through the trapdoor to the cellar and out of the house. Marking the place where he’d found the right spell, Sirius hurried over to the stairs and climbed them until he could press his hear to the bottom of the trapdoor. He had to hope he hadn’t completely lost track of time. Otherwise he might burst in on Kreacher cooking dinner.

The kitchen was quiet though, and no tantalizing smells seeped down through the thin cracks at the edge of the trapdoor as they had when Kreacher had roasted a chicken hours ago. He was going to have to risk it.

Guided by the flame of his lighter, now glowing a cheerful cyan, Sirius made his way back to the lock spell and examined it closer. He would need to deaden the third and seventh glyphs and add a hasty othila on at the end.

Clumsy though he was with his injured hand, Sirius managed to get a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. By the light of the blue-green flame, Sirius took a long drag. The familiar smell and the feel of smoke pulled deep into his lungs steadied Sirius. His good hand wasn’t shaking anymore.

He tapped the ash off the smoking end of the cigarette into the swollen palm of his right hand. It was hot, but the new pain almost felt like a relief from the steady, thudding agony that seemed to echo every heartbeat down into his fingers. Really, he needed another hand for this, Sirius thought as he juggled the cigarette, the ash, and the lighter precariously. The Woodbines Sirius favored were unfiltered, so he smoked it down to the point where it threatened to burn his fingers before dropping the butt to smolder on the dusty stone floor.

For the next step, he had to let the lighter die, plunging himself back into unfriendly, near absolute darkness. Blindly, he groped for the edge of the wine rack. He’d seen a spot earlier that looked sharp. His fingers found it without cutting themselves open, and Sirius moved until his wrist was pressed against the jagged, rusty iron. Gritting his teeth, he raked his left wrist across the sharp metal.

Blood trickled across his skin and dripped to the floor. It wasn’t a large cut or very deep, but Sirius needed it to bleed freely. He raised his bloody wrist over his other palm and let the blood drip into the little pile of cigarette ash.

If his professors back at Hogwarts could see what he was doing, Sirius imagined most of them would be shocked if not horrified. His friends might feel the same. James especially drew a very thick line in the sand when it came to dark magic, and blood magic was questionable even to more morally flexible minds. Sirius came from a family that had been toying with darkness for centuries though, and they had no such qualms. He didn’t know exactly what spells or rituals his ancestors had done, but they had tied this house and the old runic spells to Black Family blood.

When his blood had turned the ash in his hand to a sticky paste, Sirius relit the lighter—fuchsia this time—and gracelessly maneuvered it so his index finger was free. He dipped the finger into the mix of blood and ash and spread it into the third rune of the lock strengthening spell. It was similar to plastering a hole in a wall.

He pressed the paste into the carved rune until the lines had been obliterated. Working quickly, Sirius moved on to the next glyph and did the same. He would only have until the blood dried for this to work. When the two glyphs were neutralized, he dipped a finger straight into the blood still trickling from the cut on his wrist and drew another rune at the end of the spiraling string. Finished, Sirius took a step back, not even daring to breathe.

In the utter silence of the cellar, he heard the quiet click of a lock drawing back.

Sirius let out a sigh that might have been a sob and shoved the lighter back into his pocket. Then he was running.

He scrambled up the narrow stairs half on hands and knees until he was wedged right under the trapdoor. Carefully, not daring to think it wouldn’t work, he pushed, and the heavy wooden hatch slowly rose.

Sirius peeked out through the crack. The kitchen was dim, only the banked fire and a few low-burning candles providing light, but he had no problems seeing after two days in the dark of the cellar. He’d guessed roughly right. It was night, late enough that even Kreacher seemed to have retreated to his revolting little nest.

The trapdoor made no sound as Sirius pushed it the rest of the way open and stepped out into the kitchen. He was tempted by the cupboards and even more so by the sink. He was so desperately thirsty…

He crossed the room in three bounds and stuck his head directly beneath the faucet, gulping icy water, not even caring as it ran over his face and dribbled down the front of his robes. As he drank his mind whirled with plans. He’d barely dared to think past getting out of the cellar, but now that that was done he needed to choose his next step. He would have to carefully check for his wand, but his father wasn’t likely to have hidden it. In fact, it was probably sitting on the desk in his study, or maybe it was still on the mantel in the drawing room. Getting his trunk would be trickier, and Sirius wasn’t sure it was worth the risk. Perhaps just his wand then. After that, he could—

“Master Regulus?” A sleepy croak cut through Sirius’s racing thoughts and he froze as the doorknob to Kreacher’s little room turned. “Does Master Regulus need something from the kitchen?”

At first glance, especially in the dim half-light Sirius could easily be mistaken for his brother by most people, but he would never fool Kreacher, not even for a moment.

Leaving the tap running, Sirius sprinted for the narrow stairs, knocking Kreacher’s opening door closed as he darted past it. He had a split-second glimpse of the elf’s enormous, drowsy eyes going wide with shock before he was hauling himself up and out of the kitchen. A maddened howl came from behind him, echoing through the house.

The portraits were beginning to stir as Sirius burst through the door into the long entry hallway. He spared a glance for the stairs up to the first floor. His wand would be somewhere up there, but there was no time. No time at all.

“Kreacher!” His mother’s voice bellowed groggily from upstairs.

Sirius knocked over the troll leg umbrella stand with a crash as he slipped and skidded on the carpet, half falling against a wall before pushing himself up and racing onward. The crack of someone Apparating reverberated from behind him, but Sirius’s hand was already on the front door, its many locks already open.

Cool night air filled his burning lungs. He leapt straight over the worn steps and hit the pavement, with a wobble that jarred his ankle. Too much adrenaline was flooding Sirius’s veins for him to feel it though. He dashed across the road and straight through the little square.

It wasn’t until he’d made it around the nearest corner that Sirius dared to look back. When he was certain no one was right on his heels, he spared another quick glance for the darkened windows and empty street around him. Then, a moment later, an enormous black dog loped away into Muggle London.

Chapter Text

“You were out late last night,” Hope Lupin said without looking up as Remus walked into the kitchen. Her tone was conversational, cheery even, but Remus could hear the concern beneath it. It was the day before the full moon, and she always fretted.

“Yeah…sorry, Mum. I didn’t wake you, did I?” Remus asked as he slid into a seat across from his mother at the scuffed old breakfast table. He felt a stab of guilt for making her worry, but the last few days before a full moon always left Remus full of restless energy. He’d barely managed a few hours of sleep when he’d finally gotten in last night, and he was still up just after dawn, still feeling wound up, though not as bad as he had been yesterday.

In the past few weeks, Remus had stumbled upon a very good way to burn off some of his excess of pre-moon energy.

“It’s all right,” Hope said. She put down the book she’d been reading to pour tea for both of them. “Were you out with the Powell girl…Bethany, right?”

Remus felt his cheeks go red. This had been the first summer his parents had given in and allowed Remus to socialize with the Muggle boys and girls from the nearby village. To Remus’s great surprise, the local teenagers had welcomed him with open arms…especially Beth Powell. She’d snogged him at a party the first night they’d met, and had done a lot more than that by week’s end.

“It was a party, Mum, lots of people were there,” Remus mumbled, spooning sugar into his tea. The truth was, in only a few short weeks, Beth had already lost interest in him and moved on. She’d thought Remus, with his scars and his far off Scottish boarding school, was somehow exciting and mysterious. His mystique hadn’t lasted long though. When Beth had realized exactly how awkward and bookish Remus was, she’d ended things kindly with a kiss on the cheek and the suggestion that Remus might get along better with her brother Luke, who was home from his first year of university.

“You’re being careful, right?” Hope asked. “I don’t fancy being a grandmother quite yet.”

Remus nearly choked on his tea.

“Mum!” He sputtered, wondering if it was possible to actually die of shame. Hope seemed oblivious to her son’s embarrassment, contentedly sipping her own tea. She’d always been a very practical woman.

His mother seemed happy to leave the conversation there, just like she’d surreptitiously left several pamphlets and a box of condoms on Remus’s bedside cabinet after his first date with Beth. Yet, Remus couldn’t help but squirm in his chair. “Actually,” he said. “I barely saw Beth last night…I spent most of the party with her brother, Luke…” Remus’s courage gave out before he could finish the sentence and confess that he’d spent most the night snogging Luke.

Beth had been right: he did get along better with her brother, just not in the way she had anticipated.

“Oh? He’s studying literature down in Cardiff, isn’t he?” Hope asked. “Did you two talk about books?”

Remus took a scalding gulp of tea before answering. “Among other things…”

The ring of the telephone saved him from further questioning as his mother rose and headed down the hall to answer it. Remus let his mind slip away from Beth and Luke and whether or not he was ever going to get around to telling his parents he’d fancied them both in the same way. Unfortunately, his thoughts jumped straight to an equally awkward topic as he caught sight of the photos he’d left sitting on the table.

The pictures and a long letter had arrived yesterday courtesy of an exhausted Indian eagle-owl sent all the way from Northern India by James. The photos depicted James waving and smiling with family members, posing in front of temples, and even panicking as a baby occamy bit his ear. From the tone of his letter, James was enjoying the family holiday in India, but he sounded just as excited to get home again. He was full of hare-brained schemes and wanted the four of them to get together as soon as he was back in England. The letter was also full of James’s earnest but clumsy attempts to figure out if Remus had forgiven Sirius for the catastrophe with Snape yet.

The owl had taken a while to get from Amritsar to Wales, arriving only a few days before James and his parents were due back. It wouldn’t be long after that before James began to pester Remus for answers. The problem was Remus didn’t know what to tell his friend. Every time he thought about that night—or about Sirius at all—he felt a surge of nausea that had nothing to do with the moon, and his hands began to shake, sometimes in anger other times in terror.

There was a different fear in the back of his head though, one that whispered if he didn’t forgive Sirius he could lose all of his friends in one go. James would try to keep that from happening, but if it came down to choosing between Remus and Sirius…well, Remus knew who James would choose. Peter, of course, would follow James’s lead.

Even knowing that he could lose them all, Remus wasn’t sure he could forgive and forget. Not yet at least.

In his head, Remus began to plan his reply to James. As much as he would have loved to spend even a few days at the Potters’ rambling estate that summer, he would make excuses and beg off. Maybe—hopefully—if he gave himself an entire summer away he would be ready to forgive Sirius for his stupidly cruel act by September.

“Remus,” Hope’s voice called. “Telephone for you.” She sounded a little surprised, but not half so much as Remus felt. He never got phone calls. His first thought was that it might Luke, or maybe even Beth. He hadn’t given either of them his phone number, but it was a small village; it wasn’t inconceivable that one of them could have gotten the number from somewhere. As much as he enjoyed Luke’s company, Remus hadn’t thought it was a phone call sort of relationship. He honestly wasn’t sure he wanted it to be. He couldn’t even begin to fathom why Beth might call him, especially this early in the morning.

Puzzled, he nevertheless got to his feet and hurried out into the hall to take the receiver his mother held out. She gave him a small smile and headed back toward the kitchen when he took it, giving him privacy. Remus waited until she was out of sight before raising the phone to his ear and saying a timid “Hello?”

REMUS!” A familiar voice shouted in his ear, so loud Remus almost dropped the receiver in surprise.

“Sirius?” He asked. For a moment Remus was so confused he entirely forgot that he wasn’t on speaking terms with the boy at the other end of the line. It all came back in a heartbeat though, and he felt an itch of irritation. He had given Sirius his phone number back in March when Sirius’s Muggle Studies class had learned how to use telephones. Remus had never expected Sirius to actually call him though, especially now. He had no clue where or how Sirius managed to find a telephone, but Remus wasn’t ready to talk to him.

“Remus, please don’t close the telephone off!” Sirius begged. It took Remus a second to interpret Sirius’s words as a plea not to hang up on him. In that time Sirius began to ramble at breakneck speed. “I-I don’t know where I am—somewhere in Muggle London—but I don’t know where. I got out of the house and I turned into Padfoot and—and I just started running! Now I’m lost! I don’t have my wand, and—Merlin’s Bollocks!—I don’t know if they’re looking for me, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t go home, Remus…I can’t, I can’t! I—”

“Padfoot, Slow down!” Remus cut in. His anger had vanished as he listened to the panic in Sirius’s voice. Something was wrong, and his friend was in trouble. Everything else fell by the wayside at once.

“You’re lost in Muggle London?” Remus asked. Best to sort out what Sirius had already said before he asked questions of his own.

“Uh-huh,” Sirius confirmed, sounding out of breath.

“And you don’t have your wand? Why—”

“There wasn’t time, Moony!” Sirius gasped. “I wanted to grab it, but I didn’t know where they’d hidden it! Then Kreacher saw me, and if they knew I’d gotten out of the cellar—I…I only had one chance. I had to go right away and I figured they wouldn’t follow me into Muggle London.”

Remus felt like a Bludger had just hit him in the gut. The only question that wasn’t screaming through his head was who “they” were. He, James, and Peter had known for years that Sirius had problems at home. They’d even suspected that it was more than a few rows between a rebellious son and his traditionalist parents.

There had been a few times when Sirius had returned from holidays with bruises hidden beneath his robes and a desperate look of relief in his eyes as soon as he boarded the Hogwarts Express. Remus had known enough, and always deduced more, and yet he’d done nothing. He’d let himself believe Sirius when he had laughed off their questions and swore that everything was fine.

“Are you hurt?” Remus asked, dreading the answer.

The question seemed to trip Sirius up for a moment. “I…I’ll be all right,” he said. Something was definitely worse than usual though, because Sirius’s evasion was clumsy and obvious. “I just...I can’t go back, Moony…”

“No,” Remus agreed adamantly. “Do not go back there, Sirius, no matter what.”

“What do I do?” Sirius asked quietly. He sounded so lost it nearly broke Remus’s heart. Sirius was not supposed to sound like this, he was supposed to be haughty and stubborn and fierce. Yet, this was the second time in only a few months Remus had heard that broken note in his friend’s voice. The first time it had made Remus furious; this time it helped him forgive.

“Can you get to the Knight Bus, or somewhere linked to the Floo Network?” They needed to focus on getting Sirius someplace safe before they could worry about everything else.

“No wand, and I—I don’t have any money,” Sirius admitted. “I have a little bit of Muggle money, but not a single Knut, and I…” He trailed off, leaving Remus to wonder how Sirius managed to get Muggle currency in the first place. At the other end of the line, he heard Sirius take a deep, stuttering breath. “I don’t know what will happen if they find me. Moony, they…”

Sirius seemed to catch himself just before he said something important, something he knew Remus wouldn’t like. Something Remus was now trying to keep himself from conjuring up. There were so many terrible things Sirius’s parents could have done to him, and Remus wasn’t sure he could put even the worst of his imaginings past the Blacks. Just like that, for the first time in his life, Remus Lupin wanted to hurt someone. Not prank them or throw a harmless but embarrassing hex their way, but honestly hurt them. It had nothing to do with the moon or the wolf. This rage was purely human.

“I’m pretty sure they won’t look for me in the Muggle parts of the city,” Sirius continued. “And they don’t know about Padfoot either, but I’m…I’m afraid Moony…” Sirius sucked in a breath that might actually have been a sob, and fell silent.

“Okay,” Remus said, trying to keep himself sounding calm and rational. He wanted to panic, to rage, but that wouldn’t help Sirius right now. Instead, he let all of that hot fury slip deep down within his chest where it felt like it condensed into something hard and cold that allowed him to remain furious and rational at the same time. “We’ll keep you around Muggles then. Just like you said, your parents won’t go anywhere near them.”

Remus looked around him like he might find the answer to Sirius’s problem hiding somewhere in the hallway. If the Knight Bus and Floo were both out, the obvious answer was Apparition. However, there was no one Remus could think of to Apparate and retrieve Sirius. Remus himself was still underage and untrained, as was Sirius. James and his parents were far out of range for easy communication or Apparition, as was Remus’s own father. Lyall Lupin was currently deep in the Scottish Highlands tracking a banshee for work. He’d already been gone for three days and they didn’t expect him back until the end of the week. Remus’s own mother was a Muggle and, while Peter’s mum was a witch, she wasn’t any help either. A bad splinching incident in her younger years had made Mrs. Pettigrew swear off Apparating for life.

“You have the worst timing in the world, Sirius,” Remus muttered. One day earlier and he would have already been headed for the bus station or begging his mum to drive her beat-up old car down to London. They would never make it there and back before the full moon rose though, and tomorrow Remus would be in no shape to help himself, let alone anyone else.

“Beginning to think it’s a curse,” Sirius said with a shaky, near-hysterical laugh.

Remus chewed his lower lip as his thoughts whirled. Sirius said he had some Muggle money, but how much? Even if it was enough to get him all the way to Wales, or to Peter’s house up in Wimbourne could Sirius be trusted to figure out the bus or train systems? Somehow, Remus doubted it. Sirius was smart and he had two years of Muggle Studies under his belt, but as far as Remus knew the class hadn’t covered Muggle transportation yet, and there was a big difference between studying a thing and actually doing it. Chances were, if Sirius got on a bus he would wind up even more lost than he already was.

Frustrated, Remus let out a long string of expletives creative enough to make Sirius let out a shaky laugh on the other end of the line. James would be back in two days, but they couldn’t leave Sirius lost and alone in London for that long, especially if his parents were searching for him. Remus leaned forward, resting his forehead against the wall and squeezed his eyes closed. He needed to think of something, and fast.

When he opened his eyes, Remus found himself looking straight down at the little side table that held the phone. It also held a Muggle pen and a pad of paper his mum used for making notes and writing down phone numbers and notes. In an instant, Remus had an idea. It would be tricky, but it was the best he could come up with.

“Sirius,” he said. “Look around you. What are the names on the street signs closest to you?” Pinning the phone between his ear and his shoulder, Remus grabbed the pen and flipped open the notepad. He scribbled the street names down as Sirius read them out. “Okay, is there somewhere right around there you can go for a few hours?”

“I, um…I think there’s a sandwich shop across the street,” Sirius said.

“Good,” Remus said. “Go there and stay. I need to make another call, but I think I know someone who can help you.”

Chapter Text

Lily emerged from the Underground station with her hackles raised, suspicious and desperately wishing she could use the wand stowed in her bag without being expelled. Of course, if this proved to be some sort of elaborate joke or yet another escalation in James Potter’s quest to get her on a date she wasn’t above getting her hands dirty and strangling someone.

Perhaps it had been a mistake to give Remus her great-aunt’s phone number along with her home number. He’d just seemed so alone, so hurt, on the train ride back that she’d wanted to make sure he had someone he could reach out to if he wasn’t talking to his friends. She’d certainly never expected he would call her begging for help, especially not on behalf of Sirius Black.

“Why would I help him?” Lily had scoffed. She couldn’t stand Black at school. He was little more than Potter’s arrogant, bullying partner-in-crime, and with that horrid rumor floating around Lily wanted even less to do with him than usual.

“Please, Lily,” Remus had begged her though. “He’s alone in Muggle London, and something bad happened.”

The last thing she wanted was to spend a single moment with Black, but she hadn’t been able to turn away from Remus’s pleas. There had been a helpless desperation in his voice that had kept her on the line.

He hadn’t had very good answers to the questions she’d asked (Why was a pure-blood like Black in Muggle London? What could possibly have gone so wrong that he would need her help? And what sort of help did Remus expect her to provide the bastard anyway?) hence her suspicion over the whole matter. In the end though, Remus had been so upset that Lily had grudgingly agreed to beg off a trip to the shops with Petunia and her mother to trek through inner London in search of a boy she distinctly disliked.

A block and a half from the station, Lily found the cross street Remus had given her over the phone. The café he’d mentioned was there too, a grubby little shop with greasy windows promising tea, coffee, and food of dubious quality.

She trotted across the street and approached the café warily. A bell over the door tinkled as she stepped inside. Pausing in the doorway, Lily swept a glance over the rickety chairs and plastic tablecloths. Her irritation began to blossom into full-blown rage. She didn’t see—

Oh.

Black sat at a table near the back of the shop, staring listlessly into the depths of a mug. Now that she’d spotted him, Lily was forced to admit that Remus was right: Something bad had definitely happened to Sirius Black.

If it had just been the split lip and the purple bruises swelling across his cheek she could have written it off. He’d lost Gryffindor points in the past for fighting, both with his wand and with his fists. A simple brawl wouldn’t explain his hair though.

That was how she’d missed him at first. At the end of the school year, Black’s thick, dark hair had been long enough to brush his shoulders and make half the girls at Hogwarts envious, smitten, or both. Now, it was cropped unevenly and short enough she could see patches of his scalp. It looked like someone had attacked him with scissors while drunk and blindfolded. She could make out a few newly scabbed cuts, some still crusted with dry blood near his hairline and the tops of his ears that suggested this wasn’t some sort of rebellious fashion statement.

Black didn’t notice her until Lily pulled out the chair across from him and dropped into it. Then, he startled so badly he nearly knocked his mug off the table. Lily didn’t miss the flash of panic that passed over his face before he recognized her.

“Hullo, Evans,” Black said, recovering himself quickly. “How’s your summer going?” It sounded like he was trying for the casual charm he always seemed to ooze at school. His voice came out hoarse though and his attempt at a smirk quickly collapsed into a grimace.

Lily wasn’t sure how to answer the question. The witty, biting sort of comment she normally would have given him was utterly beyond her at the moment. Ultimately, she just said, “All right.”

She did not ask about his summer in turn.

Black avoided looking at her as he gave a small, jerky nod of acknowledgment. Neither of them seemed to know what to say next, and they fell into an anxious, awkward silence. Lily was utterly lost. She’d promised Remus she would find Black and make sure he was all right. Well, she’d found him, and he very clearly was not all right, but what in the world was she supposed to do about it?

“Remus called me,” she said finally. “He said you need help.”

At her words, Black seemed to try and pull himself together. He sat up a little straighter and finally met her eyes. “It’s—I’m fine,” he said. He must have realized how unconvincing he sounded and winced. “I’m sorry he bothered you, Evans. He said he was going to call you, but I didn’t think you’d actually show. I told him to just send an owl to James for me.”

Lily felt a sudden sting of shame that she almost hadn’t come. “I thought Potter was in India?” She asked. It had been impossible to not overhear him bragging about it at meals and in the common room for weeks before the end of term.

“He’ll be back soon,” Black said with a shrug. He was doing his level best to sound cavalier, but the words sounded like a mantra, something he was clinging to.

“How soon?” Lily asked.

“Need to mark the date on your calendar?” Black managed the thinnest shadow of his familiar smirk. Just this once, Lily let him have it without huffing or rolling her eyes. When Black realized she wasn’t going to rise to his taunt, he shrugged. “What’s today?”

“Tuesday,” she said, and then added, “the thirteenth,” when he still looked confused.

Some of the tension went out of his shoulders. “Two days.”

“And what are your plans until Potter gets back?” Lily tried to make the question sound friendly and innocent. Two days could be a long time if, as Remus had hinted, Black couldn’t go home.

He gave her a look that said he knew exactly what she was doing. “Evans, it’s fine. Two days and James will be home. He’ll get Remus’s letter, and his parents will come get me. I’ve spent holidays with them before…It’ll be all right.” By the time he finished speaking Lily could tell that it wasn’t her he was trying to convince.

“I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you,” Lily assured him. “That’s two days from now though. Remus—” She paused, not sure how he would react to her next question. She had to ask though. “Remus made it sound like you didn’t have anywhere you could go until then. Is that right?”

Black sighed and raised his left hand to his head like he wanted to run it through his hair. When he touched only short fuzz and raw skin he flinched and wrapped the hand back around his mug.

It was only then that she took a good look at his hands and almost flinched as well. His right hand was mottled with bruises and swollen, the fingers stiff, not quite closing properly around the mug. His left hand looked better, but what looked like a silk necktie was wrapped around his left wrist and stained with dry blood. The fingers on both of his hands were covered in long scratches. His nails were torn with old blood and dirt caked around the cuticles.

Lily felt sick to her stomach. Those weren’t the sort of wounds he would get from throwing punches.

“I can manage until James gets back,” Black said.

“How long have you been…er…how long since you left home?” Lily asked.

Black looked up at her, his shoulders drawing in defensively. “How much did Remus tell you?”

He didn’t sound angry, just tired…and ashamed.

“Just that he was worried about you and thought you might need help.” The rest Lily was quickly putting together on her own.

He shrugged again and she noticed the scratches across his hands continued up his forearms. The sleeves of his grey shirt had been rolled up to his elbows, likely in an attempt to hide the tears and the red-brown stains soaking through the silk in patches. A ring of finger-shaped bruises and small, crescent-shaped cuts circled one of his forearms.

“Last night, not quite midnight…I think…” He said it like it was nothing that he’d spent the better part of the night on the streets and seemed resigned to spending two more days there. Lily wouldn’t have believed his bravado even if a waitress hadn’t walked by their table right then with a tray of sandwiches. Black’s stomach growled loud enough for Lily and most of the café to hear it.

“And when was the last time you ate something?” She asked with a sigh.

Black’s attention was still following the sandwiches across the shop to another table. “Not sure,” he said absently. “Two days…maybe three by now.” The math caught Lily off guard. If he’d only run away in the middle of the night…

Damn. Lily had been sent to bed without dinner a few times as a child, but never more than that, and half the time one or the other of her parents had caved and brought her something to eat, or Tuney had snuck her sweets. Never in her life had Lily gone an entire day without something to eat, let alone two or three.

“Order something,” Lily told Black. She shifted her bag up onto her lap and dug through it for her wallet. Her parents had given her Muggle pocket money for the stay in London, and she hadn’t spent much yet. There was more than enough to buy Black lunch.

“Huh?” He turned back toward her, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Wave the waitress down and order a sandwich or something,” Lily said.

“I don’t think I have enough,” Black said, oblivious to what Lily was doing. “We covered money in Muggle Studies, but…well, it’s still confusing. Too many different coins, not to mention all the funny paper…”

“My treat,” Lily said, pulling out a few pounds.

Black looked uncomfortably between Lily and the waitress as she set plates piled high with sandwiches and crisps in front of a group of Muggle twenty-somethings. He was proud enough to hesitate, but hunger won out in the end, and he took the money Lily slid across the table with a mumbled “thank you.”

“I’m going to go use the phone across the street,” Lily said. She pulled out more change for herself and slung her purse back over her shoulder as she stood. “But I’ll be back. Don’t leave.”

He shot her a curious, almost suspicious glance, but nodded. Lily saw him catch the waitress’s attention as she headed out the front door. Across the street was a telephone box, likely the same one Black had called Remus from. She muttered under her breath as she crossed the street. This was a terrible idea, one bound to fail or blow up in her face. Yet, she had to try. She would never be able to face Remus if she left now. Merlin help her, she wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror if she did that. Even if she didn’t like Black, Lily couldn’t just leave him wandering around for two days, clueless, penniless, and hungry in Muggle London.

“Like finding a stray kitten,” Lily grumbled to herself. “No,” she amended, contrasting the normally energetic and unruly Black she was used to with the beaten, dispirited boy cringing in the sandwich shop. “More like a kicked puppy,” Lily said. Yes, somehow that seemed like a more fitting comparison.

The coins rattled as she dropped them into the phone and dialed. Her eyes stayed fixed on the little sandwich shop as the phone rang. She half expected Black to make a run for it while she was gone. He’d always had a prickly sense of pride, and she’d caught him hurt and vulnerable.

After two rings the phone clicked and a soft, sunny voice that always reminded Lily of crinkling paper answered cheerfully.

“Aunt Violet, it’s Lily,” she replied, tapping her fingernails against the dirty glass of the phone box in a fretful tattoo.

“Hello, darling,” her great-aunt’s voice became even warmer with recognition. “Did you find your friend?”

Lily rapped all five fingers against the glass at once. “I did…”

“Lily, what’s wrong?”

She didn’t know whether to be grateful or not that Aunt Violet had already picked up on the hesitation in her words.

“My friend…” Lily said, already feeling like she was lying, because whatever sympathetic, lost puppy feelings she may have had for him at that moment, Sirius Black was not her friend. “My friend,” she began again, “is in some trouble and can’t go home. There’s someone h—they—can stay with, but not for a few more days, and—”

“Of course your friend can stay here!” Aunt Violet said eagerly, guessing at what Lily was going to ask before Lily could work up the nerve to get there herself. Even as she breathed a sigh of relief, Lily winced at the lie of omission she’d maneuvered into her request. She’d deliberately left out that her “friend” was a boy. Aunt Violet had always been remarkably broadminded, but she was still old enough that she might not approve of Lily bringing a male friend home to stay for a few days. For that matter, she didn’t know what her mother would think either, though she was certain Petunia would disapprove. Of course, her sister would probably care more that Black was a wizard than that he was a boy.

“Thank you, Aunt Violet,” Lily said. Hopefully, her aunt and her mother would look at Black and see a stray puppy in need of a bed, a bath, and several good meals rather than a teenage boy. “We should be back in time for dinner, if that’s all right?”

“Of course, of course, the more the merrier! I’ll let your mother and Petunia know when they get back. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled!” Lily did not share her great-aunt’s certainty, but she thanked Aunt Violet again before hanging up.

With a sigh of both relief and frustration, Lily stepped out of the telephone box and jogged back across the street behind a cab. Inside the café she found Black tearing his way through a bacon sandwich. Half of the sandwich was already gone and he looked like he was barely pausing to breathe between bites. When he saw Lily he wiped his mouth on the back of his good hand and swallowed. He looked embarrassed, although Lily wasn’t sure if it was more because of his manners or because she’d paid for the sandwich he was eating.

“Were you telephone calling Remus?” Black asked as Lily sat back down across from him. Something flashed through his eyes, there and gone so fast Lily wasn’t certain she’d really seen it, but it looked like shame. She wondered if he was embarrassed about having had to call Remus for help.

“No,” Lily said. “I called my Aunt Violet. My mum, my sister, and I have been visiting at her house here in London. She’s all right with you staying there until Potter gets back from India.”

The sandwich Black had been holding nearly fell out of his fingers as he stared at Lily. Surprise was quickly followed by an increasingly familiar mix of humiliation and obstinacy across Black’s bruised face. “Evans, I don’t—”

“Can we please not argue about this?” Lily asked, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms over her chest. “I know we’re not friends, Black, but that doesn’t mean I want to see you get run over by a lorry or something.”

“What’s a lorry?” He asked.

“Sort of proves my point right there, doesn’t it?” Lily replied, reaching across the table to snag a crisp off Sirius’s plate. He frowned at her and still hesitated, so Lily took a gamble. “Look, Black, Remus asked me to help you. Don’t make me tell him you’re out wandering around Muggle London alone, especially not tonight.”

Black cringed, and Lily knew she’d won. “Low blow, Evans,” he muttered. His eyes drifted toward the greasy windows at the front of the shop, like he was searching for the moon that wouldn’t make an appearance for hours yet. “Sure you weren’t supposed to be in Slytherin?”

“I’m generously going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Lily replied with a contemptuous sniff. The corner of Black’s mouth twitched up in a weak attempt at a smile that faltered and fell just as quickly.

“Fair enough,” Black said. He ducked his head and stared down at the remains of his sandwich. “I can’t pay you back,” he admitted quietly, the thin thread of humor was gone from his voice and his expression now. “Not for any of this…”

“I didn’t ask you to,” Lily said dryly. “Although if you’re that worried about it, get Potter to stop asking me out and I’ll consider us more than even.”

The bark of laughter that slipped out of Black’s throat startled them both, and he ducked his head again, but a smile lingered on his lips this time. “That’s a tall order, Evans. No promises, but at the very least I can agree to help you hex him if he gets too insufferable.”

Lily let out a melodramatic sigh to hide her triumphant smile . “I suppose it’ll have to do,” she said. If Black was still responding to humor things didn’t feel quite so hopeless. She felt like she was closer to familiar territory with a Sirius Black who could smile and laugh at least a little.

“Well, finish your sandwich,” Lily instructed. “We’ve got a train and then a bus to catch.”

The sandwich froze halfway to Black’s open, gaping mouth. “Muggle trains and buses?” He asked. The question might have been offensive coming from most pure-bloods, but there was a hint of almost childish fascination in Black’s tone.

“Yes, Muggle trains and buses,” Lily answered. It dawned on her that she would likely have to keep a close eye on Black if he was completely unused to Muggle transportation.

Black took a large bite of bacon and bread and chewed thoughtfully. “I’ve never been on a Muggle train or bus before. Is it like the Hogwarts Express? Remus says there are Muggle trains that run under the ground, but I figured he was just taking the piss out on me and James.”

Lily smiled, amused by his genuinely innocent questions. “No, Remus was telling the truth. There’s a station just a block away, you probably walked right past it. They’re not much like the Hogwarts Express though. Honestly, you’re probably going to be disappointed.”

His eyes went wide, and he obviously dismissed her warning about the inevitable letdown of the London Underground. “Do the buses run underground too?” He asked. “I’ve seen some out on the streets before, so they can’t all be down there.”

Black seemed like the shadow of whatever had happened to him was beginning to lift a little. Lily didn’t want to risk upsetting that, but Morgana’s teeth! He was making it hard for her to hold back her laughter. Lily bit her tongue and reminded herself that she’s been in this same position when faced with aspects of the Wizarding world before, and she’d have hated it if someone like Black had laughed at her for her ignorance or her enthusiasm.

Black didn’t seem to notice her struggle though. He was busy wolfing down the last few bites of his sandwich and chips. In between bites, and often with his mouth half-full, he asked more questions. Lily fell short as an expert on Muggle transportation matters though. She couldn’t drive a car, didn’t know how an engine worked, and—most disappointingly in his eyes—she’d never ridden a motorbike.

“I’m going to buy one someday,” Black told her with a wistful fondness that most people reserved for romantic partners.

“That,” Lily said as she helped herself to one of his last few crisps. “Sounds like a terrible idea that will inevitably result in your untimely death.”

She’d said something wrong. The light that had returned to Black’s face seemed to fade, the sharp angles of his bones seemed to cast shadows into hollows she would have sworn hadn’t been there a moment earlier. The grey of his eyes darkened from bright steel to dull pewter. After a moment, he smiled, but there was something cynical and sad about it.

“There are worse ways to go,” he said quietly.

“Black…I—”

“Do they serve hot chocolate on Muggle buses?” He asked quickly, cutting her off. The cheerful inquisitiveness in his voice sounded forced this time, but Lily didn’t push. “The Knight Bus’s chocolate is terrible, but I wouldn’t mind trying the Muggle variety.”

“Er…sorry…no hot chocolate…” Lily said, trying not to look too hard at what she’d said that had let the darkness slip back into Black’s eyes. She’d mentioned death, his death specifically. She’d meant it as a joke, the casually caustic sort of thing she knew Black and his friends threw at each other all the time at school. No…she definitely did not want to make connections between the cuts and bruises on Black’s skin and his all too sober insistence that there were worse ways to die than in a motorcycle crash. She was already regretting the few crisps she’d stolen from Black’s plate as they tried to ride a wave of bile back up her throat.

Watching as Black wolfed down the last of his crisps, Lily wondered what in the hell had she gotten herself into here? Whatever it was, it was too late for her to back out now. She was stuck with Sirius Black for the next two days.

Chapter Text

Despite having lived in London his entire life, Sirius had seen frightfully little of the city. His family relied on the Floo Network, Apparition, and the occasional portkey to get about, rarely leaving through their own front door. Thus, the majority of the city—the Muggle parts—were as strange and exotic to Sirius as the green depths of a jungle or the frozen wastes of Antarctica. He could only wish he was in good enough shape to enjoy what he was now seeing.

After his belly had been filled with food, his body had moved on to focus on its next great need: sleep. Sirius was practically dozing on his feet as he followed Evans out into of the little café and squinted in the bright midday light. The redhead stuck close to his side, as close as possible while being careful not to make contact. She led him across the street and past the dirty red telephone box where he’d made his desperate call to Remus early that morning.

The streets had been quiet then, just after sunrise, only a few people and the occasional automobile rumbling by. He’d worried that it would be too early, that no one would answer the other telephone, and that he would have wasted a few of his precious handful of Muggle coins feeding the box to make the telephone work. Evans didn’t stop at the red box though. She’d already made her own telephone call to her…her aunt, wasn’t it? And now Sirius was going to stay at her house…the house of Lily Evans’s Muggle aunt.

A part of him was sure he must be dreaming, because the whole thing felt surreal, illogical. Of course, if this was a dream it must be one of James’s, because spending time with Evans wasn’t the stuff of Sirius’s fantasies. Perhaps, a voice in the back of his mind whispered cruelly, perhaps he was still down in the cellar, cold and starving and waiting for the trap door to open and a final curse to hit him. He tried to push those thoughts away and concentrate on the strange things around him he hadn’t had the time to notice earlier. Sirius gawked in every direction, taking in the people and the buildings, trying to catalogue the many things he didn’t recognize or understand.

Evans hissed sharply and suddenly, her long fingernails dug into Sirius’s arm, jerking him backward. Not even a second later an automobile rushed by, hot air buffeting Sirius’s face, almost knocking the breath out of him. He staggered when it was past, throwing Evans a look of startled distress she returned with an irritated huff.

“What did I say about getting run over by a lorry?” She said in a condescending tone like he was halfwit first year.

Sirius mumbled a half-hearted apology and winced when she released his arm. Evans looked down, realizing she’d grabbed him just above the ring of bruises already circling his arm, a lingering gift from his mother.

“It’s all right,” Evans said, exchanging disdain for pity. Sirius wasn’t sure which he hated more. “Just…stay close, all right?”

Sirius nodded and waited, caught between curiosity, exhaustion, and irritation until Evans decided the road was safe and they hurried across. In the middle of the pavement on the other side of the street was a staircase leading down underground. Evans led them toward it. The walls were plastered with torn, tatty posters and fliers, none of which moved. Sirius stumbled twice going down the steps as he stared at them, searching for even the slightest twitch or change. Their stillness was eerie, and they reminded him uncomfortably of the posters on his bedroom walls.

The chamber at the bottom of the stairs was dirty and barren, with a tired, balding man sitting in a booth almost as small as the telephone box upstairs. There were several strange, waist-high metal gates that cut off the area around the stairs from the station beyond. Evans approached the man in the box and paid for two tickets, which he slid out through a small hole in the smudged window above his counter.

That jogged Sirius’s tired memory and he reached into his trouser pockets, digging out his remaining coins as he followed Evans to the strange gates, which clicked forward in a way that allowed only one person through at a time.

“Here,” Sirius said once they were out on the platform. He held out the meager handful of strange coins to Evans. “I know it’s probably not enough to cover the ticket…or the sandwich, but it’s all I’ve got right now.”

She looked like she wanted to protest, to nobly tell him to keep the money, but after a moment she took it, dropping the coins into her purse with a quiet “thank you.”

“Where did you get Muggle money anyway?” Evans asked as they walked across the platform. It was long and narrow with a rounded ceiling and walls and bright electric lights that flickered and buzzed once in a while. Half of the station was taken up by a long tunnel laid with tracks that stretched into the darkness in both direction beyond the platform. Sirius craned his neck to try and see down the tunnel. Evans grabbed hold of his shirt collar this time when she dragged him back a few steps from the edge.

Sirius shrugged when she released him and walked a few paces away to lean against a grimy pillar, shoving his hands into his pockets, which were now empty of everything except his last few cigarettes in a battered package.

“I didn’t have time to grab anything before I…before I left,” Sirius said, carefully weighing each word before he said it aloud. Evans had already figured out too much about what had happened to him on her own. He didn’t want to give her any more clues, not like his stupid slip up back at the café, revealing that he hadn’t eaten in days or the overly dramatic nonsense he’d let slip out about dying. Those were the sort of things he’d carefully spent years hiding from his closest friends; he certainly didn’t want to spill his guts to a girl he barely spoke to.

“But I had a pack of cigarettes and my lighter shoved in a pocket. Met a couple of blokes and birds on their way home from a concert of some sort late last night. One of the girls asked if I had a light when she saw me smoking. She liked my lighter and offered to buy it off me.”

That was a gross simplification of the events of last night, but Evans was already frowning at him in disapproval. He didn’t want to make things worse by telling her the details of his flight through the city. Most of the time he’d spent as Padfoot anyway, trusting the dog’s ground eating trot and keen senses to keep him out of danger better than he could manage as a human. The human part of his brain had had to stop the canine part from trying to drink from gutters or eat out of dumpsters, but otherwise things had been fine. Until he’d changed back into human form.

A part of Sirius hadn’t wanted to change back at all. He’d wanted nothing more than to hide behind Padfoot’s straightforward fears and worries. Pain was primarily a physical sensation for Padfoot. He could lick his wounds without reliving the other sorts of agony that had come with them. The words, the spells, the humiliation, and the hate, those things meant very little to Padfoot, but they had threatened to break Sirius last night.
In the end it was Sirius’s deep-seated craving for a cigarette that forced him back into human form. He’d been sitting on the edge of a kerb, smoking to ease the hunger cramps and trying to get his bearings, when a small pack of drunks had stumbled by. They’d only been a few years older than Sirius himself and were dressed in a strange mix of clothing with lots of black and leather, all torn and tattered, but in a deliberate way. Sirius had stared, terrified and awestruck. That was the moment he realized how very sheltered he’d been for most of his life.

He’d been unbelievably lucky, he knew, that the only people he’d encounter late at night in a strange part of London had been amiable and willing to at least offer him a bit of money for his lighter rather than try to rob him outright.

“That lighter was charmed, wasn’t it?” Evans asked, drawing Sirius back to the present with a start. He’d been halfway to nodding off for a moment. “I remember you toying with it at school.”

“Er—yeah, it was,” Sirius said, rubbing his good hand across his tired eyes and squinting at the bright, flickering lights. “It was a Christmas present from Peter. The flame changes colors and it doesn’t need any of that muggle potion to run.”

Sirius recognized the set of Evans’s jaw and the crease between her red eyebrows. It was her prefect face, the one she wore while scolding and handing out detentions. “You know that’s illegal, right? Selling magically altered items to Muggles. You could get in a lot of trouble if something happens to that girl, or if anyone at the Ministry finds out.”

Exhausted as he was, Sirius felt a flash of anger. His shoulders straightened and his jaw clenched as Sirius shot Evans an irate scowl she probably knew just as well as he knew her prefect face.

“I was already in trouble, Evans,” Sirius snapped. “That’s why I was willing to sell one of my favorite possessions—the only thing I had left besides the clothes on my back—for pocket change. I wasn’t trying to bait the Muggles or hurt anyone. I was just…”

Desperate.

Sirius bit his tongue before he let that humiliating, gut-wrenching word out. It left a bitter taste in his mouth how helpless and desperate he felt even now. His parents could track him down and appear at any moment, and now he might get Evans hurt if they did. Even if no one was looking for him, Sirius had still lost everything familiar last night.

He might have been miserable at home and despised his family, but they were all he knew outside of Hogwarts. All he had left now were three friends who had every right to hate him, and the reluctant help of a girl who probably hated him.

Sirius sighed. “I don’t think this is going to work out,” he said, pushing away from the pillar, shoving his hands in the pockets of his trousers, wishing he had a way to light one of his last few cigarettes. This had been a bad idea, pushing him and Evans together. They couldn’t be civil for half an hour. Two days together and they’d probably strangle each other. “Just telephone Remus for me, will you? Have him send an owl to the Potters, they can come get me near the sandwich shop when they get back.”

He could manage two days on his own, especially if he stayed as Padfoot. It wouldn’t be fun, but he wouldn’t mind eating from a trash can and drinking from fountains or gutters as a dog. He would just have to watch out for lorries and other Muggle dangers.

Evans caught him by the wrist of his bad hand before he could get more than a step away. Her fingers closed over the cut he’d made on the wine rack, and knocked into the bruises as well. Not thinking, Sirius gave a canine-like yelp of pain and jerked out of her grasp.

“Oh god!” Evans said, her hand flying to her mouth in shocked mortification. “I didn’t mean to—”

Pain pulsed through his hand as Sirius clutched it close to his chest with his good hand. The skin felt hot and even the lightest touch stung. “Fuck, Evans!” Sirius snarled.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Lily said. She took a step forward, reaching out toward him. She stopped when Sirius took another step back, gritting his teeth to keep from swearing at her again. He knew she hadn’t meant to hurt him, but she had, and she was the only one standing in front of him, the only available target for his anger.

“I don’t know what the fuck Remus was thinking,” he snapped. “This was a stupid idea. Like you would be any fucking help to anyone.”

Sirius didn’t know how he’d expected her to react, maybe to huff and storm off or slap him across the face. He expected some sort of anger, Evans wasn’t the sort to cower and cry when someone was mean to her. However, he hadn’t expected her to narrow her eyes and close the distance between them again.

“Let me see it,” Evans demanded, holding out her hand expectantly.

“What?” She caught Sirius off-guard enough with her request that his anger sputtered and stalled.

“Your hand, you obnoxious twat,” Evans sighed. “If it hurts that bad it might be broken. I can’t use any healing spells outside of school, so if it’s broken we’re going to have to take you to a hospital, which I distinctly do not want to do, because you’re enough of a pain in my arse already. Now let me see your damned hand, Black!”

For several seconds they both stood frozen, glaring at each other. Then Sirius laughed. The humor bubbled up out of his chest making him feel half-hysterical.

