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Chapter Eighteen

The Mandrake Christmas

Sirius sat alone on the rooftop of Potter Manor, rolling a Muggle cigarette between his thumb and forefinger as cold night air swirled around him.

Clouds clogged the sky, heavy and swollen, hiding the stars from view, and the bite that nipped at his exposed flesh promised snow soon.

Despite the wintry night, it was the first time in nearly three weeks that Sirius felt at peace. The hush over the grounds was intimate and beautiful, like the breath held before the very first kiss. It offered him a refuge from the tumult in his heart.

At Hogwarts, it had been easy for his friends to avoid him. With the multitude of students and places to escape to, the only real tension had been the dormitory in Gryffindor Tower, but even that didn't last long once his friends began leaving before him and arriving back after he'd pretended to go to sleep. But Potter Manor was different.

Here, it was just him, James, Mr. and Mrs. Potter, and the occasional house-elf. Mrs. Potter had instantly sniffed out trouble after he and James had returned home, even before James had pointedly turned his back on Sirius and retreated to his room for the night.

The first few days had been uncomfortable as hell. Mrs. Potter—determined to get to the bottom of whatever was plaguing her boys—had insisted they all take their meals together in the dining room. She'd encouraged them to talk, but the conversation had been stilted, with James giving brusque, one-syllable answers, and scoffing under his breath whenever Sirius spoke. Mrs. Potter had admonished him for his behavior, but after James had shoved back from the table last night and announced he would only be taking his meals in his room, the forced mediation had been halted.

Sirius was stirred from his contemplation when the window leading out to the roof slid open behind him. He half-turned, catching James with one foot out the window, dressed in his pajamas and slippers with a blanket draped over his shoulders. James froze halfway, finally catching sight of Sirius, his face slipping into a scowl.

"Oh," he said. "I didn't realize you were out here."

Sirius waved his hand. "There's plenty of room for both of us. Just don't kick me off or anything. Falling off a roof isn't exactly the grand spectacle I had planned for my death."

But James's gaze had gone to the unlit cigarette in Sirius's hand. "The bloody hell did you get that?"

Sirius's mouth twitched in a grin. He shrugged. "Nicked it when I went into town yesterday to find parts for my bike."

James teetered, still halfway out the window. Eventually, he clambered on to the roof with a sigh. "Mum'll kill you if she finds out you have those."

"I get the feeling you wouldn't object."

James threw him a dirty glare as he settled on the shingles next to him. "Just because I'm mad as hell at you doesn't mean I want you dead, idiot." He paused. "I'm not you."

The words carved much deeper than they should have. He grit his teeth. "Of course. Because James Potter can do nothing wrong, being the self-righteous prick that he is."

"At least I don't treat people's lives like a joke!" James hissed. "I'd rather be a self-righteous prick than a self-centered one!"

Sirius scowled at the hidden horizon. "Look, I'm sorry, all right? What could've happened to Remus… Yeah, that's on me. I'll accept that. But don't expect me to grovel and beg for your forgiveness over someone like Snape."

The heat of James's gaze simmered on his cheek. "I know Snape is a lousy git. That's not what I'm angry about, though, Sirius. You can't just take matters into your own hands like that. You're not judge, jury, or executioner. Had something actually happened to Snape, there would've been massive consequences, and I don't think you're actually aware of that."

When Sirius said nothing, James sighed. "You and me… Rules didn't matter to us growing up. We had money, esteem, power. I'm not saying I'm ashamed of having what other people didn't, but I think we have to accept that maybe we let it get to our heads a bit."

"I didn't ask to be born a Black," Sirius said.

"No one does," said James. "But we're here. And it's our actions that define us, not our family or the circumstances we were given."

His words eerily echoed Cassie's from before: "Our rotten lives aren't an excuse, Sirius."

Sirius shook his head. Cold strands of hair tickled his face and neck at the movement. "I'm not like you, James. I'm not like Remus, Peter, Cassie…" He winced as the scar on his chest throbbed. "No matter how hard I try to deny it, there's always something about being a Black I can't shake. I'm not…good. Not like the rest of you."

