to burn
(or, how to lose your mind, in thirteen steps)

(xiii)

He's always kind of believed that he's on the edge. Like he's on a cliff, peering over the edge and everyone else has already fallen, like he's the only sane one left. It's like being stranded on the ocean, dying of thirst. There's water everywhere, but it's all untouchable. There are answers everywhere, but none of them are good enough.

He secretly believes that he's better than golden-child Regulus whom his parents love more. Regulus swallows their stories like a good little boy should. He's a rebel. Only he doesn't know what he's really fighting for, and he never really has. It's fighting to fight because no one else will and someone has to do it. It falls to him, outcast, unwanted Sirius, to scream it in their faces as though they'll listen to their son when they haven't listened to the rest of the world. He's easier to ignore, though. All they have to do is tell him to shut up, and he doesn't have a choice. Andromeda thinks it's horrible, the way they treat him, but what else is there? They're his parents. Love or hate, he's stuck, right?

He sometimes pretends that he is a king on top of a castle, bold and daring and bloodthirsty, some sort of Vlad the Impaler who burns everything in his path, cruel and tyrannical, because it's easier than sitting on the bottom putting together puzzles that keep moving. Mother thinks that he is too much of a dreamer, and that suits him just fine. She thinks he's crazy. He thinks there's nothing wrong with insanity. Crazy people have more fun.

It feels like he's a loose cannon, a firebomb waiting to go off and attack the nearest enemy, whether it be mum or dad or Regulus or their pureblood nonsense friends to whom they don't mention him because he's an embarrassment. It's horrible, being an embarrassment to his parents, but he thinks that being the apple of their eyes is even worse. When he's ignored, they don't expect so much of him, and he can do what he likes. Regulus will never have a moment's peace. He enjoys rubbing this in his brother's face. Andromeda says he does it to ease the sting. He thinks it's funny.

Doesn't change the fact that it burns when they tell their friends that Sirius is just the little hired hand's son.

(xii)

His eyes burn the first time Andromeda leaves for Hogwarts. She's been his best friend and only supporter during this miniature rebellion. They don't like her much more than they do him, but at least Andy plays along. She tells him that he ought to as well, that when he's all graduated and grown up, then he can be a rebel. But now it's too dangerous to fight back, there's too much going on. There are things hidden in her voice that he doesn't recognize, doesn't acknowledge, deep warnings that he knows he'll never heed, no matter how serious.

Because that's just the way he is. He believes in taking every piece of good advice he's ever been given and promptly doing the exact opposite. Because what good is living if you never make mistakes? His eyes burn when Andromeda leaves him alone with his parents and goody-goody brother and her obnoxious little sister who dresses up like a doll and takes dance lessons with private tutors. For a while, he hates his cousin for it, but then he just misses her.

Andromeda would give him candy when the others weren't looking, and taught him the fine art of not eating one's vegetables and getting away with it. Andromeda would tell him stories to help him sleep, glorious tales of elves and wars and the-good-guys-always-win, narrating and gesticulating and acting parts out, giving different characters different voices. Andromeda was the one who would bring him soup when he was sick and always knew how to trick Kreacher into giving him a little bit extra.

He's a little bit more on-edge without her there to soothe him, and he's beginning to wonder if any other little kids feel like they're about to go insane.

(xi)

"D'you wanna see what Mum bought me?" His brother is flushed from the cold, carrying a large package. His heart aches when he sees that. Mother would never buy him anything like that, but Regulus, perfect Regulus gets the best of everything. The only good things he'll get will be for school, and then only because Mother doesn't want the Black family to look bad at Hogwarts.

"No. But you'll show me anyway." He's being cruel, but doesn't care. Not a bit. Regulus doesn't seem to notice. He's speaking fifty thousand miles an hour, excited and energetic and Sirius has never hated him more than in this moment.

"It's a Comet 200! Newest model out!"

He wanted that broom.