“Merlin, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear before, Evans,” Sirius said in awe once the laughter had died down. The redhead was still regarding him suspiciously, like she was trying to puzzle out if he was laughing at her somehow. “Don’t let James hear you talk like that or he’ll swoon.”

That was what had broken through his anger. She hadn’t responded to his temper like he’d expected her to; instead, she’d reacted like only his friends did. After five years of friendship, James, Remus, and Peter could tell the difference between the many varieties of Sirius’s anger. They knew how to react to each of them, when to calm him, when to agree with him, when to physically restrain him. They even knew when to call him on his shite and scream right back at him because he was wrong and being an arse about it.

Finally deciding that he wasn’t making fun of her, Evans rolled her eyes and made a beckoning gesture with the hand she still held out to him. “I only swear when it’s called for,” she told him. “Now, let me see your hand.”

Sirius held it out to her. Very gently, she took it in both of her own and began examining the bruises across the back of his hand and fingers. Her touch was feather-light as she traced the bones, but he still had to bite his tongue to keep from wincing. She pulled back the bandage he’d improvised from his tie and checked the cut beneath it as well.

She released him with a sigh. “I don’t think anything’s actually broken, but I only know some basic first aid. My great-aunt used to be a nurse though, so she can take a better look at everything when we get to her house. At the very least she’ll have some disinfectant for that cut and some real bandages.”

“So, I don’t have to go to a Muggle healer?” Sirius asked. Evans shook her head.

“I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so, especially if you’re going to the Potters in a few days. They should be able to heal you easily.”

“Good,” Sirius said. “We talked about them in Muggle studies, and it sounds like they try to solve every problem by cutting people open. I’ve got quite enough of those already.”

Evans rolled her eyes. Then her expression grew solemn again. “You were right,” she said. “About the lighter. Selling it was the right thing to do…and I shouldn’t have lectured you about it. You did what you had to, and it was smart.”

Sirius blinked and stared at Evans in disbelief. He couldn’t remember her ever admitting she was wrong, not once in all the time he’d known her. She was smart as anything, so she was rarely wrong to begin with, but on the few occasions when she was, the girl was unreasonably stubborn.

“Yeah, well…sorry I snapped at you…You didn’t deserve it,” Sirius muttered. He knew stubbornness and pride well, and if she could apologize, so could he. “Look, Evans—”

“Lily,” she corrected him. Sirius shot her a puzzled frown. Remus was on first name terms with her, but she and James had set the tone of her relationship with the rest of the Marauders, and part of that had always involved calling each other by their surnames.

“My mum, my sister, and I all have the same last name,” she explained. “It’s going to get confusing if you keep calling me Evans. Besides, I told my aunt that we’re friends, and my friends don’t usually call me Evans.”

Sirius frowned thoughtfully for a moment before he nodded. “All right…Lily. I suppose that would make me Sirius, if we’re supposed to be friends.”

She gave a surprised snort of laughter before she could bite her lip to hold it back. As usual, Sirius realized the pun his name had made a second too late.

“Not you too,” he muttered even as he struggled to hold back a smile of his own. James had been the first person who’d ever dared to make fun of his name and its homophone, but he hadn’t been the last. Remus, Peter, and even Sirius himself had joined in for a while, but after five years they had come to a mutual agreement that the “serious/Sirius” jokes had worn thin. Everyone, that was, except James…and now Lily.

A rattling noise echoed through the station, loud enough to make Sirius jump. Light drew closer from one of the tunnels as the train pulled into the station with a squeal of brakes and a wave of hot, musty-smelling air. It barely bore even a passing resemblance to the Hogwarts Express, all dull grey metal and dirty windows, but there was a roaring power to it that entranced Sirius. He took a step forward but stopped to stare in awe.

“That’s our train,” Evans—no, Lily—said. Oh Merlin, James was going to throw a fit when he learned Sirius had been given permission to call Lily Evans by her first name. He couldn’t help but smile at the thought, and, not knowing the source of his amusement, Lily smiled back.

“Come on,” she said as she took his good hand in hers and tugged him toward the opening doors in the side of the train. “Mind the gap.”

Chapter Text

Regulus was staring at him in absolute horror. Over the years Sirius had shocked, outraged, and terrified his little brother, but he’d never seen this look on Regulus’s face before. Distantly, oh so distantly, Sirius recognized that Regulus had finally grasped the enormity of what he had done. The favorite, cherished son was finally beginning to understand what their parents were capable of.

Sirius didn’t have to worry about the distress on Regulus’s face though, or listen to the pleas he was making for their father to stop.

Sirius didn’t have to worry about anything at all.

He felt light, free…happy. Nothing could shake that contentment either. So long as Sirius did as he was told, he could be happy forever.

“Get up, Sirius,” his father ordered. The words were spoken aloud, but they echoed through Sirius’s head as if they’d been whispered directly into his mind as well.

Sirius picked himself up off the ground immediately. He paid no attention to the vague pressure in his right hand that he might once have translated as pain as it pressed against the rug and bore his weight while he climbed to his feet and stood, silent and still and almost perfectly contented.

Almost…

There was just a tiny feeling, almost like an itch somewhere deep down in his mind.

“Father, please! You can’t do this! The curse, it’s—it’s unforgiveable!” Regulus’s voice sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

“Be silent, Regulus!” Orion bellowed. “If you don’t have the stomach for what needs to be done then get out!” It wasn’t an order directed toward him, so Sirius remained exactly where he was. The trouble was, so did Regulus.

The itch in the back of Sirius’s head became a little more persistent.

Their mother was fluttering around Regulus, speaking softly, cooing almost, and entreating him to go to his room, that everything would be fine. They would fix everything. When Regulus still refused to budge, refused to stop pleading, she summoned Kreacher. The elf had always favored Regulus and took him gently by the hand, urging Regulus to trust his parents, his “Wise Mistress and Master” before Apparating the boy away with a muffled crack. Then Sirius was alone with his parents, who still eyed him suspiciously even as he stood before them, silent and perfectly obedient.

“We need to discuss this, Orion,” Walburga hissed through clenched teeth. “Order him back up to his room for now—no, down to the cellar.”

The itch again. There was something about the word “cellar” that caused a ripple through the ocean of calm contentment Sirius floated upon.

I don’t want to go down there. A little voice in the back of his head said. It seemed to come straight from the prickling sensation.

”Why bother,” his father said with a haughty scoff. “He’s not going to care about anything we say, not until I tell him to. Should have done this years ago.” He laughed then, and the noise reverberated in Sirius’s head like a bell.

“Sirius, get me a drink,” Orion ordered.

He’s enjoying this. I don’t want to get him a drink…and he’s enjoying that. The little voice hissed in his brain as Sirius stepped carefully over the broken wreck of the coffee table and walked to the sideboard where a crystal decanter full of expensive firewhisky sat on a glinting silver tray beside several snifters.

Why should I make him a drink? The itching, scratching voice asked as he turned over a snifter and poured a measure of amber liquid into it. Behind his back his parents were talking frantically, but Sirius couldn’t make out the words because they weren’t directions aimed at him and he needed to get his father a drink, but the voice wouldn’t stop asking him why? Why? WHY?

The decanter and the snifter both fell from his suddenly limp fingers as pain edged its way back into his mind. The voice in the back of his head changed from asking why to saying no, no, NO!

“No.” He said the word out loud with great difficulty, but the moment it passed his lips the heavy blanket of nebulous happiness was ripped away. Pain and anger rushed in to take its place. Sirius staggered beneath the force of it, catching himself against the sideboard as he gasped for breath.

The Imperius Curse.

His father had used an unforgiveable curse on him. Something deep within his chest felt scraped raw. They didn’t call them unforgiveable because of a law, Sirius thought. The description must come from the absolute certainty that he would never, ever forgive his father for what he’d just done.

Still shaking, Sirius raised his head slowly, muscles tensed and screaming. To his surprise he found his father regarding him with something akin to grim respect. There was a promise in his eyes that said Sirius might have won a battle, but the war was far from over. His mother, on the other hand, was purple in the face and sputtering with shock and anger, already raising her wand and—

“Black—er, Sirius, wake up.”

It was the female voice hissing in his ear that startled Sirius awake more than the words it spoke or the hand gently shaking his shoulder. Caught between waking and a nightmare, that voice blended with his mother’s howling curses. Sirius thrashed instinctively as he opened his eyes to bright sunlight and lurching motion. Vertigo hit hard and Sirius felt his stomach jump up into his throat before plummeting back down into his gut. The redhead in the seat next to him let out and undignified squeak as she batted away his flailing arm.

“Sorry—I’m sorry!” Sirius mumbled as everything came rushing back and dream separated itself from reality, the past from the present.

“It’s all right,” Lily replied. She didn’t look at him as she shifted and wrapped an arm around the large purse resting on her lap. In fact, she was very pointedly not looking at him.

Sirius hoped he hadn’t been talking in his sleep. He didn’t usually, but sometimes after a particularly bad time at home his friends claimed he mumbled while he tossed and turned in the safety of his bed at Hogwarts. Sirius grimaced. The last thing he wanted was for Lily—or anyone else—to know what he’d been dreaming about. Not when it was more memory than nightmare.

“Sorry to wake you up,” Lily said, “But we’re almost there.”

“Thanks,” Sirius said, stretching his sore, cramped muscles as much as possible in the bus seat. He wasn’t sure which was worse, the Knight Bus with its manic jumps and starts and its terrible hot chocolate, or Muggle busses with their thinly padded seats, claustrophobic air, and slow crawl down the streets. No matter, Sirius would be happy to never have to ride either of them ever again.

Thus far, his trips via Muggle transportation had been horribly underwhelming. The underground train had been fun at first. The doors had closed automatically—though Lily hadn’t been able to explain exactly how they did so without magic. Really though, he hadn’t been able to see much through the dirty windows, just the dark walls of a tunnel they never left and a few other platforms.

It hadn’t helped that his exhaustion had really hit once he’d sat down. He’d slept through most of the train ride, only for Lily to wake him up and guide him up out of the station into a different part of London. They’d waited for a few minutes on a bench before a bus arrived and Lily exchanged more coins for their fare. This bus only had two decks and was bright red rather than the purple of the Knight Bus. It also had hard, barely padded bench seats similar to the underground train.

Still, the scenery had promised to be better for this trip, and Sirius had wanted to stay awake and look out the windows. Those good intentions had gone out the window within the first few minutes though as his head had lolled against the window. At least he hadn’t fallen asleep leaning on Lily…this time.

He looked over at the girl now, only to find she was nervously twisting a strand of dark red hair around a finger.

“What’s wrong?” He asked.

Lily sighed. “It’s nothing really, I’m sure. I just…didn’t tell my family that the friend I was bringing home was a boy.”

Sirius groaned. “They don’t think we’re dating or shagging like everyone at school does, do they?” He asked.

Lily’s cheeks went bright red and she shook her head adamantly. “No! They’re Muggles. I didn’t tell them about that damned rumor, and they wouldn’t have heard it from anywhere else, thank god. But, they might assume it anyway—the dating part! Not the shagging part! Just…be prepared, I suppose.”

Sirius frowned. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” He asked warily. He’d had to leave one house in disgrace already, he didn’t want to make it two in as many days.

“It’ll be fine,” Lily promised. There was a stubborn set to her jaw that seemed to say she would make it be fine if she had to. Sirius didn’t know enough about Muggles to what worries they might have about Lily bring a boy home. He knew his own parents would never have let him bring home a girl for the weekend unless there was a signed betrothal contract involved. Of course, they wouldn’t have let him bring Lily home at all, or anyone he actually liked, either platonically or romantically.

“There is one other thing though…” Lily said hesitantly. The hair she had been twisting sprang up into a loose curl when she released it.

“Yeah?” Sirius asked when she didn’t immediately explain what this “other thing” they needed to worry about was.

“We’ll have to tell my mum something,” Lily said.

Sirius frown in confusion. “Something about what?” He prompted again.

She bit the inside of her cheek and waved a hand toward him as if to indicate all of Sirius. It took a moment before he caught on. They would have to give her mother an explanation for why a “friend” Lily had never mentioned before was turning up at her great-aunt’s house, bruised, filthy, and in need of a place to stay for a few nights.

“Oh…right…”

“It doesn’t have to be the truth,” Lily offered. “Just a convincing enough lie.”

Sirius raised an eyebrow. “You, Lily Evans, most perfect of prefects, are suggesting we lie to your mum?” He was half joking and half surprised, testing the limits of their newfound tolerance. Lily went stiff and still under his amused smirk. Something passed across her face and lingered in her dark green eyes.

“Everyone lies, Sirius, and you don’t know me all that well,” she said quietly. It came out sadder than she must have wanted it to, because she looked away immediately.

“No,” Sirius admitted. “I suppose I don’t.”

Under other circumstances the mystery of what untruths the right honorable Lily Evans told and to whom would have intrigued Sirius to no end. Instead, his thoughts were occupied by what sort of lie he could tell Lily and her family to account for his disheveled state.

They lapsed into silence as the bus jerked toward its next stop. Lily was half-turned away from Sirius in her seat. She stared across the aisle and out the opposite window. Sirius could just see the reflection of her in the glass as he watched the scenery change outside his own window. They were passing out of an area that was mostly tall buildings with signs declaring the name or nature of their business and into a neighborhood dominated by houses with tiny but tidy front gardens and picket fences.

“Would it…would it be enough to just tell your mum it was a family dispute?” Sirius asked.

Lily turned back toward him, one red eyebrow arched in surprise. Sirius kept his eyes fixed out the window, watching her reflection rather than turning to meet her eye. She didn’t seem shocked by the nature of the admission so much as she was startled by Sirius’s willingness to make it. His willingness to skirt so close to the truth.

Sirius sighed. He was too tired to think up an elaborate story, and if the rest of Lily’s family was half as smart as she was they probably wouldn’t be fooled by a lie anyway. Not when several of his bruises bore the shape of fingers. It was an easy leap from there to the truth.

“Would that be enough?” He repeated. Hopefully Lily would catch the firm note in his voice that promised that was as much detail as he was willing to give her, her mum, or anyone else.

“Yes…I think so,” Lily said quietly.

Silence fell between them again, stretching on for two more bus stops. Lily watched him the entire time. She was biting her lip, and her hands were playing with the straps and fringe on her purse, but her green eyes stayed fixed on him.

Sirius turned away from the window and rested his forearms on the seat in front of him, leaning forward. “Just ask,” he said, caught between irritation and resignation. He doubted he wanted to answer whatever questions she had, but he couldn’t stand the way she was watching him, the worry and the pity.

“Ask what?” Lily said, startled.

Sirius shrugged. “Whatever it is you clearly want to ask me.” He turned just enough to look at the real Lily out of the corner of his eye rather than flashes of her reflection.

Lily swallowed and tugged on another strand of her hair. It was getting longer, growing out from the shoulder-length she’d kept it at for most of fifth year. She was debating it, not sure if she really should ask her questions, or if she should pretend not to know what he was talking about. Ultimately though, Lily was as much a Gryffindor as Sirius, and she dredged up the courage.

“You…mentioned that rumor,” Lily said finally.

Sirius frowned. That was a statement, not a question. Still, the dark flush that rose up Lily’s neck all the way to her cheeks was telling. She was embarrassed, and—judging by the all too familiar tilt of her eyebrows—angry as well.

Sirius hadn’t considered the rumor from Lily’s point of view before. He’d been too preoccupied with the repercussions it would have on his own life. He’d barely even spared a thought for how James felt about the whole thing. Lily herself, the girl he and James had purportedly fought over, had never even entered Sirius’s thoughts.

He felt a twinge of guilt over that now as he looked at Lily, who was holding her head high despite the blush she couldn’t hide. She hadn’t asked for the entire school to gossip about her fictional sex life any more than Sirius and James had. He could understand that, could empathize with her anger and even with her embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,” Sirius said honestly. “James and I were fighting about something else entirely. Neither of us ever intended for you to somehow get caught up in the mess.” Especially James, Sirius added silently. He’d watched this past year as the teasing flirtations James had been aiming at Lily since fourth year had slowly changed from an ongoing joke that got an easy rise out of a pretty girl with a bit of a temper to something far more genuine, even as it was still clumsy and borderline offensive. Somewhere along the line, James had developed real feelings towards Lily; he just didn’t know how not to be an immature prat about it.

Lily’s blush darkened, but she shook her head. “I know, but that’s not what I was getting at.”

Sirius raised an eyebrow and waited as she twisted and tugged at her hair a few more times. “I know…I know your parents don’t like Muggle-borns—” Sirius smirked sourly at the understatement, but Lily didn’t seem to notice. “Did you have to leave to leave because of that rumor…because of me?”

Did they hurt you because they thought you cared for me?

Sirius could read the last, unspoken part in the angry crease between her eyebrows and the guilt-ridden cringe she tried to suppress.

Well, he’d expected her to ask something about his parents or what had happened, but he hadn’t expected it to go in this direction. He certainly hadn’t expected the remorseful look on her face, like the bruises and other wounds Sirius bore were somehow her fault.

Sirius would never have labeled the sudden feeling that swept through him as pity. He had the feeling Lily would despise that as much as he did. It was an almost angry urge to reassure her.

“It wouldn’t be ‘because of you’ even if they…even if it was because of the rumor. You didn’t start the bloody story,” Sirius said firmly. “But no, they were right pissed when they heard about it. My mum nearly screamed herself raw, but I managed to convince them it wasn’t true, just a malicious piece of gossip.”

There was no way he was going to tell her he’d received the still-healing scar on his cheek as part of his mother’s tirade over his supposed relationship with Lily. His parents’ prejudices weren’t her fault in any way, shape, or form.

“I left because of something else,” Sirius said. Lily’s guilt seemed to ease, but he didn’t like the spark of curiosity he saw replace it. Now she was doubtlessly wondering what he could have done that was worse in the eyes of his bigoted parents than bed a Muggle-born girl.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all was that Sirius felt the urge to actually tell her.

Then he remembered Sutcliffe’s worry about being outed. Muggles shared that particular prejudice with pure bloods like his parents. It stood to reason that Muggle-borns might share it as well. Though a small voice in the back of his head reminded Sirius that Lily had not only kept Remus’s lycanthropy a secret when she’d worked it out, she’d remained his friend as well.

Before he could contemplate the matter further, the bus jerked to a stop and its doors squeaked open.

“This is us,” Lily said as she got to her feet. Sirius followed close on her heels off the bus and onto the pavement. He took in their surroundings as the bus pulled away with a wheezy rumble. It was quiet and…quaint seemed to be the right word. The street was lined with cars and trees, but there was very little traffic. Neat terraced houses stood on both sides of the road. They were newer and far more modest than the ones around Grimmauld Place, but these houses showed signs of life and care, unlike his family’s ancestral home.

Sirius didn’t know where they were, but it felt very different from the parts of London he knew, more like a Muggle version of the neighborhood up in Wimbourne where Peter and his mum lived. Quant was definitely the word for it, or maybe picturesque. Either way, Sirius felt like he must stand out like a kneazle among housecats, something that was mostly the right shape, but could never quite fit in because both the details and the instincts were all wrong.

“It’s just one street over,” Lily said, nodding down the tree-lined pavement.

There wasn’t quite as much to gape at here as there had been downtown, but the cars fascinated him, as did a few glimpses of the things he could see through some of the windows. Strange clothing or devices he only could puzzle over for a few moments before they had passed by. He bit back the questions that rose in his head, not sure if he was more worried that Lily would laugh at or be annoyed by his ignorance.

The house Lily led him to was similar to its neighbors stretching up and down both sides of the street, two thin storeys with three wide concrete steps leading to the front door. The only thing that stood out about it was the vibrant, almost overgrown flower boxes and beds that hung from the windows and filled the little patch of garden to bursting. Lily paused with her hand on the gate.

“One last thing,” she said. “My great-aunt…she’s a Muggle. My parents won’t let me tell her about magic or, well, me. She just thinks I have a scholarship to a posh boarding school in Scotland, so—”

“So, you want me to pretend to be a Muggle?” Sirius asked her incredulously.

Lily flushed red again, but this time it was more angry than embarrassed. “There’s nothing wrong with it!” She snapped defensively.

Sirius held up his hands in a placating sign of surrender. “I didn’t mean it that way. I meant that there’s no way I don’t cock that up.” Sirius huffed and rolled his eyes, gritting his teeth to admit his own ignorance and helplessness.

Lily’s frown turned more pensive than cross. “You’ve had two years of Muggle Studies though, and Remus said you did well in the class.”

He only just managed not to grimace at the mention of Remus’s name. “I’m outstanding in Muggle Studies,” Sirius said proudly. “But that means I can kind of use a telephone and know that airplanes are flying metal tubes and not gigantic birds. Unless your aunt wants to have conversation about the very basic structure of the Muggle parliament or how fascinating an electric kettle sounds, then I don’t know what to talk about!”

“Everything in the Muggle world to choose from, and you think an electric kettle sounds fascinating?” Lily asked. She sounded baffled and…amused. After a moment she couldn’t hold back a snigger of laughter.

Sirius glowered and indignantly crossed his arms over his chest.

“Sorry,” Lily said, biting her lip to stop herself from laughing. “Just follow my lead. It’s not like she’s going to jump straight to the conclusion that magic is real if you seem a bit odd. She’ll probably just think you’re a posh idiot whose parents bought his way into a nice school.”

Despite the lip clenched firmly between her teeth. The edges of Lily’s mouth twitched. Sirius huffed, his pride felt as ruffled as Padfoot’s fur. “You’re enjoying this,” he said sourly.

“Like you wouldn’t if the positions were reversed,” Lily shot back.

Sirius narrowed his eyes further as he scowled at her, but he didn’t deny it. “Fine, I can play the idiot if need be—not a bloody word, Evans!” He added as she lost her fight against smiling and laughing at him again.

“Sorry,” Lily said again. She managed to smooth out her expression as she opened the gate. “Although you’re in luck, Aunt Violet does have an electric kettle.”

She didn’t knock on the door, just opened it and called out. “Mum! Aunt Violet! I’m back!” She glanced over her shoulder at Sirius, who had paused awkwardly in the doorway. “And I brought a friend.”

From where he stood, Sirius could see down a hallway with whitewashed wainscoting and a floral damask wallpaper above it. Late afternoon sunlight poured in from the open front door and another open door leading to a room on the left. It caught on the glass of the framed photographs that lined the hallway, all of the people within them perpetually frozen in place.

A blonde girl who couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Lily and Sirius poked her head out of the door to the left. Sirius’s first impression was that she had an abnormally long neck, which allowed her to crane her head around the doorframe without actually set foot out of the room. The moment her gaze locked onto Sirius her eyes went wide and round then narrowed in a flash. A frown twisted her naturally longish face into something sour.

“Lily, what is this?” The girl—who could only be the sister Lily had mentioned—snapped. “Why did you bring home a boy?

Lily very quietly muttered, “Fuck.”

There was a shift in Lily, in the way she stood, in the expression on her face, even the color of her eyes seemed to dim a little as her sister took a single stamping step out into the hallway. Sirius was shocked to find he recognized the tautness that overtook her. It was terribly familiar, the discomfort, the watchfulness. Sirius had felt it every time he’d gone home since he was twelve years old.

It wasn’t precisely the same. Lily lacked the thread of fear that had always ran through Sirius’s tension around his family, but there was still something there between her and her sister. Instinctively, he stepped closer to her, not sure if he was trying to act as support or shield, only knowing there were times when he’d desperately wished someone had been there to do the same for him.

Lily forced a brittle smile. “Petunia, this is Sirius, my friend from school.”

An edge of confusion deepened Petunia’s frown. “What’s serious about it? That wasn’t even a proper sentence, Lily.”

Lily and Sirius seemed to catch Petunia’s misunderstanding and the accidental pun on his name at the same time. They locked eyes, and after a breathless second the tension shattered as they both burst out laughing. Sirius did his best at first to turn it into a cough, raising his good hand to cover his mouth, but Lily didn’t even manage that. She laughed so hard she had to wipe a tear from her eye.

“Tuney,” Lily wheezed, bracing a hand on Sirius’s shoulder as she straightened back up. “Sorry, it’s his name and—”

Petunia Evans did not like to be laughed at, it seemed. Her lips thinned into a tight pink line, and her eyes flashed as she lifted her nose in the air with an audible sniff and stormed up the stairs down the hall.

“Oh, bollocks,” Lily cursed. “I need to—just wait here!” She ordered Sirius before charging after her fleeing sister.

“What? Lily!” He called after her, but she was already halfway up the stairs. Sirius briefly considered following her, but decided to follow her instructions for the moment. Instead he slumped back against the closed door and sighed. He hoped he hadn’t caused a fight between Lily and her sister just by walking through the front door. Though Petunia hadn’t made a very good first impression herself. He’d been hexed for being half as rude to guests as she’d been.

Still, Sirius had a rather vested interest in not pissing off Lily’s family for the next two days, especially since he could now smell something heavenly wafting out from the kitchen that must be at the far end of the hallway. He was tempted to follow his nose as his stomach grumbled loudly. It had only been a few hours since he’d devoured the sandwich Lily had bought him, but he was already hungry again.

Lily had told him to wait where he was though. Sirius sighed and glanced around the hallway. There wasn’t much there, and aside from the eerily immobile photographs, it was all familiar. He’d honestly hoped for more out of his first trip to a completely Muggle home, but the only thing he couldn’t identify was a small switch mounted on the wall next to the door.

Sirius eyed the switch curiously. He had the sudden, half-mad urge to push it and see what it did. In Grimmauld Place, he never would have dared to touch an unknown switch or dial, fearful of what hellish traps or devices his parents might dare to install in their home. Surely Muggles wouldn’t booby trap their houses though, would they?

Impulse control had never been one of Sirius’s strengths though. He barely debated with himself another ten seconds before he reached out and flipped the switch up. Instantly, warm light flooded the hallway. Sirius jumped and looked up. Two glass fixtures along the ceiling he hadn’t noticed before were now shining with bright light.

“Electricity!” Sirius whispered in awe. He’d read about this in his Muggle Studies class, and had seen the streetlamps outside Grimmauld Place, but he’d never had the opportunity to control it before. He reached out and flipped the switch back down. Just as quickly as they’d come on, the light fixtures stopped glowing. Sirius flipped the switch up again and watched for the split second between no light and light. Really, it was just as good as magic.

Staring at the ceiling, Sirius flipped the switch on and off several more times. He probably could have remained happily fixated with the mystery of the electric lights until Lily returned, but a polite cough startled him, and his hand pulled away from the switch with the lights turned on.

Standing at the far end of the hallway near the kitchen door was an old woman, short and thin and a little hunched over with long white-grey hair pinned behind her head. She regarded Sirius with befuddled amusement. In some odd, inexplicable way, she reminded him of Dumbledore. It was something in the sparkle of her eyes—a rich green only a few shades lighter than Lily’s own—and the way they swept over Sirius from head to toe and seemed to strip away everything physical about him leaving her to see directly into the very core of who he was.

“You must be Lily’s friend,” she said sweetly.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, Tuney,” Lily said again. If she was being honest, Lily wasn’t entirely sure she knew what she was apologizing for, but she was certainly doing a lot of it very quickly. She’d managed to catch the door to the bedroom she and Petunia were sharing before it could slam shut, and had followed her sister into the room.

Lily had been so worried about how everyone else—her mum, Aunt Violet, Sirius—would go along with this plan of hers that she had completely forgotten to consider Petunia. Perhaps that was what she was really apologizing for.

“We weren’t laughing at you, not really, it’s just—my friend, his name is Sirius. S-I-R-I-U-S. It’s an easy mistake to make, actually it’s sort of a running joke with him as school.”

She was rambling. Lily so often seemed to ramble when she spoke to her sister these days. It was like she felt the felt the need to just keep speaking and speaking until she stumbled on something that would appease Petunia, that would make things okay between them again. She had yet to find that perfect combination of words.

Petunia, who had angrily stormed to the vanity where her makeup and toiletries were spread out, picked up a hairbrush and started furiously yanking it through her curls. She waited until Lily had run out of apologies to stumble through before she whirled on her younger sister.

“It always has to be about you, doesn’t it?” Petunia snapped. Lily was so taken aback by her response that she literally stumbled back a step.

“Tuney, I don’t—” Lily said, but Petunia surged to her feet, the hairbrush still clenched in one hand. Lily ducked instinctively. It wouldn’t be the first time Petunia had thrown something at her in the middle of an argument.

“Just this once something was supposed to be about me! We’re supposed to be here for me, looking for a flat for me, but you couldn’t even give me that, could you? You had to bring home some hooligan boyfriend from that freak school of yours!”

“Petunia, I didn’t plan this, and Sirius is certainly not my boyfriend!” Lily retorted. She didn’t want to get angry at her sister, but she was just so frustrating! Lily didn’t try to undermine her sister. She didn’t try to steal the spotlight or their parents’ attention from her older sister. In fact, half the time she wished Petunia could take the attention away from her.

As much as she loved her parents, and as supportive as they were about everything, there were still times when Lily felt like all the things Petunia called her, like a freak among her Muggle family. When their parents asked Lily questions about her classes or anything in the wizarding world they never seemed to take her answers seriously. They were amused, fascinated even, by the thought of her turning ravens into wineglasses or riding a broomstick, but their pride and attention sometimes made Lily feel more like she was a pet who’d learned a few impressive tricks rather than their daughter.

Lily wished she could tell Petunia all of that, could prove to her that their fears and desires were complimentary rather than in competition. She’d been trying to make her sister understand that for years though and it still hadn’t sunk in.

“Lily? Is that you?” Her mother’s voice called through the door. She sounded tired and groggy, like she’d just woken up. That was entirely possible; she often suffered from bad headaches and had to take some time to rest throughout the day. Lily was certain she could find a way to help her mum, just as soon as she was allowed to do magic and brew potions outside of school.

“I heard shouting,” Iris Evans said as she pushed the bedroom door open. She must have been napping, her hair and clothes were lightly rumpled, though her hands were already at work smoothing them down again.

“Sorry, mum,” both girls replied instinctively.

“When did you get back, dear?” Her mum asked, favoring Lily with a small smile, which only made Petunia’s frown deepen.

“Just a few minutes ago, Mum,” Lily replied.

Oh god, a few minutes. She’d left Sirius downstairs alone for more than a few seconds. What if he’d bolted? What if he’d started touching things or exploring? A few minutes was more than enough time for Sirius Black to get into trouble, especially in a house full of things he wouldn’t understand or recognize. She needed to get back downstairs.

“And she brought her boyfriend with her,” Petunia interjected smugly.

Their mother’s brow creased as she frowned in confusion and disapproval. “Boyfriend? Lily, you told Aunt Violet you were bringing a friend to stay the night, not a boyfriend.”

Lily bit the inside of her cheek to keep from snarling or cursing at her sister. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a friend, I swear! Why don’t you come down and I can introduce you, Mum?”

Iris didn’t look like she’d been convinced, but she agreed to go downstairs and meet this friend of Lily’s who just happened to be a boy. Petunia followed them, her spirts greatly improved by their mother’s disapproval.

Sirius was not where Lily had left him. He wasn’t in the hallway at all. Lily’s heart leapt into her throat. Had he run off or—

A tinkling laugh sounded from the kitchen. Lily recognized her great-aunt’s voice and the deeper voice that replied. She couldn’t make out the words, but whatever Sirius said made Aunt Violet laugh again. Lily grimaced and hurried to the door.

Inside, she found Sirius sitting at the small breakfast table sipping a cup of tea. Across from him, her great-aunt sat adding sugar to her own teacup. They both looked up with smiles as Lily stepped through the doorway.

“Oh, hello, Lily dear,” Aunt Violet said brightly. “Would you like a cup of tea? It won’t be long until dinner, but Sirius here looked like he could use a bit of a pick-me-up before then.”

“No thank you, Aunt Violet,” Lily said, stepping forward so her mum and sister could get inside as well. She risked a quick glance at her mother, who was regarding Sirius and his rather disheveled appearance with concern. “You two seem to have met, but, um, Sirius, this is my mum, Iris Evans, and my sister, Petunia. Mum, Tuney, this is my friend, Sirius Black.”

Sirius got to his feet, an amiable smile on his face, and extended his left hand to her mother. His right hand, Lily noticed, had been wrapped in clean white bandages from the base of his fingers down past his wrist.

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Evans, Miss Evans,” Sirius said. There was an unfamiliar formality to his voice, and his aristocratic accent had sharpened a bit more than usual.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Sirius was it?” Iris asked. She shook Sirius’s hand, but she still seemed wary as her eyes took in his butchered hair, the dirt on his torn clothes, and the cuts and bruises littering his skin.

“Yes, ma’am,” Sirius replied. “I’m happy to finally meet some of Lily’s family, she talks about you all the time at school.”

Christ, he was a charming git when he wanted to be. Normally, it made Lily want to roll her eyes or smack him around the head, but right now she was hoping he could lay it on thick enough to appease her mum. There was certainly no hope of him talking Petunia around; she curled her lip at the handshake Sirius offered her until he withdrew his hand with a nervous chuckle.

“Oh, stop glaring at the poor boy like that, Iris, Petunia. You’re going to frighten him,” Aunt Violet tsked. “There’s nothing inappropriate going on here, Sirius and Lily are just friends. It’s Sirius’s friend—James, wasn’t it?—who fancies our Lily. We were just talking about it, seems this James is quite the athlete, though you didn’t say what sport—”

“Rugby!” Lily said quickly, before Sirius could try to answer the question himself. She shot Sirius a quick glare. He had the grace to look apologetic, at least, but most of his attention was still focused on her mother, who was regarding him with less hostility now, but still retained some suspicion.

“I’m sorry for intruding on your time in London, ma’am,” he said. “I had no intentions of bothering Lily over the summer but—”

“But he needs a place to stay until Thursday, and I’ve already told both him and Lily that it’s all right,” Aunt Violet finished brusquely. “Now then, if you’re finished with your tea, Sirius, you can help Lily set the table for dinner. Iris and Petunia, you can help me with the potatoes and the roast.”

She said it in the same, no-nonsense, no-discussion tone Lily imagined she must have used in hospitals and operating rooms back in her day. Aunt Violet’s word seemed to be final, because her mum gave a tiny shrug and smiled civilly at Sirius. “It’s good to meet one of Lily’s friends from school,” she said before following Aunt Violet toward the oven.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Sirius said in reply. His newfound manners were beginning to confuse Lily. She didn’t think she’d ever heard Sirius be so respectfully to anyone, not even Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall.

Petunia was obviously unhappy with this turn of events, but even she didn’t dare question Aunt Violet’s crisp orders. She refused to look at either Sirius or Lily as she brushed past them to start mashing a bowl full of potatoes.

“Come on,” Lily said, tugging lightly on Sirius’s sleeve to guide him toward the dining room. It was more formal than the rest of the house as it was only used when Aunt Violet had company, and all the family heirlooms seemed to have been shoved into an enormous china cabinet that took up the better part of one wall and crowded the long dining table. Lily went to the credenza along the other wall and began handing plates to Sirius.

“Did you really have to tell my aunt about Potter?” She grumbled.

Sirius was carefully cradling the plates she gave him against his chest to compensate for his bandaged hand. “I didn’t mean to,” he said. “But you left me down there alone, and Aunt Violet—she insisted I call her that—found me, and when she was bandaging my hand she asked if you and I were dating. I sort of panicked a bit, so I said no, that I could never see you that way because my best mate fancied you. It just sort of came spilling out, and she started asking about him then, but I didn’t say anything about—” he glanced toward the open door to the kitchen and dropped his voice to a whisper “—anything about magic.”

“And what would you have said when she asked what sport he played?” Lily asked dryly.

“Croquet,” Sirius answered with a shrug. “I know that’s a Muggle sport because Remus talks about playing it with his Muggle cousins on holidays.”

He looked very pleased with himself for the answer. Lily closed her eyes and prayed for strength; she was going to need it to get through this dinner, let alone the next two days. Grabbing the napkins for herself, Lily led Sirius to the table, pointing out where to set the plates.

“Did I do something to piss your sister off?” Sirius asked as they worked. “I can understand if your mum thinks I’m a bit dodgy—kind of figured your aunt might too, but she’s been nothing but kind. Your sister though, do I need to apologize for something I did or said?”

“No, it’s not you—well, it is, but it’s not your fault,” Lily told him as she went back to the sideboard for silverware. Casting her own glance toward the kitchen, she judged it safe and told him. “It’s the magic, she can’t stand it. I said you were a friend from school, so she knows you’re a wizard and…well, sorry. She probably won’t get any nicer while you’re here.”

She looked over her shoulder to see Sirius absent-mindedly straightening the folds in the napkins she’d set next to each plate. “That’s how I was always told it would be, you know,” he said thoughtfully. “That Muggles hated witches and wizards for no reason besides our magic. I didn’t think my family might actually be right about that.”

“Don’t judge all Muggles by my older sister,” Lily said firmly.

“Fair enough,” Sirius said with a shrug. “I wouldn’t want people to judge the entire Wizarding world by my parents.”

“Don’t think too badly about Petunia,” Lily added. “It’s not easy for her.” Her sister might say some horrible things at times, but Lily didn’t want Sirius to think of her sister on the same level as his own family. Petunia might hate magic, but she wasn’t all bad.

Sirius’s expression was dubious as he took the forks she handed him, but he didn’t say anything. Not about Muggles or her sister at least. He did have something to say about the way she set a table though. “You’re putting the knives on the wrong side of the spoons,” Sirius said, switching them. “You’re also missing the salad forks, the bread plates, and the butter knives.”

“God, you really are a posh bastard,” Lily said, more amused than actually annoyed, as she grabbed the glasses to finish things off. “Sorry, milord, but unless it’s a holiday we don’t pull out all the fancy bits, and even then I’m not sure we have bread plates. You’ll just have to suffer the indignity of your bread sitting beside to your potatoes tonight.”

He stopped correcting the placement of her knives and spoons instantly and stepped back from the table, clearly self-conscious about what he’d just been doing. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound snobbish,” Sirius said hastily. He sighed in frustration, but it seemed like it was directed at himself rather than her. “Dinners with my family are always pretty formal, I guess I just assumed...sorry.”

Lily reached out and corrected the one place setting he hadn’t fixed already. Catching his eye, she shot him a wry smile. “You know I think we’ve both said ‘sorry’ to each other more today than we have in the past five years.”

Sirius snorted. “Oh, I’m sure of it. Anything else to you need me to do?”

“Not unless you know how to fold the napkins into something fancy like flowers or swans, that would be rather fun.”

That made him smile again, though he shook his head. “I know a spell, but it’s more minor transfiguration than folding.”

*

Everything considered, dinner was a surprisingly civilized, if somewhat awkward affair. Sirius’s table manners were impeccable and formal, somewhat of a surprise from someone Lily had seen blech his way through the entirety of the Hogwarts school song on two separate occasions. With Sirius present, Aunt Violet asked more questions about their school, but, following Lily’s lead, Sirius was able to cobble together satisfying if vague answers. Slowly, throughout the meal, Lily saw her mother begin to relax as she succumbed to Sirius’s charm and near constant flattery.

The only holdout was Petunia.

“Your name’s actually ‘Serious?’” Petunia asked disdainfully, halfway through dinner.

“Er—yes, like the star,” Sirius replied a little uncertainly. It was the first time Petunia had addressed him directly. “It’s sort of a…a family tradition, I suppose…naming kids after stars or constellations.” He shot a quick glance at Lily, not sure if he was pushing too close to something he shouldn’t say in front of Muggles.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” Aunt Violet interjected brightly before Petunia could respond. “We have something similar in our family, though it’s just the women. I’m sure you’ve noticed we’re all named after flowers.”

Sirius nodded and Violet gave him a kind smile. “I believe my grandmother started it,” she explained. “She had three daughters and named them Rose, Briony, and Dahlia. We’ve had an entire flower garden in the family since then, right down to Lily and Petunia here.”

Sirius agreed that it was a lovely tradition, and they all moved on.

When they’d finished eating, Sirius surprised Lily again by asking if there was anything he could do to help clean up, though the hesitant look he gave the pile of plates in the sink led Lily to believe he’d never washed a dirty dish in his life. Aunt Violet had beamed at him but waved him away.

“Don’t be silly, young man,” she said. “You’re a guest in this house.”

Neither Lily nor Sirius missed Petunia’s exaggerated eye roll at that. At school Lily would have expected Sirius to respond in kind—an eye for an eye, a slight for a slight. That was how he and Potter operated. Now though, Sirius looked confused, even a little worried, rather than offended.

“We should call Remus before it gets dark,” Lily said. “Let him know you’re all right. He can tell the Potters where to pick you up when they get back.” She led him out of the kitchen and to the sitting room where she picked up the receiver of the old rotary dial phone on her great-aunt’s end table. Sirius followed her but only stared warily at the receiver when she held it out to him.

“Do you need help dialing?” Lily asked. He had apparently managed it once, but she couldn’t imagine he was very familiar with the process.

“I—maybe,” Sirius said. He still hesitated. A hand went up toward his hair again, only to pull back when he realized what he was doing. “I know the numbers, but…” He looked away and shifted uncertainly from foot to foot. “Maybe you should do it. I don’t know if he’ll want to talk to me.”

Right. With everything else she’d forgotten that something had happened between Remus and the rest of his friends at the end of the school year. It must have been bad if Sirius was still worried about it despite what he’d been through since then.

“He was really worried when he called me this morning,” Lily said. “Whatever you two are fighting about, he deserves to know you’re not dying in a gutter, and I think he’ll want to hear it from you.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Sirius admitted. He took the receiver from her and stepped up to dial. His movements were slow, careful, and uncertain, like he was half afraid the phone might try to bite him. When she heard a faint ring coming down the line, Lily left to give the boys some privacy.

Her mother was waiting in the hallway right outside. Lily closed the door before Sirius could catch sight of them. “I’m sorry about this,” Lily said swiftly, before her mother could speak. “I really thought it was some sort of joke this morning, but I—”

Lily’s hurried explanations were cut off as her mother swept forward and wrapped her in a hug. “It’s all right, sweetheart.” Lily let herself cling to the familiar smell and feel of her mother. “I’m just a little worried. Your friend, he’s in some sort of trouble, isn’t he?” She sounded genuinely concerned.

Reluctantly, Lily disentangled herself from her mother’s arms. “I…I’m not entirely sure what happened,” she said, not precisely lying. “I think it’s a…a family problem though.” Sirius had given her permission to say that much. Hopefully her mum wouldn’t press the matter, or bring it up with Sirius directly.

Understanding spread across her mother’s face. Understanding and quiet fury. “Is there someone—an agency or wizard police—we can get to help?” Iris asked uncertainly.

In all honesty, Lily wasn’t sure if there was. If this were a Muggle matter her mother would know what to do, but her parents were both out of their depth when it came to anything magical. They relied on Lily to navigate those waters, and right now, Lily was just as lost as her mum.

What did happen in wizarding society when parents hurt their children? Lily looked at her own mother and had the urge to hug her again, knowing that she’d never thought to ask the question because she had never had reason to worry about it herself.

Instead, she mulled over what she knew of Sirius’s family. It wasn’t much, she realized. She knew he had a younger brother over in Slytherin, but beyond that she only knew that the Black family was wealthy, powerful, and pure-blooded. Above the law, she thought bitterly, much like Sirius often seemed to think himself above the rules at school.

She shook her head. Even if there was something they could do, some department in the Ministry of Magic they should contact, she was positive that Sirius wouldn’t appreciate it. “I think the best thing we can do is just keep an eye on him until his friend’s family gets back,” Lily told her mother. “They’ll know what to do.”

Potter came from a wealthy pure-blood family as well. They would know better than Lily what to do for Sirius, and he would be more likely to accept help from his best friend than from a girl he barely tolerated at school.

Her mother nodded. “All right then. Well, Aunt Violet says she’s fine with him staying on the couch, and he seems like a nice, polite boy, so I suppose it’s all right.”

Lily had to turn the laugh that bubbled up into a quick cough. Never would she have thought she would hear the words “nice” and “polite” used to describe Sirius Black. Not even his own best friends would describe him that way.

The sitting room door opened then, and Sirius’s head poked out into the hallway. “Remus wants to talk to you,” he said to Lily. “He needs your aunt’s address, I think.”

“All right,” Lily said. Her mother stepped past her and put a hand on Sirius’s shoulder. Both women ignored his momentary flinch at the approach of her hand.

“Why don’t I show you where the bathroom is upstairs, Sirius,” Iris said, beckoning to the boy gently. “You can take a shower, sound good?”

For a moment, Sirius hesitated, nervous and almost suspicious. Then he nodded and relaxed beneath the older woman’s hand. “Thank you, Mrs. Evans,” he said courteously. “That sounds wonderful.”

Lily shot him a smile as they passed in the hallway and Sirius gave her one in return. It was small, but genuine. She slid into the sitting room and closed the door behind her again before picking the phone receiver up from the arm off the couch.

“Remus?” She asked.

“Lily,” he sounded relieved and exhausted. She wondered if he’d been sitting by the phone worrying all day. It made her feel guilty that they’d waited until after dinner to call him. “Sirius said he’s staying at your great-aunt’s house until James gets back?”

“Yeah,” Lily said. “My aunt and my mum both say it’s all right.”

