Disclaimer: I'm just playing in the Harry Potter sandbox. If you recognize it from elsewhere, I don't own it.
Beta-readers: Many thanks to Clara and Ceci.
"The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black"
The sultry summer breeze blew in through the open window, rustling the loose sheets of parchment scattered across the messy desk. The telescope perched on the window sill spun idly, creaking at every quarter turn, and the half completed star chart lay abandoned beside it. Across the room, the door stood ajar, the single lamp casting a shaft of orange light onto the otherwise dark hallway. Half a family portrait was illuminated. Three occupants smiled from inside the frame; the dark-haired father with his arm around his wife's shoulder; the mother nervously flattened her wild curls; and the handsome son raked one hand through his untidy mop of jet black hair.
James Potter slipped back into his bedroom silently, shutting the door with his foot as he juggled a plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in one hand and a gigantic glass of ice cold milk in the other. Just before the door shut completely, a house-elf stuck its head into the room. In a high-pitched but whispered voice, she scolded her master for not waking her up to make food for him.
"Go back to sleep, Jilly," James laughed. "It's too late to unmake the sandwiches now."
The house-elf stood on the threshold for a moment before leaving, squeaking madly as she disappeared down the dark hallway. James turned back to his homework and lifted a sandwich from the plate. He wasn't usually one to do homework so early during summer holiday, but it was three forty-three in the morning and there was nothing else to do.
For half an hour, the silence was broken only by the rustling of leaves just outside the window and the scratching of the quill as James labeled constellations and galaxies. He tossed down the quill in disgust as a great dollop of grape jam splattered onto the perfect dots representing Canis Minor. He eyed the wand lying on his bedside table, wondering if he could get away with casting a simple charm to lift the jelly stain off the parchment. He decided that the Ministry of Magic had been serious when they sent him the warning for casting the Trip Jinx three summers ago.
A wide grin spread across his lips as he thought about Sirius tumbling down three flights of stairs, cursing the entire time. He could picture his best friend's shocked and betrayed expression during the tenuous seconds before his balance shifted, and then … clunk … clunk …
James sat up straight. He could have sworn that he had really heard the third clunk he had been remembering. The rustling leaves seemed louder than ever as he sat perfectly still. Several tense moments passed, but James heard nothing else. Convinced that he had been enjoying the memory of tripping Sirius too much, he turned back to his jelly-stained homework.
He was just about to try licking the jelly off the parchment when he heard the sound again. He dashed over to his window, instinctively picking up his wand as he moved across the room. James gazed out at the dark backyard, squinting for signs of anything unusual. The moon was only a small sliver in the sky, perfect for star gazing, but terrible for detecting intruders. The branches of the ancient oak swayed ominously, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
James shook his head, thinking it was about time for him to get to bed. Then he saw it: a dark figure slipping out from under the boughs of the oak. He gripped his wand tightly and bolted across the room. He reached out to turn off the lamp, but withdrew his hand at the last second. Turning off the light would alert the intruder that someone in the house knew he was sneaking around. James dashed down the two flights of stairs, through the drawing room, and into the conservatory.
The intruder cast a long shadow on the glass walls as he moved slowly for the door. James wondered why the burglar was moving so slowly, but immediately rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. The intruder was sneaking, obviously.
"Alohomora," the intruder whispered.
James tensed. It was a wizard breaking into their house. It was either a burglar who had heard about the Potters' wealth or a Dark wizard who had labeled the family as blood traitors. Since the Death Eaters roved in packs, James assumed it was a lonely burglar looking for gold. He knew enough magic to handle a burglar.
The moment the door swung open and he had a clear shot, James cast the most effective and disabling spell he knew. It was one that Moony had taught him and practice on Snivellus had helped him perfect. It was the crippling and hilarious Fire Eyes Hex, or as Lily Evans jokingly called it, the Wizarding Mace Hex.
"Merlin's beard, Prongs!"
James's heart stopped beating for a moment as Sirius Black stumbled backwards, bumped into his trunk, and flipped over. Sirius hissed a string of continuous curses at his best friend until James climbed over Sirius's trunk and performed the countercurse.
Sirius rubbed his eyes furiously, still cursing at James. James took the opportunity to survey his best friend. The full moon they had spent up north with Remus was only two weeks past, and Sirius didn't usually need to get away from his lunatic mother so often. However, the large trunk he had brought was a signal that Sirius planned to stay for the rest of the summer.
When Sirius removed his hands from his face, he looked more disgruntled than James could ever remember seeing him. The usual smile hitched onto his lips was replaced with a nasty scowl, and his eyes were dark and narrowed. Granted, he wasn't bound to look happy after having his eyeballs burned, but James had a feeling there was more to it than just that.
Sirius dropped onto the cool, damp grass and stared across the dark yard. Usually he just barged into the house and crashed in the guest bedroom. James knew his best friend well enough to know that he needed to talk, but didn't know how to begin. He eased onto the ground next to Sirius, staring silently into the darkness.
"I think I crushed your mum's roses with my trunk," Sirius said, after several silent minutes.
"Ah, she won't mind. You at breakfast will more than make up for her ruined roses. Now, if I had so much as stepped into her precious flowerbeds …."
