.Prologue.

Sirius Black flung his empty bag onto his bed and glared at it.

"The results are in, Padfoot, and it turns out that glowering is actually not the most effective way of packing." James' voice came from the doorway, where he had leaned casually against the frame to study his friend. His voice was light, but a shadow hovered behind his eyes. He was here with every intention of cheering Sirius up, having followed him up to the dorm after he stormed out of the Great Hall in the middle of breakfast without a word of explanation to the other boys, but James wasn't sure how effective his mission would be.

Something in Sirius' mounting silences over the last few days had convinced James that he should not be left to his own devices so long as any of them could help it. Something in Sirius' look this morning had convinced James that the uneaten and shredded bits of toast Sirius had tossed at his pumpkin juice represented much more than frustration at being made to go home. Something in the tenseness of Sirius' shoulders as he walked away from the table had told James that he should follow.

"That's fine with me," Sirius declared shortly, without taking his eyes off the bag that remained in a pathetic heap in the center of his red and gold bed cover.

"Look mate, since you're forced to go back to your parents' for Christmas, you may as well make sure you've got clean underwear with you. No need to make things worse than they'll already be."

James was rewarded with a quick smile, a flash of white teeth and toss of long dark hair. Maybe things weren't as bad as he'd been speculating.

Sirius flopped onto the bed on top of his bag. "When we're back in London, I'm taking you to that place I found 'round the side of Diagon Alley, with the funny hats and exploding mothballs."

"First chance we get," James promised.

Sirius' eyes darkened again. "More like, if we get a chance. If I manage to get out of that hole on Grimmauld for a decent amount of time."

"Don't do that," James protested, coming over to Sirius' bed and clambering up to perch on the footboard. "We'll see each other, mate. We have every Christmas since first year."

"This year is…isn't going to be the same," Sirius said carefully, sitting up to look James in the eye. Something passed between them, and James' concern for Sirius was re-awakened full fold. They held each other's eyes for a long moment, during which it became clear that Sirius wasn't going to elaborate further unless James made him.

"Sirius…" James started, but he was interrupted when the door opened again and Remus came in.

He paused, looking from one dark friend to another, taking in their positions and expressions, and finally seemed to decide to ignore whatever tension lingered in the still air.

"You two missed an owl from Peter at breakfast," he said quietly, crossing the room to his own bed and sitting on the edge, shaking light hair out of his eyes. "He's apparently having a delightful time with his mum on the coast of Morocco. Caught some pretty fish, found some pretty shells, got terrifically sunburnt his first day out."

James studied Sirius for a moment more before turning to Remus. "Peter," he said with a crooked smile, "would be the only one of us to go somewhere exciting for Christmas and end up with only common sea creatures and sunburns to talk about. I hope he manages to find more thrilling souvenirs to bring back to us than one of his shells."

Sirius snorted from behind James and launched himself off the bed. "I'd offer to bring you back a thrilling souvenir from my parents' house, if I wasn't sure that all the useable artifacts were earmarked for Death Eaters long ago." He picked up his bag again and considered it, looking as if he were trying to decide whether throwing it out the window or into the fireplace would be a better option.

Remus examined the object at which Sirius was busy directing his disdain and took note of its condition – empty, still. "You know your train leaves in fifteen minutes, right Padfoot?"

When Sirius' eyes met Remus', there was a degree of desperation in them that made Remus feel cold. Sirius looked away quickly, and Remus was left wondering if there was anything he could possibly say to salve the ache he saw in his friend. He knew Sirius dreaded returning to his family for the holiday, but there was definitely something else, something deeper, that was troubling his friend.

"Bloody hell." Sirius grumbled, throwing the bag onto his bed for the second time and pulling out his wand. The lid of his trunk flew open, and clothes, books, and other objects shot out violently to come crashing down mostly on his bed, excepting the three socks that got caught on the chandelier, and small mirror James managed to catch as it flew past him.

"Oi, careful Pads," James said indignantly. "You break this and it becomes a lot harder for me to get in touch with you."

But Sirius didn't seem to hear him, too busy muttering a jumble of swear words and spells that sent several things soaring into his open bag, while everything else circled in the air around the room as if searching for a home. James began to doubt whether this method of packing was much more effective than glowering, and slid back down to the floor and went to sit by Remus, hoping to be more out of the way and thereby less likely to get hit by one of Sirius' flying textbooks.

As Sirius flicked his wand again and sent every drawer in the room shooting open, Remus leaned over closer to James and said under his breath, "You've no better idea than I what's got him so aggravated, do you?" When James shook his head, Remus went on, "Well, whether or not you manage to get it out of him any time soon, you will check in on him as often as you can, won't you? Since you'll both be in London?" James nodded, watching Sirius cause the chandelier to rock wildly back and forth until two of his socks were dislodged. "Let me know how things go, won't you Prongs?" Remus asked finally, and James reached out to squeeze Remus' shoulder in assent, never taking his eyes off Sirius, who was rummaging distractedly in the bottom of his trunk.