“Thank you.” The gratitude in his voice was so blatant it made her blush. She was glad Sirius wasn’t in the room to see it. Her old crush on Remus had faded into contented, platonic friendship back in fourth year, and she didn’t want to dig up its corpse for Sirius to laugh at, and she was sure he would. His “nice, polite” behavior had its limits.

“Sirius said you need my aunt’s address so the Potters will know where to pick him up?” Lily asked.

“Yeah,” Remus said. “But I also wanted to talk to you. Is he still in the room?”

“No, my mum sent him upstairs to take a shower.”

“Good. When I asked, Sirius said he was fine. Is he really?”

Lily paused to think about it for a moment. “I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “I don’t think I actually know him well enough to judge. He’s got a few cuts and bruises, and his hair looks like someone tried to give him a crew cut with a broken butter knife. That’s all I can see, but he’s acting strange.”

“Strange how?” There was pain and worry in Remus’s voice.

“A few things he’s said, and, well, I—this is probably going to sound terrible, and I’m not trying to be mean—but, well…he’s being very formal and well-mannered, and just—“

“Very unlike the Sirius you know and barely tolerate at school,” Remus finished for her.

“Yeah,” Lily said, feeling a little guilty for it.

“Yeah,” Remus didn’t sound surprised, or even that worried. “He was the same way when he met my parents. James’s folks and Peter’s mum too. Sirius may not choose to use them very often when he has the option, but I’m pretty sure he's had years of pure-blood manners literally beaten into him.” Remus’s voice took on a hard edge when he said that last bit. On her end of the line, Lily felt a lump form in her throat as she pictured Sirius’s current bruises on the skin of a small child with dark hair and iron grey eyes.

Remus cleared his throat in a way that sounded almost like a growl, and Lily was reminded that he would be suffering through a full moon in a few hours. “You probably don’t remember it,” Remus said. “But Sirius was actually the same way with all our professors at school for the first month or so of first year.”

Lily tried to recall it, but found she couldn’t. Her only memories of Sirius from that time were of the train ride and the welcome feast. She’d sat down next to him after she’d been sorted, then recognized him as one of the boys who’d been so rude to Severus on the train and had promptly turned her back on him. There had been so many new and exciting things vying for her attention in those early days she hadn’t spared another thought for Sirius until he and Potter had made themselves impossible to ignore to anyone and everyone who crossed their paths.

“What changed?” Lily asked, genuinely curious.

“James mostly,” Remus said fondly. “Simultaneously a great and terrible influence, that one. He hid it well most of the time, but those first few weeks at Hogwarts weren’t easy for Sirius. His family—already tossers to begin with—didn’t take the sorting well. Neither did most of Slytherin. James saw it—saw how lost and terrified Peter and I were, as well—and made it his mission to make us all feel better, feel wanted. Granted, pelting a bunch of Slytherins with Dungbombs probably wasn’t the best way to go about things, but it did the job.”

He was smiling. Lily could hear it in his voice. On her end, Lily was smiling into the receiver as well. She remembered that incident. At the time she’d been furious because Severus had been among the Slytherins hit by the flying Dungbombs. With years between the incident and Remus giving it new context she couldn’t help but find a bit of humor in it as well.

“Lily,” Remus said. The smile was gone from his voice now. “He’s not all right, no matter what he says. He never is after time with his family, and this is the worst it’s ever been.”

Lily closed her eyes, remembering all the flashes of pain and fear Sirius had let slip through. “Yeah, I think I got that. What am I supposed to do?”

It probably wasn’t fair to ask him. Remus was no older than she was, but he knew Sirius far better than she ever would.

“Keep him distracted, entertained,” Remus suggested. “He loves Muggle things, so hopefully it won’t be too hard. If he wants to talk, let him, but don’t push for answers, and try not to let him dwell too much on any one thing. When he gets back, James will know what to do, he always does. And, Lily, thank you again for helping him. I know the two of you aren’t exactly friends at school.”

She snorted at the understatement, but brushed his thanks aside. “I couldn’t have left him if I’d wanted to,” she said. “I swear he looks like a kicked puppy right now, it’s disconcerting.”

Puzzled, Lily shook her head after she’d relayed Aunt Violet’s address. Remus had laughed far harder at her puppy analogy than Lily thought the comment had deserved. Perhaps she should chalk it up to some sort of pre-moon hysteria, she thought as she hung up the receiver.

Chapter Text

“Hey.”

Lily glanced up from her book to see Sirius standing in the sitting room doorway. He looked a little better now. Aunt Violet had waylaid him before he could make it to the shower and offered to do what she could for his hair. It was a little more even, but still patchy in spots and terribly short all around now. The shower itself had washed away the dried blood and dirt on his skin, though that only served to make his bruises stand out sharper against his pale skin.

The look wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d put his filthy, torn shirt and trousers back on, having nothing else to wear. He did seem to have made an attempt at spot cleaning some of the worse stains on his clothing, judging from the wet patches that dotted them. It hadn’t worked very well.

“Can I smoke in here?” Sirius asked. In his hands was a crumpled, half-empty package of Muggle cigarettes.

Lily shook her head. “Not in the house, but out on the steps is fine. That’s where Aunt Violet always sends my dad.”

Sirius nodded in thanks and stepped back into the hall. Lily set her book down, trying to decide if she should follow to keep an eye on him, when Sirius popped his head back around the doorframe.

“I don’t suppose you have a lighter?” he asked.

“No,” Lily said, getting to her feet. “There are matches in the kitchen though.” Sirius followed her down the hall into the kitchen. She dug through the drawer she’d seen Aunt Violet pull matches from before and found a small box near the back. She handed it off to Sirius, who regarded it with interest before looking back at Lily.

“How do I make it work?” He asked.

His candid curiosity made her smile. She’d always enjoyed exposing Alice, her closest pure-blood friend, to Muggle things. It was proving to be even more entertaining with Sirius. He was genuinely inquisitive and seemed almost childishly thrilled with every new discovery.

“Let’s go outside and I’ll show you.”

Once they were out on the steps, Lily took the matchbox back and slid it open. She struck the head of a matchstick against the side of the box and watched Sirius grin with delight when it sparked alight. “You’d better get your fag out,” Lily warned. “They don’t last long.” She could already feel the heat creeping toward her fingertips by the time Sirius pulled a cigarette out of the pack and touched it to the flame. Lily dropped the match onto the steps and ground it out with her heel as Sirius hopped up to sit on the wide cement balustrade and took a deep drag.

Smoke billowed out of his nostrils as he held the pack out toward Lily in a silent offer. She didn’t smoke, not really. Just a few times when she and Petunia had stolen a couple of their father’s, or when Mary had smuggled a carton into school. Right now she couldn’t help but think why not? After pulling a cigarette from Sirius’s pack, she tucked it between her lips and reached for the matches again.

“Can I try?” Sirius asked. Lily shrugged and handed the box and match over. Frowning in concentration, he mimicked Lily’s motions. The match snapped in half when he banged it against the rough side of the cardboard box.

“Not so hard,” Lily told him. “Do it fast, but not too forceful.”

He pulled out another match and failed again, this time too gentle to spark a flame. It took two more tries before the matchhead finally caught. Sirius nearly dropped it in surprise. He managed to keep hold of it without burning himself and held it out to Lily, who lit her cigarette off it and stepped back to lean against the opposite balustrade.

Sirius kept hold of the match until it burned down far enough to singe his fingers before dropping it with a quiet curse. “Clever,” he said, grinning around the cigarette clenched between his teeth. “I like my lighter better though…or I did.” He gave a frustrated sigh, exhaling more smoke.

“Just think how happy that Muggle girl will be when she realizes she never has to buy lighter fluid again though,” Lily said brightly, trying to keep him from falling back into his earlier melancholy.

“I suppose,” Sirius replied. “I hate that I sold it though. Peter hates the smell of my cigarettes, but he still bought it for me.”

“I’m sure he won’t hold it against you,” Lily said. Smoke burned pleasantly down her throat, making her feel listless.

“No,” Sirius agreed. He smiled again, not the delighted grin he’d had over the matches. This one was soft and full of deep affection. It seemed remarkably private, like something Sirius would never ordinarily show beyond his small band of Marauders. “He won’t. Really, he’ll probably be thrilled his Christmas present saved my arse. Wormtail’s good like that. Still, it was the only thing I managed to get out of the house.”

The smile died as his thoughts drifted back home. Lily bit the end of her cigarette, trying to think of something to steer his thoughts back toward happier topics. “Those nicknames you all have for each other are ridiculous,” she settled on. “Pettigrew can’t actually like people calling him ‘Wormtail.’” Lily wrinkled her nose at the visual that nickname always conjured in her head.

People, no, but he doesn’t mind when it’s just us,” Sirius said. “And they’re not ridiculous, they’re personal and meaningful and awesome.” He sounded utterly sincere when he said it, pointing his cigarette at her to emphasize each word.

Lily smirked. “Oh, and what’s so awesome and meaningful about Padfoot? I mean, your feet don’t look weird.” She used her own cigarette to gesture toward his bare feet, which were swinging in the air a few inches above the steps.

That pulled a laugh out of him. “It has nothing to do with my feet. Padfoot is what they call the Grim up in West Yorkshire, where Peter’s from—you know what a Grim is, right?”

“Big black dog that’s supposed to foretell death, isn’t it?” Lily asked. She hadn’t signed up for divination, but was sure she could recall it being mentioned in a few books. Sirius nodded and grinned. “So, morbid and ridiculous then?”

Sirius laughed as he flipped her off, and she noticed for the first time that his laugh did have an almost bark-like quality to it reminiscent of a dog. “So, how’d you wind up named after a death omen? I mean, I suppose I get Moony for Remus—though it’s rather on the nose—but how did the rest of you get your nicknames?” Lily asked, trying to keep this momentum going. Sirius was laughing and acting more like his old self than he had all day. She never thought she would be so glad to see that old self.

“Uh-uh,” Sirius said, shaking his head. “Telling you that without the express agreement of a Marauders’ majority would be a violation of the Lily Evans Pact.”

“Excuse me? Why do you have a pact named after me?” Lily crossed her arms over her chest, pinning Sirius with a stare that said she would not be put off from this at least.

He threw back his head and laughed again. “It’s called that because if you batted your eyelashes and said ‘pretty please’ James Potter would tell you every single one of our deep dark secrets.” When Lily rolled her eyes and scoffed. Sirius’s expression took on a more earnest cast. “I know he used to just flirt with you to be a prat, but I’m telling you straight right now, Lily, we had to enact a magically binding pact to ensure James wouldn’t tell you things without our agreement. I don’t know exactly when or why, but that bloody fool really does fancy you.”

“I stand by my earlier assertion, he’s an arrogant, bullying toerag,” Lily said firmly. Her cigarette had burned down to almost nothing. She let the butt drop and watched it smolder on the pavement for a moment before viciously stomping it out beneath her heel. Her head bowed so Sirius wouldn’t see her blush in the fading light.

Sirius shrugged. “I’m worse,” His good mood seemed to waver for a moment, then, with visible effort, he pulled the smile back onto his face. “And yet, you’ve somehow managed to put up with me for an entire afternoon.”

“You, at least, don’t pester me for dates or write stupid poems comparing my eyes to emeralds,” Lily said, managing to draw another chuckle out of him.

“Nor shall I ever,” Sirius promised her.

Lily raised an eyebrow. “Because your mate fancies me?”

“And because I distinctly don’t,” Sirius clarified. “I’ll admit, you’re not nearly as stuffy as I thought you were at school, but you’ll have to keep it in your knickers, Evans. I’m not interested.”

She made an exaggerated face of relief. “Good, I have no desire to be one of your many late-night broom cupboard conquests.”

For some reason, that remark twisted the smile on his face until it was bitter and self-depreciating. Sirius looked away from her to pull out the pack of cigarettes again. He lit two new cigarettes off the butt of his old one, stuck one between his lips, and passed the other over to Lily. He ground out the stump of his old cigarette against the concrete of the balustrade before crumpling the empty package into a ball and shoving it back into his trouser pocket.

“That’s the last of them,” he said with a sigh. “Now I really am down to the clothes on my back.”

Lily took a long drag as she tried to decide how to reply to that. Remus had warned her not to push, but he’d also told her to talk to Sirius, keep him occupied. “No chance of getting any of your other stuff back?” Lily asked, promising herself and Remus she would drop it if Sirius balked. He only gave a bitter bark of laughter.

“Nah. I’m sure my mum’s already smashed or torn everything to pieces then burned it all and salted the ashes for good measure.” He shrugged halfheartedly. “It’s just things. I’ll figure it out.”

Lily couldn’t help but wince though, because “just things” included his robes, books, and all the other supplies he would need for school. He didn’t even have his wand. She was Muggle-born and the thought of being without her wand, without access to most of her magic—even now, when she was forbidden to use it—made Lily feel naked, vulnerable. She couldn’t imagine how Sirius, who had never in his life lived without magic, was managing, but she was sure he wasn’t as okay with it as he was trying to appear.

“What if…” Lily said. “What if I went there and asked—”

“Fuck, Evans! No!” Sirius cut her off with a sudden vehemence that shocked her. He didn’t sound angry though. No, he was terrified by the suggestion. In the growing darkness Lily could see the wide whites of his eyes. “Lily, the only thing worse than me going back to that house would be sending you to my parents’ doorstep, especially since they’ve heard that rumor going around.” He shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, but no. Nothing I owned is worth that.”

“All right,” Lily promised, a little taken aback by how emphatic he sounded. Her agreement seemed to reassure Sirius, who exhaled deeply, white smoke obscuring his face in the fading light.

They lapsed into silence for a few minutes, smoking and watching the evening slowly fall around them. as her thoughts roiled. There were half a hundred questions she wanted to ask Sirius, but Remus had cautioned her about pushing him.

Some hint of curiosity must have showed on her face though, because Sirius caught sight of it and turned away with a sigh. “You’re wondering what happened, aren’t you?” He asked quietly

The sodium yellow streetlights flickered on, catching Sirius’s attention and giving Lily a moment to think. She should let it go, deny that she had any questions, but he wouldn’t believe that for a second.

“It’s none of my business,” Lily replied, trying to rein in her own curiosity.

“But you want to know what I could have done that, in the eyes of my mental, blood-purist parents, was worse than supposedly shagging a Muggle-born girl?”

Sirius hadn’t turned back toward her. He was still frowning curiously at the streetlamps. Their light turned his skin gold and his bruises a deep black. He shrugged. “I suppose it’s the least I owe you for giving me a place to stay…”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Lily said quickly. “But if you want to talk about it, well, I’m right here and I know how to keep a secret.”

He finally looked back at her, his gaze felt appraising. “I suppose you do. You’ve kept Remus’s secret well enough.”

“He’s my friend,” Lily said simply but sternly. “It’s not his fault he was bitten, and the people who think it is are the real toerags.”

Sirius smiled his approval, but it flickered and faded just as quickly. He sucked in a deep breath and held it, dropping his head into his hands. The tip of his cigarette burned dangerously close to an errant tuft of his ragged hair.

The sudden, absurd impulse to hug him twisted in Lily’s chest.

He took a deep breath and when he raised his head again, whatever they had been close to had vanished. Sirius gave her the familiar, charming smile she was beginning to realize was little more than a front, a mask that quite a lot hid behind.

“So,” Sirius said conversationally. “How do you think you did on your O.W.L.s?”

Lily remembered Remus’s advice and went along with the abrupt change in their conversation, even though she didn’t like his choice one bit. Trust Sirius to pick one of the few topics she had been trying not to think about all summer. It wasn’t that Lily was really worried. She’d studied hard, and she was at or near the top of the class in several subjects, but it felt like there was so much riding on those unknown test scores that she couldn’t help but fret.

“I’m confident about my potions and charms scores,” Lily said. Those were her best classes by far. She’d never quite been able to unseat Severus for the top of potions, but she’d gotten the best marks in charms every year except third year, when she’d been overthrown by Sirius himself.

“I should be all right in most of my other classes too, though I’m a little worried about transfiguration and history of magic.”

Sirius snorted out smoke. “I’ve seen you in transfiguration, you’ll be fine, I’m sure,” he said. “And no one needs history of magic. I might have failed that one myself actually…dozed off for about thirty minutes in the middle of the exam.”

As much as she didn’t want to argue with him right now, Sirius’s blasé dismissal of history of magic rankled her a bit. “Easy for you to say, you grew up knowing about the wizarding world. A lot of the history is probably second-nature to you, whereas I grew up learning a completely separate history only to be told so much of what I learned in Muggle primary school or from books is wrong or incomplete. And it’s not like Binns starts from square one even in first year. I remember he started talking about eighteenth century Wizengamot charter amendments before anyone ever bothered to explain to me what the hell the Wizengamot was.”

It was only then that Lily realized she had been ranting and waving her cigarette wildly to emphasize her frustration. “Sorry,” she muttered. “None of that’s your fault.”

“It’s all right,” Sirius said. He was frowning almost thoughtfully. “I never considered any of that. You’ve got a point though, I had tutors in all the basics since before I was out of nappies. I never thought of it as having a leg up, mostly just as another reason history classes were boring, but I suppose it was. It doesn’t help that we have Binns as a teacher either. He’s boring as toast and doesn’t cover a single thing that happened after his death, which was almost fifty years ago. Dumbledore should have had him exorcised ages ago.”

“Yes!” Lily agreed emphatically. It might be unkind to think, but she couldn’t deny that Binns was a terrible teacher. “I had to buy extra books and read them on my own time just to learn who Grindelwald was. It’s infuriating.”

Sirius wrinkled his nose. “Bit glad they don’t teach that actually. I had a few relatives who fell in with Grindelwald. I am…or I suppose I was reminded of that every time I walked by their portraits in the hallway. They had some rather horrible war stories.”

Lily winced, somehow, she’d managed to bring the conversation about school back around to his family again. She opened her mouth to say sorry, but Sirius cut her off.

“Don’t apologize. If anything, I should be apologizing for my family’s very existence.”

And there they were again, damn it.

“So…how about your O.W.L.s?” Lily asked lamely.

“Pretty sure I passed charms, transfiguration, and divination easily, and I had to run away from home because my parents found out I’m gay.”

His words came spilling out faster and faster until the confession was almost garbled by his aristocratic accent. Lily still caught it, although it took her mind a few moments to process the words, and a few moments more for them to sink in.

Sirius was watching her cautiously, every muscle tensed. He reminded her of a feral animal ready to snap or flee if approached incorrectly. She needed to say something, do something.

“Oh,” was all she could manage to spit out.

Sirius winced and took a long drag on his cigarette. He looked away from her. The tension remained, and he seemed to be stoically waiting for the other shoe to drop, for her to say something awful, maybe even do something awful. Lily knew she needed to say something more, something better, something that would reassure him that she didn’t think poorly of him for it, but there were too many thoughts roaring through her mind like a river through a broken dam for her to vocalize any one of them.

Homosexuality wasn’t thought well of back in Cokeworth. Lily remembered boys at her primary school hurling slurs and curses they barely understood at the smallest, the weakest of their lot. Poof, pillow biter, shirt lifter, Nancy boy, faggot. Her father had said some of those things. Her mother had expressed concerns about the rumors circling two women who worked at the mill. Petunia had rabidly studied gossip magazines for rumors about the sordid gay affairs of celebrities, which she helped spread beyond the pages with gleeful disgust.

Those were the things she had been raised to believe about men who liked other men and women who liked other women. It was a taboo, barely legal thing—hell, one that was still illegal up in Scotland. Those thoughts were there, swirling around and around in Lily’s mind, and yet…

Fuck it all.

Tossing aside her cigarette, Lily gave into her earlier impulse. She threw her arms around him in a hug. It was awkward and nearly hazardous as Sirius startled at her touch, nearly falling backward off the balustrade. He managed to brace them both with a hand on the concrete though. After a moment he sighed and wrapped his free arm around her, careful to keep his own cigarette away from her hair and blouse.

Lily wasn’t just some girl from Cokeworth anymore. She was a witch, and—Pureblood twats and toerags aside—most of the wizarding community seemed perfectly fine with homosexuality. That was the world she’d chosen at eleven years old when her Hogwarts letter had arrived, and this was the response she was choosing now.

Sirius’s confession had certainly caught her off-guard. Although, when she really thought about it…

“That…actually makes a lot of sense,” Lily said pensively.

Sirius pulled out of their hug, a puzzled eyebrow raised. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He asked. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you hugged me rather than toss me out on my arse or something, but I’ve gone to no small amount of trouble to not be obvious about being bent.” He didn’t seem genuinely upset, more petulant, and very, very relieved.

“Well, I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me if you hadn’t said anything,” Lily replied. She stepped back, the moment over, and retreated to lean against the opposite balustrade again. “A solid third of the girls at school are all mad for you—”

Sirius sat up straighter and his chest puffed out proudly. “Only a third? I would have put it at closer to half, but do go on.”

Lily rolled her eyes and flipped him a two-fingered salute. “However, you’ve never seemed to pay any one of your admirers any attention, you never had a girlfriend or went on dates in Hogsmeade with anyone. I always thought you were just a bit of a prick and a slag—I mean the entirety of Gryffindor House has seen you stagger back into the common room with your clothes rumbled and love bites on your neck—and you were only interested in…well, you know…”

Sirius laughed as she blushed. “Oh, come on, Lily, don’t go getting bashful on me now, not after calling me a slag,” he teased. “You’re not half wrong about that, anyway, just wrong about who I was taking into empty cupboards and unused classrooms.”

He grinned roguishly and shot her a wink. Yes, his cover was well secured just by smiling at girls like that, Lily thought, though she just rolled her eyes at him again. She’d always been stubbornly resistant to his charms, but now that she knew they were all a front, Lily was beginning to find them obnoxiously endearing rather than just plain obnoxious.

“There were always rumors about you and some girl or other, but—”

“But we both know how inaccurate rumors can be, don’t we?”

She wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue. “Ugh. Don’t remind me. If I find out who started that rumor about you, me, and Potter I will hex their eyeballs out their arsehole.”

Sirius grinned. “Morgana’s tits, you’re terrifying! I rather like it when I’m not on the receiving end of it, or—more common—standing next to the messy-haired bloke on the receiving end of it. If you ever get the urge to pull a prank, please let me help you.”

Playing along with his banter, Lily sniffed primly and turned up her nose. “If I ever get the urge to pull a prank, I hardly think I’d need your help, not with how often you and your lot get caught in the act. Marauders indeed.”

He roared with laughter so hard he was coughing and doubled over by the time he regained control of himself. Lily felt light and happy and more than a little smug. She wasn’t often the funny one, the person who got to tell jokes and make others laugh. She joked around with Alice and Mary of course, and she often traded quips and sarcasm with Remus, but this was different. Sirius was different. Everything seemed a little larger with him, sharper, more dramatic, but also freer, louder. It was more refreshing than she would have thought.

Who’d have imagined I’d actually wind up getting on with the bastard? Lily asked herself. She was glad though, that she could make Sirius laugh until he was wheezing and weepy during a difficult time, and she was honored that he’d trusted her enough to tell her the truth about why he’d left home. She appreciated that he made her laugh too, because between everything with Severus and Petunia and her O.W.L.s paranoia, she hadn’t found much to laugh about that summer.

Wiping away the tears on his cheeks, Sirius was still chuckling and shaking his head. “Oh, Merlin, thank you, Lily,” he said. Then his smile changed, slipping into that softer affectionate smile, the one she’d imagined he saved for his close friends. “Really though, thank you for…everything.”

Lily smiled back, small and a little self-conscious, but just as sincere. “Happy to help,” she told him. She still had questions she wanted to ask him, and things she wanted to say to him, but that could wait, she determined. For now, they both deserved to enjoy the sense of comradery lingering between them as dusk settled into night.

Maybe this closeness they were feeling was born only of the day’s strange circumstances and their isolated proximity to each other, and when they returned to school it would collapse beneath the weight of their normal roles and relationships. Or, maybe it was the start of an actual friendship. The latter didn’t seem nearly as far-fetched as it would have only yesterday.

Either way, Lily decided she was going to enjoy it while it lasted, however long that might be.

Chapter Text

Sirius didn’t blame his lack of sleep on the narrow, swaybacked old sofa where he spent the night. Nor did he blame the naps he’d taken on the train and bus rides that afternoon. He didn’t even blame it on the occasional creaks and groans of the house around him, though he heard and catalogued every single one.

Even under the best circumstances, Sirius had trouble falling sleep and staying there. It was an instinct born from years of unpleasant awakenings courtesy of his mother or Kreacher, though he didn’t sleep soundly within the secure walls of Hogwarts either.

His roommates’ snores or even their breathing could keep him up for hours on end, tossing and turning behind his bed curtains. While the sound of wind against windowpanes could startle him awake in the middle of the night, his heart pounding and shivers racing through his entire body.

This wasn’t his usual insomnia though. Sirius lay on his back, watching dawn slowly leak through the gap between the lacy curtains of Aunt Violet’s sitting room. It was pain, both physical and otherwise, that had kept him awake most of the night.

As if to emphasize the point, he shifted slightly and a sharp twinge ran up the bruises along his back.

“Dammit…” Sirius muttered. Finally giving up the pretext of sleep, he shoved at the blankets tangled around his legs and torso, loosening them enough to sit up. He ached all over. Sharp stabbing pain in some places, dull throbbing in others, but there didn’t seem to be an inch of his body that had been spare from some sort of discomfort. Chances were he’d been hurting for days, Sirius knew. Until now though he’d been running on adrenaline and too focused on escaping his parents to notice anything but the worst few pains, like the one in his hand.

He closed his eyes and slumped back down on the sofa cushions with another curse, slowly cataloguing all the different ways he hurt. Very few of them were terrible, incapacitating injuries, more bruises and scrapes and some sharp little nerve twitches he thought might be remnants of his mother’s last curse. He couldn’t be sure about the last ones, of course. Despite everything else they’d done to him over the years, Sirius’s parents had never resorted to the Cruciatus Curse until that last night.

His heart beat faster and his stomach clenched just thinking about it, so Sirius tried not to. He opened his eyes and stared up at the plaster of the ceiling. It was painted blue, he noticed, a blue so pale he hadn’t noticed it until he’d spent long minutes contemplating it. For some reason that soothed him, maybe because his mother would rather tear her own teeth out than ever allow something like a blue ceiling in her home. It helped him remember that he wasn’t in Grimmauld Place anymore.

It was the compelling need to pee that finally convinced Sirius to get up off the sofa. He disentangled himself from the blankets and climbed to his feet, joints popping and muscles protesting every movement, before limping out of the sitting room.

There was a little water closet with a toilet and a pedestal sink across the hall. The oval mirror above the sink caught his eye while he was washing his hands. Catching sight of his reflection, Sirius winced and quickly looked away, shutting off the water and reaching for a towel.

He didn’t like what he saw there, the dark circles beneath his eyes, the bruises, the red, still-healing scar across his cheek, and especially his hair. It was stupid, he knew. The hair would grow back. Hell, Mrs. Potter probably had a hair-growth potion somewhere around their house that could have his hair down to his elbows in no time. Yet, he felt the loss of it more than anything shy of his wand. His parents had done their damnedest to cut away everything that made him who was. His close-cropped hair was a visible reminder of everything else that hadn’t left a physical mark.

Sirius leaned forward, bracing himself against the edge of the sink, his good hand gripping the porcelain lip tightly. Don’t think about it, he reminded himself. Not now.

Don’t think about the look in his mother’s eye as she’d shrieked the second Unforgiveable Curse at him. She didn’t have the patience for something as subtle as an Imperius. When Walburga wanted to inflict harm she was always straightforward and brutal. Sirius had never imagined pain like he’d felt at the end of her wand. Only a few seconds, a few beats of his heart, but it had felt like hours, like an eternity of nothing but agony as he writhed and screamed on the drawing room floor.

He closed his eyes tightly and tried to focus on nothing but breathing. Every inhale hurt a little, stretching bruises and moving sore ribs, but he could manage this pain, Sirius told himself. He could center it and contain it and—

A light knock on the bathroom door startled him. In an instant though he had straightened and schooled his face into a smile. He was well-practiced at that.

“Just a moment,” he called.

Aunt Violet was waiting on the other side of the door when Sirius opened it. She had a familiar metal box in her hands, the same one she’d pulled out yesterday when she’d caught sight of his hand. Her sharp green eyes swept him over from head to foot in an instant and she smiled, not bright and cheerful like yesterday, but soft and reassuring.

“Good morning, Sirius dear,” she said sweetly. “Let’s take another look at that hand of yours. I want to make sure the swelling has gone down some, and the bandages will need to be switched out.”

Sirius glanced down at his hand. The bandages were damp from washing his hands and had shifted some during the night. It still throbbed horribly, but he was almost used to it now.

He followed when Aunt Violet beckoned him out of the bathroom into the kitchen where he caught a whiff of coffee brewing already. It smelled like heaven. Sirius sat down at the little kitchen table and rested his right arm across it, his hand palm up on the scrubbed wood. Aunt Violet sat opposite him and opened her metal box full of healing supplies.

“I hope I didn’t wake you, banging around upstairs,” the old woman said as she began to unwind the bandages around Sirius’s wrist and palm.

“No, ma’am,” Sirius replied. “I’m a morning person.” It was usually easy for an insomniac to rise with the sun.

Sirius held very still as Aunt Violet worked, barely daring to breathe. He was still wary of adults touching him, especially those who were practically strangers. He liked Lily’s great-aunt well enough, but liking someone and trusting them were two separate things for Sirius. He had liked James’s parents within the first minute of meeting them, but had still taken him half a dozen visits to the Potters’ house before Sirius had managed to keep from tensing when Euphemia hugged him or Fleamont ruffled his hair.

He focused on the bandages rather than the person beyond the hands unwrapping them. They were surprisingly stretchy, different from the plain linen and gauze ones Madame Pomfrey had in the Hogwarts hospital wing. These Muggle ones seemed better in his mind, and he wondered if there was a way to get Hogwarts to stock them as well. Blood purists like his parents would throw a fit at the thought of Muggle creations touching their precious Pureblood children, but it might help those students who weren’t bigots.

Students who spent too much time wrapped in bandages. Students like Remus.

Sirius winced, and it had nothing to do with the astringent-smelling Muggle potion that Aunt Violet was using to clean the cut along his wrist. Like the moon pulling at the tides, somehow his thoughts always seemed to circle back around to Remus these days. Thinking about Remus had been the other thing that had kept him from sleeping last night, the other source of pain.

Last night had been the full moon. Sirius hadn’t realized it until he’d looked up at the sky, and there was the moon hanging high above him, full and balefully bright even over the Muggle streetlamps. Ever since they’d found out Remus’s secret, James, Peter, and Sirius had kept such careful track of the moon cycles they could pass Astronomy in their sleep. However, the grimy, narrow windows of Grimmauld Place and the chaos of London had hidden the moon from Sirius, and his own melancholic self-absorption over the summer had pushed all thoughts of the lunar cycle from his mind.

Remus had been suffering alone last night.

Never mind that that would have been the case no matter what, that there was no way Sirius could be there for him, even if Remus didn’t hate him. Sirius felt achingly guilty for it all the same. He had seen Remus in the hospital wing the morning after the last full moon, had seen the cuts and bruises and broken bones—worse than he’d had in years. Those wounds had been Sirius’s fault. He’d dangled prey in front of the wolf only for it to be snatched away. The wolf, in turn, had taken its fury and frustration out on itself, on Remus.

What if this moon had been just as bad?

Sirius felt the phantom sting of every injury he could imagine on Remus’s tall, too-thin frame. They hurt more than the wounds on his own body.

“There, that should do,” Aunt Violet said, sitting back. Sirius blinked, he’d been so lost in his thoughts that she’d rebandaged his hand without him noticing at all.

“Thank you,” he said, pulling the hand off of the table and flexing it gently, testing the fingers and palm. It still hurt, but it didn’t seem quite as swollen and his fingers moved more easily than yesterday. Somehow, he felt guilty for that too, for healing while he knew the friend he’d betrayed was hurting.

“Now we just need to do something about those clothes of yours. They’re fit only for the bin as they are,” Aunt Violet said, pushing out her chair and climbing back to her feet. Sirius looked down at his pants and shirt and couldn’t help but agree. They were wrinkled and filthy and stank something terrible after several days of constant wear.

“I…don’t have any others right now,” Sirius said, ducking his head so she wouldn’t see the flush of shame creeping up his neck.

“No, I didn’t imagine you would,” Aunt Violet said. “I gave the last of my Walter’s things to charity years ago, but…Ah! There’s an idea. Watch the percolator for me, Sirius dear. I’ve got to run next door for a moment.”

With that she hurried out of the kitchen, leaving Sirius at the table, glancing futilely around the kitchen as he tried to work out which of the many strange devices the “percolator” might be.

*

Lily had not slept well. She blamed it on Sirius. Though she wasn’t sure if it was because of their conversation the night before or the abrupt way the night had ended once he noticed the full moon and turned melancholic. Perhaps it was the simple knowledge that he was downstairs, sleeping on her great-aunt’s floral print sofa that kept her awake most of the night. Thankfully, Petunia was a heavy sleeper and had snored straight through Lily’s restless fidgeting. It was still early when Lily finally gave up on sleep altogether, feeling agitated and in need of a strong cup of the coffee Aunt Violet always made.

She rolled out of bed, and, keeping in mind that Sirius was downstairs, changed out of her pajamas before heading down. The smell of sausages rose to greet her halfway down the staircase, as did the sound of laughter, a boy’s laughter. A quick glance into the sitting room confirmed that Sirius was awake and out of bed, his blankets folded neatly at the end of the couch. Lily could only hope he hadn’t tripped up and started talking about owl post or Quidditch before she’d managed to get downstairs.

Lily pushed open the kitchen door, only to stop dead in her tracks at the sight in front of her. Aunt Violet was at the hob frying sausages, while her mother was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee with Sirius.

Sirius, who was wearing a fluffy lavender dressing gown.

Her mother and Sirius both turned at the small choking sound that emerged from Lily’s throat. She had never wished for a camera more in her life. Color rose in Sirius’s cheeks, but he managed to shoot Lily a sheepish smile and raised his cup of coffee in greeting.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” her mother said cheerfully. “Is your sister still in bed?”

Lily nodded, still unable to take her eyes off the sight of Sirius Black in a tatty dressing gown she was certain her mum had given Aunt Violet for Christmas at least five years ago. She slid into the chair next to Sirius, who took a sip of his coffee before whispering quietly enough only Lily could hear him.

“If you keep staring like that, people at school won’t be the only ones who think we’re shagging.”

Lily flushed tomato red and quickly looked away from Sirius, although she could practically feel him shaking with silent laughter beside her.

“Why are you wearing my aunt’s dressing gown?” Lily whispered back. Now that she was closer it was horrifically obvious that the dressing gown was all he was wearing.

Sirius shrugged and took another sip of coffee. “She said my clothes were ‘fit only for the bin.’ Then she popped next door to speak to her neighbor who’s supposed to be bringing me something of her son’s to wear. When she got back she gave me this, said my clothes were starting to smell, which was fair.”

Lily had more questions, but her mother cut her off with the coffeepot. “Coffee, Lily?” She asked, pouring a cup when Lily nodded. “More for you, Sirius?”

“Yes, please, Mrs. Evans,” Sirius said courteously, holding out his half-full cup for her to refill. “It’s wonderful, thank you,” he said when she’d finished. Lily’s mother smiled fondly at the boy.

“Can you believe he’s never seen a percolator before?” Aunt Violet said from the hob. “Poor boy, do they even serve coffee at that school of yours or is it just weak tea and water?”

“And pumpkin juice,” Sirius said casually. All three women froze for a second, Lily didn’t even breathe as her eyes widened. Then, Aunt Violet laughed.

“Horse meat too, I’ll bet,” she teased. Sirius frowned and opened his mouth again, but Lily kicked him in the shin. He glowered at her for the kick but seemed to catch the meaning behind it and took another sip of coffee without further comment.

“They do serve coffee with breakfast at school,” Lily assured her great-aunt. “I think they use a different sort of coffee maker though.”

“Not one of those electric drip machines, is it?” Aunt Violet asked. “I don’t care for those.”

“Definitely not an electric machine,” Sirius added. Lily was tempted to kick him again.

“And the food is actually very good as well,” Lily added instead, hoping to get that line of questioning over before Sirius could deny that Hogwarts served any sort of horse meat, flying, hippogriff, or otherwise.

“Not half as good as last night’s roast though,” Sirius said. Aunt Violet chuckled and shot him a pleased smile. Lily rolled her eyes. Was she honestly the only woman in the world immune to his charm and flattery? Well, her and Petunia.

As though she’d summoned her sister by thinking of her, Petunia entered the room still clad in her nightgown, only to freeze, eyes bulging as Sirius glanced over his shoulder at her. Petunia had obviously forgotten he was there. Lily was torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to wince in sympathy as her sister let out an indignant squeak and tore out of the room. They could hear her dashing back up the stairs to her room, likely in search of clothing.

The rest of them were halfway through breakfast when Petunia returned, not only dressed but with her hair perfectly styled and her makeup in place. She took her seat without a word of greeting to anyone and began to help herself to the remaining beans, toast, and sausages.

“What are you all planning to do today?” Aunt Violet asked.

It was a question Lily had been asking herself all through breakfast. What was she supposed to do with Sirius all day? Taking him flat hinting with her mum and Petunia was out of the question, as was leaving him here at Aunt Violet’s house. That wouldn’t be a good idea even if Lily stayed here with him. Remus’s advice had been to keep Sirius occupied, to distract and entertain him. She could probably keep him distracted enough with the Muggle things around Aunt Violet’s house, but his fascination with everyday appliances and mundane objects was certain to push the bounds of her great-aunt’s curiosity.

As if they were all having similar thoughts, everyone at the table seemed to turn their focus to Lily. The bite of toast she’d taken scraped her throat as she forced herself to swallow too soon.

“I um, I thought Sirius and I might go into the city a bit, look around a few markets, maybe see a movie,” Lily said uncertainly.

Sirius—who was finishing off the last of the sausages—perked up eagerly. “A movie? Really? I’ve always wanted to see one of those!”

Aunt Violet gave him a curious look, as did Petunia and their mum. Sirius seemed to catch his mistake and tried to backpedal. “I, um…my mum, she didn’t like the idea of cinemas…thought they were…er, disreputable?” He said the last word with a confused, questioning inflection, looking to Lily for guidance.

“I’d say it depends on the theater,” Aunt Violet replied. “There are certainly some that could be classified as disreputable, but you’re still too young to be allowed in those.” Lily had to hide her face behind her hands when she realized exactly what sort of movie theaters her great-aunt was talking about. When she peeked out from behind her fingers she found her mum and Petunia looking flustered and embarrassed as well. Sirius just looked confused.

“Well,” Petunia interjected. “Mum and I are going to do what we came to London for and tour a few more flats. I have high hopes for the one in Islington.”

Sirius’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth. “It’s not on a street called Grimmauld Place, is it?” He asked. There was a forced casualness to his voice that only Lily seemed to notice.

Petunia looked almost offended that Sirius had dared to speak directly to her. She wrinkled her nose and straightened her already impeccable posture. “No, that doesn’t sound familiar.”

“Right…good,” Sirius said hastily. “You wouldn’t want to live there anyway, not a nice neighborhood.”

Well, Lily realized, now she knew where Sirius’s family lived. Grimmauld Place in Islington. It was impressive that he’d made it as far south as he’d been when she’d met him yesterday.

The doorbell rang as they were tidying up. Aunt Violet hurried to answer it and returned a minute later with a small stack of folded clothing, which she pressed into Sirius’s arms. “Don’t worry about giving anything back. Mrs. Morris’s son is off in Italy on his gap year, so he won’t miss them, and his mother’s happy to be rid of a few things. So, you go change then.”

She shooed him out of the kitchen as Sirius looked through the Muggle clothing with a baffled scowl.

Lily helped with the dishes, listening as Petunia chattered about what she wanted in a flat, all of which seemed well out of the price ranges she could afford. Not that Lily would dare suggest as much. Their mother was hedging around that hurdle, quietly suggesting that Petunia may want something a little more cozy or modest for her first time living on her own. Petunia didn’t pay her much mind though. She had a vision, and wasn’t likely to compromise on much.

Sirius returned to the kitchen as Lily was drying the last of the dishes. He was now dressed in a flared pair of jeans and a black t-shirt with an image screen-printed across the front. Despite having figured out how to put the clothes on, Sirius still looked a bit confused as he shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. Both the jeans and the t-shirt were quite a bit tighter than the shirt and trousers he’d been wearing yesterday or anything they typically wore at school. Now that she thought about it, Lily was almost certain she’d never seen Sirius in anything half so casual as the clothes he was wearing now.

His obvious uncertainty aside, it was a good look on Sirius, Lily couldn’t help but think. If there was one redeeming feature she’d always grudgingly granted both him and Potter, it was that all their time on the Quidditch pitch had kept the pair of them quite fit.

“There! Isn’t that better?” Aunt Violet asked him brightly when she spotted him.

“They certainly smell better,” Sirius admitted a little reluctantly, tugging at the hem of the t-shirt. “Thank you for going to the trouble.”

Aunt Violet favored him with a smile before moving to put plates away in the cupboard. Sirius sidled up beside Lily.

“What’s a Led Zeppelin?” Sirius asked in a whisper. He pointed to the image on his t-shirt, which was a rectangle of white containing a graphic of four people riding some sort of old-fashioned train and the words in question above them in bold red letters. There were dates and a location printed in smaller lettering near the bottom of the graphic.

“It’s a band,” Lily said. “A Muggle rock band, and that’s a shirt from one of their concerts.”

Sirius plucked at the fabric again and looked down at the image from his upside-down angle. “I haven’t heard much Muggle music. Are they any good?”

“Dear Merlin,” Lily said, shaking her head even as she smiled. “You poor, poor thing. I’ve just decided what our first stop is going to be once we get down to the shops.”

Before she left with Petunia to look at flats, Iris slipped an extra five quid into Lily’s palm when she hugged her younger daughter goodbye. “In case you two need anything,” she whispered before squeezing Lily’s hand as she stepped back.

Iris’s eyes flicked over to Sirius, who was hanging back further down the hallway watching their farewells with mild curiosity, like it was a foreign ritual he had never seen before. “Stay out of trouble, you two,” she said, a familiar maternal chiding in her voice. Normally, Lily would have rolled her eyes at her mother’s concern, but with Sirius in tow it felt warranted and welcome.

Petunia seemed ready to leave without so much as a chilly goodbye, but Lily caught her by the wrist as her sister brushed past her on the way out the door.

“Tuney,” Lily said, forcing herself to smile and make it seem genuine. “I hope you find somewhere great today.” It was the truth. She wanted her sister to be happy, and despite the tension between them, Lily would feel Petunia’s absence from the house every time she came home on holidays.

For a moment, Petunia seemed to war with herself, before a flicker of a smile crossed her lips. “So do I,” was all she said, but Lily still felt grateful for it. Glad for any evidence that the bond they’d once shared was still there, weak and frayed though it might be. She’d dared to leap forward and hug Sirius last night, but Lily was too cautious to try hugging Petunia right now, so she released her sister’s hand and let her go.

Turning back as her mother and sister headed out the door, Lily found Sirius still watching her. His head was cocked and he looked curious, almost confused as he frowned.

“What?” Lily asked, but he only shook his head.

“Nothing…So, where is it you’re taking me?” He asked, shoving his hands in his pockets as Lily put the money into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Now it was her turn to shake her head.

“It’s a surprise,” she insisted. His frown turned almost childishly petulant, which only made Lily laugh as she shouted a goodbye to Aunt Violet before the pair of them headed out the door themselves.

Sirius continued to frown as they walked to the bus stop, and it quickly lost the pout it had had before. He was silent as well. At first Lily brushed it off as preoccupation with the Muggle sights around them, but when he remained quiet and surprisingly still as they sat on a bench waiting for the bus, Lily began to worry.

She was beginning to realize that Sirius’s moods could turn on a Sickle. He could be happy and laughing one moment, then a wave of melancholy or anger could sweep over him, only to break and leave him cheerful again just as quickly. She’d known for years that he was volatile; the whole school had seen evidence of his temper and mischievousness. Up close it was even more intense, almost giving Lily a sort of emotional whiplash.

“Everything all right?” Lily asked after Sirius had spent a solid three minutes staring intently at a tiny crack in the pavement before them.

At first, she thought Sirius was going to try and sweep the matter under the rug as he nodded. “Yeah, fine,” he said. Then he hesitated and seemed to reconsider. “I just… your sister…” Lily tensed, but waited for him to decide how to finish his sentence. Finally, Sirius sighed and seemed to gather his thoughts together, or his courage. “You said she doesn’t like magic…do you fight a lot?”

Lily bit the inside of her cheek lightly. “Yes,” she admitted.

“What’s the worst thing she’s ever done to you?” Sirius asked.

Instinctively, Lily pulled away, ready to tell him that was none of his business, that it was no one’s business except her and Petunia. Severus was the only one she’d ever really talked to about her strained relationship with Petunia, and he’d never understood the complexities of it. He’d always been quick to judge and to condemn Petunia. Too quick to dismiss her as just a Muggle. Yet, judging by his conflicted expression, Lily thought Sirius might understand that sort of complicated love.

“She called me a freak right before I left for Hogwarts for the very first time,” Lily answered. “It’s not…I’ve been called worse. It seems like such a small thing sometimes, but years later thinking of it still hurts. I still—I still love her though.”

