The snow kept up all week, so afternoon often found Sirius and Regulus out in the vacant lot, building snowmen, having snowball fights, making forts. The curtain of the house would often flutter, as if their mother was spying on them every now and then, but Sirius learned to ignore her. He had his brother back and that was all that mattered. As the two chased each other around the elm and Regulus tackled Sirius in a play fight, he felt as if the years had melted away and the two had never been forced apart.
Walburga sat at the kitchen table, watching the steam from her tea rise and curl. The change in her sons' behavior hadn't escaped her, and she feared she would soon lose Regulus to Sirius' influence. Her eldest wasn't a lost cause. In fact, she had much hope for him. Most boys went through a rebellious stage in their teenage years, but with a firm hand and discipline, she was certain she could nip his attempts at independence in the bud. Yet he had already disobeyed her and contacted the Potter boy earlier in the week. If he thought he could do as he pleased despite her demands, then he had another thing coming. She had put a charm on his window so that he couldn't receive any more owls. And it was time to have a conversation with Regulus.
The opportunity arose that evening when Sirius was readying for bed and Regulus was finishing off a letter to one of his friends from school. "Regulus, dear, may I have a word with you?"
"Of course, Mum," Regulus said, setting his quill aside.
Walburga closed the door to his room and offered him a smile. "I am concerned for your brother."
Regulus furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"
"Not so much for your brother, perhaps, as for you, I should say." Walburga sat down beside Regulus on the end of his bed. "I'm not certain if you understand how much we value you, Regulus. Your brother can be so exhausting. If he's not disrespecting us in public, then he's trying to undermine our authority at home. I want you to know how thankful your father and I are that you aren't like him. If we had two sons who were so disgraceful, we would be crushed. Promise me you will always be your wonderful self?"
A corner of Regulus' lip lifted in a smile despite the confusion on his face. "Of course, Mum."
Walburga hugged him. "Thank you, darling. You don't know how proud we are of you."
Walburga smiled again before ruffling his hair and leaving. Regulus' smile faded as soon as his mother was gone. An uncomfortable weight settled in his chest. His parents were playing favorites again. He hated it when they played favorites. It was as if his thoughts would become muddled and clouded and he couldn't discern which were his and which were theirs. He wanted to make them proud, certainly, but not at the expense of his brother, even if they were right about him. Even if Sirius did make life difficult for them.
Sighing, he finished off his letter and ran a hand through his hair.
James spotted Sirius at Platform 9 ¾ but Sirius managed to shoot him a look that clearly said "stay away." James paused in mid-step and after a moment, turned back around to face his parents. Walburga distracted Sirius by grabbing at his tie and straightening it.
"If you must be seen in such horrid colors, at least wear them properly," she hissed. Orion sighed, looking like he wanted to get this over with and continue with his plans for the day. Regulus had already been bombarded by a group of Slytherins and his parents had merely smiled and waved as their youngest trotted off towards the train.
"We've already been here for ten minutes," Orion announced, glancing at his pocket watch.
"Goodbye, then," Sirius muttered, unable to meet his father's gaze when the man so obviously would rather be elsewhere than seeing off his son.
"Have a good rest of the year," Orion said with a brief smile as he rested a hand on Sirius' shoulder then spun about, headed for the apparating platform. Sirius sighed as his mother followed him to the door of the train.
"Write to me if you need any money for books," she said.
"I will." Sirius flicked some of the hair out of his face. James was still ignoring him and hugging his parents goodbye repeatedly. None of his other friends were in sight. A blonde was in his peripheral but before he could turn his head to see who it was, his mother placed a finger on his chin and drew his attention to her face.
Walburga's voice was low. "Only for books."
"Yeah, got it," Sirius muttered. Not five minutes ago both of his parents had promised Regulus that they'd send money if he was ever wanting for anything.
Walburga removed her hand and Sirius stole a glance at the blonde. Annie smiled at the two briefly as she sorted out her luggage. Sirius returned the nicety with a fleeting smile of his own. His mother swatted the back of his shoulders, having observed the shy exchange between the two. "Stand up straighter," she hissed.
Sirius tried not to glare as he did as he was told.
"And for Merlin's sake," she continued, running a hand through his bangs, trying to sweep them back. "Keep your hair out of your eyes. People will think you're trying to hide something. All you've got are your looks."
Sirius yanked her hand away and she reacted so quickly that he didn't even know she'd grabbed his ear and twisted until it was burning. He let out a soft sound of surprise and Walburga let go. "If I hear of any more of this trouble-making, of any more attempts to humiliate your brother, you'll get far worse than that, you hear me?" Sirius didn't look at her as he held a hand to his ear. "I'm your mother. I gave you life and by Merlin, you will obey me. Is that understood?"
"Yes," he whispered, looking at the ground. Walburga grabbed his chin and forced him to meet her gaze. Sirius knew she wasn't satisfied. "Yes," he repeated, louder.
"Good." She released him and gestured to his trunk. "Now on your way."
