The year is 1976. The air all summer long at Number 12 Grimmauld Place has been hot and crackling with tension, and even though there's three weeks left of summer holidays, Sirius feels as though if he stays a moment longer at this house, he'll suffocate. He's had enough of stiff, hostile silences, and he's had enough of the cold fury and explosive arguments that followed. He's had enough of them.
Sirius Black is sixteen and leaving home.
He drags his trunk carelessly down the steps leading up to the house, taking care to bang it against the stone at every chance he gets, scratching the finish on it. His mother is halfway out the door, her handsome features marred by rage, her wand clutched loosely in one hand. Orion Black stands behind her, one hand on her shoulder, as if to stop her from doing something she might regret. And Regulus, as Sirius will remember even years later, is hiding behind their parents, hanging back, a mere shadow behind his father and mother, staring at Sirius with mingled fear and accusation in his eyes.
He is leaving of his own free will; no one is making him. They didn't force him out of the house, onto the streets (despite their threats). But nor are they trying to stop him. They do not say, please don't go. They do not say, don't do this. He knows (as he should) that they won't follow him out the doorway, grab hold of him, beg him to stay, at the very least ask him, but where will you go? He knows they won't. But for some reason, somewhere inside of him, he wishes that they would.
Sirius stops when he reaches the street, lets his trunk drop to the ground. He turns and looks back at them, his mother with crazed hatred in her eyes, his father showing that same cold disappointment, his little brother who looks at him with such disbelief—I can't believe he's doing this—and such anxiety—what will we do when he's gone—but will not say a single word to try and stop him, will not even risk defying their parents to say goodbye to Sirius.
This is the last moment. He looks at his mother—only Regulus' mother, now—and tilts his chin defiantly; he does not know what to do now. There will be no good-byes, no apologies and pleas for him to stay, and he will not cry for this. But Sirius Black doesn't know how to act, in this moment that has been building up for so many years. What he needs is a really good, cutting last remark. But he stands there, just looking at them, daring them to speak first.
Not surprisingly, his mother steps forward, her eyes glinting with rage, and spits at him. "You are no son of mine."
She has good aim. Sirius wipes her spit from his cheek and stares up at them, the three of them, people he can hardly call his family, what a sight they make. His mother, furious and barely restrained, taunting him to make the next move, to fight back. His father, white with rage, looking at Sirius as though the very act is causing him pain. And Regulus, pale and anxious, tensed for whatever will happen next. They are expecting him to—what? Draw his wand? Shout back at his mother? Curse them all? Or collapse to his knees and beg their forgiveness?
He looks at them, pausing for that brief instant, and laughs. And then the moment is over.
He will reflect, later on, that it probably deserved a better ending than that. In his head, for years before he actually left, he imagined a better scenario—a very memorable, dramatic leave-taking. An impassioned speech, a biting remark in that last moment. Why didn't he take his chance? Why did he laugh?
Years later, in a letter that he will decide not to send, Regulus will ask Sirius the same question. I've always wondered, you know. Where you found the nerve—the utter gall—to laugh at that moment. When you knew it would make Mother so furious she sent a Stinging Hex at you—her own son—and you had to sprint away across the street. When you knew you were leaving home for good and never coming back. How in Salazar's name did you laugh, Sirius? I wish I knew what part of you that laughter comes from, what part I'm missing. I wish I knew how to make that bravery mine.
Sirius never receives the letter, because Regulus tears it into pieces and stuffs it into the fireplace, having decided that he lacks the courage to send it. But Sirius couldn't have explained anyway. It doesn't make much more sense to him.
There is, however, one letter that Regulus does send to his brother. It's 1979, and this letter is the last that Regulus ever writes. He writes it sitting beside a window, late on a cold, blustery March evening. He writes it in the fading light, scribbling his thoughts and sentences in such a hurry that his hand cramps. He writes the letter because he knows he is not brave enough to go and see Sirius, even for what would be the last time. But Blacks have never known how to say a proper good-bye.
