If one had a mind for it, mischief was never far out of hand at Hogwarts. Five years of looking for it and never failing to find it mean that, on a night when he wasn't looking for trouble, nothing else seemed to find him.
The corridors were usually empty the first night of term. First years, too afraid to leave their dormitory, let alone the common room, stayed put as soon as they were shown their beds and most everyone else had too many friends to catch up with to venture out into the halls. Even the Professors were ensconced in their offices or classrooms making last minute preparations. When Sirius set out to take a walk through the castle, it never occurred to him to take the map. His hubris was shortly repaid as he rounded the corner on a well worn path, ducking a patrolling Auror to find himself nose to nose with Severus Snape.
"Oy - watch it," Sirius muttered, a weeks worth of pent up aggression spilling forward in an angry whisper. The moonlight from a nearby window illuminated the space - each beam emphasizing the pallid nature of his skin, sickly and green.
Snape simply sneered back, antagonism emanating from him in waves. "Perhaps you might try looking where you're going?" he suggested. "Or did you father knock the sense out of you this time?"
"Tred carefully, Snivellus," Sirius warned, reaching for his wand. "Have you forgotten how last term ended for you?" It might have been cruel to bring up the way James had upended him in front of their entire year at the close of their OWL exams the previous school year - Snape certainly seemed to be unnerved by it's mention - but Sirius didn't care. It wasn't that he hated Snape. Their mutual enmity was well documented and long lived but the week away from his family had given him time to clear his head and the malice he felt for them and everything they stood for had cooled to be replaced by a malevolent indifference. Where, for years, he'd felt as though he was facing many individual enemies, now he realized what he was standing against was an idea, not a person. His rivalry with Snape seemed insignificant in the face of the greater adversary.
Snape, however, didn't seem as high minded. "You wouldn't dare," he hissed, taking a bold step forward, his wand drawn. "Potter might be willing to take a cheap shot when a persons back is turned but you - Black - you were raised better than that."
Whether it was the sound of his surname being uttered with a strange sense of reverence or the fact that Snape was suggesting his parents were responsible for his virtues but white hot anger was bubbling forth before he could stop it - the hex coming out of his mouth without any thought to the consequences.
The flash of vividly white light was followed immediately by two sounds - a scream of pain and the fall of heavy footsteps on the stone floor. As the Aurors rounded the corner, wands at the ready, a single thought occurred to him - the map and the cloak.
“Well that was bracing,” Sirius joked as an Auror deposited him in one of the ornate chairs across from Dumbledore’s desk with a swift jerk to his shirt collar. Snape thudded into the other a few seconds later, though with somewhat less jovial amusement.
“Well aren’t you the lucky one tonight,” he murmured, glaring at Sirius from behind his greasy hair. “Auror’s stepping in just in time to rescue you.”
“To rescue me from what – having to watch you writhe around on the floor?” Sirius fired back, still amused.
“Oy! Could you two cut it out?” the youngest of the Aurors asked, agitated.
Sirius snorted a laugh but stopped his commentary there as Dumbledore descended the steps from his private quarters and into the office proper. No stranger to being dragged to the headmaster’s office in the middle of the night, the fluffy carpet slippers and dressing gown were no surprise to him but he might have been the only one as the rest of the assembled crowd fell silent. “Sirius, I hadn’t expected to see you so quickly after the start of term,” he said conversationally, wiping his glasses on the corner of his sleeve before replacing them on his face. “And Severus, you I didn’t expect to see at all. So, what are you two doing in my office?”
One of the Aurors answered for them, stepping forward from behind the chairs. “They were dueling in the corridors – out of bounds no less,” he volunteered, each syllable offered with the cadence of military precision. “It would seem that Mr. Black hexed Mr. Snape.”
“I see,” Dumbledore observed disinterestedly, sitting down at his desk. “Sirius, I trust all of your appendages are in working order?”
“All of the important ones, Sir,” Sirius answered, still smirking.
“Lovely to know. And Severus, can I assume the same or should I send for Madame Pomfrey?”
Snape sneered at him in response. “I’m fine,” he answered when Dumbledore didn’t rise to the bait.
