'No, truly; it is more than manners will:
And I have heard it said unbidden guests
Are often welcomest when they are gone.'

~ from Henry VI, Part One

More Than Manners Will

When Kreacher stormed past the sitting room door, Sirius was hardly surprised. Certainly his mother would never suffer Remus to use the drawing room fire. If she knew about his Muggle mum, she would have thrown him straight out the window. As it was he supposed they were lucky Remus was being allowed to leave peaceably. The entire evening had been a disaster practically from the beginning. He shuddered to think what would have happened if he had not been so quick on his feet when the question of parentage was raised, or if Andromeda had not taken it into her head to act like a proper hostess ought to and see to the needs of the guest, or if Remus had ignored her and gone for the stewed pears with his fingers regardless. If his friends got home safely, that would be enough, he told himself. What came after didn't matter, if only he could get away for a few days as agreed. Surely, surely even his mother would keep her word about that…

'N-no,' Remus stammered, in that meek and frightened little voice he so often used – the voice that always made Sirius wonder who it was who had hurt him so badly that he was so perpetually afraid. 'There must be some mistake. I'm meant to go by Floo…'

Sirius almost tumbled down the last several steps as he heard Kreacher's hateful response. 'Mistress isn't saying anything about Floo,' he sneered. Then, in that wicked singsong voice he always used when relaying his orders, he said; 'Turn him out if he won't go, Kreacher, she says. Kreacher is good. Kreacher is obedient. Kreacher is minding his mistress.'

Kreacher is minding his mistress. How many times had Sirius heard that, uttered just before the house elf discharged a particularly relished duty? Then suddenly he realized where Kreacher was headed, dragging Remus after him, and he knew what his mother had intimated her servant should do.

'No!' Sirius shouted, leaping off the bottom step and launching into a long imperious stride. 'Remus, you go on through to the kitchen and we'll—'

The familiar sensation of being hit squarely in the ribs by an invisible mass sent him flying backward. He heard a popping noise as his spine was whacked against the bannister. All the air was forced from his lungs and his head struck the rails as he fell in a heap. Dazed and winded, he heard the house elf crying out that he was following his orders, and then the affable sound of James trying to negotiate. The absurdity of attempting to reason with Kreacher might have made Sirius laugh, save that he didn't have the breath to do it.

'Put him out, says Mistress,' Kreacher recited smugly; 'and then Potter goes home too.'

Mustering his energy and drawing in a ragged breath, Sirius scrambled to his feet. Just as he started for Kreacher he caught sight of Remus's frightened face vanishing beyond the threshold as the door slammed closed.

'No!' Sirius bellowed. He dove after the house-elf. Kreacher, expecting the attack, tried to flee, but Sirius grabbed him by one oversized ear. 'Don't you dare Disapparate!' he snarled, yanking so that the house-elf let out a guttural squeal. 'You open this sodding door and you let Remus back inside, do you hear me?'

James was hauling on the handle, struggling to open the front door. 'It's stuck!' he cried.

'He's sealed it,' snapped Sirius. 'It's a nasty little trick he plays when he doesn't want anyone getting out.'

'The door obeys Mistress's wishes,' Kreacher said, pushing at Sirius's wrist with his bony hands and trying to pull his head free. 'Kreacher is having nothing to do with it.'

There was a sound of a hand striking against the door from without. Muffled by the heavy wood and the warding charms, a distant sound of pleading was heard. The doorbell rang as Remus beat with the knocker. He was out there in the gathering gloom, alone and frightened and wondering why his friends did not come to his aid. And Sirius was powerless to help him.

It was the helplessness, more than anything else, that angered him. Before he knew what he was doing, he had a hand on Kreacher's throat, squeezing painfully. 'Let him back in!' he roared, trying to swallow his mounting panic. Altercations with the house-elf never ended well, and the magic that bound him to serve the family only protected Sirius so far. Yet as Andromeda loved to point out Sirius lacked a normal desire for self-preservation, and just at the moment Remus's need was greater than his.

'Open the door!' he shouted. 'Damn you, you snivelling little worm, open that door!'

'Sirius!' James was at his side now, trying to prise his fingers loose. 'Sirius, let go. You'll hurt him.'

'I want to hurt him!' Sirius howled. His ribs shuddered with a sob of rage and frustration. 'He's got no right to do that; he's got no right!'

