DISCLAIMER: I feel like it's been a long time since I reminded you that I don't own the wonderful world of Harry Potter. I am sad to report I have still not magically morphed into JK Rowling, although I live in hope of developing her epic writing skills.
WARNING: Something long-awaited happens in this chapter. And something sad. That is all.
With love to all my loyal readers,
The sixth years had never looked as unkempt as they did in the last two weeks leading up to Easter. Accuracy in Apparition was not something that was coming easily to many, and as a result despondent packs of unlucky students wandered the halls shoeless, sockless and bedraggle-haired. At meal times, they could be spotted trying to cut steaks with pudding spoons or drinking soup off dinner plates.
The Marauders had improved enough that they could usually manage at least a couple of pairs of socks between them, and a selection of crockery and cutlery. None of them had ever really bothered to aim for the hairbrush ring of the Gryffindor target, and as a result their hair – particularly James's – had long passed unmanageable and was accelerating rapidly towards sentient.
It was Monday morning of the last week of term and Sirius was sipping currant-studded cinnamon porridge from a mug for breakfast, eyes fondly fixed on Remus, who was sleepily chewing a sausage he had speared on the end of a teaspoon.
"I'm telling you," Peter was saying, "If I have to share a toothbrush with you lads for much longer I'm going to catch something horrible. There was an actual dog hair on the one we were using this morning." He glowered at Sirius, who attempted to look innocent.
"Could've been a rat hair," he pointed out. Or a stag hair."
"I don't shed," said James, looking wounded. "Prongs is much too dignified." He leant down to slurp coffee off his dinner plate with great relish.
"It was black," said Peter, "and smelled like dog."
"Circumstantial evidence," Sirius declared. "You can't prove a thing."
There was a flurry of wings above them as the post owls soared in, a pale barn owl swooping low to drop a copy of The Daily Prophet in front of Remus who, having slept particularly restlessly the night before, blinked at it as though he had forgotten how to read.
Sirius smiled. "Want me to translate, Moony?"
Sirius grabbed the newspaper and ruffled it open, sticking his nose in the air in his best portrayal of a portly self-important gentleman. "Well, me laddies, to begin with…" his voice trailed off as he caught sight of the headline.
Miracle or Menace? Vigilante group take down Death Eaters.
"What? All of them?" Peter asked, after James had elbowed Sirius into holding it up for the others to see.
"No. But it's pretty bloody impressive all the same." Sirius skimmed through the article, mentally cutting out most of the Prophet's more ridiculous hyperbole. "The Death Eaters had planned an attack on a little village in the Cotswolds that has a fair-sized Wizarding community mostly made up of Muggleborns and half-bloods. When they got there, there were all these witches and wizards waiting there to ambush them disguised as Muggles. Two were left dead and another four were left under Petrificus Totalus charms for the Aurors to find."
"But that's good, isn't it?" James said. "Why are they calling them 'menaces'?"
"The Aurors will be scared that people are going to start losing respect for authority and taking matters into their own hands," Remus explained, looking much more awake. "That can be very dangerous. It's how civil war starts and societies break down."
"But the Aurors aren't doing anything," Sirius said. "Nobody has even caught a whiff of a Death Eater until now, and these vigilantes have taken down six."
"My dad says they're overrun at the Ministry." James stirred his finger through the coffee on his plate, looking torn between defending his father's career and admiration at the achievement of the vigilantes. "They were overworked even before Voldemort was on the scene, and juggling normal Auror work along with the Death Eaters is near impossible."
Remus nodded. "Neil says they're talking about shortening the training time for new recruits and trying to put together a special task force to focus solely on Death Eater activity. But then many Aurors will be young and undertrained and they'll end up with more deaths in the field."
"I wonder if it's the Order," Peter said, and they all turned to stare at him. "You know - when you all came to visit me at my house and we saved that little girl? We were eavesdropping at the top of the stairs and Moony said they were talking about an 'Order'."
Memory sparked and Sirius felt himself nodding. "Yeah - I remember. And Prongs said his dad knew something about it."
"I haven't heard anything since," said James. "I thought it was just a passing idea or something."
"You said Dumbledore had something to do with it," Sirius remembered.
