Author's Notes: Assumes some things about where the plot will go in the fifth book, but it's purely speculation. Set in October of Harry's fifth year.
Things have changed
That was the phrase Sirius Black heard over and over-not just in reference to him, but to many things…the Ministry of Magic, the Wizarding World in general, the new balance of power, who was in control, everything…
But mostly him.
Standing in a sun-washed and decidedly too-warm room that had once been a study hall but was now a sort of makeshift Professor's lounge, he felt like he was looking through a tunnel backwards through time. People who had once taught him how to levitate feathers and transform apples into oranges over a decade ago were gathered around him, a little older now, a little stranger. There were people there too that he knew more intimately-people who had once been friends, and enemies. They were all gathered around, eager to shake his hand and congratulate him when six months ago they would have set him on fire if they saw him.
"Mr. Black…" Minerva McGonagall's glasses caught the sunlight for a moment, flashing white. Her severe features and even more severe tight gray bun atop her head were just as he remembered them-there were a few new lines around her eyes, but other than that she was still the same sour, blade-like creature he remembered from his youth.
"On behalf of the Hogwarts staff, I'd like to offer you our support and friendship, along with our deepest apologies for any role we might have played in the wrongful accusations hurled against you…"
Sirius looked down at the long, bony hand she extended. There was a fat, squat, exuberantly dressed photographer from the Ministry standing nearby, shifting from foot to foot and waiting for them to shake hands so he could snap the photograph. Rita Skeeter, dressed in blinding red robes, was standing in the corner with her quill hovering in mid-air beside her, whizzing over a parchment that floated beneath it.
Sirius, for just a moment, imagined taking McGonagall's hand and twisting it until her thin wrist snapped like a twig. He thought about asking her if she knew what it was like to sleep on a dirt floor for twelve years, or what it was like to eat nothing but swill that wasn't fit for, yes…even a dog. Or what it was like to scream yourself to sleep at night and no one even hear.
But instead, he forced a tight smile and shook her hand-perhaps a bit harder than necessary, and the flashbulb went off.
"Terribly sorry Albus couldn't be here…" she said for what seemed like the millionth time when he'd let her cold, bony hand go. "He's had important business up in his office all morning, I'm afraid…this is quite a lot of paper work with the Ministry, you taking up residence here for the term…"
Sirius looked around the room, at the curious and somewhat cautious faces gathered around him. None of them looked particularly frightened, which was an odd thing to see. Most of them were just looking at him as though he were an odd experiment-some new plant grown out in the greenhouse the other day. And he'd tried so hard to look normal today-wearing the clothes Remus had given him, taken a nice long bath, even brushed out his hair. He really did clean up rather nice. And he'd been gaining weight, slowly but surely.
Remus. He was there as well, in the back, smiling in that soft way he had, his eyes tender. But it hurt to look at him. The years had ravaged him as much as they had ravaged Sirius. Only his prison had been self-contained, something he walked around in every day even though he roamed freely. Sirius had found seeing him again a shock to his system-not because of what he remembered, but because of what he didn't remember. The friendship-and other things-they had once shared was like an old faded photograph now from which some of the pieces were missing. That was perhaps the hardest thing to face.
Things have changed.
"Mr. Black!" Rita pushed her way through the crowd of teachers, Ministry members, and a few of the older students-most likely prefects and head boys and girls-who had been allowed to attend the 'official' acquittal ceremony. Sirius tried not to make a face-he had heard plenty about this woman from Hermione. By the looks of things, the little 'punishment' Hermione had inflicted on her over the summer didn't seem to have much effect in deterring her.
"Mr. Black…" she gave him a look that he supposed was meant to be coy and simpering. "Now that your name has been cleared, what will you do next? What's on the agenda for the Wizarding World's most notorious ex-criminal? Maybe you'll take up a teaching job here at Hogwarts since you'll be staying here, hmm?"
