In the aftermath, several things at once all war for Sirius’s attention.
Most immediate is the very bony elbow jammed right into his throat. Next is the fact that one of his shoes has fallen off. Sunlight tints his vision red; he opens his eyes, but the glare of it drowns everything else out. His head is woozy — he’s got the dizzy, stretched sensation of a bad Apparition jump, as though his mind has been Splinched even if his body hasn’t. And there’s a wet, heavy lump lying on his chest, breathing in rattles — the owner of the elbow, he presumes.
He shoves the lump off. The lump groans.
With a groan of his own, Sirius sits up — how the spell knocked a bloody shoe off is anybody’s guess, but at least he’s still alive and presumably still in possession of all his fingernails — craning his head around — blinking the shapes out of his eyes — and —
And that’s Hagrid’s hut, tucked neatly by the treeline of the Forbidden Forest, a spiral of smoke rising from its chimney.
Sirius gapes: this had not been part of the plan.
It’s a sunny, golden afternoon, the leaves a mottling mixture of green, red, brown: the beginnings of autumn, at a guess. There’s the chicken coop, and the little paddock where thestrals graze, beyond which the carriages stand empty, ready to be carted down to Hogsmeade for the students. Past that, he glimpses the stone-paved path down to the Black Lake peeping grey between the rippling grasses. A cool breeze tosses the ends of Sirius’s hair.
Then, as though to be sure, he twists around where he sits, dizzy with shock. He sees the castle, that gorgeous lonely castle, turrets pressed into the wispy blue sky like something from a picture-book.
He’s in Hogwarts. How, by the grace of Merlin’s hairy bollocks, has he ended up in Hogwarts?
“Who...Sirius?” says an impossible voice, one that’s familiar in a way that Sirius can’t immediately place past the lurid, almost sickening wash of déjà vu… “What’s going on?”
It’s the hoarse wet lump, voicing Sirius’s very own thoughts aloud. The boy — for that’s all he is — squints in the daylight. His clothes are so oversized they drown him, and his black, sodden hair is plastered to his skull. His cheeks are still round and his nose a little upturned. He looks nothing like he had the last time Sirius had seen him. And yet Sirius knows exactly who he is.
“You’re a child,” Sirius says, stupidly, registering only distantly that his voice sounds strange to him, that it’s coming from the wrong part of his throat.
Regulus glares. “You’re a child.”
The worst thing is, Regulus is not being spiteful. Or, at least, not totally spiteful. Sirius’s body feels wrong to him: too small, too weak, ready to pitch over at the slightest shove. The world around him has grown three sizes bigger: he has shrunk.
“And you’re alive,” says Sirius, choosing to ignore this unignorable fact.
It appears that Regulus does not have any smartarse answers to that one. His painfully familiar glower lacks any of its usual bite when it’s displayed on a face that still has baby fat.
Somewhere in the hut, a dog starts barking.
“...and why are you soaking wet?” asks Sirius, brow wrinkled. Regulus’s bumpy landing onto Sirius’s chest has left a damp patch on his own ill-fitting t-shirt. In fact, all of Sirius’s clothes are far too large for him. His shoe had fallen off because it no longer fit his feet; his socks are baggy at the toes.
“Doesn’t matter. Why are we children?” says Regulus, pushing wet curls out of his eyes. Water is still dripping from his pointy chin.
“That is an excellent question,” says Sirius. He gets to his feet and finds that he has to hold up the waistband of his suddenly enormous jeans with one small, skinny hand while the fabric bunches at his ankles. He feels like a Muggle clown.
“My questions often are.”
“Well, it wasn’t part of the plan, I’ll tell you that much,” Sirius admits. “In fact, none of this has gone according to plan.” His voice is high and scratchy. His stomach rumbles, but he feels too sick to be hungry. He is trying not to panic.
Regulus remains where he is, sitting small and glum in a puddle on the grass. He’s wheezing a bit, but Sirius supposes that’s the shock; he’s feeling a bit short of breath himself. “What plan?”
“Er…have you ever heard of Albrecht Einstein?” Sirius asks. “Or Stephen Hulking?”
Regulus is silent for a few moments. Then he says, “Sirius, what did you do?”
“Nothing major,” says Sirius. “Bit of theoretical Muggle science. Bit of mad potioneering. Plenty of very innovative charmwork. And I smashed Grandfather Pollux’s antique Sicilian hourglass. I’m sure he won’t mind. What I don’t understand is how you’re here. And how we ended up in Hogwarts. And why we’re —”
“Pre-pubescent?” Regulus suggests.
“How are you so calm about this?”
“I’m really not,” says Regulus, “but there are no cushions handy and if I tried screaming into my cloak, I’d only waterboard myself.” He looks down at his small, bony, child’s hands, and then, rather suddenly, pushes the sleeve of his soaking robes up to his elbow.