The doorbell rang again, and there was a noise of small fists pounding piteously against the door. Sirius felt his fury rising again in a great cresting wave, but before it could break James had his hands off of Kreacher, gripping them and allowing Sirius to dig his nails into them as he struggled to keep from bursting into tears. The evening had been a disaster right from the start, but Remus bore no blame for that. He was an innocent victim of circumstance, and he did not deserve to be turned out in the street like a beggar.

'Sirius, calm down!' James was saying. 'Kreacher, don't you move. Not a muscle, do you hear?'

He sounded so firm, so rational, so eminently in control of the situation, that Sirius found himself relaxing a little. The thought of shy, quiet Remus alone and scared in the London streets filled him with angry desperation, but the knowledge that he did at least have an ally in this was oddly comforting. Sirius drew in a deep breath, letting James's hands anchor him. 'We have to get him back in here,' he panted, screwing his eyes tightly closed. 'He's meant to take the fire.'

'Just calm down,' James said. He shifted Sirius against one shoulder and held out his left hand, crooking a beckoning finger at the house-elf. 'Kreacher, please be reasonable. Just open the door and let Remus use the fireplace. He'll be gone before your mistress knows any different.'

'Kreacher is following orders,' said the house-elf with an unctuous bow. 'Dinner party is over; guests must leave. One is gone now, yes. One more to go.'

'All right,' James said. 'Let me go out and tell Remus that someone will be coming for him directly.'

'The door is closed now,' Kreacher said. 'Kreacher is instructed to offer Master Potter Floo Powder before he too is overstaying his welcome.'

Sirius whirled, teeth bared in an instinctive snarl. 'Don't you dare threaten James!' he snapped. 'Do you have any idea who he is? He could buy and sell this whole horrid house five times over!'

'Certainly he could, certainly,' said Kreacher. 'But he cannot open the door, no. Not if Mistress wants it closed. Young Master knows this.'

'Look,' James reasoned; 'you've got instructions to get me out of the house. Why not just let me go by the door as well?'

'What good would that do?' Sirius cried. 'Then you and Remus will both be out there with no one coming for you!'

James's eyes grew wide behind the round spectacles. 'Sod it, you're right,' he said. He put a hand to his temple, brow knitting anxiously. 'All right. All right. Well, we'll just have to talk to your mother then, won't we?'

Sirius's stomach shriveled within him, despite the rich meal he had only just eaten. 'Oh, no, we can't do that…' he stammered. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kreacher scampering away towards the kitchen stairs, but he could not bring himself to care.

'Of course we can,' James said in the firm, practical voice he usually used when trying to convince Peter to go along with something even remotely exciting. 'Obviously your house-elf misunderstood her instructions, and if she's the only one he'll listen to then we just need to talk to her.'

That was James Potter. He was always so certain that if he voiced his wishes they would be carried out, simple as that. Sirius had found it irritating in the early days; the assumption that everyone was just waiting to do whatever James wanted. Yet over the course of the year he had found himself drawn to that easy confidence. He had grown to admire James for his effortless self-assurance and his firm understanding of his place in the world. Both had served them well in dealing with their peers, their professors, and the likes of Rodolphus Lestrange. Nevertheless, Sirius hardly dared to hope that James's bravado, even aided as it was by a surfeit of wine, would avail against the iron will of Walburga Black.

'James…' he began. He knew that he ought to try to explain, but the words stuck in his throat. James would not understand – could not understand. His perfect, happy life left him no touchstone with which to gauge the struggles of others. Remus understood, even if his father was not the source of that understanding, but Remus was on the other side of the door, alone in the London night.

It was that thought, and the realization that the pounding on the door had ceased, that settled the matter. His friend needed help, and Sirius had to do whatever was necessary to get that help for him. 'All right,' he said softly, smoothing the rumpled front of his dress robes and squaring his shoulders. 'We'll talk to Mum. I don't hold out much hope, mind—'

'Stuff and nonsense!' James said. 'It's just a misunderstanding.'

So saying he started up the stairs. Sirius stood frozen for a moment, plumbing the depths of his heart for that Gryffindor courage the Sorting Hat had recognized within him. He had stood up to a gang of upper years for his friends. He had tangled with a teacher. Surely he could face his own mother if it meant getting Remus home safely.

Swallowing his terror he mounted the steps.