“Well done then. Mr. Willcox, could I implore you to send for a prefect from each house to escort these two back to their common rooms then?”
The Auror disappeared without another word, turning up mid-way through Dumbledore’s lecture on house unity and seeking our similarities rather than our differences with Remus and a Slytherin seventh year in tow, each of them looking vaguely amused. “More importantly,” he finished a few minutes later, “You should remember that dueling on Hogwarts grounds is reason enough for suspension and I should think neither of you want to be sent home for fighting half-way through a term. But enough of that – back to your common rooms.”
“Good that we got that out of the way then,” Remus jested in the hallway, a few hundred paces away from Dumbledore’s office.
“It is starting to feel a bit old hat, isn’t it?” Sirius observed, grinning. “I’ll have to come up with some other way to keep you from getting dull on us.”
"She's in quite the mood," Peter observed as Lily pushed past them at breakfast. Her angry glare - aimed pointedly in Sirius' direction - wasn't lost on anyone.
The presence of an Auror in the common room last night was enough to rouse those students who weren't already awake and by the time Sirius and Remus made their way back to Gryffindor Tower, the common room was full of poorly concealed curious onlookers, peering from the staircases and peeking from behind books. The school was a flurry of whispered rumors by morning and Sirius had been the recipient of more than one sidelong glance.
"She's always in a twist over something," Sirius replied indifferently, sliding onto the bench and snatching a few pieces of toast from the pile.
"As if I didn't already have enough trouble with her," James whined.
Sirius snorted a sarcastic laugh, rolling his eyes at his plate. "If your imaginary relationship can't withstand that, you've no hope."
"Are you saying you wouldn't bury the hatchet for the sake of my happiness?" he asked, his tone dripping with mock sincerity.
This conversation, like so many others, was rapidly descending into a performance for anyone close enough to hear it and Sirius played alone, spreading marmalade on his toast. "If your imaginary sex life can't withstand a row over something as inconsequential as Snape, I doubt anyone has to be concerned with you developing an actual sex life any time soon. But, hey, maybe she'll talk to you in Charms today," Sirius answered, clapping James on the back and leaving a sticky smear of marmalade across his robes. Behind them, a few Ravenclaw third years sniggered conspiratorially. Sirius threw them a wink before returning to his toast.
Lily Evans proved to be the only one who didn't talk to them during Charms. While McGonagall and Slughorn took the first class of term as an opportunity to set expectations, Professor Flitwick opted for a more unorthodox approach, throwing them directly into a remedial lesson on jolly jinx’s, cheering charms and hiccupping hexes that they all desperately needed. By the time the classroom cleared, almost everyone had a distinctly cheery haze about them.
The jolly atmosphere extended into the Gryffindor common room. While fifth years fretted over their course loads and first years clung to the walls, the rest of the room was a flurry of jovial discussion and loud jokes. "Oy, Remus - taking this a bit seriously, aren't you?" Sirius asked. Remus was standing amidst a batch of titchy second years trying to mediate a dispute of some sort, looking utterly miserable.
Remus rolled his eyes, navigating his way across the room and collapsing onto one of the sofas. "Something about a rat, a toad and a neck tie," he explained, wrenching around to pull a forgotten spellbook from between the cushions with a grimace.
"All the makings of a bad joke," Peter mumbled, not taking his eyes out of his book.
"What are you studying so attentively?" James asked, appearing from nowhere to peer over his shoulders. Peter shrunk back, closing the book defensively but James snatched it out of his hands. Sirius was watching with mild interest as James's expression tensed. "Are you a dolt?" he hissed, leaning in so Peter could hear him. Peter didn't answer so James thumped him on the side of the head with the book before sliding it into his bookbag.
"What was that all about?" Sirius asked a few hours later. The common room was considerably emptier after dinner, students lingering in the library and the only people close enough to hear were a handful of second year girls, far too nervous and giggly to put together the pieces of whatever James had been so upset over.
James didn't say anything, handing over the book instead. Scrawled across the cover in unusually large letters were the words "Demystifying the Animagus."
Sirius rolled his eyes and handed it back.
The conversation drifted after that, the two of them commiserating over dull Defense Against the Dark Arts homework and reminiscing over old Transfiguration homework before James endeavored to ask the question he'd been waiting all night to ask. "Have you seen your brother yet?"