His left forearm is pale, the skin blank and unmarked.
“Sirius,” he says again, even more breathless this time, “what did you do?”
“What?” says Sirius, and he can’t quite help the venom in it, “d’you miss it?”
“This isn’t possible,” says Regulus, standing up at last. The neck of his robes slip down to reveal part of his skinny white shoulder, and he also has to hold up his trousers, though at least he had the foresight to die wearing a belt. “Why are we children, and how did we get here, and how am I alive?”
“I was trying to fix things!” The words burst forth with such vehemence it takes Sirius by surprise; to his shame, he finds that his eyes are burning, that his throat aches, that all the grief that he worked so hard to postpone has finally decided to check in. Only, while he was looking away, his attention otherwise occupied, that grief had swelled up and up and up and until it’s inexpressibly enormous, far too big for one small child to contain, and he is going to explode —
“I was trying to fix things! I made the spell and it took me fucking ages and I was on the run and they wouldn’t let me see Harry anyway because no one knew I wasn’t the Secret Keeper and they were going to toss me straight into Azkaban and nobody would believe me and they were dead and it was my fault and I missed them, for fuck’s sake, I missed James and Lily and — and you — and — and —”
He’s gasping now.
“And it’s — all — my — fault!”
“Shut up and get a hold of yourself,” hisses Regulus, grabbing Sirius by the shoulders, his little fingernails digging in, harsh and prodding.
Sirius stares at him in shock for a moment. Then, before he realises what he’s doing, he shoves his brother back with his free hand, the other still occupied holding up his gigantic trousers. “Why don’t you shut up, you slimy horrible little —”
“I said shut up because someone’s coming,” says Regulus through clenched teeth — and now that he says it, Sirius can hear Hagrid grumbling at the dog from inside the hut.
Quickly, Regulus produces his wand deep from inside the wet folds of his robes, and seems to be trying to shrink Sirius’s Muggle clothes to a slightly more acceptable size — it doesn’t work; his brother’s wand hand is shaking too hard — and he hasn’t managed to do it before the door to the hut swings open. Hagrid lets out a bellow of surprise; Regulus drops his wand; the dog yowls with excitement.
And Sirius, finally, bursts into tears.
Poor Hagrid appears utterly at a loss as to how to comfort an eleven-year-old in hysterics. He all but shoves a gigantic mug of tea into Sirius’s shaking hands. Sirius just cries harder; great shuddering sobs that make his entire body quake. He can tell that Regulus is embarrassed by the way he refuses to look at him. Out of the two of them, Regulus was usually the one who tended towards panic attacks, and it all feels a bit absurd in reverse. It’s the least absurd thing about this situation, realistically, but Sirius is trying not to think too hard about that.
Nothing feels real. He can’t stop crying. How can any of it be real?
“There, there, lad,” Hagrid pats him on the back and nearly knocks him from the stool, “you’ll be alrigh’, you’ll see.” To Regulus, he says in an undertone, “Er…will he be alrigh’?”
Regulus shrugs and wraps his hands around his own steaming pint of tea, narrow shoulders hunched and mouth pressed into a stubborn pout. He’s still dripping water onto Hagrid’s floor; the part of Sirius that isn’t otherwise occupied with crying wonders how and when he had gotten so wet.
“What’re yer names?” Hagrid asks Regulus. “Are yeh brothers? Twins? Yeh look abou’ the same age.”
It should be humiliating, Sirius thinks, to have devolved so swiftly and so thoroughly into hysterics, but he can’t find it in himself to stop. He blows his nose into the handkerchief Hagrid gave him. He does not want to dwell on the fact that they’re very much not the same age, that they are, in fact, both adult men stuffed into the bodies of preteens, one of whom is meant to be dead —
And the thought of Regulus, who was dead and is now not dead, sets him off again.
“Re…ginald,” says Regulus, once it’s clear Sirius is in no fit state to answer. “And, er…Sidney. Reginald and Sidney Black.”
At that very moment, Hagrid drops the teapot with a metallic clang. The giant slobbery dog goes into an excited fit, bark like a thunderclap, almost tackling Hagrid where he stands.
“Down, Fang!” Hagrid yells. “Down!” At Regulus, in the midst of wrestling his hellhound into submission, he demands: “Black? Like Sirius Black?”
Sirius looks up almost automatically at the sound of his name. Hagrid is quite scary like this — black eyes flashing, all that great hulking height of him, more than strong enough to push a dog the size of a donkey down with ease — but he isn’t quite as scary as the corpses of his two best friends in their destroyed home, so Sirius isn’t particularly intimidated. Nor, it appears, is Regulus, who gazes flatly at Hagrid, eyes narrowed like he’s trying to work something out.
“S’pose yeh do look like him…yeh two aren’ related to him, are yeh?” Then, abruptly, he blanches. “Are yeh? Is that why that one is so upset?” he nods at Sirius, whose chest is still juddering with sobs, though he’s trying his best to stop.