~discidium~

James was relieved when he heard Sirius on the stairs behind him. For a minute he had been worried his friend would leave him alone to deal with the grown-ups. It wasn't that James was afraid, exactly. His twelve years' experience had taught him that adults were generally easy to manipulate, and when that failed they could be made to listen to reason. He knew that Sirius was anxious about Remus, outside on his own, but James really didn't see the danger. They were in a quiet street, and even if some Muggle did try to make trouble Remus was a wizard. He was tougher than he thought he was, too, for all his quiet and unassuming ways. He would be all right for the few minutes it would take them to sort this out.

The drawing room door was closed, and the part of James that had been educated in manners by Marjorie Potter wanted to knock. Yet there was another part of him that knew that any sign of weakness would hurt his case. What was wanted was a polite but steely demand that Remus be allowed back inside to use the fireplace. The impending negotiations began, James decided, with a decisive entrance.

So even though Sirius made a small sound of protestation behind him, James grabbed the two handles and flung open the drawing room doors. He strode into the room, head high and lips pursed.

Mrs Black was sitting in her large wing-backed chair. Sirius's Aunt Druella occupied the sofa. James glanced over his left shoulder to confirm what the crawling sensation on the back of his neck had led him to suspect: Bellatrix Black was reclining on the chaise-longue in the corner. She smiled at him in a queer, indulgent way that he very much disliked, and he fixed his attention on his friend's mother.

'What is the meaning of this?' Walburga Black demanded, straightening in her chair and digging her talon-like nails into the upholstery on the arm. 'How dare you burst in here without—'

'I came to thank you for a lovely evening,' James said, flashing his most winning smile. He knew how to get his own way with the matrons of pure-blooded Britain, and he really didn't think this old hag was any different from the rest of them. Certainly she lacked some of Mrs McKinnon's charm, and all of Mrs Smythe's refinement, but she was definitely not any more daunting than Mrs Longbottom, or that much uglier than Mrs MacMillan. 'Remus wanted to thank you as well, but there seems to have been a misunderstanding. Your house-elf put him out into the street.'

'He was meant to go by Floo, Mum,' Sirius said softly, shuffling up beside his friend. James realized indignantly that the taller boy's head was bowed, his hands impotent at his sides. 'I did mention that.'

Mrs Black's eyes narrowed. 'The dinner party is over,' she said. 'It is time for the guests to depart, and I instructed Kreacher to see you both off. Evidently he failed in that duty, Mr Potter, for here you are.'

'I'll be going directly,' James said courteously. 'Just as soon as Remus is safely home.'

'I am not responsible for the boy's travel arrangements,' Mrs Black said coldly. 'Let his parents come and fetch him.'

'That's all well and good,' said James; 'but you see, they don't know that they need to. They're expecting him to pop out of the fire at home, neat as you please. If you'll just get your elf to open the front door so that he can come back inside, he'll be out of here in a matter of minutes. It's only good manners, after all, to let a guest use the fireplace if he asks.'

'It is only good manners,' said Mrs Black with an unpleasant curl of her lip; 'to ask before using the fireplace. Your little friend was making rather too free with the house of my fathers, Mr Potter. Had my son informed me that he was intending to bring such an ill-bred child to dinner I assure you the invitation would never have been extended.'

'But it was extended, wasn't it?' James asked. He was beginning to feel rather irritated despite the pleasant euphoria of the wine. The woman wasn't being reasonable, and she wasn't playing by the rules of polite society. His own mother would not have denied any guest access to the fireplace: faced with a common thief or a Dark wizard or even a part-human she would have smiled and offered the pot of Floo Powder with her own hands and bid the guest a courteous farewell.

'Mum, please,' Sirius murmured. 'Please, Remus did ask to use the fire. He asked me, and I said he might.'

'Then you should not have done so,' snapped Walburga, in a voice that made Sirius cringe. 'You do not have unrestricted Floo privileges, young man, and you are very much aware of that.'

'Yes, Mu—Mother,' whispered Sirius. 'I'm sorry.'

James stared at his friend. He could not understand what had got into Sirius. He was not one to scrape and bow to those in positions of authority. He was on friendly speaking terms with Headmaster Dumbledore. He spoke back smartly to Flitwick on a regular basis. He even took a rather high-handed approach with Professor McGonagall in her sternest moods. It was absolutely ridiculous that now, facing only his own mother, he should fail to stand up for Remus.

'Look,' James said, taking a step towards Mrs Black and planting his hands on his hips. 'I understand being annoyed if your son bends the house rules a bit, but he did it in the interest of looking after a guest. I should think that the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black would understand the need for proper courtesy, whoever it's extended to.'