Sirius saw McGonagall flinch. Several of the other professors also seemed to dislike this idea. One of the female students got an oddly goofy look on her face. But mostly everyone-including Remus-looked at him curiously.
"Er…" he felt put on the spot, something he would have enjoyed once but now found nearly unbearable. "I'm not sure really…one day at a time, I suppose…"
Rita quirked an eyebrow, and he saw her quill start flying faster across the parchment over in the corner. He could only imagine what it was writing.
"Well…the whole world is open to you now…" Rita was still eyeing him. The photographer was hovering at her side, camera poised, if he should do anything interesting, he supposed-like perform a parlor trick or perhaps vomit.
"You can teach, or work for the Ministry…" Rita suggested. "Or find love…"
A little ruffle went through the crowd, a sort of murmuring, and the girl who had made the goofy face suddenly turned scarlet. He saw Remus hide a chuckle behind his hand. A few people looked sick.
"Uh…I think right now I'd just like to get my life back in order…" Sirius suddenly felt the burning urge to bolt from the room. Everyone was staring at him, scrutinizing him. He knew half of them would rather see him bound and gagged and tossed in the lake. They were being polite, believing he was innocent, accepting the Ministry's most heartfelt explanation of having made a 'grievous mistake.' From Professor Sprout who was looking at him with her eyes narrowed and lips pursed, to Alastor Moody, whose quivering bulbous eye was fixed on him with horrifying steadiness, it really seemed like they might turn into an angry mob at any moment and hang him off the tallest tower of the school.
"Miss Skeeter…" McGonagall cleared her throat, stepping between them, blocking Rita's face from his vision. "You will have plenty of time to interview Mr. Black later…right now he has more important things to tend to."
Sirius was grateful for the interruption. He tried not to look at anyone in particular, especially because the eyes he met felt like they were boring into him. He clasped his hands behind his back, nearly pressed against the wall behind him, and lowered his gaze to the floor.
Once, inside the walls of this beloved institution, he would have been surrounded by admirers and followers, people hanging off his every word and begging for a moment of his time. And he would have commanded them all with a wave of his hand and a few clever words, drawing laughter or awe out of them as he saw fit. There was almost no one Sirius Black couldn't charm and manipulate.
Things have changed.
McGonagall forced Rita Skeeter back, and began to dismiss everyone from the room, to his immense relief. He flicked his gaze back up to the crowd as they began turning to file out, and his eye caught someone standing against the back wall, someone he hadn't noticed until now.
He held his breath for a moment, eyes widening.
Hunched over a bit, arms folded over his chest and head down so his stringy black hair was hanging around his face, he seemed almost to be trying to melt into the wall. Thin shoulders were drawn down, his black robes falling formless all the way to the floor. And from behind the veil of his hair, dark, fury-filled eyes were locked on Sirius, thin lips twisted into what one might mistake as a grimace of pain if they didn't know better. Sirius felt his heart leap, for a myriad of reasons. It was honestly the last person he had expected to see there.
As everyone filed out, and Rita was being ushered out by McGonagall chattering so fast her jaw was in danger of coming unhinged, his dark observer finally pulled himself out of his hunched-over pose and drew himself up to his full height. Standing straight, he was rather tall and imposing, despite being somewhat slender and angular. He tossed his hair back from his face, stringy and tangled as always, and carefully fingered it behind his ears. And still, the look he held on Sirius was one of pure rancor.
Sirius stared back at him, barely noticing when Remus made his way over and murmured something in his ear.
"I'll show you where the rooms are…" his voice was soft against Sirius's ear, having a taste of the past to it, just enough to make his heart ache a little. Remus's hand, thin and almost frail, rested on his arm for a moment. Sirius had to force himself not to turn his face away.
He might have, if his attention wasn't still on the dark figure across the room from him. Then, Severus Snape, with a magnificent and obviously well-practiced swish of his robes, turned on his heel and marched out of the room, narrow chin held high in a gesture of being completely above him.
Some things hadn't changed.