Sirius nodded grimly.

“My brother and I fight a lot too,” he said. “We used to be close, really close, when we were little. Then things—then we—changed. Now…” He trailed off with a sigh.

This time it was Lily’s turn to nod in understanding. “It was the same with me and Petunia.”

Did she dare return his question, ask Sirius what the worst thing his brother had ever done to him was? She was certain it would be worse than Regulus calling him a mean name.

Sirius let his head hand forward, raising a hand to run through the short fuzz of his hair, broken fingernails scraping across his scalp.

“Regulus saw me with…with another boy at school,” Sirius said quietly. His hands clenched into fists as he lowered them back to his lap. “I tried to convince him it was a joke. When that failed I…I warned him what our parents would do if they found out. He didn’t believe me. Maybe I should have begged, pleaded with him not to tell, but I doubt that would have worked either.”

“Your brother told your parents you’re gay?” Lily said in surprise. Sirius hadn’t said much about his coming out last night beyond admitting it was the reason he’d had to run away from home.

Sirius scoffed, though it lacked any real venom. “I certainly didn’t tell them. I know I’m an idiot with a big mouth. Merlin knows I’ve gotten myself into trouble that way many times before, but that was a line I knew not to cross.”

“I’m sorry,” Lily said quietly. There was nothing else she could say. Certainly, she could curse and rail against Regulus, but if Sirius was anything like her—and Lily was beginning to think they had more in common than she’d ever imagined—he wouldn’t appreciate others insulting his brother. No matter what his brother had done to hurt him.

“The worst part…” Sirius said, his voice thicker than normal. “The worst part is he thought he was bloody helping me!

There were no more words that Lily felt safe speaking, so she trusted her instincts again and reached over to take Sirius’s uninjured hand in hers. He didn’t pull away or tense up like she thought he might. Instead, her touch seemed to help him relax. She ignored the sniffle and the shuddering breaths he took as he tried to wrestle his emotions back under control. After a minute, he squeezed her hand in silent thanks.

In the distance, a bus rounded a corner and rumbled toward them.

“I don’t want to think about it right now,” Sirius said. “Wherever we’re going, Lily, just…distract me, please.”

Lily shot him a smile. “Sirius Black, I am going to introduce you to an entirely new sort of magic,” she promised.

Chapter Text

The shop was called Henry’s Records, and it was wedged between a dingy pub and another shop that seemed to sell beads and crystals on a quiet street at the edge of several blocks of shops and restaurants. Sirius eyed it skeptically and wrinkled his nose. The warm summer air smelled like patchouli and old beer with a faint undercurrent of piss. Lily was a step ahead of him, seemingly oblivious to the smell or anything else. She was humming under her breath and smiling as she approached the shop’s peeling red door.

A little bell tinkled above the door as Lily pulled it open. Inside, the shop was claustrophobic, musty, and cluttered right up to the rafters.

It was the pictures Sirius noticed first. It would have been impossible not to. Every last inch of the shop’s walls were covered in artwork. Photographs, portraits, and a strange jumble of illustrations the likes of which Sirius could never have imagined crowded around him, stretching up to the water-stained ceiling. Few of the pictures were very large, none of them had been framed, and almost all of them had writing on them, names or a few random seeming words that had little to nothing to do with the images around them.

Every single one of them was perfectly still. It was disconcerting, so many frozen eyes, mysterious phrases, and strange pictures all looking down on him. However, there was something beautiful in the chaos of it. So many different pictures all clustered tightly together, audaciously vying for space and attention in ways that would scandalize even Hogwarts’ portraits. Even better, he knew his parents would certainly disapprove of it all.

Lily laughed when Sirius nearly stumbled over his own feet as he twisted to look in every direction. She took hold of his unbandaged wrist and led him deeper into the shop. It was narrow, the high ceiling and the patchwork squares of art on the walls making it feel even tighter. There were shelves and tables full of long boxes full of thin cardboard squares running along the walls and in rows down the middle of the shop. These cardboard squares seemed to be covered in the same sort of art as the pictures on the walls.

“They sell art here?” Sirius asked, plucking a cardboard square out of the nearest box and turning it over in his hands. It was oddly thicker and heavier than he’d expected. This one was a black and white photograph of four men standing in front of a brick wall. They were all dressed similarly in pants that were tighter and narrower about the legs than the borrowed pair Sirius was wearing. Their hair was dark and long, even longer than Sirius’s own had been before his mother cut it. He liked the look, he decided, especially the black jackets they were all wearing. The name RAMONES was printed above their heads, a family name, he supposed. Maybe the men were all brothers. Despite his appreciation of their look, it seemed like a strange photograph to find in a shop.

“Not exactly,” Lily said, pressing a hand to her mouth to try and smother her laughter. “The artwork is just on the covers.” She picked another cardboard square out of the box in front of her. This one had a more abstract picture of a triangle and a rainbow on it. She tilted it a bit to one side and a grooved black plate slipped halfway out of an opening Sirius hadn’t noticed before on the side of the square.

That seemed like an even stranger thing to sell let alone dedicate an entire store to selling. Ugly dinner plates. With holes in the middle of them, no less! Lily saw his confusion and had to bite her lip this time to stop from laughing at him. Sirius shot her a withering look.

“I’m going to take you to some archaic Pureblood shop someday,” Sirius grumbled. “We’ll see who’s laughing when you’re trying to tell sixteenth century goblin made silverware from eighteenth century cursed flatware, Evans.” He found the slit in the side of his own cardboard square and poked it open wide enough to find a black plate inside it as well.

“Sorry,” Lily said, not sounding the least bit apologetic at all. “It’s a music store,” she explained. “These are all albums—records—and bands or musicians have their songs put on them. Then there’s a device you can put the discs onto and it plays the songs for you—”

She was still talking, Sirius was sure, but he’d stopped paying any attention, because when Lily had mentioned music, Sirius had noticed for the first time that it was playing throughout the shop. It must have been there since they first walked into the shop, nipping around the edges of Sirius’s consciousness, his mind slowly absorbing it as he stared at the album covers. He hadn’t paid the music any mind though, used to tuning it out.

Now though, he listened.

He couldn’t see where the music was coming from, which of the many, many black plates was playing it. It seemed to be all around him as a strange voice—or was it voices?—implored him to “open your eyes, look up to the sky and see.” Sirius looked up. He didn’t see anything, but, for the first time in his life, it felt like he was really listening.

Sirius had never given much thought to music before. It had never felt like anything more than background noise—a string quartet playing in the corner at some family party, or the wireless humming quietly in James’s bedroom as they talked over it. There wasn’t a wide variety of music within the Wizarding World, and most of it was old, dry, and dull as dirt in Sirius’s experience. He wouldn’t have expected anything better from Muggle music.

Oh fuck, how wrong he’d been.

He stood transfixed as the music played on. There was a narrative to the song, Sirius was sure of it, though he couldn’t follow it entirely. He didn’t have to know what all the words meant though to feel the emotion behind them. A piano came in, sweet and sad, tragedy and regret dripping from the singer’s voice. It resonated deep inside Sirius’s chest, shaking him to the core as the singer cried out “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”

Sirius was used to stiff waltzes or the shallow love songs Celestina Warbeck sang. He’d never known that music could touch the darkness he so often felt lurking inside himself. The pain he’d caused himself and his friends was reflected here though. It felt like the song was speaking directly to him, for him.

And then, just when Sirius thought he understood, the song changed. It picked up speed becoming dramatic and strange. Sirius was certain he’d lost the thread of the narrative, but it was enthralling all the same as different voices rose and fell, clashing like the “Thunderbolt and lightning” mentioned. There was a war being waged here, of that, if nothing else, Sirius was certain as a singer cried over and over to be let go, to be freed.

Then it changed again, becoming angry and defiant, and—Merlin!—if that didn’t ring with just as much truth to it.

“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?
So you think you can love me and leave me to die?”

Anger and pain and sorrow and remorse. The music swelled around him and echoed through Sirius’s chest.

By the time the song swung back into soft, mournful resignation, Sirius felt like the insides of his soul had been scrubbed raw. Lily had probably believed she was making a joke when she’d said she was going to introduce him to an entirely new sort of magic. Yet, Sirius was convinced she’d done exactly that when she brought him into this record shop.

“Sirius? Are you all right?” He startled when Lily set a gentle hand on his arm, concern wrinkling her brow. He wondered how long he’d been standing like a gawping idiot in the middle of the shop and shook himself.

“Yeah, fine,” he said, hating how tight and drawn his own voice sounded. Lily raised an eyebrow that said she wasn’t buying it. He sighed. “Really, I’m fine, Lily. It’s just…wizarding music is nothing like this.”

She smiled softly and listened to a few bars as the song faded softly with a final croon of “Any way the wind blows…”

“I’ve heard this one before, though I forget the name of the song. The band that sings it is called Queen though. It’s quite good, isn’t it?”

Sirius nodded. “I didn’t know,” he said quietly. “Is…is all Muggle music like this?” He asked in amazement, staring at the shop around him. Did every one of these cardboard squares and their black plates contain a song that could make him feel so much so deeply?

Lily shook her head. “It’s like everything,” she said. “Some of it’s rubbish, but some of it’s brilliant. There’s stuff Petunia listens to makes me want to tear my own ears off, but some music…it can really make you feel, and sometimes that’s what you need. A song to make you cry, or make you happy, or even remind you of falling in love.”

Sirius nodded eagerly, in awe of this stunning accomplishment of Muggles. This was better than electricity, coffee percolators, and underground trains all put together.

“Is this the same band?” Sirius asked when the music changed. It was somewhat similar to the fast, angry part of the Queen song, but even more so. The singer practically screamed some of the lyrics, growling others over the half discordant instruments. It was rougher, jarring, but still appealing. Lily didn’t seem to agree.

“No,” she said, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “I’m not sure who this is. It’s not really my taste. Come with me.” She took the album Sirius was still holding and slipped it back into the box before leading him toward a counter at the other side of the shop. Next to a till, a bored looking Muggle with a wispy beard and glasses even larger than James’s briefly glanced up from a magazine as Lily led Sirius to a box on the counter. He quickly lost interest in them though, returning to his magazine.

“You can listen to specific things here,” Lily explained. She took a pair of earmuffs attached to the box with a cord and settled them over Sirius’s head. “This is one of my favorites,” she sounded muffled as she grabbed a black plate from the rack nearby and set it onto another plate in the box. Lily did several things Sirius couldn’t quite understand and the record began to spin. She lowered a thin, almost stick-like piece tipped with a needle over the record and then music burst into Sirius’s ears.

It was different from either of the songs he’d heard already, smooth and a little melancholy but sweet and comforting as the singer seemed to encourage someone named Jude “Take a sad song and make it better.” Sirius wasn’t quite sure he liked it as much as the Queen song, but it was certainly catchy. He was bobbing his head and tapping his fingers against the counter in time to the music by the end of the song.

That was only the first of several songs as Lily led him through several of her favorite songs and singers. She liked the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell and Elton John and David Bowie and a few others Sirius couldn’t remember the names of. Some of them he didn’t care for, but others spoke to him as clearly and deeply as that first Queen song.

By the time the clerk started to give them pointed looks and asked if they’d found anything they’d like to purchase yet, Sirius was in love.

He ran a tender hand over the side of the record player as Lily put away the last single they’d been listening to, standing almost cheek to cheek to share the headphones between them. “I want one,” Sirius said longingly. “And probably half this store as well.”

“Pretty sure they only take pounds, not galleons,” Lily said. Not that it mattered, Sirius thought sourly. He didn’t have either anymore.

“Never thought I’d actually miss the family fortune,” Sirius grumbled and Lily snorted as she wandered back to the boxes, searching through one with intent.

“Spoken like a true rich boy,” she muttered.

“Yeah, well, not anymore,” Sirius said, hating when she cringed and sympathy stole over her features. “It’s all right, I’ll work it out,” he said, though he wasn’t sure how. Returning to his parents wasn’t an option, and every Knut he’d ever had had come from them. The Potters were well off and generous enough that they’d probably replace his wand and school supplies, but Sirius hated the thought of being a burden to them, especially for something as incredible but ultimately frivolous as Muggle music.

“Are you buying something?” Sirius asked, hoping to distract Lily, and himself, from his impending financial woes. He peeked over her shoulder to get a look at the album Lily was looking over. “David Bowie, I liked him,” Sirius said. “His songs were strange, and I don’t think I really understood some of them, but I still liked it.”

The cover of the album Lily held made Sirius want to laugh and grimace at once. It was titled Diamond Dogs and depicted the singer as a half-man half-dog creature alongside two other grey-skinned half-animal people. It reminded Sirius of illustrations he’d encountered in old transfiguration texts depicting what happened if a wizard made mistakes while trying to become an Animagus. If things had gone wrong he might have wound up looking like that.

“Yeah, I’ll have to hide it from my mum and Petunia though,” Lily said. “Mum doesn’t like his music and Petunia thinks he looks, well…” She shot Sirius a telling glance.

“Queer?” Sirius asked. He plucked another Bowie album out of the box. This one was a photograph of Bowie with bright red hair and a lightning bolt painted across his face. “One can only hope,” Sirius said with a dramatic sigh. Lily laughed so hard she snorted and clapped an embarrassed hand over her mouth and nose. Sirius shot her his most rakish grin.

“God, you’re a prat,” Lily groused without any real venom. She tucked Diamond Dogs under one arm and headed toward the clerk at the counter. “Let me pay for this and then we’ll get something to eat.”

Sirius was sure he would have been happy to stay in the record shop all day, all summer even, but his stomach growled appreciatively at Lily’s suggestion. He followed a few steps behind Lily, trying to memorize the strange, wonderful art of the album covers on the walls and let the song thumping through the air lodge itself in his very soul. He promised himself he would come back here one day with a pocket full of Muggle money and buy himself all the best records, even if he had to get a job cleaning toilets at the Leaky Cauldron to make it happen.

“Does your aunt have a record player? Can we listen to Diamond Dogs when we go back there?” Sirius asked as they left the shop, squinting in the bright summer sunlight.

Lily shook her head as she carefully fit the album into her large bag. “She does, but probably not. Like I said, my mum and sister don’t exactly care for his music, and goodness only knows what Aunt Violet would think. We can probably get away with a few Beatles albums though, and I promise I’ll bring it to school with me. I’ll even let you borrow my record player some time.”

Sirius stopped in his tracks, grabbing for Lily’s arm. “You bring a record player to Hogwarts? And it works there?” Muggle technology typically had a hard time working in deeply magical places like Hogwarts. Lily carefully extricated her arm from his grasp with a roll of her eyes.

“Yes, I do, and yes, it does…for the most part. I learned some charms from a pair of Muggleborn Ravenclaws a few years ago that make it run without electricity, but it does skip more than it does at home, and somehow it changes the lyrics to ABBA songs, only ABBA though.”

“Lily, that’s fantastic! And I can really borrow it sometime? And some records? Just until I can get my own, I promise!”

She laughed at his enthusiasm. “So long as you’re careful with it. You break it and I’ll break you.”

“I’ll treat it like it was my firstborn child,” Sirius promised. Hell, he would have promised Lily the firstborn child he never intended to have to borrow her record player at school. He had to introduce James to David Bowie and Queen and the Rollin Stones.

It also surprised Sirius how pleased he was by the implication that Lily wanted to remain friends, or at least friendly, with him beyond the next few days. He wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible a week ago.

“So, we’re getting lunch then?” He asked.

Lily grinned and shrugged. “We can…or there’s a pretty good ice cream place just a little way from here.”

Sirius matched her grin tooth for tooth and shoved his hands into the pockets of the tight denim trousers as he followed her down the street. “You’re all right, Evans,” he said. Calling her by her surname felt more like a nickname now than a sign that they weren’t close enough to refer to each other on a first name basis. He could see himself using “Lily” and “Evans” interchangeably, just like he did with his friends and their nicknames.

Lily rolled her eyes. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically. “I’m flattered—nay!—honored, by your approval.”

“I mean it,” Sirius said, eager for her to know that he wasn’t kidding, that he really did think she was all right, that he could finally see why James and Remus liked her so much. “You’re a lot more fun than I thought you’d be.”

She shot him a curious look. “What’s that supposed to mean?

“I didn’t mean anything bad by it,” he assured Lily. “I just, well…you’re not exactly a stick in the mud at school, but you don’t really…” He bit his lip, realizing his big mouth might have just gotten him into trouble again. How could he find a nice way to express his previous opinions about Lily Evans, which had often boiled down to she should pull the wand out of her arse sometimes. “You’re pretty much the model student. Top of the class, prefect, never in trouble. You’re so bloody perfect it’s rather scary. It’s nice to see that you have another side, one that listens to fantastic music and eats ice cream for lunch.”

“Thanks,” Lily said again. This time she didn’t sound sarcastic though, her voice was quiet and a bit uncertain.

*

By the time they’d reached the ice cream parlor a few streets away from the record shop, Lily had lost her appetite. She ordered a scoop anyway and paid for them both. Sirius suggested sitting outside in the sun and enjoying the summer weather, so Lily nodded and followed him out to a small bistro table.

Sirius eagerly devoured a waffle cone heaped high with strawberry ice cream, but Lily could only pick at her own bowl of fudge ripple as it began to melt.

“Are you all right?” Sirius asked when his ice cream was gone and Lily’s had turned into a thick brown soup.

“Yeah, fine,” Lily said, biting back a stinging reply.

He hadn’t meant to hurt her. She could even appreciate that he’d tried to reverse course when he realized he’d inadvertently insulted her. He hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings, but he had meant what he’d said. He thought she was a stick in the mud. Boring. Uptight. No fun. And he probably wasn’t the only one who thought it.

Lily didn’t need Sirius Black’s approval. She had plenty of friends at Hogwarts, plenty of people who thought she was fun, who liked her for her. Even if she hadn’t though, Sirius and his partner-in-crime Potter wouldn’t have been anywhere near her first choices for validation.

And yet…

There was truth in what Sirius had said. So bloody perfect it’s rather scary.

“I put my foot in my mouth again,” Sirius said with a sigh, clearly not buying her assurances any more than she’d believed his yesterday. He really did look contrite, grey eyes wide and guilty-looking. “I’m sorry, Lily. I didn’t think and—”

“You’re not wrong,” Lily said suddenly, almost surprising herself. Those few words broke a dam, and suddenly everything came spilling out. Years of things she couldn’t talk about with her Pureblood friends or teachers without feeling like she was whining or blowing things out of proportion. Things she hesitated to even talk about with other Muggleborns for fear of making them more self-conscious, of putting more pressure on their already burdened shoulders.

“Do you know why I have to be like that at Hogwarts? Why I have to be, as you put it, ‘so bloody perfect?’” There anger behind her words, and long-suppressed frustration, and more bitterness than even she had expected.

“Lily, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Sirius said quickly, well aware that with every word he was probably digging himself deeper into the pit he’d fallen into. Lily ignored him.

“Do you know what would happen if I didn’t get good grades? If I got into even a fraction of the trouble you and Potter cause? When you’re Muggleborn the blame for anything you do wrong doesn’t just land at your feet, Sirius. If I were to get detention there are people who would turn up their noses and say it’s because Muggleborns are trouble. It’s the same with classes. If I struggle with an assignment it’s not because I have a hard time with the Agrippan method in Arithmancy, it’s because Muggleborns just aren’t as smart or as good at magic as ‘proper witches and wizards.’”

“Not everyone thinks that way, Lily,” Sirius tried to assure her. “Slytherins and pureblood fanatics aren’t—”

Lily laughed cynically. She might be able to appreciate that Sirius at least understood and wholeheartedly believed that actively hating and persecuting Muggles and Muggleborns was bad. Coming from a family like his that really did count for something, but he was missing the smaller, but still oh so important and painful point she was trying to make.

“I’m not just talking about the idiots who call people like me ‘Mudblood’ and think all Muggles should die,” Lily said, “and it’s certainly not a problem limited to one house at Hogwarts. Most of the people who spout the sort of shite I’m talking about don’t even do it to be malicious.” She let go of her ice cream spoon to tick things off on her fingers.

“There’s a Ravenclaw who thought she was being so kind when she offered to help me with silencing charms last term, because even though I’m top of the bloody class, ‘they’re tricky if you don’t understand the theory.’ The head boy last year made the patrol schedules so the Muggleborn prefects are always paired with a Pureblood, ‘just in case anything goes wrong’ and we poor Muggleborns can’t handle it. Professor Slughorn loves how good I am at potions, but even after five years he still acts like it’s some minor miracle every time I make a potion perfectly. He’s not even the worst of them. I’m pretty sure the only reason I want to keep taking Ancient Runes is to spite Professor Potridge for all the pedantic little notes he leaves on my essays. And that’s just people at school. People who get to see all the effort I put in every single day.

“That’s why I have to be so bloody perfect all the time. I am a damn good witch, but sometimes that just makes it worse, because I’m not perfect. Not by half. Yet, every time I struggle or fail or step a toe out of line, there are people who use it as an excuse, as evidence that I don’t belong, that Muggleborns don’t belong, that we’re not good enough. It’s hard. It’s so bloody, fucking hard sometimes…”

Lily sank back in her seat. She felt drained, exhausted, like all that seething anger had been what was keeping her on her feet, keeping her going. Morgana and Circe, she really hoped that wasn’t true. She glanced over at Sirius, who was staring down at their table looking pensive as he chewed his lip. As though he could feel her looking at him, he raised his head. A hand went up to his stubble of hair again before dropping back onto the tabletop.

Sirius leaned back, rocking his chair up onto two legs. He bit his lip again, seeming to mull something over before he spoke. “Want to know one of the reasons why I like pulling pranks and getting into trouble?” Sirius asked. “Admittedly, it’s only one reason, I have a great many of them and they’re all fantastic.”

Just moments ago, Lily had thought she was too drained to feel any more frustration, let alone any anger, but god damn it if Sirius didn’t have a talent for being irritating.

“I don’t really care,” Lily said flatly. Sirius shot her a smile that seemed genuinely sympathetic and a little pleading.

“You might, just let me explain. I like pulling pranks and all that because scions of ‘the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’ don’t get into trouble,” Sirius said. His voice pitched up into a mocking imitation of his own aristocratic inflections. “Even the craziest of my cousins got through school without so much as a letter home from her head of house, and my brother has never had a single detention. People have expectations of you when your last name is Black…but a lot of those expectations aren’t good.”

Sirius paused, biting his lip again, brow furrowing. He looked back down at the table, fingers reaching out to trace whorls in the wood. He was trying to cheer her up, Lily knew, trying to connect with her even, and she found herself listening. Whatever he had to say, despite how inane it sounded was difficult for him to get out. He was trying, so, despite her own tumbling emotions, she let him.

“I can see it sometimes. People—good people, people I like—just seem like they’re waiting for me to snap, to show my true colors, to prove I’m just another Black, obsessed with blood status and dark magic. I’ve spent the past five years trying to prove to everyone, including my family—fuck, including myself—that I’m not like the rest of them. Yet, I still see it in their eyes sometimes. The fear, the hatred, the distrust—but the misplaced admiration is the worst.

“I like pulling pranks, even getting in trouble because in the back of my mind I keep hoping that every time I make people laugh—even every time I make them angry—that maybe some of them will finally see me as something different. That they’ll stop seeing me as just another bloody Black and see me as, for better or worse…me.”

He raised his eyes and looked suddenly prouder and fiercer than he had all weekend. “I know it’s not the same, Lily, and between the two of us you’ve definitely got the shorter end of the wand. However, I do know what it’s like to have that sort of judgment on your head. How hard it is to escape. So, if you want my advice—and I imagine you probably don’t, but here it is anyway: don’t stop being angry about it. Don’t let other people make you feel like you don’t have a right to be angry or frustrated or sad about the things they put you through, because you do. You have a right to your own mind, your own feelings, and you should damn well make sure others don’t forget that.”

Just like her, he seemed to deflate when he’d finished speaking, to lose the energy that had propelled him through saying something that couldn’t have been any easier than everything she’d admitted to him.

In her entire life, Lily didn’t think anyone had ever encouraged her to let herself be angry before. It was usually the opposite. Even as a child she’d been chided for letting her frustrations get the better of her. It wasn’t something good little girls did. They didn’t shout or scream or lash out with words or with fists. Be above the hate, the condescension, and everything else that bothered her.

“Thank you,” Lily said quietly. She didn’t need Sirius Black’s approval, but it was surprisingly nice to have his support.

Sirius shook his head. “No, thank you. You know, I called you a—I called you a Mudblood once,” he said. It wasn’t at all the follow-up Lily had expected. “First week of first year. I think you’d done something swotty in class and I wasn’t even upset about it, just commenting. James punched me in the mouth and threatened to never speak to me again if I ever used that word again. The thing was, I didn’t even know it was an insult. I didn’t know there was a difference between ‘Mudblood’ and ‘Muggleborn.’ My family used them like synonyms. I learned the truth, and I taught myself to always say Muggleborn, but there are still things I don’t know. Things I need to learn. I’m sorry. I know I’ve probably said or done stupid things like you described over the years. I never meant any harm, but I’m still sorry.”

Lily favored him with a smile. “Well, there’s always time left to learn new things, for all of us. Besides, you’re already doing better than most,” she told him. “Especially considering…” She shrugged in a way that they both knew meant “Your horrible, blood purist family.”

“I’m flattered—nay! —honored, by your approval!” Sirius said, breaking back into a cheeky grin.

“Prick,” she said, feeling a smile tugging at her own lips. They weren’t quite back to the thrill and happiness of the music store, but she somehow felt a lot better.

Sirius leaned further back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. When he tilted back to the ground they both got to their feet. Lily collected her paper bowl full of melted fudge ripple and tossed it in a nearby bin as the ambled back down the street.

“So, what’s next then?” Sirius asked. “Do you want actual food since you didn’t eat your ice cream? We could go back to the record shop unless you think the clerk would get mad at us again, or the cinema like you mentioned this morning. I’ve never seen a film, but Remus and Peter have and they say they’re sort of like watching a very active portrait, but that the people don’t hear you if you talk back to them.”

Lily hid her grin behind her hand. Introducing pureblood wizards to Muggle things was definitely one of her new favorite pastimes. She wondered if she could volunteer in Muggle Studies classes just to watch the expressions on students’ faces.

“Well, I honestly wouldn’t mind a little something to eat, maybe just some chips or—”

Lily was cut off with a surprised and indignant squeak as Sirius suddenly grabbed her by the arm and yanked her behind a telephone box. His grip on her bicep was painfully tight.

“What the hell, Black!” She snapped as she wrenched away. Sirius shushed her, but he wasn’t even looking at her. He was staring through the dirty glass panes of the box at something across the street. They’d been walking back in the direction of the record shop as Lily led them toward an old chippie, and they were right across the street from the shop that sold beads and crystals and other strange, random things.

Sirius was staring at the shop with a look of absolute terror. No, she realized as she followed his gaze, he was staring at a man standing on the corner outside of the shop.

“Do you know him?” Lily asked.

“Yes,” Sirius said. “And I think we’re in very big trouble.”

Chapter Text

For a while, things had been going so well. Then, as so often seemed to happen these days, Sirius had ruined it with his big mouth. He felt guilty over everything Lily had said, everything he’d never had to stop and think about before. How many times had he heard people say the sort of things Lily had just described? Snippets of conversations he’d been part of or overheard flashed through his head. How many times had Sirius said or thought things like that himself?

He’d gotten better over the years, Sirius knew it. He hated that thoughts like those Lily had described could still slip into his head sometimes though. Escaping his family was a lot harder than just running away from home, he was realizing.

A gloomy shadow still hung about Lily as they got up to leave the ice cream parlor. Sirius fell into enough dark moods of his own that he could recognize the signs. At school, Sirius could always count on his friends to pull him out of even his most melancholy of moods.

James would engage him in planning pranks or playing quidditch. Peter would sneak down to the kitchens with him and steal cooking sherry and custard tarts. Remus would distract him with Muggle books or simply sit with him until the darkness lifted.

He loved them for that, and more than anything else at that moment, Sirius wanted to cheer Lily up. Perhaps it was only to assuage his own guilt, but he wanted to make her smile again.

So, he chattered and joked as they walked back up the street, and he could feel it working. He cast a fond look across the street toward Henry’s Records. He would be happy to go back there if Lily didn’t want to go to the cinema after they got some real food.

That was when he noticed the man standing on the corner. He was dressed like a Muggle, but Sirius had seen enough of them in the past few days to recognize something was off about his clothing. Perhaps it was just the way the man seemed so horribly uncomfortable in them, more so than Sirius had been that morning. The man was picking at the edges of his brightly colored jacket and shifting awkwardly in his widely flared trousers. Whatever it was, it made Sirius take a second look, and that was when he recognized the glowering face.

It was one he’d seen across dinner tables and at family gatherings despite the fact that the bastard wasn’t related to the Blacks by blood or marriage. Rabastan Lestrange just sort of came in the same package as his older brother, Rodolphus, and both of them could be found trailing after Bellatrix like lapdogs on leashes.

Without thinking, Sirius grabbed Lily by the arm and pulled her behind the closest thing that might hide them both from Rabastan. The telephone box wasn’t ideal, but the glass panes were dirty and covered in enough graffiti and paper fliers that it provided decent cover.

“What the hell, Black!” Lily snapped as she pulled out of his grasp. Sirius shushed her, hoping she wouldn’t start yelling at him. Rabastan wasn’t looking in their direction, and Sirius was fairly certain he hadn’t seen them yet. They needed to keep it that way.

Enough of his panic must have showed on his face, because Lily actually fell silent. She moved to stand close by his side, following his gaze through the phone box and across the street. Of course she was clever enough to deduce what had rattled him.

“Do you know him?” Lily asked.

“Yes,” Sirius replied. The ice cream he’d just eaten felt like it was curdling in his stomach. “And I think we’re in very big trouble.”

As though he’d heard Sirius’s hushed voice, Rabastan looked up from fiddling with his jacket and glanced up and down the street. Sirius whirled around, pressing his back to the phone box. He yanked Lily back as well. The phone box wasn’t enough protection. They needed to get out of there, out of sight before Rabastan spotted them.

There weren’t any shops or restaurants they could dart into without having to cross into the open, and Sirius wasn’t willing to expose them both like that. A narrow alley was almost directly behind them though. The height of the buildings on either side of it and the angle of the sun had kept the alleyway shady and dark, and with bags and bins of rubbish crowding the entrance it was the best option he could see.

Taking Lily’s hand, Sirius threw another glance across the street. Rabastan was looking in the window of the bead and crystal shop at the moment, so he made a break for the alley, tugging Lily along behind him. She went willingly this time, throwing her own glance over her shoulder at the man across the street as they dodged past the rubbish bins and into the alley.

This, Sirius was pretty sure, was where the smell of piss he’d first noticed earlier had been emanating from. It stank even worse close up, a pungent mix of urine and rotting food left in the warm summer air. That was the least of Sirius’s concerns though. He was shaking, hands and legs alike, shudders traveling the length of his body as he ignored the grime and questionable stains to collapse back against the alley wall.

They’d found him. He didn’t know how, but somehow his family had tracked him down. He wondered if Bellatrix was lurking around the corner, if his parents had condescended to venture into Muggle London themselves in pursuit of him, or if they’d just sent out his cousin and her hounds.

Sirius squeezed his eyes shut as memories flooded his mind. His father’s Imperius. His mother’s Cruciatus. The cellar. The pain.

He’d been lucky to get away once; he didn’t think they’d give him the chance to be that lucky again.

“Sirius, what’s going on?” Lily asked. The question was firm, her voice steady, but she’d definitely picked up on his dread. She was looking between him and peering around the corner of the building so fast she was probably going to get a crick in her neck.

Oh, Merlin! Lily!

What would his family do if they found her?

No.

Sirius wouldn’t let that happen. James and Remus would never forgive him if anything happened to her. Dammit, he’d never forgive himself either. Not if his family hurt her because of him.

“You need to leave,” Sirius said, pushing himself up so he was standing straight. He left a hand braced against the dirty bricks though because his legs felt wobbly.

Lily’s head whipped back toward him. “What? No! I’m not going anywhere, not until you talk to me, Sirius.”

He swallowed the taste of bile and strawberry ice cream back down and stared past her. Rabastan was still lingering on the corner near the shop. They were far enough away that Sirius couldn’t tell what else he might be doing. “That’s Rabastan Lestrange,” he told Lily. “His brother is married to my cousin. They must be looking for me. My parents must have sent them to find me.”

Lily’s eyes went wide. “How? How could they find you?”

Sirius shrugged. He squinted down at the far end of the alley, but it stopped at a brick wall. No way out besides the way they’d come in. “I don’t know, it must be some sort of spell or something. I don’t know, but you need to get out of here, Lily.”

We need to get out of here,” Lily corrected him.

Sirius shook his head. “No. Too risky. They’re not looking for you, but if they see you with me—” He swallowed and shook his head again. He couldn’t make himself finish that sentence. He couldn’t let himself contemplate what a mad bint like Bellatrix would do to a Muggleborn she caught in Sirius’s company. His cousin was the worst of his parents combined: his father’s twisted creativity with his mother’s volatile violence.

This time it was Lily who grabbed hold of Sirius. Her hand caught him by the shoulder, nails digging into the thin fabric of his borrowed t-shirt. “I’m not leaving you,” she said.

Cursing her pigheadedness, Sirius tried to brush her off, but even when she let go of his shoulder, Lily didn’t step away from his side. “I’ll be fine,” Sirius assured her. “I can hide from them, but I can’t do it with you here.”

His family still didn’t know about Padfoot, so he could walk right past Rabastan and anyone else as a dog and they wouldn’t look twice. However, that wasn’t a secret he wanted to reveal to Lily either. That wasn’t the only reason he needed her to leave though. If his family was searching for him, tracking him, then Lily and her family weren’t safe, not with him staying at their house. His family, Bellatrix especially, wouldn’t hesitate to hurt any Muggles that got in their way, and Sirius couldn’t stand the thought of it. Not when Lily’s great-aunt and her mother had been so kind to him. Hell, he wouldn’t even wish Bella’s attentions on Lily’s toad of a sister.

“I’m not leaving you,” Lily repeated stubbornly. “You don’t have a wand, Sirius! You’re unarmed and you’re still hurt from the last time you had to get away from these bastards.”

She squared her shoulders, jaw clenching and nostrils flaring in a way that probably would have had James down on one knee proposing marriage. For his part, Sirius just wanted to reach out and shake her until she saw sense. He would never lay hands on her, never hurt her. If he couldn’t appeal to her reasonable side though, he’d try a tactic he had far more experience with.

“Damn it, Evans! Stop being such a stubborn little bitch!” Sirius snarled. He wanted to piss her off, enough that she would be willing to slap him across the face and storm off.

It didn’t work. Lily just sniffed scornfully.

“You first, Black,” she hissed back.

Despite everything, the dread and nausea and adrenalin rushing through him, that startled a breathy laugh out of Sirius. He closed his eyes again. This morning he would have sworn there were only three people in the world he could have counted on to have his back in trouble like this. Merlin and Morgana, he wished Lily wasn’t turning out to be quite such a good friend right now.

“Lily, please,” Sirius begged through gritted teeth. “You have no idea what they’re like. If they find you with me they’ll hurt you…”

Lily ignored him as she dug into her large purse, reaching past the David Bowie album and pulling out her wand. “I can take care of myself, Sirius,” she said firmly, “and I’m not going to leave you here alone and defenseless.”

“And your family? Can your mum fight off a wizard? Your sister?” It was a low blow and he knew it.

Lily flinched, and for a moment Sirius thought he had her, but her hand only tightened around her wand and she glared at him. “Stop it,” she snapped. “I’m not leaving you here and that’s final. I—”

She trailed off, frown deepening as she glanced over his shoulder. Fearing the worst, Sirius spun around, imagining Rabastan would be standing right behind him, wand drawn and a curse on his thin, sneering lips. But no, Rabastan was still standing across the street. He wasn’t even looking in their direction.

“Sirius…are you sure he’s here looking for you?” Lily asked.

A moment ago he had been. What else could possibly bring an archaic, Pureblood fanatic like Rabastan out into the middle of Muggle London? However, Rabastan didn’t appear to be searching for anything. If anything, it looked like he’d already found exactly what he was after.

Rabastan was staring intently in the window of the shop on the corner. Lily and Sirius both crept closer to the edge of the alley to watch, though Sirius took hold of Lily’s shoulder, ready to yank her back at any moment. For her part, Lily ignored the protective, borderline patronizing gesture and focused on what Rabastan was doing.

After he finished looking in the window, Rabastan walked to the corner of the building, right next to an alley that mirrored the one Lily and Sirius were hiding in. He glanced up and down the street again before pulling a wand out of his sleeve.

Sirius’s breath caught in his throat as Rabastan raised it to the bricks of the building. He expected an explosion, a wall of flames, something dramatic and terrible to happen. Nothing did.

Nothing that they could see anyway.

“Is he drawing something…some sort of spell?” Lily asked. Sirius didn’t reply, his own brows furrowing in confusion.

Whatever he was doing, it didn’t take Rabastan long to finish. He stepped back from the wall with a satisfied smirk. Then, once again he looked up and down the street, and waited for a pair of women pushing prams to walk by. When they’d reached the end of the block, Rabastan took a few steps back into the alley. The shadows almost swallowed him before a sharp CRACK echoed from across the street.

Lily and Sirius both jumped. When they looked back, Rabastan was gone. He’d apparated away, not even bothering to look around, to look for Sirius.

For a long, tense minute, Lily and Sirius both kept their eyes fixed on the alley across the street, waiting for Rabastan to reappear or something to happen. Finally, when nothing did, they both began to relax just a bit. Sirius let go of Lily and she straightened up, wrinkling her nose at the bin she’d been half crouched behind.

They exchanged a look.

“What are the odds that he wasn’t here looking for you?” Lily asked. She sounded skeptical.

“I don’t know,” Sirius said with a shake of his head. His fingers were flexing, stretching the bandages and sending sharp flashes of pain through his hand. He wanted his wand. He desperately wanted it. “Whatever he was here for though, it can’t be good.”

The alley and street were clear now. Rabastan didn’t appear to be coming back, but Sirius still felt tense, anxious. Even if Rabastan hadn’t been here for him it had been a bloody close call. Too, too close.

“We should leave,” Sirius said, swallowed around the snitch that was trying to fly up his throat.

Neither of them moved. Sirius felt frozen in place, like his limbs wouldn’t move, his feet were stuck to the alley floor. The latter might have been literally true given he seemed to have stepped in something greyish-brown and viscid.

Lily was worrying her lower lip between her teeth so violently Sirius thought she might make herself bleed. “What was he doing?” She asked. She was nervous, but Sirius could see something else in her bright eyes, something curious and—

“Lily, no!” Sirius hissed as she stepped around the bins and back out onto the pavement. Her wand was still in her hand but pressed between her leg and her purse so it wouldn’t be easily visible to anyone passing by. Damn it! Sirius was used to being the reckless one, not the responsible one. That was supposed to be Remus, even James or Peter sometimes. Sirius was wholly unsuited for the role.

That was probably why he stepped out after her rather than try to pull her back into the shadows of the alley. Stupidly brave Gryffindors, the both of them Sirius thought, half crossly but half in grudging approval. She might have better impulse control than he did ninety-nine percent of the time, but Lily still had a wild streak to her that Sirius could identify with.

“You said whatever he was doing couldn’t be good…” Lily said. She was looking back and forth as she walked to the edge of the street. No cars were coming, so they hurried across, aiming for the corner of the building where Rabastan had been lurking. Sirius lagged a step behind Lily, glancing into the window that had also caught Rabastan’s attention.

There were the beads and crystals he had noticed absently the first time, but now that he was looking closer he could see several familiar items. There were spheres of glass and quartz on pedestals or velvet cloths, books on astrology, something that looked terribly like a scrying bowl.

It felt like there was ice creeping up through Sirius’s veins toward his heart.

“Sirius…come look at this,” Lily called. His fear was echoed back to him in her voice. Tearing his eyes away from the display, Sirius hurried over to where Lily stood at the other corner. The hand not holding her wand was touching the bricks, fingertips running over something as she frowned in confusion.

Rounding the corner, he saw what had caused her bewilderment. There was something carved into the red bricks, a long string of half-familiar glyphs and symbols.

“Runes,” Lily said. “They’re runes, but there’s something off…I don’t recognize some of them…” She moved to trace them with her fingers again.

“Don’t,” Sirius said. Lily snatched her hand back instantly. He sucked in a shaky breath that sparked pain in his bruised ribs and back. “They’re a variation of futhorc altered further by classical Etruscan to make it more versatile, and, in this case, more volatile.”

Lily turned her frown on him. “You don’t take Ancient Runes at school,” she said, making it half a question with her tone.

“No need when I can study at home,” Sirius said bitterly, remembering the runes carved into the cellar walls. These weren’t precisely the same, but they were close enough it made Sirius wonder if someone else had been snooping down there. His parents? Bella? Regulus? Sirius winced at the thought of the latter.

Once he’d given her a place to start, Lily seemed to get her feet under her, proving exactly how smart she was. Her eyes darted across the string of runes and she whispered quietly as she translated. Sirius did the same, but with thoughts of the cellar dancing through his head he was a little bit slower on the uptake.

“It’s a spell!” Lily said. “I don’t understand though…it’s some sort of containment or barrier…almost a protection spell.” She looked toward Sirius in confusion. He took another look at the spell carved into the runes. It was very similar to several of the ones in Grimmauld Place’s cellar, but off, almost backwards and at the bottom…

“It’s only part of the spell!” Sirius said. “The last rune…see the bit hanging off the hægl?” Lily nodded when he pointed to it. “It connects to something else somewhere else…some other spell or something that completes whatever this is supposed to do…”

They both looked around the corner and up and down the wall. There was nothing either of them could see from where they were.

“We should go,” Sirius repeated. There was no way of knowing if Rabastan had completed whatever he’d meant to do. He could be coming back at any moment. Lily nodded, but again, neither of them moved.

“You said whatever he was doing…that it wouldn’t be good…” Lily said.

“It won’t be,” Sirius confirmed.

“And you said he wouldn’t know who I am,” Lily said. “He wouldn’t recognize me.”

“Lily…” He didn’t like where she seemed to be going with this.

“I should look,” Lily said. “Just a quick circle around the building, check for more runes.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Sirius said gravely.

She was chewing on her lip again and her free hand reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear. Sirius really wished he had his own hair to drag his hands through. He was about thirty seconds away from punching the damn wall to relieve some of the anxiety and frustration building within his chest. He’d only wind up hurting his one good hand though and…

“Lily! Look around, see if you can find something strong and sharp or really hard. We can break the spell if we break the runes!” He said, hurrying into the alley and dragging the lid off the nearest rubbish bin. It was the same as he’d done to the locking runes down in the cellar, only they needed to make the damage to these runes more permanent than a little bit of blood could offer.

Lily caught his train of thought and darted after him into the alley. She found a fist-sized chunk of broken concrete but it proved to be too fractured to be an effective tool, shattering into several pieces when Lily smashed it against the bricks. It was Sirius who found the triangular piece of metal back by the locked rear door of the record shop. He didn’t know what it had been originally, but it seemed to have been repurposed as a doorstop. It was a bit rusty but felt solid and it angled to a promising point.

“Give it here. This is going to take two hands,” Lily said when Sirius fumbled the iron doorstop with his bandaged hand. She took the wedge from him, but then seemed to realize that two hands would require her to put away her wand. Instead of shoving it back into her bag or a pocket, she held it out to Sirius. “Here, one of us should be armed.”

She grimaced a bit when he took the wand with a nod, and Sirius thought he knew exactly how she felt. The wand chooses the wizard—or the witch—as Ollivander had said, and Lily’s wand definitely hadn’t chosen him. It didn’t exactly feel hostile as he held it in his left hand, but if he’d had to ascribe a human emotion to it he would have said it was sullen. Merlin and Morgana, he missed his own wand.

The metal doorstop was not a perfect tool, and the bricks weren’t exactly soft either. Lily was swearing as she awkwardly chipped at the top glyph in the string of runes. Sirius stood at the mouth of the alley, Lily’s wand clenched tight in his hand as he kept watch, warning Lily to stop attacking the wall when people came by. Thankfully, they didn’t have to do much, just put a chip in the brick and break the pattern of the glyph.

“Fuck!” Lily said, sounding far more pleased than her word choice might imply as a small flake of red brick whizzed away from the wall, breaking the first rune. Sirius shot her a grin that Lily wholeheartedly returned, but only for a moment.

“Do you smell that?” She said at the exact moment Sirius did smell it.

“Smoke,” he said grimly.

Chapter Text

Sirius was beginning to wonder if he was a bad influence on Lily. Certainly, the Lily Evans he’d known passingly well at Hogwarts wasn’t the sort to charge blindly into trouble. Right? Either a day spent with Sirius had somehow made her incredibly reckless, or there had always been a wildness to Lily lurking beneath the guise of the sweet, swotty prefect.

He was leaning toward the latter, especially as Lily was the one in the lead as they both barreled around the corner and out onto the street.

If anything, Sirius had been the voice of reason today…to an extent. However, he’d abandoned even the façade of restraint in an instant to follow after Lily as she chased the terrible scent drifting through the air.

