Part II: From Home to Hearth
"No chance, mate," Sirius immediately decided; he lay on his back in the grass with his hands shielding his eyes as the sun peeked through the holes in the blanket of leaves over their heads. "It would have to be at least fifty."
"It's not as if I'm asking you to snog the Giant Squid…"
"There are loads of things I would do for ten galleons," Sirius assured him. "Just not that."
"Like pour salt on Rosier's dinner?" James recalled that incident with a mirthful sigh. Would have been a beauty to witness. Bloody Ravenclaws and their bloody elbows, knocking things about.
"Nah, he's a tosser, I'd do that for free."
"So would I," James agreed.
Sirius turned his head toward James, resting his cheek on the grass. "You did."
James sighed again. "I did." And he'd do it again. McGonagall could do with him what she liked—or pretend as though she would—but no one called names to one of his mates and got away with it.
The two of them picked at the grass for a moment in silent agreement.
Leaning up on his elbow, Sirius threw his hair out of his eyes, still squinting. "You'd snog Evans for free, though, wouldn't you? If she didn't slug you first…"
"Wouldn't give her the satisfaction."
"She almost dumped her cauldron on your head in Potions," Sirius reminded him.
Oh, yes. That.
James had claimed that seat before Severus Snape had decided to slide into it and pour his four hundred kilos of Potions shite all over the table, accidentally—or perhaps not so, if you asked James—spilling his ink on James' homework. He was a complete plonker. A slimy one, at that.
Well, he was.
And he wouldn't give Evans the satisfaction of a snog, just as he hadn't given her the satisfaction of performing a cleaning charm that he could do perfectly well himself, thank you. Never mind he had wiped out the first two sentences of his essay in the process.
"Another go?" Sirius piped up, reaching behind him to snag his broom handle. "Show me how to do the Hawkshead formation again…"
James leaned up on his elbow now, pushing away unpleasant thoughts of Slimeball Snape and the dismissing flick of his skinny fingers and dangly hair as he copied down instructions off the board for him and Lily. "Can't," he said with a shrug. "You need three people flying Chaser to actually practice it."
"You can't pretend," James insisted. "You and I will look like the bloody Southern Ireland Synchronized Flyers. Little girlies," he clarified.
Sirius draped his arms over his knees and gave James a skeptical Smile. "There's no such thing."
"Is," James promised, sitting up as well. "Ask Mum."
"You could ask her to be our third…"
"Probably," Sirius shrugged as he pushed himself off of the ground, taking his Comet 180 with him. "You think Remus' parents would have got that letter your mum sent them? Gloucestershire isn't terribly far from Godric's Hollow, is it?"
"They live in Teddington— or I think that's right, anyway," James informed him, pulling his own broom up with him as he stood. "Loads of moors and all that, but Kenrick will find them right quick. He's a fair flyer." James had owned Kenrick, his great black and gray owl, since he was seven years old, and it never took him longer than a day or two to deliver letters—and come home with responses.
James inwardly sighed, disappointed in his dad's rejection of plain logic where Remus' state was concerned.
Shielding his eyes now from the sun that was baking the top of his head, James added, "Only took him a night and a morning to deliver Dad's letter to your parents in Bulgaria, remember?"
"Yeah," Sirius mumbled, suddenly interested in thumbing the edge of his broomstick.
James watched his best mate for a moment—watched his broom-flicking, really. "They'll write back," he said. Three days hadn't seemed to go by that slowly. As many days as a weekend—plus one more. "Won't they?" James asked, regretting it at once.
Sirius stopped worrying at his broom, choosing to scratch at his forehead instead. He blinked in James' direction.
"Here—" James said quickly, mounting his broom. "—you have to sit far back, almost to the ground, and you choke it right here." He grasped the very tip of his broomstick, leaving his belly almost parallel to the stick. "Yeah, that's it—that's good," he approved Sirius' stance. "We'll kick off at the same time, but don't be startled…your Comet will tip forward; gives you better speed. It'll still be wicked with two."
They practiced the Hawkshead formation three times before racing each other past the oak trees and back, nearly toppling off their brooms. James felt better.
"Look," Sirius called, shaking the hair out of his eyes and letting his feet hang loosely on either side of his broom. He pointed toward a gray blur in the sky. "Here's your owl come back."
James studied the object flapping toward them. "Don't recognize that one," he told Sirius. "It's not Kenrick."
To both of their surprise, the owl didn't zoom toward the kitchen window as owls usually did when delivering mail to his parents; instead, its feet latched onto the edge of Sirius' broom, the air from its wings dusting Sirius' fringe to the side. The small gray owl lifted one of its legs, offering a scroll to Sirius.
"See?" James said, smiling. "Told you."
The smile drooped from his face, however, as he watched Sirius' eyes go narrower and narrower, and then dark and still. The Comet 180, along with its occupant, floated slowly to the ground. Sirius read the letter again once his feet hit the ground. The broomstick dropped unhappily, wiggling in the grass. James came to rest beside Sirius propping his chin on the edge of his own broomstick as he waited.
"I don't think this was meant for me," Sirius said in a small, strange voice.
"It's got your name on the outside," James reported. "'In care of Sirius Black' it says."
"It's addressed to my parents, though," Sirius mumbled, his voice growing quieter still.
"Who is it from?" James wondered, moving closer to get a peek at the handwriting. Sirius was still reading. But then again, he wasn't.
Sirius peeked over the parchment. "Durmstrang Institute."
James took a step forward, but Sirius didn't yank the letter out of sight, so James moved even closer and glanced over Sirius' shoulder, frowning as he read. "Come off it," James muttered in disgust. "They only send letters to dodgy blokes like the Lestranges—bragged about it enough; makes you wonder why they didn't just go there."
Sirius didn't say anything.
"Can I read it?" James wondered.
