I'm so sorry this took so long; might've been a teeny bit faster if ff.n hadn't been having problems… for their encouragement and help in their reviews, this chapter is definitely owed to Ayla Pascal, enoimreH, Ginny Potter, Iniga, Lavander Ice, Moonie, and Vying Quill.

Disclaimer: The following is not purely original fiction, but rather characters, settings, and situations as created by J.K. Rowling. No money is being made of this piece of fanfiction and can not be reproduced for any purposes but strictly private entertainment.

            "Man" – Darry grinned and put his arm around Soda's shoulders – "this is one kid brother I don't have to worry about."

            Soda punched him in the ribs affectionately.

            "This kiddo can use his head."

            Sodapop looked down at me with mock superiority, but Darry went on: "You can see he uses it for one thing – to grow hair on."

            -- "The Outsiders", S.E. Hinton

Chapter Three – I'm Sorry

            There was a neighbour near our farm. I can't quite remember her name – a Mrs Johanna Martin, I believe, but don't hold me to my word there. In any case, this woman was… oh, how to put it mildly… religious. Only that's understating it. She was zealously religious, the sort of woman who lectures you for doing anything on the Sabbath and whom you are desperate to get rid of the moment she arrives. The kind who might actually care about people, but only shows it by reminding them of their sins.

            Anyway, at the time of this, I had been past the age when she thought of me as a little boy who needed to be shown the path to heaven, but I still remembered her warnings about Judgment Day nice and clearly.

            "You're going to stand before that chair on Judgment Day, Sirry," she would say in warning tones of doom (yes, "Sirry", you heard that correctly), "right before the Good Lord himself, so high up you can barely see him, and then all your sins are going to be laid out in front of you and your guilt exposed raw for all to see…"

            Somehow, as cheerful speculations of this sort tend to do, this stuck in the very back of my mind all these years, even though by the time I was in my seventh year she had given me up for lost to the Fiery Below, and her images of Judgment Day came to me quite sharply now.

            Things were a little reversed – I was the one sitting in a chair, awaiting judgment with my knees bent and head hanging because I couldn't bear to met either of them in the eye. And you can bet I felt my guilt was nice and rawly exposed.

            James and Lily were the ones standing, a bit too close to each other for my comfort, staring down at me unnervingly. I wished they would just hit me really hard and have it over with.

            "I, erm," I stammered uncertainly, "I'm, uh, really, really sorry…?"

            "Are you really?"

            That was Lily, voice conveying no emotion except light sarcasm.

            Well, here's news for you, Evans, I thought irritably, I am sorry. I've been sorry. So please don't blame me for having made the English language so inefficient that the best you can come up with during an apology is "sorry".


            Gossip is a funny, funny thing. Particularly when you try to dissect it, like Lily Evans was trying to do.

            I'm sure she was. During her latter Hogwarts years, she started to become either too mature or too distanced (because of James) to be very interested in the gossip of her friends. I can remember watching her out of the corner of my eye, face far-off while she put on a show of being involved in the girls' conversation, thinking of goodness-knows-what. She also perfected the art of acceptable, polite non-answers. When questioned, she would grin and say something like: "It's possible" or "Honestly!" or (my personal favourite) "Right".

            But when I mentioned Nancy Turpin to her – a whole transformation came over her when she listened to gossip. I saw her trying to appear nonchalant, as usual, but this time trying not to show that she was like a hawk on every word that was said: watch – pounce – examine thoroughly – eat or discard. She discarded a lot of prey for a while, leaving me to get complacent and in hopes everything would be fine, despite my Big Mouth.

            However, at one point, she must have gotten some talk that seemed to confirm what I had said about Nancy. I never asked her about it, even long after this fiasco had blown over, even after we had become on friendly terms, if not friends. But quite abruptly, James's Lily turned into Lily the Sharply Vengeful.

            Most unfortunately for James, he overslept (how he ever managed to sleep late through the racket I generally made in the mornings is beyond my comprehension) and was late for breakfast on the morning of Lily's conclusion.

By the time he reached our table, Lily had finished a very small amount of breakfast and was apparently deep into a book. As I recall, Remus, Peter, and I were having a heavy debate about Quidditch – it was a few days after another devastating attack by the Death Eaters, and we were trying to pretend that the fact that we all cheered for different teams (I cheered the Wasps, Remus was for the Arrows, and Peter wondered why we all just couldn't get along) was our worst problem. I also seem to remember that we were succeeding.

            "'Morning," James said, looking grateful that Lily had sat a seat or two away from us, because then he could sit next to both Lily and me without incurring anyone's wrath.

            Hi, James, we all said, or something similar, except Lily, who refused to speak from behind her book. Why girls are so fond of the silent treatment, I'll never know.

            James didn't seem to notice, which wasn't unusual. James was, unless faced with a very serious problem, blind to the little things of the world that were slightly askew and had an untroubled nature. His mind was too busy with bigger, better, and happier plans all around.

            "What're you reading, Lil?" he asked.

            "The title is on the cover," Lily replied neutrally. For the life of me, I cannot remember what that bloody book was called. It was some Muggle title I haven't heard of before or since. Lily, true Gryffindor her, was always remarkably indifferent to the dangers of displaying Muggle upbringing in public, figuring that all the Death Eaters who were also classmates already knew her background anyway. I doubt she wasn't ever apprehensive, but damned if she was going to show it in Hogwarts.

            "Oh." James began eating. "Whafit aboutf?" he asked through a mouthful of food.

            I think he did it purposefully, because when Lily gave him a short answer ("a girl in a house") without telling him off for talking with his mouth full, he began to look concerned.

            "Feeling all right, Lil?" James glanced at her, and then looked at all of us in turn, questioning. I pretended to be deeply engrossed in my empty plate. No point in filling it up. My appetite had suddenly vanished.


            James had the intelligence to wait a few minutes before posing his next question. "Anything wrong?"

            Lily snapped the book shut, having long since lost interest in the girl in a house. "James, are you feeling all right?"

            "Erm… yes." James was totally taken aback.

            "Anything wrong, James?"

            Blink. Blink. Blink. "Except that I'm worried sick about you, lily-bud?" he replied, as if this was a trick question on an exam, voice raising an octave every few words.

            Lily glared and abruptly stood. "Well, then," she said sweetly, "I'll turn my head and be very blind while you do whatever you must to feel better. In fact, I'll ignore you, so much the better, right?" She snatched her book and tossed her bag over one shoulder. "I'm getting off to Transfiguration before I'm late." Off she swept, leaving a very bewildered James.

            "What's going on?" he asked to no one in particular except the empty seat beside him.

            "Dunno," Peter said, looking just as bemused. "She seemed fine yesterday afternoon. Did you do anything that might have made her angry?"

            "No!" James replied instantly, standard reply for any boy who is asked that.

            Rather caustically, Remus raised an eyebrow. "Positive about that?"

            "Of course," James said, giving him a small glare.

            "Just checking." Remus shrugged. "Give her a day chock-full of N.E.W.T. preparation to focus energy somewhere else and see how she feels then. Might've just been a bad morning, you know."

