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Escape Artist

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April, 1976

Career advice, Minerva McGonagall decides, neatly tucking the parchment with Mary McDonald's suggested classes away in her desk drawer, is one of the more tedious duties of a head of house at Hogwarts. In plain truth, the vast majority of her students—fond of them and proud as she may be of their achievements—are not bound for particularly interesting or profound careers. Most Hogwarts graduates' lives will be marked with small, personal accomplishment—marriages and children, modest promotions, occasional tragedy—all-in-all, in a word, ordinary.

Every wizard is important in his domestic sphere and among his friends, but few leave a large footprint in the road of history.

Of the hundreds of students she has advised in all her years as a teacher, there have been only a dozen or so whose upper-level course selections have really mattered.

Even fewer of those has she had an influence on, for the exceptionally gifted—usually, it follows, being uncommonly ambitious as well—are in the habit of knowing exactly what they intend to do when they graduate school, rendering the meeting a mere formality, and her presence, superfluous.

A sharp rap signals the beginning of her next appointment. She looks up at the door, mentally arming herself for battle.

That was all, of course, only usually the case. On rare occasion Minerva finds herself with an extremely gifted student who is in need of some direction. Or any direction.

Rarest of all is a magical prodigy barreling off the proverbial cliff.

"You may enter," she says, calmly, the door opens, and a tall, dark-haired boy of sixteen walks into her office and plops down on the chair across from her.

His posture is relaxed, his expression somewhere between amused and bored—what he is doing in his seat can best be described as lounging.

So this was how they were going to play it, she thinks to herself, sizing up her charge, before she glances down at the parchment on the top of a rather thicker-than-most file.

The header reads: Black, Sirius.

"First of all," the boy begins. "I want it on the record that neither I, nor anyone even remotely associated with me, had anything to do with the suit of armor that has locked itself in Mr. Filch's office."

She has no knowledge of this, but staring over her desk at the grinning miscreant before her, it occurs that there's a good chance no such suit of armor exists—she has never known him to confess to a crime so baldly—and that this could very well be a ploy to get her to leave the room and end the session prematurely.

Minerva McGonagall will not be deterred by such paltry tricks.

"You know full well that that is not what we are here to discuss." She fixes him with a steely look—the one she has had to give all the boys from his year. "This is your mandatory career advice session. We scheduled it a week ago."

To that, he slouches even further in his seat.

"We are here," she continues, unperturbed. "To discuss your future, Mr. Black."

To her surprise, that seems to get his interest—he sits up, his eyes are alert with a kind of world-weariness she would not have expected from as thoughtless and wild a boy as his five years at the school have proven him to be.

"That's easy enough, professor," he says, mouth curling in a faintly ironic smile. "I haven't got one."

The only thing that keeps her from rolling her eyes at this absurd declaration is the matter-of-fact way in which he says it.

"And why, pray tell, is that?" He blinks up at her, as though the answer is so obvious he would not dream of presuming she doesn't already know. "Tell me, Mr. Black, why a student at the top of his class, with brains to spare, however often he misapplies them—and, God forgive me for saying it, more charm than he knows what to do with—has 'no future', as such."

Black stares at her for a moment, face a model of circumspection, before—

"—You think I'm charming?"

"You are getting away from the point."

The smirk fades as quickly, and in the absence of another smart remark—

"May I go, professor?"

"No, you may not, Black." Her patience thins—this is not how she has expected this particular career advice session to go. She has expected flippancy—a few absurd suggestions, if there's anything he can be counted on to do, it's provoke—but this sullen obstinacy has taken her off-guard. It's worse than glibness, there is the whiff of fatalism about it, and if there is anything she cannot abide, it is those who take no responsibility for themselves. "The point of this meeting is to discuss what you plan to do after you graduate Hogwarts, so that I may advise you on the NEWT-level courses you should consider, based on what you can reasonably expect from your OWLs—"

"Just put me in whatever classes James is taking."

Her irritation spikes.

"You cannot make a career out of following Mr. Potter around."

"Why not?" Black shoots back—and then, realizing he has revealed too much, he lowers his eyes to stare moodily at the unopened tin of biscuits on her desk.

She considers Black again, studies the uncommonly good-looking boy sulking three feet in front of her, and wonders if on this occasion—and many others besides—she has taken the wrong tack with him. Of the four fifth-year Gryffindor boys—the most difficult collective group of students she has ever had under her charge, though she would not dream of telling them that—Black is by far the most…challenging.

If she is to go with her instinct, she would say he is the most difficult, but then, by definition, Sirius Black would be the most difficult student she has ever taught—a hard argument to make, considering the ease with which he performs nearly any magic asked of him.