Regulus writes furiously, ignoring the ache in his fingers. If he doesn't get the words out now, they will never matter. He writes until the last traces of sunlight have vanished and he can't see the words on paper anymore, and then he stops, exhausted. He wipes the dampness from his eyes with the back of his hand, signs the letter, lays down his pen gently. Before he can change his mind, Regulus attaches the paper to his owl's foot, hoping Sirius will recognize the bird, and sends him off with the letter full of words and truths he is finally learning to say.
But the secrets within that letter died when Regulus did, three days later. Because Sirius does recognize his brother's small, black owl when it pecks at his window, but it is all a matter of timing. They'd found Edith Vance, one of the first of Sirius' year at Hogwarts to join the Order, dead in an alleyway earlier that evening. Lying next to her body was a ring, made of heavy goblin-forged silver, bearing a crest that was all too familiar to Sirius. Only the Blacks owned rings with that crest. Sirius swore at his brother for everyone else to hear, but when he turned away from Edith's body to spare himself the sight, his eyes were shining wetly.
So that evening, he goes back to his flat and drinks until he forgets the sight of her lifeless eyes, her neck mangled and bruised. Someone—his brother, his brother—had strangled her in the air with magic until she'd died. Someone would pay for her death. When Regulus' owl pecks at Sirius' window, it barely escapes with its life after Sirius is through with it. "Get away from me!" Sirius screams, throwing anything within his reach at it until the bird flees out of the window. "I don't want anything to do with you anymore! All of you!"
Then his eyes drop to the letter. What was Regulus' plan now? To try and win him over again, as he'd once attempted before? Or just to bother him? No, Sirius decides as he picks up the letter, his hands trembling from drink and from anger. This was most likely an attempt to justify his actions. Maybe it had gotten back to Regulus somehow that Sirius had sworn to make him pay for what he and his side had done.
"Coward. Didn't even want to face me."
Yes, but you haven't gone to see him either, have you?
"Shut up. I don't care anymore."
He's your brother. Your blood.
Sirius strides abruptly over to the fire and throws the letter onto it, watching with anger glinting in his eyes as the words on paper burn into unrecognizable scraps, the paper furling in on itself, into flames.
"You aren't my brother," he says finally, with teeth clenched, trying to banish from his memory the expression of shock frozen on Edith Vance's face.
He will never know that it was his cousin, not his brother, who unwittingly left her ring beside the body of her victim. He will never know that the ring belonging to his brother was on his finger when he died, and now it is slowly rusting at the bottom of a lake.
It is Dumbledore who gives Sirius the news about his brother's unexpected death. For a moment Sirius is silent, and Dumbledore watches him carefully, to gauge his reaction.
"One of ours kill him?" he asks finally, his expression blank and unreadable except for the way his jaw is clenched.
Dumbledore sighs. "No. According to my sources, he was killed by one of his own." He pauses, to see if Sirius will react to this, but the only giveaway is a slight narrowing of bleak grey eyes. "Apparently, your brother got in too deep for his liking. Voldemort does not take such sudden changes of mind very lightly."
There is another long moment of silence, stretching on until Sirius lowers his head, inhales sharply, and then pauses. His shoulders shake slightly, and Dumbledore's first impression is that Sirius is crying.
"Sirius," he says gently, and then hesitates.
"He was a bleeding idiot," Sirius says suddenly, raising his head. His voice is even and flat, his eyes perfectly dry. There is no tremor in his voice, and he uses the past tense naturally, without any visible loss of control. Then he lifts his head, his eyes gazing out the window, and laughs. He doesn't say anything more, only laughs. Dumbledore is, for once, at a loss; he stares at Sirius sadly until Sirius regains his composure, and then leads him to the door.