Sirius immediately grabbed his trunk, relief flooding him at the thought of the walls of the train separating them. Walburga took a step backwards to allow room for her son to board the train and noticed not only Annie, but Professor McGonagall watching with matching expressions of distaste. Walburga forced a smile then turned her shoulder on the two. She was content to let her son's Head of House think what she would, but after Sirius gave her a brief wave goodbye and disappeared into the train, she realized the old nosebone might misconstrue what she'd seen.
Once Annie was on the train, Walburga plastered on a fake smile and pretended to wave to Sirius, who wasn't even seated nor near a window yet, then sauntered over to the Hogwarts professor. "Mrs. McGonagall." She inclined her head.
"Professor, if you please," McGonagall corrected her.
"Of course." Walburga gave her a simpering smile. The other woman had noticed her slight, which she had intended, of course. "I trust that you received my request?"
McGonagall eyed Walburga. The two had gone to school together and couldn't have been more different. Despite her odd name, Walburga had been popular among the Slytherins and was always up to date with the latest fashions. McGonagall, on the other hand, had had a small group of close friends and was far more interested in learning and playing Quidditch to much care for her appearance. In fact, she rather despised Walburga for her obsession on her looks, for as McGonagall well knew from rumors and glimpses, Walburga's beauty was skin deep, at best.
Yet still, there was a lingering part of McGonagall that had been jealous of the attention Walburga received, particularly from men. She had married and had two children, which was something McGonagall had never done. While logically she knew it made no difference, a part of the professor felt as if not having children left her with something to prove to the women who did.
So when Walburga's letter requesting that Sirius be moved to another dormitory arrived, McGonagall's first reaction was to acquiesce to this mother's request. To trust her judgment for her child's well-being and to do as she said, not only because it was her right as a parent, but as a sort of peace-making between herself and the woman she would never be. Or so she had thought. But after watching how the woman had just manhandled her fourteen-year-old son, attempting to turn him into an obedient dog, she realized that her compliance had nothing to do with making peace. She'd agreed because the insecure part of herself wanted to ingratiate her to Walburga. To have the pretty, popular girl owe her something.
Absolutely not. The woman wouldn't know what was best for her son if it hit her in the face. She'd heard a rumor that Walburga Black had struck her son as soon as he got off the train when the holidays began. At the time she thought it to be an exaggeration, but after what she just witnessed, she realized the woman's beauty wasn't only skin deep. She was vile. McGonagall would have to take everything Walburga said to her with a grain of salt.
Squaring her shoulders, McGonagall adjusted her emerald travelling robes. "I'm sorry, but your request cannot be fulfilled. School policy."
Walburga's dainty features twisted in a sneer. "What?"
"Furthermore," McGonagall continued, "Sirius' class is rather large. There is nowhere else he could go without displacing another student."
"Displace him, then."
"I will do no such thing." The train whistled. "Now, if you'll excuse me. Good day, Mrs. Black."
Walburga's only response was to glare at McGonagall's back as she boarded the train.
James was already in the compartment with Remus and Peter by the time Sirius arrived. He stowed his trunk and though James watched him questioningly, he didn't say a word about giving him the cold shoulder. Not until the train stopped at Hogwarts.
"She would've seen, mate," Sirius said quietly as the two reached up for their trunks. "It would've set her off."
James sighed. "Yeah. I get it."
The two continued to the carriages in silence. Once on the grounds, the students gathered outside the Great Hall, chatting noisily as they waited for the doors to open. Sirius drew comfort from the commotion and the familiar sights and sounds of his school. To his surprise, he felt more comfortable there than in his own home.
"Hey," came a slightly husky voice to his side.
Sirius looked over to notice Annie. "Hi."
"Was that your mam?"
Sirius nodded. He felt a blush starting at the back of his neck at the thought of Annie having seen his mother bullying him.
"Right piece of work, she is."
Sirius slowly smirked. A tall Slytherin fifth-year sidled up to Annie and took her hand. She grinned and kissed his cheek. Something fell a little in Sirius' stomach as he watched.
"Jason, do you know Sirius?" Annie asked.
The tall boy peered over her and waved with a tight-lipped smile. "Hey."
Sirius jerked his head a little. "Hey."
Just then, the doors to the Great Hall opened and the students filed into the feast.
The next day, Sirius, James, Remus and Peter found themselves in a snowball fight in the courtyard. Remus and Sirius against James and Peter. Being around his friends again made him feel so welcomed that Sirius had felt the chill his mother left on his heart quickly melt away. When he spotted Regulus strolling past with his group of Slytherin friends, he grinned and waved him over from behind his snow wall. "Reg! Come defend me!"
A corner of Regulus' lips lifted in a smile, and he shifted his bodyweight as if he were going to step over, but then both he and Sirius caught sight of their cousin. Bellatrix arched an eyebrow as she watched. Regulus' smile faded, and Sirius felt a pang in his chest as his brother turned his back on him. Sirius watched him walk away through the fog of his breath.
"C'mon, Regulus, I need backup!"