He is certainly among her most frustrating students—and uniquely so, though few know as much. Her colleagues speak of Potter and Black as though they are a matched set, but after five years of near-weekly disciplinary meetings, she knows better.

As a unit they may function as one, but separate, the two boys are very different animals.

James Potter is boastful and impertinent, like his friend—the product of excessive indulgence by his parents and his school-wide popularity—but there's no malice in him. He likes being liked too much, perhaps—but he is no less likable for it, and Quidditch has provided a healthy outlet for his adolescent zeal. Since she made him captain of the team at the beginning of the previous term, she already sees positive signs—the position has nurtured his natural leadership qualities—there is even a hint of latent maturity lingering about him.

And while Potter may be prone to backsliding—in no small part, she's sure, from the encouragement of his confidant—her meeting with him had been straight-forward. While 'Quidditch career' was not what she hoped for from her best student—at least it was an ambition.

The only obvious ambition Sirius Black has is in this moment is to escape.

He may not share the 19th century manners of his family, but even now their arrogance is on full display before her. He is restless, easily bored, prone to moodiness and fits of sudden temper in equal measure, the kind of boy her mother used to euphemistically call 'too handsome for his own good.' While she makes a concerted effort to know as little as possible about the students' romantic exploits, she cannot escape credible rumors he has, without conscience, callously strung along more than one girl, and she is convinced it is only the restraining influence of his friends that have kept him from doing far worse.

To, at only sixteen, have such talent and squander it as he has is unconscionable.

"You did not answer my question, Mr. Black." He leans back in his chair, choosing to shift his persona from sullen child to lord-of-the-manor. She has little patience for either performance. "Why should you have no future?"

The chair drops to the floor.

"You will not leave this office, Mr. Black, until I feel we have adequately discussed your future." He looks up through the fringe of hair that hangs elegantly in his eyes. "I suggest, to that end, we come to an agreement that you have one."

"It's not that I don't have one," he admits, finally. "It's—that I've never had a choice in it."

She is momentarily—again, against all expectations—surprised.

"Do you…care to elaborate?"

He sighs, heavily—the sigh of a much older, wiser person than he is.

"From the moment I stepped into this castle I've known what I was going to do when I left it," he explains, flatly. "Nothing in-between really matters, so I suppose I don't see the point in pretending it does."

"For someone who believes that, you've done quite well in your studies, Black," she remarks, tartly.

"Yes, well—I like to do magic and I'm quite good at it—" His customary modesty on full display. "And I don't want to be chucked out, obviously. So of course I have to try to a degree, but it's not as though whether I take Ancient Runes or Arithmancy make much difference…when it comes to classes, why shouldn't I just be with my mates?"

"I see you've given this a great deal of thought," she says, noting that her withering tone doesn't phase him any more than her sarcasm does. "And what, pray tell, is this destiny that has awaited you from your first year in these hallowed halls?"

"To take my place as heir to the seat of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, of course."

She blinks slowly behind her spectacles—grateful that they can act as a barrier between them, so that he cannot see that he's succeeded in catching her off-guard—however momentarily.

"And—forgive me my ignorance, what precisely does that entail, Black?"

He shrugs.

"For my father it seems to be mostly sitting in his study reading the paper and counting large sums of money."

He looks up at her—a clear, straight gaze—and seems to be daring her to laugh.

But in this delicate moment it feels—prudential that she should take him in deadly earnest.

"I see."

His expression remains defiant, but she notes—with the twinge of pride that accompanies any of her students exhibiting a Gryffindor trait—that he does not want her pity.

She straightens his academic file on her desk again before speaking.

"So. Let me see if I understand you, precisely. You believe that the seven years you will spend at this school—assuming you don't manage to get yourself expelled, which, from an objective examination of your disciplinary record thus far leaves me in doubt—are not for the purpose of preparing you to become a productive and contributing member of the magical community —" Through this dizzying onslaught he has yet to blink. "—but instead are a mere…way-station in your life, a stopgap you are making the best of before some mysterious destiny that I—through either my ignorance or stupidity—couldn't possibly understand."

"I didn't say you couldn't understand—"

"Hogwarts," she cuts through him, not bothering to conceal her fury. "Is not a place to hide away from problems. It is not a holiday spot that exists for your entertainment. It is a school."

He looks her square in the face, unflinching—the raised voice that has made hundreds before him quake in their boots not affecting him in the slightest.

Minerva so rarely loses her temper, and he is one of the few students who can unleash it. His friends—Lupin and Pettigrew, even Potter can be chastened by a sharp word from her, but Black has always remained cool and calm, nodding when appropriate but never losing his insolent defiance, and every disciplinary meeting she has ever had with the boy has left her with the distinct feeling that he has heard every word and listened to none of them.

