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A Conspiracy of Cartographers: Year Two [+podfic]

Chapter Text

The knocker was silver. Of course it was. With an internal sigh, Remus Lupin wrapped the loose sleeve of his robes around his hand and plucked gingerly at the twisted serpent, which made a surprisingly deep, hollow booming noise against the wood of the door. Remus shouldered his overnight bag more firmly and wondered for the hundredth time if this was really such a good idea.

The idea had been Sirius's, which made it dubious at best. But over the course of his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Sirius Black had become Remus's best friend, aside from Lily Evans, and he had sounded so desperate when, on the last day of term, he had invited his three roommates to his twelfth birthday, that Remus had immediately promised he would come.

Part of what made Remus so nervous, now that he was actually standing on the doorstep of the Black family home, was that he hadn't heard from Sirius at all since his friend had invited him, but that had only been four days before, so maybe it wasn't so odd. He hadn't had an owl from Lily yet, either, after all. The rest of what was causing him to shift anxiously from foot to foot was everything that Sirius had told Remus about his family.

The Blacks were pure-bloods -- a family of only witches and wizards dating back on both sides as far as anyone could remember. Of course there was nothing wrong with that in principle, any more than there was anything wrong with Remus being a half-blood wizard, or Lily being Muggleborn. Unfortunately, the Blacks were the sort of pure-bloods who thought otherwise. Sirius had been brought up in the belief that his blood made him better than anyone who was less "pure" than he was, and that his money made him better than other pure-blood wizards.

If Sirius had been Sorted into Slytherin House when he arrived at Hogwarts, as he had expected to be, he might still believe all that rubbish. Fortunately, he had been Sorted into Gryffindor, along with Remus and their friends James Potter and Peter Pettigrew, and over the course of the previous year, he had had most of those sorts of ideas shaken out of him.

But at this house -- number twelve, Grimmauld Place in London -- those ideas still reigned supreme, and Remus, with his mostly-Muggle heritage and his secondhand robes, knew better than to expect a warm welcome from Sirius's family. Little as he agreed with their ideas, however, Remus had no wish to antagonise his hosts. He was dressed in his best robes, and his mother had given him a haircut the day before, so he didn't look quite so scruffy as he had.

At least none of them know I'm a werewolf, he thought, eyeing the knocker again. If they ever found out his secret, even Sirius wouldn't welcome him, or probably ever speak to him again.

The door opened, and an ugly little face peered out from about the level of Remus's navel. The Black family house-elf. He looked Remus up and down contemptuously.

"What does you want?" he croaked in a deep, bullfrog voice.

"I -- that is -- Sirius invited me --" he stammered.

"Who is it, Kreacher?" asked a voice.

The door opened wider to reveal a boy of about ten. He had Sirius's black hair, grey eyes, and long, dark lashes, but his features were less vivid and finely-drawn than his brother's. His eyes narrowed as he beheld Remus.

"Can I help you?" His voice was cold.

Remus hitched a friendly smile onto his face and took a deep breath. "You must be Regulus. I'm Remus Lupin. Your brother invited me --"

Footsteps pounded down the stairs and the door was suddenly flung wide to reveal a scowling Sirius, long hair hanging about his face, rather than pulled back in his usual fashion. Whether this was calculated to annoy his parents, or because he was not allowed to use magic at home to tie it back, or to hide the shadow of a bruise on his cheek, Remus couldn't be sure. With barely a glance at Remus, Sirius rounded on his brother and the house-elf. "Bugger off, you two."

"Just wanted to see who you'd invited," Regulus sulked before flinging himself down the hall and out of sight.

"Mistress will not be pleased that you has invited nasty Mudblood filth into the house of her ancestors, Master Sirius," muttered Kreacher. He vanished with a pop as Sirius, with a shout of rage, made a grab for him.

Remus stared down at his feet, feeling desperately out of place. "Happy birthday. Sorry I'm late," he mumbled. "Had to get a bus from the Leaky Cauldron."

"C'mon," said Sirius gruffly, turning his back. "James and Pete are already here."

As Remus followed Sirius up the stairs, he couldn't help staring at his surroundings. Everything in the house looked either extremely expensive or very, very old. Moving portraits of people wearing the fashions of ages past glared suspiciously at Remus from the walls, interspersed with old-fashioned gas lamps. A delicate silver and crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, clearly of the same craftsmanship as the door knocker, with the same serpent motif. Decorative objects in ivory, silver, ebony, jade and other expensive materials graced end tables and curio cabinets. It was rather like being in a gloomy and dimly-lit Wizarding version of the British Museum.