            I brightened for a moment before crashing back to reality. Somehow, I suspected it was more than a "bad morning". After all, I had caused it, remember? "Grand," I muttered. "Now Moony is an expert on reading girl signals. We all know how much experience he has on that."

            "No. I've just been watching you three the past couple of years and noticed patterns."

            "What sort of patterns did you notice on me?" I demanded.

            "The one where you date a dozen girls each year?" Peter suggested.

            "Little stuff. Like how you always have a breakup right before Christmas because you don't know what to buy her."

            "And I suppose you know." I was feeling rather bad-tempered.

            Remus grinned wickedly. "Of course I do, Padfoot. But I never give answers. I just state the obvious."

            If you would ever wonder why I think James is the absolute best friend you could ever have, here's why: he instantly chucked a handful of eggs at Remus… who didn't duck quickly enough.

            I smiled angelically as he tried to brush it off with his hands. "Didn't the security blanket of optimism shield you from that?"

            Remus tried to look threatening and failed. "Yes, it did. It already has me thinking of payback." I almost retorted that the blanket must be extremely optimistic if he thought he could pull it off against us before remembering what had happened the last time Remus had thought of payback. Let's just say this is one time I didn't have to break up with the girl.

            Peter tried not to look nervous and failed. "I wasn't involved, Rem," he reminded quickly.

            "I'll remember that, Wormtail."


            Remus put off his vengeance for a long while, because nothing he could have done would have matched the punishment Lily delivered. James was miserable, for reasons we all understood. (And luckily Remus, along with just about everyone, thought my own misery was just a sharing of James's.)

            Actually, James was in shock before he was miserable. He rarely looked so helpless. Sometimes I hated Lily when he thought it over, with eyes wide, troubled, and blank (then I cheerfully remembered that I ought to be hating myself). He simply had no clue or inkling as to how things between him and his girlfriend could be pitch-perfect one day and deteriorated the next.

            If you'll remember what I said earlier, James always had a secret sort of fear of girls. Maybe not fear, but wariness. Starting around his fourth year, his Quidditch prowess and wit and charm (and whatever else they saw) had attracted a large following of lovestruck girls. James accepted this turn of events with a dashing, carefree smile and his store of friendly jokes, but I knew him well enough to see that he always wondered. Why him? Would they care about him if he couldn't shoot goals well? Why the hell did they treat him like a king?

            Don't get me wrong. James enjoyed it. Some accused he did so just a little too much. But he never seemed to think he could be serious about any of his adorers.

            Lily, obviously, was a wee bit different, possibly because for a solid five and a half years she never showed anything more than platonic interest in him. Before that, well, I dunno. We didn't know any of the girls well for our first few years, even our Gryffindor yearmates. Occasionally we fought, occasionally we formed casual friendships, later some dating. I didn't know them well enough before then to say "friend" or "enemy"… at least not for very long spurts, that is. (I just remembered that Miranda Stacey and I spent the first half of our second year squabbling; by the end of school, she was my current date. Forgive, forget, move on.)

            So there was no way that James was going to ask any other girl for advice, and he regarded Lily as some very complicated and delicate potion that always hissed at him. I would have done anything for James, but we both knew my advice would help little, and Remus and Peter weren't much more informed.

            Most frustrating to him was Lily. After her Grand Announcement of Antagonism that particular morning, she appeared, outwardly, to be normal as ever. She laughed, studied, chatted, and all the other normal functions (although I observed that she lost noticeable weight). If James approached her, she would reply calmly and politely, although still with that little chill that women seem to be born with. Their birthright: Frostiness of the Voice to be Used for Special Occasions.  When he tried to ask her what she was upset about, she would light lightly and dismissively.

            "Oh, come on, James, we're over that now, aren't we? If you wanted to break up, we can do this maturely. I won't be angry with you or you with me and we'll move on."

            "Move on from what?" James would burst out five minutes later, after Lily had left the room.


            A few weeks after this dreadfully depressing state of affairs, one of Lily's friends (I think we'll call her Shannon because I forget what it was and it began with an "S" sound) came up to Remus while he was studying with a righteous, disdainful huff.

            "What did Potter do to Lily?"

            Remus, just after finishing a talk with James in which he had discreetly voiced the opinion that James ought to stop moping, looked up at her, eyes flashing. "Excuse me?" What did Potter do to Lily? I heard him add tacitly.

            "You heard me. What did James Potter do to upset Lily Evans? I would ask Black, he knows him best, but I've always thought of him as too much of a git."

            Note: I was sitting across the library table from Remus and Shannon.

           (Yes, studying, that event became less rare in the seventh year, which definitely separates the dedicated and talented from those who can follow instructions and memorise bits of Latin.)

            "James did not intentionally do a thing to upset Lily," Remus said quietly, a sharp edge to it. "It's not anybody's fault. There's just a lack of communication."

            To both Remus and Shannon's great surprise, I stood up, slammed my chair in, and slapped Remus across the face before storming off.

            Yes, I was feeling very high-strung, and that's because I felt guilty as sin. I knew it was, in fact, someone's fault – my own. I hated knowing that I was making James – even Lily, those lost kilos showed this all had some effect on her – unhappy.

            But also, the thought of confessing to James what I had done was terrible. Announcing to the whole school that Emily Kertcher had written me very short of a love letter (am I exaggerating? Yes, it's one of my talents) was a grand prospect compared to telling James that I had sabotaged his relationship with his girlfriend.

            The year before this, I had done something else stupid that had caused a huge riff in our friendships, the same breech of self-control that had caused the uncertainly between Remus and myself.

            Remus, as you've probably figured out if you've read this far, was bitten when he was seven and now a werewolf. With years of suspicion and hatred, Remus never really allowed himself to trust too many people. His coming to Hogwarts, especially back then, was nothing short of a modern-day political miracle (miracles tend to follow Albus Dumbledore around, of course).

            Severus Snape, as you've also probably guessed, was not my favourite person in the world. From the first moment I had met him, he reeked of hostility, meanness, and rudeness. The school's resident oddity, the standoffish bookworm, Snape and I hadn't a good relationship. It only magnified when James pushed him, in our early school years, to be more social and Snape lashed back at him, picking on every little thing James ever did, and when I suspected him of Dark involvement.

            Further complicating the picture was a… well, if it wasn't a friendship, it was a mutual respect formed between Remus and Snape in our fifth year (due to stupid, stupid extra curricular activities the world's Ministries of Magic instituted – it wasn't really stupid, but I was so disgusted with the outcome that I still think of it that way).

            Was I jealous? Well… yes. That only explains my actions that night in my sixth year. There was – is – a passage on the grounds of Hogwarts that leads to the infamous Shrieking Shack, where Remus was locked for his transformations. Snape had spotted him leaving and was musing, by that time probably wondering where his partner disappeared to.

            Just because we both liked Remus hadn't done a thing to improve our own relationship, and as I caught him spying, Snape and I had gotten into an argument. Losing my temper, I told him how to open the passageway. It was stupid, I know, and I hadn't meant to, but I stomped away before I thought straight.