'Whomever,' Sirius mumbled, a pained look in his eyes that told James he was thinking of Remus.

'Frankly,' said Druella Black, turning up her nose and puckering her over-painted lips; 'I'm shocked that a well-bred young man such as yourself doesn't know when he ought to take his leave.'

'I'm not going anywhere, ma'am,' James said, bowing succinctly at her. Druella was a Rosier by birth, and as such neither very bright nor especially well-spoken. Her perfect pedigree and her illustrious marriage were perhaps enough to gain her entrance to these sorts of houses, but she would not have been welcome in his. 'Not until your sister-in-law lets Remus back inside.'

Mrs Black rose. She made quite an imposing figure, sweeping to her feet with her eyes ablaze. James had to stop himself from taking a step backward. He thrust out his chin, readying himself for whatever insult she sought to deal out. But then there came a soft rapping at the drawing room door.

'What is it?' Walburga snapped. The door opened a little ways, and Sirius's younger brother slipped in. He bowed at Bellatrix and smiled timidly at his mother.

'I just wondered what's going on,' he said, looking worriedly at Sirius. 'Kreacher's very upset, and I can't make sense of what he's saying.'

'We're just seeing Mr Potter off,' Mrs Black said coolly. 'Run along, Regulus, and play with your cousins. They're in the morning room.'

Regulus turned as if to go, but his lower lip trembled, and he ran forward, brushing past his brother and clutching at his mother's robe. 'Please,' he said; 'don't be angry. I know it wasn't a very good dinner party, but the food was lovely, wasn't it? I told 'Mea that her turtle soup was the best I'd ever tasted, and—'

'Regulus!' Mrs Black scolded in a harsh whisper. 'How many times do I have to tell you that well-bred young wizards do not speak of their servants in front of guests?'

Regulus flushed, shrinking back shamefacedly and hanging his head. 'I'm sorry,' he said. He raised his eyes again, imploringly. 'But please, Mother, don't…'

'Come and sit with me, Reggie,' Bellatrix said smoothly, crooking a finger while using the other hand to draw back her skirts so that a space was cleared before her on the chaise. 'Watch and learn: this should be most edifying.'

Regulus obeyed, moving to perch beside her and suffering her to put a hand on his shoulder. 'Now,' she said; 'Auntie is going to teach us how to get rid of an unwanted guest.'

'The first rule of being a good host,' James said coldly; 'or hostess as the case may be, is knowing that you mustn't ever make a guest feel unwanted!'

'Mum?' Sirius said. 'If… if you won't let Remus back inside can I at least look in on his parents to let them know his father should come and get him?'

James found himself gawking, flabbergasted by the servile tone that Sirius was taking.

'Certainly not!' Mrs Black said. She strode to the fireplace and picked up a silver cruet. She descended on James. 'Hold out your hand,' she commanded.

'Certainly not,' he said pleasantly, offering a cheeky smile. 'How do I know what you've got in there?'

'It's Floo Powder, of course,' Druella said. 'You've overstayed your welcome.'

'Maybe I have,' James said, looking Walburga Black squarely in the eye, despite the uncomfortable angle this demanded of his neck. 'But either you're going to let Remus back in, or you'll let Sirius pop in on his parents to tell them he needs to be collected. Until that happens, I'm not going anywhere.'

'J-James, don't,' Sirius said softly, plucking at his sleeve.

Mrs Black raised her hand, looking remarkably as if she was about to strike the impudent boy. James did not flinch. She wouldn't do it. She wouldn't dare. Perhaps the Blacks were an old family, and perhaps they were well-respected in the magical community and influential in the Ministry. But they had neither the money nor the social influence of the Potters, and they could not afford to be accused of mistreating the heir to one of the largest private fortunes in Britain.

'What will it be?' James asked insolently. 'Remus in, or Sirius out?'

Walburga curled her lips, a jaundiced pallor spreading across her craggy face. 'That half-blood beggar's brat will never set foot in my house again,' she sneered. 'What is he fit for, but waiting upon the scions of my body? Let him grub in the gutter where he—'

Fury and indignation overrode the desire to deport himself with grace. James found his foot flying out before he was even aware of it, connecting against Mrs Black's shin with a resounding crack. She howled in anguish and rage, dropping the cruet so that Floo Powder spilled all over the carpet. She lunged for James, but he danced out of her way, swooping down to gather up a handful of powder.