At the first landing, Remus recoiled from a display of mounted house-elf heads.

"Don't ask," muttered Sirius.

Sirius's bedroom was enormous. Almost as big as their entire dormitory in Gryffindor tower. But aside from his school trunk, there was not much to mark it as Sirius's. It looked much like the rest of the house, only with empty rectangles on the faded wallpaper showing where portraits used to hang, and without any of the fancy decorative objects Remus had noted elsewhere.

"My parents were afraid I'd wreck them," said Sirius smugly, when he caught Remus eyeing the empty walls.

James and Peter were playing a game of Gobstones on the floor. James glanced up long enough to exchange a nod of greeting with Remus.

"Hey, Remus," grinned Peter, looking up. "I'm about to beat James if you want in on the next game."

"Maybe," said Remus, setting his overnight bag with the others'. "So. How've things been?"

"The usual." Sirius raised his chin, eyes glinting like steel. "Doesn't matter, though. Mother and Father can say what they like about my 'attitude', but they can't make me think like them." His fingers rose unconsciously to brush his bruised cheek.

Remus wasn't so sure, but refrained from comment. Instead, he sat down on the floor to watch James and Peter finish their game. "At least they let you have your friends over for your birthday."

Sirius joined him on the floor, smug look back in place. "We have an agreement. They let me have you lot here, and I said I'd be civil to whoever they invite for tea."

"Who've they invited?" Remus asked.

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Girls. But not as many as usual. It turns out I'm less 'eligible' now that I'm a Gryffindor, so it'll probably just be desperate types and daughters from poorer families."

Remus blinked at him. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm the heir," Sirius said with a shrug. "Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, and all that rot. I'm supposed to marry some pure-blood girl and continue the family line, aren't I?"

"And -- you're going along with that?" Remus's love of reading had made him a bit of a romantic at heart, and this went against all his sensibilities.

Sirius looked down, picking at the carpet. "Dunno. I haven't liked any of the girls yet. Not that that matters. But they're all brainless and snobby and spoilt and --"

"Sounds like a good match to me," chuckled James.

"Shut it, you," said Sirius, punching his best friend lightly in the knee.

"I wouldn't mind if Mum invited a bunch of girls over for me," Peter mused, lining up his Gobstones for his next move.

Sirius laughed. "They'd have to be pretty desperate to go for you."

Peter blushed, missing his shot, and James threw Sirius a sharp look, which the other boy ignored. Remus shifted uncomfortably. Sirius frequently teased Peter, but it had been months since he'd been nasty about it.

"Anyway," Sirius continued, "I was thinking we could prank them. The girls, I mean. There's lots of spiders in the attic, and --"

"I thought you promised to be nice to them?" Remus interrupted. Sirius gave him a sour look. "Sure. Spoil all my fun, Lupin. Whose birthday is it, anyway?"

But James was shaking his head, too. "I don't think it's a good idea. At school, maybe, but --"

"Oh, good!" sneered Sirius, rolling his eyes. "Two Lupins. Now the fun can really begin! What about you, Pete?"

Peter was reluctant to venture an opinion. "Maybe. I dunno. It's girls, isn't it?"

"Fine!" declared Sirius. "No pranks. How am I supposed to pick a wife if you lot won't even let me see what she does when there are spiders in her hair?"

"Keep on like this, and my money's on you dying alone," James muttered as he aimed his last Gobstone at one of Peter's.

The stones clicked together and Peter's turned over, spraying the blond boy full in the face with its stinging juice.

"I believe that's a win for me," said James with a grin. "Who's up next?"

Remus had seen Sirius's father before, but never his mother. Orion Black was a tall man in his middle forties who might have been handsome if not for the hard lines of sneering disapproval carved around his eyes and mouth. He had the same grey eyes and black hair as his sons, but was beginning to go silver at the temples. Walburga Black's hair had probably been black once, too, but she now wore it in an elaborate grey knot at the back of her head. Her face was pinched and sour, and it was impossible to tell if she had ever been an attractive woman.

"Lupin?" she said, dark eyes narrowing suspiciously down at him. "I don't believe I know that name. Who are your parents, boy?"