"Oh good. Now you can crash and burn like a real Quiddich player." Perhaps if he's too caustic, Regulus will give up and let him sulk in peace. But his brother's face falls, and suddenly he realizes that Regulus just wants to please him. He's overcome with the desire to destroy his brother's optimism, because Regulus gets everything and it's hurting more and more as it keeps happening.

"I'll let you ride it." Regulus sounds so naive. It just makes him more angry.

"I don't want to ride your stupid broom, Regulus. It's yours. You play with it."

It's the first time he can remember the burning need for self-destruction. It becomes so commonplace later that he learns to ignore it.

(x)

Andromeda is a Slytherin when she returns, and no longer has any time for fairy-tales.

(ix)

His letter comes in the mail, all emerald writing and I'm better than Regulus for once because Regulus is going to have to stay home while he goes to Hogwarts and he'll be able to get away from his family, maybe get into a different house than Slytherin, and maybe he'll stop feeling like he's on that cliff. Maybe it'll just be a free-fall, but it's better than teetering. Anything is better than feeling like you're about to blow up at any second.

He rubs the letter in his brother's face, bitterly remembering all the things Regulus has gotten that he couldn't have. Regulus gets angry, and Bellatrix comes to his defense - "What's the rush? In two years, Regulus will go to Hogwarts too. It's not like it's special."

He hates Regulus again. Hates his innocent naiveté. Hates him for being happy while swallowing the whole family's drivel. Hates the way everyone dotes on him. Everything about his brother, he hates. He wants to hit him, to bash his face in, to destroy everything that makes his brother the family's golden boy, perfect little son.

He keeps it in, though, and grins. "Yeah, but by then, I'll be a legend, and Regulus will never be able to get out of SIRIUS THE GREAT'S shadow!" he shouts and throws the letter in the air. Bella rolls her eyes, but Regulus laughs.

"I'll be my own REGULUS THE GREAT and then you'll be in my shadow!"

Regulus thinks it's funny. It pisses Sirius off.

(viii)

He meets one Severus Snape on the train to Hogwarts, and is immediately intimidated. Severus knows as much magic as Bellatrix, and has this unnerving brooding quality that makes him think he must be thinking up ways to blow up the entire train while he sits in the corner. To compensate for this, he goes wild. When the food trolley comes by, he buys as much candy as he can, and begins tormenting Severus. Not because he has anything in particular against the boy - he's just bored.

Besides, he took the window seat so he could sit with his nose in a book. Flicking Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans at his eardrum seems like proper punishment. When he runs out of beans, and Severus still hasn't acknowledged his presence, he switches to chunks of Pumpkin Pasties. Which is pretty much the cruelest thing you can throw at someone, because they're sticky like glue and probably won't come out of Severus's hair for weeks. The longer his companion ignores him, the more uneasy Sirius feels. He hates feeling uneasy. It reminds him of the cannon and the cliff and how close he feels to just going insane.

When he's out of candy suitable for throwing (there are such things, like chocolate frogs, that should never be thrown at an enemy because that's just a crime) he begins trying to talk to Severus.

"So where are you from?"

Silence.

"Severus. That's an odd name. Where'd your parents come up with it?"

Silence.

"I guess you're pureblood, right? Or at least half. You don't look at all Muggle-born."

Silence.

After this, he gives up on Severus Snape, and sets off to find someone else to talk to. He runs into Andromeda, who smiles at him, and asks him why he's covered in Pumpkin Pasty. He still hasn't forgiven her for coming back from Hogwarts and forgetting about him, so he tells her that he was eating Pumpkin Pasties, what does it look like he was doing?

"But you hate pumpkin." She says, as he walks off in search of friends. He doesn't answer.

(vii)

The Sorting Hat tells him that he'd be good in Slytherin. He tells it that if it puts him in Slytherin, he'll tear it to shreds. So it says Gryffindor, because no Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw would ever threaten an old hat. But it makes sure to tell him that threatening it like that was a very Slytherin thing to do, and if he wants to escape his roots, that isn't the way to do it.