            Snape, being the world's nosiest standoffish bookworm (and he does have a rather large nose, if it comes to that), went into that tunnel. (Eejit. Eejit. Eejit. Who the hell listens to me when I'm angry at them unless they're suicidal?) I let it slip to James, and he rushed outside and coaxed Snape back (that must have been an interesting conversation). They barely escaped that tunnel with their lives. 

            Remus was furious with me; James was furious with me; Peter was furious with me. (Snape was furious with me, too, if it comes to that, but that didn't bother me much.) Snape now knew about Remus's lycanthropy (which, by the way, seems to have ended their friendship), and I had almost allowed Remus to kill both James and Snape.

            It's a low, low feeling when your closest friends are that livid with you. James had been irate with me for about three days before suddenly moving on to the next part of his life and forgiving me wholeheartedly. Didn't take much longer for him to act as though it hadn't happened. Peter started speaking to me shortly after James did… he didn't like strife. There was too much of it for him at home; for him, it was far easier to swallow his anger than it was to fight.

            Remus couldn't seem to so much as look at me for days. At my pleading for forgiveness and promises of penance, he forgave me within a week. But, as I've illustrated before, he never trusted me as much afterwards.

            He was used to physical pain, but emotional hurt was his terror. He'd lived with too much of it and it never dulled. From the very day he first spoke to anyone when he first came to school, he was placing some bit of trust in them. Looking back, the day he accepted our friendship was a leap in the dark for him and an important one for me. Sure, I had people trust me before, but not with such an important faith as Remus's. What he trusted me with was… delicate. Funny word in connection with werewolves, I know some'll think.

            I had never regretted that; Remus sometimes protested that, for heavens' sakes, he could take care of himself, but I think we've already established that I love caring for people (see part I). The ones I think are worthy, anyway. After the incident I just described, Remus was reluctant to allow me to care for him. That was a complete slap in the face to me.

            But while Remus was an absolute grand friend, and I would have done anything for him, my friendship with James was even deeper. I don't know how to describe it. I think you probably would have to known someone like James to understand. "Blotter", remember? – if for some reason I wasn't Sirius Black, then I might as well be James Potter, and vice versa. We were that close. Dunno why; others have known their friends longer but never had a friendship of our magnitude, but that's the way it was.

            (Side note: "was" is such an awful word. I prefer "is", come to think of it.)

            So therefore, the thought of having the same separation and hesitant friendship with James was a thought I could barely face. How could I even live without being so closely connected with James? I had long since forgotten how to by the age of eighteen. Just the three days in my sixth year in which he either ignored me or chewed me out were probably the three worst days of my life up to that point. Going through it again, only worse – after all, this time, the one I had hurt was James himself, and the whole mess had gotten plenty of time to brew. There was a good chance he'd be angry a lot longer than seventy-two hours.


            But after the way Remus had worded things to Miss Shannon the Priss ("lack of communication"), I realised that I couldn't put it off any longer. James was miserable, Lily was obviously upset enough to have her friends putting a price on James's head; something needed to be done. I could confess, and even if James hated me forever, at least he'd be happy again. And James's happiness was crucial to my very existence; I had been losing weight as rapidly as Lily (not too grand considering I had finally gotten the Beater spot on the Quidditch team).

            That's why I hunted down Peter frantically that evening; I could not stand telling James this face-to-face. Peter could relay the message. And he'd probably be the one to forgive me most quickly, even though he can hold a grudge as well.

            "You did what?!" was his general response. I guess you can't blame him for being taken a wee bit off guard. I approached him with this articulate confession:

            "Wormtail you got to hear me out on this and don't interrupt, it'll make it harder all right?" I didn't wait for his reply. "Peter I – I did a – a stupid thing, it's my fault Lily's angry with James but I did not and I mean I did not mean to do it. All that happened was that I got a note from – someone and I wanted to ask someone with a girl's point of view what it meant so I asked Lily but I accidentally substituted – not accidentally but without thinking come on Wormtail you know me – James in my place when I explained it to her and she took it to mean that James was interested in someone else and I was too embarrassed to correct her, and soon she was giving him the shoulder and I haven't figured out how to tell him about it – you've got to help me tell him!"

            Peter stared at me. "Sirius. Very slowly. In English." Although he was making a joke about it, his voice was very, very stern.

            Finally, I made him understand all the details, although it took about a half an hour and I started crying. How I hated myself for that. I could never understand why I cried so easily, and it was no small matter to me.

            "Sirius," he said at long last, giving a good stare to my tearstreaked face and the hair I had been practically trying to pull out of my head, "I think you're making a big deal out of very little."

            I let go of the strands of hair I had been yanking at in frustration and helplessness. "You – you what? You do? How so?" That had been the last thing I had expected to hear.

            "The only reason it's a problem is because you didn't tell James and Lily right off. You should've; now they've been fighting a month. Otherwise – what was the big deal? You and Lily didn't understand each other right; just tell her what you meant for real…"

            "You don't understand!" I cried frantically. (Ah, the first thing that leaves the lips of someone who is out of perspective.) "First off, Lily Evans drew up that conclusion about James's other girl and thought that's what I was telling her; she'd kill me if she thought I had joked with her, and then the note that I got was from… was from…" I trailed off.

            "Someone special?" Peter said, with a wise, conspiratorial air.

            I scowled. "No." I'd die before I admitted Emily's crush.


            "Sod off and tell James for me!"

            Peter visibly paled and backed off, holding hands in front of him. "Uh-huh. That's your job, Padfoot, you got into the mess, you get out of it." I must have looked distraught, because he relented to some degree. "Okay, okay – I'll tell James you have something to tell him… and Lily."

            "Maybe even hint at it a little?" I begged shamelessly.

            He sighed. "I'll warm them up to the idea."


            Peter did so. How he managed to get Lily to sit in the same room with James alone for a few minutes was another miracle of modern nature. How he managed to drag me into that room was another.

            It was actually a bit of a corridor; the pathway to Gryffindor Tower has a wealth of paths that lead nowhere in particular but are very useful when you need a private place to talk.

            "Ahem," he said, rather importantly, although he looked a little nervous. "Miss Evans, Mr Potter, Sirius here has something to tell you."

            I glared at the way he had opened this up, placing all that pressure on me, and Peter smiled, half apologetically and half bracingly. He had murmured to me all the way as he dragged me to our meeting place cheerful encouragement such as "it'll all be over in a few minutes", which, in my ears, was pretty much equivalent to "they can only kill you once…"


            I've been debating for a few moments whether to re-enact that conversation, and decided not to. Partly because Lily and James's child will be reading this and I'm afraid I'll give him an inaccurate account.

            There's a future part to this little story that I don't want to get into writing now, it'll come along too soon as it is, but I've spent a lot of years in a place that played bad memories in my head over and over and over again. Needless to say, most of them got very distorted. If I think anything will be too unclear in my memory, then I'm not going into it in great detail. Unfortunately, some of those events are the reasons I'm writing in the first place (well, the first reason I wrote this was to keep from driving Remus insane as I went stir-crazy as I had to hide inside for so long), but I'll worry about that when I get to it. The writing I've done so far has helped to make things clearer. Hopefully the more I get along, the more my memories will unlock.

            Thy quill is as thy skeleton key, Black. Or perhaps your passport back to full sanity and recollection.


