.II.

"Sod off."

"Don't speak to your cousin that way, Sirius."

"If you had heard what dear sweet Cissy just suggested to me, you might wonder whose language you ought to be correcting."

His comment was ignored. "Don't speak that way in this house, you sound like a filthy Mudblood."

Sirius glared. Narcissa smiled coyly and turned away. His mother was not finished.

"Speaking of which – come here boy – just what you think you're doing with all that hair…" Sirius did his best not to grimace as his mother clamped one strong hand about his shoulder and used the other one to prod at the dark mane that tumbled past his ears to curve about his neck and fall forward into his face. "You're no hoodlum, no matter how you may try to behave as such, and there is certainly no need to look it. You are of the noble house of Black."

"Which is getting blacker every day," Sirius muttered rebelliously, trying to shrug his mother off. "Thanks to the amount of Dark Magic floating around this place."

"Mind your tongue," she hissed before he could elaborate. She seemed to have given up on his hair, unable to keep it out of his face, but had noticed the frayed cuffs of his blue jeans sticking out from under his robes, and he could tell her temper was unraveling. She started on the usual tirade of how his sloppiness and lack of respect besmirched the family honor, but hadn't yet built up to full gusto when her brother Cygnus arrived suddenly at her elbow and drew her away, whispering urgently in her ear as he escorted her across the room to where Sirius' father, aunt and grandfather were already gathered. The adults' ensuing discussion seemed to be intent on dealing with some issue obviously troubling them, but they spoke in low voices and Sirius caught only a few words – "It's high time" – "supervision, proper influence" – "may be strong-willed enough". His attention was held only long enough for him to hope they weren't talking about him. They didn't seem to be; no one had cast a dirty look in his direction for several minutes, and so he felt it safe to disregard them.

He glanced about the room, his gaze hesitating for a moment on Bellatrix, who lounged near the fire flipping casually through the parlour's volume of The Life and Works of Salazar Slytherin (the other volumes were scattered at random throughout the house, excepting the missing Volume IV Sirius had ordered Kreacher to eat the summer before, to his great amusement). She seemed to sense his look, because she lifted her head to narrow her eyes at him. He offered a mocking grin before looking around again.

Uncle Alphie was at the liquor cabinet again, predictably. Narcissa had perched in an armchair near their grandmother and seemed to be discussing hemming spells with her. Sirius was just beginning to get curious about Regulus when his brother appeared suddenly in the doorway to the adjoining dining room and beckoned to him.

Rather surprised – it wasn't often that Regulus was the one to take such initiative – Sirius ducked past Alphie and met Regulus in the doorway. His brother stepped back so that they were mostly in the next room and out of sight, and held out a small, badly wrapped package. "I found yours outside my door this morning," Regulus said softly. "It was…really great of you. Wronski makes the best practice snitches out there."

"Figured you could use the training if your Slytherin team is going to give us something worth playing against in the spring," Sirius said with a sly smile as he slid his gift out of its paper wrapping. "Waffling's Guide to Charmed Flight: Theory and Practice for Air Aiming Wizards," he read aloud. "Excellent. Very useful." He slipped the little book into his pocket and reached out to grasp Regulus' forearms in thanks. The two brothers smiled at each other, and Sirius was trying to decide if he had something to ask Regulus, but the younger boy was already letting go and moving back into the parlour.

When Sirius stepped back into the room, Alphie immediately waved him over to his side. "Haven't finished off our entire supply of elf-wine already, have you, you old drunkard?" Sirius queried with a half smile as his uncle clapped him on the back.

"No, no, no, m'boy," Alphie protested distractedly, still scanning the liquor bottles in the cabinet in front of him. "I'm far more interested in locating where that sister of mine has concealed the more…potent beverages."

Sirius widened his eyes innocently. "What makes you think that I would know where she hides such things?"

Alphie took one look at Sirius and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Sirius grinned in response and slide one of the shelves aside to reveal a hollow space behind containing several bottles. Alphie nodded in approval and began rummaging around the glasses.

Sirius glanced over to the corner where the other adults were still engrossed in their conversation. He frowned. In his opinion, such intensity never boded well in this household.

"Any idea what they're up to?" Sirius asked his uncle, jerking his head to indicate the sets of parents. "Such scheming among this crowd distresses my nerves."

Alphie didn't look up. "I believe they're discussing what to do with Bellatrix."

"What to do with her?"

Alphie shrugged, absorbed in pouring two glasses full of a bright, amber liquid. "She's twenty-five, you know. Nearly twenty-six, if I'm not mistaken."

Sirius felt he was missing something. "And?"

Alphie sighed and handed Sirius the second glass, taking a gulp from his own before continuing. "You might have noticed: this family is very concerned with preserving its bloodlines."