Remus screwed up as much of his Gryffindor courage as he could manage. He had no wish to antagonise Sirius's mother, but he would not let her make him ashamed of his parents, either. "My father used to work for the Ministry," he said quietly. "My mother is a Muggle."

She gave a shocked little sniff, and turned narrowed black eyes on her son. "I see."

Sirius moved to stand beside him, making a show of draping an arm casually across Remus's shoulders. "Remus is one of my best friends, Mother."

Is that why I'm here? Remus wondered. To prove a point to your family?

Sirius's parents had known Peter for some time. James, as the pure-blood son of a noted Auror, was, if not an honoured guest, at least tolerated. Remus, it seemed, was going to be ignored, which was something of a relief to him. If he could just make it through tea and back up to Sirius's room for the night, everything would be all right.

The other guests had begun to arrive by then. There were five of them in all, and, as Sirius had predicted, they were all girls. Remus knew a few of them. Venice Corbet and her best friend Elswith More were Gryffindors in the same year as him and his friends at Hogwarts. Madeleine Yaxley was also in their year, but in Slytherin. Another girl, Bertha Jorkins, had to be almost sixteen, and the fifth guest, whose name Remus didn't catch, was a little girl of no more than four with a lazy eye.

Sirius's parents ushered all of the children, including Regulus, into the parlour for a social hour before tea was served. They gave Remus a look that said they would rather shut him up in a broom cupboard than force his company on their more civilised guests, but they had no choice but to send him in with the rest.

Kreacher the house-elf served them punch from a large crystal bowl. When he refused to acknowledge Remus's presence, Sirius snatched a tumbler from his thin fingers and shoved it into Remus's hands, glaring at the house-elf, then stormed over to an armchair in a corner, where he flounced glowering forbiddingly at everyone.

Peter and Regulus sat down on the floor, got out their Gobstone sets, and began to play, though Peter kept glancing around distractedly at the girls, especially Corbet and Yaxley, who were both rather pretty. James quickly became involved in an animated discussion about Quidditch and Gryffindor's chances for the coming year with the two Gryffindor girls, who wore friendly smiles but kept shooting furtive glances at Sirius. Yaxley and Jorkins were exchanging Slytherin gossip in another corner.

The little girl pulled a book off a shelf, sat down against the wall, and began telling herself a story. Remus crouched down beside her.

"Hi, what's your name?"

"Ada," she lisped shyly.

"I'm Remus. Would you tell me a story?"

She gave him a wide smile, and began telling him all about a princess who had been turned into a dragon by a kindly witch to save her from an evil prince, every now and then remembering to turn the pages of the Wizarding peerage book in her lap. Remus listened attentively, and decided that this was better than Quidditch talk or gossip or trying to coax his temperamental friend into conversation.

Her parents dumped her here hoping to match her with Sirius, poor kid, he thought. Much as he liked Sirius most of the time, he couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for anyone who might have to put up with his moodiness every day for the rest of their life.

"What are you doing?"

Remus looked up to see Sirius standing over him.

"I'm being friendly."

"A bit young for you, isn't she?"

"At least she's not looking down her nose at me."

"Yeah? Well, give her a few years. I'm sure she'll learn."

Remus didn't think Sirius meant it as a barb against him, but the words still stung. It was yet another reminder that the place he held in the magical world was tenuous at best. Without money or family connections, he would have to rely on his wits and his skill at magic to get by, but even that would probably not be enough once people knew his secret. At school, he was safe under the protection of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, but he knew that the real world would treat him much more like the one inside number twelve, Grimmauld Place.

"Did you want something, Sirius?"

His friend's jaw was set belligerently. "Why didn't you come talk to me?"

"It didn't look like you wanted company."

"Well, you might've tried."

Remus sighed. "I'm sorry, Sirius. Was there something you wanted to talk about?"

"That's a really old book. She probably shouldn't be touching it."

"Your parents probably wouldn't want me getting my half-blood fingerprints all over it either," Remus muttered. He was getting tired of Sirius looming over him. "Ada, Sweetheart, I'm sorry but we have to put the book away now."

"'Ada, Sweetheart'," Sirius mimicked in a sneery singsong voice. The room had gone very quiet. "Are you betrothed already?"