James stared at him for a long moment. His hazel eyes were hard, but they held none of the fury or spite Sirius had grown used to seeing over the last few weeks.

"Not one person in the world is wholly good or wholly evil," he said. "After everything we've been through, I don't think anyone is truly Light or Dark. It's just what part of them that was Light or Dark they chose to act on that defined them. That defines us."

James sighed. "You're not irredeemable, Sirius. But you acted on the wrong part of you. So long as you don't do anything that bloody stupid again…I can forgive you."

Sirius's head snapped up. "What?"

He shrugged. "You're my brother. Always will be. And I'd be a pretty shitty brother if I didn't give you the opportunity to make up for what you did as best as possible." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "But you need to forgive yourself too, Sirius. Don't let this define you. Just…be better."

Sirius rolled the cigarette between his fingers again. He kept his face neutral, but James's words had filled his insides like warm butterbeer. James didn't hate him.

There was an indescribable bond between the two of them, ever since they'd met that day on the Hogwarts Express so many years ago. Remus and Peter were his best mates too, but James had always been more than that. More than a brother, even. The different side of the same coin.

He'd been terrified of losing James more than anyone. James, who was his partner-in-crime, his most loyal defender, the one who had gladly befriended a Black and stood by his side even when the rest of the world turned against him, the one who had welcomed Sirius into his own family after his mother had left him bloodied and cursed on the floor…

He didn't realize a tear had squeezed out of his eye until he felt it slip down his cheek, hot and fast. James just watched him, his expression softening.

"You'll still have to make it up to everyone else," he said, "but I'm tired of being angry, honestly. I dunno how Evans does it."

A hoarse laugh scraped from his throat. "Years of practice dealing with you, mate."

"Ah, that's it." James grabbed one corner of his blanket and threw it across Sirius. "How are you not freezing?"

"Tuned it out." He reached into his pocket and took out a lighter. "Share?"

"Mum's gonna kill us," he repeated, but he nodded eagerly.

Sirius lit the cigarette, took a deep drag, and immediately erupted into a coughing fit. "Shit! Dammit, that burns…"

James laughed and plucked the cigarette from his fingers. "Aw, c'mon, Pads, don't be such a wuss. It can't be that bad—" He inhaled sharply just before retching after one hit. "Merlin's beard! It tastes like piss!"

The two boys spent the next few minutes coughing despite their best attempts to keep it contained. Once they were done, red-faced and wheezing, Sirius glared in disgust at the vile thing.

"Bloody terrible," he muttered before stubbing it out and tossing it over the edge of the roof. "I'll stick to alcohol, thanks."

James rubbed his throat. "You tried talking to Remus again?"

"Not since we went on holiday." He sighed. "I think he'd be perfectly okay never having to speak to me again, to be honest."

"Nah, he misses you." James huddled deeper into his blanket. "Everyone does. Cassie's great and all, but she can't replace you as the fourth Marauder."

Sirius frowned at the mention of his now ex-girlfriend. "How is she?" He rolled his eyes at James's guilty look. "I'm not daft. I recognize her owl. You've written her this whole week."

"Just checking up on her," James said. He scratched the back of his neck. "But since we're on speaking terms again, I should probably tell you…"

Sirius listened in shock as James recounted Cassie's conversation with Professor Staghart the week before. His shock then morphed into outrage, and then an overwhelming sense of guilt.

"I should've been there for her," he said once James was done. His hands flexed in his lap. "I can't believe…"

"She doesn't think Staghart will make a move yet," James said. "We talked on the train, and I agree. He'll probably try and use the knowledge of the Seven Elders to get closer to her, try to earn her trust. He doesn't want the locket—yet. He just wants to find the other descendants first."

Sirius scowled. "Still. I don't want her to think that I'm not there for her anymore. I'll always protect her."

James patted his head with a cheeky grin. "Spoken like a true lapdog."

Sirius shrugged him off, though he was smiling too as they returned to their old banter. "Shove it."

James grinned again before he asked, "Do you want to get back together with her?"

Sirius nodded slowly. "If she forgives me, yes. But…she was furious, Prongs. More than you, I think."

"She's protective of Remus," he pointed out. "They're close. I'm not surprised she took it the way she did."