Apprehension began to dawn in Sirius' mind. Alphie nodded heavily and went on, "Your stunning cousin over there has turned away more pureblood suitors than she can afford to. She's running out of options. There aren't that many eligible purebloods around, and the family's just about had enough of having to comply with her standards. After that messy business with Rabastan Lestrange, and then the Malfoy fiasco last year, they were hardly pleased, and it seems this Yaxley affair has complicated things yet again."

Sirius snorted. "As much as I hate to see my dear cousin squirm," he drawled sarcastically, "I can't complain so long as they're harping on someone else instead of me for a change."

Alphie cleared his throat several times and seemed to examine something on his glass before glancing sidelong at Sirius and continuing, "I know they're getting fairly desperate, because they've even turned their gaze within the family. At the beginning of this year your aunt Druella brought forth her brother's son Damien. Things looked well for a while, Bella even spoke of a wedding herself, though it went to pieces in the end, Salazar knows why."

"Aunt Druella tried to arrange a marriage between Bella and Damien Rosier? They're first cousins, for Merlin's sake!" Sirius said incredulously.

Alphie hiccoughed, then shrugged. "It's not uncommon among pureblood families, as you well know. Your own parents were cousins themselves."

"Second cousins," Sirius put in, but Alphie went on, "Your mother's last name was Black from birth, not just because she married your father."

"This family's so in-bred, they're all bloody insane and can't even see it," Sirius muttered, watching Bellatrix and Regulus conversing on the other side of the room in the shadows cast by the flickering firelight. "Though why my parents feel the need to involve themselves in Bella's – " His train of thought was cut short when Alphie nearly knocked over the liquor decanter and swore loudly. Sirius shook his head half-heartedly and took the bottle, refilling first Alphie's glass and then his own.

He and his uncle were on their fourth glasses of what Alphie referred to as his "survival tonic" for Black family gatherings when Kreacher appeared in the doorway with the announcement that the meal was served, and everyone moved into the dining room for Christmas dinner.

.&.

They were not even finished with the first course when disaster struck.

"What, exactly, do you mean." Bellatrix's voice was not loud, but harsh, and she appeared to be clutching her wineglass more tightly than was needed as she directed her gaze at her father Cygnus, who met her question with a cold, empty expression.

"What I mean, girl, is that you leave us no choice but to intervene," he said without emotion. "At this point, you've made it clear that you are unable to make this decision wisely yourself."

"You have been given enough chances." Sirius glanced curiously at his mother. She was Cygnus' sister, and thereby Bellatrix's aunt, but why she thought she had in say in arranging Bellatrix's marriage, which would traditionally involve only her own parents and those of her partner, was beyond him. Still, his mother went on, "We have decided it is time the decision was made for you."

Bellatrix seemed to have the same question as Sirius on her mind, for she turned to her aunt Walburga with a carefully guarded expression and asked slowly, "And what stake do you claim in this matter?"

Walburga and Cygnus exchanged a glance with each other. Cygnus nodded slightly, and Walburga gave a distinctly self-satisfied smile before answering, "Sirius."

There was a sharp intake of breath somewhere, and a clatter at the other end of the table, where Regulus seemed to have overturned a platter, and Cygnus was saying something further to Bellatrix, but Sirius hardly heard any of this. He was utterly preoccupied staring at his mother, too shocked to comprehend. A roaring seemed to fill his ears as his mind fought to make sense of what had just happened. His mother had just said something terrible, Bellatrix was staring at him with narrowed eyes, but what did it mean?

Bellatrix was speaking, he could hear her faintly, she was calm, cool, she was always cool. She was looking at him still – was she talking to him or about him? He felt frozen.

"Doesn't matter." Bellatrix must have asked a question, because Cygnus was responding. "The Ministry will allow it, they owe us the favor. Sirius is under-age, he will – he must – do as we say. What we need to know is if this is something you can…manage."

"Manage?"

Walburga answered Bellatrix this time, a hard glint in her eye. "As we are all aware, Sirius can prove…difficult. We had thought, however, that, given the opportunity, you might be able to exercise a level of control – "

Bellatrix interrupted. "So you expect to hand over to me the problem you have tired of dealing with."

"What we expect," Cygnus said sharply, "is for you to make a good marriage, with a worthy partner, and to produce offspring that will be a tribute to your bloodlines."

"And Sirius is worthy?"

"Sirius is troublesome, but he is undeniably talented, gifted, good-looking – all in all, a fine specimen, once…dealt with. His disposition is a small matter, in the long run, considering the blood."

Bellatrix's face portrayed nothing of what she was thinking as she looked from her father to her mother, then to her aunt and uncle. "You are all in agreement on this matter?" Four heads nodded. Bellatrix examined Sirius again, and this time he managed to look up and into her eyes.