A suspicion has long been brewing in her mind that her chastisements are feeble compared to what he hears at home.

"We do not spend considerable time and assets educating young wizards so that when they leave school they will dither away their lives, Mr. Black. I have watched every student under my charge walk out the doors of this castle for the final time with the assurance that, great or small, they would use what they learned here to the best of their abilities, and I do not intend to make an exception for you."

"Are you saying you think I ought to leave Hogwarts, professor?"

Another surprise. Even his—what the muggles commonly refer to as a 'poker face'—wavers. What was rhetorical when it formed in his mind has become genuine halfway out his mouth.

She does not answer for a long moment.

"You have just admitted to me you have no interest in your studies, either for their own sake or for the furtherance of any career, and you clearly believe your magical abilities are far beyond those of your peers. I daresay you think your professors have nothing left they can teach you—given what I have just told you about this institution's mandate, I ask you the question—is there any reason you can give me that you should stay at Hogwarts?"

This breaks through, and she realizes, triumphant, that she's touched him at last—face flushed, he opens his mouth to shoot back a reply—but no words come out. For a boy so known for wit, confidence and bravado—he is at a loss.

"I see." He closes his mouth again. "And yet—I do not think you wish to leave the school."

He nods, almost imperceptibly.

"Which leaves the question—why do you wish to stay?"

More calmly—

"I refuse to believe that you have never seriously considered what you, Sirius Black—free from anything but your own inclinations—would really like to do with your life."

"I haven't."

"That is unacceptable!"

She finds herself, against all odds, standing, and the flush of fury is back on his cheeks.

"Do you shout at everyone who comes to these, or am I just the lucky one?" he asks, standing up as well, and though before now she has never even contemplated using a spell on a student, she wants nothing more in this moment than to slap him across the face.

"If I thought there was any other way of getting through your thick skull, believe me, I would have employed it already." He takes a step towards the door. "You will sit back down, Black, and you will listen, God help me, if we have to sit here all day until you do."

He freezes—glances between the door and her face—her expression is deadly serious—and then, for the first time in his storied school career, obeys the order without comment and returns to the chair in front of her.

When she feels she has his attention—his full attention, no breezy answer back at that ready—she sits back down as well, and calmly proceeds.

"Every class put in my charge has at least one stand-out student—someone of extraordinary natural gifts, who garners the attention of their professors and classmates through excellence in school work, leadership or character."

"I imagine you were that student when you were here, professor."

"I believe I told you to listen," she snaps—the attempt at cheap flattery is feeble, even for him. "Now, imagine the faculty and Professor Dumbledore's excitement when, five years ago, the incoming class had not one, but several students who could be described thusly." He says nothing. "I will not insult your intelligence or pretend you have any degree of natural modesty, Black—you know full well that you are one of them.

"This is not a compliment, it is a statement of fact. Your talents you were born with, they have little to do with your actions—and your actions are my chief concern. Since entering this school, you have dedicated yourself fully to disruption, terrorizing your Slytherin classmates and, above all, to yours and your friends' amusement at the expense of nearly everything else. As far as I can tell, your only aspiration has been to get in as much trouble as possible short of expulsion and you show no signs of remorse or shame for any of it. Would you say that's an accurate summary of your academic career?"

"I've never heard it put so eloquently," he answers—and even dares to allow pride to creep into his voice, as if gaining her ire on this scale is an accomplishment. Where anyone else would be in tears or red-faced in shame, he has the audacity to smirk. "Is there a point to this?"

"The point," she snaps, tartly. "Is that we are having this conversation in spite of all the facts. And do you know why that is?"

"No."

"I believe that you are capable of more."

The smirk drops from his face.

"Moreover, I believe that you want more. I think that the reckless provocateur persona you have tried so hard to cultivate is a facade, and that, beneath it, you do wish to make something of yourself. You have a fuzzy idea of what it might be. You lack direction, but direction would require self-examination, which can be difficult, even painful, and one of your many faults is a habitual tendency to take the easy way out whenever possible. You are bright and talented—capable, when pressed, of perhaps doing extraordinary things—but unless you do some hard thinking about what it is you want, you are in serious danger of wasting your life."

The speech—more cutting for its extemporaneous floridity—has flowed quite naturally from her. She has rarely found admonishing a student so easy, and she wonders if he realizes it's a sign of respect that she has bothered to do it with so much eloquence.

"All I want," he answers, quietly—and it is with the hangdog tone of the perpetually misunderstood, quaver and self-righteousness hovering just beneath the surface. "Is to be let alone."