"You think he had something to do with the vigilantes?" Remus turned to study the old man where he sat at the staff table chatting to Professor McGonagall. Sirius followed his gaze and Dumbledore, as if sensing their attention, tilted his head to look down at them. He smiled, grandfatherly and warm, but even from this distance there was something like blue steel in his gaze.
"Wouldn't put it past old Dumbles." James slurped the last of his coffee from his plate, licked it clean and began loading it up with toast and kippers. "He defeated Grindelwald, didn't he? Even when no one else could. I don't know about you, but if this war goes down, I'd rather be at Dumbledore's side than the Aurors'."
"I'd rather not be standing at the side of anyone facing off against Voldemort and his Death Eaters," Peter said fervently.
"Oh, grow some balls, Wormtail."
"I'm serious!" Peter shot a nervous glance at the students surrounding them and lowered his voice. "Why would you want to launch yourself into the middle of all that? What could I do that a trained Auror couldn't? I'm not like you three. I'm not brave or clever or good at fighting. I'll be the one who ends up dead, and The Prophet will use me as an object lesson to people about what happens if you're stupid enough to go against the Ministry."
"We'd protect you, Pete," James said, reaching out to clasp Peter's shoulder. "We'd die for you."
"I don't want you to die for me! I don't want anyone to die at all!"
For a moment Sirius honestly thought their chubby friend might cry. He felt a small and unexpected stab of guilt somewhere deep inside chest – a place usually only inhabited by Moony. Peter had a point; he wasn't exactly hero material. Was it fair for them to force him into this? But at the same time he was a Marauder, and Marauders stuck together. That was the rule.
"You were very brave when you rescued me from those Death Eaters," Remus said gently. "It took an awful lot of courage to do that."
"I was scared the whole time," Peter said, with what Sirius considered to be un-Marauderish humility. "I hated it and I was scared and if I never have to do something like that again it'll be too soon. I'm glad we rescued you, Moony," he hastened to add, "but I didn't enjoy doing it."
"Someone has to," James said.
"Yes. Aurors. That's what they're there for."
"And yet it was these vigilantes who got the Death Eaters," said Sirius. "Lend us your spoon, Moony. I need to get to the currants at the bottom and my tongue isn't long enough."
"Do you really think Pete's going to be up for it?" Remus asked him later that afternoon, as the two of them sat on the floor of the dorm trying to divide up clothes and other miscellaneous items from the general chaos of the room and into four piles. It was a chore they dreaded at the end of every term, but a necessity if they wanted to start out the new term with mostly their own belongings in their trunks. Remus, in particular, needed all his own clothing for his trip to Rome.
Sirius shrugged. "I reckon he'll do whatever we do. He'd a chronic follower, isn't he?"
Remus stared down at the leather Quidditch bag he'd dragged out from under James's bed. "That's what I'm afraid of. Is it right of us to make him do it if it's not something he wants to do?"
"We're not making him do anything," Sirius pointed out. "Besides, it's not like we're even sure if there is an 'Order'. All we have are rumours, eavesdropping and an article in The Prophet, which we all know is not exactly a paragon of truth and virtue."
"True enough." Remus gingerly opened the Quidditch bag, then reared back, gagging.
"Prongs's Pong?" Sirius grinned.
"You deal with it," Remus said, muffling his nose in his sleeve. "I can't be expected to do it. I plead lycanthropy."
"I don't want to be subjected to Prongs's Pong any more than you do. I swear, if we bottled his sweaty socks we could make a fortune on the black market selling them as ingredients for curse potions."
"But he might have some of my underpants," Remus said, pathetic amber eyes peering at Sirius over his sleeve. "You know he always steals them and I hardly have any left."
"We all steal yours," said Sirius. "On account of you're the only one of us who ever seems to have clean ones."
"I'm the only one that ever bothers to put them in the laundry basket."
Sirius tipped half a tuna sandwich out of one of Peter's shoes. It was growing green fur. "This is grim, mate. Serves Prongs and Wormtail right if we plant the worst bits in their piles. The two of 'em are worse than the whole rest of Gryffindor House all together."
"Oh, please," Remus scoffed. "What about that toenail graveyard I found behind your trunk?"
"I keep telling you, they're not mine! Someone planted them there. Probably for nefarious purposes."
Remus hummed sceptically and shook out a school shirt. "Yours or Prongs's?"