The letter crinkled in the wind for a moment, and then Sirius handed it over his shoulder; squatting near the ground, he ran his knuckles over the owl's head.
James sat next to him. "'Dear Mr. and Mrs. Orion Black,'" he read aloud. "'Indeed, Durmstrang Institute for Magical Learning has been noted as one of the most acclaimed and astute—" James lowered the letter. "Astute," he repeated. "What does that mean? Brilliant?"
Sirius shrugged, still petting the sharp-eyed owl until it moved away, choosing to pick under his wings with its beak instead. Sirius sat on his hands, kicking his heel into the dirt. "Who cares?"
James continued reading. "—acclaimed and astute schools of witchcraft and wizardry for over seven centuries. We thank you for your eagerness to enroll one of your own in our program of elite and unparalleled wand lore and magical training. Although Durmstrang Institute accepts few, if any, transfer students after completing three full terms of magical training elsewhere, we have been known to make exceptions.'"
Peaking up once more, James wasn't surprised to find Sirius' trainer covered in dirt and his mate staring over the owl's head.
James read on about various classes offered at Durmstrang—most of them sounding quite dull—and skimmed over at least ten lines of the Headmaster praising the school again, until James' eyes wanted to cross and he felt like crumpling the letter in his fist. "'We understand your concern'," James read aloud again. "We shall be in touch and will speak again very soon. Sincerely, Sebastian Antonovich, Headmaster.'"
James folded the letter in half and laid it on his lap, waiting. But Sirius didn't say anything. Only tried to stroke that bloody bird again. Meanwhile, James' stomach wouldn't stop churning.
"What sort of headmaster is named Sebastian?" James said with a scowl. "Sounds like a git. Here's it back."
Sirius chewed on his lip as he took the letter from James' hand and shoved it into his back pocket.
"Well…" James tried again, "you're not actually going, are you? Maybe they're talking about your brother."
Sirius looked at him.
"Right. Well, perhaps not," James said quietly, "but they won't make you go there—tell them you like Hogwarts; you're going to make the Quidditch team next year—"
"You will, you mean."
"And so will you," James assured him. He pulled up his knees, feeling more optimistic. "You're better than anyone at Keeper. And besides, you get top marks, don't you?"
"What has that got to do with anything?"
"Loads," James nearly screeched. "What else do our parents care about? Listen, if McGonagall had shot home that letter near Easter and my parents thought I was getting T's in everything, then I'd really be dead, but they know I do my homework and all that rot, so things didn't turn out nearly as horrible, did they? You see?"
"Your dad did kill you," Sirius reminded him, frowning. "He came straight from work, you said—still in his dress robes and everything."
"Oh…" James scratched at the back of his head. He'd had better Easter gifts; that was certainly true.
"Your memory is pants." Sirius threw a handful of dried grass into the air.
Ignoring the insult, James scooted forward a bit. "You could write to your parents," he suggested. "I'll help you, if you want."
Sirius shook his head. "It's fine. Don't worry about it."
A sudden brilliant plan wracked James' brain, making his fingers tingle. "You could write back to Durmstrang, then—pretend to be your parents—we could look up a copying spell and match up the handwriting—"
"And if they wrote back from Bulgaria?"
"Erm," James mumbled, squinting as he thought about that. "Say Kreacher did it?"
For the first time since they'd landed on the grass, the corner of Sirius' mouth perked up with a grin. Then, just as sudden, the wind carried it away, tossing it among the willow branches—along with any further great ideas that James might have had. He sat quietly alongside Sirius for a moment, feeling a bit sad and awfully confused.
"You could ask Dad to talk to them—or Mum…"
Sirius leaned back on his palms, kicking at the dirt again. "Your dad can't fix everything, you know."
"I—I know that," James said. He pressed his lips together, surprised at the way his face felt—hot with embarrassment. He knew he should say something helpful, wanted to, really. But his throat had slammed its doors. On this subject, anyway.
James picked his broom up off the grass and stood, brushing off his seat. Sirius copied him.
"You can use my clippers to fix your broom," James said as they walked back toward the house, "since yours has that knick in it."
And the tin of polish James had been saving since he opened that package at Christmas. That, too, would be opened.
Over the past few years, Sirius had said loads of things that he had regretted.
No, one certainly could not transfigure body parts, could they? (McGonagall had a rubbish sense of humor); and, no, his mother's evening hairstyle didn't actually resemble Babbity Rabbity when she turned herself into a tree. A lie, of course, but Sirius had wanted to be let out of the attic—the Room of Disgrace—for the lavatory at some point…
He regretted telling Regulus that his two front teeth would never go back (Regulus looked horrible when he cried: snotty and bug-eyed. And after a long while of that, even cousin Bellatrix would show sympathy.)
But even that didn't compare to how rotten Sirius felt about what he had said to James.
He'd wanted to dive for those words once they'd flown out of his mouth, bat them away like a bludger. But he couldn't; those were the kind of words that trailed after you and sat on your shoulders, digging in their claws for a very long time. A whole night and a morning had passed, and there they were, hovering, even as he lounged quite comfortably on the floor with Mr. Potter next to the fireplace in his study, finishing up a game of Wizard's Chess.
If only he were better at reading James' mind. All James had been doing for the last half hour was eating butter biscuits. Not exactly a mark of devastation.
James sat back on his heels, rocking back and forth on his toes, his teeth making mincemeat out of his bottom lip as he studied the chess board. Sirius supposed that James was busy being bothered by his own set of words: helping words. Words that would probably have Sirius' Queen decapitating his dad's Bishop… if Mr. Potter hadn't threatened to cast a Silencing charm on James for the rest of the night if he didn't belt up and wait his turn to play the winner.