The silence settled again, this time stretching for much longer than before. James leaned against the trunk that was still blocking the doorway, waiting patiently for Sirius to find a way of explaining what had happened this time. They were so close that silence between them wasn't awkward or unusual. It just … was. It was as natural as breathing to accept that they didn't always have something to say to one another.
When the first fingers of purple dawn stretched over the eastern horizon and the sparrows in the oak tree began singing, Sirius turned his head slightly to make sure James was still awake. James's eyes were wide open, and all his attention was focused on Sirius.
"She told me I had to prove my loyalty, to join Voldemort or be banished from the family."
There was no need for Sirius to clarify who "she" was. It was his mother. It was always his mother. James remained silent, sensing that Sirius wasn't finished talking.
"I told her to go to Hell, and she blasted my name off the tapestry. I mean, I always knew she would do it …. Just not in front of me."
James grasped his best friend's shoulder firmly. It was the most physical contact Sirius would tolerate at this point.
"Family is who you make it," James said simply.
Sirius turned to look at him again, and James was suddenly struck by the inadequacy of his words. Emotions he had never seen before were swimming in Sirius's gray eyes: pain, isolation, doubt. Those things were so antithetical to the Padfoot he had always known that James felt as if the entire world had lurched and he couldn't figure out which way was up.
How little had he known his best friend? He wondered if he'd ever really looked beyond the corny jokes and laughter to see the real Sirius as James was seeing him now. Everyone had family problems, James had always thought. Peter hated his parents almost as much as Sirius hated his, and Remus was barely on speaking terms with his father … But, Mr. and Mrs. Pettigrew and Mr. Lupin wouldn't ever banish their children. They would work something out one day, when their sons were no longer angst-ridden teenagers … but not the Blacks.
Black. James suddenly realized. It was as if he had known it all along, but refused to see it. He didn't want to acknowledge it because of the horrible, dark implications associated with it. Sirius was a Black. He was branded as a pureblood elitist … a Muggle-hater … a Slytherin …
Except Padfoot wasn't any of that. He was a pureblood who associated with Muggle-borns and half-bloods indiscriminately, who was friends with a werewolf, who had been sorted into Gryffindor for his courage and his loyalty …. His courage to walk away from a family history of pureblood mania and his loyalty to his ideals and his friends.
A heavy weight settled into James's chest, pushing the air out of his lungs. It caused a strange discomfort to understand why Sirius always laughed the loudest and fought the hardest. It was the need to prove himself. But to whom? To his family who would never accept him? No, James didn't think that was it. A burning sense of guilt bubbled up in his stomach. Sirius worked so hard to prove himself to his friends … to prove that he was a Black in name only.
James mentally berated himself. Someone less self-absorbed would have understood that ages ago. People who weren't even Sirius's closest friends had probably figured it out. Of course, Remus had undoubtedly hinted about it before, but James had been too caught up in his own affairs to pay much attention. He hated it that Moony knew everything. And damn it all to Hell, Evans was right! Arrogant … self-absorbed … selfish …. Yeah, Evans had him pegged.
Well, not any more. If there was anyone worth swallowing his pride for it was Sirius. Merlin knew how often Sirius played second best to James. It didn't matter how uncomfortable it felt for him to be sensitive and compassionate, James wasn't about to let his best mate suffer alone anymore.
James squeezed Sirius's shoulder again, drawing his friend's attention away from the rising sun.
"You're my brother, Padfoot. You know that, right?"
Sirius answered by grasping James's shoulder. They sat in silence for several more minutes, staring at the sun with their hands resting on one another's shoulders.
"Can a guy get some breakfast around here?" Sirius asked.
James almost laughed, but the stabbing guilt killed the sound in his throat. It was always Sirius who broke the tension with a joke. It wasn't fair that he should have to be funny after his mother had just kicked him out of the family. There wasn't anything funny about that.
"Yeah, Jilly can get us something to eat. We should get this trunk up to your room first, though. We've still got another month before we go back to school, so you'll want to get settled in. Mum's probably up by now. I'll go tell her you're here. She might even use a Levitation Charm on your trunk so we don't have to carry it up three flights of stairs."
Sirius followed James automatically, but he didn't hear all of what his best friend was saying. It had been such a long and confusing night. His mother's actions shouldn't have upset him so badly, but they had. He'd expected to lie in the guest bedroom all night, haunted by his mother's shrieked insults. But James hadn't called it the guest bedroom; he'd called it Sirius's room. Almost like it was his home away from Hogwarts.
And it was. He didn't have anywhere else to go now, but that seemed all right.
James had been wide-awake and willing to listen when he'd arrived. And what's more, he'd called Sirius his brother. He hadn't said "like a brother." He had called Sirius his brother. Like a family member. And if he was part of the Potter family, then he didn't have to be a member of the Black family anymore.
Sirius paused at the foot of the stairs, his attention no longer focused on James's retreating back. Upon a fragile spindly-legged table with chipped and dented edges sat a cluster of mismatched picture frames. Tucked inside a gilded frame was a photograph of himself taken at the Holyhead versus Puddlemere United Quidditch match the previous summer. The photographic Sirius was grinning broadly and leaning against the frame. There wasn't anyone else in the picture … just him, Sirius. All around his picture were images of deceased grandparents and great uncles, of James and his dad, of Mrs. Potter and baby James.
And there was a place among them for Sirius.