Sirius was staring at him in horror, but there was no time to waste. Mrs Black looked capable of murder, and another solution occurred to James – a solution that should have been painfully obvious from the beginning, and might have been if he weren't just a bit tiddly. He flicked his wrist, weighing the Floo Powder in it. 'Look, I'll send my dad to fetch Remus,' he said. 'Obviously I'm not wanted here, so just as soon as I have your assurance that I can leave peaceably—'

'Go!' Sirius said hoarsely. Mrs Black was looming behind him, her face contorted into a mask of inarticulate wrath. 'Go, get help for Remus. I'll be just fine here.'

'No!' shouted Regulus, hopping off the chaise and trying to run forward. Bellatrix caught him by the wrist with one taloned hand, holding him fast. 'No, don't go, James. Don't go yet.'

'Get out of here,' Sirius hissed, grey eyes frantic. 'Remus must be out of his mind with worry: you've got to get him home.' He hesitated, glancing over his shoulder at the furious woman beside him. 'You've got to get him home,' he whispered.

'Right,' James said, nodding firmly. He bowed extravagantly to Mrs Black. 'Thanks again for the meal. The food was good, even if the hospitality was lacking.' Then he threw the fistful of powder into the flames and sprang over the hearth.

~discidium~

Silence fell over the drawing room as the fire died down to gold and orange again. Sirius stared at the embers, aware that he was trembling and hating his body for betraying him. He set his teeth and kept his eyes locked upon the flames.

When his mother spoke, her voice was cold as the North Sea and deathly calm. 'Out of those robes,' she said.

Sirius did not need to ask whom she was addressing. The order was only to be expected: he was clad, after all, in his second-best. He had been so grateful to be spared the argument about the hated Christmas robes; dinner with two Gryffindor boys, one of them not even full-blooded, had not warranted such finery. Now he wished that he had asked to put on something plainer still.

'Out of those robes,' his mother repeated in a voice that resonated with grim promises. 'Now.'

'Yes, ma'am,' Sirius said. He turned, starting for the door. Perhaps if he did not protest she would let him go quietly to change.

Sharp nails bit into his shoulder as she took hold of him. 'Where do you think you are going?' she asked with silky menace.

'Up to my room,' Sirius said softly; 'to take off my robes.'

'Mummy, please don't,' whimpered Regulus. Sirius felt his cheekbones burning. No matter how many times he told his brother not to do it, Regulus insisted on trying to win him consideration at times like this. It was humiliating; worse than almost anything else.

'You are not leaving my sight,' Mrs Black spat. The malice in her voice made Sirius's chest grow tight. 'Out of those robes at once, right here.'

'Here?' Sirius cried, whipping around to look at her in horror. 'But Bella's watching!'

He heard a low chuckle from the corner, and he knew that his older cousin was smiling coldly. She had a sadistic streak, and she loved to see the little ones brought to task for their transgressions. Even as a girl she had always managed to get into the room when one of her sisters or cousins was being scolded. Sirius could not remember Bellatrix ever warranting so much as a polite reprimand. He could take his punishment, but to have her witness it was beyond mortifying.

'Here,' his mother snarled.

Any further argument would only make matters worse. Ordinarily Sirius did not hesitate to escalate the situation. After all, if he was going to go down he could at least go down fighting. But he thought of the promise that he might go away for a few days. It seemed unlikely now that he would be allowed this summer, but there was always next year. With quaking hands he unfastened his belt and loosened the fastenings on his robes. He hesitated.

'Please?' he whispered, turning his face up to look at his mother and praying that she might relent. He wasn't a little boy anymore. Undressing in front of Bella was too much to bear; even Mum had to see that. 'I shan't try to run.'

That was what she was afraid of, he realized: that he might run for Andromeda. Drommie was a fully-qualified witch now, and though she was usually very circumspect it was unlikely that Walburga had forgotten the one incident of defiance from her niece. Drommie had been the same age that Sirius was now, and Sirius himself not yet five. The two families had met for a day at the races, and in his excitement over a particularly spectacular Granian's wingspan Sirius had spilled his lemon squash on his mother's lap. She had raised her hand to strike him, and Andromeda, whipping out the wand that she was not meant to be carrying, had dealt Walburga a vicious Stinging Hex. In the moment's confusion Drommie had taken Sirius by the hand and hustled him out of the family's private box to sit in the main gallery where they were both protected from retaliation by the power of public scrutiny. What punishment had befallen Andromeda at her parents' hands afterward Sirius did not know, but he had always rather worshiped his cousin after that.