Sirius laughs as he walks back to his flat, keeping his head lifted with dignity, his features arranged in composure. It is only once he's inside, with the door locked and the shades drawn, that he slides slowly to the floor and lets himself cry.
For three days he locks himself inside his house, not answering owls or the Floo or even James' persistent knocking at his door. "Leave him alone, Prongs," Sirius hears Remus advise James on the other side of the door. "He needs time. Did you hear what he did when Dumbledore told him? He laughed."
Sirius realizes why this is so strange. It wasn't funny.
On the fourth day, he lets himself out of the house and walks to the park a few minutes from where he lives. Blinking in the harsh daylight, he knows he looks terrible. He hasn't eaten or slept enough lately. He could really use a shave.
Once he gets to the park, Sirius finds a quiet, secluded tree and sits down beneath it. After a few moments of enjoying the peacefulness, he kneels and begins to dig at the ground with his hands. When the earth becomes harder to scoop out, he uses a rock. Once he's dug out a small hole, Sirius reaches into his pocket and holds a heavy, silver ring tightly in his palm before dropping it into the hole and covering it once more with dirt. When he is finished, he sits back on his heels and looks up, to find a small boy maybe five years old watching him closely.
"What are you doing?" the child asks, staring inquisitively and unabashedly at the unshaven, haggard man before him.
"I'm—" Sirius shifts under the uncomfortable gaze of the boy regarding him. "I'm burying my brother."
The boy doesn't even blink. Sirius decides this is a bit creepy; it's been at least five minutes since the last time he blinked. "Does he get a funeral? Like my Granny?"
"This is his funeral," Sirius tells the child, patting the earth with a trembling hand and wiping his eyes roughly with the other.
The little boy gets up and toddles over to a patch of snowdrops growing at the base of the tree. He carefully plucks a single flower, hands it solemnly to Sirius, pats the earth in the same way that Sirius did, and runs off.
Sirius stares at the little grave, and then at the flower in his hand, and starts to laugh again.
The day he and Gideon Prewett find Marlene McKinnon's body, along with those of her five siblings, her mother, father, and grandmother, there is an awful moment where Gideon, strong, brave, fearless Gideon, stumbles to his knees and folds in on himself, muttering oh Christ oh Christ under his breath, senselessly. For a moment Sirius feels like he's lost his balance, the world is tipping sideways and he's about to throw up from the sudden dizziness. Three days ago, he took Marlene out for drinks, and they'd stayed out late talking about school and families and growing up. Three days ago, when he'd met her parents for the first and last time, her father had scolded him for keeping Marlene out so late when there was such danger for them all. You can never be too careful, he told Sirius with a wise gleam in his eyes, eyes of deep grey-green that he shared with Marlene, eyes that were staring lifelessly up at the ceiling now. Just three days ago, both owners of those remarkable eyes had been living and breathing. There's a shattered teapot on the floor beside Mrs. McKinnon, tea stains already seeped into the carpet, and Sirius realizes they were caught by surprise, all of them.
For an awful moment, he looks wildly at the bodies, the shards of the teapot, at Prewett swaying on his knees, and then wild, hoarse laughter rises to his lips. He doesn't know where it comes from. It's all a great big joke, this war, the way they try to fight it. They're really just little kids fighting a pretend war where your best friend yells at you lie down, you're dead and you collapse in a heap on the ground, your eyes shut, trying to be still until the game's over and you stand up again and it's your turn to shout you're dead at somebody. It's all a game, and any second now the McKinnons are all going to stand up, stretch their cramped limbs and complain about having to play dead for so long. If it were only a game, a joke. Sirius looks at the scene before him and laughs, and then turns away, closing his eyes against the horror. Before he knows it, Gideon Prewett's fist smashes into the side of his face and he finds himself on the floor, stunned.
"Fuck, Black," says Prewett hoarsely, staring at him with hard, wondering eyes. "Are you bloody mad? You're laughing."