"Mine. See? That bit of dried blood on the cuff is where the Willow got me that time."
"You haven't washed it since then?"
"Haven't got around to it."
"That was three months ago!" Remus threw the shirt at him, then wiped his own hands on his trousers. "It's not like you even have to do your own washing. All you have to do is get it as far as the basket. The house-elves do the rest."
Sirius tossed the shirt carelessly onto his pile. "I've got better things to do than –"
The door slammed open and James and Peter staggered in. Peter was sagging under James's weight and the taller boy looked severely concussed.
"Do we need Pomfrey?" Remus asked quickly, a fair opening question when it came to the Marauders.
Peter snorted and dumped James onto his bed, where he sprawled, staring up at the ceiling rapturously. "There ain't nothing that can fix this, mate."
Sirius felt his whole body sag with relief. "Well?"
"Don't even get me started," Peter said. "Actually, don't even get him started."
This was not as enlightening as Peter seemed to think it was.
"Prongs?" Sirius hauled himself up off the floor and poked his best friend hard in the ribcage. "Get started."
James sighed melodramatically and his head lolled to the side to peer vaguely in Sirius's direction. "Well, it was a cool spring afternoon and the birds were cheeping and the grass was greening and the lambs were doing that gum-balling thing they do –"
"Gambolling, I think you'll find," Remus murmured.
"Get started quicker," Sirius added.
"You can't rush a good story." James raised his arms and linked his fingers behind his messy head. "I was swaggering awesomely down the corridor after my post-flying snack of jam roly-poly when I heard the cries of a fair maiden."
"In the name of Godric, Prongs, if you don't get a move on you'll find yourself with jam roly-poly where your bits used to be."
"Peter?" Remus appealed.
"He's got a date with Evans," Peter translated.
There was a stunned silence.
"You're joking," Sirius said eventually.
"I'm not." Peter looked positively delighted to be the bearer of News Vital to Marauderish Interests.
"As I said," James continued, "I heard the cries of a fair maiden who –"
"Not you." Sirius grabbed a pillow off the bed and shoved it over James's face. "I can't bear another word of your drivel. Wormtail?"
"We were coming back from the kitchens and we heard this great bawling noise coming from that empty Runes classroom just down the corridor. Dreadful noise – worse'n Moaning Myrtle. Like a cow being tortured or something. Anyway, we went to see who it was and that Rosalie Dainty from Hufflepuff – you know: the fat one? - was in there sobbing away. Prongs asked her why she was making such a racket and she just started crying harder and saying if we'd come to make fun of her, too, we should just get on with it."
"Poor girl," Remus said. "Though she doesn't do herself any favours."
Peter grimaced in agreement. "So, Prongs told her we have better things to do than make fun of wailing Hufflepuffs, and asked her what we'd have to do to get her to stop crying, and she said there was nothing we could do because she hadn't won any socks and the Slytherins would still call her 'Fat-Foot Dainty the Slytherin Mascot' 'cause of that time she accidently Apparated into the centre of their target. And her feet are fat," Peter added, as though suddenly remembering this important detail. "Even fatter than mine."
"Huge," James agreed.
"And her toenails are all yucky-looking. You can see why she got picked on. Moony's definitely got beaten in the 'I hate my feet' department. So Prongs goes, 'If I give you socks will you stop crying?' and she said, 'Where'll you get socks from?' and James pulled off those extra ones we'd won for Moony off his feet and handed them over. Big mistake."
"Mistake?" Sirius asked.
"Yeah. She burst out crying even more and flung herself at him and started blubbering even harder all over his robes. And just as I was about to try and lever them apart with a chair leg, she suddenly let him go, grabbed the socks and legged it."
"This still doesn't tell us how Prongs got a date with Evans," said Sirius.
Peter shrugged. "So we went to the loo to try and scrub some of the snot off his robes, and then we went to the library because something went wrong with my drying charm and his robes had grown fur and we needed to look up a countercharm because the normal ones weren't working…"
Sirius glanced at James's robes. They were, indeed, still furry in patches: a thin black fur like a cat's.
"And Lily came in like a Roman goddess," James said, taking over the story-telling with relish, "striding in our direction like a woman…oomph!" Sirius leaned a little on the re-applied pillow.