“Upset?” questions Regulus.
“About Sirius Black.”
“What about him?”
“Died in his cell in Azkaban jus’ this mornin’,” says Hagrid. “Huge news. S’all over the papers.”
Sirius feels himself go cold. Regulus suddenly looks much younger than eleven years old.
“Eleven years, he was in there. S’prised he lasted so long, ter be honest. He was one o’ the most heavily guarded in the place. Here,” says Hagrid. He hands Regulus a copy of the Daily Prophet, upon which the bold black of the headline announces: SIRIUS BLACK FOUND DEAD IN AZKABAN.
“He was in Azkaban?” Regulus says faintly, scanning the article.
Hagrid is looking terribly awkward. “Er…yeah. I take it yeh are related to him, then? Yeh’re both the spittin’ image of the Blacks…did yeh know Sirius? Oh, no, you wouldn’. He’d’ve bin in Azkaban fer abou’ as long as the two o’ yeh have bin alive.”
“Oh, no, not that Sirius Black,” says Regulus, “we’re not related. We’re, er — Blakes. Reginald and Sidney Blake, not Black. I must have misspoken. Apologies for the confusion.”
“Oh, yer Blake, is that it? Thank goodness fer tha’,” says Hagrid, cheerful again, “I thought I’d properly put me foot in it!”
Regulus’s tea sits abandoned on the table as he scans the article. Sirius can’t even bear to look at it. Where have they ended up, to be back in their child bodies, the presumably adult version of him dead in Azkaban?
When have they ended up?
“Hold on,” Regulus says, “what’s this about the Potters?”
Sirius sniffles. Regulus had died only a few months before Harry was born, hadn’t he?
“Yeh don’ know?”
Regulus smiles thinly at Hagrid. “Forgive us, we’ve been abroad for a while.”
Sirius wonders if Regulus will be disappointed that his precious Dark Lord was defeated by a baby. He’d never quite known what to make of the rumours that Regulus had been killed for defecting, after all. Maybe that was just a tall tale Narcissa had spun up to make Sirius feel better about it all.
“Yeah,” says Hagrid, “dunno what to tell Harry…don’t think he knows much abou’ it…but Black was his godfather, d’you know that? Almost gave little Harry ter him, the night he…well. Doesn’ matter now, I s’pose. He’ll never hurt Harry again.”
“Harry?” says Regulus.
“Harry Potter. Great kid. Speakin’ of — I’ve got ter be sortin’ out the carriages for the students.” Hagrid rises to his feet, and tries out a stern look. “Dunno why yeh two decided ter arrive early, instead of on the train, but I’ll head up now an’ fetch Professor McGonagall. Jus’ sit tight, she’ll sort yeh both out.”
As soon as the door closes behind Hagrid, Regulus turns on Sirius. “Stop crying. We need a plan.”
Sirius’s eyes feel itchy and swollen, his chest in painful spasms with swallowed sobs. Regulus doesn’t show much pity when he shakes the newspaper in his face.
“Did you know about this?”
“The dead in fucking Azkaban part.”
“No,” Sirius croaks, “I knew the Aurors were looking for me, though.”
“According to this paper,” says Regulus, “it’s the first of September.”
Sirius shakes his head. “No, it can’t be. It was November when I —”
“The first of September, nineteen-ninety-two.”
“Oh,” says Sirius faintly. “Bollocks.”
He should have known trying to incorporate string theory into the equation was a bad idea. Especially when he had no Muggle string theory qualifications. Or more than a rudimentary idea of what string theory actually was.
“We don’t have time for this,” says Regulus. “We need a cover story of some kind, one good enough to convince McGonagall. And before you say anything, we’re not telling the truth. Not least because I’ve been dead for, oh, approximately thirteen years now, and you are apparently a mass-murderer who just kicked it in Azkaban.”
“Well, I’m not the one who told Hagrid we were Blacks!” Sirius shoots back hotly.
Regulus’s left eye twitches. “Remind me who got us into this mess in the first place?”
Sirius slumps. “Right. Who are we? How did we get here? Why are we here?”
“We have to be related,” Regulus says. “Hagrid said as much. Twins?”
“Fine. Where are mummy and daddy?”
“Merlin, Sirius, I don’t know. Maybe they were eaten by a kelpie. Fell off a hippogriff. Strangled by Devil’s Snare. Died of dragon pox.”
“Motorcycle accident?” Sirius suggests with a wan sort of grin.
“No. Dragon pox. Next question?”
Sirius feels a distant pang. Effy and Fleamont Potter, the only parents that ever counted, had died of dragon pox. He dismisses the thought before he starts to cry again. “Fine. Who were mummy and daddy?”
They stare at one another for a long moment.
“They were French,” suggests Sirius.
“French orphans. Yes, indeed. No gaping holes in that story at all.”