Sirius opens his mouth to retort, to defend himself maybe, but nothing comes out. He can only stare at the unabashed incredulity in Gideon's eyes, the wet tear-tracks on his face. Gideon has every right to hit him, to be angry, but Sirius can't think of anything to say to defend himself. And Sirius can't hit him back.
Prewett turns away, wipes his mouth on the back of his trembling hand. "You fucking madman."
"Get up, swine."
A hand, rough and unforgiving, grasps the collar of his shirt and yanks him to his feet. He staggers and blinks in the light. Where is he, what is going on?
He is shoved up against a wall, ungraciously. The harsh brightness of the light is making him shudder, and it takes him a moment to figure out where he is. Everything is clean, and official looking. There is a guard standing beside him, glaring. "Let's get this over with. I don't want him to be here any longer than he has to be."
"I didn't do it." Sirius' throat has gone dry. "I didn't."
"Don't be ridiculous," the man sneers. "Think you're joking, are you? Well, nobody's laughing."
"You don't understand—"
"What's not to understand? You let You-Know-Who kill that man and his wife, and almost kill their son! And then you murder one of your best friends when he comes after you for revenge—blow him up, yeah, that's very nice of you. Wonderful friend, you are. Hope you get a life sentence for this."
Sirius doesn't want to remember right now, but he can't help it—images pour into his mind, things he doesn't want to recollect. A wave of dizziness hits him, and he doubles over, shaking violently. "No. No. It was my fault but I didn't do it."
"You're a sick man." The guard has seen hardened criminals, he's seen foolish troublemakers, but there's different about this one. "I thought you was their friend, weren't you? You slimy bastard. How can someone do that to their friend?"
"I was," Sirius gasps, trying to fight off the nausea. "Their friend. I was their friend."
James. Wake up. Come and get me out of here, mate. I'm in a spot of trouble with the police and I need you to come get me.
Pads, do you know what bloody time it is? We were asleep!
Sorry, but I can't really help that now, can I?
Why are you even calling on this? We only got this thing — telly-phone, thank you Lily — because Petunia can't very well contact Lily on the Floo Network, and anyway Lily's parents sometimes ring her on it, but why aren't you using the Floo?
Because, mate. I'm in trouble with the Muggle police. I'm at a Muggle police station, and they gave me a telephone call.
…oh. I see. Hang on, what'd you do? And how'd you figure out how to work the bloody telephone? It took me ages, and that was with Lily's help—
I sort of… well… I picked a fight with a bloke in a pub, and accidentally made his nose a lot bigger than it had been before—accidentally, Prongs, I'm not joking! Wasn't using my wand or anything, it just got a bit out of control, and I put it back to rights and all but he was a Muggle and a bit freaked out, and I don't want to get in trouble with the ministry or anything—stop laughing, would you?
You are a sodding lunatic, Black, I hope you know that. You'd think you would learn, someday.
"…you'd think I would learn," Sirius whispers. I'm sorry, mate. I'm sorry, James.
"What?" The guard looks at him, confused and suspicious.
"You'd think I would learn to stop getting into trouble and let him get some sleep at night." Sirius shuts his eyes, glimpses James' unseeing hazel eyes again in his mind, opens his eyes. Colors are fading, edges are blurring. In a moment he's going to throw up. He clenches and unclenches his fists tightly, unaware of the crescent-shaped cuts on his palms caused by his fingernails. James. Come on, mate. Get me out of here, I didn't do anything.
Christ, Padfoot. I'm in bed with my wife and it's four in the morning.
What am I supposed to do, wait here all night?
You sod. Of course I'll come get you. But you never learn, do you?
"I guess I never learned." His voice is quiet and rough, and the guard leans in for a moment to study his prisoner's lowered face. But when Sirius raises his head, he is laughing. It starts out as chuckling, low and even, but pretty soon he is really laughing, uncontrollably, gasping for breath, convulsing so hard that he might be sobbing. But he isn't; he isn't crying. The guard stares at him dubiously and backs away, signals for the shot to be taken.