"James, I can't find my two-way mirror," he said with his head in the trunk, his voice anxious and rather muffled. "Do you remember if I had it when – "

"Right here, mate." James stood and offered the mirror he was still holding to Sirius. "You nearly broke it in your packing frenzy a moment ago."

Sirius took the mirror from James and pocketed it, then threw his bag over his shoulder, shaking his head so that his dark hair, disheveled from packing and trunk foraging, resettled gracefully about his face. "Right. So then."

The three of them stood there, looking about the now-messy room, as if unsure what came next, until Remus finally said with a sigh, "Sirius, you've left a sock on the chandelier."

Sirius grinned. "Something for you to remember me by."

James scooped up his bag, sitting neatly at the foot of his bed and packed since the night before, and spoke up. "Shall we, then?"

With a grunt, Sirius flung open the dormitory door and disappeared into the hallway, James and Remus close behind.

They all walked down to the entrance hall together and stood around for a moment saying their good-byes, since Remus had elected to remain at Hogwarts over the break, staying busy with the sort of things teachers tended to ask prefects to do, and Sirius and James generally took no interest in.

Farewells made, James and Sirius turned to head towards the Express that would take them both south to London and their family homes. James was halfway out the door already when Sirius turned around again, strode quickly back to Remus who still stood by the stairway, and threw his arms around the slighter boy, squeezing tightly. "Wish we weren't leaving you alone, Moony," he said softly into Remus' ear before pulling away. Remus looked up into Sirius' set face as the taller boy added, "You know I'd take you home with me if I could, but I'm really not sure who that'd be worse for."

Remus smiled at his friend. "I know. I'll be fine. Just, write and tell me how things are, will you?"

Sirius nodded, and with a last smile conveying what he hoped was encouragement, headed out the door with James.

.&.

"Alright," James said commandingly after they found an empty compartment on the train, entered, and stowed their things. He took Sirius by the shoulder and steered him to the seat by the window, pressed him down into it, and took the seat opposite. "What happened that's made you so upset about going back home for few weeks? Other than the fact that the company is terrible, which has always been true."

Sirius stared out the window at the passing countryside. "It's been getting worse and worse, between me and them, every passing year. You know that."

James didn't take his gaze off Sirius. He knew already how this conversation would go; every time any of them tried to talk to Sirius about his family, it was like pulling teeth – the Muggle way – to get him to say anything substantial, but the more they asked, the less likely Sirius was to give details. James held the private theory that this was because Sirius hated situations that went entirely out of his control, and hated even more to discuss them in depth, being of the type that generally ignored things that didn't go along with how he wanted things to go. Furthermore, deep and profound discussions about matters of the heart hardly fit with the carefree, rebellious and prankster persona Sirius had constructed about himself. Given that his family situation was one that Sirius loathed, had trouble making jokes about, and could do nothing to change, it made sense to James that Sirius avoided explaining in specifics – but that didn't mean that James was going to let him get away with it this time.

Sensing that he was under scrutiny, Sirius dragged his gaze from the window to James and raised his eyebrows. When James remained rather uncharacteristically quiet – he was hoping to pressure information out of Sirius by making him speak first – Sirius sighed and slouched back, propping his feet up on the seat next to James. "I never told you about the row I had with my mother at the very end of the summer. The day Reg and I were leaving to come back to Hogwarts."

"Oh?" James didn't want to say much more, hoping not to frighten "Serious Sirius" away too soon.

"She's going to be especially unhappy with me when I get home."

Sirius stared pensively at his knees without saying anything for a few more moments, until James felt it safe to prompt, "What did you do, then?"

A slightly bitter smile flickered across Sirius' face. "I threw a family heirloom at her head and stormed out of the house. Went straight to the train station. Haven't heard from the woman all term, but I imagine she'll have an earful for me when I arrive."

"A family heirloom? At her head?" James was careful not to sound incredulous, but he couldn't simply say nothing. He knew Sirius' usual method of survival at his parents' involved not letting his mother know how much she got to him, and this didn't sound like that.

"I went into Regulus' bedroom that morning, I've forgotten why, but when I did I saw that he'd put these newspaper clippings up all over his wall…all about things having to do with Voldemort, like Reg was tracking the tortures, and the killings, like he was bloody worshipping every move the Dark Lord made. It looked like a bloody shrine, and it was disturbing."

James winced in sympathy. "I didn't know your brother was getting in so deep."

Sirius' face was sombre. "And then, right as we were about to leave, my mother said something about Voldemort possibly taking an interest in Regulus. The way she said it, I couldn't tell if it'd already happened, or if she were newly suggesting it, but it was too much. My little brother, and that crowd…" This train of thought seemed to be one Sirius preferred not to pursue further, because he went on with, "It was too much, even for my mother. We ended up having another shouting match, and then I threw this terrible, ancient hourglass we've had sitting in our drawing room ever since I can remember - brimming with Dark Magic, and filled with what could only be something's blood. Anyhow, I've always hated the thing, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I missed her, and the whole thing shattered against the wall. It was a terrific mess, at least," Sirius finished appreciatively, and looked at James for his reaction.