“Have you a better one?”
Regulus takes a delicate sip of the now-lukewarm tea. “Where’d we grow up?”
“In an orphanage, obviously,” says Sirius.
Regulus pulls a face. “More detail.”
“An orphanage,” says Sirius, “run by nuns. In France. Er, a convent.”
“How did we end up there?”
Sirius shakes his head. Up until recently he had very rarely found himself in need of explanations or excuses for his behaviour, whether it be for peer, parent or professor, simply because he never felt there was anything he needed to be excused for. He can recognise the moral deficiency involved in this outlook only in hindsight; what’s more, he suspects his initial failure to do so had been half the reason for that woeful fallout following the Snape Incident in fifth year. But the fact still remains: Sirius had never been the liar in their little quartet. That had been Peter’s job. At the thought of Peter, his stomach contracts painfully with fury, but also with guilt.
How could he not have seen it? How could he have been such a fool? And if he hadn’t driven that wretched, cowardly little rat to an explosive suicide on a crowded Muggle street, maybe he wouldn’t be in this dismal situation to begin with.
Regulus smacks him on the back of the head. “Focus, moron. Why and how did we arrive here?”
“To go to Hogwarts, I suppose,” says Sirius.
“We’ve already been.”
“Can you propose any alternative occupations for two eleven-year-old kids?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Regulus, “what about working out a way to fix us?”
“I don’t even know how I broke us!” says Sirius. “Anyway, I don't know how much more fixed you’re gonna get, mate, considering that last I heard of you, you were six feet under!”
For a second time, Regulus shakes the paper announcing Sirius’s death. “Glass house, Sirius!”
“Again,” says Sirius, “have you any alternatives?”
Regulus’s jaw works furiously. Finally, he grits out, “Why are we going to Hogwarts, then?”
“Imagine going to Beauxbatons? Blegh. I hate the French.”
Regulus sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. It’s a ludicrously adult gesture on so young a child, especially one currently dressed in soaking wet clothes five sizes too big for him. But Sirius can’t laugh, or he’ll get smacked again. “Stop looking at me like that, Regulus, I don’t know what to tell them, either. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in something of a complicated situation —”
“Oh, I assure you I’ve noticed, Sirius, but we still need to get our dratted story straight before the two of us are hauled before the Wizengamot for the most egregiously dangerous use of time magic since the Phantom Time Catastrophe of 911 —”
He stops talking at once; the door to the hut swings open, revealing both McGonagall and Albus bloody Dumbledore.
“Occlude!” Regulus hisses under his breath. Sirius has only time to nod before the two of them step in.
“Well, that was quite the tale,” says McGonagall once they have finished haltingly explaining who they are. She does not look convinced. “And you claim to have arrived here via…?”
“Portkey,” says Sirius.
“Portkey,” McGonagall repeats. “Where might this Portkey be?”
Sirius digs around in his pocket, and produces it. The magic should have worn off by now, anyway. Any residual traces will be unidentifiable, and corroborate their story.
“That is a paperclip,” says McGonagall.
It is a paperclip. There weren’t a whole lot of options on the run. “Easy to carry around,” he says.
“And who charmed it?”
He grimaces. “Er, I did…?”
“You did,” McGonagall repeats, sceptical.
“I had help from a grown up. One of the nuns. Think she probably wanted rid of me.” Sirius goes for a cheeky grin, though he’s sure his bloodshot eyes and red nose rather ruin the picture. “I’m a bit of a troublemaker, apparently.”
“Imagine that,” says McGonagall.
“May I see?” says Dumbledore, speaking for the first time. He reaches over and takes the paperclip from Sirius’s hand, pushing his half-moon spectacles higher up on his crooked nose to examine it more closely.
“Hm,” is all he says.
String theory was definitely a bad idea.
Meanwhile, McGonagall turns to Regulus, one stern eyebrow raised at his dishevelled appearance. “And what, pray tell, happened to you?”
“Fell in the lake,” Regulus says. Sirius doesn’t remember that, but he supposes it had been something of a rough landing for both of them.
“And why Hogwarts?” McGonagall asks. “To my knowledge, Beauxbatons is happy to accept any student within the catchment area of south-west Europe. Regardless of…background.”
Sirius searches for an answer just a beat too long, so Regulus swoops in:
“It was our mother’s dying wish,” he sighs, staring mournfully down at his hands, which he wrings artfully on his lap. “She was English. We never got the chance to know her. We don’t even know her name. But we thought it was important to honour her last will. It’s all we have left of her.”
“And the nuns wanted rid of us,” Sirius chimes in.
“The nuns wanted rid of you,” says Regulus in an undertone, “I was always a delightful child.”
Sirius ignores that. “Please,” he says.“We…well, we haven’t got anywhere else to go.”
That part isn’t a lie.