Sirius hadn't even seen James this quiet at the Sorting. Honestly, unlike any grown-up Sirius had ever met…
Sirius kicked his legs behind him and spread out on his stomach, making his face scrunch up in concentration like the Potter faces. Tried his best, at least. He was nearly ready to make his next move when the room filled with warm air and the white marble chess pieces glowed green, along with the rest of the study.
James was the first to greet the floating head in the fireplace. Mumble, perhaps—whatever a person could do with a mouth half-full of biscuits.
"Good evening, James," the man said as though he expected to see him. "Ah, got him caned well and surely, have you?"
"My friend does." James grinned. "I'm playing victor."
The bloke's green head bounced in the flames as he chuckled.
"Thank you all the same, young sir, but that will do," Mr. Potter murmured good naturedly to James as he rose from the rug, sparing a wink for Sirius.
Sirius found himself smiling.
Mr. Potter laid both hands on James' shoulders. "Tuck away your red cards, if you please."
"Yellow, as well?" James carried on the joke.
"Yellow, as well."
James scooted back on his bum until he hit the armchair, giving his father choice position in front of the hearth.
"I know the time," Mr. Marwick said—James Marwick, the other James had whispered in Sirius' ear, one of his dad's officials at the Ministry. "And I'm terribly sorry to call you away so late after dinner, but I'm afraid the problem in Stonehouse is all that we feared; we should convene tonight."
"What problem?" James piped up, gazing up at his dad. He was hugging his knees now, just like Sirius was.
Mr. Potter glanced over at James but didn't answer. "Let me see the boys to bed and tell Dorea I shall be home late—a quarter of an hour, tell them."
Stonehouse, Sirius thought, his brain conjuring up the map of English counties been made to memorize by his primary school tutor. In Gloucestershire?
"It's nine o'clock," James muttered, his head following his dad's feet out the door, once Mr. Marwick had gone. "Not even, actually. Oy, Dad, can't we—" James turned, frowning and holding onto his sleeve where Sirius had tugged it.
"Did you hear what he said?" Sirius whispered.
"Yeah…nine o'clock," James scoffed. "Who'd he morph into just then? Filch?"
Sirius made an exasperated noise to rival his mother's. "No, not that, you great wally—Stonehouse."
James' frown deepened.
"Don't you know where that is?" Sirius' voice grew louder now.
"Erm," James muttered, thinking. "West. No, Southwest, is it? Probably near—"
"Not near!" Sirius rasped under his breath. "Bloody shaking hands with it…"
"Oh." James blinked. And then his eyes stretched wide. "Oh!"
James had it.
"James, you may finish out my game," Mr. Potter said when he returned to the study; he plucked his outer robes from a hook on the hall tree and shrugged into them. "And then it's to bed soon after, eh?"
James' shoulders relaxed a bit at that pronouncement. "Sure." Too quick. Entirely insincere. And Sirius was quite positive that Mr. Potter knew it as well, though he didn't say a word about it. "Are you sending any Aurors to Stonehouse?" James asked as he slid into Mr. Potter's abandoned spot of carpet. "Will you be going there?"
"We shall see," Mr. Potter said, clearly used to back-to-back inquiries. He straightened his tie with one hand and reached for the pot of Floo powder with the other. "No need to wait up for me, Jamie—Sirius; I may be very late in coming home." He paused before hurtling in the grits. "And no heckling your mother about it either. A promise?" Mr. Potter held out his hand for each of them to shake his agreement; Sirius blushed when he realized he was meant to shake first. He did, of course.
"Good boy. James?"
James nudged up his glasses as he reached out and shook his dad's thumb. Then he grinned cleverly. "Mmhm. Be careful."
The Floo roared to life, making the room warm all over again. Mr. Potter stepped in, only to immediately step back out, stoop down to kiss James on the head, and then duck his head and shoulders back into the green flames.
The air cooled off, their fringe resettled onto their foreheads. James' scowled a bit, mussing up his hair where it had been kissed. He caught Sirius' eye.
At the same instant, they lurched toward the chess board, scraping it clean of all pieces, broken or otherwise, and pushed it underneath the sofa.
"Your knight needed to pummel that pawn on the left," James informed him as he crawled back to the rug, stretching both legs out in front of him once he'd settled.
"I know. I almost went for it."
"Rotten luck, old man," James said to the empty fireplace.
Sirius leaned his back against the foot of the sofa. "Why would your dad need to send people to Stonehouse?"
"They're Aurors," James said, as if Sirius should have already known. "Must be something dodgy going on in Stonehouse, isn't there?"
"I know they're Aurors, I'm not stupid, but what do you think they've gone to do?"
James shrugged, mostly with his chin, since his arms were locked behind him like stills. "Dunno. Bring them tea?"
Sirius didn't laugh. "Be serious."
James blinked at him. "Sorry." He folded his legs into a pretzel, playing with the toe of his sock for a moment. He glanced up, tilting his head. He looked very much like his dad at that moment. "The last time Aurors were sent up North, there was a group of dark wizards—not very many, maybe ten or twelve—they were meeting in this old cave, trying to start a rebellion…revolution…one of those, anyway. My dad didn't tell me much, just that it was nothing to worry about. That there will always be baddies somewhere, plotting to set cats on fire…or whatever they might do."
Muggles, Sirius thought. Not cats. Chills zinged up and down his arms, the way they used to when he was sitting on the pitch-dark stairs of his parents' flat in his pajamas on those nights when his aunts and uncles and cousins (thrice removed) stayed after dinner so long that Sirius was sure he'd find them still in the parlor the next morning, rather than just a ghostly smell of brandy and pipe smoke. Those were the only times that Sirius could half-remember his father carrying him up to bed. Never scolded Sirius in the morning for eavesdropping. It was almost as if he didn't mind Sirius' knowing what they talked about on those nights. He'd been very small then, younger than Regulus, even.
Sirius didn't go to the stairs anymore, and his father hardly looked him in the eye, let alone carried him.