Of course, he was far too old now to go crying to Drommie for help – however much he might want to. There was little enough she could do, and anyhow it would only buy him a short respite, much as James's presence had. Eventually Drommie would go home, and then he would be punished for speaking out against his mother.

'No, you shall not,' she was saying now, and Sirius had to struggle to remember what she was talking about. 'You shall not have the chance. Out of those robes!'

He obeyed. There was nothing more that he could do. He hauled the heavy silk garment over his head, hesitating ever so briefly while his face was hidden within it. Then he relinquished the cover of the robes, letting them fall to the ground and standing in his pants and vest and glossy leather shoes, certain that his face was the colour of a ripe plum.

'M-Mummy, please,' Regulus breathed.

'Hush,' said Bellatrix with that toxic fondness she always reserved for her youngest cousin. Sirius did not need to look at her to know that she was stroking his hair with the back of her index finger. 'He doesn't deserve your advocacy; he's been a naughty brat and he needs to be punished.'

'We were meant to play Gobstones tomorrow,' murmured the little boy mournfully.

'Kreacher can play Gobstones with you,' said Walburga. She prodded Sirius between the shoulder blades. 'Pick up those robes, you ungrateful shame of my loins! The insolent Gryffindor brats you've chosen to associate with have made you forget yourself. We shall soon put that right.'

Sirius felt his ears burning at those words, and he realized abruptly that Remus was still outside. He was doubtless frightened and bewildered, wondering why his friends had not come to his aid. Who could say how long it would take James to convince his parents to help? Sirius did not know how other people's parents behaved in this sort of situation, but he imagined that at the very least there would be explanations wanted. He had to send word to Remus that help was on the way. He had to do that, at least.

'Yes, Mother,' he mumbled, taking a step away from her and bending to pick up the robes. He straightened slowly, one eye on his mother and the other on Bellatrix. But Bella was still fondling Regulus's head, lounging like Hatshepsut herself on the chaise longue. She was fast, but she wasn't that fast. Unprepared as she was, she wouldn't be able to catch him before he reached the door.

With a swift, defiant flick of his wrist Sirius flung the robes at his mother. The silk billowed, occluding her vision, and even as her howl of rage made the curio cabinets rattle he bolted for the drawing room door. Out onto the landing he tore, taking the stairs three at a time. The second floor rushed past in a vague blur of gas lamps. Somewhere down the corridor he could hear Cissy plunking away at the harp. He was on the third floor landing now, and he paused for a moment to lean against his bedroom door. From below he could hear his mother's footsteps thundering up after him, drowning in her wrathful maledictions. He pushed off from his door, sparing a longing thought to his roomy bed and the big window that – though it could not be opened – allowed in a little sunlight at least.

He darted up the stairs into the loft. The long, dreary room filled with old furniture and chests of clothes and portraits draped in dust sheets seemed to yawn around him. There was a single small window set under the ridgepole, a little round window left perpetually open. For in one of the dormers – which were set with glass painted a thick opaque black – were two cages and a series of silver perches, housing the family's owls. Once it had been a proper aviary; now there were only two birds – his parents' mean-spirited one, and proud Hermes.

Sirius ran up to the perch. He could hear his mother on the stairs below, shrieking now her endless litany of insults. Hermes ruffled his feathers, preening a little and clearly expecting a treat.

'You've got to go out,' Sirius said in a hushed and frantic voice. He knew that Hermes would understand, but he wondered if the haughty and defiant bird whose spirit he so admired would obey him. 'Please. Go out to the square. Remus is there. You know Remus: he's my friend. You need to stay with him. Mr Potter is coming, but you need to wait with Remus. Don't let him leave the square. Please, Hermes, go!'

Hermes let out a sharp, bracing hoot. Shooting a disdainful look at the other owl, who was hissing menacingly at the boy, he launched off of his perch. Sirius watched as the dark wings folded, allowing the owl to clear the little window. He let out his breath in a long, heavy exhalation of relief. At least Remus would be taken care of. James would see to that. What came after – that did not matter so much, he told himself. He only wished that he could believe it.

Suddenly the tirade of rage and vitriol was pouring down the back of his neck and bruising fingers closed on his shoulders. Sirius shut his eyes and let himself be dragged back towards the stairs. He had to pay the price for defiance now, but at least he had won: Remus would get home safely. There was a certain satisfaction in that.