"He won't wake up this time, he can't come get me." The words are spilling out and he doesn't even know what he's saying, he can't stop laughing, it's all too real and too familiar. What is he doing here? Why is his hair so dirty, why are his hands shaking? Why are they shoving a card in his hand, what do those numbers mean to him? "Sorry, Prongs, I'm sorry." He can barely speak.
"Shut up and hold still. Stop laughing!"
The shutter snaps.
"It isn't funny." The huge man is staring at him in disbelief. "Stop laughing, you bloody madman."
Madman. The insult is familiar, and Sirius remembers, in a rush, finding the McKinnons dead, and Gideon Prewett knocking him down—and he only laughs harder, at that moment so far away, so long ago. Gideon died three months ago, and Sirius never apologized to him properly. It's all too much.
"I said STOP!" The man's eyes are wide and glaring at him with unsuppressed fury.
Sirius should have seen it coming. The man's huge, meaty fist connects solidly with the side of his head and Sirius falls to his knees heavily, laughing even harder because none of them get the joke, the strange déjà vu of this moment, and he laughs even harder because he's laughing alone.
"Leave it be," says a new voice. Cornelius Fudge looks with mingling disgust and pity at Sirius, a hysterical heap of unwashed clothes and laughter on the ground. "He's obviously severely unhinged."
I must be, Sirius thinks. Very unhinged. I let that traitor—that bloody coward—destroy everything we had worked for, betray everything I had in the world—
"It doesn't make sense." The guard is still eyeing Sirius with mistrust. "How someone, even a lunatic like this, can pull all this horrible stuff and be laughing about it, like it's funny, I just don't understand."
No, you don't. You couldn't. Want to know why you don't understand? You never knew my friends, you never knew James' bravery and his bloody heroism, that drove me absolutely mad sometimes, but not as often as I admired it. You didn't know Lily, the way she was just perfect for him, the way that even when they were being disgustingly happy with each other it made you happy to watch, it didn't matter that you were lonely, it just made you glad that somebody got the prize that was promised. You weren't there, were you? You didn't find their bodies—oh god—in what was left of their house, everything smashed, ruined, James' glasses cracked even though his body was untouched. You don't know what it's like to find your best friend dead by the Killing Curse, no mark, no wound on him, how cruel it is, because he could almost be sleeping, he looks so peaceful, you just want him to wake up. You don't fucking know, do you. He didn't have a wand on him when he was killed, did you know that? HE DIDN'T HAVE HIS BLOODY WAND, AND VOLDEMORT KILLED HIM ANYWAY. He was my best friend. He was my brother. You don't understand. You couldn't. You don't understand what a huge mistake I've made—all my fault—it is my bloody fault because if they hadn't made the switch—if I hadn't told them to trust him—if I'd only killed him before he got to me—
Choking, he curls up into a ball on the ground. He doesn't have the energy to laugh anymore; he's gasping now, taking deep, ragged breaths. Fudge leans over him, his expression full of revulsion.
"You don't believe me," Sirius mutters, trying to still his shaking hands.
Fudge's lips jerk in contempt. "You aren't sane. You're a madman, laughing at your best friends' ruin. Two you betrayed; one you killed yourself." He holds up a hand as Sirius begins to protest. "A whole streetful of witnesses, Black. And this laughter, I must say, doesn't help your case any."
"I never learned," says Sirius weakly, and despite his devastation, his shaking hands, a smile curls his lips.
Fudge leans in closer to hear.
"I never learned not to laugh," Sirius says, and they take him away.
It is so exhilarating, so breathtakingly wonderful to be where he is right now, right in this moment, despite the sweat dripping down his back, the aching cramp in his wand arm, the curses flying past him and very nearly missing him. His sudden freedom intoxicates him, dares him to the edge of reason. He is dancing away from Bellatrix's curses, letting them nearly strike him.