Remus got to his feet and faced his friend. The little girl clung to his robes, unsure whether the situation called for tears. "Why? Afraid I'll take away one of your options? I'm sure her parents wouldn't like me any more than yours do."

"Probably not, if they want me for her. Shall we find out?" Sirius lowered his eyes to the little girl, smirking. "Hey, Ada. Did you know Remus is a half-blood?"

She immediately let go of him, stepping back. "Dirty half-blood," she lisped uncertainly, staring up at him with huge eyes.

Remus's stomach clenched. Everyone was staring at him.

"Sirius --" James said quietly, putting himself between his friends.

Kreacher appeared in the parlour doorway. "Tea is prepared, if the young masters and mistresses will be following."

Sirius turned away and followed the rest of his guests out of the room without a word.

James hesitated. "He's just edgy because of being here, I think. He doesn't mean anything by it."

"Yeah." Remus stared uncertainly after the departing boy. "You're probably right."

He trailed along behind the others down the hall to an exquisitely appointed dining room. A dozen high-backed chairs carved out of dark wood surrounded a long table covered in a green linen tablecloth. Two ornate silver candelabra stood on the table, providing a deceptively warm glow. Sirius's parents were already seated at the head and foot of the table, and Sirius and Regulus automatically took the seats at their father's right and left hands. Venice Corbet grabbed the seat next to Sirius, shunting his friends down the table. Remus ended awkwardly positioned between Peter and Mrs Black, who wrinkled her nose at him, as if his proximity might cause her to lose her appetite.

"A toast," said Mr Black, once they were all seated. "To Sirius. My son. My heir. May his fortunes and his judgment only improve from this day forwards."

Remus had reached for his goblet with the rest, but quickly drew back, heart sinking. Silver. The goblet was silver. And so was the cutlery. Of course it was. How could he have been so thick? Remus stared down at his place setting with growing horror. There was no way he would be able to fake his way through this. He couldn't very well eat with his hands, nor could he beg off sick and starve himself until he returned home the following afternoon -- not with his appetite growing daily with the waxing moon.

"Is there a problem?" Mrs Black asked coldly.

He stood abruptly, pushing his chair away from the table.

"Remus?" said Peter. "Are you OK?"

"Sorry," he mumbled, looking at no one. "Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going."

He turned and fled from the room.

Sirius was annoyed. He had been annoyed since his return from Hogwarts four days before. His parents annoyed him with their ill-concealed contempt for him. Regulus annoyed him by siding with his parents and clinging to their stupid ideas of pure-blood elitism. Kreacher annoyed him with muttered comments about how Sirius had disgraced his name and his blood. These stupid girls were annoying him with their mindless chatter and simpering looks. And now Remus was annoying him, too, showing up in his least-worn robes with that stupid new haircut, as if he thought Sirius's parents wouldn't know him for an unmoneyed half-blood on sight.

But most of all, Sirius was annoyed with himself. He had wanted Remus here for the personal satisfaction of inviting a half-blood werewolf into his blood-proud parents' home, but somehow he had never considered how nasty his family were likely to be to Remus, nor how Remus might feel about it. It would have been all right if Remus had stood up for himself, like he had with Severus Snape only a few weeks earlier, but instead, he was acting just like he had at the very beginning of their first year, withdrawing and running away, undoing all the work Sirius had put into drawing him out and setting him on the road to acting like a normal boy, and that -- that was really annoying.

Sirius stormed into the hallway where Remus stood with his back to him, shoulders hunched, staring at the front door's silver knob.

"What the hell was that all about, Lupin?" he shouted.

Remus turned, but his eyes stayed fixed on the floor, his hands in his pockets. "This was a bad idea. I shouldn't've come."

"Yeah?" said Sirius. "Well, maybe you shouldn't've, if you're just going to embarrass me in front of my family like that, and prove them right about everything."

Remus flinched, hunching his shoulders like a kicked dog, and Sirius immediately felt ten times worse. He wanted to say or do something to force Remus not be like that. Hex him or hit him or kiss him or anything to shock him out of his stupid, pointless passivity. How could they sort anything out if Remus wouldn't fight back or even look at him?

"Why don't you grow a spine, Lupin? Start acting like a Gryffindor, since you're supposed to be one."

"Please, Sirius," Remus begged, raising desperate brown eyes to meet his for a second.