He frowned. "She holds on to grudges longer than anyone I've ever seen. It'll be a miracle if she even decides to still be friends with me."

James nudged his shoulder. "She'll come around. Don't worry."

"I s'pose I just have to wait and see."

"She's coming to the New Year's gala too. You'll have a chance to talk to her then."

"Right."

They fell silent after that, but Sirius was just glad to have James by his side again. They stayed on the roof for a long time, until one by one, snowflakes fell from the sky.


Cassie watched the snow fall outside of her bedroom window, her quill poised to write. Her parchment was blank, but James's letter from that morning lay open by her hand, his messy scrawl gleaming up at her.

Cassie,

Made up with Sirius last night. We talked things over, and I think he's ready to move on and become better again. Of course, he still needs to talk with you and Peter, and Remus, especially, but I'm going to give him another chance.

How's the mandrake leaf going? Have you swallowed one yet? Don't worry about it if you did—it's not toxic, but you might get some weird stomach problems. Speaking from experience, I went to the loo one morning—

Cassie had skipped over that part, not in the mood to lose her appetite over what seemed like an explicitly detailed analysis of James's bowel movements.

Anyway, Mum and Dad can't wait to see you again. I'll write again soon, but for now, Happy Christmas.

See you on New Year's,

James

Cassie put down her quill. She wasn't exactly upset with James for smoothing things over with Sirius, but she wasn't necessarily thrilled about it, either. That was his decision though. She'd make hers depending on whatever Remus decided in the future, since it was him who was affected the most by Sirius's deadly prank.

She rapped her fingers against her desk, pressing the mandrake leaf in her mouth between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. Its taste wasn't nearly as strong as she thought it would be, but she'd taken to over-salting everything she ate at mealtimes and doubling the amount of sugar in her tea to lessen the earthiness of the plant.

If her aunt and cousins thought it strange that she smiled with only her lips and spoke out of the corner of her mouth ever since arriving back, they didn't say anything, even though she'd caught Liv staring at her over the kitchen table once or twice. Her mandrake leaf was a success so far, despite her swallowing the first one five minutes after she'd put it in her mouth. She'd written Remus immediately after to thank him for snagging her some extras from the greenhouses.

Her holiday so far had been boring, but considering how her life was going at the moment, she had never been so grateful for boring. Her days had consisted of baking and taking tea with her aunt and playing games and making gingerbread houses with her cousins, and the normalcy of it all made her heart ache. There were no Dark Lords or Death Eaters waiting in the sitting room here, no one trying to persuade her to take over the world with them, and nothing to remind her of the mess that awaited her once she was back in the wizarding world.

Abandoning her reply to James for the moment, she got up and went downstairs, following the scent of baking pumpkin. When she got to the kitchen, her uncle David sat at the table with Ben and Mia, drinking spiced cider while the kids drank hot cocoa. David raised his mug in greeting to her, a newspaper before him, while Ben and Mia argued over who made more whipped cream with their cocoa.

Cassie joined Liv at the stove, where her aunt filled a pie crust with pumpkin filling. The scents of pumpkin and cinnamon made her mouth water, and she couldn't resist scooping up some of the filling with her finger and sticking it in her mouth.

"You're just as bad as the children," Liv admonished, lighthearted, as Cassie danced out of the way of the wooden spoon held in mock attack. "And that husband of mine."

David looked around at them. "I didn't do anything!"

Liv raised an eyebrow. "Between you and our kids, dear, there'd be nothing to fill this pie!"

"Slander," David said, going back to his newspaper, and Cassie grinned.

"Can I help with anything?" she asked her aunt.

"If you could grab the timer from over there—"

Cassie made sure David wasn't looking before Summoning the timer to her with her wand. It zoomed into her hand, and she held it out proudly to Liv.

Her aunt fixed her with a stern look. "I understand you're legally allowed to do magic outside of school now, Cassie—"

"—But that doesn't mean I should use it for every little thing," she finished. "It's just so much fun!"

Liv sighed. "Just try not to give anyone a heart attack, all right? Christmas is tomorrow, and I don't fancy having to take someone to the hospital."