She would do it. He could see it in her face. She did not see him when she looked, but rather a list of desirable qualities, and desire them she did. Sirius swallowed hard, watching a hungry look develop in her eyes.

She would do it, he saw, because her ambition persuaded her. She wanted to be the one who finally brought Sirius Black to his knees. She wanted the challenge of a man who would hate her before submitting to her. She wanted the struggle because the violence and aggression enticed her. And she wanted his children because they would be exemplars of the Black archetype.

She held him in the dark pools of her eyes, and he found he could not look away, though his heart pounded loudly in his ears and his insides twisted themselves into knots at the thought of her hands on him.

He felt a numbness creeping through his veins, and knew that if he continued to be silent, they would continue to discuss him as if he was not there, and the numbness might reach his heart, but worst of all was the greed in Bellatrix's eyes. He could not move until she turned her gaze from him back to her father, tilting her head appraisingly, and he knew she was going to work this bargain to her best advantage before she accepted.

Enough was enough. He slowly laid down the fork he had been clutching throughout the conversation, and deliberately pushed back his chair from the table and stood. Regulus was staring at him, but no one else even glanced his way until he spoke.

"You're all bloody well out of your minds."

He could not look at Bellatrix; instead he watched his mother, who turned to him with nothing more than annoyance in her expression. "Hush, you. We have not asked for your opinion."

"If you think for one bloody minute that I'm going to just sit here –"

"I said, be still!" Her eyes flashed dangerously. "You have no place in this discussion."

Sirius could feel his temper rising rapidly beyond his control. He placed his fists on the table and leaned forward to glare at his mother. "No place?" He fought to keep his voice down. "It's my life, it's my decision – "

"You have no decision to make, because no choice has been offered to you. You long ago forfeited such a privilege when you made it clear that you did not respect your position in this family."

He straightened, speaking around the anger he felt constricting his chest. "I do not need your permission to make my own decisions," he growled. "If I decide not to fulfill the 'requirements' of this family, then you have no choice but to accept that, because you cannot force such respect on me. I have a mind of my own."

"You have stained the family honor long enough!" Walburga stood up so fast that she sent her chair clattering to the floor. "It is high time you realized that the same blood flows in your veins as all the rest of us, and no amount of teenage rebellion will do anything to change that fact!"

One by one the rest of the family members began to stand as the fight escalated. Alphie looked as if he wished to bolt from the room, Regulus clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides, looking pained, and Cygnus stood with a hand placed firmly on Bellatrix's shoulder. Bellatrix, when Sirius brought himself to look at her again, was looking at him with pure loathing dripping from her gaze. He did not shudder this time, however, or look away, but met her eyes squarely, raised his chin, and said firmly, "You will not be able to force this upon me."

"You don't seem to understand." Sirius' father spoke for the first time in the discussion. He had not moved from his seat at the head of the table; when the others stood, he merely leaned back in his chair and watched the commotion in a haughty, detached manner. He now leaned forward only slightly to address his eldest son, speaking as if there was no conceivable way his word could be challenged. "This is not a suggestion, Sirius. We are quite simply telling you what will take place, as has been done for generations in this family. We are your elders, we brought you into this world and this position, and you are bound to us. You will do as we say because you have no choice, so long as you dwell beneath my roof and call yourself my son."

"You will do this because you are ours!" Walburga had none of her husband's aloof demeanor. She was glaring daggers at Sirius when she spoke to him. "You are Black, you belong to us, and it is our right to dispose of the blood we have given you as we will!"

Sirius was beginning to understand what this argument meant. They were making it clear – had been for years, though he hadn't understood. They thought he was theirs; he knew he was not. This was his final stand, with only two outcomes: surrender, and do what they said now and ever after, or stand his ground and take his fall. There was no more middle ground, no more of their waiting to see if he would "reform", no more second chances – just all, or nothing.

Well, if this was the end, he was going to be sure it was a damn good one.

"I refuse to touch that," he spat, jerking his chin at Bellatrix. "The thought disgusts me."

He said it because he knew the reaction it would elicit.

Bellatrix jerked away from her father's restraining grasp, and he could see her wand hand twitching closer to her waist, where he knew twelve inches of walnut and dragon heartstring were concealed. Her black, hooded eyes were pools of hate, but she still maintained some semblance of composure, and he knew she was trying to conceal how much he was affecting her, how angry he was capable of making her.

"Shame of my flesh," Walburga hissed at him, pale with rage, clearly beyond the point of concealing anything. "You know nothing of blood and its ties."

Sirius drew his wand slowly, deliberately, careful to make no sudden movement, and aimed it at the crystal goblet in front of him. He focused for an instant on the Black crest engraved in the crystal, his eyes narrowed, and the goblet exploded in a shower of jagged shards and dark red wine. "That," he said ferociously, "is what I think of your 'blood ties'."