The smell of smoke was still faint but growing stronger as they neared the front door of the shop. It wasn’t the familiar fireplace smell that Sirius had always found comforting and cozy. There was something simultaneously acrid yet sickeningly sweet in the smell, something that was already clinging to his throat. In a flash, Sirius wondered how they hadn’t noticed it before. But of course the answer was right there in the metal doorstop still clutched in Lily’s hand.

Lily had said it herself, the runes had looked like some sort of backwards barrier or protection spell. A spell to keep something in, not something out.

A hand-painted sign on the door said the shop was open, but in the entire time they’d been standing in the alley trying to break the rune spell, not a single person had gone in or out of the building. Lily reached for the knob, but, once again, Sirius caught her hand and pulled her back.

“Don’t, Sirius! We have to help!” Lily snapped as she whirled on him, she looked ready to scream and shout and even fight him for trying to hold her back, for being cautious. Oh, how the tables had turned.

Sirius was going to rub this whole thing in her face for a long time. Provided they both got out of this mess intact.

Right now though, Sirius wasn’t trying to hold Lily back.

“I know,” he said. “That’s why you need this.” Sirius held out her wand like he was offering her the hilt of a sword.

Lily blinked at him, shocked that she’d somehow forgotten her wand. Sirius gave her a small, wry smile as she reached for it. “It likes you better than me, I think,” Sirius said. “Besides, you’re top of the class in Charms, at least until we get our O.W.L. results.”

With the wand in her hand again, Lily stood a little straighter and sucked in a deep breath as she grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant smile, but Sirius matched it just as fiercely as he nodded.

This time it was Sirius who reached for the doorknob. He half expected the bronze handle to burn when he touched it, for there to be a wall of fire ready to greet them on the other side. Rabastan wouldn’t have come here for innocent reasons, so whatever was waiting for them inside it wouldn’t be pleasant.

His mother and father weren’t the only ones who’d left Sirius with scars and bruises in the past. Almost no one associated with the Black family—by blood or marriage—shied away from violence. Sirius didn’t doubt for a moment that they would be willing to do far, far worse to Muggles.

The doorknob was no warmer than he would expect of metal on a hot summer day. Beside him, Lily shifted into one of the dueling stances they’d learned in Defense Against the Dark Arts this past year. Her wand was raised and her lips parted, a spell waiting on them, no doubt.

The door wasn’t locked. A string of bells attached to the doorframe jangled merrily when Sirius wrenched it open. The smell of smoke intensified and Sirius could see trails of it in the air near the ceiling.

“Ugh!” Sirius gagged as he coughed and yanked the collar of his t-shirt up over his mouth and nose. The smoke smelled wrong, so wrong, like a dozen different scents roiling together, spicy and sweet and horrid. It stank like Fiendfyre had hit a perfumery.

Unlike what Sirius had seen in the front window, the interior of the shop suggested it mostly sold books. The long, narrow interior was lined with high shelves full of books, occasionally interrupted by small bins full of crystals, or little statues and figures made of brass or stone. Much like the record shop next door, the center of the shop was cluttered with long tables, these ones though were covered in velvet or rainbow patterned cloths displaying trays of brightly colored glass beads, decks of tarot cards, candles, and other semi-familiar items.

The smoke was coming from the back of the shop, billowing out through a doorway with a brightly colored beaded curtain. Sirius let Lily take the lead again as they rushed inside. His hip collided with the solid, sharp corner of one of the tables as he ran after Lily. The sharp pain of bruises getting more bruised made him curse and stumble. That was how he caught sight of the woman on the ground.

“Fuck!” Sirius gasped. To his shame, Sirius froze as he stared at her. He forgot all about Lily, the fire, Rabastan, everything.

For a sixteen-year-old, Sirius knew he’d seen more terrible things than most adults. His mother’s collection of knickknacks alone held more curses and dark histories than an entire block of Knockturn Alley. However, he’d never seen a corpse before.

The woman lay in a boneless sprawl across the floor between two tall bookshelves. Her long, light brown hair was tangled across her face, hiding her features and sticking to her skin with drying blood. She wore an oversized, billowy sort of blouse and a long skirt. Strands of colorful beads and bangles of silver hung around her neck and wrists.

Slowly, almost like he was approaching a dangerous beast, Sirius rounded the table. He dropped to his knees beside the woman, still barely daring to breathe. Rabastan had done this. He’d sat across the dinner table from the man who had walked into this shop and…

Reaching out, Sirius touched the woman. She was warm, and when he rolled her onto her back, Sirius was shocked to see the shallow rise and fall of her breath.

Oh Merlin, she was alive!

Sirius choked out a cry, half a sob and half a hysterical laugh of relief.

Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Sirius scanned the woman for signs of what had happened to her. There was a bit of stiffness around her face and fingers—both symptoms of a strong stunning spell. Sirius had seen similar effects a few times in Defence Against the Dark Arts last year when they’d done mock duels. Pairing the fifth-year Gryffindors with their Slytherin counterparts and telling them to fight each other had been a recipe for disaster. Snape had knocked James out cold once, and, in a rare display of temper, Remus had taken down both Mulciber and Avery in quick succession with powerful stunning spells.

A witch would be fine, but Sirius didn’t know if such a spell might affect a Muggle differently. Especially with the smoke and the bloody cut across her forehead.

“Lily!” Sirius yelled. He knew healing spells, and a quick reviving spell should have her awake in an instant. Without a wand though, Sirius was all but helpless. Useless.

“Lily!” He yelled again, realizing with horror that he’d completely lost track of one girl when he’d found the other. There was still smoke, still a fire, and Sirius had just let Lily go charging off into the thick of it alone. Sirius knocked over a basket full of quartz crystals as he used the table to get back to his feet.

“Aguamenti!” Sirius heard Lily’s strained voice call from back behind the beaded curtain. The heavy, pungent air made him cough and his eyes water as Sirius knocked the beaded curtain aside and found himself in another room. From what he could see through the smoke and flames, this didn’t look like a continuation of the shop or a storage room but something almost reminiscent of the divination classroom sans tables and actual chairs. It was mostly empty, with thick carpets laid across the floor and tatty cushions stacked against walls covered in tapestries and posters.

Fire was spreading across the far wall, devouring wall hangings and the wood paneling behind them.

Lily herself stood in front of the fire, a powerful stream of water spraying from the end of her wand. Her legs were braced and her arms trembling as she held her position. It was impressive, both the strength of the spell, and the look of determination on the face of the witch as she concentrated, blinking against the smoke and the intense heat.

In that moment, Sirius fell in love with Lily Evans. Not in a romantic or sexual way—though in a hypothetical, abstract sort of way he could now see what drew James so helplessly to her. No, Sirius felt love for her in a way similar to how he loved Peter, James, and Remus—and how he still, reluctantly, loved Regulus. It was a deep, profound mix of their newly budding friendship, intense admiration, and a doglike sense of instinctual, wholehearted loyalty.

Pushing his face into the sleeve of his shirt, Sirius pressed on into the smoke and the heat of the back room. He didn’t know what use he could be without a wand to help put out the flames, but he couldn’t to leave Lily to face the fire alone. He’d have done the same for James or Peter or Remus.

Lily was making progress. The spray of her water-summoning charm was keeping the flames at bay against the far side of the room. However, there was something unnatural about the way the flames twisted to avoid the water.

Every charm, curse, and even potion Sirius had ever heard of relating to fire ran through his head. There were spells to create fire, to make it burn without fuel, to make flames of different colors, even to create fire without heat that wouldn’t burn anything. The only thing Sirius knew of that could come close to this was a curse that created Fiendfyre.

Sirius had never seen Fiendfyre before, but he had read about it…and heard descriptions of it from Bellatrix. This wasn’t Fiendfyre though, thank Morgana. If Rabastan had cast a Fiendfyre curse they wouldn’t be alive right now, and the shop—perhaps the entire street—would be nothing more than a smoldering ruin and—oh, fuck!

Runes.

Squinting against the smoke and the heat and the painfully bright light of the fire, Sirius stepped forward.

“Get back, you idiot!” Lily yelled to be heard over the fire. The jet of water skittered across the wall as Lily took one hand off her wand to grab at Sirius’s arm and try to yank him safely behind her. In her desperation, Lily’s fingernails dug deep into his forearm, reminding Sirius of his mother doing the same just a few days ago. Lily was trying to help him though, not hurt him, and she let go quickly to steady her wand and its powerful spell.

The flames took advantage of Lily’s moment of distraction and snaked down to the carpets layered across the ground. Cursing, Lily refocused on fighting it back. Sirius’s attention though, was on the walls.

The runes outside had been right about at eye level, carved into the wall with magic. Sirius could only assume the second set, the ones linked to those outside, would be somewhere similar.

And yes…there they were. Hidden in an inside corner along the back wall.

From where he was, Sirius couldn’t read this second set of runes, though he could make guesses about what they did. Taking the doorstop to these ones was out of the question while the fire was going. This time there should be a much more effective solution to the problem though.

“Lily!” He yelled. Green eyes flickered in Sirius’s direction for a moment, but she kept her body and wand turned toward the fire. The flames had caught hold of one of the rugs and were expanding again with new fuel to feed from.

“The linked runes! Corner!” Lily’s eyes darted toward the corner where Sirius was pointing. Her jaw clenched and she took half a step forward, lips mouthing the word of the spell again. Aguamenti!

The jet of water redoubled, and the fire fell back. It gave Lily a second to whirl about and cast a second spell.

“Bombarda!”

Sirius ducked back as a chunk of brickwork exploded, dust and pebbles hitting his back.

It didn’t kill the fire instantly, but it did stop whatever magic had been feeding the flames and giving them the ability to avoid Lily’s spells. When Lily turned back to the fire and recast her spell, the flames began shrinking quickly under her wand, leaving behind dripping soot-stained brick walls and the sodden, charred remnants of posters and carpets.

By the time it had been thoroughly doused, Lily was wavering on her feet.

Sirius shot forward to steady her. The smoke and brick dust were still lingering thick in the air, making breathing difficult. Ignoring a twinge from his bruised back, Sirius pulled Lily’s arm over his shoulders. Together, they stumbled back through the beaded curtain, wheezing and coughing.

The air was better out in the main room of the shop, though still hot and cloying.

Lily’s legs buckled, and Sirius gripped her tighter. He helped her back around the counter and settled her against a bookshelf where he could keep an eye on her and check on the unconscious shop girl at the same time. Her face was streaked with soot and sweat, and she looked like she was either ready to puke or faint, especially when she caught sight of the woman on the floor.

“Oh, god!” Lily gasped. “Is she…?”

“Alive,” Sirius assured Lily, crouching down next to her to check for injuries. She looked exhausted, filthy, and half-sick, but she hadn’t been burnt or hurt by the small explosion. “A stunning spell, I think,” Sirius continued. “Nasty one, but she should be all right. Can I borrow your wand for a minute? I want to take care of that lump on her head and make sure that all Rabastan did was knock her out.”

Sirius hoped the wand would obey him enough to cast a few light healing spells, because he didn’t want to tax Lily any further right now when she was clearly spent from putting out the fire.

To his surprise, Lily didn’t hand it over this time. Instead, she started to push herself back up.

“I should do it,” she said shakily. “Only one of us should get in trouble over this…should get expelled…” She raised a trembling hand to swipe at strands of hair plastered to her cheeks and forehead. She was on the verge of tears, and Sirius didn’t think they were an effect of the smoke.

“What are you talking about?” Sirius asked.

“I…I’m going to be expelled,” Lily said. “I used magic…outside of school…I didn’t think…I just…” Behind the fatigue there was a fear and pain in her eyes that verged on despair. Lily really thought she was about to lose everything, to be expelled from Hogwarts and have her wand snapped, maybe even be arrested for what she’d just done.

Sirius knew it was the wrong thing to do, but he couldn’t stop himself from laughing. In an instant, Lily’s distress snapped to irritation bordering on anger. She did not like to be laughed at, Sirius was finding. Fair enough. Neither did he.

“The Ministry’s more likely to give you an Order of Merlin than snap your wand, Evans,” Sirius said. “You stopped a fire and saved a life.”

Lily blinked at him, stunned. Sirius used the opportunity to pluck the wand from her half-limp fingers and went back to crouch beside the unconscious shop girl. He’d helped with James’s Quidditch scrapes, Remus’s post-moon injuries, and healed his own cuts and bruises often enough to have several basic healing spells down.

Lily’s wand reacted sluggishly, almost resisting him, but it worked well enough to close the cut and reduce the swelling of the lump on the shop girl’s forehead. He did not, however, revive her. Not yet. There were still too many questions, and, quite frankly, Sirius needed a minute to process this whole mess without having to try and answer this woman’s questions on top of his own.

He sighed and sat back on the floor, really taking in the Muggle’s appearance for the first time. She was pretty he supposed, in a bit of a plain way with very long, straight hair and round face. The long, flowing clothing she wore was almost reminiscent of some casual robes. She couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Sirius and Lily, barely old enough to be out of Hogwarts if she’d been a witch.

And Rabastan had intended to let her burn to death.

“Fuck,” Sirius whispered.

“Yeah,” Lily agreed. She was leaning against the counter, looking around the shop through drying tangles of sweaty red hair as she blinked in confusion. “Why would someone do this?” She asked. “I don’t understand. It’s just a shop, just a bunch of ‘hippie nonsense’ as my parents used to say.”

Unfortunately, Sirius did understand.

“Look around, Lily,” he said. “Really look at what this shop sells.”

He reached over to pull the nearest book off the shelf and held it up for her to see the title. It had a picture of a hand covered in symbols on the cover. The title read The Hand and the Horoscope and advertised that it combined astrology and palmistry. Sirius used the book to point out several other familiar things around the shop. “Astrology, herbology, crystals, tarot cards, palmistry, and books on all of it!”

Sirius tossed the book on the floor. “To someone like Rabastan—to people like my family—Muggles toying with these sort of things, with magic, it would be…” He shook his head as he searched for the right word, the sort of word his mother would hiss over the dinner table as Rabastan gloated about setting fire to a shop and a Muggle woman. “Profane.”

Lily looked sick. She swallowed and tucked her hair back behind one ear. “So…so someone, this man you know…he wanted to punish Muggles for daring to read horoscopes and burn sage? That’s sick.”

“I agree,” Sirius said. Lily didn’t know the half of it. “There’s something we’re missing though…the runes, how slow the fire was burning despite being almost animated…this is all too complicated for something that could be fast and simple. Rabastan’s a mean bastard and a fairly talented wizard. He could have walked in here, knocked out the shopkeeper, and set the entire place blazing in a matter of seconds. Why bother with the runes? Also, why hasn’t an owl swooped in here with a warning letter for you?”

Lily straightened suddenly. “Wait—what? I thought you said I wouldn’t get in trouble for using magic?”

Sirius shrugged. “I said you wouldn’t get expelled, and if some Aurors show up here and we have to explain things, you won’t. They usually just send a sternly worded letter for a first offense, at least that’s what happened to James last summer.”

Lily raised a curious eyebrow.

“It’s a stupid story,” Sirius said with a groan as he climbed back to his feet. It felt like the past few days were catching up to him again, hitting even harder this time. “I’ll tell you later and we can both have a laugh at James’s expense, but right now—”

The bells above the door jangled as the door opened.

They were hidden from the door where they were. Anyone who wanted to see them would need to walk further into the shop. It gave them a few precious seconds to figure out what to do.

Seconds they both wasted, frozen and wide-eyed, staring blankly at each other.

Floorboards creaked, muffled beneath carpets.

It could be a customer, Sirius told himself. A Muggle who would wander further into the shop looking for a book…who could come around the end of the shelves and see Sirius and Lily and the unconscious woman on the floor. They might even be able to convince a Muggle that they were there to help. That scenario might turn out all right

Only, the smell of noxious smoke still hung heavy in the air, and whoever had just entered the shop hadn’t coughed or choked or reacted to it at all.

There was a sinking feeling of certainty in Sirius’s gut. He saw it reflected in Lily’s eyes from where she sat against the bookshelves.

She was better hidden than he was. She was exhausted, but she was tough as a Ukrainian Ironbelly.

“I know someone’s here,” Rabastan hissed. “Show yourself.”

Lily shook her head, her lips mouthing the word “NO!”

Sirius winked. Before Lily could make a move to stop him, Sirius tossed her wand back to her. As she was scrambling to catch it, he stepped around the edge of the bookshelf.

Shoving his hands into the pockets of his Muggle trousers, Sirius called up a grin to mask the pounding, screaming fear that wanted to tear out of his chest and throat.

“Hello, Rab,” he said, calling up his very best aristocratic drawl. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Chapter Text

Lily bit her cheek so hard she tasted blood. The metallic taste filled her dry mouth and clung to her sore, smoke-scalded throat when she swallowed, but it was that or she was going to scream out her frustration.

She was going to strangle Sirius. Right after she saved his bloody life, of course.

“Hello, Rab,” Sirius said, sounding every inch the haughty Pureblood as he strode into the middle of the shop. “Fancy meeting you here.”

The wand in Lily’s hand was shaking. Her entire body was trembling with fear and adrenaline. Ash lingered in her lungs, making every already precarious breath burn.

“Sirius?” Rabastan Lestrange asked. Beneath the shock and disbelief, he had the same aristocratic accent as Sirius, though his inflection lacked something of the smoothness and charm Sirius could infuse into his voice when he chose to. “What are you doing here?”

From where she was crouched down the aisle between bookshelves, Lily couldn’t see Rabastan, but she could still see Sirius. He was projecting an aura of nonchalance, almost boredom, and he shrugged in reply to Rabastan’s question. One of his hands idly reached out to run over the displays on a tie-dye covered table. Sirius plucked a small box off the table and held it up for Rabastan.

“I needed a new deck of tarot cards,” Sirius said. He smiled as he said it, but it was forced. He was afraid, but he was good at hiding it. Lily didn’t want to think about how or why a sixteen-year-old boy had experience enough to smile through the absolute terror of facing an armed man who’d already proven he had no qualms about committing murder.

“What?” Rabastan asked. He sounded confused.

Sirius heaved a dramatic sigh as he began to peel the plastic wrapping off the deck of tarot cards. As he fiddled with the cards, he took several more steps away from where Lily was crouched.

“Honestly, Rab, what do you think I’m doing here?” Sirius asked, dodging Rabastan’s question with his own. He fixed the unseen man with a blasé, almost condescending stare as opened the card box and tipped the deck out into the palm of his uninjured hand. As he glanced down at the cards, his eyes flicked in Lily’s direction, there and gone again in a heartbeat.

“What do you mean?” Rabastan asked. His confusion was tipping toward irritation, but there was an edge of caution to it still. Lily couldn’t begin to guess at the intricacies of Sirius’s family relationships, but there must be a reason he hadn’t attacked Sirius on sight. Lily was certain Rabastan would have killed her in an instant if he’d seen her.

That was Sirius’s play, she realized. That was why he’d stepped out and revealed himself before Rabastan could get close enough to catch both of them. The chivalrous idiot was serving as a distraction. He was keeping Rabastan’s attention focused on himself, but he could only pull that off for so long. Which meant Sirius was counting on Lily to get them out of this, to be the ace up his sleeve, so to speak.

Lily chewed at her already bloody cheek. Right then, she needed to do something.

She chose to start with the unconscious Muggle woman still sprawled on the floor. Rabastan had already attacked her once, and she was helpless to defend herself if he tried again.

Carefully, Lily shifted forward into a crouch. She braced herself on hands and knees and crawled one slow step at a time across the aisle. It was awkward with her wand still clutched in her hand, but she didn’t dare put it away for even a second.

Every other breath, she threw a glance back over her shoulder at Sirius. He was leaning against another bookshelf, fiddling with the deck of tarot cards as he kept Rabastan talking and looking in his direction.

“No one told me you were supposed to be here,” Rabastan grumbled.

Sirius shrugged. “Not my fault, mate,” he said, flashing a more sympathetic smile this time. “It feels like no one tells me anything either.”

When she reached the shop girl’s side, Lily had to swallow a lump rising in her throat. She was so young! She could easily be Petunia’s age. As quietly as she could, Lily whispered a spell she’d found useful during her rounds as a prefect. It was beyond her year, but there was a reason Lily was top of the class in charms, and she’d gone above and beyond to keep that spot.

The disillusionment charm ran down the woman’s body like water, camouflaging her to appear as part of the bookshelves behind her and the rug below her. It wasn’t perfect, Lily had only cast the charm a handful of times before now. The shadows and lines in the pattern of wood and carpet and book spines that now coated the woman’s skin and clothes were blurred and off by several shades. It wouldn’t fool anyone for long, but at the very least it should force Rabastan to pause for a few moments before finishing what he started. Hopefully that would be enough

“Where’s the woman? What happened? This place was supposed to be a fucking bonfire by now,” Rabastan snapped. For a split-second Lily saw Sirius’s mask slip. Fear and fury were burning in his eyes in equal measure. Sirius turned away to hide the expression, glancing over his shoulder toward the back room, where wisps of smoke were still trickling out through the beaded curtain. He risked another quick look in Lily’s direction again as he turned back, taking in the spot where the Muggle shop girl was now half-invisible. He seemed to relax just a little.

“What woman?” Sirius asked, laying on the confusion a little too thickly in Lily’s opinion. “There was nothing but a little smoke and some blackened carpets in the back room when I got here. Are you sure you did everything correctly?”

Wary of the creaking floorboards, Lily slowly crept away from the disillusioned Muggle woman. She was beginning to wish the ministry really would send an owl with a letter chastising her for use of magic. Better yet if they sent an Auror or six to check things out in person. She’d happily take a slap on the wrist or even a whole year’s worth of detention to get them all out of this mess safely.

“This isn’t a joke, Sirius!” Rabastan said. His confusion had officially given way to anger now. Questioning his competence had been a bad idea. However, if Sirius—the veritable crown prince of bad ideas—realized that, he chose to ignore the warning signs. Instead, he laughed.

Chuckling like he’d finally found a familiar thread to latch onto, Sirius flashed Rabastan half a sly smile. “You see what you did there?” He asked. “It’s not a joke, it’s Sirius.

A blue light hit Sirius in the chest.

The loud bang that accompanied the knockback jinx covered the sound of Lily’s gasp. She clapped a hand over her mouth to stop any other sounds of distress from blowing her cover.

Sirius hit the bookshelf behind him with a heavy thud and a pained grunt. Books came tumbling down around him, hitting against his head and shoulders. Doubling over, Sirius grabbed at the edge of the shelf with his free hand to keep from falling to the ground himself.

Lily had already risen halfway to her feet, her wand pointed in the direction Rabastan’s spell had come from.

Two more steps and she would be out from behind the bookshelf. It would be fight then. If Lily was lucky and moved quickly she should be able to get off a spell, maybe two, before Rabastan realized what was happening. She’d never been in a real duel before, but they’d practiced them in class. She could make those moments—that first spell—count.

Before she could make that final move, Sirius shot a look in her direction. There and gone again, just the barest second. Then he shook his head. To Rabastan it must have looked like he was trying to focus, to shake off the jarring effects of the jinx. Lily understood it for what it was though, a sign to hold back.

She almost overbalanced as she caught herself halfway through that last step. Perched just at the edge of the aisle, Lily swore silently. What was Sirius playing at now? Why had he stopped her from attacking when they had a moment?

At least she had a better view now, and when she caught her first glimpse of Rabastan Lestrange, Lily realized why Sirius had warned her back.

Rabastan was in his twenties and looked young enough that his school years might have overlapped with their own first or second year, though Lily couldn’t remember ever having seen him before. He was thin with a nervous energy about him. She wouldn’t have called him handsome, though there was a faint, superficial resemblance to Sirius about him in his dark hair and sharp cheekbones. The pieces of his face didn’t fit together quite right though, especially with his weak chin and wispy black moustache. Lily put it all down to inbreeding between Pureblood wizarding families.

Under other circumstances, Rabastan would have cut an extremely underwhelming figure. However, there was anger snapping in his dark eyes, and his wand was still leveled at Sirius. Sparks crackled threateningly at the tip of it. That was why Sirius had stopped her. Even the slightest miscalculation or mistake on her part, and Rabastan looked ready to fire off something a hell of a lot more painful than a knockback jinx right into Sirius’s face.

Sirius coughed, a hand rubbing across his ribs.

“Ouch, Rab, is that any way to treat your sister-in-law’s cousin?” Sirius asked, trying to bury his anger and fear enough to continue his diversion. “We’re practically family, after all.”

“You should be thankful she isn’t here,” Rabastan hissed as he took a step closer to Sirius, forcing Lily to shrink back a step to stay out of his line of sight. She lost sight of him with her new angle; lost sight of that wand pointed straight at Sirius’s heart. “Bellatrix would do far worse than knock you into a shelf if you’ve mucked up part of the plan.”

Part of the plan?” Curiosity and confusion warred with outrage across Sirius’s face. The tarot cards flashed as Sirius shuffled them, frowning as his bandaged hand made it clumsy.

“You…you don’t know what the plan is, do you?” Rabastan asked. He took another, more menacing step forward, which brought him close enough that if he looked in her direction, Lily knew he could catch a flash of red hair or the bright blue of her blouse. He didn’t look her way though. His eyes were narrowed and his gaze fixed suspiciously on Sirius.

Sirius faltered. His fingers moved nervously as he attempted another shuffle only to fumble it. The cards went flying from his hands, scattering across the floor. One depicting a grinning skeleton riding a horse landed face up on the ground several feet in front of Lily. The legend at the bottom read DEATH. Lily swallowed dryly and tried not to take it as a sign.

The deck of cards wasn’t the only thing Sirius was fumbling either. He’d lost control of the game he was playing with Rabastan, and he knew it. Lily saw it in the flash of panic that shot across his features. They were both in far over their heads, Lily realized.

“Not the entire plan, of course…” Sirius admitted grudgingly. He was flagging, reaching the end of his ability to keep Rabastan preoccupied.

Lily would have to act, have to do something soon. For the bloody life of her though she wasn’t sure if she could win in a fight against this man. Dueling in class under the watchful eye of a professor suddenly seemed infinitely different from the potential of the real thing before her. There would be no rules, no curses forbidden, no etiquette, and no safe way to forfeit if she found herself losing.

“You’re not supposed to be here at all, are you?” Rabastan demanded. It was phrased as a question, but he seemed to gain confidence as he spoke the words, turning it into more of a theory. When Sirius didn’t shoot back a ready reply, he pounced.

“Bellatrix said something the other day about you being in trouble.” Now it was Rabastan’s turn to smile, and it was a nasty one. Thin and far more malicious than Sirius at his bullying worse could ever have managed. “I didn’t pay much attention at the time, because it seems like you’re always in trouble for something or other. This seemed different though. At least Bellatrix seemed giddier than usual at dinner.”

“Yes, well, we both know dear Bella,” Sirius scrambled to recover, to pull out some of his usual charm, but it fell flat. “You get a few glasses of merlot in her and she starts to get dramatic.”

Rabastan wasn’t fooled. Not anymore.

“Do your parents know where you are?” Rabastan asked.

“My parents…” Sirius said, though he didn’t seem to know how to finish the sentence. He swallowed and looked anywhere except in Lily’s direction. “They…er…they know everything they need to know.” Sirius’s forced bravado was failing him and it was painfully obvious.

“As I recall, they like to keep you close at hand when disciplining you. Specifically, in the cellar, right?”

Involuntarily, Sirius shuddered and he squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. Images of Sirius trapped somewhere that more closely resembled a cartoonishly medieval dungeon rather than a traditional cellar flashed through Lily’s mind. Was that where he’d been for those days he’d been denied food? Was that where he’d gotten the cuts and bruises still marring his skin? Lily’s stomach turned at the thought.

“This isn’t a game, you stupid little shite! Did you do something here? Did you put out the fire? What did you do with the Muggle?” Rabastan demanded. He wasn’t looking for answers though, not really.

Rabastan finally stepped close enough to reach out his free hand and seized Sirius by his injured wrist. Just as he had yesterday when Lily had accidentally grabbed him, Sirius yelped and tried to pull away.

However, Rabastan didn’t let go when he realized he was hurting Sirius.

“I think I should take you safely back home,” Rabastan said with mock sweetness and concern. “Your dear parents must be worried sick.”

Lily was going to vomit. She was sure of it. She could feel the acid rankness in the back of her desert-dry mouth and burning against her already scorched throat. She couldn’t even tell if the nausea was born of anger or fear, but it was real. She was going to vomit and she was going to fail and Rabastan was going to drag Sirius back to people who’d hurt him, who might very well kill him.

“No!” Sirius shouted. His voice was high and thin and wheezing with pain and panic. “I’m never going back there. You’re monsters, the lot of you, and I’ll never go back! Never—aah!”

Rabastan’s fingers squeezed tighter around his wrist, and Sirius’s face went the color of dirty milk, his breath hitching. His free hand clawed at the shelves behind him, and when they closed around the spine of a large hardcover book Sirius glanced in Lily’s direction.

This was it, they both realized.

Last chance.

Now or never.

Lily nodded.

The book Sirius had grabbed was titled Sun Signs, the Universe & You and it must have been a good four hundred plus pages sandwiched between thick pasteboard covers and a glossy dust jacket. He swung it straight at Rabastan’s head.

There was a deep THUNK as the book hit Rabastan right in the side of the head. He staggered, letting go of Sirius’s wrist as he reached for his own face. A burst of magic, something that wasn’t quite a spell so much as a manifestation of pain and reflex, burst out of Rabastan’s wand. Sirius barely managed to dive to the side. Instead of his head, the jet of magic hit the top of a bookshelf and sent several books on crystals spinning through the air.

Lily could still taste vomit in the back of her throat, but she didn’t hesitate. She took a step forward, not abandoning the shelter of her bookshelf entirely, but eager to get a better angle as she cast her spell.

It wasn’t the picture perfect, smooth as silk spellcasting Lily knew she was capable of in the classroom. Her form was off, and her aim wasn’t perfect either. Part of it was Sirius’s fault. Rabastan was staggering drunkenly from his collision with Sirius’s book, so Lily’s already shaky freezing charm hit him in the shoulder rather than the chest.

Rabastan’s left arm and part of his face seemed to freeze in place. It reminded Lily of the stroke her maternal grandfather had suffered a few months before his death. He’d been unable to move enough of one side of his face to smile or speak without slurring his words.

Unfortunately, Rabastan was right-handed.

“Shite!” Lily hissed as Rabastan, numb arm flailing, spun in her direction, already firing off a retaliatory spell.

“No!” Sirius yelled. His shout nearly drowned out the sound of Rabastan mangling the incantation of “Avada Kedavra!”

Lily ducked back behind the bookshelf, her arms raised to shield her head. The spell hit nowhere near her. Instead, it took out the top of a bookshelf feet above her head and exploded against an enormous poster of chakras. Still, her heart thundered in her chest, in her throat, in her ears. Lily felt it everywhere.

Fear. Panic. Anger.

He’d tried to kill her. Actually kill her. With an Unforgiveable Curse no less.

Lily felt lightheaded, slow, clumsy, stupid as a child.

“What the hell is this?” Rabastan roared. Lily didn’t dare get close enough to see what he was doing. She huddled back against the feeble comfort of the bookshelf, knowing that a solid curse in the right direction could easily tear it to pieces.

Sirius laughed. It was a choking, strained, half-manic sound, but it must have caught Rabastan’s attention.

Now Lily had to get close, had to look, because Sirius, the stupid bastard, was poking an angry bear. Once again, he was trying to draw Rabastan’s attention away from her. Only this time Lily wasn’t so sure Rabastan would hold back.

Creeping to the very edge of her cover, Lily had to duck back as another spell was flung wildly in her direction. Rabastan was spinning between the area where he knew she was hiding and Sirius, who had rolled into a crouch in the main aisle, tense and ready to spring forward or backward in an instant.

“Traitor!” Rabastan hissed, his wand swinging back toward Sirius again. “Filthy blood traitor!”

Lily’s heart leapt into her throat, a vision of that same sickening green light shooting toward Sirius. There was nothing she could do if that was Rabastan was casting, but her brain had no room for that sort of logical thinking right now.

She had meant to send a stunning spell at Rabastan, but she changed the movement of her wand at the last moment. Whatever spell Rabastan had intended to use, it wasn’t a killing curse. The hasty shield charm Lily shot in front of Sirius wouldn’t have done a lick of good against something Unforgiveable.

Instead, the orange light of Rabastan’s spell rebounded off the shield in a way that sent a jolt of spiky pain through Lily’s arm all the way to her shoulder.

Sirius bared his teeth in something that could barely be called a grin. There was blood on his lips. “You didn’t think I’d come alone, did you, Rab?” Sirius rasped tauntingly. “I’ve got backup and half the Auror Office on their way here right now.”

“Traitor,” Rabastan muttered again, fear and fury in his voice. “Bellatrix will gut you like a fish for this, fucking blood traitor…”

“Tell her the murder queue starts behind my mum,” Sirius spat back.

Lily shot off another spell. This one was a knockback jinx, the same sort Rabastan had used on Sirius. She didn’t feel the least bit sorry for putting extra emphasis behind the slash of her wand. It caught Rabastan unguarded and he flew into a display table full of incense and essential oils, crashing to the ground amidst shattered glass. The smell of patchouli mixed with lavender, sandalwood, and Nag Champa into something sharp and noxious as the smoke from the back room.

Looking a little wobbly, Sirius climbed to his feet. His eyes went wide as he noticed something lying amidst the broken sticks of incense.

Rabastan had lost his wand in the fall.

Sirius dove for it.

Rabastan, even dazed, was closer though and lunged at the same time.

Both wizards got a hand on the wand and then they were a tangle of flailing limbs, swinging fists, and accidental bits of magic. Lily swore at them both. They were too close together for her to risk casting a spell, especially when sparks and lights and even a spray of yellow bubbles were all shooting from the end of the wand Sirius and Rabastan were wrestling over.

It was some unseen injury that he’d already suffered that cost Sirius the fight. Rabastan managed to get a knee up and hit Sirius in the ribs hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Sirius gasped and choked, nearly retching, and his fingers lost enough of their grip that Rabastan was able to yank the wand out of his grasp.

Immediately, Rabastan turned the wand on Sirius, shoving the tip of it right up against the side of his head. Sirius went still, though his teeth were still bared and he growled like a feral animal. His hands were locked around Rabastan’s wrist now, fingers doubtlessly digging in deep.

Rabastan kept him pinned, but he wasn’t looking at Sirius, his head swiveled wildly. Lily ducked back out of sight behind a tall rack of magazines.

“I’ll kill him!” Rabastan screamed, his voice was breathy and high. He was afraid, Lily realized.

“No he fucking won’t!” Sirius shouted back. “He hasn’t got the bollocks for it!”

He really wasn’t helping the situation at all, Lily thought, grinding her teeth together.

“I’ll do it, I swear I will!”

“And you’ll be dead the second you try!” Lily said. It was a bluff. Lily was no killer, and she knew it. Sirius probably knew it too. They could only hope Rabastan believed her words rather than the tremble behind them.

He must have bought it enough to hesitate. Lily peeked out from between magazines. Rabastan was casting wild glances around the shop, looking for something. Whether it was backup, an escape, or something else, Lily couldn’t say. His wand remained trained on Sirius though, the tip digging in the flesh of his already bruised cheek.

“Go,” Lily told Rabastan. “Let him go, and we’ll let you leave.”

She didn’t even care if she was letting an attempted murderer get away. She wasn’t an Auror. She wasn’t even a fully qualified witch. She was sixteen and she was afraid for her life and the life of her friend.

She just wanted this to be over.

She wanted to go home, curl up in bed, and cry until she was too exhausted to dream about any of this.

Rabastan and Sirius both froze at Lily’s offer. Near identical looks of disbelief and distrust on their faces.

“Just fucking go!” Lily screamed.

Rabastan moved slowly, cautiously, like he didn’t quite trust her promise. Lily knew exactly how he felt, because she didn’t trust him at all. Aiming between copies of grubby looking magazines and pamphlets on the healing powers of Stonehenge, Lily kept her wand fixed on Rabastan’s chest, a disarming spell waiting on her lips if he so much as twitched.

He didn’t.

As he slowly shifted away from Sirius, Lily caught sight of real fear beneath the loathing that twisted his face. Sirius’s expression was a near mirror of Rabastan’s though there was a frighteningly small amount of fear there as he pushed himself up on an elbow to glare at the slowly retreating Rabastan. Lily was beginning to wonder if Sirius suffered from some sort of impairment to whatever survival instincts humans usually possessed. Perhaps his hag of a mother had dropped him on his head as a child. That would explain a lot.

After he’d taken two large steps back, Rabastan paused, and Lily could swear her heart paused in her chest right alongside him.

“You’ll regret this, Sirius,” he swore.

“Run back to Bella with your dick tucked between your legs, Rab,” Sirius replied, wiping blood from his lips.

Rabastan was gone before he’d finished the insult though, spinning on his heel and vanishing with an almost thunderous CRACK!

They waited several seconds, still and tense. Lily felt like she was practically vibrating from the rigidness of every muscle in her body. Then, Sirius let out a long breath, and they both seemed to collapse.

Sirius was already on the ground and just sort of let himself to sink back down to the floor. Lily made it a few steps out from behind her magazine rack. She impressed even herself by walking on legs that felt like jelly all the way to where Sirius was lying flat on his back in the rubble of blasted books, spilled oils, and ruined bits of table.

“I think I hate you,” Lily muttered without heat as she sat down next to Sirius, crossing her legs and leaning forward on them.

“Nah, you don’t,” Sirius replied. He sounded just as drained as Lily felt.

“No, I don’t,” Lily admitted. “Though I probably should. Trouble follows you so closely it must be your bloody middle name.”

“Actually, it’s Orion, but I like Trouble better,” Sirius said. He was even too tired to be properly amused, but with a groan and a wince, he pushed himself up to sit beside her. Together they surveyed the destruction around them.

The reality of everything that had happened in this wretched little shop was still sinking in, and it was making Lily’s head spin. She was fairly certain she’d almost died today. Twice. At least twice.

There was a tightness in Lily’s throat that she thought might be the urge to vomit returning. Then, it popped like a bubble, and Lily was laughing. She clapped a hand to her mouth, but tinny, incontrollable giggles spilled out through her soot-stained fingers.

Sirius was staring at her like she’d lost her mind, and Lily wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t. Then, Sirius’s lips twitched into a smile. The befuddled look in his eyes remained, but a moment later he was laughing too.

They sat on the floor in the middle of their wreckage, still able to taste smoke in the air, practically howling with hysterical laughter.

Laughter was a good screen, it made things easier. Hiding behind their laughter, Lily and Sirius could pretend their entire bodies were shaking because they were laughing so hard, that the tears Lily wiped from here eyes were tears of mirth, and that Sirius was pressing a hand to his ribs and wincing because he truly found everything about their situation too hilarious to bear.

“We…I think we almost died here,” Lily said. She was stilling giggling hard enough she let out a rather embarrassing snort, which only set Sirius off again.

“Ugh,” Sirius scoffed, when he’d gotten his own laughter a bit more under control. “It’s honestly embarrassing, in the ‘Family Members Most Likely to Kill Me’ listings I always had Rabastan ranked about five places below our house elf.”

“Your family is the absolute worst,” Lily said. Laughter as a defense mechanism was finally beginning to wear thin. In its place, exhaustion was catching up to her faster than a speeding train.

“They really are,” Sirius agreed, wrinkling his nose.

“What do we do now?” Lily asked. The bout of hysterical laughter had officially worn off, leaving Lily feeling strangely hollow, like a bowl she just knew was going to start filling up with doubts and worries and probably panic any second now. If she didn’t fall asleep first.

Sirius looked around, clearly as lost and freshly somber as Lily felt. “I don’t know, but we…we can’t stay here. Rab might run crying to his brother and Bellatrix, or even my parents, and if any of them showed up…”

He shuddered and let his sentence trail off. He didn’t have to tell Lily how bloody lucky they’d been that their half-baked plans hadn’t blown up in their faces and killed them both. There was no way they could stand up to Rabastan if he was more prepared, or if he brought any of Sirius’s other crazy relatives back with him.

“Right,” Lily replied. Her battered brain was trying to put together lists and plans, but they all seemed overwhelming, impossible even. The most attractive plan she could think of at that moment was to curl up on the floor and take a nap. Surely things would better after a little rest, right?

Of course not.

Lily sighed. Next to her, Sirius gathered himself and used a bookshelf to get to his feet. He looked stiff and shaky, but he held out a hand to help Lily up.

She was halfway to standing when a quick pair of popping noises split the air. Before Lily could even fully process what the sounds meant, her wand was ripped from her fingers and flying across the shop as someone shouted “Expelliarmus!”

Another someone shouted, “Aurors! Hands where we can see them!”

Lily never would have expected Sirius to follow orders easily, but he let go of her hand instantly to raise his own over his head. With a grunt, Lily toppled back to the ground hard enough to feel it in her tailbone.

Sirius was uttering a stream of curses under his breath through clenched teeth. He didn’t look at all comforted by the sudden appearance of Aurors. Lily, however, couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as she raised her hands, only just realizing she’d accidentally put one of them in a puddle of pungent essential oils mixing together on the floor.

There were two men in heavy scarlet robes standing before them, their wands drawn and their knees flexed in a dueling stance. It took Lily’s exhausted brain several moments too long to realize that she recognized the younger of the pair, that barely a month ago she’d spent a long train ride watching him snog the lipstick off his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, Sirius found his voice first.

“Frank! What in the name of Merlin’s left testicle are you doing here?” He demanded.

Just inside the shop door, Frank Longbottom stood holding Lily’s wand in one hand while the other wavered a bit as he pointed it at Sirius and Lily. “I—um…my job,” Frank said lamely. “I think the real question is what are the two of you doing at a crime scene, especially…er…together?”

It didn’t help that he blushed when he asked the question.

Knowing she was risking a hex straight to the face, Lily let one hand drop enough to smack it against her forehead. “Is it too late to get the Death Eater back?” She muttered.

Chapter Text

Just when Sirius thought nothing in the world could surprise him after the last few days, he was proven wrong once again. This time by Frank bloody Longbottom, who was blushing like a little first year even as he kept his wand leveled at Sirius’s chest. Poor Frank looked between Sirius and Lily with an expression of embarrassed horror, like he’d walked in on them naked and snogging rather than exhausted, bruised, and slightly charred around the edges.

“This isn’t what you think, Frank,” Sirius said hastily. Still on the floor, Lily hid her head in her hands, quietly muttering threats about strangling whoever had started that rumor with their own intestines.

“You know these two, Longbottom?” The other Auror asked gruffly as he stomped forward. He was older than Frank by several decades, and looked like he had not gone through those years quietly or peacefully. His small, dark eyes swept across the broken, smoldering mess of the shop and narrowed in suspicion as he took in Lily and Sirius.

“Er, yes,” Frank answered. He cleared his throat and seemed to gather himself, though his cheeks remained bright red. “I know them both from school, sir. Sirius Black and Lily Evans; they were in my house. They’re both good kids, Moody.”

Under other circumstances, Sirius would have bristled at being called a “kid” by someone only two years older than he was, but today he bit his tongue and tried to keep his head down. Not that it did any good.

“Black, eh?” Auror Moody said. His eyes focused in on Sirius now. Sirius tried to hold Moody’s eyes, but he had to look away after just a few seconds. He felt like all of his darkest secrets were on display. He felt dirty, on his own and by association. Of course the Auror knew who his family was, who he was.

Sirius tried not to squirm under that assessing gaze. I’m not like them, he wanted to protest. However, Moody’s attention had already slid away from him to land on Lily. “And…Evans, was it?” He asked.

Lily nodded, though she raised her chin like she expected a challenge. In her own way, Lily must have been just as used to people questioning her surname as Sirius was. The British Wizarding community was small enough that you could recognize the surnames of most families who had a few generations of magical blood in them. An unfamiliar family name often implied Muggle heritage.

One of Moody’s heavy eyebrows rose just a fraction. “Well, this whole mess just got more interesting,” he said wryly. There was nothing amused about the look in the Auror’s eyes though, and nothing kind in the smile on his lips.

*

For a very brief time, Sirius had thought he might want to be an Auror when he grew up. Careers advice meetings had been looming large, and it seemed like everyone in his year was suddenly carrying around a dozen little booklets about various jobs. It was all anyone was talking about, including his friends.

It had been James who’d put the idea in Sirius’s head. He’d bandied Auror around as a possible career option for himself, listing it between professional quidditch player and dragon wrangler. The idea had caught in Sirius’s head though, and it grew until he could really imagine it.

He could see himself working as an Auror, chasing down dark wizards with James as his partner. It sounded exciting. Even better, it would give his parents fits! With any luck, he might even get the supreme pleasure of arresting some of his relatives.

That fantasy had sat in Sirius’s head, playing out for about a week. Then Sirius had gone to his actual meeting with Professor McGonagall, and she’d dashed his nascent dreams in an instant.

“No,” Professor McGonagall had said when Sirius had told her about his interest in becoming an Auror. “I don’t think that would be a good fit for you, Mr. Black.”

Those words had hurt, and the hurt had made him angry, so he’d lashed out, snapping at McGonagall.