McGonagall stares at the two of them for a moment, looking absurdly out of place in Hagrid’s spartan hut with her sleek updo and velvet hat. Her nostrils flare, and then she waves her wand. A roll of parchment and a self-inking quill are conjured up out of nowhere; McGonagall plucks them out of the air and begins to write, the nib scratching loudly in the quiet hut.
“Sidney and Reginald Blake,” she says. “Any middle names?”
“Mine’s Ryan,” says Sirius, “and his is…Archibald.” He can feel Regulus’s glare burning a hole in the side of his head; he smugly ignores it.
“Date of birth?”
Oh dear. They never discussed that. Whose birthday are they going with? Sirius pauses to glance at Regulus, but Regulus ignores him and is looking instead at McGonagall.
“First of November, nineteen-eighty,” he tells her swiftly.
Sirius’s actual birthday is the third. But Regulus was born on the first day of August. Sirius supposes that, between them, that could pass for a compromise.
“And you both came with nothing?”
“Just our clothes,” says Sirius. “And our wands.”
Somehow, it’s only now that it dawns on Sirius: he has nothing. He has never had nothing before. Perks of being born into a family rich as sin, and adopted by a family nearly equally so — even if the Potters’ Sleekeazy fortune was quite a bit newer than that which gilded the walls of the Black vault. And, of course, there was that tidy little inheritance from Uncle Alphard…
And now he has nothing, bar perhaps a sickle or two buried in the depths of his overcoat. He’s apparently a convicted criminal, not to mention the fact that he’s legally dead, and using an alias, and oh, eleven years old. He can hardly swan into Gringotts and ask for the key to the Black family vault, can he? Unless he sneaks into Grimmauld Place and pawns off some of the treasures…though he can imagine the only buyers of anything in that hovel will be down Knockturn: again, not an ideal location for someone who looks barely old enough to be out of shorts.
He’s never had nothing before. How will they afford books? A cauldron each? The uniform?
The weight of his previous life of privilege is actually quite overwhelming. And Sirius has already had one panic attack today.
“And they could find no clothes that actually fit you at this orphanage?” McGonagall is asking him. “Or that aren’t a decade or so out of date?”
“We weren’t well liked by the nuns,” says Sirius, still searching in vain for a solution to a problem he has never fully understood until this moment. “What else do we need? We could work, I’m sure there’s something around the castle that needs doing.” His suggestion sounds desperate even to his own ears. “We could work for our keep. We’d be happy to.”
“Out of the question,” says McGonagall, “you’re eleven. I don’t know what this orphanage was like, but here at Hogwarts we don’t make a habit of employing child labour.”
“Oh,” says Sirius.
He tries counting down backwards from ten. He imagines a still pond, falling snow, a field of sheep. Anything to keep his panic from bubbling over. While it isn’t as if he had actively planned to end up simultaneously eleven years in the past and eleven years in the future, it still occurs to him how little he’d thought any of this through.
So much for fixing things.
“Then we just have our wands and our clothes,” he admits at last. “Nothing else.”
McGonagall’s nostrils flare again. Sirius does not know if that’s a good sign.
Then: “We ought to have plenty of spare uniforms and robes,” Dumbledore interjects cheerfully.
“Pardon?” says Regulus in a small voice.
“Plenty of students have mislaid a school jumper or two over the years. As for other supplies,” Dumbledore continues, “I shall ask Madam Pince for a year-long loan of the first-year booklist from the library. I’m sure the professors can dig up a few old pewter cauldrons and telescopes, and I myself would be happy to supply quills and parchment. Eventually I’m sure we can find someone to sponsor the boys. In the meantime, the scholarship fund should suffice for anything pressing.”
There is no sign of Sirius’s paperclip Portkey, but he isn’t about to risk asking for it. “We can stay?”
“Well, we aren’t going to send you back,” says McGonagall stiffly.
Sirius grabs Regulus’s wrist and squeezes: to his surprise, Regulus does not immediately shake him off.
“Thank you,” Sirius says, and to his great embarrassment, his voice cracks. “We’ll work hard. We promise.”
“Don’t thank us,” says McGonagall. “Two extra students is hardly a hardship, Mr Blake. But going forward, I expect you not to make a habit of taking a Portkey halfway across Europe and hoping for the best wherever you land, yes?”
The Great Hall is just like how Sirius remembers it. He and Regulus huddle closely together, lagging a little bit behind the rest of the first years. They’d met the rest of them straight off the boats, he and Regulus having hastily dressed in their second-hand uniforms in the first-floor boys’ toilet before being escorted to the Entrance Hall with McGonagall. Everything still has that faint veneer of unreality over it. It occurs to him only distantly that some of these students are probably the kids of people he’d gone to school with. Which reminds him: he cranes his head in every direction, scanning through unfamiliar faces at each of the four tables — even Slytherin, just to be sure — but he can’t spot any kid that looks like he might be Harry. Maybe he’s just not looking hard enough.