            After our little "chat", James and Lily spent a long night disappearing for a talk of their own in low voices. Hogwarts understood by next morning that their row had ended. By slow degrees, their relationship deepened and (oh-so poetical) warmed little by little like a sunrise.

            James (along with Lily) had been livid with me while I sat before them in that room, but after he and Lily made up that night, he practically kissed everyone in the common room, including me. He was at peace with the world again. But somewhere during this whole fiasco he seemed to have lost his childlike, wide-eyed, new-day-thou-shalt-findeth-tomorrow innocence, and it wasn't an unconditional reconciliation.

            "I know you had gotten in over your head and were scared, Sirius," he said abruptly one day – completely out of the blue. My mind was very much elsewhere. (In truth, mentally re-reading one of Emily's latest notes; they had become rare.) "And I understand that. But I'm still angry that you would let it go on that long."

            I reddened. "James, I – I was just afraid you'd never forgive me for it. I don't think I'd ever know how to function without you."

            This sort of statement could have immediately brought things to rights, and I was entirely sincere in it, but James frowned slightly. "It's funny," he said, almost to himself. "Lily jumped so quickly to the conclusion I was seeing someone else, with flimsy evidence, mind you, and you didn't think I could understand you." He looked at me steadily. "Don't you think I'd trust and know you well enough by now, Sirius? How long have we known each other – ten years?"

            I couldn't even reply to that, and soon someone interrupted us, and James never brought this up again. In fact, that was about the second most serious conversation he ever had with me. As I said, James was pretty happy-go-lucky (which, as a side note, is a rather stupid phrase, but it's there, convenient, and everyone understands it, so I use it).

            Peter couldn't be angry at me, not after I had went to him for help, and Remus certainly wasn't happy but couldn't keep a grudge if James wasn't. If Lily had continued to detest the sight of me, then he might have showed his disgust a tad more openly, but Lily had already screamed that she had forgiven me. Under special circumstances, I might add.

            Lily was literally ready to take my wand and toss me into the lake (I heard Shannon talk of it), but she accepted my apology – for much the same reason Remus had the year before. Trust me, if you go around saying humbly but repeatedly: "Lily, I'm sorry", "Lily, I'm awfully sorry", "Lily, I'm sorry", and "Lily, I'm sorry", eventually Lily, no matter how upset she is, will turn around and snap: "It's okay, I forgive you, Sirius!"


            But in a way, it was actually quite a good event for us. I gained respect for Lily. I appreciated that she hadn't given James one of those "choose them or me!" ultimatums (I had gotten one from Dina Fawcett the year before; she wasn't fond of the whole "Marauder" thing). She also had tolerated me and hadn't cast the fiasco up to James constantly (another common girl trait). And just seeing just how much happy James was enough for me to start accepting her, not just outwardly, but a bit more wholeheartedly.   

            And good thing. James's taste was not exactly to be doubted; Lily turned out to be the sort of person you would want to know (especially after you stop thinking of them as the one taking away your best friend). She was… Lily. And, as you probably saw, very strong-minded. Yet funny and caring.

            We managed to get along pretty well, as I was still trying as hard as possible to win her favour. But things were still strained and awkward, so I decided to invite her to our end-of-school party that summer.

            It was a nice event. I feel like writing about it.


            After finding that, despite the fact that many might have had more family money and more family power, I definitely had as much useable and fun space as any of my classmates at Hogwarts, in my sixth year, I slowly got the idea to have a get-together for all of us after the end of seventh year. I was closest to the Marauders, but I had gotten attached to just about everyone, and the thought of us leaving forever – well, you know me by now. Despite the fact that we would probably all meet again, and if not, it was war-related, I probably acted as if we were all moving to foreign countries and never to return again.

            I liked the idea at first of inviting everyone in seventh year (even Slytherins, who else would be play pranks on?). Arabella put her foot down. Just having me had been a crash course in learning about children for her. She wasn't used to them, although she liked James, Remus, and Peter, in that order, because that's the order of how much time each spent over at my house. Having forty kids? No, no, and no. She also foresaw that some of them would be Death Eaters, even at a time that many refused to believe "young and innocent schoolchildren" could be in the Dark Order.

            "Why not just invite James and Remus and Peter?" she asked over Easter holiday.

            "I want to invite Lily. I have to make peace with her; she and James are getting serious." I hadn't given her the details, but she knew I didn't much like Lily as of then.

            "Then invite her too."

            "'Bella! How's Lily going to feel with three boys? She's going to need friends over too. And I don't want it to be exclusive and snobby. I can have these three over anytime. I'm talking everyone, including the ones I don't know well."

            We spent two evenings drawing up a guest list of anyone I was friendly with. Arabella kept it smaller by keeping out anyone under seventh year, including Peter's on-and-off girlfriend and Miranda Stacey's brother, and any Slytherins whatsoever. This was still about twenty, and Arabella looked as though a migraine was coming on.

            "Can't some other parents volunteer to help?"

            Yes, I found soon, after an owl or two, they could.

            "Listen, I'm just going to embarrass you, Sirius…"

            "Don't you dare back out of this, 'Bella!"

            "Honestly, you're as terrible as a girl with all these plans," she moaned, rubbing her temples.

            I knew by the time she had descended to insulting me that I had won nearly every battle to come until the party had ended.


            "Sirius Black's party" was circled through the talk at school quickly, and soon considered something very big to attend. Like it? I confess, I adored it. In the midst of the war and suspicion, everyone tended to get a bit closed in, and I'm a social animal. I was thrilled with the prospect of having everyone together outside of school, with no teachers or homework or Filch to consider, and I loved the attention.

            Peter was feeling smug, because I had invited Emily Kertcher to it, despite the fact she wasn't in the popular crowd I had amassed. He had figured out that something was going on between us, and since I confirmed nothing, his imagination had free reign. So it didn't take very long for him to tell James and Remus, although I trusted them not to say anything, although I was rather put out by the knowledge that James had probably told Lily. I had no proof James discussed everything with her, but my melodramatic mind said so.

            So Lily, Emily, and Miranda Stacey would be there, and Peter's girlfriend, a sixth year, would not be. He wasn't passing up the chance to needle us, and it was icing on his cake when his Ministry mentor told him that he would be escorting a Miss Anna Holtry from Canada that June, to travel Europe for a year.

            During the worldwide gathering Remus and Snape had been partnered for, Remus had returned with a penfriend from Canada, a witch in our year named Anna Holtry. We had teased him, of course, aw, look, our little Moony's growing up, isn't it sweet how he blushes? We still occasionally did so, because the two hadn't quit writing to each other by this time, even though they hadn't seen each other since.

            A good thing that I was going to win every battle with Arabella, because I picked fierce ones and soon decided, without a doubt, my bonanza would not be complete if we didn't meet Remus's friend. I wrote her before the end of term, and her schedule while in England, with a few minor adjustments, would be perfect for her to come. She seemed nice, very excited to be writing to one of Remus's infamous friends and thrilled at the chance to see him, and promised to be mum about the whole thing to him, but then, I expected her to be. I couldn't imagine Remus not having a nice girlfriend. Er, friend.