"So Evans comes in and storms towards us and Prongs 'n' I duck behind the shelves because she looked ready to burst – you know how she does."
Sirius and Remus nodded. They knew how she did.
"And she's like, 'James Potter, I know you're in here!' and Prongs is like, 'I don't know whether to be turned on or petrified,' and I'm like, 'I'm going to die today without having properly shagged Doreen' –"
"Can we move on?" Sirius interrupted.
"Quickly," Remus agreed.
"So Evans heads our way even though I swear she never saw us…"
"She can smell fear," Sirius said, something he was rather certain of.
Peter nodded. All the Marauders were of the firm belief that Lily Evans was in possession of mysterious female powers designed to confound and emasculate vulnerable men in such a way that they couldn't help but be grateful for it. "Anyway, she's backed us into a corner and she leaned towards Prongs like she's about to hex him and Prongs squeaked like a little girl –"
" – like a little girl as I said, and she was like, 'I heard what you did with Rosalie.' So Prongs leapt in going, 'I didn't make her cry, I swear!' and she said, 'I know you didn't. You gave her socks,' and Prongs said 'They're not cursed, if that's what you're asking,' and she said, 'If you don't shut up and let me speak I'm going to hex off your balls and serve them to all your stupid Quidditch fangirls with spaghetti.'"
"How about you sum up, Pete," Remus suggested. "This story seems to be taking a very convoluted journey to its conclusion."
"If you don't want to hear it from me, Moony, I'm sure James'd be happy to take over. No? Thought not. So Prongs shut up and Evans said…" Peter frowned with the effort of recollecting Lily's exact words. "… 'James Potter, I would not find it completely repulsive to accompany you to Hogsmeade after Easter on condition that you behave yourself the entire time and do not force me to hex you at any point between now and then.'"
James shoved the pillow off his face and beamed up at them ecstatically. "Is that not the most romantic thing you've ever heard?"
Sirius, personally, thought he had not heard anything less romantic since the time that Remus, exhausted from a particularly difficult transformation, once declared; "I'm horny and can't be bothered to wank. Do if for me, please, Pads?"
"What did you say?" Remus asked James now in fascination.
"I said, 'Lily Evans, I would be honoured.'"
Remus patted his shoulder in approval.
"And then," Peter said, still looking shaken by the memory, "she smiled at him. A proper smile that made her look like she really likes him and then she kissed him."
Sirius choked on his own spit.
"She what?" Remus asked, sounding strangled.
"On the cheek. She kissed him. Then smiled again," Peter shuddered, "and then wandered off to berate a couple of second years for charming bogey-balls to chase Hufflepuff first years."
There was another stunned silence.
"Well," Sirius said eventually. "That's a turn-up for the books."
"Congratulations, Prongs," Remus said, patting James's shin with a fond half-smile on his face.
"Yeah, good on you, mate." Sirius grinned at his best friend, who grinned back.
"You must make sure I don't do anything hex-worthy," James begged. "I can't afford to screw this up."
"We'll get Moony to dust off his prefect badge."
James stretched, kicking a pile of rubbish off the end of his bed. "I wish Easter was over already."
"Join the club," Remus agreed, and Sirius knew he was contemplating the two long weeks they would be apart when Neil and Angela shipped Remus off to Rome.
"Well, it's nearly here," Peter said. "So we'd better do a bit more tidying and sorting, 'cause this room looks even worse than it did this morning. And what's that awful smell?"
Remus pointed wordlessly to James's old Quidditch bag and Peter gagged.
"I don't like this," Sirius said to James, as they lugged Remus's trunk down to the main gates of the school. Remus and Peter were in the kitchens stocking up on travel snacks and planned to meet back with them in time to wave Remus off.
The area just inside the gates was filled with milling, chattering students and the horseless (or thestral-pulled, Sirius mentally corrected himself) coaches were just beginning to draw up, ready to take them to the station. The air still had a touch of winter's bite, but snowdrops, bluebells and the first daffodils were bright splashes of colour on the banks lining the road. The spring sun reflected radiantly off the muddy puddles, doing nothing to match Sirius's gloomy mood.
"Hey, look! It's Ev…Lily." James pointed to a spot near the stone-pillared gate where Lily, Rebecca, Frank and Alice crowded, gossiping and swapping sweets and parchment notes. Lily looked up and spotted them. To Sirius's amazement, her face lit up and she waved shyly to James, who waved equally shyly back. Rebecca rolled her eyes and scowled at Sirius on principle.
