Something heavy and squirmy bounced into the middle of Sirius Black's bed, forcing him out of a relatively peaceful slumber. Sirius opened one eye, then burrowed under the pillow.
"Go 'way, Regs. 'M asleep."
"Can't sleep!" his four-year-old brother Regulus declared. "It's your birthday!"
Sirius groaned and went limp. Not that he didn't like birthdays. Not that he didn't enjoy getting large, shiny, expensive presents. Not that he didn't like being the centre of attention for a whole day. No, what made him feel like faking terminal illness was his mother's idea of what constituted a proper birthday celebration for the heir to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. This year, she had decided, it should include girls. Most notably Sirius's three cousins, but also a number of other "presentable young ladies" -- all from good, pure-blood families -- who would be coming to the house for tea that afternoon. Sirius, at the now great age of six, had no use for girls whatsoever. They giggled and simpered and would probably want to play games involving kissing. He shuddered.
Regulus had meanwhile grabbed him by the hand, and was now trying to extract him bodily from the bed, wrenching at his arm. Sirius vainly hoped that the arm might come off, thus providing him with an excuse to stay in his room today. Unfortunately, Regulus had other ideas.
"Kreacher!" he called in a singsong voice.
There was a sharp crack, and the Black family house-elf stood in the centre of the room. He and Sirius eyed one another with mutual dislike.
"What does the young Master wish?" croaked Kreacher, bowing deeply to Regulus.
"Help me get Sirius outta bed?" the boy asked. "Please?"
You don't ask house-elves, Sirius thought moodily. You tell them.
But there was no point trying to make this argument with his younger brother. Regulus and Kreacher positively adored one another, and since the firm lessons in good manners given by their parents had taken deeper root in Regulus than in Sirius, asking nicely and saying "please" were second nature to him.
"Anything the young Master wishes," said Kreacher. With a snap of his thin, knobbly fingers, the blankets ripped out of Sirius's grasp, stripping themselves from the bed. The curtains yanked themselves roughly apart, and blazing sunlight poured into the room.
"Oi!" Sirius roared.
But he couldn't very well stay in bed without any blankets, so he reluctantly sat up, cursing the rudeness of house-elves under his breath with a few choice words his mother would have been shocked to discover he knew. The floor was chilly under his bare feet, despite it being the first day of summer, and Sirius shivered. Reaching for a pair of socks, he paused, a nasty grin spreading across his face. He bent down and picked up a wadded-up ball of fabric instead.
"Hey, Kreacher! Catch!" he said, tossing it to the startled house-elf.
Regulus was quick, though, and had seen Sirius try this sort of thing before. He didn't catch the crumpled shirt, but he did manage to knock it away before Kreacher could accidentally touch it.
"That's not nice, Sirius," Regulus scolded, scowling as only a four-year-old can. "Kreacher doesn't want to be freed, and Mother would whip you if she found out."
Sirius shrugged as if that were of no concern to him, and reached for his socks once more. He knew his brother would never rat on him. Regulus might be fond of the house-elf, but that was nothing compared to how much he loved, admired, and looked up to his older brother.
Kreacher gave him a cold look and popped back out of sight as Sirius hopped awkwardly into his socks, shrugged on his dressing gown, and headed downstairs in Regulus's wake. Breakfast was waiting for them in the dining room, and their parents barely looked up from their conversation to say, "Manners!" as the boys fell on the food like starving animals.
Their father was gazing critically at a piece of parchment which Sirius recognised as the carefully-compiled guest list his mother had made for the day's dubious festivities.
"Well, what about the Yaxley girl?" Orion Black said. "She's Sirius's age, and probably even pretty, but I don't see her name on here."
Walburga Black had the world's thinnest lips, and when she pursed them, they disappeared altogether. "'Pretty' doesn't make up for the scandal over her father," she said. "There are plenty of other girls to choose from."
Orion looked at the list again and grunted. "It would save us a lot of trouble if you could just talk your brother and Druella into pledging Narcissa to him."
"You think I don't know that?" snapped Walburga. "I've told you. They think Narcissa is too old for Sirius. Why should they wait twelve years to marry her off when they can do it in six?"