            Anna was staying at Mr Chresham's house, and therefore had access to the Floo system. I asked her to come over early. It didn't occur to me in the least that it would be bad manners to have her over while Arabella and I were still setting up – why would it be? 'Bella only pointed that out ten minutes before she arrived.

            I shrugged. "Oh well. I'll remember next time."

            Arabella looked haggard. She placed a hand on her hip; the other, holding a dishtowel, waved in the air with exasperation. "Next time?"

            "Don't worry, it'll be in a London flat by then," I grinned at her, ignoring the question that read perfectly on her face: "That must be some flat, Sirius Fidel Black." I added one more magical decorative spell, still reveling in the power to do magic anytime, with no fear of trouble. Not that it ever stopped me much. "Is she late yet?"

            "Calm down; you told her two forty-five and it's barely twenty to."

            "I've just been thinking that I really have no clue what she's like. The extent of Remus's remarkable powers of description was 'very nice' and 'intelligent'. Merlin, I hope she isn't some scholarly type who never sees the light of day for her books. I'd suspect it of him."

            "What's wrong with that?" Arabella asked stoutly. "A good clever girl would be a good influence on you four." I reflected that Lily was a "good clever girl" who had, thus far, only divided us. Or at least James and me. Arabella went on working on her pasta for a little longer before asking: "Does she know about Remus's condition?"

            That was Arabella's way of phrasing it: Remus's "condition". I shrugged again. "I haven't the faintest clue. I told you, Remus didn't tell us a lot about her, and I couldn't very well ask lately without getting him suspicious of what we were doing."

            "Of course he doesn't talk about her; you'd take it as an invitation to tease him mercilessly." Arabella never seemed to understand that "teasing" was just our way of expressing friendship, really. As I said, she tried and she was wonderful, but she never really got kids. "I hope she knows."

            "Why?" I asked, a little dangerously.

            "Sirius. You know Remus can't get into a serious relationship."

            "Why not?" I demanded, taking a bowl and beating the egg-mush inside.

            Arabella smiled tolerantly as I sent the egg-mush all over her and the kitchen, nodding at my wand. I reddened and used a charm instead. I still wasn't used to being able to use magic for any task that I couldn't quite understand, although Arabella was adamant about not letting me get dependant on magic. It was her way of life, and, she reasoned, mine by default. I reckon she was right.

            But then she looked sterner after I had finished. "If there's only one bad trait James passed along to you, it's a tendency to refuse to see anything you don't like. I like Remus very much, but I've always worried about things like this ever since I found out. I hope he's mature about it and keeps his head."

            "You won't let him do anything else," I grinned. Arabella, despite her cluelessness about children and teenagers, did her hardest to play mother to all of us. My mother died when I was less than a year older, Remus's when he was thirteen, James's at sixteen, and Peter's mum was also too ill or distracted to remember she had a son. In my humble and biased opinion. 

            She shook your head. "I'll care about you always, but you're adults now. I cannot control your lives, no matter how hard the temptations, and I'll always be here to talk, but you four must make the decisions. It won't be easy, but that's life. Even now, you're under my roof another year at least, and you always have a home here, but you're your own man now. C'est la vie and my blessing."

            This might have been a grand and expected time for me to get clingy, emotional mess I've always been, but luckily the fireplace chose that moment to burn green.

            The first thing Anna Holtry did was to straighten from where she had fallen to her knees, glance around, and grin as she saw me. "I sure hope you're Sirius, because I've only noticed now that I haven't any other Floo powder if you're not."  I laughed, pleased with my first impression.

            Remus had always been maddeningly vague when pressed for details about Anna's appearance, so I suspected she was either an overweight hag or really, really fit, and either way he was slightly embarrassed about it.

            But in fact, you couldn't call Anna "pretty" but nor could you say a hag. She had a very decent figure, slightly tomboyish, black hair that was dark brown in sun, and pale brown-green eyes that didn't match her hair, and rather browned skin. But while she wasn't gorgeous, her face was chock-full of character. Her haphazard side part, the wide nose, the freckles, the bangs with minds of their own, the one ear that wanted to stick out, and a mouth that looked funny when it smiled or pouted – all of it gave her face a very strong, sensible, and quirky personality.

            She passed my test. Anna was a little shy and hesitant at first, but warmed up and did prove to be "intelligent" and "very nice" and quite witty. Arabella nodded approvingly at her, and I had quite a time chasing her around during the conversation. She had an Emily-like quality of talking, and didn't spend too long discussing the price of eggs.

            "What's this thing with Europe?" I asked her. "Traveling all abroad, are we?"

            Anna smiled. Her lips struck me as a little chapped but too full, so when she smiled, her mouth expanded but couldn't seem to push up. It wasn't what you would call cute but appealing in an odd way. "Dead luck," she said, speaking in a rather nasally way, Canada's way, I supposed, that also captured my attention. I could see why Remus had been interested in talking with her; Anna's oddities were fascinating. "My family has been watching my aunt Stephanie's children for years – she's a bit of a free spirit and she and my uncle had a divorce years ago. Well, she was starting another of her globe-trots and, you know" – she exaggerated a high-pitched yet posh voice – "Anna's getting to be such a young lady now, out of school and everything, just to show you my appreciation – and wink, wink, wink, so you'll watch my next baby when I marry again – how about I take her on my next trip?"

            "But you're with Tanner Cresham," I said.

            She grinned wryly. "What, you expect her to put up with me? I've always been too anti-social for her, she loved taking my older sister, but I'm just a burden on her, so she arranged for me to stay with friends around the world. Everyone's been very nice, and I'm loving it all so far. Mrs. Figg, whatever you're making, it smells awesome. What exactly is it?"

            Certainly she didn't seem "anti-social" when she was talking with me, but as everyone else started pouring in, she got a little reserved. She didn't like crowds, but I thrived in them and tried to ease her into it. Everyone got a kick out of meeting Remus Lupin's infamous foreign girlfriend. Although she seemed to like meeting everyone; she knew a small fact or two about all of them, more about others.

            I was apprehensive about Lily, particularly because James would be late because of a Ministry thing his father was taking him to, in hopes of James getting a nice safe job. Where was safe in the Ministry? I didn't know and still don't. Perhaps Mr Potter was thinking of a mesmerising career in the centaur liaison office. But I suppose whatever it was, it was certainly safer than any of James's ideas.

            Of course, this was very convenient, as it also allowed us to ensure that Remus would be late if they came together, but it also meant that Lily might arrive early with only me to entertain her.

            Arabella also liked Lily a great deal, and the two of them hit off pretty well, to my relief, although I knew she'd be nagging at me later ("Why did you give her a hard time? She's a lovely girl.") Luckily, Lily also came after a good deal of others had arrived, and she and Anna got along fine as well. I sighed in relief. It had been my one worry of the evening.

            It turned out Emily was my worst problem. The whole idea of inviting her was a mistake; she was the poster child for anti-socialism and couldn't hold a conversation with a small crowd to save her life. Furthermore, while she kept up a joking sort of rivalry with me, the distaste between her and Peter was very real and still alive. It was hilarious, actually, when they stepped up to the dartboard that I had pegged up to a tree near the side porch. They were ridiculous about it, positively staring off, stretching their throwing arms, glaring, and getting generally pumped up – it was most definitely out to town.