"Please tell me you're not going to be one of those couples," Sirius said, giving James a gentle shove.
"You know – those couples." He pointed to a couple of enthusiastically snogging fifth years a couple of metres to their left, then nodded to Frank and Alice, who had fallen into one-another's arms with Shakespearean drama and appeared to be promising to Floo three times a day.
"Oh, please," James scoffed. "Like we don't have to put up with you and Moony being sweet on each other all the time."
"No, you don't," Sirius said grimly, any humour leaving him as quickly as it had come. "We're never like that. We can never be like that."
James looked thoroughly taken aback. He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the arrival of Remus and Peter.
"Alright, lads?" Remus strolled up dressed in Muggle jeans and a large, worn overcoat. He had a knitted brown beanie pulled low over his ears, wisps of tawny hair escaping to wave around his face. Sirius dug his nails into his palms in an effort to resist pulling him into his arms and squeezing him until he promised to stay safely here at Hogwarts for the Easter break.
"Just about," he replied instead and shifted closer to nudge Remus with his elbow. "Got yourself some brain-food for the journey?"
Remus smiled and waved a large bag of chocolate brownies that were so freshly baked they were steaming in the chilly air.
"I did tell him he's going to give himself diabetes," Peter said, casting a rather longing look at the brownies.
"Oh, please." Remus held out the bag towards him in offering. "Like Madame Pomfrey couldn't grow me a new pancreas in a minute." Peter shrugged and grabbed one, biting into it blissfully.
"Alrigh' everyone!" Hagrid's voice bellowed over the general chaos. "Time teh load yerselves on!"
There was a flurry of movement and a final burst of hugging and snogging before students started heading towards the coaches.
Sirius thrust his hands into his pockets, not really trusting himself not to cling on. "Right then, Moony."
"Yeah. See you, lads. Bye Sirius." Remus ducked his head and pulled Sirius in for a brief arm-armed hug that was over almost before it started.
"Be safe," Sirius murmured.
"Be good," Remus murmured back.
He picked up one end of his heavy trunk and towed it easily towards the snaking queue of students piling onto the coaches. He stopped politely behind Alice and Frank, who were still doing their best to examine one another's tonsils by tongue alone.
It wasn't long before everyone was piled on, and the massive gates were slowly staring to swing closed behind the last of the coaches. The much smaller number of students who were staying for the Easter break turned and began trudging back towards the castle.
James moved closer to Sirius as they walked and bumped him with his shoulder. "Sorry, Padfoot."
"What for?" Sirius asked, head down and not really caring.
"You know. For what I said earlier about you and Moony. It wasn't on. Not even in a joking way."
Sirius bit his lip and shrugged. "It is what it is."
Behind them, the gates finally clanged shut, disturbing a flock of magpies that rose in a black-and-white flurry of wings and soared away over the Forbidden Forest.
Breakfast the next morning was a small, quiet affair. There were more students around than there usually were during the Christmas holiday, but the tables still looked bare. Luckily for the sixth years, the Apparition Challenge had been suspended for the holidays, and Sirius thought he'd never again forget to appreciate the simple pleasure of eating porridge out of a bowl with a spoon while his feet, tucked under the bench, were warmly clad in socks and shoes.
Still, he couldn't bring himself to enjoy the experience fully. It was stupid and girly and Sirius would never dream of letting even James know, but he hadn't slept well the night before without Remus there. Even on the nights when they chose to sleep in their separate beds rather than squashing uncomfortably into one, he was always aware that Remus was there – just a few steps away, tucked warm behind his curtains.
There was a flutter of wings from high up in the rafters and the post owls descended. Sirius, who had not been expecting anything, blinked in surprise when an imperious-looking barn owl landed next to the milk jug and held out a leg for him. On it was a huge, filigree envelope embossed with gold and inscribed in purple ink.
He glanced at James, who was slumped beside him, glowering at the morning sunlight streaming through the windows. "Is this some attempt to cheer me up? Because I've seen your efforts with Evans and I'm not sure my constitution can handle whatever you have planned."
"Not me, mate," James said, frowning at the owl. "That looks official. My dad gets envelopes like that sometimes."