"Maybe they're just meetings. People talk a lot of rubbish—doesn't mean they'll ever do anything horrible."
"Some have," James countered with a grimace. "Not since about a year ago, though. Remember that village that caught fire? And that Auror who died?"
"Wasn't in the Prophet," James said. "They don't put stories like that in there. I'm not supposed to know about it, actually."
"How'd you find out?" Sirius was whispering now, even though there was no need to; the door was closed. They both were whispering.
"You know that man whose head you just saw?"
"He comes round here the most of any of Dad's friends. It was really late, and they thought I was asleep." James pointed toward the armchair in the corner of the room—a chair so big that the both of them could sit in it, easily. Remus as well, probably. "Don't tell him, all right?"
It took a moment for Sirius to realize that James was serious. "I'd never tell."
James gave him a half-smile. He pulled at the heels of his socks this time.
"My parents talk about stuff like that sometimes," Sirius murmured. "I don't think they care if I know." Sirius left off the part about the late-night meetings. They'd never quite bothered him until recently. His arms broke out in goosebumps again. "I'm not letting them transfer me to Durmstrang. I'll run away first."
"You can live here," James suggested. "You've got a bed now. We can be brothers."
Sirius hugged his knees, pressing his chin against them. His stomach suddenly coiled with a feeling he didn't know what to do with. He wondered what Regulus was doing in Bulgaria.
"How close is Teddington to Stonehouse?" James wondered.
"Close enough," Sirius answered. He held his forefinger and thumb less than a centimeter apart. "Looks like this on map."
"This—" James mimicked Sirius' pincer fingers. "—could be a hundred kilometers, depending on how small the map is."
"Could be five."
"Who's ever seen one that massive?"
"Professor Binns," Sirius said truthfully. The maps in History of Magic were, indeed, quite massive; covered the blackboard.
"And you've borrowed his, have you?"
"Soul mates, we are."
"Now you get serious."
Crossing his ankles, Sirius sat up straighter. "All right, then, listen: if something horrible is happening in Stonehouse, what if Remus went with his mum and dad somewhere, in case it comes to Teddington? What if he forgot his mirror?"
"We heard voices."
"What if they weren't his parents'?"
James' teeth pulled at his bottom lip.
"Your mum hasn't got back a letter," Sirius reminded him; they were sitting so close, their knees were almost touching. "Floo-call your dad's office and ask him to send someone to pop by Remus' flat…"
"Can't. I'm not allowed. He might not even be there anyway."
"Ask your mum."
"We're only supposed to contact him when he's working if it's an emergency," James said, shaking his head in slight frustration. "He obviously didn't think it was earlier, did he?"
"He won't be home until midnight, probably," James declared. "And, no, I'm not asking him in the morning—you saw how well that went."
Sirius sniffed. "He was fine until you started whinging at him."
"You ask him, then. Better yet, you can pop through there—" James gestured dramatically toward the fireplace. "—and Stun every person that doesn't look like a Lupin. No, hang on, a hex aimed right for the bollocks. Yes. And then Dad will appoint you Auror and ask you along next time he—"
James growled into the hand that was plastered over his mouth, pulling hard at Sirius' wrist.
"Shhh," Sirius shushed him. "Shut up a second."
The sound of knuckles rapping at the door quelled James' mumbles. The creaking hinges had them both turning.
"Hel-lo," James greeted slowly.
"You can come in, Mum."
"Can I, now?" Mrs. Potter smiled at the both of them. Slipping her other shoulder through the crack in the doorway, she held onto the doorknob as she considered the scene. "Have the pieces gone back repaired or will Vera be finding the queen's crown at her feet?"
"Only a pawn's head," James joked.
Mrs. Potter's eyes twinkled. "I see. Will we be heading to bed, then?"
"Will you?" James asked innocently enough.
"Hm," his mother narrowed one eye. "Very clever of you. And to think, I almost brought in a fresh tray of biscuits."
"If we may eat them in bed, then I'll go up after them."
Sirius nearly snorted. Amazing that anyone ever took James seriously. Mrs. Potter twitched her nose at him. "Really…" she sighed.
"We're almost finished with our meeting," James informed her. "And then we'll go up."
"Mmhm," Mrs. Potter assessed with a nod. "I'm afraid I see no record of your notes anywhere."
"They're in Sirius' brain," James said, not missing a beat. "He's the best memory."
"You're ridiculous…" Sirius kicked out with his toes; James toppled like a balancing egg.
"At last," Mrs. Potter said, her fingertips pointed toward the ceiling, "a voice of reason."
Cheek still pressed to the rug, James peeked up at his mother. "We shall be up for biscuits in an hour."
"You have ten minutes to adjourn the meeting, young man," Mrs. Potter ordered, pointing a stiffened finger toward the mad heap—that somehow was his best mate—on the floor. "You heard what Daddy said."
James face turned as crimson as the scrollwork on the carpet. He sat up, straightening his glasses. "I know it, Mum."
"Yes, Mum," she exaggerated, half-smiling as she pulled the door closed. "Right away, Mum. Thank you for the biscuits, Mum."
"Thanks, Mrs. Potter," Sirius called after her. At least the door heard him. He wrinkled his nose at James. "Daddy?"
"Oh, come off it," James mumbled sourly, and then pulling a rather serious face—which was difficult to accomplish with still-pink cheeks, he added, "What do you say, then?"
"What do I say about what?"
"Checking in on Remus," James said, giving his specs another casual nudge. "Mum goes to sleep five minutes after I do."
"We're not allowed to Floo-call anyone; you just said that."
"No," James agreed," but I'm allowed to use the Floo if I'm travelling."
Sirius gave him a skeptical squint. "You're allowed to use the Floo to travel but not to call someone? That's a complete lie."
James shook his head. "Isn't," he promised. "I used it when I went to Diagon Alley in August."