"Your aim isn't what it used to be, cousin," he taunts, "perhaps Azkaban has dulled your instincts?"
Her lips tighten at the barb and she circles him relentlessly, her wand sweeping so fast that her entire arm is a blur. "Sirius, the little rebel," she says mockingly in return, "look where your precious little mutiny has gotten you now. It's hard to be a dissenter when you're locked up in your home, isn't it? Or is it good to be home again? Missed your mummy, didn't you?"
He grins at her to show that her insults are useless. He couldn't be happier right now, hurling hexes at his cousin and dodging hers, surrounded by other Order members dueling Death Eaters. It is almost 1979 again, and James is at his side, panting from exertion and shouting advice at him over the uproar.
"Down, Padfoot!" James cries, and, following instinct, Sirius ducks just in time as a curse soars directly over his head, hits the wall, and sizzles into the stone. Seconds later, under James' and Sirius' combined efforts, the Death Eater who fired the hex lies stunned on the ground, and they're moving on to duel others.
Sirius can't help but grin to himself as he duels alongside his best friend. Here is where he belongs—right in the middle of the fray, in the thick of the action, not sitting around a table discussing tactics and strategies. He wants to hold a weapon in his hand and use it; he wants to fight Death Eaters and watch them fall. He gets a thrill out of it, the rush, the heat, the adrenaline.
"You're grinning, you idiot," James yells over his shoulder to his friend as they stand back-to-back, firing off hexes. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
"You aren't having fun?" Sirius yells back, smiling with satisfaction as another Death Eater falls under his Body-Bind Curse.
James wipes sweat from his brow, shoves his glasses up on his nose, and then swears as he dodges another Death Eater's curse. They seem to multiply every time one falls. "I'm going to ask Lily to marry me!" he shouts.
"I said, I'm going to ask her to marry me!"
"Who? Evans?" Sirius blocks a spell, gritting his teeth.
"No, McGonagall. Are you daft? Yes, Lily."
"Will she say yes?"
James pauses for a moment to finish off his attacker and then replies, "Well, I hope so. Oi, Padfoot! Watch out!"
Reinforcements for the other side have arrived. Three Death Eaters have ganged up on Sirius and are attacking full force. Sirius throws himself into the fray vigorously, despite the risk—several near misses cause his clothes to sport many singed spots and even a few burned holes when the battle is over, but he comes out of this mess unscathed and victoriously bearing a Death Eater's wand.
"The others escaped," he tells James breathlessly. "Should we try to follow them?"
"You lunatic. You enjoy this way more than you should." James swats at his friend as Sirius throws his head back and laughs.
"Come on. Four down, two to go."
Delight spreads across his features as Sirius watches Bellatrix grow more and more angry. She's giving him a good fight, but even more entertaining is the unchecked fury in her eyes as she tirelessly hurls curses at him—and misses.
"You have a soft spot for me, don't you, cousin?" Sirius asks, somewhat breathlessly as he dodges and blocks her spells. "I'd almost think you're missing on purpose."
She glares and lets out a feral snarl, determined that one of her curses will hit him, but they all keep flying past.
Adrenaline rushing through him, Sirius throws his head back and laughs.
"Come on, you can do better than that!"
If he didn't laugh just at that moment, maybe he would have seen her fire off the next curse. Maybe he would have had time to duck, to dodge, to block the spell, somehow.
There is not a trace of pain on his features—he doesn't have time to feel any. The laughter remains on his face even as his eyes widen in shock, his legs fail beneath him.
It won't surprise anyone he knew in his youth that Sirius Black dies laughing. He dies bravely, but recklessly, as anyone could have expected. The Blacks all have short lifespans, die young. Although, it's a fitting end for him, that he dies laughing, and the last thought that occurs to him is a saying he heard once and never forgot.
He who laughs last laughs best.
His final laugh still fading from his face, Sirius slowly falls backward and into the Veil.