"Have they had any offers for her yet?" Orion asked.
"No," Walburga sniffed. "They've pledged Bellatrix to the Lestrange boy, and Cygnus told me they're holding Andromeda in reserve in case the match between Abraxas Malfoy's son and the Prewett girl falls through. I've heard Molly Prewett's too saucy to make a proper wife or mother, so there's a better than even chance of it. Anyway, you know as well as I do why no one's offered for Narcissa yet."
"The hair?" her husband smirked.
"Blonde!" his wife declared. "And where did she get that, I ask you? Druella swears she's Cygnus's daughter, but I wouldn't put it past the woman to have found some way to alter the official record in her favour."
As Walburga continued to expound upon the merits and deficiencies of the other dozen or so pure-blood girls on the list, and Orion grunted his responses, their sons largely ignored them. Sirius was busy making faces at his little brother across the table, trying to get milk to come out Regulus's nose, but he had not succeeded thus far. Regulus was trying hard to ignore Sirius, too, quietly singing nursery rhymes to himself under his breath.
"There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Seventeen times as high as the moon;
Where she was going I couldn't but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom."
"You're too old for baby songs," snapped his mother, overhearing him.
"'Old woman, old woman, old woman,' quoth I," Sirius picked up the rhyme, grinning at his brother and pointedly ignoring his parents' sour looks. He couldn't carry a tune, but he could do "loud" very well. "'Where are you going to up so high?' 'To brush the cobwebs off the sky!'"
"'May I go with you?'" giggled Regulus.
"'Aye, by-and-by,'" finished Sirius, getting up from the table.
The boys adjourned to the sitting room, Regulus first carefully delivering his plate to the kitchen, while Sirius left his on the table for Kreacher to take care of. When their banging and crashing and shrieking and giggling became too much, their parents appeared in the doorway, looking displeased.
"What's going on in here?" their father glowered.
Regulus lay on his back, arms and legs in the air, as Sirius crouched over him, hands curved into claws, growling.
"We're playing werewolves," their younger son giggled.
Walburga scowled, and Orion's face went red with fury. "I will not have the heirs to the House of Black comporting themselves like mangy, half-breed monsters." His voice was dangerously quiet. "It's unseemly and I will not stand for it. You are better than that."
Regulus looked as if he were about to cry, and Sirius quickly leapt to his defence, fists clenched at his sides, jaw stubbornly set.
"It's just a game," he said fiercely.
His mother's hand flashed out and delivered him a ringing slap on the cheek. "Don't you take that tone with your father!" she hissed. "You will apologise at once!"
Sirius's face blanched white. He bit his lip and swallowed hard, forcing down the sudden lump in his throat. Blacks don't cry, he reminded himself savagely. It was not, after all, the first time one of his parents had struck him.
"Forgive me, Father," he said evenly, nails biting into his palms. "I meant no disrespect."
When his father gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment, Sirius turned away. "C'mon, Regs," he said, holding out a hand to his brother and pasting a grin he didn't feel on his face. "We can find a better game than this."
Regulus's eyes flicked nervously to his parents, and he returned his brother's smile tremulously, taking the offered hand and getting to his feet. When Sirius crossed his eyes and mouthed, ghouls, so his parents couldn't see, the younger boy relaxed slightly.
"Aroooo," Sirius howled softly under his breath as they left the room, mentally adding "werewolves" to his growing list of Things Which Annoyed His Parents.
Guests began arriving shortly after noon, and Sirius's parents required his presence to greet them at the door.
The first to arrive was Sirius's best friend, if such a term could be used to describe Peter Pettigrew. The truth was that most of Sirius's "friends" were hand-picked by his parents, with more consideration given to their social and familial connections than to their personalities. Peter was more like Sirius's number one fan, not including Regulus, which was not really the same thing as a friend, but still put him head and shoulders above the rest of Sirius's acquaintances, many of whom he could barely stand.