"So this is why going home is so much worse this year than it's been before?" James asked carefully.

Sirius shrugged. "Sure, along with the fact that Voldemort continues to gain power, and my family continues to strengthen their attachments to him, and the longer I spend around them the more I feel that I'm just…just standing by, when I should be actually doing something…"

He paused for a moment, seeming to gather his nerve, and then spoke again. "I'm rather sure that both of my cousins are Death Eaters, and that they have been – or at least Bellatrix has been – for awhile now. I'm pretty convinced that was something to to do with Andromeda leaving, and why my mother keeps saying she's so proud of her brother Cygnus' daughters." The confession he'd been dreading for weeks finally made, he looked apprehensively to James, knowing that no one he – nor any of their friends – was associated with had taken such steps to swear allegiance with the Dark Lord.

James sighed heavily without looking up. "I'm sorry Padfoot, I really am. When did things start getting so complicated?" Looking up at Sirius, he saw the uneasiness written in his friend's expression and reacted suddenly. "Hey, don't look like that! We all know where you stand. No one doubts you, mate. You should know that."

Sirius' expression didn't change. "It's just…they're my family, and I want nothing to do with them, but I can't help it. They birthed me, but I hate the lot of them. They're nothing but a bunch of arrogant hypocrites and pureblood maniacs with their heads up their arses."

"They may be your family mate, but that doesn't mean you belong to them," James said quietly. "You belong to us, and that's that."

The two boys spent the rest of the journey discussing ways to get Sirius out of the house over Christmas, and plans for the following summer, and, Sirius' favourite topic, plans for after graduating, when they'd finally be able to choose their ways of battling the Dark Lord and all his plots. By the time they arrived at King's Cross, James was relieved to see that Sirius had regained at least some of his normal vigor. But when both of James' parents appeared to collect him from the station, greeting the boys with hugs and hails of welcome, James saw Sirius grow subdued again, and knew his parents' greeting made all too stark a contrast to where Regulus stood alone on the platform waiting for Sirius, looking resolute if slightly apprehensive.

With an sardonic twist of his mouth, Sirius explained, "He's probably been given express instructions to keep a close eye on me and make sure I don't go haring off to more pleasant alternatives than old Grimmauld."

Mrs Potter smiled sympathetically at Sirius. "You know you're always more than welcome with us, dear. I'll be quite offended if you don't come to see me before the holidays are past," she teased, sending a playful wink in Sirius' direction.

He winked back. "You know I'd call on you every day, Mrs Potter, if I thought your husband would allow it."

"Keep that up, Padfoot, and I won't invite you over anymore," James said to Sirius, rolling his eyes.

Mr Potter grinned from where he stood with his arm around James' shoulders. "You won't have our blessing on that one, James. Expelling people from our home when they've become like family isn't something you're going to get away with."

But the brightness of the Potters' welcome, and the warmth of James as he hugged Sirius goodbye and whispered, "Stay in touch, Pads" had all but faded twenty minutes later as Sirius trudged along behind Regulus through northwest London, dampened by an icy fog and his very dark mood. Regulus kept glancing back over his shoulder at Sirius, who finally got fed up with this behaviour enough to lengthen his stride and catch up with his still-smaller brother. The two walked side-by-side in silence for several blocks, until Sirius began to feel it was up to him to try and bridge the gulf between them.

"Suppose it was too much trouble for someone to come and collect us," he offered finally, glancing sideways at his brother's face – proud grey eyes identical to his own, aristocratic nose and determined jaw, dark hair now damp and curling around his ears. "Though it's rather hard to imagine Mother in a Christmas frenzy of wrapping packages and baking pies."

Regulus didn't turn, but kept his eyes fixed ahead of him as he replied, "The parents had a dinner party. Someone Aunt Druella knows, supposed to be very influential in the Ministry right now."

"Influential in the right way, or the wrong way?" Sirius mused darkly, and after Regulus answered "I don't believe we define those the same way", they finished the last few blocks in silence again.

Number 12 Grimmauld Place appeared to them as it always did, emerging out of the nothingness between numbers 11 and 13, but as they stood in the entryway just inside the door, shedding wet cloaks and shoes, Sirius was surprised to see a tall, graceful figure that was definitely not Kreacher making its way down the front staircase.

"Bella!" Regulus exclaimed, sounding pleased, and Sirius suppressed a groan as he realized that his holiday had suddenly become twice as grim as he had expected.

.&.

Author's Note:

If you enjoyed this, then you might be interested to know that not only are there two more chapters coming for this fic, but that there is also a companion piece called "Escape: Sheltering" on its way, and written by my good friend who goes by the penname "Lua under water". You can find her under my favorite author's page.

Also, your feedback is much appreciated.

Thanks for reading.