Disclaimer: Anything you recognise is the property of the most marvellous JK Rowling.
A/N: Dedicated to the fabulous and talented Hrymfaxe on the occasion of her birthday :D.
The common room was whirl of festivity. The WWN had been charmed to play only the coolest Muggle records, punch bubbled ominously in the corner emitting a faint puce glow, and the walls were decked with girls with coquettish eyes and expectant smiles.
Everything had gone exactly to plan. The food had been stolen with perfect timing and smuggled in without any hassle from Peeves, the streamers were impeccably tasteless and wafting flawlessly, and the indoor fireworks sat hissing in the corner, primed and absolutely ready.
The only thing that hadn't gone to plan was that Sirius was supposed to have spotted that there was a plan afoot and burst through the door approximately three hours ago in order to be surprised by his surprise party.
Instead, people were shifting awkwardly and muttering about if they could sneak a sausage roll, and he, Remus and Peter were sitting in a cluster of dejection in front of the fireplace. James looked hopefully at the portrait hole, but it didn't move, as it hadn't all night, and as he predicted it would continue to not do for however long they decided to sit here.
Perhaps things had gone too to plan. Perhaps a little not to plan would have triggered Sirius' suspicion. Whatever, it was shaping up to be a memorable night for all the wrong reasons.
"Maybe we should have just got him a stripper in Transfiguration," he said, picking at the cuff of his robes.
"We couldn't – " Remus said. " – Lily would have ripped our testicles off for a start, and mine might not be overworked at the moment but I'm still rather fond of them. Besides, he's so good at getting girls to take their clothes off free of charge it'd have been a bit of a waste of money."
"Nothing sadder than a party that never gets off the ground, though. It's like we're a bunch of unpopular first years."
"It's not that bad," Peter said. James glared at him. "Well it is, but – he might still show up?"
"Where the hell is he?" Remus said. "I mean why isn't he moping his way back here like a normal person whose friends forgot their birthday?"
Sirius sat at the bar cradling his sixth or seventh whiskey. He'd stopped being able to taste anything a while ago, then stopped caring about that a couple of drinks later. The Three Broomsticks was looking a little fuzzy around the edges, but he wasn't sure he really wanted to see any of the patrons in any great detail anyway. He took a sip of his drink, thinking that there might be a metaphor in that somewhere for his life, that it had become something he wanted to look at without being able to pick out the edges.
"I mean you'd think someone would have remembered," he said. "Last year even McGonagall wished me many happy returns."
Rosmerta leaned on the bar behind the pumps, revealing a tantalising glimpse of cleavage.
"I charmed the calendars, for Merlin's sake. Big red letters, and not so much as a card. How many people are there in that school, and not one person could be bothered to even fold a bit of parchment in half and draw something obscene on the front."
He slurped at his drink, then rested his elbow heavily on the bar, slumping into it as it all hit him anew, that no-one on the face of the planet cared that it was his birthday.
If he was honest, though, he didn't care about most of the planet either, and he'd given up expecting that his family would want to celebrate the day he was ushered into the world to pour shame upon them by being normal. There were three people, though, three who he'd thought –
"How old are you, then?"
"Old enough," he said, with rather compulsive flirtation.
"Oh are you now."
Rosmerta's tone was disbelieving, and Sirius set his empty glass down on the bar with a laugh, then looked up. "Maybe I'm a victim of my own success," he said. "Maybe my birthday pranks are so monumental they thought they couldn't measure up, so – "
"Or maybe they're all just scared and worried and it slipped their minds. It happens. It doesn't mean anything."
"If I drink enough, maybe it won't mean anything," he said, gesturing to the whiskey.
Rosmerta sighed, leaned in closer.
"You can't drown your sorrows, you know."
"You have a better idea?"
"See?" Peter said, gesturing to the limp streamers dangling apologetically from the ceiling. "I said they'd wilt after a while."
James pressed his fingers to his eyelid, massaging it gently and hoping that when he looked up, everything would just go away. Several groups of girls had already left, drifted off glaring, and those who lingered were probably only doing so because they were too drunk to move.
"We should send him a patronus or something," Peter muttered.
"Oh good plan. Let's all get ourselves expelled for using magic we're not supposed to know how to perform as well as ruining a perfectly good common room for no reason."
"I was just saying."
"Well – don't."
James flopped over the arm of the sofa, staring down at the rug beneath until the pattern danced in front of his eyes. "I can't believe we threw a bad party. I mean we're supposed to be the kings of this, the crown princes of – "
"Someone put maudlin juice in your butterbeer, Potter?"