He watched Sirius out of the corner of his eye for a moment, trying to maintain a reasonable level of nonchalance to his manner. It failed miserably, Sirius picking up on the tick of interest far too easily.
His answer was flat and, he was sure, somewhat unsatisfying, but Regulus was, as far as he was concerned, no longer his problem. Blood bonded they might be, but there couldn't have been a bigger divide in a family than there was in his. Regulus had dozens of opportunities to get out - to side with Sirius over their father and he'd chosen the family line every time.
James' expression was prompting him for a more lengthy answer - one Sirius wasn't willing to offer. Sirius opened his mouth to make a smart ass remark he hadn't yet thought of but he was interrupted by another voice - this one much angrier.
"I absolutely cannot believe you."
"Sharp words. Sirius, you should go, maybe she'll discipline me," James said, sidling up to her and snaking an arm around her waist.
"James, take this very personally and sod off," she barked, pushing him away.
Her admonishing words had somewhat less of an effect than she'd anticipated, James merely grinning wider and winking in Sirius' direction before walking away. Throughout their exchange, Sirius hadn't moved. He was still lounging lazily, his feet kicked up on one arm of the couch at the hearth, surveying her with a cool disinterest when she regained her composure, rounding on him angrily. "Why can't you leave well enough alone?"
"You'll recall that you're the one meddling with me, Lily. I've done nothing of the sort," he said evenly.
"You couldn't have just walked away? You had to start a fight?"
"I'm sorry, what are we talking about?" he asked, nonplussed.
Lily rolled her eyes and put her hands jauntily on her hips. "You know what I'm talking about. You and Severus in Dumbeldore's office again - what over this time?"
Sirius opened his mouth to answer but, for the second time in two minutes, was interrupted again. This time, the source of the noise wasn't coming from inside of the common room. Rather, just outside the portrait hole, two distinct voices wafted in. One, the easier to hear among them belonging to the fat lady herself, her exasperated tone pricking his ears. The other was the obvious source of her concern.
"Excuse me," Sirius said abruptly, getting up.
"I'm not done with you, Sirius Black!" Lily shouted.
"Uh-huh," was his only response, no longer listening to her. The closer to the portrait hole he came, the more clear the voices and their words became. He flung the portrait forward with no concern for it's occupant, knocking the fat lady off her balance and sliding her into a neighboring portrait, Sirius looked upon the face he knew he would find there - Regulus.
"I don't suppose we could have this conversation in there?" Regulus asked. Sirius didn't answer. Eventually, Regulus spoke up again, his hands thrust deeply into his pockets. "You're healing up well."
"James' father is a wonder to have around when you're bleeding," Sirius replied, coldly. Whether Regulus was here at the behest of their father or not, whatever he intended to say wouldn't be the only thing Sirius was willing to hear from him because he knew through and through that Regulus was too much the coward to turn away from their parents.
"No one would tell me what happened," he said finally, endeavoring to make eye contact with his brother for the first time. "People are asking and I don't know what to say."
"That's on you, Regulus," Sirius answered, bristling. "If you hadn't been so busy hiding downstairs, you might have found out for yourself."
If Regulus had been expecting him to say more, he was to be disappointed as Sirius turned on his heel and headed back into Gryffindor common room without so much as a word. Again, he slammed the portrait closed with far more force than was required, rattling the tapestries on the stone walls.
For the briefest moment, he permitted himself to sink into the mire that was self-pity, self-loathing and self-deprecation. Standing in the middle of the common room and allowing for just an instant the realization of what his life had been and become to wash over his psyche. It wasn't until he emerged from it - opening his eyes with a fresh clarity - that he remembered he wasn't alone.
"How much of that did you hear?" he asked, his tone still dark.
"Enough," Lily answered. The fury that had tinted her cheeks pink mere minutes ago was gone - all color drained from her face.
"Good," he replied bitterly, turning toward the stairs. "Then you won't need me to explain it for you this time."
“I...” she stammered, sixteen questions jockeying to be first out of the gate, but Sirius was gone, bounding up the steps two at a time until he disappeared from her sight.