“What are you doing?” Regulus mutters in an undertone. It’s the first thing he’s said to Sirius since they’d been taken from Hagrid’s hut to McGonagall’s office; Sirius suspects Regulus might be pissed at him. Turns out that resurrecting your little brother from the dead is a pretty thankless job.
“I'm trying to work out what house Harry’s in.”
“Why? Going to join him?”
Sirius scowls. “I’m his godfather, aren’t I? I’m meant to look out for him.”
“Oh yes, the first time in history a godfather’s been younger than his godson.”
“Shut it,” hisses Sirius, just as McGonagall calls “Ayres, Angharad!” to the stool.
“I admit my money’s on Gryffindor,” says Regulus, “but what’ll you do if Potter’s spawn ended up in Slytherin?”
“I’ll go to Slytherin, then,” Sirius says.
He elbows Regulus hard in the ribs; Bell, Bobbi is Sorted into Hufflepuff; Regulus elbows him back; a sour-faced blond boy standing nearby sends them both a dirty look. They stop elbowing one another.
Burke, Beatrice goes to Slytherin. And Sirius half-expects McGonagall to call out his name, nerves lighting up in his chest, the sort of nerves he hasn’t felt in a decade —
“Creevey, Colin!” goes to Gryffindor.
So the B-names have passed without them; he’d forgotten that he and Regulus were last-minute additions to the list. Their names will be called out at the very end.
He doesn’t know if that’s better or worse. Even Regulus is beginning to look pale. Well, pal er. And for the life of him, Sirius can’t spot any Second Year that looks like Harry anywhere…he must have scanned the faces of the Gryffindor Table three or four times: there’s a girl with bushy hair looking particularly worried, two empty seats next to her, but no Harry. Or maybe, Sirius thinks, Harry is right there, and Sirius just doesn’t recognise him…after all, he was a toddler last time they’d met, and he’d be twelve by now…
Selwyn, Augustus goes to Slytherin; Sen, Abha and Tinsley, Kate to Ravenclaw; Smith, Zacharias and Wilcox, Peter to Hufflepuff; Shirdel, Farhad and Weasley, Ginevra to Gryffindor…
And then, it’s just the two of them, eleven and tiny, Sirius in his slightly too-large school jumper, Regulus with his hair still damp. The stares seem to come from every direction (especially the staff table, though Hagrid gives them both an encouraging smile). Then:
Shakily, Sirius approaches the raised dais, and sits down on the stool. He is nearly overwhelmed by déjà vu; in vain, he tries not to think of the last time he’d sat on this stool, just as small and twice as afraid, never mind all his guff on the train to James about abandoning the family values. Regulus looks especially small where he stands alone watching Sirius go, his usual sneer momentarily abandoned. Then the brim of the Sorting Hat falls down over his eyes, plunging the Great Hall into blackness. Even the sensation of being stared at seems to fall away.
Oh my, says the Hat in the dark.
I know, thinks Sirius, just don’t give us away, will you?
Regulus, Sirius thinks. Dragged him here with me.
I see you have set yourself quite the task, says the Hat.
Sirius sucks in a ragged breath. Where’s Harry? he asks. Put me with Harry Potter. I’m his godfather. I promised I’d take care of him.
You’ve been given a rare second chance. Are you sure you want to spend it living for somebody else?
Sirius shakes his head; the Hat tilts to the side, letting a slant of warm light in. I have promises to keep, he thinks. That’s the most important thing. I promised I’d fix it. Let me fix it.
The Hat says nothing. Then:
The Sorting has gone on long enough that the cheers are rather tired and hungry-sounding — but the Gryffindors cheer nonetheless. Sirius doesn’t spare the stool or the Hat or his brother a parting glance. He hurries over the Gryffindor table and squashes himself in between Creevey, Colin and Weasley, Ginevra, just as McGonagall calls “Blake, Reginald!” to the stool.
“Hello!” says Creevey brightly, reaching out a hand to Sirius. Distracted, Sirius shakes it, still peering down the table for a flash of Lily’s green eyes, James’ untidy hair —
“I’m Colin,” says Colin, expectantly.
“Sidney,” says Sirius, trying to get used to the shape of the strange name in his mouth.
“And that kid up there, he’s your brother? Are you twins? You look really alike. I’ve got a brother — Dennis — he’s two years younger than me — he was so excited when I got my letter — my mum and dad too — they’re not wizards at all so it was such a big surprise —”
Sirius finally gives up on looking for Harry, and glances back at the dais. Regulus is still there. Only the tip of his pointy nose is visible from under the brim of the Hat. He’d been a hatstall the first time around, too, Sirius remembers. He’s probably up there begging to be put back in Slytherin, Sirius thinks, though he had always maintained Regulus could well be smart enough for Ravenclaw if ever he managed to pull his stubborn head out of his stubborn arse.