The Pettigrew family were not quite so ancient as the Blacks, and they were comparatively poor. Peter's mother, Almira, provided their main support while also caring for her young son, her husband having died a few years before, when a complicated spell of some sort had backfired. Peter knew enough to be grateful for the friendship of the more privileged boy. He laughed at all of Sirius's jokes, and went along with whatever he wanted to do.
"Hi," Peter said as his mother greeted Walburga. "Who's here?"
"No one yet," Sirius told him sullenly, "but Mother's invited a bunch of girls."
Peter shrugged, apparently seeing no problem with this arrangement. He handed Sirius a small but glitteringly-wrapped present. "When's cake?" he asked.
Sirius's cousins, Bellatrix, Andromeda and Narcissa, arrived soon after. Not only were they girls; they were almost ladies, they were so old. Bellatrix was fifteen, beginning to be pretty, and played at being prim and stuck up so well that the sly hexes she cast when people's backs were turned were almost always blamed on someone else. Eleven-year-old Narcissa was Bellatrix's blonde shadow, doing all she could to mimic the almost-regal poise of her eldest sister. Andromeda, the middle sister, often took the blame for Bellatrix's hexes. At thirteen, she was a bit of a tomboy. She looked awkward and uncomfortable in the dress robes her parents had no doubt insisted that she wear for the occasion, but she was the only one of the three sisters to smile at her young cousins and wish Sirius a happy birthday. Sirius thought she was all right, for a girl.
Andromeda and Peter weren't the only welcome faces. Sirius's favourite uncle, his mother's brother Alphard, showed up with hugs, gifts, and a rather handsome man whom he introduced to his nephews as his associate, Amadeus Saint John.
Before long, Number Twelve Grimmauld Place was overrun with almost two dozen children -- most of them girls much closer to Sirius's age than his cousins -- as well as various aunts, uncles, grandparents and family friends, all requiring formal and respectful greetings from the increasingly bored and petulant birthday boy. At last, Sirius and his unwelcome entourage were permitted to escape upstairs, where they could at least make more noise away from the watchful eyes of the adults.
It was worse than Sirius had expected. The girls did want to play kissing games. Doris Purkiss, a very forwards five-year-old, was the first to suggest a game of Spin the Wand, glancing eagerly between Sirius and a seven-year-old boy named Belisarius Boardman, who went by the unlikely nickname of "Stubby". The suggestion was quickly taken up by Venice Corbet and her best friend, Elswith More, and by the Hathersage sisters, Cecilia and Matilda. Sirius felt deeply betrayed when even normally-timid Peter and Stubby's best friend Dorian Gaveston sold out on their gender and claimed to be up for the game.
Andromeda and Narcissa, on the other hand, declared themselves too old to play kissing games with "little kids", but Bellatrix, with a sly grin, plopped herself down in the circle and offered her own wand to spin. The thought of having to kiss his older cousin frankly terrified Sirius -- he had a strong suspicion that she would make it as humiliating an experience as possible -- but he knew better than to show it. Fear was weakness, he had been told time and again, and should be just as foreign a concept to a man of the Black family as tears. It was better to laugh than to appear weak.
A few of the boys rolled their eyes and said they were going to go play Exploding Snap if all Sirius could offer was girly entertainment. Sirius looked longingly after them, but he knew Regulus was still a little afraid of the loud noises involved in the card game, and he wasn't about to abandon his brother to what passed for feminine mercy.
Most of the other children were looking at him, instinctively waiting for him to decide what he wanted to do. He was the heir to the House of Black, after all -- one of the oldest, wealthiest, purest families in Wizarding Britain -- and they had been trained almost from birth to follow his lead. Sirius, for his part, had learned to accept such deference as his due, regally acknowledging the adulation of his subordinates. Grinning and shrugging as if he didn't care one way or the other, he sank to the floor between Regulus and Peter.
The problem with Spin the Wand, as opposed to spinning some other, non-magical item, was that the wand knew who the spinner wanted it to point at, as well as who absolutely did not want to be pointed at, and it turned out that Bellatrix's wand was as perverse as she was. By the time the children were called back downstairs for tea, Sirius had been forced to suffer wet, soppy kisses from nearly every girl in the room, as well as a rather horrifying one from Bellatrix herself, who had actually tried to stick her tongue in his mouth. He was only thankful that the girls seemed to be ignoring Regulus.