"Your parents were probably right behind you." Sirius kept his brow furrowed. "Like my mum was when I went…"
"When did you go?" James wondered.
"So did we! I didn't see you…"
"We—" James began but then promptly bit his tongue between his lips. It was his turn to blush. "We weren't there very long." Gringotts Wizarding Bank and Knockturn Alley had taken up quite a bit of their time, as did the rather sharp—and very public—dressing-down Sirius had received after he'd got fed up of trailing his mother in the damp alleyway that smelt of rotting wood and patchouli, choosing, instead, to find his way to Quality Quidditch Supplies in the sunnier part of the street.
"Oh," James chirped, accepting this. "Anyway, he continued, "I've used the Floo to get to my aunt's house before as well."
"So it's settled, then," James concluded. "Once Mum nods off, we'll come down here and pop through. Just a checking-up; it'll only take five minutes—"
"Like everything else, yeah?"
James brushed off the small jibe. "I'll even go through first. You can stand watch and then come in next."
"That's comforting," Sirius said dryly. "Suppose someone walks in…"
"Dad'll be at work past midnight," James reassured him, eyeing Sirius over the rims of his glasses in the beginning stages of frustration. "I already told you that. He always stays late when he sends people on a Catch."
"Your mum's jolly keen and all that, but she isn't stupid," Sirius told him. James' shoulders had slumped considerably. "Or deaf," he continued. "What if she hears us? Then what?"
"The door closes, you realize," James muttered, elbow on his knee, fist smashed into his own cheek. He looked positively bored.
"Does it lock?"
James sighed, hanging his head now. "Stop being a prat," he mumbled to his chest. "You're murdering me."
"Fancy getting nabbed? Even by your mum?"
Lifting his face, James rested his chin on his knuckles and twisted his lips to the side in thought. "Mm-mm," he admitted with a slow shake of his head, as though surprised by his own answer. "I really don't."
Hm, Sirius thought. That's that, then.
"We'll have to be very careful."
Perhaps not, Sirius thought, offering his best balloon sigh. When James' mind was made up, it rarely strayed elsewhere until the job was finished.
"Well. Bring your invisibility cloak, just in case."
"Brilliant," James approved.
Less than thirty minutes later, Sirius was gazing stiff-eyed into the heavy darkness that hung below the ceiling of James' bedroom, lit only by the occasional spark of color that James' shot idly out of his wand. Sirius' shirt and trousers felt scratchy and hot from beneath his bedclothes. Clammy socks, nervous feet. Good job it was dark; probably looked as petrified as a stiff in its coffin. Lights on, and James would never let him forget it.
The bed across the room illuminated in an orange haze; tiny sparks floated down and dissolved just before they landed on James' nose.
"Excellent," Sirius muttered into the darkness. "Set your bed on fire. She'll sleep right through that."
"It's nearly eleven," James said irritably. "She's always asleep by now."
"I don't think it's been that long, mate."
James had forgone speaking for a while in order to hear his mother's slippers on the stairs and the swish and click of her bedroom door. This, of course, had left Sirius an unusual amount of time to think, and in the case of their potential sneaking about, thinking too much wasn't always a good thing.
"It has," James mumbled through his pillow, or so it sounded.
That stint of thinking time had obviously done a number on James as well. But instead of listing the twenty-hundred reasons to justify their zipping off to a place they'd never seen—out loud—to whomever would listen (as he usually did), James must have quietly developed reasons for his reasons, tied up his plan in bows and ribbons, and proceeded with his impatient blasting of bedtime fireworks while the minutes ticked away and Mrs. Potter boiled another pot of water for her tea.
Stuffing his pillow underneath his head once more, James kicked his blankets to the end of his bed and sighed. He was still wearing lace-ups on his feet.
"Or you just could lie there and show off your trousers and shoes," Sirius scoffed. "That won't give you away at all. Not as fun as causing a fire, but—"
"Belt up," James shushed him, adding, "She won't come in here unless she thinks we're awake."
"So stop talking."
"I will," Sirius said, "if you stop burning your bed."
An owl hooted in the tree outside of the window.
"Probably could, couldn't I…" James admitted. The owl hooted again, its wings casting jagged, bruise-like shadows on James' curtains—or perhaps those were leaves. A bit eerie, either way.
James snorted a laugh into the almost-silence, his timing off, as always. "Cause a diversion, at least."
Sirius tried to smile but only licked his lips instead. "Can you see your clock? It's getting lighter in here with the moon all full."
"Erm…" James rolled over, his mattress creaking as he felt around for his bedside clock. Sirius could just make out James holding the round thing very close to his face. "Yeah," he decided after a few seconds of squinting. "Hm. You were right. It's a quarter past ten."
"Wait until it's half past," Sirius told him, "and if she's asleep by then, we'll go down. Eleven's too late. It's not worth it after that."
Sirius licked his lips again; his tongue was an eraser rubbing parchment. "All right," he agreed.
But a half hour didn't pass—not even a quarter of an hour—before they heard movement on the staircase...the swish and click they'd been waiting for.
"Bathroom," James whispered. "She paints a mask on her face and then sleeps in it. Give it a few."
They became corpses again, holding their breaths, the air humming in the absence of rumpling bed sheets and nose sighs.
Another door opened and closed—the only door that mattered. A minute or two of silence passed, and then James' blankets flapped in the air, slipping straight to the floor.
Sirius' toes located his trainers; his fingers stumbled over the laces in the dark. Weightless tiptoes carried them down the stairs, past the foyer and through the parlor. He didn't hear James' voice again until they were safely barricaded behind the door of Mr. Potter's study.
"Here," James said, handing Sirius the jar of Floo powder while he moved the grate away from the hearth.
Sirius stood pressing a thumb into the grit. He glimpsed the doorknob at every scrape of iron on stone, shaking hair out of his eyes that wasn't there.