He looked up to find Lily smirking at her own joke, watched as she sank into the armchair, crossing her legs and displaying a not insubstantial amount of thigh. He looked away, and next to him Remus shifted then swallowed heavily. "We appear to be missing one birthday boy," he said.
"So typical of him. I suppose he's too cool to come to his own party?" Lily said.
"He didn't know. It was supposed to be a surprise. All day we've been ignoring him, acting like we've forgotten – "
"Turns out," Remus said, resting his hands in his lap, "we're slightly better actors than anticipated."
"Must be all that time you spend sneaking around and – what's the word? – oh yes, lying."
James mimed being stabbed through the heart and Lily grinned, twisting her hair around her fingers.
"Where is he, then? Why don't you just go and get him? I mean you don't get to do the big leap out but it's better than nothing."
"We don't exactly know where he is."
"Really? I thought you all had some kind of hive mind."
"We're just – close," Remus said, shifting uncomfortably and shooting a nervous glance down at the floor.
"Brothers in harm?"
"How long have you been sitting on that line, Evans?"
"Since last Tuesday. I was going to use it to guilt Remus into ratting you out at some point."
"Well that won't be necessary," Remus said. "I assure you my guilt complex is working overtime at the moment, since this whole thing was my idea."
"It's not your fault," James said. "It's his, for not seeing through what we thought he'd see through. I mean when you think about it, we were pretty blatant. Peter even said, 'we're not doing anything special, it's not like we're planning a party or anything'. I mean how obvious is that?"
"I know but – his family didn't send him anything and we're – his brothers in harm."
Lily rolled her eyes and gagged. "You just need to find him. Be logical about it. I know you boys aren't real fans of the thinking thing but – you're Sirius. It's your birthday. Apparently no-one cares. Where do you go?"
"This is – you know, I'm not the kind of man who normally uses words like wow, but wow. Double wow."
"Little tipsy there, Black?"
Sirius squinted at Rosmerta in consideration, weighing it up. "Yeah, probably."
She laughed, slapping him lightly on the arm, and he rocked back on his heels, surveying the scene in front of him. The dirt track was an endless strip of brown through green, the air thick with dust and the buzz of engines, and people stood too close to the edge, nervous energy in their veins.
"S'called motorcross," Rosmerta said. "Come here sometimes when our world gets too – you know."
Sirius nodded, although the words barely permeated his thoughts, his eyes and brain too busy taking everything in. When she'd asked if he wanted to go somewhere else he hadn't thought much about what she had in mind because anything was better than staring forlornly at the bar, but if he had thought about it, this would have been way down on his list of possible destinations. The bikes careened and skidded across the track and almost looked like they were flying, and he stood and watched them, captivated.
They'd studied pictures of motorbikes in Muggle Studies. There'd be warnings about wizards Apparating into their path and being injured, diagrams explaining that they had fewer wheels than cars and yet travelled more quickly, but none of that had really captured them, the pace, the energy, the glee and fear mingled on the faces of the people riding them. Excitement, pure and simple, thrummed the air, rising and falling with the screech of the tires and the exclamations of the scattered crowd. It was like a Quidditch final, but with extra danger and extra allure because of it.
Sirius felt a grin he'd have previously thought himself incapable of spreading across his face, and Rosmerta laughed, balancing on one foot, shifting her weight.
"Thought this might be the thing to put a smile on your mush."
"What'll you say if I tell you they have pies and offer to buy you one?"
"I might say something really stupid like marry me."
He looked at her and she bit her lip, forcing her hands into the pockets of her conjured leather jacket.
"Chicken and mushroom or steak and kidney, then?"
"Back in a minute."
"Maybe he's at the top of the Astronomy Tower debating whether or not to kill himself?"
"No, if he was we'd be able to see him on the m – "
James administered a quick kick to Peter's shin, followed by a pointed glance at Lily.
"Ow – oh – yeah. I mean we'd have been able to see him out of the window when we – searched the castle."
So far logic wasn't really paying dividends – they'd gone through the motions of ruling out the library and the grounds for Lily's sake, but they all knew he wasn't in the castle. A quick glance at the map had told them that wherever Sirius was, it was well and truly off the edges.
"Well, if he's not in here and you say he wouldn't go into the forest, then if I were him I'd be in the pub."
"Yeah, you know, the place with the beer and the Firewhiskey – "
James leapt up and placed a theatrical kiss on Lily's forehead.