            (As a side note, it turned out all that was unnecessary. I teased Emily about how she would have to improve her aim a lot before she left for Auror training next week, while Peter had fairly good hand-eye co-ordination. Emily took it as the greatest shame she would ever bear, and kicked bad-temperedly at the dirt, while Peter really did rub it in. Good grief.)

            But if Arabella liked Anna and loved Lily, she absolutely adored Emily. She thought she was the best thing since Breaking Charms on mainstream broomsticks, I swear. I suspect a large part of that had to do with the fact that Emily made no bones about hiding the fact that she adored Bella's meatballs. When Emily ate, she forgot to chew. It wasn't the greatest matters, but with her inhaling of Bella's cooking, and articulations, manners, peculiarities, and wit, Emily had a fan.

            "Is that the girl you've been complaining about all these years?" Arabella hissed to me on the side.

            I nodded.

            "The one that has a thing for you?"

            "Yeah" – reluctantly.

            "You could do worse, Sirius, far, far worse. She's a lovely girl."

            "Even though she eats like – "

            "Quiet, lad. You're no better."

            "Grand." I saw James suddenly appear behind Arabella, with a smirk. Mr Potter began to talk with Arabella; I took the opportunity of her distraction to give him a warning glare of death. He shrugged casually, while Remus looked as if he was trying to digest this shocking piece of information.

            "Why didn't you tell us?" James chuckled.

            "Oh Great Brainy Twelve N.E.W.T.s Potter, shut thy mouth," I ordered. "This is why. How'd it go?"

            I expected to hear "boring"; James and Remus, who had probably already been told, looked sober. "The Parliament of Law Enforcement is deciding whether to allow Aurors to use Unforgivables on suspect Death Eaters."

            My jaw dropped open. "Something about that does not sound right, I mean – "

            I was cut off as Remus gasped, gawked, and turned to me (why do they always instantly suspect me?), and then James: "I lost the bet. Should've known you were in on this, Prongs."

            "What's that?" James asked, confused at the change of subject, but then grinned knowingly. "Ah."

            "What bet?" I asked.

            Anna was chatting with Lily, Miranda, and Mina Hopkins under one of the billowy-branched trees on the lawn; Remus was staring as if trying to decide if vision were playing tricks on him. Many people hushed knowingly as they spotted his eyes fixed on her.

            The sudden quiet prompted the girls to look up, and Anna's gaze hit Remus quickly. She grinned wildly and ran straight to Remus, knocking his breath out with a fierce hug.

            "Gosh, R.J., I think you're actually a full three inches taller than me," she said happily, letting him go, and blushing. "Sorry. Got carried away – it's fantastic to see you, Remus – "

            "No, no, that's okay," I assured her quickly. "You two can just keep right on doing your thing."

            Remus shot me a short glare but otherwise I went ignored as he turned to Anna. "What're you doing here, Anna?"

            James smacked him in the back of the head. "Moony, you eejit. 'What're you doing here?' That was completely improper. Miss Holtry, this is your cue to stomp off, sulk, and feel depressed and unloved. You shouldn't have to take that abuse." He smiled charmingly and bowed, Ministry brat manners all up front. "I'm James, by the way, Miss Anna, James Potter. And I apologise for my friend Mr Lupin's appalling behaviour."

            "Potter, James Potter," she mused, and I laughed. "Nice to meet you, James, heard a lot about you."

            Remus gave James a similar glare. In most cases his glares were quite effective, but James and I had immunity to them by this point. "That's how they did it, didn't they, Anna? I was just going to say that they had abducted you, but I'm wrong. They simply used their treacherous charm and lured you over here. You poor girl, you must've had a traumatic time of it."

            Anna laughed. "I was having a fine time, thanks. But I think I just learned my first lesson in handling these two – never, ever get too excited in front of them."

            Very, very intelligent young lady.

            "By the way," James whispered to me, "the bet – Moony noticed you were hiding something, and I said that you'd probably blow it by the 1st of July."

            "Remus, you need mental help if you accepted that," I said. "I hope you just lost a lot on it."

            He shrugged sheepishly, listening to Anna more intently than me. James and I left them to their reunion, soon finding a makeshift game of Quidditch up. Some clever people had brought broomsticks, but were not bright enough to think to bring more for everyone. This was the first major problem of that day.

            Arabella solved it. She bid Mr Potter good-bye and walked deliberately over to the squabbling would-be players. "Sirius," she said pointedly, loudly, crossly, and horribly, "do I hear an disagreement?"

            She did not. Arabella wasn't always out of it; her words caused everyone to quiet and resolve things in a manner miraculous. Might not have understood kids, but she understood authority. And the worth of putting up some shielding charms so the neighbours wouldn't notice the flying broomsticks.

            The most amusing thing was flying with Muggle clothes. Because nearly all our neighbours didn't have a clue about the wizarding world and Arabella and I were to keep it that way, I had warned everyone in advance that they had better dress like Muggles. Several people did a fairly good job of it, too – thank goodness, however, that James did have some help, or he might have shown up in a clown costume.

            Some were just as bad… Dina Fawcett and Bernard Freed, Ravenclaw cousins, wizard blood through and through – let's just say they should get points for effort. Dina had showed up in a swimsuit and had simply painted her witch boots (well, okay, so I wasn't complaining) and Bernard's clothes, frankly, had gone out of fashion a couple of centuries ago. He had taken his clue from Shakespeare, I think. In any case, I laughed shamelessly. Until Arabella, Lily, and Emily started giving me those Warning Looks that come so naturally to females.

            Fine, then, I thought bad-temperedly, and turned to Miranda, who, I felt sure, would support me. After all, she was my girlfriend, the one who had made me suffer at Peter's needling for the past two months.

            But Miranda was fussy, irritated, and bored. Under normal circumstances, my job was to cater to her, make her happy, and then slip off. That was how it went. Today, though, everyone I could slip off to were conveniently detained by either his or her own dates or Quidditch, and in the company of some of the other girls, Miranda seemed rather… limp. Thus my patience was wearing down.

            "Hey, Mir, let's see if we can snatch a broom to play," I said, with a pitiable amount of plaintiveness in my voice.

            She had been staring off to a grassy field dotted with flowers and it took a few moments for her to come to and turn to me. "What's that?"

            Grit teeth. Try not to strangle her on the spot. Be calm. "I'm going to go join the game."

            If she had even said "Aren't you going to stay?", angry or not, I wouldn't have continued. But as her response was "Fine", I glanced over to the group of former classmates as well.

            Lily and Anna were on brooms. Lily was outstripping Michael Boot and Godfrey Nickels over the closest kotchum acre with a huge grin. Anna had slipped off; Remus dived down to her. She had already stood and was brushing grass off her outfit. Luckily, she had gone for all-out simplicity with a white linen shirt and denim jeans. Seeing Remus, she grinned and gave him a hard shove in the chest before laughing and stealing his broom. Emily was with three of the boys, all playing a complicated chase-and-catch game with a spare Quaffle.

            They were so… vivid. Alive. Active. Strong. Independent.