Mr. Potter's eyes were in every corner of the study.
Reaching back, James stuck his fingers into the jar and tossed a handful of powder into the Floo. He flinched at the flash of green flames licking towards his face. Strange, considering hardly an hour ago, James had hardly blinked at the same heat blowing his fringe into a rooster's comb. He glanced over his shoulder, chewing a lip.
"It should be your turn, you know."
"My turn," Sirius echoed; even his whisper seemed loud. "For what?"
James replaced the jar on the mantel and squatted down, wiping both palms on his knees. "I did the salt. Remember?"
"You wouldn't let me," Sirius reminded him. "I was first to volunteer. Do you remember?"
"I do, actually." James glanced over. He grinned. And then, leaning forward, James squinted into the flames. "Is it impolite not to call first, do you think?"
"Dunno," Sirius said honestly; he, too, peered into the flames. "Did your aunt give you a fat lip when you came through without calling?"
"Bloody wishes, probably," James muttered, still squinting. "She says I'm the cheeky sort." He stuck out his tongue and scrunched up his nose as if he were gagging. "She's old and horrible, and she smells like mothballs." He stood, slapping at his pockets for a final dusting. "Nah," he concluded, pushing himself up from the ground. "Let's just go."
"I'll watch out." Sirius found it much simpler to keep from worrying now that James was speaking again. And making faces.
"Oy…" James grabbed Sirius' sleeve and tugged him closer toward the spiking flames that were no more than tickling breaths on their stomachs. "Don't be stupid. I wouldn't put you through that. Peter's the look out." A steadying breath. James looked straight ahead. "All right, then. Cheers." Closing his eyes, James called for Remus' house, leaving behind the sofa, messy chess board, and the breath in Sirius' lungs.
They landed in a heap. Sirius bumped his forehead on something hard in front of him at the same time he inhaled a cloud of black dust.
"Ow, ow," James groaned, scrambling for footing and kicking pieces of coal about in the process. "I'm sitting on something."
Sirius put his hands on James' shoulders and pushed him towards the dim square of light, ducking out of the small fireplace soon after. Bits of burnt coal and charcoaled wood surrounded James' feet and littered the green and white tile on the kitchen floor.
Neither of them moved so much as a toe, at least not voluntarily. James' chest was heaving as though the wind had been knocked out of him.
Sirius noticed the table first, covered in at least two dozen vials—some half-filled with blues and greens, some empty and tipped over—and a wadded pile of damp flannels. Some sort of seeds and leaves were strewn all over the countertops; a pair of rusty sheers hung halfway in the sink.
"Shit," James breathed, regaining his breath. "Ow."
Sirius had to swallow several times before he was able to call out, "Hello?" His voice came out weak and shaky.
No one answered—not a sound in the house.
Slowly, Sirius picked himself off of the ground, pulling James with him, who reached down and rubbed at the back of his knee where he'd been poked.
"I don't think they're here," Sirius whispered, flipping his head toward the door that led to—what appeared to be—a rather normal sitting room.
James shook his head, still rubbing. "The lamps are all lit. And look." He pointed toward the shoulder bag full of books hanging on the hook next to the stove. "It's his badge."
A faded black Magpies Quidditch badge with a few strings hanging off of it was attached to the flap. Remus' school satchel.
"What is all this?" Sirius picked up a seed from the table and severed it with his fingernails.
"Maybe we're in Snape's brain."
Something wailed outside, stabbing at the silent night air—a dying rabbit, maybe; the Lupins lived next to a forest. Sirius' pulse thrummed in his throat.
"Come on. Go with me," James muttered, giving Sirius' sleeve a tug—unnecessary but expected.
Aside from a faded pink armchair the color of chewed bubble gum and a pink and green checked sofa, the sitting was empty as well.
James flicked his eyes over his shoulder. "Corridor?"
"No," Sirius murmured, his eyes scanning the narrow walkway with its few closed doors. "They're probably asleep."
James threw his arm toward one of the flickering lamps. "With those on?" Rubbing at his hair, James wrinkled his nose to shove up his glasses. His nervous face.
"What if the blokes in Stonehouse came through here, like you said," James proposed. More nose wrinkling. "We have to check, at least—"
Then suddenly, as though the ceiling were falling on his head, James' shoulders jerked as at the same moment a door slammed.
Sirius' fingers patted for the wand stuck in his waistband and then froze. He wasn't in his own home, or the Potters'. He was the intruder. Sirius' neck crawled.
"What in God's name," came the voice from the kitchen. Clanks and bangs assaulted the countertop. A vial rolled off of the table and shattered. "Sarah? Are you here?" Remus' father called out as he shuffled toward the tiny fireplace, pressing his hand against the top of it as if he might fall over. His eyes flashed wildly as he took in the streaks of black smog and pieces of coal on the kitchen floor.
Sirius' whole body felt heavy with panic; his feet were rooted to the sitting room carpet.
"James?" Mr. Lupin's face, shiny with sweat, creased in confusion; his eyes were ringed with dark circles. A pinecone was stuck to the shoulder of his jumper. "Is that Sirius with you?"
"We soiled your floor," James said, his voice quiet and croaky.
Sirius stared at him. Of all the obvious, and moreover dumb, things to say…
"We're sorry." James winced. "We didn't mean it."
"What are you doing here?"
The question was sharper than either of them expected. Sirius didn't know what to say. Apparently, neither did James, as all he could do was point toward the Lupin's corridor and move his mouth up and down as if that explained it all.
"Did either of your parents send you?" Mr. Lupin tried again. "Do you need help—or do they? What is it? Are you in trouble?"
James' eyes were wide and lost as he glanced over at Sirius. "We—"
"Come," Mr. Lupin waved them in. "Come in here. My goodness, you two are white with fright." He wiped at the perspiration beading on his cheeks. "Right in here," he said more gently, once they'd unstuck their feet and dragged them forward. "I didn't mean to startle you. What you must think of me…" He jerked two chairs away from the table and brushed the seeds off of the white vinyl cushions. "Sit down."