"In my experience, Mr. Black—the world is not in the habit of letting anyone alone." He swallows hard, the muscle in his cheek tightening visibly. "And the people who deny this fact are the most likely to be disappointed by it."

Black says nothing, but she can see plainly on his face that he wants to argue with her. The only thing preventing him is the certainty that arguing will prolong the length of this audience even further.

She glances at the clock on the wall—even having deliberately scheduled more time, she's five minutes past when the next one should start. Minerva is dearly tempted to drag this out, knowing how much he doesn't wish to be here—but the second the impulse crosses her mind she recognizes it's childish, and the thought of Black dragging her to his level is disquieting.

Let the child be the childish one.

"As you are clearly not ready to discuss career options in any specific terms—we can leave that for now," She pauses, meaningfully, and, reverting to her usual businesslike state— "As it is, I believe you can expect an "Outstanding" OWL in Transfiguration—you are the best in your year after Potter, so I would strongly suggest you continue—I believe even you might be challenged by the upper curriculum. Professor Flitwick happily informed me that you tied for first with Ms. Evans on the last practical he gave, and that your essay on the Homonculous Charm was, and I quote, 'the best he had ever read'—he seemed to think you had a great deal of experience doing it, I assured him I could think of no reason why you would, though I can't explain why I said that, as I'm sure your extensive knowledge comes from some practical and likely illicit use."

"How would one go about using the Homonculous Charm illicitly, professor?"

"If you don't already know, I've not intention of giving you any ideas." The corner of his mouth twitches. "Professor Slughorn tells me he doesn't believe you care for potions, but that he 'enjoys you so much' he'd like you to keep you on in the upper level course. Potter wishes to, so I'm sure you do as well."

"Of course," he says, mood perking up at the possibility she's accepted the wisdom of his Potter-centric schedule schema. "And you can tell old Sluggy—"

"I will relay no message of yours to Professor Slughorn, thank you," she cuts Black off, crisply, and suppresses the urge to order him to stop smirking. "Whatever you have to say he will enjoy hearing directly from you, anyway."

Horace has never gotten over not having Black as his own student—the Head of Slytherin feels he was cheated, somehow—that by dint of birth the very talented jewel of the Black Family Crown should have been placed with the rest of his family in the warm bosom of Salazar.

She has remarked to him on more than one occasion that if transfer were possible, she would happily fill out the paperwork.

As Minerva glances over the rest of Black's academic file, she feels the beginning of a stabbing pain behind her eyes. She lets out a long sigh, wondering if she has gotten through to him at all.

It seems inevitable that he will be one of her great disappointments.

"The rest of your schedule next year can be—revisited, I'm sure, at a later date. Perhaps after you've taken your exams." She folds her arms in front of her on the desk between them. "Do you have any questions?"

"No, professor." His eyes are still alert and wary—he isn't safe yet, after all. "Will that be—is that all?"

"Yes, Black—you may go."

He rises from the chair, slower now that he has permission to do so, and shuffles a few steps towards the door.

"There is—" He turns, not entirely surprised. "There is one last thing."

"Yes?"

"As your head of house, I must inform you that this meeting has not satisfied my baseline requirement for career advice—and our…" She can see he bristles. "…our earlier conversation is not over. We will be revisiting the question—but in the meantime, I would like you to consider, carefully—what it is that matters most in the world to you."

"Professor…?"

"I think you will find it helpful as a starting point."

He merely stares at her—and for once, with no gang of friends around to impress or wrongdoing to conceal—the inner workings of his mind are laid out clearly on his face. She is sure—for the first time—that he has actually listened to her. Her advice may have even sunk in, made an impression upon this headstrong sixteen-year-old wizard—but that is wishful thinking on her part, and she is nothing if not a realist when it comes to these matters.

For now, it is enough that she has done her duty.

The rest is up to him.

"Could you send in Ms. Blanchard on your way out?"

He nods and leaves, quickly—quicker than he entered. As she pulls out Antonia Blanchard's file, she thinks to herself, wryly, that it would be too much to hope he is hurrying off to think long and hard about what she has said. More likely he is meeting Potter, and they will spend the free period planning their next ambush on the Slytherin gobstones team, or transfiguring the caretaker's cat into a platypus—that fleeting thought reminds her that she ought to check and see if there really is an enchanted suit of armor in Argus's office.

A timid knock.

"You may enter, Ms. Blanchard."

It will be many years until she knows she has gotten the point across, and it is to the credit of her great modesty that she will never realize the extent to which this seemingly insignificant moment is the point upon which the rest of his life will turn.