Regulus ignored him and kept walking. Sirius caught Bellatrix smirking before she, too, turned her back on him. Like hell was she going to do his mother's bidding. For the first time, Sirius realized just how weak-willed Regulus was to so easily bend to their family's will.
"Look out!" Remus shouted. A snowball broke against their wall, peppering Sirius with cold, but he didn't blink. He kept his gaze trained on Bellatrix's back as he made a snowball. Then, with careful aim, he chucked it at her.
The snowball exploded on the small of Bellatrix's back and her squeak of shock made the students around her laugh. Sirius grinned. She whirled around to face him, drawing her wand. "You little…" she hissed, stomping over.
"Cinder-Bella, dressed in yellow when upstairs to kiss a fellow," Sirius taunted, rising to his feet as he made another snowball. James and Peter stood as well in a temporary cease-fire. "Made a mistake and kissed a snake, how many curses from Voldemort did she take?" The laughter died down at the mention of the Dark Lord's name. "One." He hurled the snowball and it hit her square in the chest. He hastily grabbed a handful of snow and threw it at her. "Two."
Bellatrix snarled, ignoring the snow clinging to her robes.
"Three," Sirius hurled another handful at her and it hit her on the cheek. He knew he should have his wand out but that somehow seemed cowardly, so instead he made himself as tall as he could while he balled another handful. "Will it be four then?"
Bellatrix stopped a few feet away. Remus' hand was on the handle of his wand inside his robes. Sirius swallowed hard but stared down his cousin, with whom he was now level in height. Bellatrix looked him up and down like a cat sizing up a mouse. "Why did you stop, cousin? Perhaps I'll finish it for you?" She casually flicked her wand and a gash appeared on the side of Sirius' face. "One."
Sirius gasped and dropped his snowball, hastily covering the bleeding wound.
"Two." She flicked her wand again and another cut appeared on Sirius' other cheek.
"Stop!" Remus barked, climbing to his feet and pointing his wand at Bellatrix.
"Three," Bellatrix continued, ignoring both Remus and the crowd of onlookers. "Four." Sirius grabbed is right side as two cuts burned there. Bellatrix glanced at Remus and with a flash, stripped him of his wand. She sneered at Sirius then continued in a clipped tone. "Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten! Shall I start over again?"
Sirius was doing his best to keep the pain out of his face as he continued to hold her gaze, letting his hands fall limply to his side as his multiple gashes bled.
Bellatrix shrugged. "Have it your way, then." She raised her wand once more, only to have it fly out of her hand.
It zoomed to James Potter's outstretched fingers as he leveled his wand at her chest. "Hex him again and I swear, you'll regret it."
A dark look crossed Bellatrix's face before she plastered on an entirely false smile. "Everyone here is now a witness that James Potter has threatened me."
James marched across the courtyard and over to Sirius whose jaw was quivering slightly but was otherwise keeping up his charade of bravado. James held out his hand. "Remus' wand."
Bellatrix arched a brow. "Why?"
James arched one in return and made to break Bellatrix's wand over his knee, only to have her shriek and throw Remus' wand at her feet. James chuckled and waited until Remus had retrieved his wand before he held up Bellatrix's. "Fetch." He chucked it over her head. It landed in the snow at least ten yards away. Bellatrix sneered at James then marched off towards her wand.
"C'mon," Peter quietly said, resting a hand on James' back. Reluctantly, James turned his back on the witch who was still a way from her wand and gently urged Sirius to head inside with him. Before he stepped back into the castle, Sirius cast a glance around the crowd. When he caught sight of Regulus standing off to the side with a worried expression that told Sirius he'd seen the whole thing, Sirius' heart dipped. Regulus had just stood there and watched. He never once made a move to protect his brother.
And with that terrible thought, his walls fell down and all the gashes on his body started to hurt. He repressed as gasp until they were alone in the hallways inside then leaned against the wall. Remus pulled his robes aside to reveal his grey sweater blossomed with red. "You need to see Madam Pomfrey."
"He just stood there," Sirius said through gritted teeth.
"Who?" James asked.
"Like I wasn't his own brother. Like she wasn't his cousin. He just let it happen."
James and Remus shared a look then began trying to coax Sirius into walking. Numbly, Sirius followed them, placing one foot in front of the other, the blood staining the white shirt under his sweater making it feel heavy and sticky.
"How could he do that?"
"I don't know," Remus said, turning down the corridor that led to the Hospital Wing. "He was probably scared."
"Of what?" Sirius gasped, holding a hand to the side of his chest as a particularly nasty gash twanged. "She loves him. Everybody loves him. He's their favorite Slytherin. But if I even so much as put one toe out of line –" He groaned. "Merlin, this hurts."
"Just keep walking," James said, his voice tight with anger. He wanted to go back and do the same thing to Bellatrix that she'd done to Sirius. He wanted to get her expelled. To make her pay. After helping Sirius onto one of the hospital beds, he nodded at Remus then took off at a run. He didn't stop until he reached McGonagall's office.