"You, Lily Evans, are a genius. The pub. Of course he's in the pub. And if not that pub, a pub. Come on."
The ground they were sitting on was more dirt than grass, the air more two-stroke, fumes and dust than fresh, and Sirius could barely make out the stars that fluttered in the sky for the clouds that foretold rain. But there was something about the place, something beyond the lure of the engines and the thrill of being somewhere he shouldn't be, something beyond even pies and the Firewhiskey that dulled the blood in his veins.
Maybe this was the way birthdays were meant to be spent, alone with an almost stranger, seeing something new. He ignored the twitch in his stomach that twinged when he thought about why he was here.
"However old I get, I'm always amazed by Muggles, how we think we're so clever hiding from them but they have all this stuff we don't know about too," he said. Rosmerta smiled, slow and even, pulling her jacket closer to her.
"You're not at all like they say you are, you know."
"Am I not?" He met her eye and she looked down. "What do they say I'm like?"
"That you're all girls and flirting. Ladies' man."
"Nah, that's exactly what I'm like. You must just not be paying attention."
"Why'd you care that your mates forgot your birthday, then?"
Sirius sighed, amused and a little baffled that she'd even given him a moment's thought, because normally girls didn't. Or they gave him a moment, a second to arrange his face into the right kind of smile and that was it. They liked him, easy as that, shallow as that, meaningless as that. Maybe that was why –
"Maybe I should be more like they say I am. Then I wouldn't get – "
The word froze on his lips, but he couldn't stop the montage in his head. It started with his family, his mother's icy, hysterical laughter when he argued against some of her more unsavoury politics, his father's quiet, insidious disdain, his brother's reckless refusal to listen to his pleas about there being other ways to live life but theirs. And then there was now, the people he'd thought he'd replaced all that with, the people he thought would always be there, the people he'd thought weren't capable of –
It was an odd kind of feeling, like he was going to throw up and cease to exist at the same time, and he swallowed it, focused on the track. Tires screeched and he watched as they span, controlled and not, chrome and black, an endless cacophony of movement. The dust rose and he made no move away, let it swirl around him, liking the way it obliterated the world and let him pretend the sting in his eyes was nothing to do with his friends.
Dawn was breaking in the common room when James, Peter and Remus sloped back in. James flopped down onto the sofa, then winced as he noticed Lily curled up in the armchair, one arm dangling off the cushions. She stirred, blinking awake and pushing her hair out of her eyes, and he thought that were he in a less dejected mood, he'd make a mental note of all the details, the way she looked in that hinterland between sleep and waking.
"D'you find him?"
Remus sat down, wearily ran his hands through his hair, and Peter sank onto the rug, pulling off his shoes and socks and filling the room with an unholy stench as he massaged the ball of his foot.
"This is the worst birthday in the history of Hogwarts," he said.
One of the charmed streamers spluttered its agreement, and James looked at it, then the limp offerings of food on the table, then the punch in the corner, which had given up bubbling and dwindled to a faint, apologetic lilac.
He sank back against the cushions, groaning slightly. He wasn't quite sure how it had happened, how they'd gone from throwing the best party the Gryffindor common room had ever seen to traipsing from place to place, looking for the elusive Sirius Black and drawing the biggest of blanks. Maybe they were losing their touch.
"I vote we stay here," he said. "I'll conjure us some blankets in a – "
The portrait hole creaked, opened, and James looked up reflexively. Sirius stood in the entrance, his hair in his eyes, his forehead scrunched and his mouth slightly open.
"Where on earth have you – "
"What on earth are you –"
"It's five o'clock in the morning," they said together.
James massaged his temple and Sirius's eyes widened as he took in the bedraggled remnants of the party. "Surprise," James said, and wondered if the word had ever been delivered with quite such an absence of enthusiasm.
Sirius looked at them, Peter on the floor with his socks off, Remus faintly smiling on the sofa, Lily draped across the armchair, and James staring at him blankly.
"What did – was this supposed to be – kind of looks like someone tried to throw a party."
"Someone did. Us. And then the guest of honour decided not to show up."
Sirius blinked at the room, trying to find a place for it in his head, but it wouldn't quite fit, the idea that he'd been so miserable, and all along this was waiting for him.
"Where have you been?" James said.
"Yeah," Peter said, "we've literally been everywhere. I've got blisters on my blister's blisters."