            I felt more edgy than ever. James needn't get all the luck in this instance. Emily wanted to go out with me? Well, she would get her wish. At least she wasn't about to bore me.

            "Mir, it's not working out between us."

            Miranda and I had both heard similar words countless times for the past few years, but she still flared up. A second ago, she didn't care. Now she fought me bitterly.

            "Let's keep this quiet, okay?" I sighed. "We don't have to spoil it for everyone."

            Since Miranda certainly wasn't going to advertise this, in case the version of events got twisted my way, she huffed off to take things out on Mina Hopkins, who had until recently been Miranda and Lily's dorm mate and was pretty much Miranda's verbal punching bag when she got too out of it.

            The whole Emily-thing didn't go quite as planned. Although I noticed she was a bit too eager when I pulled her away from Quaffle tag. What would you say if I asked you out? I asked casually. Well, she said, that would depend on if I were serious or if I was just trying to have one over on her again. Considering this, I finally said yeah, it was all just a big gag, losing my nerve. Emily rolled her eyes and half-yelled that I had pulled her away from her game for one of my stupid jokes.

            "Oh, come on, it's not a big deal," I said, with the extra of a charming smile.

            Emily glared, bright grey eyes icy. "Shut up, Sirius. How can anyone stand you when all you do is annoy them?"

            "I notice no one can stand you. Unless you're buying." I hadn't gotten this sort of childish row since the girls I dated were fourteen. It was rather fun.

            "Maybe I don't want them to stand me."

            "Fine then!" I shot back, getting somewhat upset with her total unreasonableness. "Go off and talk to the little voices, Emily." This was a reference to her yearlong joke that little Atlantian voices spoke to her in her head. Which was actually sort of amusing.

            She had huffed off directly after her last comment, but now halted, turned around, and smiled wickedly at me. "You're just jealous, Black, 'cause the little voices talk to me."

            The implications were so funny that I just had to grin, and then was hit by a laughter attack.

            See what I mean? She was addicting. I never knew what to expect from her. Other girls I had known were nice, even unique, and as I said, Lily and Anna were certainly cool, but they were predictable.

            I didn't know what to predict, so pushed on. "Em!" I called suddenly.

            "Em's a letter. My name is Emily."

            "What if I was serious?"

            "But aren't you?"

            I groaned. Only I was allowed to use that. "Bad one. What if I were not joking about a date?"

            Emily turned again, thoughtful. "Hmm. Well." She was struck out of composure. I didn't mind watching it unfold. "Ask James for the time."

            I blinked, not understanding that one. Emily was walking away at a quick clip, leaving me bemused. I ran to her.

            "What's that?"

            "You asked for the time. I don't have a watch." Emily was not the world's greatest liar either, even though she was still half-walking, half-jogging, and wasn't facing me.

            "Kertcher, you know damn well what I asked. Would you go out on a date with me?"

            She broke into a run. "What's that, Black? Can't hear you."

            "I'm not begging you!" I shouted. "Want this or not?"

            A giggle. "Catch me and ask!"

            We created a spectacle, for sure. Zoomed right past the games, running about, and polka dots – you know, when there's little huddles of people gossiping? We stomped right over the tiny pink flowers and sun-scorched grass; past (as you shall soon see, unfortunately, not quite past) the side kotchum fields, on the edge of where the grass was no longer cut and gave way to forest. I heard cheering, whistling, and various catcalls behind us.

            She had a head start, but I chased her down easily – she was not athletic; I was. The heat also got her, as she was sensitive to humidity and "sunny" was the understatement of the day. Finally she slowed, grasping at one of those painful stitches she had in her side, and I grabbed her shoulder like some of those clichéd crime pictures.

            "Caught you," I said, with barely a gasp. "So what d'you say?"

            "My side hurts. Sorry?"

            "No. Do I get a date or not?" I flashed another smile. "I certainly worked for it, didn't I?"

            "What d'you call a date?"

            "A night out. Catch the Knight Bus to London, perhaps stray out of the wizarding alleys to see what sort of freaks we can see in the Muggle world, quick dinner, you know. Whatever you want. Quidditch game, maybe. Haven't you ever dated before?"

            She avoided that question by collapsing and falling to a nearby tree for support. "Sounds fab."

            "You sound thick when you try to sound cool."

            "I know." Emily didn't sound abashed, either. Just matter of fact. "I cut my foot too. This was stupid of me."

            "Lay down. I know a healing charm." Plenty of them. And the cut was far shallower that what I was used to.

            "Thanks. What do you have that hurts like that?"

            "Kotchum, didn't you know? You must have crossed a corner. And still you got caught – you're pathetic, Kertcher. Is it a date?"

            "You're dating Miranda."

            "Not anymore." I leaned over her, meeting her eye to eye.

            "Are you going with me to pay her back?"

            This stopped me. Was I? Show up the most popular girl by dating the least?

            "I think you're more interesting. Mir and I were at each other's throats for months; you're not why I broke up with her."

            She stood up. "I don't know."

            "You know what I know?" I tugged a long piece of grass. "You're in a damn good position for me to tickle you." Actually, she was in a damn good position for me to rape her, and from the flash of fear in her eyes, I think that had suddenly occurred to her. But I was doing nothing of the sort. "You look like the ticklish type."

            Emily couldn't hide a smile.

            "A-ha! Got you, Kertcher." I flung the grass aside and attacked her stomach with my fingers. Emily giggled instantly and was soon hooting and howling. "So, yes or no, I'm not patient, Alphabet."

            "Alphabet?" she managed.

            "Your nickname is a letter, Em. So I'm going to call you Alphabet."

            "What – sort of – nickname – is that?"

            "Aw, I expected someone like Anna Holtry to say that. By English birthright, we're bound to make up nicknames, more unusual the better.            And it's better than Emily."

            "Hey!" she cried, though in protest against the insult of her name of the increase in tickling I couldn't tell. "Fine… it'll be fun… but it's nothing serious and I'm not calling it a date!"

            I quit tickling. "I am Sirius, at the very least, as you so brilliantly pointed out, and what do you intend to call it?"

            "A trip to London."

            "You like the city?"

            "No. It's horrid."

            "I love it. I'm going to live there in a few years."

            "Yeah, well, you're mental." Emily began to push herself up.

            "But I'm not the one with little voices in my head."

            "Lay off the little voices." She brushed grass stains off her cobalt skirt, having dressed up a bit, although of course it did nothing. "With their help I'm going to make up a nickname for you and you're going to hate it. Worse than Alphabet, even."

            "Alphabet, nothing is worse than yours. Come on. They're going to think we're making out or something if we don't get back soon." Emily's face turned a little pink but tacitly agreed.

            I guess I did have some Divination skills and should have taken the subject; as we got back, I heard Godfrey Nickels shout "You two go off and find a room!"

            "Honestly." Emily glared at him. "You keep quiet and I'll say nothing about Alexandra Donnellson. Deal?"

            It was.

            "Furthermore, we are not going out," she declared. "And I still hate his very bones."

            Yeah, right, I reflected. James was grinning at me, in a rather superior way I didn't quite like. Emily and I separated – I to the Quidditch, her to wherever. They didn't accept her back into the game.