"Fine!" snapped Sirius. He grabbed the other boy by the arm and hauled him back into the parlour. Swiping a decorative jar from the mantelpiece, he scooped out a handful of Floo powder and threw it on the grate where it blazed into green flames. "Run away. See if I care."

Without looking at him, Remus stumbled to the fireplace, and with a whispered word, he was gone.

For a moment, Sirius stared into the empty hearth, trying and failing to find some way of making this all Remus's fault. Turning on his heel, he sailed back into the dining room, subsiding into his chair. He glared defiance at the staring faces up and down the table, daring them to make something of it. Only James wasn't looking at him. His eyes were fixed on his plate, and he was shovelling food into his mouth as though nothing had happened.

"Well," said his mother. "I think we've all learned something about the connection between good breeding and good manners today." She looked almost pleased.

Sirius decided that if he couldn't make it Remus's fault, he could most certainly make it his parents'.

"I learned that good breeding means you can be rude to a guest and still feel superior, so long as his breeding's not as good as yours."

"Now, Sirius," said his father, a hint of warning in his voice. "We didn't make your little friend leave. I, for one, was prepared to tolerate his presence in our home for the duration of his visit."

"I think it was really generous of you to invite him," said Venice Corbet, turning simpering blue eyes on him. "I can't believe he was so ungrateful to make a scene like that. He doesn't deserve a friend like you."

"Probably not," Sirius muttered, guilt twinging in his guts.

"Venice really likes you, Sirius," said Elswith More, seated across the table next to Regulus. "She's been telling me for ages."

"Elsie!" cried Venice, a look of shocked delight on her face. "You weren't supposed to tell him!"

But Sirius strongly suspected that she had been meant to tell him exactly that. The two girls had every appearance of having learnt their lines off by heart. He groaned internally. His parents were looking more and more pleased.

"Venice was asking me the other day what I thought your favourite colours were," More continued.

Sirius raised his chin and glared at his father's nodding approval. "Red and gold."

Orion Black frowned slightly, then shrugged and went back to his meal.

"Gryffindor colours! I told you Elsie!" exclaimed Corbet. "I love them, too, of course."

"Marigolds," said More decisively. "A wreath of them in your hair, and for the bouquet as well."

"Perfect!" declared Corbet, clapping her hands together.

Sirius glared suspiciously back and forth between the two girls. "What in the name of Godric Gryffindor are you two on about?"

"Our wedding," Corbet dimpled at him prettily.

Sirius heard a snort from somewhere down the table. James.

For a second, he stared at the girl, openmouthed with shock. "What makes you think I would ever want to marry a stuck-up bint like you?"

"Sirius!" gasped his mother.

"Or any of you?" demanded Sirius, rising to his feet, flushed with rage. "This is my choice? Snooty Gryffindors? The two dimmest Slytherins ever? And her!" He gestured towards the little girl, Ada. "What am I meant to do with her? Change her nappies?"

"Sirius Orion Black," thundered his father, standing up. "You will close your mouth this instant, or by all that is pure and powerful, I will close it for you."

Sirius glared up at him. "If it keeps me from having to say 'I do' to any of these bints, then that's fine by me."

Whatever James Potter might have thought of his best friend's parents, he couldn't help but approve of Sirius's father's choice of hexes. The Mouth-Sealing jinx was a definite improvement.

"Aren't you going to do the counter-jinx?" Peter asked nervously. "Because I don't remember it."

"Not supposed to do magic outside school, am I?" said James.

The muffled sounds coming from behind Sirius's locked lips increased in pitch and volume, and if looks could kill, the glare he shot at James would have vaporised him on the spot.

The three of them were back in Sirius's massive bedroom, following the exodus of the less-than-pleased female contingent of the guests. Sirius had been given strict orders not to come out of his room until he had written letters of apology to each of the girls and their parents. James noted that Sirius's parents had not required that an apology be sent to Remus, though James privately thought one was in order.

"C'mon, James," entreated Peter. "Just take it off him and let's forget about it. We can play a game or something."

"All right," James said. "I'll take it off. But only because I want a word with you, Black."

He had not brought his own wand, due to strict laws regarding underage magic, but a quick rummage through Sirius's school trunk uncovered his. He pointed it lazily at his friend, contemplating all the other jinxes and hexes Sirius richly deserved at the moment.

"Hisce," he said at last, giving the wand a little sweeping twirl.