"I was with – "
The word stalled in his throat and wouldn't shift. He thought of the pies they'd eaten and the dust in the air and the coiled energy in his veins, and something about the night felt too personal, somehow, too close –
James raised an eyebrow. "Blonde someone or brunette someone?"
"I thought James was the one with the thing for red – "
Peter winced even as he stopped the word, and James glared at him.
"Something you want to tell me, Potter?"
Lily cocked her head and regarded James with a mixture of amusement and light scathing, and James sank down in his seat.
"No. So what did you do tonight?"
Sirius toyed with the question, and for a second it was like being back in the Three Broomsticks, everything almost too indistinct to see. The thing he was certain of, though, was that something had changed. Something had clicked into place, something about himself, something that he thought he'd known for a while, but hadn't quite been able to grasp.
It had taken him half a bottle of Firewhiskey and watching Muggles race about on motorbikes to see it with any real clarity, but there it was, a revelation in amongst staring at the bar and dust in his eyes and Rosmerta's unexpected kindness. He was the kind of person who could be hurt. He was the kind of person who formed relationships and attachments that weren't about gain or power or advantage. He was the kind of person who had friends and liked them enough that it gave them a way to crush him. In short, he was nothing like his family.
"Nothing much," he said, shrugging. "Realised my biggest fear was baseless, fell in love – sorry about the party. I'd have been here if I'd known. Looks like it was a bit of trouble."
"Next year we'll be more obvious about the planning and the sneaking," Remus said, meeting his eye with a slight smile.
"So who'd you fall in love with?" Lily said. "Was a mirror involved at all?"
"You sarcasm is endearing as ever, Evans. I can see why James moans your name into his pillow."
"Oh come on. It's not like she doesn't already know. It's not like she doesn't like it. I mean look at that skirt."
Lily's jaw slackened, her fingers fluttering to the hem before resting defiantly in her lap, and James looked from him to her and then back again, his eyes too wide and a blush creeping up his face. Sirius smirked.
"Is there any punch left? I feel like celebrating."
He went over to the table in the corner, poked at the punch with his wand, wondering if the things that were floating in it were supposed to be. He dipped a mug in anyway, raising it to his lips and then coughed as it tore its way down his throat, simultaneously making his eyes water and his insides smart.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, coughed again and looked around the party, or what remained of it. There were streamers made out of back issues of Playwitch, all his favourite food on the table: fishfinger, pea and ketchup sandwiches, sausage rolls, treacle tart. He could guess at the rest, how they'd put it all together, taking it in turns to keep him out of the way or sneaking out before he got up, putting the best of their marauding minds to it as if it were the all-time greatest prank.
They cared. They hadn't forgotten. It was better than any gift.
"Thanks for – "
"I don't think you're obliged to thank us for a party you didn't actually attend," Remus said.
"Of course I do, Moony. It's the thought that counts."
Remus smiled, then slid down a little, toeing off his shoes. "Get us a punch, then."
Sirius smiled, filled four mugs with the vile pink liquid, and levitated them over to the fireplace. "How about a toast?"
"Absolutely," Remus said, raising his mug. "To Sirius Black, who missed his surprise party, or is the epitome of fashionably late."
"Maybe we should just consider you really, really early for next year," James said, and Lily laughed.
Sirius cleared his throat, raised his mug, thinking about it all at the same time as just basking in being here, surrounded by all his favourite things and the only people who meant anything. "To friends," he said.
"Happy birthday, mate."
They all took a sip and then quickly dissolved into a haze of coughing and spluttering.
"So who did you fall in love with?" James said, wiping his eyes with the cuff of his robes. "It's a big moment. We should commemorate it."
"Oh, she's beautiful. Not my usual type but this time I think it's the real thing."
"Come on then, Black. Give us the details."
Sirius smiled to himself, thinking about the dust in the air, how it had gifted him with the first moment of clarity his crowded head had known in years, the feeling of exhilaration and utter calm that had suffused him when he'd looked at her.
"This high," he said, gesturing to his waist. "Glossy but not too showy, purrs like a happy kitten and goes like a train. Once I get her flying she'll be a chrome wet dream."
James' expression was slightly horrified, Lily's baffled, Peter's confused, Remus' would-be non-judgemental but failing. "You met some kind of – dwarf?"
"Don't be a moron, Moony. It's a bike."
"Oh thank god."
"A dwarf?" Sirius said, rolling his eyes. "It's a good job you lot threw me this party or I'd take offence. Now, did any of you halfwits think to bake me a cake? I'm starving."
A/N: Reviewers get their choice of Marauder and a party favour ;)