“Why? Because I’m a Black? Because of my family?” Sirius asked. “Or do you just think I don’t have what it takes?” For a minute every other dream and goal he’d ever had in his entire life had been shoved aside to make room for his newfound, all-consuming ambition to become an Auror—the best Auror ever—and shove it in McGonagall and his family’s faces.

McGonagall sighed, unaffected by Sirius’s dramatic moods after five years. She’d stared across her desk at Sirius with that patiently stern look that somehow always made his temper fizzle. When he’d settled, she answered his questions, just not the way Sirius had expected. “I believe you are perfectly capable of achieving all the necessary scores on both your O.W.L.s and your N.E.W.T.s. Just as I believe you could easily pass the rigorous aptitude tests required to become an Auror. I do not doubt that you could become an Auror, Mr. Black. I do, however, doubt that you would enjoy the job.”

Obstinately, Sirius had raised his chin and shrugged. “What’s not to like?” he asked. “Catching dark wizards and throwing them in Azkaban sounds like my idea of fun.”

McGonagall only raised an eyebrow, clearly ready for the challenge. “Well, for starters, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement has a rigid command structure, and you, Mr. Black, have severe problems with authority. To be effective as an Auror, you would be required to follow orders precisely, typically with no discussion or debate, and certainly no back-talk. Do you think that is something you’re capable of?”

Sirius had wanted to say yes just to be contrary, but would rather prove McGonagall’s point. Really, the idea of snapping to attention and jumping just because some old goat told him to galled Sirius. He didn’t want to admit defeat though, and McGonagall seemed to sense that.

“You’re very bright, Mr. Black,” she admitted as she shuffled through papers, likely records pertaining to his past exam scores. “You’re near the head of your class in charms, defense against the dark arts, and transfiguration, and despite the trouble you, Mr. Potter and your merry little band cause, there’s no denying your creativity and ingenuity. I think, you should look into careers that would allow you to use that creativity while retaining a high level of independence and self-direction over your work.”

Reaching to the side of the desk, McGonagall had pulled out several pamphlets and passed them over to Sirius. “Have you ever considered curse breaking?” She asked.

Sirius had had to agree with McGonagall that, yes, when he stopped to really think about the day-to-day work of an Auror, the job lost most of its appeal. However, there had been a small part of him that still hung on to fanciful dreams of dangerous duels and dashing arrests.

That last small wisp of a dream had shriveled into dust though as Moody interrogated Sirius and Lily.

He sent Frank off to St. Mungo’s with the Muggle shop girl right away. They could heal her there and take care of any memory modification she might need to forget about Rabastan and her near death experience. Sirius had kept his mouth shut, but he hadn’t liked it when Frank apparated away.

He knew Frank fairly well from school. Frank was a good guy. Moody he wasn’t so sure of. Sirius had heard far too many stories of his family bribing Aurors and other ministry officials to blindly trust any institutional authority figure.

Lily, on the other hand, was the sort of honest, honorable human being whose upstanding parents had probably taught her to trust and respect whatever the Muggle equivalent of Aurors were. Once the initial embarrassment and surprise wore off, Lily was clearly relieved the Aurors had shown up, and she seemed happy to answer Moody’s questions.

Of course, she didn’t have a family history steeped in dark magic for Moody to be suspicious of. By virtue of being Muggleborn, Lily was essentially exempt from being associated with the Dark Lord and his minions. When they were all done here, Lily would be sent back to her family, maybe with a little slap on the wrist for the underage magic she’d confessed to using, but nothing more.

Sirius’s own position was more precarious though, so he let Lily do as much of the talking as possible while he kept his head down and tried to look harmless.

By the time Lily had started to explain how they’d convinced Rabastan to flee, Frank had returned from the hospital, and Sirius was convinced that Moody wasn’t one of the Aurors on his father’s payroll. The old bastard was terrifying, but there was no way he was crooked.

However, there was still a niggling sort of itch in the back of Sirius’s head telling him that something wasn’t right about this whole situation. At first he’d thought it had something to do with Moody, but as he watched the older Auror interrupt Lily to take Frank’s report, he realized Moody wasn’t the one who was off. No, it was Frank.

Sirius might not be suited for work as an Auror, but he had read those damn little booklets at school. He knew all about the training involved in becoming an Auror. Training that was supposed to take three years to complete.

So, what was Frank doing out in the field on an assignment barely three weeks after graduation?

He supposed that he should be grateful that Frank was there, even if it was unusual. If Frank hadn’t been there to vouch for them, Sirius was certain Moody would have slapped him in shackles based on his genealogy alone.

Still, there was something going on here that Sirius didn’t understand, and it worried him.

“So, Black…” Sirius was startled out of his thoughts by Moody’s skeptical pronunciation of his surname. The Auror was squinting suspiciously at Sirius, who instinctively hunched his shoulders. Moody scared him a hell of a lot more than all of Rabastan’s blustering threats. “Your friend here would have me believe that you had no idea Rabastan Lestrange, a man you’re related to through marriage, was going to show up here today?”

“Yes, sir—I mean no—” Sirius stumbled over his words and thoughts, hating that he must sound like an idiot, or like a suspect. “I mean, I had no idea Rabastan was going to be here. I didn’t even know Lily and I were going to be here today.”

If he were being completely honest, Sirius wasn’t even entirely sure where they were. His knowledge of London was severely lacking when it came to the non-magical parts of the city. He wasn’t sure he wanted to admit to being quite that ignorant though.

“That’s true, sir,” Lily interjected before Sirius could dig himself into some sort of hole. “I was the one who decided to bring Sirius to the shops here. I wanted to show him the record store across the road. I didn’t even tell Sirius where we were going, so it could be a surprise.”

Moody gave a noncommittal grunt that gave no indication whether he believed them or not. Standing behind Moody, Frank shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. He kept giving them strange, rather flustered looks and then glancing at Moody, like he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure he should.

“You knew nothing about Lestrange setting fire to a Muggle shop then?” Moody asked Sirius. “Didn’t hear anything about it from any other family members?”

“No, they don’t talk to me about…about things like that,” Sirius said.

It was true. To Sirius’s disgust, Regulus had often begged Bellatrix and Lucius and the Lestranges for stories about the Dark Lord at family dinners a few times, but Walburga had forbidden such talk at the dinner table. “When you’re older,” she’d promised Regulus with an indulgent tut. Sirius shivered at the memory.

Before Moody could ask his next question, Frank seemed to find his Gryffindor boldness, or perhaps his equally Gryffindor-ish lack of tact, and asked his own question.

“Why are the two of you going to shops together in the first place?” Frank asked. When everyone’s attention swiveled to him, he flushed bright red all the way to his hairline, but stood his ground, even pushing a little further. “I mean…Lily, Sirius, you’ve never exactly been friends at school.”

Moody raised a curious eyebrow, and nodded his approval of Frank’s question. At least someone hadn’t heard the rumors Frank was aluding to.

Never in his life, had Sirius been more thankful that Lily had a temper and a short fuse. She huffed, hands on her hips and gave Frank a glare so withering even Moody looked a bit taken aback. “Sirius and I are not shagging or dating or doing any of the things you may have heard whispers about! We’re…” The anger seemed to dissipate as she turned to look at Sirius. That was definitely still new. Sirius was far more used to Lily getting angrier when she turned to him. “Sirius and I are friends,” Lily said decisively.

Sirius returned her smile sincerely. A bit of affectionate warmth cut through all the roiling anxiety he was feeling. He liked the idea of being Lily’s friend, and he liked the idea of her being his friend. He had few enough of those when it really came down to it.

“Touching,” Moody said with all the emotion of a lead brick. “How did this entirely platonic friendship between a member of the House of Black and a Muggleborn come about, because it sounds suspiciously new?”

Sirius tensed. Up until now Moody’s questions had only been about today’s events. That had been bad enough, but now he wanted more. Lily was watching Sirius carefully, sympathetically, but she didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t. This was Sirius’s story to tell or not tell.

All eyes were on him, and silence wouldn’t serve him well here, Sirius knew. How much would it take to satisfy Moody? What would the Auror do if Sirius admitted he’d run away from home? Would he try to send Sirius back? Would he demand to know why?

Sirius looked down at his hands and clasped them together to stop them from shaking. The bandaged one twinged painfully. Sirius had actually forgotten about it, but now he could feel the ache start to radiate from it again. What would happen if Sirius told the truth, the whole truth about his parents and what they’d done to him this summer? Would they even believe him if he tried?

Looking up, Sirius felt nausea roll through his guts and up his throat. Moody was staring down at his bandaged hand. Sirius hastily moved his uninjured hand to cover the bandages, but he knew it was too late. Moody’s eyes, now more assessing than suspicious, travelled up Sirius’s arms, taking in the bruises and cuts until they reached all the way up to the uneven mess of what was left of his hair.

The Auror opened his mouth to say something, but Sirius beat him to it. He needed to regain control here, to spin his own version of the story before Moody could ask questions or demand answers.

“I—I’m just staying with Lily’s family for a few days,” Sirius explained hastily. “I was—I am—going to spend the rest of the summer with my friend James and his parents—the Potters—but they won’t be back from India until tomorrow. Staying with my other friends until then didn’t work out either, so Remus put me in touch with Lily. Her aunt was kind enough to let me spend a few nights on her couch.”

He turned to Frank and attempted a smile. Frank was the one who knew him; he was the one who could poke at Sirius’s story until he punched holes in it. “We weren’t really friends before, but Lily and her family are really good people and we…”

“We’ve been bonding,” Lily finished for him, finally jumping back in. She gave Frank a forced grin of her own. “Turns out Sirius isn’t as much of a prat as I thought he was. Still a prat, just not as much of one.”

Frank looked confused, baffled really, but he didn’t say anything. His worries partially pacified at least, Sirius let his attention shift back to Moody, only to wince at the hard-eyed, considering gaze Moody had fixed on him.

What more did he want?

“How old are you, Black?” Moody asked.

It was not a question Sirius had expected, and it startled an honest answer out of him before he could even consider why Moody might ask about his age.

“Sixteen.”

Moody grunted some sort of acknowledgement. “And you turn seventeen when?”

“Early November,” Sirius said before getting his footing back enough to cheekily add, “I could use a new broomstick if you want to send me a birthday present.”

Moody’s lips actually twitched in something that might pass for a smile on his scarred face.

“You aren’t intending to go back, are you?” Moody asked. He didn’t have to specify where.

“I’d rather die,” Sirius said. His voice was quiet, but his tone sharp as a knife. Chances were, if Sirius ever set foot in Grimmauld Place again he wouldn’t leave the house alive. Hell, his parents were probably already planning some “tragic accident” for him.

Moody nodded. He seemed satisfied by that answer, although Lily and Frank both looked caught between confusion and dismay. Sirius felt wretched. Every scrape and bruise across his body now felt like a blazing beacon proclaiming his shame, telling the world that his parents didn’t love him, that they’d hurt him, that he hadn’t been able to stop them.

He didn’t have time to dwell on it though, not before something blindingly bright and silver appeared in a flash in front of Moody. Lily gasped, and Sirius felt his heart skip a beat, believing they must be under attack. Again.

When he blinked and squinted the silvery flash had resolved into a large silvery, semi-translucent bird.

Lily frowned. “Is that—?”

“A patronus, yeah,” Sirius finished with a nod. He’d seen a few before, though they wouldn’t learn to cast them until seventh year.

“I know it’s a patronus. I was going to ask if the bird is a phoenix,” Lily corrected him. She was frowning, thoughtful lines puckering the skin between her eyebrows. “Neither of them cast the charm to summon it though,” she added.

Indeed, Frank seemed as startled as Sirius and Lily. Moody swore as the bird—a phoenix indeed—opened its beak, and a familiar voice issued forth.

“Alastor, Mr. Diggle and Ms. McKinnon are reporting casualties in Boscastle,” Professor Dumbledore’s voice said, calm but serious. “Rendezvous with them as soon as you’re finished in London.”

Its message delivered, the phoenix vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

Sirius exchanged a glance with Lily, glad to see his own confusion reflected in her deepening frown. He had never heard a patronus speak. He hadn’t even known such a thing was possible. They were just supposed to be protection charms as far as he knew.

That sense that something was off returned in the back of Sirius’s head, now twice as strong.

“What was that?” Lily asked, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Was that Professor Dumbledore?”

Frank and Moody exchanged a glance of their own. Frank looked uncomfortable, almost embarrassed, but Moody looked grim. He took a step toward Lily and Sirius, he probably didn’t mean for it to be threatening, but then again, maybe he did. Whatever his intent, the stony look on his roughhewn features was intimidating enough that everyone, even Frank, drew back.

“This never happened,” Moody said stonily. “You two were never here. You’ve never been in this shop. You’ve never met me, and you haven’t seen Longbottom here since the end of school. You had a nice, boring day at the shops today. Is that understood?”

That was the moment all the little things that had been bothering Sirius fit together, revealing the shape of the puzzle if not the exact design.

His eyes widened and his jaw dropped open, but he hid it quickly when Moody’s wary stare snapped in his direction.

“Understood, sir,” Sirius said quietly. He let his eyes drop back toward the floor. Lily was not so easily brushed aside though.

“But what about Rabastan?” Lily asked. “Do you have enough evidence to arrest him without us having to testify or appear at his trial? What if he says something about us being here?”

Frank looked away. He knew the same thing Moody and Sirius did. They all knew how the Wizarding world worked beneath the surface. Lily’s reaction, her faith, made Sirius wonder if the Muggle world really was better than their own.

“They aren’t going to arrest Rabastan, Lily,” Sirius explained when neither of the Aurors answered her questions.

Lily looked flabbergasted. “But he…we…

She looked to Frank and Moody. The former grimaced and refused to meet Lily’s eyes. You could tell he was new to this; he felt ashamed. Moody’s eyes simmered with a familiar, long-simmering frustration. As for himself, Sirius felt a mix of both.

“They can’t,” Sirius said, picking his words with unusual care. “They can’t arrest anyone because they’re not here officially.”

He turned back toward the Aurors with a look of defiance that he didn’t really feel, challenging either of them to say otherwise.

In the few weeks he’d been training as an Auror, Frank obviously hadn’t gone through any sort of class on lying or subterfuge, because he flushed pink up to his ears and stumbled when he tried to think up some sort of lie. Moody let out a laugh like the crack of a tree branch that made Sirius, Lily, and even Frank jump.

“Good eye, Black. Clever,” Moody admitted. “No, we’re not here, not officially. There are reasons for that, but they’re not for the two of you to know…not right now anyway. The question for today is whether or not the two of you can keep a secret.”

“I’ll have to tell the Potters something,” Sirius admitted. “Rabastan didn’t get a good look at Lily, and they’d have a hard time finding her family in the Muggle world, but he saw me. He knows me. I can’t bring that sort of trouble to the Potters door without at least giving them a warning.”

Moody considered it for a moment before acquiescing. “The Potters are good people, trustworthy. No further than that though, Black, and the same for you, Evans.”

Sirius nodded hurriedly. If they didn’t agree willingly, Sirius wouldn’t put it past Moody to find a way to ensure they couldn’t tell anyone about what had happened today. Lily was suddenly the wary one, regarding Moody and even Frank with a new suspicion. When she turned to Sirius, he nodded again, and mouthed the words “trust me.”

She worried her bottom lip between her teeth, but Lily finally nodded her agreement.

That seemed to be enough. Sirius found himself quickly escorted out of the shop by Frank without so much as a “good day, thank you for chasing off that Death Eater for us.”

He and Lily stumbled out onto the pavement, the shop door slamming shut and locking behind them. It was still bright outside. A brilliant, warm, sunshiny summer day. Somehow the good weather seemed almost obscene after everything they’d just been through.

For more than a minute, Sirius and Lily stood outside that little bookshop with its crystals and tarot cards and its burnt back room. People passed by, on foot or in cars, though no one paid them more than a glance. No one knew the shop had almost burnt down, that a woman had almost died inside.

It felt surreal. Sirius’s body and mind felt like they were at war with each other. Most of him wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball and sleep for several days straight, but his brain was a whirling, screaming cyclone of thoughts and emotions. It was too much. It was going to burst out of him and bad things were going to happen. They always did when he lost control.

Lily held it together long enough to get them to the bus stop, pay their fare, and make sure they were headed in the right direction. Once they were seated though, the last of her adrenaline-fueled energy seemed to wear off. She hunched forward in the bus seat, staring down at her hands. There was ash crusted under her fingernails and around her cuticles.

Sirius realized that whatever he was feeling, it must be worse for Lily. She might be the target of blood purists’ taunts and jinxes at school, but she wasn’t used to this sort of violence. Sirius at least had been raised on treachery and violence. Lily had a loving, pleasant family who had probably never once advocated for genocide over the dinner table.

None of this was fair to her. She was a good person. She didn’t deserve to be hated for who her family was. She certainly didn’t deserve to be hurt for it.

“I’m sorry,” he wanted to say. “I’m so, so sorry for everything.” For today, for his family, for everything she went through at school, for everything she would go through after they’d graduated. For some reason though, the words wouldn’t come. They stuck to his tongue like paste every time he opened his mouth to try. Eventually, he gave up, resigning himself to the screaming inside his head.

“Don’t tell my mum about today,” Lily said suddenly. She raised her head and pinned Sirius with a look that promised dire consequences if he didn’t do as she said.

“We sort of promised that Moody bloke that we wouldn’t tell anyone about today,” Sirius replied.

Lily scoffed. “Like you’re not going to run off and tell Potter and your other friends first thing.”

“Well, I certainly wasn’t going to tell your mum anything,” Sirius assured her. His word wasn’t enough though, or perhaps Lily just needed to confess to someone.

“They don’t know,” she told Sirius. “They don’t know about any of it—the prejudice against Muggleborns, the danger I might be in. Fuck, I can’t even bring myself to tell them that they might be in danger too. So much for Gryffindor bravery, eh?” She gave a watery laugh and turned away to wipe at her eyes.

“Why not?” Sirius had to ask. He wasn’t one to judge when it came to keeping secrets from family, but Lily’s situation was different. Her family would never hurt her. They loved her. Even that nasty sister of hers seemed to care for her deep down.

“They wouldn’t let me go back,” Lily said quietly. “If they thought for even a moment that I was in real danger, my parents would never let me go back to Hogwarts.”

The longing in her voice was familiar but different all the same. For Sirius, Hogwarts had been an escape, a haven that promised love and adventure and acceptance. The way Lily spoke of it though…It sounded like a dream, something equal parts marvelous and fragile, and she was terrified that at any moment it might vanish before her eyes, never to be found again.

“Would that be such a bad thing?” Sirius asked. “There’s loads of things about the Muggle world that are brilliant, and no crazy bastards with snake tattoos who want to kill you.”

Lily snorted. “There’s a lot about the Muggle world you still don’t know,” she told him. “Even if that were true though, and I was guaranteed a long, safe life in the Muggle world, I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t. I’m a witch.”

Simple as that.

Sirius couldn’t argue with that. Some things were immutable.

“I’ll say we had a pleasant day at the shops, and that I especially liked the record shop,” Sirius promised. “They have a marvelous selection, and you have mostly good taste in music.”

That pulled a watery laugh out of Lily. “Listen to you, barely an hour listening to Muggle music and you already think you’re an expert!”

“I have notoriously good taste in all things,” Sirius said, laying on the posh accent as thick as possible. Lily giggled and swatted him lightly in the arm. Sirius barely even felt the urge to flinch away from the gesture.

This time, when they lapsed into silence it was almost comfortable. They both still had a lot on their minds, Sirius knew, but some of the more immediate tension had drained away, even if the larger questions remained.

“So, are you going to tell Potter about today?” Lily asked. By then they were off the bus and walking the last few blocks back to her great-aunt’s house.

“Of course,” Sirius almost said. It was an automatic response, in instinctual desire to tell, not only James but Remus and Peter as well, everything that happened today. Not just the bits with the fire and Rabastan, but his suspicions about Frank and Moody and Dumbledore as well.

“I really do have to tell James’s parents something,” Sirius said. “I don’t want anything to happen to them because of me. I’d like to tell James, Remus, and Peter too.”

He’d promised Moody, but it wasn’t like he’d sworn an unbreakable vow or anything. Besides his friends knew how to keep a secret when it mattered.

Today wasn’t just Sirius’s secret to keep though. It concerned Lily as well.

“Is that...is it all right with you, if I tell them?”

Sirius wasn’t sure what he would do if she said no. He liked Lily, but she wasn’t a Marauder. She wasn’t family. Not yet anyway.

Lily seemed to think it over. “It’s all right, I suppose,” she said, a bit grudgingly. “I can’t really hold it against you, not when a part of me really wishes I could run to Severus and tell him everything.”

She rolled her eyes at the horrified look on Sirius’s face. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to. We’re…we’re not friends anymore.” She said it defiantly, but Sirius could tell it was still an open wound.

He managed to bite back both a hearty congratulations and a dozen nasty comments about Snape. No matter what Sirius thought of the slimy prick, Snivellus had been Lily’s friend.

Guilt suddenly stabbed straight through all the other feelings crowding Sirius’s chest.

Snape.

He’d almost killed Snape.

And Remus.

And James.

And Lily didn’t know.

What would she think about him if she found out? This fragile, newborn friendship of theirs would surely crack beneath the weight of such a revelation. Lily was a good person; she would want nothing to do with him if she knew what he’d done.

And yet, what chance would their friendship ever have if he tried to keep it a secret from her? He probably couldn’t even manage that. The moment he got even a whiff of the two of them getting along, Snape would take great pleasure in telling Lily all about what a wretched, would-be murderer Sirius was. That would be worse, wouldn’t it? To have Lily hear about it from someone else. Especially if that someone was Snivellus.

Sirius sighed as they reached steps in front of Aunt Violet’s house. There was no getting around it. He was going to have to tell Lily everything.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, if Lily and Sirius were quieter than usual at dinner, no one else noticed. Petunia filled their silences with excitable chatter about one of the flats she had seen that afternoon. She had put in an application and seemed to already be picking out curtains for the sitting room. Lily and Sirius had both made the appropriate congratulations, and Petunia was so happy she even smiled at Sirius.

After dinner, Lily showed Sirius how to wash and dry dishes like a Muggle, and he decided that wizards had the better method. Cleaning everything by hand reminded him of detentions served scrubbing cauldrons for Slughorn. It was, however, a good way to procrastinate.

Sirius needed to tell Lily what had happened with Snape and the Shrieking Shack. He knew he did, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that naturally came up in conversation and…well, he was feeling like a bit of a coward.

Tending to the dishes kept Lily and Sirius in the kitchen while Lily, Iris, and Aunt Violet decamped to the sitting room to play some sort of Muggle card game. Lily’s mother had invited them to join when they were done cleaning up, but thankfully Lily had begged off on both of their behalves. Sirius wasn’t sure he was up to polite and carful socialization after the day’s events.

“I think we’ll just hang around out on the steps again,” Lily said, “probably turn in early. Long day and all that.”

Sirius nodded, and he must have looked tired and pathetic enough that Iris and Violet both smiled sympathetically. Aunt Violet lingered in the kitchen after Iris and Petunia had left. Her smile turned knowing and a bit roguish as she crossed to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle. Sirius didn’t recognize it, but Lily raised an eyebrow and paused, a soapy dish in her hands.

“I’m not sure what you two got up to today, but from the look of you it wasn’t all fun,” Aunt Violet said. She pushed the bottle toward Lily and Sirius with a grin. “Not too much, mind you. I doubt your mother would approve, and your sister certainly wouldn’t.”

She left them with a wink and a slight chuckle.

“Well, that was…unexpected,” Lily said. She wiped her hands off wondered over to pick up the bottle. Curious, Sirius gave the bowl he was holding one last wipe before putting his dish towel down and peered over Lily’s shoulder.

“Is that what I think it is?” Sirius asked. He wasn’t familiar with Muggle particulars, but Sirius could recognize a bottle of liquor when he saw one.

“Yeah,” Lily said. “Do you want—?”

“Yes,” Sirius said, trying to keep from sounding too eager. Liquor was probably a terrible idea with what he needed to tell Lily and how she was probably going to react, but damn if he didn’t want it. Liquid courage and all that.

Lily looked between the bottle and Sirius and sighed. “It really has been a long day,” she said, biting her lip. “We’ve got to be careful though, and quiet. Aunt Violet’s right, my mum wouldn’t approve, and Petunia would…well, she’ll be impossibly condescending and smug if I get in trouble.”

They had to pass right by the open sitting room doorway to get out the front door. Sirius saw Lily tense as they approached. “Just act natural,” he whispered. She nodded and swallowed, pressing the bottle tight against her thigh, so it couldn’t be seen as they walked by.

Lily’s mum looked up from her cards when a floorboard squeaked beneath Sirius’s foot. He flashed her a small smile though and kept walking. She returned it and her attention slid back down to the game. This was child’s play compared to stuffing his trousers with firecrackers and sneaking all the way down from Gryffindor tower to the Quidditch pitch right under Filch’s nose.

Once outside, Sirius sat, as he had the night before, on the wide top rail of the concrete balustrade. Lily sat next to him this time though. As soon as they were both settled, she opened the bottle and took a hearty swig.

Sirius could barely keep his jaw from dropping. In the past day and a half, he’d come to acknowledge that Lily wasn’t the stick-up-her-arse, holier-than-thou Prefect he’d always thought she was, but this still caught him off-guard.

“Well fuck, Evans,” Sirius said. “I’m bloody impressed. Not your first time drinking then?”

Lily wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and grinned as she passed the bottle over to Sirius. “Sirius Black, you have no idea the sort of things we get up to in the girls’ dorms,” she said, and he could hear a bit of rebellious pride in her voice.

Grinning in turn, Sirius shook his head. “No, I suppose not,” he said. “Although, I wonder if the stairs might let me up and visit. I mean, Hogwarts is more than just an old building, the bloody castle probably knew I was gay before I did. It has to know I’d just want to come up to get my nails painted and gossip about boys.”

Lily rolled her eyes but smiled as Sirius raised the bottle to his lips and drank, only to pull back gagging and sputtering.

“Ugh! What is that?” Sirius said, shuddering as he squinted to read the label on the offending bottle.

“Gin,” Lily said, laughing at the faces Sirius was pulling. “I take it you’ve never had it before?”

“No, it’s disgusting!” Sirius said, happily surrendering the bottle to Lily, who was still merrily enjoying his discomfort.

“Hmmm…I don’t actually know if there are any wizarding gins or something close to it,” Lily mused. “Maybe it’s just a Muggle thing. Anyway, you don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to.” She took a sip and shot Sirius a smug little smile, showing that she wasn’t intimidated by the astringent liquor.

Sirius grimaced again, this time remembering the conversation he was supposed to have with Lily. “I didn’t say that,” he grumbled, reaching for the bottle again. He braced himself this time, but still wrinkled his nose as he took another drink.

“Tastes like Christmas trees and children’s tears,” Sirius said sourly. “This might actually be the distilled embodiment of holidays with my family.”

“I’m going to take the bottle away if you turn into a maudlin drunk,” Lily warned, emphasizing her point with a little jab of her elbow to Sirius’s ribs.

They slowed down after those first few drinks, careful to heed Aunt Violet’s instructions not to drink too much. The unpleasant taste lingered on Sirius’s tongue, but the burn in his throat and stomach felt pleasant enough. Lily seemed as lost in her own thoughts as Sirius felt, both of them content to sit in fragile yet companionable silence.

In his mind, Sirius crafted a hundred different opening sentences, a hundred different ways to tell Lily what he’d done to Snape and Remus and James.

He tried not to, but he also crafted his excuses. Some of them were even true. He never would have sent Snape to the Whomping Willow if Snape hadn’t goaded and threatened him first, nor had Sirius believed Snape would have the guts to try getting past the tree. Even then, Sirius had thought Snape would fail if he tried. Honestly, at the time he’d hoped the Willow would smack Snape in the face and break his enormous nose.

True or not, they were all still excuses. Lily, James, Peter, and Remus—especially Remus—all deserved better than his excuses, because even if Sirius hadn’t intended anyone harm, he’d still caused it. He’d rather bite off his own tongue than say it out loud, but a part of Sirius knew that he even owed Snape an apology.

“How did you know?” Lily asked. Her voice sounded tinny, hollow.

“Huh?” Sirius had been leagues away, his thoughts spinning.

“How did you know Frank and Moody weren’t there at the shop officially?” Lily asked again. She swallowed and took a deep breath. It seemed to ground her a bit, bring her back to herself. “They were wearing the robes and they made it sound all proper. I never would have questioned them. What did I miss?”

Sirius shrugged. He reached over and took the bottle from Lily again, but he didn’t drink, just swirled the liquid around in the bottle. “The patronus with Dumbledore’s voice was the real tipoff,” he said. “My parents love to whinge about Dumbledore, but they’re always glad that he doesn’t involve himself with the Ministry. At least, not in any formal sort of way that would give him the authority to boss Aurors around.”

Lily frowned thoughtfully. She seemed genuinely interested, if a little bit miffed that Sirius had figured something out before her. “What else?”

“Frank,” Sirius said with a sigh, finally raising the bottle for another sip. “I…for a little while, I thought I wanted be an Auror and—”

He was rudely interrupted by Lily’s amused snort. When he glared at her, Lily raised a hand to her mouth trying to hide her smile. “I’m sorry, Sirius, but you would make a terrible Auror!”

“Yes, I know,” Sirius grumbled then sighed. “However, for that little while when I thought it was what I wanted to do, I read the little booklets they handed out for careers advice. Did you know it takes three years of training to become a full-fledged Auror?”

“Oh!” Lily said, catching on quickly. “Frank can’t have been in training more than a few weeks. He shouldn’t be out in the field for years yet.”

Sirius nodded. “So, what do you think they’re up to?” he asked, passing the bottle of gin back to Lily when she gestured for it.

Lily frowned pensively as she drank. “They’re fighting Death Eaters, obviously, but they’re doing it outside the law and the ministry’s chain of command…and Dumbledore is helping. If I had to guess…it sounds like guerilla warfare. That’s when—”

“I know what it is,” Sirius said. “It’s not just a Muggle term. That makes a really weird sort of sense though. I mean, Dumbledore did take down Grindelwald; he wouldn’t just sit around while some new dark lord starts putting on airs.”

“That whole thing is still so hard to imagine,” Lily said, shaking her head. “Dark wizards being afraid of Professor Dumbledore. I know he’s very powerful and all, but he’s just so…grandfatherly.”

Sirius shuddered. He could believe it. After the incident with Snape, Dumbledore had summoned Sirius to his office and…just the controlled hint of Dumbledore’s anger he’d been on the receiving end of had been enough to terrify Sirius. And now he’d circled back around to Snape again, to the confession he still needed to make.

“So, our Headmaster is probably leading a group of guerilla fighters against the Death Eaters, and Frank Bloody Longbottom is one of them,” Lily said. She sounded perplexed and awed and frightened all at once. “Merlin, do you think Alice knows?”

“Not sure which would be worse for Frank, if he told her or if he didn’t. She might kill him either way,” Sirius noted. Lily nodded her emphatic agreement. Alice was not to be underestimated under any circumstances.

“Do you think there will still be a war to fight when we get out of school?” Lily asked, so quietly Sirius almost missed the question. Perhaps she’d hoped he would.

“Yes,” Sirius answered. He didn’t even hesitate. There was no question in his mind that he would step out of Hogwarts into a warzone when he graduated. And then what?

He thought of Frank and Auror Moody and Professor Dumbledore, fighting dark wizards from the shadows, unencumbered by bureaucracy and politics. That, Sirius thought grimly. He could see himself doing that. The thought was both terrifying and exhilarating.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Lily said, stealing the bottle back and taking a long swig.

“This hatred isn’t new, and it runs deep,” Sirius said, thinking back over his childhood, all the stories passed down about ancestors who hunted Muggles for sport, the pride his parents took in the supposed purity of their bloodline, and the lengths they’d gone to when they realized Sirius was a threat to their reputed purity. “It’s not the sort of thing that will just go away.”

Lily nodded again and she sighed. Sirius saw the weariness in her eyes. It was exhaustion far beyond the physical and stretched deeper than the trauma of today alone. He remembered everything Lily had said as they’d sat in the sun with their ice cream. All the pressure she felt to be perfect, to succeed. All of that, and there were still hordes of people who would condemn her, cast her out, tear her down, or even kill her for something beyond her control, something she could never change.

“Cheer up, Evans,” Sirius said, though he wasn’t able too muster much cheer himself. He knocked his shoulder companionably against Lily’s, like she was one of his mates. “It’s not hopeless. Look at me, I came to Hogwarts thinking all sorts of stupid things about Muggles and Muggleborns. Now I’m swapping spit with one in a bottle of terrible Muggle liquor.”

That wrangled a smile and a scoff of a laugh out of Lily. “Ew! Way to make it gross, Sirius.” She pulled a face and put the stopper back in the bottle of gin. They’d both had enough, and quite possibly a little too much based on the way Sirius felt.

The streetlights blinked on as dusk fell around them. Sirius could feel the gin reaching his head, making his thoughts feel soft and feathery around the edges.

It really was liquid courage though. Sirius could feel it steeling his nerves and loosening his tongue.

“Lily…I did something really terrible,” Sirius said. The words felt like scratches, like fingernails tearing through his skin. He crossed his arms over his chest and hunched forward.

“Yeah, I kind of figured you did,” Lily replied. When Sirius dared to look up at her, he found her eyes focused somewhere down the street.

“That obvious or that predictable?” Sirius asked.

“Well, everyone in the school knew Potter beat the piss out of you. I know that it wasn’t because you’re shagging me, but it must have been something bad to make him that angry,” Lily said. A breeze blew strands of her hair across her face, and Lily reached up to push them back behind one ear. “Besides, I sat with Remus on the train ride home.

“He didn’t say anything about…whatever it is,” Lily added when Sirius tensed, “but something had obviously upset him. Since he wasn’t sitting with the rest of you, I figured it had to be something either you or Potter did, because I doubt Pettigrew would ever hurt a fly unless you or Potter told him to. It wasn’t too hard to put the pieces together and figure out you were at the center of whatever went wrong.”

“Story of my life,” Sirius muttered. Loathing and self-pity were whispering through his head. Always at the center of whatever’s going wrong. Always wrong one way or another. That was him. The wrong sort of awful to ever fit in with his family, and always too awful to belong with the truly good people like Remus and Lily and James.

Sirius startled when a gentle hand settled on his shoulder. “For what it’s worth,” Lily said, “I don’t think you broke anything that can’t be fixed.”

He wasn’t so sure of that.

“Can I ask you a question you might not like?” Sirius asked.

Lily frowned, but nodded. Her hand slipped off Sirius’s shoulder, but she shifted so she could face him better.

“Down by the lake after the Defence O.W.L.—” Sirius began. Lily’s expression hardened in the stark yellow light of the streetlamps, but she didn’t tell Sirius to stop talking. “I know, I know, I was an arse then,” he said anyway. “James was too—that’s not what I…Sniv—Snape—what he…what he said to you then…could you ever forgive him for it?”

Sirius wanted the gin bottle back, but he didn’t dare ask for it as Lily sat, stony and silent. He’d probably just made this whole thing worse by bringing up her falling out with Snape, a falling out he’d helped cause. Perhaps it was a cowardly approach, but Sirius wanted to test the waters, get some measure of Lily’s capacity for forgiveness. Not only because he wanted her to forgive him, but because she was a good person. If there was some hope that Lily could forgive wretches like Snape and Sirius himself, well, maybe another good person could forgive him too.

Maybe…just maybe Remus could possibly forgive him…

“I already have,” Lily said abruptly, cutting through the thoughts crowding and swirling around Sirius’s head. “I already forgave Severus for calling me a Mudblood.”

“Oh…I didn’t know you were friends again…” Sirius said slowly. This tentative friendship was doomed then. There was no possible way Lily could ever be friends with both Sirius and Snape, even if the incident with the willow hadn’t happened.

“We’re not friends,” Lily said. Anger glittered in her eyes, but when she saw Sirius’s surprise, she rolled those same eyes and scoffed. “I forgave Severus for the day by the lake. He was genuinely sorry for it; I know he was. I—I forgave him for a lot of things, and I don’t regret it, not really. He was my friend, my closest, dearest friend for years and years. The problem was, I realized I was going to be forgiving him for the rest of our lives, because as sorry as he was whenever he did something that hurt me, he never stopped. He never changed. He would do or say something cruel or bigoted, I would get upset, he would apologize, I would forgive him, and then we would start the whole cycle over again. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

She drew in a deep breath. “That day at the lake might have been the blow that brought the whole thing crashing down, but before it there were a hundred arguments and clashes that chipped away at the foundations of our friendship until there was no way it could withstand a silly little insult.”

Lily shook her head, muttered something that sounded like “fuck it” under her breath, and unstopped the gin again. “Last drink,” Lily said. “I think we both need it.” She sipped and passed the bottle to Sirius. He took it without a word and drank.

“All right then,” Lily said, and there was just the slightest slur to her words as she took the bottle back and leaned down to set it on the stairs near her feet. “My turn to ask you a question you might not like.”

Sirius’s fingers tightened on the hard edge of the balustrade. Pain pulsed through his injured right hand, cutting through some of the gin-induced fog. She was going to ask what he’d done. He really was going to have to tell her now. There would be no avoiding it or putting it off now. He was going to have to tell her all about the worst thing he’d ever done, and—

“Why Severus?” Lily asked. The question startled Sirius. It was not what he was expecting. He wasn’t even sure he understood what Lily was asking until she continued. “I suppose I can sort of understand your desire to target Slytherins above others, even if it is still cruel, but you and Potter have always gone out of your way to bully Severus in particular. Why?

This…this wasn’t the confession Sirius had planned to make, the one he had prepared himself for. There were, of course, easy answers he could give Lily: Snape instigated their confrontation just as often as James and Sirius, Snape’s fascination with dark magic, and to a certain extent, that was all true. There was more too it though, there always had been.

Sirius sat frozen, so still he might as well have been a gargoyle perched on the end of the balustrade. He almost hoped that Lily would back down like she had last night whenever she realized her questions were upsetting him.

She didn’t though. Not this time. A part of Sirius was actually glad that Lily just gritted her teeth and stared him down. He couldn’t imagine a long-term friendship with anyone who just rolled over for him every time he got himself in a snit. Sirius got in far too many snits for that.

On the other hand…he might not even have to admit to the prank with Snape to drive Lily away after owning up to this dark, cowardly part of himself.

“The truth is...it isn’t pretty,” Sirius said finally. “It’s the worst of me.”

This was something he had never even told James before.

Lily waited patiently as Sirius took a deep breath and raised his head. He hoped that it was a mark in his favor that he forced himself to look Lily in the eye as he confessed his sins. Grey eyes locked with green ones, and neither of them backed down.

“The first thing you need to understand, is that I can only speak to my reasons,” Sirius said firmly. “Don’t judge James, Peter, or Remus by anything I tell you. James has always had his own reasons to dislike Snape, and you’ll have to ask him if you want to hear them. For me though…Snape was a safe target.”

Lily was watching him warily. She looked ready to tell him to piss off then and there, but she didn’t. Not yet. Sirius drew in another deep breath though and continued.

“My parents…even before Hogwarts it was never easy,” Sirius said. “I never fit in with most of my family, and not just because I liked boys. I was always just…different, and they didn’t like it. They had expectations, and no matter how hard I tried I could never seem to live up to them. That became irreversibly obvious when I wound up in Gryffindor. They weren’t afraid to express their disappointment…their anger…and I hated them for it. I…I hated them for not…for not loving me...I wanted to make them hurt as much as their disappointment and anger, their cruel words and their curses hurt me.”

He winced but refused to look away. Lily was biting her lip so hard Sirius expected to see blood spilling down her chin any second now.

“I couldn’t fight back though, not against them, not in any way that mattered,” Sirius said bitterly. His eyes were burning, but he refused to close them or turn away. He would face Lily head on. He would try to preserve some small sliver of honor. “I couldn’t hurt my parents, so I took all that hatred out on the closest thing I could get to them: Slytherins. Only, that had consequences too. Too many Slytherins are from old, pureblood families and they all know my family.”

Sirius paused, thinking over all the things he’d done to his classmates over the years, pranks both harmless and humiliating. “It was easy for word to get back to my parents. It never stopped us, especially since I never told James or the others that my parents were…were punishing me whenever one of their friends would complain about our pranks or…or our bullying.”

It was difficult to say those last few words. Sirius wasn’t sure he’d ever admitted, out loud or even to himself that some of his actions had crossed the line from trick to torment. Some of the time, he’d become what he hated. He dug his fingernails into the concrete and pressed on.

“My parents didn’t give two knuts about Severus Snape though,” Sirius confessed. “His mum might have been a Prince, but she married a Muggle—an unforgiveable stain upon her character in the eyes of my parents and their lot.”

Sirius finally looked away. He released the balustrade railing and raised his hands to his head, wishing he still had enough hair to tug his fingers through. Instead, he ran his fingers across the scabbed cuts and spiky patches of fuzz.

“So, there you have it,” Sirius said bitterly. “Snape was a safe target. He didn’t have a powerful family to risk offending, no parents who could whinge about our feud over tea in my mother’s drawing room. I still would have hated the git I’m sure, he’s a slimy prick who’d fit right in at a Black family dinner talking about how wonderful the dark arts are, but if you want the truth in its basest, vilest form, here it is: Snape was a safer target than any of his nasty little friends. I could take out all my anger, all my hate for him, for his house, for my family, and I wouldn’t have to worry about my mother hitting me or my father locking me in the cellar the next time I went home. There’s your answer, Evans.”

He reverted to using her last name, certain any show of familiarity would be rejected now that she knew the whole of it, of who he was. There were tears sparkling in Lily’s eyes, but they didn’t fall. Instead, she blinked rapidly and they retreated enough for her to swallow.

“Sirius, that’s horrible,” Lily said unsympathetically.

“Yeah, well…horrible is in my blood,” Sirius said with a shrug, trying to pretend her words didn’t hurt. He certainly couldn’t pretend they weren’t true. “Hard to be anything but a monster with a family like mine.”

She punched him in the shoulder. Hard. It hurt, and it startled him enough he almost fell off the balustrade into the flower beds below. Most of all, it surprised him because it wasn’t the slap to the face or the cold rebuke he’d expected. It was reminiscent of James’s first punch in the common room the last day of school. The sort of blow that conveyed anger, but not cruelty.

“Don’t you dare use your blood as an excuse, Sirius Black!” Lily snapped. “You have shite parents, there’s no denying that—you and Severus actually have that in common—and I’m sure they’ve screwed you up in plenty of ways. It’s not some inescapable destiny that you’re going to turn out like them, though. You might have a harder go of it than some, but who you are is in the choices you make, not your family tree.”

Sirius wanted to take comfort in her angry, encouraging words. Fuck it, he wanted to break down and cry. But he held back. There was one last confession he had to make.

“I almost killed him,” Sirius said. He forced himself to look back up into Lily’s bright green eyes. “I didn’t mean to, but I almost killed Snape and two of my best friends. That’s why James hit me, and that’s why Remus hates me.” Snape already hated him, so there had been nothing to destroy there.

Lily stared at him, aghast. Whatever she’d expected, it hadn’t been this bad.

“I swear to you I didn’t mean to hurt any of them, not even Snivellus,” Sirius promised. The cruel nickname, one that hadn’t honestly been funny since they were twelve, slipped out before he could catch it. Lily could add that to his tally, Sirius supposed.

“I was afraid,” he admitted. “I was angry and afraid and…and I wanted him to be afraid too…”

“Tell me what happened,” Lily demanded.

He did.

Sirius told Lily everything from his conversation with Regulus to his confrontation with Snape, to the heartrending realization of what he’d done and his desperate race to tell James, James’s heroic rescue, Remus’s brokenhearted pain, Dumbledore’s unknown bargain for Snape’s silence, and everything else all the way to the end of their train ride home. If she’d asked he probably would have told her the details of everything that had happened in Grimmauld Place as well. She didn’t ask though.

When he’d finished speaking, Lily pushed off the balustrade and walked to the edge of the stairs and stared out at the street. She didn’t run inside and slam the door on him or tell him to leave, but Sirius could feel the distance she put between them like a slap to the face. It was an echo of the heartbreak he’d felt when Remus had turned away from him the morning after the full moon.

He could still see Lily’s face in profile, and watched as emotions chased each other across her face and through her green eyes. Sirius could see anger, hurt, horror, and pity. He didn’t let himself react to any of them, instead, while Lily sorted through her thoughts, Sirius pondered what she’d said about Snape.

He’d never known a thing about Snape’s life outside of Hogwarts or his family other than that he was a half-blood and his mother had been a Prince before marrying a Muggle. Never would he have guessed they might share a similarly horrific home life.

Would it have made a difference if he had known? In the spirit of being brutally honest with himself, Sirius admitted that it probably wouldn’t have. If anything, knowing that he and Snape were suffering similarly might have made their feud worse as Sirius had tried even harder to prove to himself and others that he was nothing like the greasy-haired Slytherin.

Before he could begin to dwell on what that might say about both him and Snape, Lily turned back around, her face set, her mouth stern.

“Want to hear something stupid?” Lily asked. When Sirius blinked stupidly at her, shocked by how calm she sounded and how unexpected her words were. “It’s something I heard a long time ago and it just sort of popped into my head now.”