Everyone goes quiet when the hat says Gryffindor. For a moment, there's silence, and all of a sudden, Sirius feels powerful. By making one choice, he's silenced an entire school. Andromeda begins clapping, hesitantly, and then everyone joins in, but it's quick and subdued.

Yeah, yeah. A Black who isn't in Slytherin. It's fun to watch the way the people look at him, until he realizes how lonely it is when everyone is scared of you. Severus Snape is sorted into Slytherin, and Sirius watches as Bellatrix greets him into a seat that he knows was saved for himself. They expected him to be one of them, just like perfect golden-boy Regulus who is certainly going to be sorted into Slytherin because he's got all the spine of a jellyfish and wouldn't dare set a toe out of the family's lines.

A pale, mousy-faced boy named Peter sits next to him, and he wonders, caustically, how a boy who looks like he's filled with jello could ever have been sorted into the house for the brave. He wants to ignore him, but no one else will speak to him, so he's left without a choice. Little shaky Peter it is, then, and he pretends not to see Bellatrix laughing at his choice of friends as he leaves the hall.

(vi)

Sirius finds himself the recipient of the landmark first prank by James Potter. Acting with the help of a reluctant classmate, he sets up a tripwire in the hallway, and allows Sirius to fall flat on his face in front of the beautiful 7th year Amanda St. Paul. Instead of helping him up, Amanda laughs and tells James that it was a good prank. The messy-haired boy grins, and Sirius wishes he could hate him. But James is everything Sirius had imagined he would be at Hogwarts, and there's no hating someone who acts the way you wanted to.

He tells Peter that they must get revenge against their dorm-mate, but Peter panics and ruins everything. James looks at the failed trick and the angry Sirius standing fuming in the hallway and then turns to watch as fat, jello-boy Peter goes flying down toward the Gryffindor Common Room.

"It was a good idea, really. Your friend just didn't follow through." Sirius is overcome, once again, with the need to self-destruct.

"He's not my friend." He spits angrily, then turns on his heel and marches away. It isn't until he reaches the Great Hall that he realizes he's gone the wrong way.

James sits by him in class the next day, and helps him plan his revenge against Peter. It seems a little cruel to prank him, but he can't tell James no. Not when he desperately wants to be accepted, and being friends with James Potter is an instant in. After a moment, he forgets his hesitation, and the prank plays itself out beautifully. When Peter looks up at him in tears, that's when he feels vindicated. He wishes he could say that he regretted it, but he doesn't.

They accept Peter into the group after that, because James felt bad about pranking him, and he becomes the lookout. He's not very reliable, though. Sirius never likes Peter, not a bit.

(v)

His mother refuses to acknowledge that he's a Gryffindor, and acts like he's invisible the entire summer after Hogwarts, and every summer after that. The edge gets a little closer every time she looks right through him.

(iv)

When he gets back his O.W.L.s - all nine of them, with a bright, shining Outstanding in Transfiguration - his mother glances at it and nods. His father smiles and says that that's nice. Regulus glares. He wants Andromeda to be there, and to see his O.W.L.s, but Andromeda isn't part of the family anymore. He sends her a letter, but it just isn't the same.

He's standing with his friends in Diagon Alley, passing away their break, when Andromeda appears out of nowhere, quite obviously pregnant, and gives him a huge hug. She gushes over his nine O.W.L.s, telling him how proud she is of her favorite little cousin. Remus smiles at her, and James snickers at the sight of Sirius enveloped in a 8-month-pregnant woman's crushing embrace, but Sirius doesn't care.

Andromeda is proud of him. That's all that matters for the moment. It's like he can forget how much closer he's come to blowing up lately because Andromeda thinks that he's done something amazing. She joins the group, and tells him all about the baby. It's a girl, she says, and she's going to be beautiful. James tells her that if she looks anything like her mother, she'll make all those little wizard boys stop dead in their tracks. Andy beams. Sirius doesn't tell her that James says this to any pregnant woman who wants a girl. It doesn't seem necessary.