Sirius was almost glad to rejoin the throng of watchful and disapproving adults in the back garden. At least there were enough eyes on him there that he didn't have to worry too much about turning his back on his eldest cousin.
The garden had been been decorated by Kreacher under Walburga's critical eye. Garlands and bunting hung from the trees and walls, long tables had been laid out with fancy cloths and piled high with food of every imaginable sort, and there was an enormous cake emblazoned with the Black family crest and motto. His mother had seen to it that a few of his own favourite foods were included, for which Sirius was grateful, but he knew the generous abundance had more to do with impressing the guests than with him. Sirius loaded up his plate and went to sit with Peter, Regulus, and a few of the other boys.
"The cake looks brilliant," Peter said. "What kind is it?"
"Knowing Kreacher, probably 'poison'," scowled Sirius. He had just noticed that, somehow, without appearing to be burnt, his favourite sausage rolls tasted burnt. "Kreacher!"
The house-elf appeared with a crack and stared at Sirius sullenly.
"You burnt my sausage rolls," Sirius informed him. "Go slam your head in the door."
A few of the other boys giggled, and Peter snorted, but as the house-elf turned away, grumbling, Regulus jumped out of his seat.
"Stop it, Sirius!" he said. "Kreacher, you don't have to. I forbid it."
Technically, when a house-elf was given contradictory orders, it was supposed to obey the higher authority, which should have been Sirius, but Kreacher had a bad habit of picking and choosing in situations where he knew Sirius's parents would side with Regulus rather than their older son.
"As the young Master wishes," he said with a bow to the younger boy. He vanished quickly before Sirius could order him to do anything else.
"You'd think they were in love," Sirius said to his sniggering audience, sneering at his brother. "He's too thick to understand what servants are for. Hey, Regs! Why don't you go see if Kreacher wants to play Spin the Wand with you?"
Regulus blushed furiously and fled, probably to go cling to their mother's skirts for the rest of the afternoon. The other boys laughed.
"Sirius!" called a voice a few tables away. "Can I have a word with the birthday boy?"
Obediently, Sirius hopped down from his chair and went to where his Uncle Alphard was sitting with his associate. Alphard put a hand on his nephew's shoulder, drawing him in close.
"I heard what you said, Sirius," he told the boy, quietly enough that they wouldn't be overheard. "That was not well done. A man should defend those who cannot defend themselves. And a brother even more so."
His uncle's tone was gentle, and he softened the words with a smile, but Sirius hung his head in shame. He liked his mother's brother, and wanted Alphard to think well of him.
"Sorry, Uncle," he mumbled.
"Don't apologise to me," Alphard said kindly, giving him a pat on the shoulder. "Your brother's the one who needs to hear it. You're a good boy when you remember to be, Sirius. Now, I think they're going to be toasting you in just a minute. Why don't you go see if your father will let you have a sip of wine?"
Sirius flashed his uncle a grin and fled to the drinks table, where his father was overseeing the pouring of glasses of dark red wine.
"Father," he said as winningly as he knew how. "May I please?"
Orion considered his young son for a moment, then shrugged and handed Sirius a glass containing a much smaller measure of wine than the rest. Accepting it eagerly, Sirius tilted the glass to his lips, holding it between both hands. It tasted strange and sweet and rich on his tongue.
"Save some for the toast," his father admonished, not unkindly.
Fortunately, he didn't have long to wait. Soon everyone had finished eating. Kreacher cleared away the empty plates, and began handing out wine glasses to the adults, and to any of the children whose parents gave them permission to partake in the toast.
Orion Black raised his own glass and declared in a carrying voice, "To my son, Sirius Orion Black, the pride and promise of our House. May he ever be mindful of his duty, and safeguard the sanctity of his blood and ours for generations to come. Toujours Pur!"
"Toujours Pur!" cried every voice.