            Sounds like fun, doesn't it? As if I should have had the time of my life. Well, I can't complain, it was certainly a very enjoyable day, but the ending was going to affect Sandrybrook Road Farm for years.

            It was Arabella who showed me, furiously. Remus and I had been searching the taller grass near the side fields for a lot of lost Quaffles, although admittedly we were chucking them at another when the other's back was turned more than we were finding them. He was staying the night, due to my conniving. James had to go with his dad to another Ministry thing, and Peter was needed at home – but Remus's sister Athena and her husband, what's-his-name, Dick Englebert, didn't really need him; he was just convenient for them. And unlike the rest of us, Remus's independence didn't come from completing school but until his eighteenth birthday, in November. So I had lied to Athena and told her it was an overnight event and Remus wouldn't be back until the next day – oh, and he was helping with cleanup (not a lie!) so he'd be back mid-afternoon the day after.  

            (Yes, Remus was angry for the first five minutes for my manipulating when I sprang this on him after everyone else left, but I knew very well he wasn't about to Floo Athena and tell her he was coming a day early… and, as you can see, I was also right. If the matter isn't life-or-death, I usually am. Right, that is.)

            "Sirius – Fidel – Black!"

            Arabella got troubled easily, and had long since belonged to the Using Full Names Is An Effective Way of Showing Annoyance, but I could see that this time, it really was something quite important, and sensed I was in major trouble. I froze and exchanged a worried glance with Remus.

            "Come here!" Arabella barked, pushing aside grass and weeds with the fury of… well… a "woman scorned". (I don't know why, but I have a bit of a Shakespeare obsession.) I hesitated before taking a meek step or two forward. She abruptly seemed to see Remus for the first time, although she had aided and abetted in his staying. "You too," she said shortly. "And neither of you lose any of those Quaffles in the process – ten Galleons the each of them! And that money'll have to be better spent on this, believe me!"

            She led us to the side of the kotchum field nearest to the forest. I instantly knew what must have happened – it was where Emily and I had run. My heart started doing flip-flops in my chest and nearly came up through my throat. I of all people should have known to be more careful…

            Her bag, heavy with rocks she was clearing from around the kotchum field, was shoved into Remus's hands while hers turned my shoulder roughly to face the trampled kotchum.

            "What the – " Arabella stopped, breathed, and continued. Somehow she was concerned about me not picking up swearing. Heh. "Sirius, you gave me your word that no one was going to get into the kotchum – what's this? Do either of you know what happened here?"

            I could barely answer. It was not only fear of her wrath – that would pass – but dismay. Kotchum is the most delicate and temperamental plant in the world.


            "It – It must have been during some of the games," Remus spoke up, rather quietly and subdued, after I still had not thought up a thing to say. "A couple of people were using the Quaffles, running, and it – got out of hand… Sirius was in the air when this happened, I think – weren't you, Sirius?"

            It was practically a plea. Trying to talk when Arabella's anger is thickening the oxygen around you has caused irate landowners and debt-collectors to choke.

            But then again, somewhere deep in my mind, I was amused. Remus knew as well as I did that Emily and I had plowed through there, and just one or two hours ago he had been growling at me for lying to Athena Englebert.

            Closer to the fore of my mind was the conviction that I must tell the truth. "No – it was me, 'Bella – I told the rest of them, just like you said. I forgot for a moment when I was… erm… running." I finished, tacking the last word on lamely.

            "Were you wearing shoes, Sirius?"

            Remus, who had never really aced Herbology, looked confused, but for those who also don't understand (and also think she was overreacting), it was a valid question. Shoes have the germs of everywhere you step on them, and kotchum is so sensitive that the little bit of essence can contaminate the whole field. When he work in the kotchum fields, we have to go barefoot – and wash our feet right by the edge of them before we step over the fence or row of rocks separating kotchum territory from the rest of the wild world.

            "Yeah," I said in a very low voice. "I think so." Damn, why couldn't I ever keep my head? Maybe the little voices wouldn't hurt much at all…

            Arabella swelled for a moment in rage, and then deflated in disappointment. Our budget was so carefully set up that even the loss of our smallest kotchum field could disrupt it. I wondered if we'd have to sacrifice even more land. All because of one moment of foolishness.

            I hated the responsibility of having every action affecting our entire future. Trust me, I was looking forward to leaving that barn.

            "Go on and get those Quaffles. I don't want you out when it gets dark. Sirius, you start thinking right now about how to make up the difference – although," she gave a small sigh, "I suppose it's just as much my fault, letting you lot play there, moving the kotchum up in the most-used place. It would have worked just fine in the lower field."

            "Er, excuse me, Arabella," Remus said timorously, only daring to speak because of her last two sentences, I'd bet, "but how does that affect the kotchum? I mean, it doesn't seem like much…"

            "Doesn't seem like much!" Arabella burst out, again puffing up in fury. Remus and I both flinched. She proceeded to give the same explanation I just did, but with much more emotion, and then, just when she seemed to have calmed down, shouted: "And you! Covering up for him like that! I'll have no liars in this house, I'll have you know, Remus Jobey Lupin! Hear me well, don't you dare ever pull a stunt like that again."

            "I don't think I will," Remus whispered as we set off to Quaffle-Hunt again.

            I shrugged. "Her bark's worse than her bite, you know that." Then I winced. Bad analogy.

            "Does she always get that upset?"

            "Moony, 'Bella's a lamb most of the time, she just occasionally goes a bit mad whenever something big happens. She's more angry with the situation than us."

            "So you don't that was a little… extreme?"

            "You heard about the kotchum – yeah, maybe a little."

            "Excuse me," said a slightly too sweet voice behind us. We half-jumped and turned, guilt written all over our faces, I'm sure. "I'm sorry to hold you up some more and interrupt, but you still have my bag, Remus."

            "Oh." Remus glanced down at it, catching his bearings, and gave it to her. "I'm sorry. Didn't notice." 

            "That's all right." Arabella smiled calmly. "I never get upset over something as minor as that, my display of temper just a moment ago aside, and I trust you not to abuse my good nature."

            I stifled a chuckle at her choice of words.

            She turned to me, effectively ending my amusement. "Fidel, little faithful," she said musingly. I had the grace to look embarrassed.

            Arabella then looked over both of us, as we tried not to fidget. She sure knew how to play her intimidation games. Finally, she gave a slight, benevolent smile – I have shown you two mercy and you know it! "You'll get on with those Quaffles now, then?"

            We nodded. Fervently.

            "At the very least," she nodded to Remus, obviously still miffed with me, "it was a nice gesture, standing up for a friend."

            "Sirius does the same."

            Oh thanks, Moony, I thought sarcastically. Just get me in trouble too, will you?

            "I know." Her smile was more genuine now. "It's the only reason I'm letting it slide. Now hurry up, because I'm going to bed at nine o'clock, and I don't care what you do afterwards, but you can't make a noise doing it. Oh, and preferably, it's legal and not life-threateningly dangerous."

            Remus and I exchanged a look of incredulity. "Well," I quipped, "that eliminates ninety-nine point nine percent of our regular activities."

            TBC (in the next chapter, which takes a short rest from the past narrative to present…)