"I was so cross they wouldn't allow me to be there!" Harry was hovering near the desk where Sirius was sitting, writing out letters he had been instructed to compose by the Ministry. Hermione and Ron were there as well, on either side of Harry, peering down at Sirius as everyone had peered at him all day-but these three he didn't mind so much.
"And to think, they made us testify at your trial, but we couldn't be at the ceremony!" Ron screwed up his nose, looking downright disgusted. "They treat us like children!"
Hermione rolled her eyes and shook her head.
"You didn't miss much…" Sirius informed them, stopping his quill for a moment to look at the words he had written on the parchment. "Just a lot of hand-shaking and picture taking. Just so the Ministry can feel they've done their duty and given their 'official' apology." His mouth twisted a bit on those last words.
"Hmph…" Hermione echoed what he was thinking. "It seems to me they owe you a good deal more than that."
They did, really. But what could they give him? There was no spell, no potion, no special token that would take away twelve years in the most horrible prison on the planet. Nothing that could take away the wrongful accusations or the long, cold nights in isolation. Nothing that could take away his rage, or sorrow, or the bleakness that coated his soul from end to end.
Nothing that could bring back James and Lily.
"Well…at least I'm free now…" he said, as though reciting it. He thought if he said it enough times it might help. So far, it hadn't.
"Everyone still looks at you like you're guilty…" Harry's voice was soft. He was fidgeting nervously with the edge of the desk. "I hear people whispering in the corridors…and they won't give you custody of me…"
Sirius sighed, and placed his quill back in the inkpot. Behind him, he heard Remus come out of the other room, and chose his words carefully.
"It's going to take time, Harry…little bits at a time. People need to get used to me first. But they'll come around. And one day, I will have custody of you."
He didn't believe a word of it, but he needed to sound convincing for Harry. Harry gave him a tight smile, but his eyes behind his glasses reflected the way Sirius felt-uncertain, hopeless.
"Er…what's going to happen to…Peter…now?" Ron asked, his voice wary. Ron still seemed confused and wounded by the events of nearly two years ago, when he'd met Peter for the first time and had several personal illusions shattered. "Will he go to Azkaban, now that they've caught him and know the truth?"
"He'll be given the Dementor's Kiss," Hermione said, sounding like she had spent long hours researching it, which she probably had. "That's how the Ministry deals with those who serve You-Know-Who these days…they can't have people like him running about. They have to be very careful."
Ron gave her a sort of sideways scowl, and Harry looked down. Then he muttered softly. "He deserves worse than that."
Sirius couldn't agree more. What he deserved was to be locked in a room without windows for a few hours with Sirius, Harry, and their wands. The Dementor's Kiss was too good for him. It would wipe his mind clean-he needed to be allowed to remember. Remus cleared his throat softly, and Sirius felt his hand on his shoulder. "Shouldn't you children be off to bed? It's getting late…"
Ron sighed, his shoulders slumping a bit. "Yeah…and I still got work to do before I can go to sleep. Hermione, can I copy your Transfiguration homework?"
"Absolutely not!" Hermione scowled darkly, her brows furrowing.
Ron shrugged, giving Sirius a despairing look. "It was worth a try."
Sirius had to grin, and was almost surprised he remembered how. Harry gave Sirius another sad, almost longing look, then turned toward the door.
"Oh!" Hermione stopped, just as Remus was showing them out. "I nearly forgot…you will be coming to the Masque, won't you Sirius?"
Sirius blinked, then frowned. "The what?"
He heard Ron groan outside the door, but Hermione was turned toward Sirius, her eyes all alight.
"They're having a Masquerade for Halloween, next weekend…the Headmaster thought it would be a proper chance for you to be reintroduced to society…and I know we'd love it if you showed up, wouldn't we Harry?"
Harry was standing in the doorway, and he just nodded. Sirius frowned a bit more.