"So does mine," Peter put in. "Aren't they from the Wizengamot or something? Maybe the Aurors are after you. What've you been up to, Padfoot?"
"Nothing!" Sirius said, feeling indignant. "I've been very good recently. There's only so much mischief you can get up to while barefoot and lacking in utensils vital to everyday living." He reached over and detached the envelope from the owl's leg. It hooted once, then took off, flying up towards the ceiling again.
"Well?" Peter said, and then flinched as James kicked him under the table.
Sirius opened the letter slowly, some deep sixth sense telling him that he really didn't want to know what was written inside. He unfolded the two pieces of creamy parchment within and forced himself to skim the top one.
…regret to inform you that your great-uncle, Alphard Cepheus Black, passed away on…
The line seemed to leap from the parchment and directly into his chest, where it pinned his heart to his lungs like a live butterfly pierced with a needle. His vision blurred a little and he was aware of the parchment creasing under white-knuckled hands.
"Pads? You all right, mate?" James fingers appeared in his view and gently prized the letter from him. "Alphard? That uncle of yours who sends you awesome presents every Christmas?"
Sirius couldn't answer. Uncle Alphard was so much more than a sporadic present-giver. True, he hadn't seen the old bugger for years, but without Alphard and Andromeda, his life prior to Hogwarts would have been completely unbearable. His uncle had been a regular feature in his early childhood, turning up at Grimmauld Place unexpectedly a couple of times every month and curbing the worst of his parents' punishments with an iron hand. Alphard had been tall and bony with stringy grey hair and robes that always veered towards shades of olive green. He hadn't been an attractive man and had a truly biting sense of humour, but Sirius had worshipped him because he was fair and stubborn and completely indifferent to the traditions of the family.
Then something had happened when Sirius was about nine and Alphard had stopped coming. He'd never found out what it was, and everyone refused to answer his questions about it – even Andromeda when he'd Floo'd to her in secret – but the message was clear. Alphard was no longer welcome at Grimmauld Place and Sirius was banned from writing to him. Often, when he'd been at his most angry and rebellious, Sirius would creep down to the drawing room and stare at the blackened, fire-damaged spots where Uncle Alphard's and Andromeda's names had been on the family tapestry. He'd trace his fingers over the silver lines linking them to his own name, and then imagine those curling, copperplate words: Sirius Orion Black warping and burning and flaking away.
Alphard had still managed to sneak a birthday card and Christmas gift to him every year, although Sirius got the impression he'd spent most of his time out of the country. They were always brilliant gifts – exotic or hilarious or slightly wicked. Sometimes he'd send old family heirlooms (like the Occusieve they had used in their fifth year), secure in the knowledge that Sirius would utilise them in ways that would have centuries of Blacks writhing in their graves.
Sirius had always intended to seek the old man out once he'd left school – thank him for the support through the years, and the comforting knowledge he'd always provided that it was possible to turn Black blood a different colour.
But he should have done that sooner because now…now Alphard was dead, and he'd never know how Sirius had felt.
"Padfoot?" Sirius jumped as James's hand came down on his arm, blinking away memories.
"Yeah, I…" his voice hitched embarrassingly and he rubbed a hand over his face. "Let's get out of here, yeah?"
"We'll go back to the dorm," James said, and tugged Sirius from his seat at the table while Peter gathered together the two pieces of parchment and the envelope.
Sirius followed them numbly to the dorm, wishing more than anything that Remus was here because he spoke fluent emotional-Sirius better than all of them, including Sirius himself. He'd have known how Sirius should be reacting to this and used small words to explain it to him. It was possible that James was actually improving on his translation skills, though, because he led them directly to Remus's bed and pushed Sirius onto it. Sirius promptly went Padfoot and curled up in a dark half-moon, nose buried in the worn quilt.
"You want me to read these for you?" Peter asked uncertainly, picking up the parchments from beside Sirius.
Sirius nodded, closing his eyes.
"Okay." Peter cleared his throat and there was a rustle of paper. "Basically it says that…oh my God, Padfoot." Sirius's eyes snapped open as Peter collapsed onto the bed beside him, eyes fixed on the sheet of parchment he held in front of him. "He's left you everything."