Sirius nodded, and Lily cleared her throat like she always did when asked to read aloud in class—something James had fondly pointed out in charms a few months back. “I think I read this in a Muggle book, and it’s been a while, but I remember it going something like this…An old man described his inner struggles as two dogs fighting. One dog was mean and evil. The other dog was kind and good. The two dogs fought every day. When someone asked him which dog will win, the man replied, ‘The dog I feed.’”

The last of her words faded away into the night, and a weighty silence fell between them.

Sirius broke it barely ten seconds later by bursting into hysterical laughter.

He laughed so hard he was doubled over and nearly fell off the balustrade all on his own, though Lily seemed tempted to help him with a well-placed shove. Her face blazed red with a mix of anger and embarrassment, the latter only fueling the former.

“I know I said it was stupid,” Lily said tartly, “But I thought you might get something out of it—”

“No, no, Lily, it’s not that!” Sirius said, choking back his laughter and wiping at his damp eyes. “It’s brilliant advice. More so than you could imagine. I—I can’t tell you why, but thank you…”

She eyed Sirius suspiciously for a moment, but seemed to decide he was being honest, so she nodded and sat back down next to him with a sigh.

“I really fucked up,” Sirius whispered. That momentary bubble of out of control laughter had passed and the heavy weight returned to his shoulders. The gin he’d already had felt like it was curdling in his stomach, but he reached down and picked up the bottle. Surprisingly, Lily didn’t object.

“Yeah, you did,” Lily replied, her voice just as quiet. “You hurt people, Sirius. You were scared and angry, but that doesn’t change what happened.”

“I know that, and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Sirius said, letting his head hang forward. The bottle was in his hands, but he couldn’t bring himself to drink. His stomach already felt like it was on the verge of rebelling.

“That’s a good first step, I think,” Lily said. “What’s your next one?”

“Beg for forgiveness probably, especially from Remus,” Sirius said uncertainly. He’d already tried that the morning after the full moon. He’d flung himself on his knees beside Remus’s hospital bed and begged like he never had before.

It hadn’t worked then. What chance did he have of it working now? Remus had helped him when he’d called on the telephone, but that didn’t necessarily mean he’d forgiven Sirius. Even if Remus did forgive him, then what? Could things ever go back to the way they’d been before?

Sirius remembered what Lily had said about her falling out with Snape. She’d forgiven him, probably far more times than Snape deserved, but things had still fallen apart in the end because Snape might have been sorry, but he hadn’t learned from his mistakes. He hadn’t changed.

Maybe things going back to the way they were before wasn’t what he should be hoping for. Maybe he should try for something better than before.

Forgiveness wasn’t always the end of the line, sometimes it was the beginning, Sirius mused. He would have to do more than apologize to really earn his absolution.

“Sounds like I need to work on feeding my good dog,” he said. There was still a wry humor in his voice that Lily wouldn’t understand, but he was genuine, and she seemed to sense that.

“I think the moral of the story is we all need to feed the good dog, as much and as often as we can,” Lily said. “You, Sirius, are a rash, reckless toerag. You have a bad temper and cruel streak that both you and your friends let go unchecked far too often. You could have hurt or killed people that I care about deeply.” Because she would have mourned Severus if anything had happened to him, just like she would have mourned Remus or, hell, even James most likely. Lily took a breath and continued. “I also think you’re smart and brave and unexpectedly kind when you remember you can be. Try to remember it a little more often going forward.”

Sirius smiled and leaned to the side so his shoulder bumped Lily’s affectionately. “Thank you, Lily. For everything.”

She heaved a put-upon sigh and let her head drop onto his shoulder. “I’m going to regret letting you in, aren’t I?” She asked.

He grinned in reply. “For many, many reasons…but I’ll try not to make you regret it where it counts.”

“Good, because I’m not afraid to hex you if you ever do something so thoughtless again.”

“That sounds fair.”

Chapter Text

For the second night in a row, Lily did not sleep well. Exhaustion and gin carried her off to sleep easily enough, but she woke almost half a dozen times from different versions of the same nightmares.

In some of her dreams, the Whomping Willow was on fire and Severus was trapped by its branches. In others, Severus stood with her in the book shop, laughing and holding her back while Rabastan Lestrange turned into a werewolf and tore Sirius to pieces. The players and scenarios changed, but they all blurred together and left Lily bleary-eyed and drained when she rolled out of bed in the morning.

Once again, Sirius was awake before her. He was already sitting at the kitchen table, listening while Aunt Violet talked about music “back in the good old days.” He tensed when Lily staggered into the room, obviously worried Lily might have changed her mind about maintaining their tentative, newly developing friendship.

Honestly, Lily wasn’t sure where she stood on the matter in the light of day. Sirius had done a terrible, dangerous thing out of anger and fear and a stupid, childish rivalry. A part of her wanted to turn her back on him for it, to push him right back out of her life. It wouldn’t be that hard, not like it had been with Severus.

However, she genuinely believed Sirius when he said he hadn’t anticipated the consequences and fallout of his actions. He’d done a terrible, dangerous thing, but he hadn’t meant to. More importantly, he genuinely seemed to regret it.

Where did that leave her then? She’d forgiven Severus for his actions so many times, but Sirius’s mistakes weren’t really hers to forgive, and she certainly wouldn’t be forgetting them either.

I’m going to give him a chance, Lily thought, reinforcing the decision she’d made last night. Lord only knew she’d given Severus enough of those. She wanted to see if Sirius could do what her former best friend still couldn’t. She wanted to see if he could change, if he could do better.

She really hoped he could, because even if cutting Sirius out would hurt as much as breaking off her friendship with Severus had, it would still hurt. Perhaps it was the adrenaline rushes and the intense emotional rollercoaster of the last two days, but Lily felt a much stronger connection to Sirius than she would have imagined after such a short amount of time.

With that decided, she flashed Sirius a smile as she said her good mornings to him and Aunt Violet. Sirius seemed to relax some, and he returned her smile, though there was a brittle, almost sad edge to it. When Lily sat down next to him, Sirius pushed a copy of the Times toward Lily. It was folded open to an inner page, and Lily stiffened as she read the headline. “Two Dead in Fire at Boscastle Witchcraft Museum” it read.

Lily set down the coffee she’d been about to pour and seized the newspaper, recalling what Dumbledore’s patronus had said yesterday about casualties in Boscastle. She devoured the suspiciously brief article, which blamed faulty electrical wiring for a fire that had killed two museum employees and injured three tourists. Lily didn’t believe that explanation for a moment.

Sirius reached over and turned two pages of the paper. There was another, even shorter article reporting no deaths, but six injuries, one of them serious, when a ceiling had collapsed in an Edinburgh shop. That shop sold gag items and Muggle magic tricks. The Times hadn’t reported on a fire at the London bookshop at all, nor had it made a connection between the incidents in Boscastle and Edinburgh. Lily could put the pieces together just fine though.

What was it Sirius had said about the bookshop? That Muggles playing at magical things would strike blood supremacists as profane. Lily wondered if those three, the bookshop, the joke shop, and the museum, had been their only targets yesterday. Had there been more shops or museums or other places destroyed? Had more people been hurt or killed? It made her feel sick.

When she put the newspaper down, folding it so neither of the articles were visible, Sirius reached out and gave her hand a brief, reassuring squeeze. They didn’t say a word about it, not with Aunt Violet in the room and Lily’s mother coming down the stairs. This was something Lily had to bear alone.

Well, not entirely alone. Sirius offered her a cup of coffee with a strained smile that conveyed his own hurt and sorrow. Lily took the cup and returned his smile as best she could.

They tried to fall back into mundane conversations about far more cheerful things with Iris and Aunt Violet and even Petunia as Aunt Violet finished frying tomatoes. It didn’t work, not completely, but Lily thought they both put on a good face. After all, she and Sirius were both well-versed in keeping secrets.

The doorbell rang as they were just finishing breakfast. Lily and Sirius both froze in place, the latter with a spoonful of beans halfway to his mouth. A dozen different emotions ran across his face in mere seconds as he lowered his spoon back to his plate. Hope, relief, anticipation, fear, and things Lily couldn’t quite identify before they were swept away by something else.

“That’s probably the Potters,” Lily said, getting to her feet alongside her great aunt. She didn’t want Aunt Violet to open the door without her there to hastily explain any strange behavior or attire the Potters might exhibit. She could only hope James hadn’t come along with his parents. She’d cause a scene if he tried declaring his love in front of her family.

Sirius rose to his feet as well, but he moved more slowly. Lily could hear him following a few steps behind her down the hallway, and he stopped at the edge of the small foyer as Aunt Violet opened the front door.

A tall man stood at the top of the front steps looking perfectly respectable, if several decades out of fashion, in a brown pinstriped suit. He was older than Lily had expected, closer in age to Aunt Violet than to her own parents’. His neatly styled hair and moustache were entirely white, and there were deep wrinkles on his smiling face. His skin was a lighter shade of brown than his son’s, but James Potter had obviously inherited his hazel eyes and his square jaw from his father.

The distinguished gentleman politely dipped his head and removed his bowler hat, tucking it under one arm. “Good morning,” he said as he extended a hand toward Aunt Violet. “Fleamont Potter, I’m here to collect Sirius Black.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Potter, I’m Violet Eastmund, Lily’s great aunt,” Aunt Violet replied, shaking Mr. Potter’s hand enthusiastically. “Sirius—ah, there he is.”

Sirius had slowly closed the distance toward the door until he stood just behind Lily and Aunt Violet. He still looked wary, but he managed a smile as everyone’s attention turned to him. “Hullo, Mr. Potter,” Sirius murmured politely. “Thank you for coming.”

Mr. Potter’s cheerful expression collapsed in a mix of relief and anguish at the sight of Sirius. He abandoned his perfect propriety in an instant, stepping over the threshold without an invitation to wrap Sirius in a hug. Lily and Aunt Violet both took a few steps back, giving the two of them space.

For a moment, Sirius looked shocked. He stood stiff and statue still, then he relaxed and his arms came up to hug Mr. Potter back. His eyes squeezed closed like he was trying to hold back another rush of emotions.

“I’m glad to see you, Sirius,” Mr. Potter said, and Lily could tell he meant it. Even though they’d stepped back from their hug, the older man kept a hand resting lightly on Sirius’s shoulder. “James and Effie are both anxious to see you as well, so we shouldn’t keep them waiting. Is there anything else you need to get?”

“Nah, this is it,” Sirius said, shrugging his shoulders with a rueful flicker of a smile.

The answering smile that twitched at Mr. Potter’s lips was sad as well, but he buried it beneath something both polite and genuine as he turned his attention back to Aunt Violet.

“Thank you for hosting Sirius until my family could return from our holiday,” he said, then added. “I do hope he wasn’t too much trouble.”

“None at all,” Aunt Violet promised with an indulgent smile. “He was a perfect young gentleman.”

Lily and Sirius exchanged a covert glance. He grimaced, but she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

A round of goodbyes followed. Sirius thanked both Aunt Violet and Lily’s mother for their hospitality so graciously that he really did seem like a perfect young gentleman for a minute. Petunia was snooping on the affair from the far end of the hallway, clearly curious but staunchly refusing to come any closer. Sirius passed on his thanks to her as well through their mother, along with a repeat of his congratulations on her new flat and accompanying move to London.

Then he turned to face Lily, and all the uncertainty of last night seemed to rush back into his grey eyes. Lily didn’t give it a chance to settle. She leapt forward and nearly knocked Sirius off his feet as she hugged him. “Ouch…mind the ribs…” Sirius hissed in her ear, even as he returned her hug.

“Don’t forget to write,” Lily said when they separated. Sirius raised an eyebrow at this unexpected command, but he quirked a smile and nodded.

A few more final goodbyes were exchanged, and Mr. Potter assured Aunt Violet that his automobile was parked just around the corner. Then he and Sirius were walking down the steps and away. Lily stepped back inside, and Aunt Violet closed the door behind her.

The surreal nature of the past two days finally seemed to fully catch up to Lily and she almost felt dizzy in its wake. The rest of her summer was sure to be dull as dirt compared to her time with Sirius, but Lily had the feeling that once she got back to Hogwarts her life would take on a new level of excitement, and probably a new level of aggravation as well.

She found she rather looked forward to it.

*

“James…” Euphemia Potter said with a sigh. There was an all too familiar mix of affection and exasperation in the way she said his name. It spoke volumes. It said, “I love you very much, but I’m getting too old for your tomfoolery” and “Calm down before you vibrate straight through the floor.”

Right now, James felt he was more likely to wear a hole in the floor than to vibrate through it. He’d been a wreck all morning, and despite her ability to sit still, his mother wasn’t much better. She was perched in her favorite chair, supposedly reading, but James hadn’t seen her turn a page in twenty minutes.

They’d arrived back in England via international portkey just after dawn, disoriented by the travel and the sudden change in time zones. Only to be immediately assaulted by a very cranky owl, who had flown to James, nipping sharply to get him to take the scroll tied to its leg.

James hadn’t recognized the owl, but he’d been certain the letter would be from Sirius. Probably full of complaints about life at Grimmauld Place. The fear he’d felt for his friend’s safety had faded over the time he’d spent in India with his family. Surely, they’d both been overreacting at the end of the school year. Emotions had been running high all around, and Sirius did have a penchant for melodrama.

The letter hadn’t been from Sirius though. It was Remus’s handwriting, messy and desperate in a way Remus never was. James had ignored his mother’s request to help carry the luggage inside, frozen where he stood in the middle of the gravel drive as Remus’s frantic words tumbled through his head.

The letter was dated two days ago. Sirius had run away from home two days ago.

He was hurt and terrified.

And James hadn’t been there.

His father had eventually realized something was wrong and came out to get him. James hadn’t been able to explain, so he’d just pressed the letter into his father’s hands.

“He’ll stay with us,” Fleamont Potter had said as soon as he’d finished reading the letter and had handed it off to his wife.

“Of course, he will,” James’s mother added even before she’d finished reading it herself.

There was no doubt, no hesitation about taking in a suddenly homeless teenager. Euphemia gone straight upstairs to change the linens in the bedroom across the hall from James’ own room. Fleamont had started making lists of all the things they would probably need to buy for Sirius if his own belongings had been left behind.

James loved his parents for all of that, but he hated them for making him wait nearly three hours before they would even consider going to pick Sirius up and bringing him home.

James had yelled and threatened to grab his broom and fly to London all on his own if they didn’t go right now. Some part of him had recognized the logic behind his parents’ decision. Remus’s letter claimed that Sirius was currently safe with Evanses—Lily Evans of all people!—and that he was staying at Lily’s great-aunt’s house in London until the Potters could come pick him up.

“It’s barely past five in the morning, James!” his father had chided. “Remus’s letter says that Sirius is safe with your friend’s family, and it would be poor manners to repay their hospitality by waking them up just past the crack of dawn.”

His father had finally agreed to go, giving in to James’s incessant pestering at half past eight. He had not, however, agreed to take James with him. Thus, the pacing.

No matter how much his mother urged him to calm down, James couldn’t. His head was spinning with terrible possibilities. What had gone wrong? What had Sirius’s parents done that had finally forced him to run away?

It had to be bad.

It was already bad. James had known that for years. He’d known, and he’d done nothing.

He’d failed. He’d failed as a friend, hell, as a human being. The moment he’d first realized Sirius’s parents were responsible for the bruises and other marks Sirius sometimes returned to Hogwarts with, James should have ignored his friend’s assurances that it was nothing and gone straight to McGonagall or Dumbledore. He should have saved his friend. He should have done something.

Thankfully, his emotional spiral was interrupted by the loud pop of his father Apparating back home. James’s head shot up, and for a second he froze in place before his feet caught up and he bounded out of the sitting room and down the hall to the foyer where his father stood with Sirius.

If he hadn’t known exactly who his father was bringing back with him, it would have taken James almost a full second to recognize his best friend. Sirius was dressed in Muggle clothing, and his head had practically been shaved. The most unfamiliar thing about him though was the slump of his shoulders and the heavy way his head hung.

James doubted Sirius even saw him coming before James had tackled him in a hug. He regretted it a moment later when Sirius’s face twisted with pain and he hissed between clenched teeth.

“Oh, Merlin!” James said, springing back before he could hurt Sirius any more than he already had. “Sirius, are you all right?”

No, James realized quickly as he took in more than his first quick glance had showed him, Sirius was not all right. He saw the bruises and cuts scattered across Sirius’s skin, and the scabbed, violent mess of his close-shorn hair. Despite it all, Sirius seemed to rally himself and flashed James a smile.

“You and Lily,” he said with a shake of his head. “Always jumping a bloke when he’s banged up.”

He’d meant it as a joke, that was clear, but none of the Potters laughed. Sirius grimaced as he took in their somber faces, expressions ranging from Euphemia’s worry to Fleamont’s fury with James in the middle, somehow emoting both.

“Let’s sit you down and get that taken care of,” Euphemia said, stepping forward to lay a gentle hand on Sirius’s arm. She used that to guide him out of the foyer and toward a sofa in the sitting room.

James followed after them, but his father excused himself with a mutter of “things to take care off.” From his dark tone, James imagined those things just might include burning 12 Grimmauld Place down around Orion and Walburga Black’s ears. A part of James would have loved to join in if that sort of retaliation really was in the cards, but right now he was more concerned about Sirius than his best friend’s horrible parents.

Euphemia sat next to Sirius on the sofa, her wand out as she carefully healed the scratches and cuts along Sirius’s scalp. James still felt too agitated to sit, so he stood a few steps away, fidgeting as he watched and wishing he could pull out his own wand and help. His parents actually enforced that ridiculous “no magic outside of school” rule though.

“I’m afraid there’s not much to be done about your hair,” Euphemia said sadly. “Some of Monty’s potions will probably speed the growth but if magic was used to...to cut it, then it’ll have to come back on its own.”

“That’s all right, Mrs. Potter,” Sirius said quietly. He was holding very still, but James could see him eying his mother’s wand carefully.

Euphemia tutted disapprovingly. “What is this ‘Mrs. Potter’ nonsense then?” She asked. “I’ve been Effie since you were twelve years old, and I’ll accept nothing less now, especially since you’ll be staying with us.” Her tone was gentle but perfectly matter-of-fact. She could have said the sky was green in that tone and James and his father wouldn’t have argued with her. Sirius also had enough sense not to protest.

“I…sorry,” he muttered, looking away from Euphemia. His eyes skittered past James but refused to linger there either, instead finding a leg of the coffee table to focus on. “I don’t want to trouble you,” Sirius continued. “If I’d be in the way or too much of a bother, I can see if I could stay with Andromeda, or my Uncle Alphard, and—”

James was about to protest, to tell Sirius that, if he had to, James would turn into his stag form and sit on Sirius to keep him right here. His mother got there first though.

“More nonsense,” Euphemia chided softly. Reaching out slowly, so Sirius could see exactly what she intended, Euphemia cupped his now bruise-free cheek. Sirius didn’t flinch or move away, but he seemed almost confused by the motherly touch.

“I can’t make you stay here, Sirius, not if you don’t want to, but you listen to me,” Euphemia said with gentle firmness. “There is a bedroom upstairs that is yours and yours alone now. It will be yours whether you’re using it or not. It is yours right now, and it will be yours after you come of age, and after you graduate. It will be yours after you get your own house or flat, and after you have a family of your own. It will be yours even when you’re as old and grey as Monty and I are. You are always welcome here, no ifs, ands, or buts. Do you understand me, Sirius?”

Sirius blinked rapidly, his eyes bright and wet. James looked away so Sirius didn’t have to worry about crying in front of him. It had nothing to do with the fact that James’s own eyes were damp with tears. Would that they had taken Sirius in years earlier and spared him who knows how much pain and suffering. There were probably a million reasons why it wouldn’t have worked, but James couldn’t help wishing.

“I understand…thank you, Effie,” Sirius answered, because James’s mother clearly expected an answer. She always did.

Wiping his eyes quickly and as subtly as possible, James turned back to see his mother favoring Sirius with a loving smile he’d always believed was strictly reserved for himself and his father. It was a smile James was more than happy to share with Sirius though.

“Good,” Euphemia said with a nod. She squinted through her glasses as her finger traced one of the more stubborn bruises still lingering along Sirius’s jaw. “I’ll need a cream for this. While I go get it, you can take off that shirt and show me all the other things we need to take care of.”

Sirius grimaced but nodded. Euphemia gave him another smile and patted his knee gently before getting up and heading toward the stairs.

James waited until she was gone, both he and Sirius staying still and silent until Euphemia’s footsteps squeaked on the stairs. “Padfoot…” James began, but Sirius cut him off with a shake of his head.

“No—just give me a minute, James, please…” Sirius implored.

“All right,” James agreed. He hadn’t been sure what he was going to say next anyway. Sirius sighed with relief and leaned forward; his forearms braced against his thighs while his fingers tapped a restless tattoo against his knees.

James wasn’t good at being quiet and sitting still. He never had been, but Sirius didn’t need his boundless nervous energy right now, so James tried. He sank down to sit cross-legged on the rug beside the sofa, endeavoring to provide Sirius with support while not overwhelming him with stimuli.

Sirius took several deep breaths, pulling them in and letting them out slowly. “I’m afraid this is a dream,” Sirius said when he finally spoke. “I’m terrified that any moment I’m going to wake up and I’ll be back in that house, that this has all been some mad hallucination, and I’m…” He shook his head, as if he could knock those thoughts out of his brain.

“I could pinch you, but honestly, mate, you look like you might pass out if I did,” James said.

Sirius laughed. Just a watery chuckle at first, but it grew into peals of his unique, barking laughter. Something in James relaxed, and then he was laughing as well, letting everything out.

They were both in stitches and tears when Euphemia came back downstairs with an armload of potions and salves. She smiled indulgently at both of them, but it faded as she sat back down next to Sirius. After smearing a minty smelling cream on the bruise along Sirius’s jaw and a few others on his arms, Euphemia fixed Sirius with a firm but gentle look.

“I need to see the rest of it, Sirius,” she said. When Sirius bit his lip, her eyes flicked over to James, who was still sitting on the rug, fidgeting again. “James, darling, perhaps you could go make some tea,” his mother suggested.

James didn’t move. Instead, he fixed Sirius with a questioning look. Somewhat reluctantly, Sirius met his gaze, and an entire conversation took place between them in the space of a few silent seconds. James might have been second-guessing himself this morning, but he could read Sirius like a first year textbook.

“Please don’t make me leave! Please don’t shut me out!” James’s eyes begged.

“You won’t like what you see.” A downward twitch of Sirius’s lips replied. “It’ll make you angry. It will hurt you.”

James’s jaw tightened stubbornly, and Sirius relented with a roll of his eyes.

“It’s all right, Effie,” Sirius said out lough for the benefit of James’s mother. “He can stay if he wants.”

Euphemia accepted his decision without any questions. She was used to the easy way James and Sirius seemed to almost read each other’s minds. They’d been that way since they were twelve.

Sirius chose to carefully peel the Muggle shirt off rather than allow James’s mum to vanish it. “I like it,” he protested when she’d suggested as much. “I want to keep it.” This made it a slow process though, because Sirius moved stiffly and raising his arms above his head obviously hurt.

Despite his insistence on staying, James couldn’t watch. He couldn’t stand an inch-by-inch reveal of the injuries Sirius was hiding. It was only when Sirius finally let the shirt drop on the floor next to him that James looked up.

The only time James had ever seen bruises this bad was second year after Marlene McKinnon took a really nasty bludger to the stomach and fell almost fifty feet off her broom. Madame Pomfrey had taken care of her quickly before any of her injuries could set in too bad. Sirius’s bruises though had had several days to darken into a colorful patchwork of pain.

Since it wasn’t likely Sirius had fallen out of any fifth-floor windows, James could barely even begin to imagine where all those bruises came from.

Euphemia didn’t say a word as she moved to rub ointment into that terrible rainbow of black and blue and purple and yellow and red. James could see the way her eyes glittered though, and he knew it wasn’t with unshed tears. He swallowed and suppressed a shiver. His mother’s temper was rarer than a wild dragon and twice as dangerous. If his father wasn’t already planning to destroy Orion and Walburga, his mother might do the job herself.

By the time Euphemia had finished tending to all of his injuries, Sirius was practically falling asleep where he sat. James fancied he could literally see the tension and energy draining out of his friend as he watched. It wasn’t even mid-morning yet, but he looked ready to collapse. James had seen this before, so when his mother was done with her healing, James stepped right in.

“Up you come, Padfoot,” James said, tugging Sirius to his feet. He was gentler than he usually would be, but he wasn’t about to baby Sirius. That would only make things worse. Likely as not, Sirius had barely slept in the past few days, if not longer. He was a practiced insomniac, but eventually he always crashed when the last of his tightly-wound defensive energy wore off. Then Sirius would sleep like the dead for the better part of a day or more.

“Sorry,” Sirius said around a yawn. “Didn’t mean to just…”

“We’re all a bit off with the traveling and all,” James said. His mother smiled and packed up her supplies. James noted a half-empty bottle of dreamless sleep potion among the mess. That was probably for the best. “Let’s get you upstairs. You can borrow some of my pajamas.”

Sirius nodded and stumbled alongside James up the stairs and down the hall to the bedroom right across from James’s own. Thankfully, Sirius was still able to dress himself in a pair of borrowed pajamas, although James stayed in the room while he changed. Years of rooming together at Hogwarts had robbed them both of any real sense of personal space.

James didn’t leave after Sirius had fallen into bed. He pulled up a comfy chair and grabbed a book, settling in, because he wasn’t about to abandon Sirius ever again.

Sirius slept for the better part of three days. He would wake up to go to the bathroom or eat. During meals he could be coaxed into small talk and even smiled, but as soon as plates had been cleared, Sirius’s eyelids began to droop and he soon shuffled back to bed for another eight to ten hours.

James rarely strayed far from Sirius’s bedside, especially after Euphemia stopped giving Sirius dreamless sleep potions. He felt the need to be there when Sirius twitched and muttered in his sleep, or when he tossed restlessly and woke up with a panicked start. It wasn’t easy, but James wanted to be there. He wanted to help.

The real problem was, all that sitting and watching and waiting, it gave him too much time to think. At first he tried to work on his summer homework, but he rarely made any real progress. His mind kept drifting away from charms or herbology and back to the tangled mess of actions and reactions that had led to this point.

James wasn’t good at self-reflection, mostly because he’d rarely felt the need to practice it before. Sitting by Sirius’s bedside though, watching his best friend toss and turn in the throes of a nightmare, James couldn’t avoid thinking over…well, everything.

It took him days, but by the time Sirius finally woke up and seemed genuinely awake, James had come to a few conclusions.

“You and I, we’re kind of arseholes,” James said as Sirius stretched and groaned.

“Well, good morning to you too,” Sirius replied groggily.

“It’s nearly tea time.”

“Well…fuck,” Sirius said. He reached up to his head, like he intended to finger comb his hair, only to grimace as his fingertips encountered spiky stubble. Flopping back onto the bed, he sighed heavily.

“You’re right,” Sirius said as he stared up at the ceiling. “We are kind of arseholes. I used to think it was part of our charm, but…”

“Yeah,” James agreed. He got out of his chair and flopped down onto the bed next to Sirius. Half a hundred things ran through his head as he joined Sirius in staring forlornly up at the ceiling plaster. Lily Evans calling him an arrogant toerag, all the pranks that had crossed the line from funny to cruel, the times he’d skived off or disrupted classes, the look on Remus’s face after learning Sirius had betrayed his secret, the look of terror on Snape’s face before James had hauled him away from the trapdoor into the Shrieking shack.

Sirius was his best friend, and he was never going to give that up, but there was no denying that sometimes they brought out the worst in each other.

“Things have got to change, Padfoot,” James said. “We’ve got to do better.”

“Yeah,” Sirius said quietly. “I know.”

James shifted up onto his elbows enough for him to look Sirius in the eye. He looked more than serious; he looked grim, determined. James smiled and held out a hand. “Together then? Better men, the both of us?”

Sirius sat up and took James’s hand with a small, almost frightened smile.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after Sirius came to live with the Potters, Remus stepped out of the fireplace in the drawing room of the Potters’ rambling manor house. To his surprise, James was there, sitting in a squishy armchair and leaning over a coffee table covered in books. Remus wasn’t sure he’d ever seen James look quite so studious. Then he noticed the miniature Quidditch pitch complete with tiny figurines flying on miniscule brooms. That was truer to form, he thought with a smile.

“Hi, Moony,” James said cheerfully, though he didn’t look up from the model as the figurines executed a complicated-looking feint. “You’re here earlier than—no, no, no! That’s not where you’re supposed to go!” He jabbed the tip of his wand at one of the diminutive chasers until it moved where he wanted it.

Remus finished brushing the soot from his shoulders and picked up one of the books. An Advanced Guide to Quidditch Tactics looked just as complex and technical as any of their sixth year textbooks.

“Putting together next year’s playbook?” Remus asked. News that James had been made Gryffindor’s Quidditch Captain had come alongside their O.W.L. results and had quickly been relayed to Remus and Peter.

“Trying to,” James muttered as he finished maneuvering the model players into place and finally glanced up. Remus, who had been scanning the room for signs of James’s usual Quidditch collaborator, turned back to find James watching him with a strange, knowing smirk.

“He’s not in here,” James said. “I think I drove him out when I started charting wind speeds and turning angles about an hour ago.”

Remus could empathize. James studied Quidditch like every match was its own N.E.W.T.

“How is he?” Remus asked, both because he wanted to know and because he did not want James to start an in-depth monologue about the pass completion percentages of every chaser on all four house teams.

James’s expression grew somber. “Honestly? It’s hard to say. Mum had to heal a few things when he first got here, some bruises and cuts, and a few small fractures in his right hand. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but I know they did more than that.” James shrugged weakly. “You know Sirius though. He’ll whine for hours if he gets a hangnail, but he won’t say a word about the real stuff. He’ll be happy to see you…that is, if you want to see him.”

Apprehension bled into James’s tone and he fidgeted with his wand while watching Remus. There had been owls flying regularly between Wales and the West Country over the last two weeks. James had sent a letter straight away letting Remus know that Sirius was safely with him and would be staying with the Potters from now on. It had been left to Remus to phone Lily and pass on the information, since James had suddenly grown timid and “didn’t want to bother her.” They’d also brought Peter into the loop and, much like Remus, he’d been horrified and guilty that he hadn’t been able to do more to help.

However, while letters had been exchanged almost daily between Remus and James, there had been no letters from Sirius. James usually included little post scripts along the lines of “Sirius says hello,” but there had been nothing from Sirius himself. Remus wasn’t sure what he was supposed to make of that. He wasn’t even sure if he’d wanted Sirius to write to him. Now that he was here in person though…

Remus nodded. “I do…I want to see him, that is.”

James breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. Well he’s probably out by the swimming hole hiding from Mum while he smokes. She hates it, keeps threatening to make him eat his cigarettes if she catches him smoking in the house.”

“Right,” Remus said, realizing he was already staring at the drawing room door. He glanced back at James, not wanting to be rude and abandon one friend for the other, but James waved him off.

“Go. I’ve still got some kinks to work out here, and you two should have a proper heart-to-heart.”

Taking his leave of James with assurances that they would talk more later and that, yes, he would stay for dinner, Remus made his way out of the Potters’ house. Behind the manor was a familiar trail leading down through the garden and past a grove of ancient oaks. At the end of the trail, the wide stream that ran through the Potters’ property snagged on a shelf of rock, forming a deep pool below.

This was one of Remus’s favorite places on the Potters’ estates. He’d come here to visit for at least a week every summer after first year, and he had fond memories of spending the hottest days playing in the cold, clear water with his best friends. He found Sirius there now, sitting in the sun on a wide, flat rock at the pool’s edge, his bare feet dangling in the water below.

The sight stopped him in his tracks as a dozen different things ran through his head. In the end, most of it boiled down to relief. The bruises and cuts Lily had described over the phone were long healed, and his hair, while still short, had grown an inch or two, likely aided by some of Mr. Potter’s potions. Sirius looked well, but there was no denying he also looked different.

Part of it was the clothes. Despite his interest in them, Sirius had never had much access to Muggle things before. Remus knew the few little trinkets like a ballpoint pen and a toy airplane he had given Sirius over the years had been promptly destroyed by his mother as soon as he went home. Now that he was truly free of his parents, Sirius seemed to have indulged his fascinations. He wore faded jeans rolled up to his knees and a t-shirt with an image Remus vaguely associated with a rock band. A pair of wide, dark sunglasses hid his eyes, and a cigarette dangled almost neglectfully from his fingers.

Remus must have made a sound, because Sirius turned toward him. He pushed the sunglasses up onto his head and squinted in the bright August light like he couldn’t quite trust what he was seeing through the tinted plastic lenses.

No, Remus realized, it wasn’t just the clothes or even the short hair, though Sirius certainly looked different without long strands of black framing his face. The angles of him seemed sharper, and there was something harder about the set of his lips and eyebrows.

Then Sirius grinned and his face was familiar again.

Sirius shot to his feet with a shout of “Moony!” He dropped his cigarette to scrabble over rocks and meet Remus at the edge of the bank. It was only when they were face to face that Sirius seemed to catch himself and remember their falling out. He stopped and the smile on his face wavered, that new sharpness bleeding back into his expression. Arms that seemed like they were about to pull Remus into a hug fell back to his sides.

Where Sirius hesitated though, Remus did not. He practically tackled his friend in a hug so fierce it almost toppled them both back into the pool below. Yes, he’d been angry and he’d been hurt by Sirius’s actions, but he’d come close to actually losing Sirius that summer, and that was more important than the rest of it.

It took Sirius a little while to respond, to hug Remus back, but when his arms reached Remus’s back, he let out a deep breath and Remus could feel much of the tension leave him with that exhalation.

“It’s good to see you,” Sirius said. He was the one who broke the hug, stepping back quickly, like he was trying to make sure Remus had space if he wanted to turn around and leave.

“You too,” Remus said, and he meant it. “Are you—”

“Please don’t ask me if I’m all right,” Sirius said quickly. “I get enough of that from James three or four times a day. I can’t so much as stub my toe these days without Prongs falling all over himself to get me a pain potion, a plaster, and cup of tea. Monty and Effie are almost as bad too.” Part of the frustration was genuine; Sirius didn’t like to draw attention to himself when he was struggling, but Remus could see the hint of a smile tugging at one corner of his lips. Even if it was heavy-handed, Sirius was clearly happy living with people who cared for him and his wellbeing.

“I wasn’t going to ask that,” Remus lied. “I was going to say ‘Are you going to offer me a fag or not?’”

Sirius raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Since when do you smoke?”

Remus shrugged. He didn’t, not really, but he’d shared a few cigarettes and even some spliffs at the parties he’d attended over the summer. Truth be told, he’d enjoyed the latter more than the former. He didn’t have any weed on him though, so a cigarette wouldn’t hurt. It might even help calm his nerves a bit.

He’d been eager, almost impatient to see Sirius ever since that early morning phone call, but now that he was here and Sirius was standing in front of him, Remus could swear he was feeling every single emotion all at the same time. There was still anger there, and hurt, and betrayal, but they were fighting a losing battle against his relief, and happiness.

“All right then,” Sirius said. “Follow me.” He led Remus back down to the rock where he’d been sitting. Lying on his belly, Sirius leaned over and reached beneath the rock, pushing aside a smaller stone to reveal a hidden hole. From within he pulled out a sack containing a few boxes of cigarettes.

“Last week, Effie found a pack I had up in the house and transfigured them into daisies, so I had to hide the rest of my stash down here.” After pulling two cigarettes out of an open box, Sirius put the bag back in its hiding place. Grinning at his own cleverness, he handed Remus one of the cigarettes and pulled a book of matches out of his pocket. Fumbling just a little, Sirius lit both cigarettes and dipped the match into the water to extinguish the flame.

Remus didn’t ask what had happened to his lighter, James’s last letter had confirmed what Sirius had told him over the telephone, that Sirius had escaped his parents’ house with nothing. The Potters had replaced most of the things he really needed and had given him some pocket money to boot. Remus could even see a new wand sticking out of Sirius’s back pocket, but he doubted Mr. and Mrs. Potter would replace the illegally charmed lighter, especially if Mrs. Potter disapproved of Sirius’s bad habit.

They settled side by side on the rock, smoking idly. Remus copied Sirius, shucking off his trainers and socks and rolling up his trousers to stick his feet in the cold water. For several minutes, that was all they did, sit and smoke, their feet fluttering through the water.

Remus had had weeks to formulate what he wanted to say to Sirius. He’d held entire conversations in his head with an imaginary Sirius, some of them angry rants, others calm, rational discussions. Confronted with the real thing though, Remus found he couldn’t remember a single word from any of his practiced speeches.

It was Sirius who eventually broke the silence.

“I want to apologize again, but I’m not going to, because you’d accept it for the wrong reasons.”

Remus frowned. He’d expected an apology. Sirius had offered him plenty before they’d left school, weeping and begging for forgiveness. At the time, Remus had rejected them all, but he’d been prepared to accept it now, to bury his lingering pain and forgive Sirius.

“What do you mean I’d accept it for the wrong reasons?” Remus asked.

Sirius leaned forward until he was almost hanging off the edge of the rock, staring down at the water as his toes tracing circles just beneath the surface.

“I’m afraid I’ll apologize for what I did and you’ll say you forgive me just because my parents are arseholes and I’ve had a shite summer. That’s not what I want though.”

Before Remus could even open his mouth to reply, Sirius cut him off. “And don’t tell me you wouldn’t, Moony, because you would. You’d tell me you forgive me because you feel sorry for me, or because you don’t want to hurt me, and because you’re a good person. That’s not right though—that’s not what I want, and I don’t think it’s what you want either, not really.”

He turned so he could look directly at Remus, and there was something raw and defiant in his expression. It made Remus’s breath catch. They were all growing up, but this was the first real glimpse Remus had into the man Sirius was becoming.

It was…stunning.

“I want your forgiveness for real, Remus. I don’t want you to give it to me until you mean it, however long that takes, and…and I’m going to work for it.” There was a firm conviction in his words that caught Remus by surprise. He’d rarely heard that steel in Sirius’s voice. The few times he had had always been solemn, important moments—when he’d told Remus he didn’t care that he was a werewolf, when he’d called James his brother, when he’d told Peter they would never let anyone bully him. Remus had never, ever doubted Sirius’s words when they were backed by that tone.

“Sirius, you don’t have to do that,” Remus said. Sirius was right about him; Remus would have accepted any apologies Sirius gave him today if only because he was certain his friend had suffered enough. That really wasn’t forgiveness though, was it?

“Maybe not, but I think I should,” Sirius said. These words were softer, a little more uncertain, but that resolve was still behind them. “I want to be worthy of your forgiveness, Remus. I want to be worthy of your friendship—” Remus felt his stomach give a strange, violent twist at those words, at the earnest determination on Sirius’s face. “—I don’t want to be the sort of person who hurts other people, not even arseholes like Snape, and certainly not the people I’m supposed to love.”

Remus could read the story of Sirius’s summer, of his life, in what he said and didn’t say right there. He wanted to protest, wanted to assure Sirius that he was nothing like his family. Sirius wouldn’t believe him though, the same way Remus never quite believed his friends when they insisted he wasn’t a monster. They had that in common, Remus realized sadly.

“All right,” Remus said instead. He nodded gravely, letting Sirius know he was taking everything he’d said seriously. “I can—I’ll let you know when I’m ready to hear your apology. Can we…can we still be friends until then?”

Even if Sirius was right and there was a part of Remus that wasn’t ready to forgive, Remus did miss him, and he couldn’t imagine things ever getting better if the two of them were constantly on edge with each other.

The laugh Sirius let out was not his normal booming, doglike bark. It was small and shaky. “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that?” He asked, only half teasing.

“Well, if it’s my decision, then yes, we’re definitely friends,” Remus said firmly.

Sirius sighed with relief and smiled, looking a bit more like his old self now. He leaned back on the warm, flat rock until he was braced on his elbows, staring out across the water at the willows on the far bank.

“Moony, if we’re friends again, there’s something I should tell you,” Sirius said. The somber, sharp look had crept back across his face. It was important, whatever he wanted to say. Remus leaned back until he was level with Sirius. Neither of them looked at the other, but Remus made it clear he was listening.

“I’m gay,” Sirius said, voice so quiet it was almost lost beneath the wind and the water and the buzz of insects.

Remus froze. The fourth thought that popped into Remus’s head was of Sirius’s panicked phone call, the fear that his parents might actually kill him.

“That’s why you ran away, isn’t it?”

Ignoring the question, Sirius fixed him with a look. “You’re all right with this?”

Remus nodded, not sure he trusted himself to speak, to not blurt out something stupid like “Me too, or halfway at least. I still like girls and their breasts and other bits, but I’ve realized I like boys and their bits too.” This moment wasn’t about him though, and, honestly, Remus just wasn’t ready to say those words out loud quite yet.

“Of course, I’m all right with it,” Remus finally managed to say.

Sirius sighed in relief and smiled. “Good…that’s good, and, yeah, my parents found out, and I definitely had to leave. There were other reasons too, but that was a big one.” He laid all the way back on the rock, pushing the sunglasses back down over his eyes.

Remus lay down beside him, glad to be able to fix his eyes on the clouds above him rather than his friend. His heart was suddenly hammering in his chest and he swallowed a lump in his throat. For a moment after Sirius’s confession, before he’d made the connection between it and his friend’s terrible flight into Muggle London, Remus had had three other thoughts.

Strangely, his first thought had been about Luke, his Muggle—well, boyfriend certainly wasn’t the right word for it, but never mind that. Luke had made almost the exact same confession to Remus earlier that summer, right before he’d kissed Remus.

His second thought had been to wonder if Sirius was about to kiss him too.

His third thought, before his brain went back to working properly had been that if Sirius had tried to kiss him, Remus might not have minded.

Those were stupid, terrible thoughts though. Really, they were ridiculous. Sirius was his friend, and things between them were already strained and complicated enough. Just because Sirius liked men didn’t automatically mean he liked Remus in that way.

“Do the Potters know?” Remus asked. It really wasn’t any of his business, but Remus couldn’t help but be curious. He still hadn’t gathered up the courage to tell his own parents he thought he was bisexual.

“Yeah,” Sirius said with a nod. “James has known for a while, but I told Monty and Effie a few days after I moved in. I don’t think I could have relaxed fully until I knew how they’d react. They were wonderful though, and—oh!” He sat up, suddenly grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “When we go back in you have to ask James about a book called Seas of Sorcery. Turns out before she met Monty, Effie actually dated this Portuguese witch for a while who wrote lesbian erotic novels. Effie says there’s a pirate queen who’s based off her.”

“You’re taking the piss!” Remus said, eyes wide and jaw slack. Maybe if he could gather up the courage to talk to anyone, James’s mother might be a good choice. A strange choice certainly, but it might be nice to talk to someone else who’d been romantically interested in men and women.

“I solemnly swear I’m not,” Sirius said. “James practically faints if you even mention it!”

Remus shook his head, still not sure what to make of this revelation. He supposed he was just glad Sirius had found people who accepted him.

“Thank you for not hanging up the telephone when I called, and for calling Lily for help,” Sirius said. He was clearly ready to change the subject, which Remus was thankful for.

“I spoke to Lily the other day, after she got back home from London,” Remus said, trying to keep his mind safely on track. “She claims you two are friends now. How the hell did that happen?”

“Oh, she didn’t tell you?” Sirius asked. He pillowed both hands behind his head. From his angle, Remus could just make out the edge of a smirk on his lips and a glint in Sirius’s grey eyes. “We foiled a sinister Death Eater plot together, hard not to be friends after that.”

Remus sat up in an instant, gawking down at his friend, who grinned cockily back. “You did not!”

As he told the story of his adventure with Lily, Sirius’s bravado wavered enough that Remus could tell he was more shaken by what had happened than he would ever admit. In a small corner of his brain, Remus debated taking his hand, purely for support. He resisted the urge though, instead wringing his own hands in his lap.

“You realize I’m going to have to fact check this story with Lily, right?” Remus said when Sirius had wound up the story of how he and Lily had stopped a magical fire, saved a Muggle woman, and defeated one of Sirius’s Death Eater relatives in combat.

Sirius shoved playfully at Remus’s shoulder. “Are you calling me a liar, Moony?”

Remus grinned and kicked a bit of water onto Sirius’s shins. “Never,” he said. “I’m just saying this wouldn’t be the first time you’ve embellished certain adventures.”

Gasping and pressing a hand to his chest with exaggerated, mock offense, Sirius couldn’t keep his lips from twitching into a grin. That lingering darkness had been chased back once again, for the moment at least.

Remus hadn’t realized how much he’d missed Sirius. Things between them were still insanely complicated. Remus really hadn’t forgiven Sirius for what had happened with Snape yet, and he would never be able to completely forget it, but the relief of having Sirius back in his life was indescribable. Maybe that wasn’t right or wasn’t healthy, or maybe it was, Remus wasn’t sure. He just knew that at that moment sitting next to the swimming hole with Sirius, he was happy.

“My honor demands satisfaction,” Sirius said, putting on his most over the top aristocratic accent. He pushed himself up onto his knees near the edge of the rock, and Remus just couldn’t resist. Grinning, he rolled to his own knees and shoved Sirius.

Eyes wide, Sirius toppled backward off the rock and into the water with a splash and a startled yelp. When he emerged a few seconds later, sputtering and flailing, Remus was laughing hard enough for tears to start leaking from the corners of his eyes.