"I don't know…I'm not sure people would really want me there…"
"That's the point," Remus said, smiling softly. He had one hand on the door, standing next to Hermione. "Albus mentioned it to me, but I hadn't had the chance to speak with you yet. I think it would be a delightful slap in their faces if you showed up."
Sirius would have agreed, if any of his former bravado and tenacity were still intact. But now, the idea of showing up, being gawked at and whispered about by literally hundreds of people made him want to wither into the wallpaper. It wouldn't be so much a slap in their faces as a punch to his already badly battered self-confidence.
"I…I don't know…" he caught Harry's eyes for a moment, then looked down. "I'll think about it."
Hermione seemed satisfied with this answer, nodded, and turned to leave. "Good night Sirius, good night, Mr. Lupin."
"Good night Hermione…Harry, Ron…" Remus shut the door behind them.
Sirius sat there for a moment, staring down at his hands, then Remus brought him out of his thoughts with another light touch to his shoulder. "Want some tea? Do you still have more to write?"
Sirius looked up, then over at the parchment. His official account of what happened that long ago day on the street with Peter and all the dead Muggles. It was for Peter's trial, which he would have the privilege of attending. It felt like an impending nightmare.
"I…it's nearly finished…" he sighed and pushed it aside. "I think…I'm going to go for a walk. I need a break."
He saw the look of disappointment in Remus's eyes as he turned away, but his voice was light and unemotional when he spoke. "All right. I'll leave the door unlatched."
Sirius stood, pushing his feet into his boots-Remus's clothes were too baggy on him as skinny as he was now, but they'd found him a proper pair of boots. They were the sort he might have worn on his motorcycle once upon a time. Pulling his hair back in a loose ponytail and tugging a sweater on over his thin t-shirt, he left the room before he had to look Remus in the eye again.
All this freedom was starting to close in around him.
Hogwarts hadn't changed much since he had been a student there-at least it was an old familiar constant. The corridors, the classrooms, the paintings on the walls-he heard more than a few gasps as he walked past them-the shifting staircases and confusing dead ends and doorways that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. It was still the same. He hadn't had much chance to really be nostalgic when he was sneaking in as Padfoot. Mostly he was just in and out as quickly as possible.
For a while he just wandered around, looking at everything, steeped in old memories, scaring a few children who were still in the corridors. He saw Filch, who gave him a wide berth and a very dirty look, Mrs. Norris winding around his legs and glowering at him with equal animosity. Little bitch-a shameful secret, how she was stuck in Animagus form. It was amazing what you discovered when you were an Animagus yourself. Apparently many years ago, having an affair on her husband with a certain much younger and less cantankerous Squib, they'd devised a way for her to slip in and out of his rooms without detection-and then because they tried to speed her transformation training along with a potion, she'd gotten stuck. Sirius sneered at her as he walked past, then smirked and headed off down the corridor.
He walked around for nearly an hour, reacquainting himself with a place that had once been his second home-or perhaps his first. It was chilly in the hallways, but he barely noticed. He'd spent so long in the cold it was hardly consequential to him.
Just as he was thinking he might go back to Remus's rooms, he turned a corner and nearly ran smack into Severus Snape.
"Git!" Snape snapped at him, the lantern he was holding swinging erratically and casting wild light patterns on the walls. "Do watch where you're going! What are you doing skulking about the corridors at this hour anyway!"
Snape didn't miss a beat, or even seem that shocked to see him. Sirius half wondered if he hadn't been following him for a while. The meeting was so-abrupt. And convenient.
"What are you doing skulking about the corridors at this hour?" Sirius said in return. The light from the lantern made Snape's face seem even more ghostly and pale than it usually was, his hair gleaming slick and black.
"I work here!" He drew himself up to his full, imposing height, like a viper about to strike. The light shimmered in his eerily black eyes. "I'm doing my job…patrolling the corridors for anyone who might be up to no good…not that you would know anything about that…"
Sirius couldn't help but chuckle. Some things really didn't change. Still so peevish and bristly and pissy. Hiding his insecurities behind a façade of cool and calculated disdain for everything and everyone.