He goes home to Regulus, standing with a shiny new wand, because his old one was "worn out". He sees red for a moment, but controls himself. Barely. It takes him a few seconds of standing in the foyer with a blank look on his face before he can be sure that he won't attack his brother if he moves.

It feels like he's a ticking time bomb, only he doesn't know how long he's got left.

(iii)

When he slams the door and runs away with his trunk, when he leaves them and their pure-blood favoritism behind forever, he silently begs them to follow him. He runs down the street, praying that they'll run after him, crying out to their firstborn son, pleading with him to come back to the family, that they really do love him the way a parent should.

They don't follow. It isn't rain on his face when James opens the door, but his friend doesn't have to know that. He takes the spare room and punches a hole in his trunk, because he doesn't think it's right to punch a hole in his best friend's wall. He watches the skies every day until he goes back to Hogwarts, praying to see an owl from his family, telling them that they want him back, but nothing comes. By the time he gets back on the train, his self-destruct is running again, and he hates them all more than ever, even Andromeda and her pretty girl.

He goes even wilder than usual, so much that even James is leery of following him. Disregarding everything he's ever known about surviving, he throws himself into tricks and acting up and tormenting Snape. He becomes one of the living dead, so far gone that he's lost all hope of returning. So close to the edge that getting back on track is not an option.

It's Remus who, somewhere near Christmas, slaps him across the face and asks him what he thinks he's doing. Sirius sees red again, and this time he can't stop it. He throw a punch, that lands right across Remus's jaw. His friend looks horrified, and begins fighting back. James and Peter are both needed to rip him away from Moony, who's bloody and bruised and viciously angry, angrier than Sirius has ever seen him, even when he's in his werewolf form.

Remus says something to him that's dripping with venom, but Sirius can never remember what. When they return from Christmas break, they both pretend it never happened.

(ii)

When Harry is born - Harry who is only his best friend's son, because no one will dare marry a man as volatile as Sirius is - he's one of the first to hold him. After James and Lily, it's Sirius who cradles the boy in his arms. He smiles at his godson, and silently prays that the boy acts like his mother, because people like Lily live longer.

Harry, like Nymphadora, is a reminder that the world is leaving him behind. While everyone else is going off and getting married and having children and being serious, he's still fighting to be insane so he doesn't have to watch his sanity slip away. He doesn't want to go crazy anymore. It seems much scarier when it's happening than when he would imagine it happening. No one sees it but him. They all think he's just acting up because he's Sirius, and Sirius has always acted up. They don't see the desperation in his face.

Except for Remus. Remus is the only one who really looks him in the eye and asks him if everything is okay. He scoffs, and assures Remus that he's just fine. Moony doesn't look convinced.

And he hates himself for it later, but this is why he tells them that he thinks Remus is the spy.

(i)

The bomb explodes on Halloween. He's thrown over the edge, tenuous link with sanity severed in an instant. He could stand losing his best friend, but the fact that it's his fault, that it's because of Peter, because he was so ready to be liked as a first-year that he let Peter sit with him at the table - this is what sets the fire going.

He doesn't know what he's doing when he rushes Peter on the streets of Muggle London. He doesn't have a plan, he doesn't have any clue of what to do now, he just knows that he's always hated Peter and that he's somehow angrier about the fact that Peter left him behind the time he tried to prank James than the fact that Peter has killed James. For some reason, the old wounds hurt worse than the new ones. He doesn't have a plan. Peter knows this, and uses it to his advantage.

He laughs when the dust clears because he's hit the bottom, and it's worse than anything he's ever imagined, worse than any of his nightmares. He laughs because if he didn't, he'd cry, and a Black never cries. He laughs because his family is still defining him.

He thinks, as they cart him off toward Azkaban, that it's probably a good thing that Dumbledore took little Harry. No boy wants a madman for a godfather anyway.