Author's Note: Many thanks to my Betas Clara and Ceci.

Escape

Chapter Four

"The Death of Sirius Black"

Albus Dumbledore stared at the small box and letter lying on his oak desk. All around him, magical instruments sitting on spindly-legged tables whizzed and spun. The newly reborn baby Fawkes was cooing a phoenix song softly from his bed of ashes. But Albus's attention was focused on the box and the letter. The portraits of old headmasters and headmistresses were strangely silent this afternoon. Perhaps it was the absence of Phineas Nigellus that subdued them. Or perhaps they sensed that Albus would not tolerate their chatter this day.

The great wizard was many things, but he was not a bitter old man. Yet he could not fight down the burning in the back of his throat as he studied the black velvet box with interlocking silver M's and the heavy, neatly folded parchment. Usually, he was a veritable fountain of information, always working and learning. But today, Albus's mind was blank except for one old Muggle phrase that Aberforth was fond of saying at the most arbitrary moments.

Too little. Too late.

It seemed months had passed since Harry Potter nearly destroyed the Head's Office, but it was really only a week. The students had all boarded the Hogwarts Express earlier that day and the school had emptied except for the few professors like himself with little or no family to visit during the summer holiday.

The events in the Department of Mysteries felt like old memories to Albus. There would be widespread fear and panic now that Tom Riddle had revealed himself. But Albus couldn't concentrate on that at the moment. All he could feel was the sadness settling into his heart.

Everywhere he looked, he was reminded of Sirius Black. Only a year ago, he had sat in front of Albus's desk listening to Harry tell about Tom's rebirth. Sirius loved his godson and would have done--no, he did--everything within his power to protect Harry. He had risked recapture and the dementor's Kiss to see Harry through the Triwizard Tournament. He had gone into the Ministry of Magic itself, knowing full well that Albus could not have saved him had any witch or wizard not in the Order spotted him, to protect Harry.

A little over a two decades ago, Sirius had been one of the most valued members of the Order of the Phoenix, beyond suspicion and held in high esteem. He had been a living example of what Albus believed in most strongly: it is the choices that define the man, not the abilities. Sirius had been raised to value only purebloods and given the chance to learn Dark magic and gain powers beyond his wildest imagining. But he had become friends with wizards labeled blood traitors, Muggle-borns, and a werewolf.

It seemed like a century had passed since Albus had lectured eleven-year-old Sirius for slipping Exploding Chalk into Minerva's desk. A smile tugged at the corners of Albus's lips, but it was hidden by his silver beard. Albus had known then that Sirius was destined for greatness. Any first-year with enough nerve to prank Minerva McGonagall was Auror material.

Albus traced the crease in the parchment with the tips of his fingers. He had read the message and contemplated giving it to Harry. But Albus knew that it wasn't a good idea. Harry hadn't even begun the grieving process. To hand him the box and the letter would be tantamount to throwing stones at an angry dragon.

Slowly, he unfolded the letter. He didn't know why he wanted to read it again. It only caused the bitterness to grow, but his fingers moved of their own volition.

To the family and friends of Sirius A. Black,

The Ministry of Magic wishes to extend its condolences to you at this tragic time. We also offer our sincerest apologies for the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Black. New evidence has come to light that proves Mr. Black did not commit the murders for which he was imprisoned. As such, the Order of Merlin, First Class is forthwith stripped from Mr. Peter Pettigrew.

For his courage in the Department of Mysteries, the Ministry of Magic awards Mr. Sirius A. Black the Order of Merlin, First Class.

Sincerely,

Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic

With trembling hands, Albus refolded the letter. It was so inadequate and flippant that he found it hard to control the rage rising up. It was just like Cornelius to think that an Order of Merlin, First Class would right the wrongs done again Sirius. There was no mention that Bartemis Crouch, Sr. hadn't allowed a trial, no mention of the strength it took to live with dementors for twelve years, no mention that Sirius was not a Death Eater … in other words, it said nothing about Sirius's true character.

The medal sitting inside the black box caught the light of the setting sun and cast a pearly reflection onto the empty canvas where Phineas Nigellus usually sat. The flowing script etched onto the gold medallion read "Sirius A. Black; Order of Merlin, First Class; for bravery and sacrifice." Well, a Gryffindor couldn't ask for anymore, really. Still …

Too Little. Too Late.

Albus sighed wearily. The opening of the letter continued to torment him. To the family and friends of Sirius A. Black. The Order already knew that Sirius was innocent. He supposed he could give the letter and medal to Remus, but Albus didn't think it would be any comfort. If anything, it would only serve to depress the man even more. Nymphadora wouldn't want it either. She'd likely rip up the letter and throw away the medal, then regret it later.