“Goodness, but the Hat’s taking an awfully long time with him, isn’t it?” says Colin nervously. “Are your parents wizards? Do you know what House he wants to be put into?”
“He’ll be in Slytherin,” says Sirius, dismissive. “He’s a snake through and through, I suspect if you cut the bastard he’d bleed green —”
Sirius nearly falls off his seat.
The cheers this time are more enthusiastic, though Sirius suspects that has less to do with Regulus’s Sorting than it does with the prospect of the impending Feast. Regulus, meanwhile, appears stricken dumb where he stares at Sirius. He doesn’t move an inch until McGonagall gives him a gentle nudge from the stool, and then makes his way to the Gryffindor table like every step pains him.
Sirius laughs; he can’t quite help it. “ How? Did you even argue with it?”
“Obviously,” says Regulus, sitting across from Sirius, between a small brown boy — Farhad, Sirius thinks, and the first kid who had been Sorted, a freckle-faced Something Ayres.
“Your argument needs work, then. Sent me right where I asked it to.”
“Oh, believe me, I was quite insistent,” Regulus says. “Fucking thing's gone senile.”
Colin Creevey’s mouth has dropped open. “Do wizard parents not care about bad words? My mum would wash my mouth out if she heard me say something like that,” he says. The food appears on the plates, but he’s evidently too excited to eat any of it. “Anyway, I’m Colin!”
“Reg,” says Regulus, clearly having given up on maintaining Reginald. Probably a smart idea, though Sirius will go by “Sid” over his dead body.
Colin keeps going: “And this is Angharad —”
“Ana,” says Angharad.
“— Ana, and Farhad, and Ginevra —”
“Ginny,” says Ginevra.
“— Ginny, and Lucia, and Eilidh,” Colin finishes in one big breathless rush. “Are you twins? You look really similar. Do they have loads of magical twins? I saw these ginger two at the Gryffindor table earlier, but they’re completely identical —”
“Fred and George,” Ginny murmurs. “They’re my brothers. I have six.”
“Six brothers! WOW!”
“Merlin’s balls,” says Sirius, his stomach dropping into his shoes.
“It’s not that unusual,” Ginny says defensively.
“No, no, not your six brothers — Reg, is that who I think it is?”
Because a man has just stepped into the Great Hall. A very familiar-looking man, with a hooked nose and greasy black hair —
“That’s Professor Snape, isn’t it?” says Ginny.
“Professor Snape,” Sirius squeaks — he’d forgotten how pre-pubescent voices could do that —
Snape goes straight for McGonagall at the staff table, and appears to say something to her. Then he gestures at the Gryffindor table. Sirius shrinks down in his seat, but it’s too late — Snape has seen him.
Snape’s face does something ugly. Sirius ducks his head and examines with faux fascination the food on his plate. He wishes he could stare back, maybe even stick out his tongue like the child he once again is — but, he reminds himself forcibly, he doesn't know Severus Snape. He’s poor, orphaned, eleven-year-old Sidney Blake, from an orphanage in France. He’s never met Severus Snape before in his life.
“They’re leaving,” says Regulus in a low voice. “You can stop trying to telepathically communicate with your roasted potatoes.” Sirius kicks him under the table; Regulus rolls his eyes.
Speaking of roast potatoes, Sirius decides he ought to eat something. He’s hungry, which takes him by surprise. The last actual meal he’d eaten was probably Hallowe'en, before — nah. Best not to think about it. He and Regulus say very little. In fact, among their little gaggle of fellow first-years, Colin talks enough for all eight of them, keeping up an incessant stream of chatter all the way through the main course and well into dessert. Sirius doesn't complain; it means he can pretend not to notice the searching look Snape sends him as soon as he returns to the Great Hall with Dumbledore and McGonagall in tow.
Midway through dessert, a pair of identical red-haired boys detach themselves from the general hubbub of the rest of the Gryffindor table and hurry down to Ginny, half-jostling Sirius aside as they do. “Did you hear?” one asks.
She shakes her head.
“Ron and Harry flew Dad’s car to school!”
“They did what?” demands the bushy-haired girl Sirius had spotted earlier.
But Sirius is caught on the Harry bit — it must be him, it must be Harry — how many other Harry’s are there in Gryffindor? It’s him, it has to be —
“And,” says the other twin, “they crashed it into the Whomping Willow!”
“Harry?” says Sirius, before he can help it, “Like Harry Potter?”
Lucia looks up from her ice cream, while Farhad drops his spoon. Even Regulus stops picking idly at his food and starts paying attention.
“The one and only,” grins one of the twins.
“Mum is going to murder Ron,” Ginny says in a small voice.
“Who is Harry Potter?” asks Colin.
“He’s the Boy Who Lived,” says Lucia.
“He’s very nice,” says Ginny, cheeks pink.
“Why’d they call him the Boy Who Lived?” asks Colin.