"And that," he went on, taking aim again, "is what I think of your Toujours Pur." There another explosion of crystal and wine, and then another and another as he continued, "And of your Dark Arts. And of your pureblood mania." He worked his way down the table until he reached his mother's goblet at last. "And this," he said slowly, never taking his eyes off hers, "is what I think of this so-called 'family'."

Crystal shattered. Walburga was shaking with anger, and, watching her, Sirius couldn't understand why she hadn't done something yet – screamed and thrown flatware, tried to strike him, tried to jinx him. It had been a long time since she was able to restrain herself when it came to him, and his methodical destruction of the family crystal was hardly something she would take lightly, so why hadn't she moved?

She wasn't looking at him, he realized suddenly. She was looking just past him, and he turned his head slightly to see, and there was Regulus, standing not far behind his left shoulder, looking tense, overwrought, an expression of deep anxiety on his face, though he would do nothing to intervene. Regulus didn't interfere, Regulus didn't impede, Regulus wasn't like that, and Regulus was Walburga's second chance, but right now, Regulus was standing too close to Sirius, and Walburga could not look at one son without looking at the other, and it was just enough to keep her in check.

He looked back at his mother, and she met his gaze with a forceful glare as she managed to snarl, "Get out."

He cocked an eyebrow in a expression he knew infuriated her and didn't move.

"Get out of this room," she growled. "Go upstairs. Go!"

He twirled his wand idly as he replied, "Oh, I'm going, believe me. But it won't be upstairs."

"Your room, Sirius! Now."

He was wondering how much longer his mother was going to refuse to understand what he was saying when another voice sounded and Sirius froze, wondering what she would do.

"Oh…no, no. No, he's not getting away that easily."

He turned to face Bellatrix and she smiled mockingly at him. "Or did you think you had somewhere to go?" she continued maliciously.

"Has Bellatrix got a grudge to settle?" He was very aware of his wand arm suddenly, and moved his hand from his side to a more defensive position in front of him.

Bellatrix had her wand out in a flash at his movement, and they sized each other up as the air began to hum with gathering magic. "Has little Sirius got a game to play?" she shot back, and her fierce gaze held as much excitement as it did venom.

"Enough of this," Orion declared harshly. "I will not have the two of you behaving in such a way in my home."

Bellatrix only continued to smile viciously, and it dawned on Sirius that the situation was beyond any of their parents' control. Bellatrix was beyond their control, and, it came to him suddenly, so was he. Finally, he was able to contain himself no longer.

He laughed.

He laughed because he was leaving. He laughed because it was going to end on his terms and not theirs. He laughed because he had realized there was nothing they could do to stop him. He laughed because he hadn't done it sooner, and because it had come to this before he went.

He laughed, and then he turned away.

He pocketed his wand with a bitter half smile still on his face, and turned towards the door. He had to pass Walburga to leave the room, and as he did so, he meet her eyes for the last time.

"Don't wait up for me, mother."

Her eyes blazed. "You are no son of mine."

Sirius snorted derisively. "I'm heartbroken. Really."

He slammed the door behind him and stormed down the hallway. He was halfway down the grand front staircase when he heard someone following. He whirled around, prepared to face his mother's rage or one of Bellatrix's hexes, but it was only Regulus, looking desperate and, Sirius was rather surprised to note, very angry.

"You can't," his brother said shortly, catching up to Sirius at the bottom of the stairs and grabbing his arm.

"Can't what?"

"Just go, like this, and leave a mess like that behind you. I've never seen them in such an uproar, not in all the times you've fought."

Sirius shrugged Regulus off. "Not my problem any more."

Regulus' face tightened, and he said harshly, "No, you never did care about the things you broke, as long as you weren't the one who had to deal with them."

Sirius drew back, surprised by the hardness he heard in Regulus' voice, and wondered when his little brother had started growing up.

"You wouldn't have to either," he said defensively, "if you'd just –"

"I'm not you," Regulus cut him off, and Sirius examined him for a long moment before agreeing softly, "No. No, you're not."

He opened the front door, and looked at his brother once more over his shoulder. "Goodbye, Reg."

"But when are you coming back?"

"I'm not."

He was never going back.

.&.

.End.

.&.

Author's Note:

Again, thanks so much for reading, and especially thanks to all of you who have reviewed, particularly lifeluver and MilyMB for being faithful and reviewing both chapters. It really means a lot to me to hear back from my readers, so if you've read this far, please do click on the little button down there, it only takes a moment for you and I don't mind if all you say is "I like it" or "You're boring" or whatever.

Also, if you're interested, Lua under water has a sequel of sorts to this story, called "Escape II: Sheltering". If you love Sirius as much as we do, look it up – you'll be delighted. She can be found on my favourite authors page, and her story picks up exactly where mine leaves off.

Cheers, all!