The metal squeaked at Sirius as he lowered himself awkwardly into the seat. Remus' dad stooped to gather glass shards into his cupped palm, only to tut angrily at himself a second later and clear the debris with his wand—scattered coals and all.
Sirius caught James' eye, and they stared at each other; James' eyebrows were shouting retreat.
Mr. Lupin blew out his breath and smoothed back his sweaty hair. It took him several tries to get his wand back into its holster, and then he took a seat at the table; he folded his hands in front of him and hunched forward. "I got your mother's letter this morning, James. Is everything all right? I don't know her very well, I must admit, but it was kind of her to ask after us. My wife is away at the moment; she usually answers our letters."
Ask after us, Sirius thought. Not Remus. James had caught it as well. This man had no idea why they were here.
"Sorry," James said, squirming a bit. He pulled at his own thumb. "We just wanted to see about Remus. We know he gets ill sometimes, and he was a bit off-color on the train. And, erm, since he hasn't answered…" James trailed off, his diplomatic backbone crumbling round the edges.
"You wrote to him?"
Sirius saw James stick his tongue in his cheek, a sure sign that the plan was going off the rails already.
"Is Remus asleep?" Sirius asked quickly. "Can we see him? I'm—we're very sorry about your kitchen," he added, noticing that Mr. Lupin had gone back to rubbing the stubble on his cheeks again, gazing at the leaves on the countertop. "Sir?"
Mr. Lupin's eyes snapped into focus. His throat rippled. "He is asleep, boys. I'm sorry." A mere whisper.
"Did he have to take loads of potions tonight?" James piped up, the confidence easing back into his shoulders. "Do they make him sleep?"
Mr. Lupin pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger and nodded. He laced his fingers together once more, clearing his throat. "It's kind of you to worry after him. You are very loyal friends." He swallowed. "I shall tell him you said hello."
The screeching returned from outside—far away, but horrid nonetheless.
"Do your parents know you're here?" Mr. Lupin eyed them both. "Either of you?"
"I'm staying with James," Sirius told him.
James absorbed the quiet stare-down for another moment, his tongue poking into his cheek again.
Mr. Lupin nodded knowingly. "I didn't suspect so," he claimed; he seemed calmer, and his forehead was no longer sweaty. "It's rather late." He pushed back from the table. "Let me expand this." He indicated the old, blackened fireplace. "I've meant to do this for a while, but we haven't many visitors. Come along."
They stood without speaking while Remus' dad stretched the hearth until it was nearly as tall as James. He Vanished the bits of wood and coal for good measure.
James hugged his elbow, glimpsed the clock hanging over the stove, and this time, Sirius read his mate's mind perfectly.
"A sight better," Mr. Lupin approved his work. He poured the last handful of Floo powder from the wee cask on the mantel straight into the empty fireplace.
Even Sirius flinched this time.
"Go on, now." Mr. Lupin said, ushering them in. "Good night."
He watched them silently until the the rushing colors dragged them back to Godric's Hollow. Sirius could almost feel the pinch on his ear.
They landed on their feet this time, knocking shoulders instead of foreheads, even though their faces were mostly hidden by the chimney.
Sirius noticed the blue carpet first, the wrong carpet. And then the pair of shoes resting on that blue carpet, followed by the knees that straightened out and away from the living room chair.
James held his breath and took a step back, pressing his shoulders into the bricks as if to blend in. All Sirius could do was stare, even after the pair of hands reached into the fireplace and caught James under the armpits; the toes of his lace-ups knocked into the grate before he was lifted bodily over it.
Three small clouds of chimney soot exploded off of James' rear end in protest to the hand that delivered hard smacks to the seat of his blackened trousers, moved the smaller hand out of the way, and then swept forward with a very loud fourth smack.
A peculiar quiet fell over the living room, just long enough for Sirius' stomach to turn into melted wax and harden into a clump somewhere around his feet. And then the same hands reached in and hooked under Sirius' armpits, ducking and lifting him over all obstructions in one smooth movement. He barely had time to glimpse the bit of hair falling over Mr. Potter's glasses before he found his torso wedged against an elbow still clad in its outer dress robes, his bottom sent into shock by four smacks that not only managed to sting but also dust every speck of chimney grit from it.
He was standing next to James again, whose eyes were round and wet and angry, but it wasn't those eyes Sirius cared about; he'd never seen such frightened eyes in a grownup before, and he couldn't look away, not even when Mr. Potter's lips pressed together and trembled. The molten wax returned to Sirius' stomach, burning it.
Mr. Potter had squatted down and was gripping them by their outside shoulders as if they were one giant person instead of two, his eyes flickering back and forth between them.
James sniffed deeply.
"How dangerous," Mr. Potter finally said, his voice low and stern. He stared hard at James. "How—" He lowered his chin, swallowing; when his eyes came back up, they were sharper than before. "You do not follow me to a meeting. You never disobey your mother on a night like this." He turned to Sirius again. "This wasn't clever. Or all in good fun." James' turn. "Can you imagine what I thought? What your mother thought when she found you boys missing?"
"We didn't try to follow you, Dad." James' voice was thick with the tears that were rolling down his cheeks. "I wouldn't ever do that. We didn't—" He shook his head, sniffling and trying to get himself under control.
Mr. Potter straightened, still holding onto their shoulders.
Sirius couldn't find a voice to speak.
Mrs. Potter bustled into the living room, stopping as soon as she saw the three of them crouched in a huddle. She pressed her hand to her chest and closed her eyes, her shoulders heaving with a long, long sigh.