Finally, just as the sun was settling behind the horizon, Albus decided who should receive the items. He hadn't thought about her in quite a long time, but no one could truly forget her. She had been another student Albus deeply respected. Her courage didn't come from acts of heroism or even moral fiber, as most Gryffindors' did. Her bravery lay in her ability to open her heart and love freely without fear. It was a quality very few people possessed and one that Albus valued above all others.

The Headmaster stepped outside the gates of the Hogwarts Grounds fifteen minutes later with the box and letter tucked into his pocket. Hagrid waved farewell and Fang barked loudly as Albus turned sharply and Disapparated with a pop.

Next moment, he was standing in a sleepy village in southern Kent. Copses of trees lined the narrow, winding road that led into the village. A dilapidated old barn with windows black from dirt was all that remained of the original wizarding settlement. In the distance, lights twinkled from the windows of moderately sized homes. It was an entirely Muggle village except for one house at the end of Epperson Street, and even that home had electricity and a vehicle sitting in the drive.

Albus pulled the bell and waited patiently. Inside the house, a large dog bellowed and charged the front door. A familiar voice admonished the pet sternly before the door opened. The woman had aged since Albus had last seen her, but she was as beautiful as ever. Her dark hair and gray eyes were so reminiscent of her family, but like Sirius, she had chosen a very different path.

"Professor Dumbledore!" Andromeda Tonks exclaimed.

"Good evening, Andromeda. I hope I find you well. How is Nymphadora?"

Andromeda's face fell slightly, but she recovered quickly. "She'll be fine in a few days. But why are we talking on the stoop? Come in. Would you like some tea?"

When he nodded, she pulled out a cleverly concealed wand and went to work summoning cups and crumpets. Finally, she settled onto the couch across from the armchair Albus sat on.

"To what do I owe this visit?" she asked.

Albus put down the tea cup gently. Of course she would want to know why he had turned up on her doorstep after not seeing her for nearly a decade. He had expected the question, but did not relish giving the answer.

"Has Nymphadora told you about Sirius?"

The vestiges of Andromeda's smile faltered, and she too set down her cup. She studied the intertwined fingers in her lap for a moment before nodding.

"Yes. When I went to St. Mungo's to see her she told me that he … about what happened."

She seemed to want to say more, but couldn't find the words. Albus removed the letter and black velvet box from inside his robes and placed them on the coffee table.

"These arrived this morning. I thought you might want them."

While Andromeda scanned the letter, Albus glanced around the room. Photographs of Nymphadora lined the mantelpiece, all of them with different hair colors and all knocking over the props inside the frame. A man with mousy brown hair and kind blue eyes, presumably Ted Tonks, was in several of the pictures as well.

The parchment rustled as Andromeda set aside the letter. She was examining the Order of Merlin medal when Albus looked at her again. A deep frown pulled down the corners of her lips and her eyebrows were knitted in consternation.

"It's … well … he deserves …" She paused for a very long moment. "It's just too little, too late, isn't it?" she asked.

"I couldn't have said it better myself."

She looked up at the headmaster, her eyes misty. Perhaps she wanted to say how sorry she was for having believed that Sirius was a murderer. Maybe she wanted to confess the guilt she felt for not visiting him during the past year. Albus couldn't know what she was thinking, and she didn't seem to want to tell him.

Silently, Andromeda slid the letter and box back across the coffee table. Albus held in his sigh. It seemed that no one was willing to accept the horribly inadequate words of the Ministry.

"Thank you for showing it to me," she said quietly. "Not that I appreciate anything the Ministry has to say about Sirius, but all the same. At least I know that he's earned the Order of Merlin, First Class that he's deserved since the first war."

Albus collected the items and stood up. Andromeda escorted him to the door, shoving the behemoth dog out of the way as they stepped onto the front porch.

"Do you know of anyone else who should see these?" Albus asked.

Andromeda thought for a long moment. As he suspected, most of the Blacks who had rejected their family's pureblood mania had passed on or lost touch with their relatives.

"Everyone who ever believed he was guilty needs to read that letter and see that medal," she said finally. "That's the only reason I won't keep them. More people need to know that Sirius Black was not a man created by his family, but by his own choices."

A week later, Albus looked at the items for the last time. This time, the letter and shining gold medallion were obscured by his own old, wizened reflection. Argus Filch stood a few paces behind Albus, scowling and muttering. No doubt Filch had entirely different, less pleasant memories of Sirius than did Albus.

A few moments after Filch departed, Albus left the Hogwarts trophy room. He glanced over his shoulder one more time to make sure the items were in the best possible location. The framed letter had been attached to the back of the trophy cabinet with a Permanent Sticking Charm, and the black velvet box bearing the Order of Merlin, First Class medal was sitting between two trophies for Special Services to the School, one belonging to James Potter and the other to Harry Potter.

Satisfied, Albus let the door fall shut with a soft click.

The End