Sirius drained his glass. He looked around to grin his appreciation to his uncle, but Alphard and his associate were nowhere to be seen. With a shrug, Sirius returned to the drinks table to see if he could wheedle a little more wine out of his father, but all that stood on the table now were empty bottles.
"Your mother's just going to the pantry to fetch some more," his father told him with a nod towards his wife, who was disappearing into the house, Regulus trailing despondently along behind her.
His brother was still clearly upset about the scene with Kreacher, and Sirius's conscience twinged. When one came right down to it, Regulus was his best friend, besides being his own blood. His Uncle Alphard was right; Sirius should apologise. Maybe he should do it now, away from all the guests.
And that was how Sirius happened to be closer than most when he heard his mother's shriek.
He had barely stepped through the back door into the kitchen when Walburga cried, "Alphard! What in the name of all that is pure and powerful --?"
She was standing at the entrance to the pantry, eyes wide, face white with shock, Regulus peering around her skirt. A moment later, Alphard and his associate came stumbling out of the pantry, blushing furiously. Sirius was aware of a sudden crush of people in the doorway behind him, summoned by his mother's cry.
Walburga's wits did not desert her for long.
"Filth!" she shrieked, flying at the two men, raining them with blows. "Blood-traitor! You are disgusting! How dare you do such a thing in my house?! Get out at once, and take your nasty, Mudblood trollop with you!"
Sirius did not understand. What could his uncle have been doing in the pantry to so enrage his mother? Had they drunk all the wine? They couldn't have been in there long enough.
Alphard and his associate did not argue, but hurriedly grabbed their cloaks from the rack by the door, and departed. Just before the door closed behind them, Alphard's eye caught Sirius's. Astoundingly, he smiled, and threw his nephew a wink. And then he was gone.
Of course everyone who had been in the garden wanted to know what had happened. They pestered the boys, but Sirius and Regulus only shook their heads, not having understood any of the incident themselves. Sirius's parents cast one another grim, meaningful looks, but said very little. Gossip and scandal were among the worst things that could happen to a family's good name. Walburga, tightlipped, informed the guests that she had caught her brother trying to steal certain Black family heirlooms, but Sirius knew this could not be true. What heirlooms did they keep in the pantry?
Regulus was frightened by the incident, and Sirius was confused and hurt by the hasty departure of his favourite uncle.
"D'you think we'll ever see him again?" Regulus asked tremulously. He had returned to his brother's side, terrified by their mother's fit of rage, and had been sticking to Sirius like a small burr ever since.
"Dunno," Sirius said glumly. "Regs, I'm sorry about what I said before."
"S'OK," Regulus told him.
But Sirius didn't feel like anything was OK just then.
The party had broken up not long after Alphard's hasty exodus, the guests barely staying for the cake. Alphard's departure had broken the festive mood, but Sirius had heard his mother whisper bitterly to his father that they all wanted to get a head start on the gossip.
"Do you think they know?" his father asked.
"No, they don't know," she replied. "But they can guess."
Sirius could not guess, though. That night, he lay awake and bewildered in his bed, wondering what could possibly have happened.
When the house grew quiet, Sirius heard his door creak open. He had been expecting it.
"Bad dreams?" he asked.
"No," Regulus replied. "Is it OK if I sleep with you?"
Sirius shifted over so that Regulus could crawl up onto the bed beside him. He would never admit it, but he loved it when his brother came to him for comfort. There were plenty of times like tonight when Sirius felt sad or lost or scared or confused, and he never knew what to do about it for himself. But when Regulus needed him, he could forget about his own worries, and feel like he was doing something good to keep both of their troubles at bay.
"Mother was so angry," Regulus said in soft wonder, cuddling close to his brother.
"Yeah," said Sirius. "I just don't get it."
"Me either," admitted his brother. There was a long silence, and then he added, "They weren't stealing anything, either."
"Did you see what they were doing?" Sirius asked.
"Yeah," said Regulus. "They were kissing."
"Why would they do that?" It didn't make any sense. Why would two men kiss each other? Girls were the ones who liked kissing. Regulus must have seen it wrong.