"Who's going to the hospital?" Ben piped up.

"No one, honey," Liv said. "Why don't you go see if the holiday special is on the telly, yeah?"

"No! Me!" Mia cried, bolting out of her seat into the living room. "I get to see!"

"Mum said me!" Ben yelled, running after his sister.

David stood with a sigh as arguing started in the other room. "That's my cue." He walked to the living room. "Hey, don't fight over the remote…"

Liv finished the pie and stuck it in the oven while Cassie watched. Her aunt then put on the timer and unclipped her hair from the nape of her neck. It swung forward in glossy waves, as thick and beautiful as Cassie's mother's had been.

"Finally," Liv said, taking off her apron. "It feels like I've been in the kitchen all week."

Cassie grinned and leaned back on the counter. "Because you have. You've made enough desserts for the street, if not the entire neighborhood by now."

Liv smiled. "Baking is something I enjoy. It feels good to dirty my hands a little after being served by house-elves for years."

"It looks difficult," Cassie said. "I wouldn't know where to start. I've never had to cook for myself before."

"It's a good skill to know. I'll teach you sometime," Liv said, grabbing herself a glass of water. "I do have some advice for you though."

"What's that?"

"I'd try peppermint to hide the scent of mandrake if I were you."

Cassie froze. "Huh?"

Liv grinned into her glass. "You're not nearly as discreet as you think you are. I remember the smell of mandrakes quite well, though I can't recall what having one on your tongue does…"

Cassie grinned nervously. "It's, ah…an experiment I'm conducting. For Potions."

"Right." Liv nodded. "For Potions."

"Did you see the snow?" Cassie said, painfully steering the conversation away from the mandrake leaf in her mouth.

"You've been acting odd lately," Liv said, ignoring Cassie's attempt to divert her attention. "Is it because of your breakup with Sirius?"

"Godric, no." Cassie scowled. "I already told you: we broke up because it wasn't working. That's it. Nothing else."

"I know, I know. Just double-checking." Liv smiled. "I know it's your life, Cassie. I don't mean to pry at all. I just worry about you."

Cassie crossed her arms. "Thanks."

Liv frowned at her tone. "Not because I think you're fragile or anything. It's just… My parents never exactly cared about my wellbeing growing up. When I had children of my own, I vowed to change that. That's why I ask."

Cassie glanced at her aunt. "They weren't very nice, were they? My grandparents. The Vaughns."

"Not exactly." Liv set down her empty glass. "But I'm sure you already guessed that after I told you what happened after my little scandal."

She nodded. "What did the Vaughns do? When we went to the Ministry, those people talked about your family like they were…scared."

Her lips pursed. "It's not a heritage I'm proud of. Granted, the tradition died off a few generations before my own grandparents, but the ideals behind such traditions were not so easy to eradicate." She sighed. "The Vaughns were known for being notorious Muggle hunters a few centuries ago. They'd form a hunting party, find some poor unsuspecting Muggles—tramps, usually—people who wouldn't be missed if they'd disappear randomly—set them free deep in a forest somewhere, and hunt them down for sport with magical creatures and the worst curses imaginable." She shivered. "I once found a chest in our house's attic. It was filled with terrible things—rings, pieces of fabric from torn clothing, teeth—trophies from Muggles killed. I'll never forget it.

"So, you can see why I chose to leave behind such a blood-drenched name. The Vaughns were prideful and very, very cruel. It's no wonder the name still lives in infamy."

Cassie's eyebrows had increasingly risen with every sentence. She whistled. "Damn. That's…sick."

Liv scoffed. "Welcome to the reality of most pure-blood families, my dear. We all have our dirty secrets."

Cassie thought of her father leaving her the name Norvina in the case of his death, and of Staghart and Erebus Kane and Will with all their talk of superior bloodlines. The mandrake leaf suddenly tasted like ash in her mouth.

"Yeah," she said. "I guess we do."


On this episode of 'Who Has the Worst Family?'...

I loved writing the Sirius/James scene. Their friendship was always something I loved the most from the books, and I like the idea of James giving Sirius the same advice Sirius will give to Harry later in OotP.

Next Chapter: The Death Eaters

Until next time!