Sirius's mouth opened with a smacking sound, and he rubbed his jaw. "I cannot believe you were thinking of leaving me like that, Potter!"

"I can always redo it," James reminded him.

"I'm -- ah -- just off to the toilet," said Peter, with a terrified glance between them. "I'll be back when --" He turned and fled.

Sirius narrowed his eyes at James. "Give me my wand, you prat."

"I don't think so." James was not about to let himself be intimidated by some spoilt, posh tosser who thought he was better than everyone else. "First we're going to talk about why I don't like it here."

"So sorry my ancestral home doesn't live up to the standards of James Potter," Sirius sneered, flouncing onto his bed.

James glared at him with unaccustomed ire. "No. I don't like you here, Black. Four days back with your family, and you're acting just like them. Maybe I was a prat about Remus last spring, but you --" He held up his hand and began counting off on his fingers. "You were a prick to the house-elf, you were a prick to your parents, you were a prick to your brother, you were a prick to those girls -- she was four, Black; she hadn't done anything to you, and you made her cry."

"She snubbed Remus," said Sirius defiantly.

"You snubbed Remus," James snapped. "I heard what you said to him. We all bloody did, while your mum and dad just sat there, smirking. Didn't you call yourself his 'champion' last year? You were a prick to him, and now you're being a prick to me."

Sirius's mouth twisted. "What about Pete?"

James rolled his eyes. "You're always a prick to Pete. Now, can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't hit you?"

"I'm your best mate."

"No," James shook his head. "The bloke I know at Hogwarts -- the one who actually cares about his friends -- he's my best mate. I don't know who you are."

"Maybe this is who I am," Sirius sneered. "Ever think of that, Potter?"

James gave him a piercing look. "No it's not. You're better than this. You've just got your head too far up your arse right now to see it."

"Yeah?" said Sirius. "Well, maybe you're not as good a mate as I thought."

"There's where you're wrong, Black," James told him. "I'm mate enough to knock you over the head when you're making a complete ass of yourself. If I wasn't such a good mate, I'd've been off right behind Remus, and you'd be left here all alone to celebrate your birthday with Pete and your family."

Sirius struggled with his expression for a moment, and then he grinned. "Well, there's your reason, mate."

James glared at him suspiciously. "My reason for what?"

"You can't hit me because it's my birthday."

They stared at one another for a long moment, and then both of them burst out laughing. James collapsed onto the bed, and they giggled and wheezed until tears ran down their faces and Peter returned to stare at them as if they'd both gone mad.

"You sorted things out, then?" Peter asked warily.

"Merlin's arse!" gasped James. "This has got to be the worst birthday party ever!"

"You should hear about some of my other ones," Sirius told him, and they were off again, laughing until their stomach muscles hurt and all they could do was lie there, fizzing giddily at the ceiling.

"Thanks," Sirius said when he was able to speak again. "I needed that."

James rolled over on his front, flourishing the wand at Sirius in mock-threat. "Ready to admit the error of your ways, Black?"

"Maybe," Sirius confessed. "I guess I knew I was being a prat, but everyone was just being so bloody irritating. I hate it here."

"Can't say I blame you, mate," James said sympathetically. "Are you going to write those apologies?"

Sirius shook his head. "Why should I when I'm not sorry? My parents can't make me, and I don't care what their families think."

"Some of them were all right," said Peter.

Sirius snorted. "Which ones?"

Peter blushed. "Maddy was nice."

"Nice?" said James sceptically. "You know she's a Slytherin, right, Pete?"

"I know," Peter looked at his toes. "But she's really pretty, and she remembered my name."

James looked at Sirius, and they both shrugged. There was no accounting for taste. Not that James thought Peter was wrong about Yaxley's looks. She had long dark hair and wide green eyes, and was really not bad to look at, for a Slytherin, but James had seen her in Potions class, and had gained the distinct impression that she had about as much brain as Peter's pet Puffskein.

"What about you, mate?" said Sirius. "Did you fancy any of them?"

James frowned. "Corbet and More were all right when we were talking Quidditch, but not really my type."

"What's your type, then?" Peter asked.

"Redheads," James grinned.

Sirius laughed. "Evans?"

James rolled his eyes. "She's got about as much sense of humour as McGonagall, doesn't like Quidditch, and can't stand the sight of me. Yes, I think I'll propose."