Sirius says, “Voldemort killed his parents, and then he tried to kill him, but somehow the spell rebounded. Voldemort vanished and Harry — Harry Potter — he survived.” His voice doesn’t shake, but his hands are clammy. He ignores the scandalised gasps around the table at the sound of Voldemort’s name; it turns out that some things haven’t changed.
Colin frowns. “Who is Vol—”
“You’re not supposed to say his name!” Farhad drops his fork with a clatter.
Colin looks bewildered. “But Sidney just did —”
“Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself,” says Sirius, almost blankly. He’d heard Dumbledore parrot that one off on occasion — back before the Taboo, of course, but he supposes it seems like sound practice, especially now that the bastard is gone, hopefully for good.
James and Lily’s loss — Peter’s betrayal — it all feels red-raw. He finds he’s suddenly lost his appetite. But Harry, he reminds himself. Harry is still here. And Harry still needs him. And Harry apparently just flew a car into a tree. And not just any bloody tree, but the Whomping bloody Willow —
The Whomping Willow. He’d forgotten about Remus. How could he have forgotten Remus? He doesn’t know where Remus is, or what he’s doing now. He supposes it’s been nearly eleven years. Surely Remus has long moved on. He must still believe Sirius to be the traitor, since he had died in Azkaban…
The thought makes him even queasier. But it’s something to fret over later — for now, a ginger Gryffindor Prefect is approaching the first years to lead them to Gryffindor Tower, and, hopefully, to Harry.
Colin Creevey keeps chattering to an increasingly glaze-eyed audience the whole way to the Gryffindor Common Room. There is no sign of Harry in the Common Room, which has hardly changed in twenty years, though news of the flying car has spread and most of Gryffindor House appear to be waiting around for him and that Ron kid to show. The prefect, who introduced himself as Percy Weasley, is stern where he propels Sirius, Regulus, Colin and Farhad through the crowd and all but marches the four of them up to their dormitory. With an awful jolt, Sirius sees that it’s his dormitory, third from the top floor, window arched to a narrow point and four beds laid out in a semicircle. He pads numbly towards his old bed, drawing aside the curtains —
There: S.O.B. ‘71–‘78 carved onto the side of the headboard, the notches smoothed with age, but still quite legible.
Neither he nor Regulus have trunks to unpack, but folded on the end of each of their beds is a small, neat pile of clothing, scrounged up from the lost-and-found by the looks of it. There are faded blue pyjama bottoms with footballs on them for Regulus, while Sirius has pinstriped cotton that he will need to roll up three times at the ankle; old T-shirts, jumpers and cardigans, jeans that certainly won't fit without a belt, and plastic packets of new socks and underwear that had probably been shoplifted by a house-elf from the nearest Woolworths in Dufftown or Keith. Spare uniforms, clean, though well worn, are folded in a separate pile, and scuffed school shoes (mercifully looking like the right size) have been tucked neatly under the foot of their beds.
From riches to rags, Sirius thinks, and wants to laugh. He’s waiting for Regulus’s complaint. But none comes.
Instead, Regulus grabs the pyjama bottoms along with a T-shirt clearly left behind by some seventh-year, going by the way it swamps him, and strides into the bathroom to change. When he comes back, he dumps the rest of the clothes in the chest at the end of his bed, and without another word, climbs under the blankets and closes the four-poster curtains.
“Is he not feeling well?” Colin asks, in what was presumably meant to be a whisper. It is not a whisper.
“He’s shy,” lies Sirius. Truthfully, he doesn’t care for one of Regulus’s tantrums at the moment. He wants to see Harry. “Anyone else going back down to see what all the fuss is about?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, and hurries back down the winding stone stairs to the Common Room, just in time for a great big roar to rise up as a pair of twelve-year-old boys appear sheepishly through the portrait hole.
“Brilliant!” yells one student. “Inspired! What an entrance! Flying a car right into the Whomping Willow, people’ll be talking about that one for years —”
Sirius, Colin and Farhad have to hop a little to see Harry over the crowd; Sirius is struck for the first time over how inconvenient it is to be in such a small body. Just behind him, he can hear Percy Weasley titter with disapproval.
“Got to get upstairs,” Harry says, “bit tired,” and he brushes past Sirius on his way to his dormitory — he’s taller than Sirius, though not by very much — and Sirius could reach out and grab him, could tell him everything right here and right now — but he doesn’t — because Harry is taller than him, and Harry brushes past him, and Harry doesn’t spare so much as a glance in his direction.
Maybe Regulus had the right idea in going straight to bed. By the time he, Colin and Farhad trudge back up to their dormitory, Sirius is sure he won’t be able to sleep. And yet, as soon as he changes into the ill-fitting pyjamas and crawls under the covers, it’s like all the horror of the past few years falls suddenly away, leaving him clean and pure: he sleeps like a baby.