"They're all right," Mr. Potter told her, and then reaching inside of his robes, he pulled out a thin handkerchief and wiped James' nose, for a second, anyway, until James took the cloth from him, his chin nearly touching his chest, and swiped it over his face and under his glasses. Mr. Potter laid his hand on James' neck, only to have it shrugged off. He let go of Sirius' shoulder and took hold of both of James', leaning down again. "None of that," he scolded quietly. "Take a minute up in your room and calm yourself before we sort this out. I love you very much, but you are most certainly in trouble," he said matter-of-factly. "And you owe your mother an apology."
James' arms hung limply as he let his mother hug his head to her chest. "Sorry," Sirius heard him whisper.
She held his face in her hands. "All right," she said gently. She nodded.
Without looking back, James plodded toward the corridor that led to the staircase.
Mr. Potter was in front of Sirius again, tipping Sirius' chin up. "You've a mighty bruise forming," he claimed, touching Sirius' hairline with his fingertips. Mrs. Potter rounded her husband and leaned down as well, peering at Sirius' bruise, her sigh tickling his cheeks.
"I'm sorry," Sirius mumbled; the words hurt his throat. He tried to swallow but his throat wouldn't let him do that either.
Mr. Potter turned to his wife. "Could you get me the salve? Oh, wait, here," he recanted, patting his robes one-handed, seeing as the other was still holding Sirius' chin. "I can Summon it."
"I'll get the salve," she said, nodding. The swishing of her dressing gown was the loudest noise in the room.
"That looks awfully sore."
Sirius grasped his fringe between his fingers, pulling it forward. "I'm okay," he found himself whispering. "You don't have to use anything on it. It'll go away."
"Nonsense," Mr. Potter said, tipping up Sirius' chin once more but looking him in the eye this time. Hooking his foot around the leg of the closet arm chair, Mr. Potter dragged it closer to them and sat Sirius onto the cushion, squatting down with him. "Now, keep very still for me," Mr. Potter muttered, pushing back the fringe that Sirius had so carefully combed down. He took the tin of salve when Mrs. Potter held it over his shoulder. "Thank you, love."
"I'll be upstairs." She ran her palm over both Sirius' hair and her husband's knuckles before heading for the second floor.
"See that our captive hasn't locked himself in the wrong bedroom."
She flashed him a hint of a sad smile before climbing the stairs.
"Does your head ache?" Mr. Potter was still frowning as he dabbed over the bruise a second time.
The fingers on Sirius' forehead stilled; Mr. Potter looked at him. "A promise?"
Sirius blinked at him. The air still smelt strongly of trouble, he and James had completely broken their first promise, and here Mr. Potter was, asking for a second. Sirius' blinks became flutters, and his chin threatened to wobble. His heart felt as though it had been skinned. And he couldn't look Mr. Potter in the eye for another second.
Without waiting for a nod, Mr. Potter recapped the tin of salve, pulled the coffee table closer to Sirius' arm chair, and lowered himself onto it as if it were perfectly natural to put his bum on the place where the saucer usually went. He hunched forward, ducking his chin until Sirius had no choice but to look up.
"There we are," Mr. Potter approved.
Free from the sting in his forehead and James' sniffling in his ear, Sirius' brain could only replay the last ten minutes, which, regretfully, included the look of fear that had gleamed in Mr. Potter's eyes, followed by the first smacking Sirius had ever got that made him want to sink into the floor in shame rather than retaliate with a good smack of his own.
"I know I'm not your father, Sirius," Mr. Potter began, "but when I came in to say a proper goodnight and found pillows instead of boys under the covers, I'm not sure even two men could have handled the fright I felt. I thought—well, it isn't important what I thought, because I do believe James; he knows better than to follow me. What's important is that you are safe—a smudge of bruising is the worst of it, it seems. But do you know what else is important?"
As much as he fought it, Sirius felt his eyes fill up. He couldn't even nod, couldn't do anything but sit there and let his chin tuck in and wobble.
"It is important," Mr. Potter continued, curling his fingers around Sirius' forearms, "that you realize when silliness could become dangerous, rather than a spot of fun."
Sirius rubbed a wrist under his nose.
"Don't ever use the Floo network unless you're supervised, even if you're told otherwise." Mr. Potter's voice grew firmer. "And even if you're given permission at home—" Here, Sirius shook his head. "—Well. I have seen injuries in my time from misuse. You must be careful. Can you promise me that?"
There he went again. It was enough to send the first two tears racing down Sirius' cheeks to plink on his trousers. He sniffed spasmodically, even as Mr. Potter caught the new tears on Sirius' chin with a clean handkerchief and pinched the wetness out of his nose.
"I'm afraid my son needs reminding of this," Mr. Potter said gently, still swabbing. "A bit of humility, perhaps."
"Kreacher doesn't open letters without my parents' say-so," Sirius mumbled thickly, figuring the least he could do was spare Mr. Potter from saying what Sirius knew they were both thinking. "I don't reckon they'll come home, even if you write to them again and tell them I've gone back to London, but that's fine…" Sirius clutched a hand over his eyes, digging his fingertips into his temple to will his eyes to stopper and, if he was lucky, his stomach from shrinking.
"London?" Mr. Potter started to say, but he moved over to the arm of Sirius' chair, squatting first, and then kneeling, as he wrapped his both arms around Sirius' head and shoulders and pulled him in sideways. "All right," he said soothingly. "All right."
"Don't be angry," Sirius managed to heave out against Mr. Potter's dress robes. "I hate Kreacher."
Stupid. And not what he meant to say at all.
"All right, now."
Sirius coughed, struggling to stop his tears. The handkerchief returned, all soft pinches and patting. Sirius hadn't cried like this in years; he hurt all over, the shame drained out and replaced with a new feeling he couldn't quite identify. He ached even after the wetness dried into a sticky film on his face.
"A promise of mine:" Mr. Potter finally spoke, his chin on top of Sirius' head. "I will never be angry."