"What about Tildy Hathersage?" Peter asked curiously. Matilda Hathersage, another Gryffindor, was also a redhead, and had been very open about her interest in James the previous year.

James shrugged. "Maybe. At least she likes Quidditch."

"Maybe I should ask Evans out," Sirius mused, clearly imagining how his parents would react if they discovered their son and heir was seeing a Muggleborn girl. "I'm loads better looking than Snivellus."

"A brilliant plan," said James, chuckling at his best friend's modesty, "aside from the fact that she can't stand you any more than me. D'you even fancy her?"

Sirius shook his head. "Not really into redheads."

James grinned. "Good to know we won't be fighting over girls, at least."

They were just settling into a game of Exploding Snap when the door creaked open a crack. Sirius's head jerked up, eyes narrowed, mouth tight, but James caught his eye and gave him a quelling look, and he relaxed slightly.

"You can come in if you want, Regs," he said, only a little grudgingly.

The younger boy came hesitantly into the room, and James and Peter shifted over to allow him into the circle of the game.

James turned to him. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced. James Potter." He held out his hand.

Regulus returned the gesture, shaking hands awkwardly. "Regulus Black."

"A pleasure to meet you, Regulus," James said cordially. "But it's only fair to warn you -- and I think your brother will back me up -- if you say anything rude about half-bloods or Muggleborns in my hearing, I will thump you. Do we have an understanding?"

Regulus nodded slowly, and James smiled, dealing him into the game.

"Are Mother and Father still furious?" Sirius asked his brother.

Regulus nodded again, grey eyes wide. "I couldn't believe what you said to those girls, Sirius. What if you have to marry one of them someday?"

Sirius scowled. "If you're so keen on them, why don't you marry one of them?"

"Probably will," mumbled Regulus, shifting uncomfortably.

James watched as Sirius looked at his brother for a long moment. "You don't have to, you know, Regs," he said quietly. Regulus didn't raise his eyes from his cards. "I'm not like you, Sirius. I'm not a Gryffindor."

"Yeah, well, I didn't think I was, either," said Sirius. "We'll see what the Hat says next year. All I know is that I'm not marrying anyone Mother and Father hand-pick for me."

Later that night, after Regulus had gone back to his own room, and Peter was snoring on the far edge of the enormous bed, curled up against the wall, James and Sirius's voices continued quietly in the darkness.

"What's Pete's house like?" James asked. He leaned up on one elbow, looking down at his friend lying on his back beside him, barely able to make out his face.

Sirius shrugged. "A bit like a being in a junk shop. His mum collects all kinds of old rubbish. Figurines and things. And no one's allowed to touch them or play with them or bring them to life and make them fight."

James chuckled at that, wondering how many of Mrs Pettigrew's treasures had been lost to Sirius's exuberance.

"Why d'you want to know?" his friend asked sleepily. "Fancy a visit?"

It was James's turn to shrug. "I was just thinking. When you're a kid, living at home with your parents, you just sort of assume your life's normal, and everyone else's is pretty much like yours. But it's not, is it?"

Sirius laughed softly. "What? No dead house-elves up on the walls at your place?"

"No." James smiled lopsidedly. "Nothing like that. And nothing like Pete's house from the sound of it, either. And Remus's life has to be different, too, because of -- you know. And then there's you." He raised a hand tentatively to touch his friend's cheek in the darkness. "Was it your dad that hit you, or your mum?"

Sirius gave a huff of embarrassment, turning away. "Father," he admitted. "But they don't usually do that, before you go thinking I'm some sad case who gets knocked around by his parents all the time. Usually, it's just going to bed without supper. Or the cellar overnight, if I've done something really dreadful."

James didn't see that that was any better than parents who hit, but wasn't prepared to make an issue of it at the moment. "What made your dad hit you?"

"Called Voldemort 'Moldywart'." Sirius sounded a bit smug. "They think he's got the right idea about things, and I just -- got tired of hearing about it."

"What do you think they'll do after we go home tomorrow?" James asked quietly.

"Dunno. You don't have to go, though. They probably won't do much of anything if you stay."

James shook his head. "I can't stay here."

"Oh." Sirius sounded disappointed. "That's OK. I know it's rubbish here, and --"

"And you can't stay here either, mate," James said firmly. "You're coming home with me tomorrow."