Snape actually looked shocked that Sirius thought it was funny. Sirius smirked.
"Well I haven't been up to no good…I'm sure you know that by now, since you've been following me, it seems."
Snape did a nearly convincing imitation of being affronted. He swung the lantern away from himself as well, so his expression was harder to read.
"Sorry to disappoint you Black, but I have far more important things to do than tag around after you like one of your old mindless followers…and do try not to worry about that…I'm sure they'll all be back under your thumb in no time."
He knew exactly where to strike. He always had. Sirius tightened his jaw a bit, keeping his voice quiet and controlled.
"I don't know about that…but thank you for your…concern."
The two stared each other down, the wavering light from the lantern seeming to enclose them in a little bubble, all outside of it black and formless. The face Sirius remembered from so long ago was before him now, older, showing permanent signs of the sour look it always wore, and beneath it just a hint of the tiredness and stress the years had heaped upon him. The contours of his face were softened by the light, though the hollows under his eyes looked even deeper. His black eyes gleamed with a mixture of things-hatred, anger, hesitation…
"Are you satisfied yet?" Sirius finally asked, his voice breaking the silence that had descended. Snape blinked, once, twice, looking genuinely confused for a split second, then regained his cold demeanor.
"What are you blathering on about?"
"Are you satisfied yet? Do you think I've done penance enough for all my crimes-and I'm not talking about killing Muggles or betraying James and Lily…"
Snape looked genuinely confused again for a moment, then it seemed to dawn on him what Sirius meant.
"You didn't go to Azkaban for being a vile and wretched teenager…" Snape's thin lips curled into a sneer. "Really, don't try to wring pity from me with your 'poor me' act. I'm afraid pity isn't something I have to spare."
Sirius's mood quickly grew dark, his anger rising. "Really? I hadn't noticed…one wouldn't discern something like that from your petty actions that kept me from being cleared a year and a half ago, now would they?"
"Petty!" Snape nearly spat the word, the lantern swinging violently in his hand. "I think I had very good reason not to trust you!"
"And now that I've been found innocent?" Sirius had to keep from doubling up his fist to punch him. "What do you say now?"
"I say there's a lot of gullible people in this world who will do anything for a publicity stunt."
Sirius had him thrown up against the wall before he even realized what he was doing. Snape let out a sort of horrified gasp, and the lantern clattered to the floor, but didn't go out. It was dark except for around their feet now, but Sirius was glaring right into his eyes, their faces so close he could feel Snape's shuddering breath on his cheek.
"You are a petty, wretched excuse for a man…" Sirius snarled at him. He was clutching Snape's cloak at his throat, holding him tight against the wall. Sirius could feel him trembling. "You traded my life for your own ridiculous grudge!"
"Oh please!" Snape spat back at him, his voice wavering just a bit. "How much pull do you really think I had in that? The Ministry didn't want to believe, so they didn't! And it wasn't ridiculous…you tried to kill me!" He pushed at Sirius's hands, his palms cold and clammy, but Sirius held firm.
"I didn't try to kill you, it was an accident and you know it!" Sirius let him go with a rough shove, and Snape lurched against the wall. Sirius stepped back, trying to keep from raising his voice any further. "And that's not even the reason you did it! You think I don't know? You're worse than petty…you're vindictive! You wanted me to suffer because I left you for him!"
There was a sudden, thundering silence. Neither of them moved, or made a sound-Sirius wasn't even sure they were breathing. Snape stay hunched against the wall, head bowed and hair hiding his face, under lit by the lantern on the floor. His pale hands were clutching his robes around himself-slender, supple, graceful hands, even though they were trembling…
Then suddenly one of those graceful hands struck Sirius across the cheek, hard and stinging. He gasped, wincing, and it took a moment for him to regain his senses.
By the time he had, Snape had glided off down the hall in that dramatic fashion of his, robes swishing, leaving the lantern lying in a puddle of sputtering light on the floor.
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