Never, Sirius thought, had the Animagus transformation been performed this quickly. He literally popped back into human form and snatched the top letter from Peter's chubby hands. He could barely believe his eyes.
"He has," Sirius said numbly, sluggish mind struggling with the formal language of the letter. "He's made me his heir. Left me all his money, his belongings – even a little house in the New Forest." He looked up. "Why would he do that?"
"I don't know, mate," James said, peering over Sirius's shoulder. "Maybe –"
"Oh," Peter interrupted. He was staring down at the second piece of parchment in his hand. "I think you should read this one for yourself, Padfoot."
Sirius tore his eyes away from the rather mind-boggling list of his inheritance described in the official letter and took the second one from Peter. His breath caught as he spotted the familiar handwriting.
To my dear nephew, Sirius,
It has been a long time since we saw one another, and I fear that now, as I lie here old and near death, it will be another long time and on a different plane of existence before we see each other again. I write this letter to you now awash in guilt. I did wrong by you, my boy, and now I fear I shall never be able to make up for this transgression. I can only hope that by making you my heir I can, in some small way, help you on your way to becoming the brilliant, just, intelligent man I always knew you could be.
I only ask that you try to find it in your heart to forgive an old man his past wrongs. I knew how your parents treated you. I knew it would only get worse as you grew older and more determined to throw off the shackles of the family. I knew, once Andromeda and I were disowned and driven away, that you would be alone to face them.
I should have come for you. Andromeda has a child and a husband, but I had no excuse other than my own shame and my own fear. I should have come for you – particularly when your situation was so achingly similar to my own, although your parents deny that to this day. But I was a coward and I was scared and I left you to suffer under their hands until your real family – the one you chose for yourself – freed you and gave you to the space to grow and become the person you strove to be.
Promise me, Sirius, that you will never let your fear overwhelm you as I did. Promise me that you will not allow others to make you feel shame for who you are and whom you love. Promise me that you will fight always for justice and light and everything that we – the estranged and discarded Blacks – long to be when we rebel against the calling of our blood.
Forgive me, nephew, that I might rest in peace.
Your Great-Uncle Alphard Cepheus Black
The writing was shaky and broken, a shadow of the elegant copperplate that had graced the notes and cards Sirius had received every Christmas and birthday over the years, but it was still recognisable. Now the words blurred and shimmered as Sirius tried to swallow past the sticky lump in his throat, blinking rapidly and dipping his head to hide his face from the others.
"Can we see it?" James asked, although he made no move to take the letter from Sirius's hand.
Unable to speak, Sirius held out the letter to him and watched as his friends' dark and sandy heads dipped together as they read. When they reached the end, they looked up at him, eyes sympathetic but uncertain.
"Why did your uncle get disowned?" Peter asked eventually, voice cracking a little on the last word.
Sirius clenched his hands together in his lap and shrugged. "No one would ever tell me. I was quite young. There was a lot of screaming and hexing and my mother stormed into the parlour and blasted his name off the tapestry. There were other aunts and uncles and cousins there and none of them did anything to stop her. Bellatrix laughed."
"Promise me you will not allow others to make you feel shame for who you are and whom you love," James read out quietly.
Sirius tried to laugh, but it came out more like a combination cough and throat-clearing. "Yeah. I got that."
"I didn't," Peter said, looking from one to another, brow wrinkled.
"Seriously, Pete? That doesn't ring any bells?" James whacked him on the back of the head with an open palm. "You can't think of any other Blacks who were disowned for loving someone they shouldn't? Someone whose situation was…where was it?...'achingly similar' to his own?"
A flush of scarlet washed over Peter's round face. "Oh…oh! Right."
"You great muppet."
They sat in rather awkward silence for a few seconds before James stood up and strode over to his trunk, pulling out his broom. "Want to go for a fly?" he asked, nodding out the window. "We can get out the practise Bludgers.
Sirius felt a bit of the tension in his body dissipate at the suggestion. James knew him well enough to know he'd rather be out mindlessly taking out his frustrations with targeted violence than sitting in here while the two of them hovered over him like great big awkward roosters pressed into the role of mother hens.
"Yeah. That'd be okay."
James clapped his shoulder and handed him his broom, while Peter took the letters and tucked them into the drawer of his bedside cabinet. Sirius pulled on his scarf and wished for Remus.