“Oh, you’re going to pay for that, Moony!” Sirius shouted, splashing a spray of cold water up at Remus, who did his best to scramble back, still laughing. “Come down here and face me like a Marauder!”

Half an hour later, both dripping wet and grinning, Sirius and Remus made their way back into the house. James was still camped in the drawing room, scribbling notes into the already cramped margins of his homemade playbook. He heard his friends coming, their laughter and light banter, and he smiled, glad things were settling into a new sort of normal.

“Have a good talk, did you?” James asked without looking up.

“Oh yes, quite lovely,” Sirius said.

“Positively pleasant,” Remus added.

There was something about the way they spoke that made James freeze. He recognized those tones.

He tried diving to the side, but not even Quidditch-trained reflexes were enough to save him as Sirius upended a large bucket of cold water over his head.

Cursing and howling, James clambered straight over the back of his armchair to get at Sirius. Even though it had been his idea, Remus was spared a flying tackle. He dodged out of range of any thrashing limbs and collapsed onto the sofa, laughing while his friends wrestled across the rug.

Remus was glad to have this back, the laughter and the friendship. The rest, he was sure, would work itself out in time.

Chapter Text

The next time Lily saw Sirius Black he was standing with the Potters on Platform 9 ¾. A woman who must have been Mrs. Potter was trying in vain to finger-comb some small sense of order into James Potter’s unruly hair. She was more than a head shorter than her son, with dark brown skin, long black and grey hair pulled into an elegant bun, and the exact same nose as her son.

Sirius was laughing as his best friend tried to dodge his mother’s ministrations, finally hiding behind a pile of trunks and several bemused third years. Mrs. Potter turned her attention to Sirius then, not bothering with his hair, but clearly fussing over the Muggle clothes he was wearing. Sirius kept smiling. He even bent over a bit so she could tug his collar into place easier.

He looked well, Lily was relieved to see. Much better than he had that summer. He looked happy.

Realizing she was staring, Lily flushed and turned away, hoping no one had caught her or they’d probably try to unbury that damned rumor again. As they always did, her parents were watching the chaos of the Platform with a mix of excitement and bewilderment. Lily said her goodbyes to them, full of love and hugs and assurances that she would write regularly.

“Not at the expense of your studies though,” her father insisted. Once Lily had explained the O.W.L. grading system her parents had been extremely proud of their daughter’s exam results. Lily had been exceedingly pleased with herself as well.

As she boarded the train, Lily paused on the steps for a moment and looked back, scanning up and down the platform one last time. She knew it was stupid, but she hadn’t been able to shake the small hope that Petunia might show up to say goodbye. Hiding her disappointment behind a smile, Lily gave her parents one last wave and stepped inside the Hogwarts Express.

“Oi, Lily!” A voice called to her. She looked over to see Sirius standing at the far end of the car near the compartment he and his friends had been claiming for years. Potter was beside him, and she could see Pettigrew standing on his tiptoes to see over Sirius’s shoulder.

Lily found herself smiling and shoved her trunk out of the way so she could go back and say hello. She had boarded the very last car thinking she could make an initial sweep of the train on her way up front for the prefects’ meeting. That would be starting soon, but she could spare a minute to talk to Sirius. They’d sent a few letters back and forth since that weekend in London, but to her surprise, Lily had found herself missing the prat.

“See,” Sirius said in a stage whisper as he elbowed Potter in the ribs. “I told you she wouldn’t jinx me if I called her by her first name.”

Potter looked embarrassed and a bit cross at his friend. Lily decided she liked that look on him and smirked. She was willing to bet she could make it even better.

“Hello, Sirius, Peter,” she said, addressing the first two boys cheerily. Peter Pettigrew nearly jumped in surprise at being addressed by his first name. Lily had always lumped him together with Potter and Sirius in the past, but he wasn’t so bad. Really, he was pretty sweet most of the time.

“Potter,” Lily added, as if it was an afterthought. “Where’s Remus?” One of Sirius’s letters had informed her that the two had reconciled at least enough to be considered friends again. She was thankful for it, but she wanted to check in on Remus in person, knowing he could and would almost certainly leave out or downplay any lingering conflicts or concerns in his letters. It was always best to look Remus in the eye when asking if he was all right.

“He stashed his trunk then ran off to a prefect meeting. Speaking of, shouldn’t you be there too?” Sirius asked.

“Yes, but I have a few minutes to catch up,” Lily said. “How was the rest of your summer?”

“Oh, excellent,” Sirius said cheerfully, ignoring his glowering best friend. “There’s a Muggle village not too far from James’s parents’ house. They don’t have a record shop, but there’s a little secondhand shop that gets some interesting stuff in. I traded a few days of packing boxes and lifting heavy things for some clothes and a Rolling Stones album. Now all I need is a record player. I also got this!

This, was a black leather jacket he wore despite the early September heat. It had obviously been well-used before finding its way into Sirius’s possession, with scuffs and scratches and a missing metal snap on one of the pockets. It suited him though, Lily thought, as did the rest of the distinctly Muggle clothes he was wearing. The jeans were more fitted down the legs than the flared pair Aunt Violet had borrowed for him, and they were clearly used, a hole beginning to form over one knee. His boots were much the same, but it almost seemed intentional.

Yes, it all definitely suited Sirius. She rather pitied all the girls who were going to fall over themselves trying to get his attention. Perhaps she should also pity the boys who were also going to fall over themselves trying to get his attention.

“I like the jacket,” Lily said. “You picked that up at the same charity shop?”

Sirius grinned, Peter groaned, and for some reason, Potter flushed a deep crimson and looked intently at his shoes.

“No, that is a truly epic tale worthy of a ballad by Queen,” Sirius said proudly.

“Please don’t ask,” Peter begged.

Lily raised an eyebrow and shot Sirius a look like she wasn’t sure if she should be disapproving or amused. His broad grin made her lean toward the former.

“Lighten up, Wormtail,” Sirius scoffed. Potter was still being oddly quiet and subdued. “We had fun!”

You had fun,” Peter grumbled. “I still can’t show my face around half of Wimbourne.”

Still grinning, Sirius turned and wrapped an arm around his friend’s shoulders, using the other hand to ruffle his hair. “Maybe, but the other half the town thinks you’re brilliant!”

Peter tried to jerk out of Sirius’s grip, but the taller boy didn’t let go. Instead the two went staggering back into their compartment, already half wrestling.

Well, that was the end of that conversation, Lily supposed. She needed to get going anyway. The train was pulling away from the station now, and the prefects meeting would start in just a few minutes.

She turned to go as Sirius shrieked. “Dammit, Wormtail! Don’t pull my hair—it’s in a delicate growth stage!”

A light touch on her shoulder made her stop. “Evans, wait...please.” She turned back around and Potter quickly removed his hand from her sleeve. She’d almost forgotten he was there.

“Were you trying to bite me!” Peter yelled from inside the compartment. Potter used a foot to hook the compartment door closed just as Peter shouted. “Oh, you want to see who has the sharper teeth, Padfoot?” The rest of their words were muffled by the thick wood and glass.

And then she was standing alone in the corridor with James Potter.

For once, he didn’t look like an arrogant toerag. Traces of his previous embarrassment lingered, and he raised his hand to his hair, but he didn’t muss it up. Instead he scratched nervously at a spot just behind his ear. The motion knocked his glasses slightly askew.

“I wanted to say thank you,” he said quietly, almost uncertainly. “For what you did for Sirius this summer. He won’t shut up about a bunch of weird Muggle music now, but…” He swallowed and met her eyes. Lily was certain she could see unshed tears in his hazel eyes. “He’s my best friend and I wasn’t there to help him, but you did and that means a lot to me. So…thank you.”

Lily felt a bit of her years old distaste for him begin to soften just a little. James Potter was a lot of things, but among them he was certainly a good friend.

“It was no trouble,” Lily said.

He snorted and finally straightened his glasses as he raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Not if Sirius was telling the truth about everything that happened.”

She winced. “All right, there was definitely trouble, but I’m glad I was there and that I could help…How is he?”

Potter glanced back at the compartment. They could still hear Sirius and Peter tussling within.

“Most of the time he seems like he’s all right. There’s still…I don’t think he’s told me everything that happened before he left. Merlin, I’m not sure I even want to know, but…he’s safe now. Pretty sure my parents already love him more than they love me, so he’s home now.”

“Good,” Lily said firmly. “I’m glad.”

His face brightened and he broke into a smile that was honestly a little goofy. “So, Evans, now that you’re friends with all of my friends—”

Lily could see exactly where he was going with this and rolled her eyes, already turning away from him.

She nearly collided with a boy who’d managed to sneak up on both of them. For half a second, her mind registered Sirius. Then she noticed the differences. He was slighter, shorter, and not quite as handsome as his older brother, despite their similar coloring and features.

“Regulus.”

Lily had never heard that horrid, icy tone in Potter’s voice before. Not even when he’d tormented Severus. Potter stepped around her, putting himself between Lily and Regulus Black, and, more importantly, between Regulus and Sirius.

“Potter,” Regulus replied just as coldly. He didn’t even deign to acknowledge Lily. The horrid little git. She remembered everything Sirius had said about his little brother’s role in his flight from their family.

“I need to speak to Sirius,” Regulus said, practically making it an order. If he expected either Lily or Potter to suddenly turn house elf and fetch his brother for him, Regulus was going to be sorely disappointed. Perhaps violently disappointed.

“No, what you need is to get out of my sight, right now,” Potter snarled. Lily tensed. He’d drawn his wand. Not knowing what else to do, she reached out and grabbed hold of Potter’s wrist. There would be all sorts of trouble if he hexed Regulus in the train corridor, especially considering the shiny new prefect’s badge pinned to the Slytherin’s robes. Potter barely seemed to notice her grip though, and Regulus continued to pretend she wasn’t there at all.

“It’s important that I speak to my brother,” Regulus repeated imperiously.

“You don’t get to call him that anymore!” Potter snapped. “You lost the right the moment you opened your stupid mouth and told your parents about him.”

For just an instant Lily saw regret flash across Regulus’s face. “The worst part is he thought he was bloody helping me,” Sirius had told her.

“He’s my brother now,” Potter said. If he noticed Regulus’s moment of shame and sorrow, he chose to ignore it. “I won’t let you or anyone else hurt him again, so you can run back to your hag of a mother and your dragon of a father and—”

“James, it’s all right.” They all turned to see Sirius standing in the open doorway of the compartment. Peter stood just behind him, wringing his hands anxiously but glaring at Regulus all the same. Sirius lifted stony grey eyes, just a few shades darker than his brother’s. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Alone,” Regulus added. “We need to speak privately.”

“You don’t have to, Padfoot,” Potter said, fury still searing his words.

“I know,” Sirius said. He jerked his head toward the compartment. Peter scampered out as Regulus brushed past Lily and Potter, following his older brother inside. Sirius shut the door behind them.

Instantly, Potter began to pace. His wand was still clenched in his hand as he stormed halfway down the train car and back, over and over again. A few students who opened the door to look for carriages quickly changed their minds and scurried away. Lily knew she should probably do something, tell him to sit down or…or something.

“Don’t you have to get to your prefects’ meeting?” Peter asked. He’d moved to stand next to Lily, keeping one eye on James and the other back on the compartment door.

From where they were standing Lily and Peter could just see Sirius. No sound came from within the compartment, likely the result of a silencing spell. Although, if the two brothers were discussing anything, Regulus must have been doing all the talking, because Sirius sat rigid and grim, his lips never moving.

“It can wait,” Lily said.

It wasn’t a long conversation. Not even five minutes later, the compartment door opened and Regulus strode out, head held high but looking distinctly unhappy. He paid no attention to any of them, sweeping past Lily, Peter, and Potter without so much as a word or glance. For a moment, Lily worried Potter might shoot a hex at his retreating back. She even considered letting him get away with something minor like a tripping jinx.

In the end, Potter chose to go to Sirius rather than take vengeance on Regulus. He spun away from the younger Black brother and hurried back into their compartment with Peter right on his heels. The prefects’ meeting could wait another minute or two Lily decided. She wanted to make sure Sirius was all right, and ensure his friends didn’t plot some sort of nasty revenge if he wasn’t.

They found Sirius sitting next to the window, watching the suburbs of Outer London speed by. Potter immediately sat next to his best friend—his brother. Peter sat across from Sirius, and Lily slid in beside him.

“Are you all right, Padfoot?” Peter asked, getting to the question before either Lily or Potter could ask it.

Sirius turned away from the window, a very fake smile on his lips. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. His voice was so tight the words barely came out.

“Liar,” Potter said. His tone was falsely bright, and he had on a smile that matched Sirius’s perfectly. He was trying to keep the accusation light, but was failing miserably at it.

Sirius shrugged, and Lily felt her own anger boil up suddenly. This was the Sirius she’d seen that summer, trying so hard to put on a brave, cheerful face to hide a world of pain.

“Dammit, I swear to Merlin I’ll hex him myself if he did anything to you,” Lily snarled. All three boys turned to her in shock. It succeeded in startling a laugh out of Sirius though.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but there’s no need, Lily,” Sirius said, shaking his head. “Regulus was just playing owl and delivering a message. It’s official: I’ve been disowned. Burned off the tapestry and written out of the will. My name shall live in infamy and disgrace within the decaying walls of the family manor, spoken only as a curse or a dire warning to future generations of inbred little twits not to snog boys or befriend Muggleborns.”

Potter snorted. “Now you’re just being dramatic.” Sirius shot them a grin and a wink that didn’t quite hide the pain in his eyes.

“You sort of figured that would happen though, didn’t you?” Peter asked. Potter kicked him in the shin at the same moment Lily elbowed him in the side. Peter yelped and glowered at the two of them in turn. It made Sirius’s smile a little more genuine though.

“Yeah, I did.” There was still something he wasn’t telling them though. Potter must have sensed it too.

“Was that all the little twat had to say?” He asked.

Sirius’s smile flickered and died as he sighed. “They want me to keep quiet about the whole ‘I like blokes’ thing. Reg says that dear old Mummy and Daddy are already spinning some story about how they threw me out for being a wretched blood traitor. I guess they don’t want the added embarrassment of everyone knowing I’m a wretched gay blood traitor.”

“They can’t make you stay quiet,” Lily snapped. “You’re seventeen in two months. They can’t control anything you say or do after you’re of age!”

“No, but they can still make me regret it,” Sirius said. He sighed, reaching his hands up to tug them through his hair. It was just long enough to be effective again, and the action seemed to steady him a bit.

“They can’t—” Potter started.

“They can,” Sirius corrected bitterly. “They can do all sorts of horrible little things to me…or to anyone I might get involved with. They’re rich and well-connected enough to get away anything short of throwing curses in the middle of Diagon Alley in broad daylight. Fuck, even then they’d probably get off the hook with a generous ‘donation’ to the right people or causes at the Ministry. But, Regulus says if I keep my ‘proclivities’ quiet, they’ll leave me alone. Sort of a truce, I suppose.”

“That’s not fair,” Peter said. He sounded almost childishly frustrated by the injustice. Lily hated that she felt the same. It wasn’t fair, not at all.

She reached across the compartment and took one of the hands curled into fists across Sirius’s thighs just as Potter squeezed his shoulder. For his part, Peter dug a package of licorice wands out of his pocket and offered them to Sirius.

“We can figure something out,” Potter said. Lily and Peter both nodded their agreement.

Sirius shook his head though and forced the smile back onto his face as he took one of Peter’s licorice wands. “It’s not like I was going to have Dumbledore add my coming out to the start of term announcements tonight. All the people who matter already know, so…I agreed.” He shrugged.

Lily looked around the compartment and found her frown mirrored by both of Sirius’s friends. It was disturbing to see Sirius not fight something like this.

He hadn’t agreed for his own sake, Lily realized. If it was only Sirius himself that his parents were threatening, Lily would bet her wand hand Sirius would have told Regulus exactly where their horrible parents could shove this “truce” of theirs. However, Sirius had said they wouldn’t just come after him. They might try and hurt anyone Sirius attached himself to, any boyfriends or lovers he went public with.

There was still something missing from the equation though, Lily suspected. Their friendship was still new, but Lily had already come to realize that Sirius loved deeply and fiercely and with his whole heart. That was easy enough to see in the way he talked about his friends, the depth of his despair over having endangered James and hurt Remus, and even his willingness to put himself physically between her and Rabastan. However, she’d also come to realize that Sirius didn’t deal well with abstracts.

Maybe she was wrong, maybe she still didn’t know him well enough to judge, but Lily didn’t think Sirius would surrender to his parents’ demands to protect just the idea of some future boyfriend who might be at risk. He was too impulsive to really focus on the “what ifs” of a bargain like that. Again, maybe she was wrong, but…

Lily gave Sirius another calculating look. He was looking out the window again, watching the last stretches of Greater London give way to countryside. Under his breath he was humming the chorus of Somebody to Love as he nibbled on his licorice wand. Was it possible Sirius was already protecting someone else?

From the corner of her eye, Lily caught James Potter watching Sirius with a look on his face she was pretty sure matched her own curious expression. Well, if Sirius was hiding something he was obviously hiding it from his best friend as well. Potter caught her eye and raised an eyebrow in a way that was more questioning than his usual suggestive glance. “Do you know anything about this?” His look seemed to ask. Lily gave a small shake of her head, and Potter shrugged. He didn’t know anything either then.

“I should go,” Lily said. She gave Sirius’s hand one last squeeze before standing. “I’m already late for my prefects’ meeting.”

Sirius looked away from the window. “Hey, Lily? Don’t tell Remus about any of this stuff with Regulus, yeah? He’s already angry enough at the little git—”

“Pretty sure we all are,” Potter interjected.

“Yeah, but I don’t want Remus glaring at him for the whole prefects meeting. It’ll just make things worse.”

Lily stopped, considering the words Sirius had just said. Could it be?

Almost instinctively, she looked to Potter, only to find his hazel eyes already turning toward her. Once again, they seemed to share an unspoken question. Lily wasn’t entirely sure what that question was yet, but it was beginning to form in the back of her brain, like a potion set to simmer. Whatever the answer, that same potion seemed to be bubbling in the back of Potter’s mind as well.

“Good thinking,” Peter said to Sirius with a nod. “When he’s pissed off, Moony can practically set fire to someone with a look.” All three boys shuddered in a way that said they’d been on the receiving end of a rare but terrifying instance when Remus had truly lost his temper. Sirius’s grimace was easily the most pronounced.

That was enough to break the spell of both her silent communication with Potter and her musings on Sirius’s love life. She really was going to be embarrassingly late to this meeting. There was another quick round of goodbyes, and Potter was so preoccupied by Sirius’s distress that he didn’t even try to flirt with her. He only wished her good luck and told her to blame her tardiness on some clueless first years in need of assistance.

When she reached the right car, the meeting was already well underway, and the new head boy and girl both glared at her reproachfully. Lily murmured apologies and felt a little guilty as she used Potter’s suggestion as her excuse. Remus had saved her a seat, and Lily was glad for it. She was also glad that by some coincidence it was several seats away from and behind Regulus, so Lily could only see the back of his head.

“Where were you really?” Remus whispered when the head boy had resumed a lecture about patrol schedules.

Lily turned toward him to answer, only to clap a hand over her mouth to keep from gasping. There was a shiny metal safety pin dangling from one of Remus’s ears.

“What the hell happened to you?” Lily asked, a hair too loudly. She drew looks from several people around her, which made Remus shrink into his seat, shoulders drawing up toward his ears, the pierced one included.

When everyone’s attention finally drifted back to the head boy, Remus reached up and gingerly touched the safety pin. “There was alcohol and I sort of lost a bet and Sirius said it was punk rock, and…” He sighed quietly and tried futilely to tug his short curls down in front of his ear. “Just don’t ask.”

Lily arched an eyebrow, wondering if this was the same incident Peter had told her not to ask about, the one where Sirius had somehow got himself a leather jacket. She was definitely going to ask. Not now, but soon, and if Remus wouldn’t tell her the story behind all of this, Sirius certainly would. She smiled at the thought.

This friendship might work out in more ways than she’d thought. Lily had been friends with Remus for years, but becoming friends with Sirius, and possibly Peter as well could give her enough leverage to finally rein in their little group.

Only when needed, of course. Lily was beginning to appreciate the power of a good prank every now and again. Her smile took on a slight edge as, below the table, she waved her wand and cast a spell.

When the prefects’ meeting ended, Regulus Black was going to, rather embarrassingly, find his trousers were now stuck fast to his chair.

Chapter Text

Sirius did his level best to forget his conversation with Regulus and be happy through the welcome feast. For the most part, he even succeeded. He knew it would come back to torment and haunt him, but for now he cheered loudly for every new first year the Sorting Hat sent over to Gryffindor, sang enthusiastically and painfully offkey to the school song, and stuffed himself to bursting with food while smiling and laughing with his friends and housemates.

There were moments though when he felt the cracks in his own cheerful façade. Everything felt treacherously fragile in those moments. His breath caught in his throat, and for a few seconds, Sirius would worry that everything around him might shatter and he would find himself back in Grimmauld Place again, the latter half of his summer having been only a sweet dream.

It happened when he caught sight of Regulus over at the Slytherin table, and again when he accidentally locked eyes with Patrick Sutcliffe, who went pale and looked away quickly. It even happened once when Sirius looked over at Remus and saw him frowning, brow furrowed.

Mostly though, he was able to shove those feelings back down after a few moments. Then he could suck in a breath and smile again, jumping back into whatever conversation was happening around him. However, a tinge of melancholy settled more firmly over him as the feast ended and crowds of chattering and yawning students began to head for their dorms.

Sirius felt himself slowing, drifting away from James and Peter as they headed out of the Great Hall. They were deep into the weeds talking Quidditch tactics with a few other members of the Gryffindor house team, and Sirius felt like an interloper listening in.

He’d been kicked off the team at the end of last year. That had been part of his punishment, along with the letter home to his parents, his own guilty conscience, and many, many hours of detention. Sirius had never been as Quidditch obsessed as James, and he’d only really joined the team because of James, but losing it still hurt, even if he knew his ban was well-deserved.

If he’d said something, James would have changed the subject in an instant, but Sirius didn’t want to take Quidditch away from James, not even in the smallest way. So, he slowed his pace just a bit until James, Peter, and the others were swallowed by the crowds ahead.

Sirius had caught a glimpse of Remus and Lily at the back of the mob. They were doing their prefectly duties running herd on their fellow Gryffindors. Making sure no first years were left behind and that none of the older students were sneaking off to cause mischief so early in the school year. Sirius elbowed his way out of the flow of students and found a place near the double doors where he could wait for Remus and Lily. They, at the very least, wouldn’t be talking about finding a new beater to fill Sirius’s vacant spot on the Gryffindor house team.

Remus smiled and raised a hand in greeting when he spotted Sirius, but Lily glowered at him. Instinctively, Sirius did a quick mental review of everything he’d done between when she’d left for her prefects’ meeting on the train and now. He didn’t think he’d done anything in those few hours that might have invoked Lily’s ire, but he wasn’t entirely sure.

She jabbed an accusing finger at him anyway. “I thought you said you were going to have a talk with Potter about pestering me?” She snapped.

Oh, that made more sense. Sirius let himself relax a bit as he shared a look with Remus, half-amused and half-longsuffering. If Sirius had found a downside to becoming Lily’s friend, it was the drama between her and James. Things had been so much simpler when he only had to sympathize with James’s plight.

Working together, Sirius and Remus, had sat James down for a conversation about how his pursuit was doing the opposite of winning Lily over. At the time it had seemed like he’d gotten the point. There had even been that Muggle girl he’d snogged at the party in Wimbourne over the summer. Sirius had honestly thought James might be moving on, then he’d transfigured all the roast potatoes along the Gryffindor table into red roses during the feast tonight.

“At least it wasn’t lilies,” Sirius said. He could see one corner of Remus’s mouth twitch and his nostrils flare as he tried not to laugh. James’s gesture hadn’t been accompanied by a verbal declaration of love or an invitation to Hogsmeade, so he was technically adhering to the letter of their agreement, if not its spirit.

“I would have thought,” Lily continued grumbling as they walked across the entrance hall, “that helping you out this summer might have bought me at least a little relief from Potter’s ridiculous attempts at flirtation—but no! Did you notice that a second year had already a potato on his fork when Potter cast that stupid spell? He didn’t look down and bit right into a rose. What if there had been thorns?”

Early on in Lily’s rant, Sirius and Remus had locked eyes. They both managed to keep straight faces until she got to the bit about thorns. Then they couldn’t stop themselves. The two boys burst out laughing.

Sirius was so overcome he had to wipe at tears while gasping for air. His melancholy was swept away by how badly Lily had misjudged things. Remus was no better off. He was shaking and nearly doubled over with laughter. Even as Lily’s murderous intent seemed to swing in their direction, it was impossible for either boy to stop laughing.

Remus finally recovered enough to stand up straight and force a look of sympathy, though the corners of his mouth kept twitching uncontrollably as he fought not to smile.

“Oh, Lily,” Remus said with a pitying shake of his head. “You’ve made a grave miscalculation.”

Sirius had to bite his own thumb to keep from roaring with laughter again as some of Lily’s fury gave way to confusion.

“What he means, Lily,” said Sirius, turning a chortle into a cough. “Is that you pretty much saved my arse this summer, and for James, that’s important. His friends are really important. In fact—with the possible exception of playing Quidditch topless on a broomstick made entirely of millionaire shortbread—I don’t think there’s anything you could have done that would make you more attractive to him.”

Lily’s face flushed an even darker shade of scarlet, but it wasn’t from anger any longer. She looked confused, embarrassed, and almost…contemplative, Sirius thought. Then her brow furrowed and her attention turned back to Sirius. She leaned closer and dropped her voice even though they were alone in the entrance hall now.

“That Quidditch comment was a bit specific for someone who fancies blokes,” Lily said suspiciously.

Sirius flashed her a grin so wide it threatened to split his face in two as Remus turned his head away, suffering another sudden coughing fit. “James might have this little habit of talking in his sleep and he might—”

Sirius was cut off by a yelp as Lily was suddenly yanked away from them. He and Remus both whirled, wands out. Flashes of that bookshop, of Rabastan, of flying curses and fire all tore through Sirius’s mind in an instant. Lily was far from helpless though. She’d already jerked her arm back and whirled on the shadowy figure who’d grabbed her in the first place.

“What the hell, Severus?” Lily snapped. She didn’t pull her wand out, but she settled her hands on her hips and glared at Snape as he stepped out of the shadows. He did have his wand out and raised. It was pointed past Lily, directly at Sirius.

Fury rose like bile up Sirius’s throat. Every instinct told him to hurry, to throw the first spell, because this could only end in a fight. Sirius wanted to do it. He wanted to see Snape sprawled on the floor, bats erupting from his nose or boils bubbling up from his skin.

He caught himself, a jinx on the tip of his tongue. Biting down on his tongue until he tasted blood, Sirius felt shame rush through him, hot and cold at the same time. He’d promised. He’d promised Lily and James and Remus and even himself. He was supposed to do better, be better.

It had seemed like an easy thing to promise at the time, safe with Lily’s family or the Potters, far from anyone he actually wanted to hex or hurt. Now, it felt like every muscle in his body was rebelling as Sirius slowly lowered his wand.

This was a terrible idea. He was leaving himself open and vulnerable to an enemy, to someone who wanted to hurt him. Sirius’s instincts screamed, but he wrestled them back down. For Remus, for Lily, for James, even for Peter, maybe even for his own sake.

“I’m only trying to protect you, Lily,” Snape said. His voice had taken on an oily, cajoling tone, but Sirius could hear the bitter hiss of fury beneath it. He could see loathing in Snape’s black eyes. He didn’t lower his wand. “You’re currently keeping company with attempted murderers,” Snape said. He held his free hand out to Lily with a hint of a smug smile like he expected her to eagerly take it with that revelation.

Remus shuddered and his wand arm dropped as he looked away. If Sirius’s instincts were screaming about leaving himself defenseless, Remus’s must have been too. The difference was, he would accept any attacks by Snape as justified. That simply wouldn’t do. Sirius would not let Remus suffer any more than he already had for something that was all Sirius’s fault.

Snape’s brow furrowed when Lily didn’t take his hand and turn on Remus and Sirius as well. “Lily, do you have any idea what these two are capable of? What they tried to do to me?”

Sirius wasn’t used to controlling his temper. It felt like he was trying to force a hurricane into a jar and stopper it shut. He expected the glass to crack or the cork to shoot free at any moment, releasing the storm inside him to tear everything apart.

Before it could, Sirius sucked in a deep breath and did one of the most difficult things in his life. “I’m sorry, Snape,” Sirius said.

For a moment, you could have heard a pin drop or a ghost breathe. Sirius could feel three sets of eyes on him, all of them wide with shock.

Sirius didn’t feel any better for having apologized. All that rubbish about the healing power of confession and contrition was exactly that, rubbish. There was no weight off his shoulders or feeling of relief. Sirius was still angry; the storm was still barely contained in its jar.

If Sirius was being completely honest, he wasn’t really apologizing to Snape. He would never give a damn what Snape thought of him, and he didn’t want to befriend or even tolerate with the slimy git. Sirius was apologizing because he owed it to his friends, because they deserved a better friend than he had been. Perhaps that was wrong or selfish, but it was the best he could manage. Maybe he wasn’t a good person, maybe he never would be, but Sirius was determined to be a good friend.

“I never meant for you to die or even get hurt,” Sirius forced himself to say. His intentions weren’t worth much, he was sure, especially in Snape’s eyes, but it was the truth. “It was still a stupid thing for me to do and I—”

Snape cut him off with a dramatic scoff. “As if I’d believe a word you say, Black,” he sneered. “Your apologies are worth as much as you are now that your family tossed you out.”

That stung. Sirius hadn’t expected it to. Why should he give a damn about being disowned or burned off the bloody family tapestry? He was better off with the Potters, away from his monstrous parents. And yet…

He winced. Snape saw it, and he smiled, twisting the knife he’d just used to crack through Sirius’s armor.

“Did he tell you he was thrown out by his own family, Lily?” Snape asked. “Not even his own parents want a monster like this for a son—”

“That’s enough, Severus!” Lily said. “Stop it now! I know everything I need to know about what happened between you and Sirius.”

The curl of Snape’s lip practically dripped with condescension. Sirius had a moment to wonder if Snape had always misjudged Lily or if she had been the one who’d changed and grown since the days when they’d been fast friends. Sirius himself was still getting to know her, but even he knew enough to see how well that was going to go over. Lily did not like to be underestimated or spoken down to.

“I can guarantee you don’t know everything, Lily,” Snape said. “I’m sure Black, Potter, and their pet have fed you some sweet little fairytale where they did nothing wrong, where they’re innocent. It’s a lie though; they conspired to murder me, Lily! Black tried to feed me to his beast!”

Sirius could feel a crack in the glass. His fury was leaking through. It was going to escape. He might have stood a chance if Snape had stuck to insulting him and him alone—though even that was iffy at best—but Remus didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to be reminded of the terrible role he’d almost played in Sirius’s great mistake.

“It wasn’t Remus’s fault,” Sirius snapped. “He didn’t know—he had nothing to do with what I did. If you’re going to blame someone, Snape, blame me. Only me.”

They were all looking at him again, Snape with hate, genuine hate, in his eyes. Sirius couldn’t see what Remus and Lily might be thinking. He couldn’t take his eyes away from Snape to spare either of them a glance. That would be more dangerous than turning his back on a viper.

Snape’s wand tip rose a bit, moving from Sirius’s chest to take aim at his head.

He might actually do it, Sirius realized. Snape might actually curse him, and if he did, it wasn’t going to be something embarrassing but ultimately harmless.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!” Lily snapped. She deliberately stepped between Sirius and Snape. Sirius made a sound of protest, but Snape lowered his wand quickly. He didn’t put it away, but then, neither had Sirius.

“Severus, I know what Sirius did to you, and it was wrong. It was stupid and terrible and cruel.” Lily threw a stern glance over her shoulder as she said it. Sirius nodded, accepting her condemnation when their eyes met.

He disliked Snape. A terrible part of him wanted to see Snape humiliated, and an even worse part of him wanted to see Snape hurt and scared. Not in the way he’d almost accomplished it though. Sirius was genuinely sorry for that.

“I don’t blame you for being angry, but you weren’t completely blameless either, Sev,” Lily said, turning back on Snape. “You’ve been hinting at your suspicions about Remus for years. You knew the moon was full. You had to know what you were going to find when Sirius told you how to get past the Whomping Willow. What were your intentions, Severus? Were you hoping to hurt someone for a condition he can’t control, for something that’s not his fault? Something I’d say is just like blood status.”

Remus was wilting. He wanted to run away or hide or, better yet, sink straight into the stone floor. Sirius could tell when he spared a glance for his friend. He wanted to reach out, to comfort or shield Remus from Snape’s cruel words, from the way Lily was unintentionally talking about him like he wasn’t standing half a step away from her, and from the painful reminders of Sirius’s own callous actions. He doubted Remus would welcome his touch though. Not when he already looked like he wanted to throw himself off the astronomy tower.

The fury and accompanying urge to hurt Snape for starting this confrontation made Sirius’s hands shake.

“So, you can forgive Black for attempted murder but I’m forever going to be punished for a slip of the tongue?” He didn’t sound hurt so much as angry, jealous even.

“Don’t! Don’t you dare,” Lily said, low and furious as she poked a finger at Snape. “We’ve already had this conversation. I forgave you for that. You know what it is I can’t forgive, and it’s not some stupid little insult. Sirius fucked up and, yes, it was worse than anything you’ve done, Sev, but he just apologized to you. He’s trying to change, to do better, are you?”

Shame for all the anger and violence he was only just containing made Sirius squirm. He didn’t feel better, he didn’t feel good, but he was trying. He was fighting his instincts, trying to keep the storm contained, trying to keep that mean and evil dog on a chain.

Snape bared his teeth like a wild animal. “Black is not better than me,” he said from between clenched molars, “and you’re a fool if you think he can ever be anything more than a murderous bully.”

Lily looked between the two of them, Sirius and Snape. She leveled the same stern, judgmental glare at both of them. Then she shrugged. “I suppose we’ll see.”

With that, she whirled away and headed for the grand staircase. Remus followed on her heels, but Sirius hesitated just a moment more. His eyes locked with Snape’s, fury and loathing seething within both of them. No, there would never be any peace or a truce here. Sirius was already at his limits. He wouldn’t be able to keep his promises forever. He was going to snap, and he was going to lash out at Snape. It was inevitable for both of them.

Not tonight though.

Sirius could hold on longer than one night. He could, at the very least, be better than that.

He turned away to follow Lily and Remus toward their dorms.

He made it up all of three steps when the hex hit him in the back. Sirius fell forward even as his feet slipped out from beneath him. He managed to get an arm up in time to keep from hitting the stairs face first, but pain flashed through his forearm, ankle, and hip as he tumbled back down the stone steps.

“Sirius!” Remus called name as he and Lily rushed down to Sirius’s side. Remus helped him off the ground as Lily stormed up to Snape. Her cheeks were redder than her hair and she was almost glowing with anger.

“Twenty-five points from Slytherin for attacking a fellow student in the halls!” Lily shouted.

Snape didn’t seem to care about the points he’d just lost though. He wasn’t even looking at Lily. He was staring past her at Sirius. A mocking smile curved his thin lips up.

So, that was his game then. It was one they’d played before, Sirius and James against Snape and his friends. One of them said something or sent a small hex at the other side as a provocation, an invitation to fight. Snape was trying to goad him right now. He wanted Sirius to lose his temper and show Lily and Remus that he wasn’t a changed man, that he was still the same violent bully he’d been just last spring.

Maybe he was right. However, despite his temper flaring, Sirius was also exceptionally stubborn. Once he’d guessed at Snape’s game, it was fairly easy to stand straight, take a moment to tug his robes back into place, and shoot Snape a supercilious glower. Then he defiantly turned his back on Snape again, and began marching up the stairs.

“Go to your dormitory right now, Snape, or I’ll be forced to report you to your head of house.” Sirius could hear Lily issuing orders, but he didn’t turn back around. Not until Snape struck again, straight at Sirius’s heart this time.

“Of course,” Snape said slickly. “I have quite the story to tell to all my housemates, after all. They deserve to know about the beast hiding in Gryffindor Tower. The werewo—oof!”

Sirius whirled around then, grabbing for his wand. Snape was already on the ground though, clutching at his enormous nose. Remus stood over him. His wand was nowhere in sight, but his hands were clenched into fists.

Blood trickled from between Snape’s fingers. Sirius couldn’t breathe. He didn’t think he’d ever seen anything so stunning as Remus standing angry, defiant, and triumphant, glaring down at Snape. It was glorious, but he felt panic set in a second later and began to rush back down the stairs.

“Damn it, Remus!” Lily snapped. “Twenty-five points from—”

“You’ll regret that, monster!” Snape hissed, interrupting Lily. “I’ll tell everyone what you are! They’ll throw you out of Hogwarts, put you down like the rabid animal you are.”

“Go on then,” Remus replied. He sounded perfectly calm, absolutely icy. It made Sirius shiver. This was Remus at his angriest, his most terrifying. Even Lily and Snape seemed to sense it. Lily drew back a step and Snape instinctively shrank away. “I’d rather be expelled than spend two ears with you gloating and holding it over my head, hissing threats in my ears, and blackmailing my friends. If you’re going to do it, then just fucking do it already.”

If Snape could have cast a killing curse silently and wandlessly, Remus would have crumpled before them all in a flash of green light. He remained standing though, and Snape fumed silently, impotently, on the floor before him.

Sirius couldn’t understand what could possibly keep Snape silent, but he suspected Dumbledore was behind it. Perhaps they’d made a deal or maybe there were threats involved. Whatever it was, Snape seemed to fear Dumbledore even more than he hated Remus or Sirius.

“That’s what I thought,” Remus said coldly. This time, it was his turn to whirl about and storm away from Snape. Remus passed both Lily and Sirius without a word. Sirius wanted to chase after him, but he didn’t want to leave Lily alone with a dangerously incensed Snape.

She was lingering at the bottom of the stairs, one hand rubbing at her temple like she had a headache. Sirius thought he heard her mutter something about “fragile male egos,” but she sighed and took a step toward Snape. Lily extended a hand to help him up, but Snape ignored it as he picked himself up off the floor with as much dignity as he could muster.

“Please, Sev, it doesn’t have to be like this,” Lily said quietly. Sirius didn’t think she meant for him to hear her, but sound carried in the cavernous entrance hall. “I still care about you. I want to be your friend; I’ll always want to be your friend. We can start over…”

She reached for him again, but Snape shied away from her outstretched hand like it might burn him. He looked her over before his eyes swept up the staircase, landing on Sirius, who stood statue still, not wanting to interfere, but not willing to leave Lily either. Snape wiped the blood away from his nose with the back of his sleeve and raised his chin until he could look down at Lily.

“It would seem you have new friends now,” Snape said with clear disgust.

Lily cocked her head, her attention caught by something behind Snape. Sirius followed her gaze to the stairs leading down toward the dungeons. Three figures stood lurking in the shadows near the top of the stairs. Sirius’s heart clenched as he recognized Mulciber, Avery…and Regulus.

They seemed to have just arrived on the scene. Mulciber and Avery were tensed and scowling, ready to charge into battle, their wands drawn. Regulus hung a step behind them. He looked conflicted, almost nauseous, but he had his wand in hand as well.

“It looks like you have new friends too,” Lily said sadly. Snape looked over his shoulder and in an instant, his posture went ramrod straight. Any last hint of affection or friendship he might have felt for Lily seemed to be brushed aside. He turned his back on her and marched away toward the stairs. Lily waited until all four Slytherins had slunk back out of sight before she sighed, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Don’t say a word,” Lily snapped at Sirius as she climbed up the stairs. She jabbed a finger at him. “I’m furious with you—with all of you—right now.”

Sirius just nodded. He thought he’d handled everything as well as he was ever going to manage, but he knew how irrational anger could make a person. If it made Lily feel better to be angry with him, well, he probably deserved it for something.

They found Remus waiting for them outside the entrance to Gryffindor Tower. He was crouched down, his back pressed against the stone wall, his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said when they approached. “That was very stupid of me.”

“I thought it was fantastic,” Sirius said, grinning as he pulled Remus back to his feet. “You’ve got a good left hook, Moony.”

Remus favored him with a thin smile. Lily rolled her eyes at both of them and snapped the password to the Fat Lady.

“You’re all impossible,” she said. “I’m going up to my dorm, where my friends with common sense live.”

“See you at breakfast!” Sirius called after her. Lily flipped a rude gesture at him over her shoulder, but she didn’t contradict him.

Remus gave a snort of laughter. “Merlin, the two of you as friends…that’s a bloody bomb just waiting to go off.”

Sirius grinned. “Thrilling, isn’t it?”

Remus shook his head, but it was undermined by his lingering smile. “Let’s get upstairs. No more explosions tonight, Padfoot.” He started for the stairs, Sirius following behind him.

They were almost outside their dorm room when Remus stopped and turned back toward Sirius. He looked nervous, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, his fingers fidgeting with his robes. Sirius wanted to reach out and sooth whatever was worrying him. He wanted to take Remus’s hands in his own and still them.

“I’m ready,” Remus said.

Sirius’s brow furrowed in confusion and he raised an eyebrow, not following his friend’s train of thought. “For what?”

“I’m ready for you to apologize,” Remus said. He swallowed. “I’m ready to forgive you.”

Sirius froze. He stopped breathing. Even his heart felt like it stopped beating. This was what he wanted most in the world, Sirius realized. This was what he’d wanted all summer, what he’d waited for and worked for. Remus was offering his forgiveness for all the wrong Sirius had done to him.

He shook his head, looking down, away from Remus. “Moony, no…” he said.

Every word hurt to say, but he couldn’t accept this, no matter how much he wanted it. Remus was basing his forgiveness on a false pretense, and that wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.

“You don’t know how close I came to hexing Snape tonight,” Sirius admitted. “I was so angry and I don’t know if I’ll be able to control it next time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to control it.”

Remus laughed. Sirius looked up at him only to find Remus smiling, though his eyes were full of self-recrimination. “I know that, Sirius,” he said. “Snape is always going to be a trigger, for all of us, seeing how I was the one who punched him tonight.” His smile lightened a bit, turning wry. “I don’t expect you to be perfect, Sirius; no one is. All I want is to feel like I’m safe with you. I want to trust you again…and I do.”

Sirius felt himself smile. He felt like he could breathe freely for the first time in months. He almost felt dizzy from the sudden rush of oxygen and Remus’s forgiveness.

Remus waved a hand at him with a smirk. “Well, get on with it then. Apologize to me.”

He said it flippantly. He’d already granted his forgiveness. The rest was just for show. Sirius had never passed up a chance to show off though.

He dropped to one knee on the stairs, taking one of Remus’s hands in both of his. He had to crane his head back to stare up at Remus, whose eyes had gone wide, a flush rising up his cheeks and ears. Sirius had meant it to be a joking gesture, but once he was down on his knee, he found himself feeling earnest.

“Remus Lupin, I’m sorry,” he said with utmost solemnity and sincerity. “I’ll never betray your trust again. I swear it on my life, on everything that I have and everything I am.”

Above him, Remus’s cheeks were still turning red. He tugged insistently at the hand Sirius held. “Get up, you great idiot! You look like you’re proposing marriage!”

Sirius let Remus pull him back to his feet.

“You’re utterly impossible,” Remus said, “but I forgive you, Sirius.”

Sirius drew in a deep breath. Why did it feel like he’d just been given the greatest gift in his life? He was standing a step below Remus, so he still had to tilt his head back to look up at him. He found himself caught in those familiar amber brown eyes. Remus stared right back at him. He seemed almost as enthralled as Sirius.

Time seemed to stretch out as something Sirius couldn’t name or even begin to define spiraled out of control within his chest. It felt like another storm within him, but it was nothing like anger. It was…it was…

Remus blinked and looked away. He finally pulled his hand out of Sirius’s grip. Sirius had forgotten he was even still holding it. “We should…er, go inside,” Remus said, clearing his throat. He was still blushing, which felt somehow unfair, because Sirius felt like all the blood in his body had just drained right out of him.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing around a dry throat and a heavy tongue. “I need to tell Prongs and Wormtail all about how you punched Snape.”

Remus grimaced, flexing the fingers of his hand. The same hand he’d hit Snape with. The same hand Sirius had just been holding. “I’m not proud of it,” Remus said, “but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy hitting the prat.”

Sirius let out a bark of laughter that echoed up and down the spiral stairs. “Oh, Moony, it was epic,” he said as they started up the stairs again. “I’m going to write poetry about it, sonnets—no, limericks!”

“Don’t you dare!” Remus demanded even as he grinned.

“There once was a boy named Moony,” Sirius said in a sing-song voice, dodging as Remus lunged for him. “And though some said he was puny—”

With Remus hot on his heels, Sirius raced for the safety of their dorm, laughing and grinning.

He was likely going to be tackled and quite possibly strangled by an irate werewolf at any second, and outside the castle walls the world was slowly sliding toward chaos and war. Just for a moment though, Sirius felt deliriously happy.

Things weren’t back to how they’d been before. They never could be, but he had hope they could be even better.