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The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven by forsakenphoenix
Chapter 6 : Act VI
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 16


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Scene I

Bright sunlight filtered in through the patchy holes of the bare-thread curtains covering the windows of the cabin. Sirius blinked wearily and, with his fists, rubbed the last straggling cobwebs of sleep from his eyes. He blinked again in surprise when he found wide eyes the color of molten caramel, like the candies Mrs. Weasley let them have after supper on the nights the young princes behaved well enough, hovering above his face.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, and the skin around the eyes crinkled as a soft chuckle slipped out of the boy who was leaning over his makeshift bed.

“C’mon, Sirius,” Remus said, tugging him from beneath his pile of blankets. “We have a long day ahead of us.”

Sirius stumbled to his feet and groaned as he stretched, relishing in the tight pull of his muscles and the crack of his joints. He wasn’t quite used to sleeping on a pile of blankets, his body still accustomed to the comforts of palace life – a mattress and a duvet nothing more than luxuries of the past – but he knew a warm place to sleep at night was better than death.

It had been nearly a week since that fateful night in the woods, since these boys had humiliated him but then rescued him from certain death, taking him in like a stray dog. Sirius knew he should feel grateful, especially this morning, with Remus’s carefree smile offering him hope that perhaps he could survive in this new, frightening world.

But his stomach twisted, and there was a deep ache in his chest when he thought of everything he had left behind. There had been no time to mourn his father’s death, not when James had him chopping down branches for firewood with a stolen axe well into early evening, or using a hammer to fix broken planks in the floor. More than once, when he was soaking his bleeding and blistered hands in cold water from the stream, he desperately wished that James would show him how to use magic. He had seen the older boy twirling a wand between his nimble fingers as he supervised Sirius’s chores, but he never offered to help, so Sirius never bothered asking.

He was a proud boy, he would readily admit, and he knew that James was waiting for him to crack. Sirius knew that if James had his way, Sirius would be on his knees begging to be taught how to wield a wand and conjure magic with nothing more than a few spoken words. Instead, Sirius clamped his lips shut, gritted his teeth, and bore the pain of his physical exertions like a common boy with no ounce of magic or nobility in his blood.

His mind wandered to thoughts of his younger brother, and he wondered how Regulus was faring. Thinking of his more delicate sibling made the ache in his heart bloom like the flowers in his mother’s garden in spring. Then he felt his stomach drop, and his heart had begun to race while the blood in his veins turned to ice. Did they try to murder Regulus too? If the only reason he was alive right now was because of the boys who had saved him, Regulus stood no chance. The horror of it made him almost sick and he struggled for breath, his foolishness for not thinking of his younger brother sooner making his eyes burn with tears.

Remus nudged him then, his elbow sharp and pointy in the soft flesh of his side. “Come on then, we don’t have all day.” He paused and looked at Sirius closely. “Are you all right?”

“All day for what?” Sirius murmured, and then shook his head to clear his mind. “I just had a thought. Is there… is there any way to hear news from around the kingdom?” He still could not tell them who he was; there was no knowing what they would do to him, or what those men in the castle would do once they found out he was still alive.

Instead of replying, Remus merely tossed him a worn leather jacket and, shrugging on his own jacket, made his way outside.

He looked to the other boy in the cabin for answers, but Peter was whittling away at a piece of wood with his knife, quietly humming a tune Sirius vaguely recognized. James had already left earlier that morning, long before Sirius had been roused from sleep, on a mission for more food and gold. When Sirius had asked the night before how he expected to procure said gold, James grinned toothily at him and said, “I can’t have you knowing all my secrets, rich boy.”

Remus popped his head back in, the sunlight highlighting the golden tints in his hair, and Sirius had to squint in order to make out Remus’s annoyed expression. “Are you deaf?”

Sirius shook his head emphatically and quickly strode across the length of the cabin. Remus turned sideways and allowed him to pass before he reached behind them to close the door. “Are you ready?”

Sirius wrinkled his nose in frustration and sighed heavily, his breath visible in the chill of the early morning. “Are you going to answer me, or are you going to keep all of this a secret too?” he snapped.

A flash of hurt crossed Remus’s expression before he blinked, and then it was gone. “I thought we would get you some new clothes,” Remus replied easily as he began walking east. He glanced at Sirius out of the corner of his eye as the young prince rushed to catch up and smiled. “It seems you’re a bit taller than the rest of us.”

Sirius knew he was tall for his age. Mrs. Weasley was constantly clucking her tongue at how quickly he outgrew his clothing. The trousers Sirius wore, borrowed from James, who was closest in height, barely reached his ankles, and the cold wind bit at the exposed skin, making him shudder. Having no shoes of his own, his feet were squeezed into Remus’s only other pair of loafers and the tight leather pinched his fragile skin.

“Where are we going?” Despite his long legs, Sirius found himself having to walk quickly to keep up with Remus, who knew these woods like the back of his hand. Remus could walk these trails soundlessly, an advantage when it came to hunting for food. Sirius winced as he crashed through the underbrush, his feet tangled with fallen branches and decaying leaves.

Remus waved his hand vaguely in the direction they were headed. “A small village a couple of miles away. You can pick up news from the kingdom there and we should be able to buy some clothing that will fit you, as long as you don’t mind the quality.”

Sirius huffed and kicked a pebble with his toe, glaring at Remus dolefully. “I am not a snob.”

“Says the boy that owns silk pajamas.” Remus quirked an eyebrow and gave him a wry smile, daring Sirius to argue with him.

“I like my silk pajamas,” Sirius muttered. A particularly cold gust of wind blew past them, and he crossed his arms across his chest to stay warm. “Though I suppose wearing them in this weather would not be advisable.”

Remus snorted. “Advisable? If you want to fit in with us, you need to stop talking all fancy-like.” Remus peered at him suspiciously. “Are you ever going to tell us who you really are?”

“I told you my name. What more do you need to know? I know nothing about any of you.”

“We’re a private lot,” Remus replied with a shrug. “Maybe we don’t trust you any more than you trust us.”

Sirius squinted off into the distance and, despite the glare of the sun, he saw nothing but low-lying branches and shrubs scattered along the path they were walking on.

“How far until the village?”

“Less than half an hour. When James found me and we decided to stick together to survive, we thought about building our own place. But then we stumbled on that cabin and it seemed like fate. It’s a bit of a walk to the nearest village when we need something, but it’s better for us to stay away from the towns.”

“Why?”

Remus gave Sirius a sidelong glance before repeating, “We’re a private lot.”

Sirius groaned. “Are you wanted for murder? At least tell me that. I just escaped from murderers. I don’t need to keep company with people who might want to see me dead.”

“If we wanted you dead, we would’ve left you in the woods to fend for yourself.”

Sirius fell silent at that and continued stumbling along behind Remus. From his angle, he was able to casually observe the older boy without arousing too much attention. Remus was lanky, though slightly undernourished, which Sirius suspected was from their poor diet. He briefly wondered how Peter managed to stay so soft around the middle when he was still fighting off hunger pangs, even after eating. No matter how hard he tried to focus on other aspects of Remus – like his sandy colored hair, and how pinched and weary his face looked despite his easy smile – Sirius could not keep his eyes from flickering back to Remus’s face every few seconds. The slightly pink, puckered lines that disfigured his face taunted Sirius with their secrets until he could no longer stop himself from blurting out, “Where did you get your scars?”

Remus stopped so suddenly that Sirius almost ran into him, and under Remus’s harsh glare, he felt his face warm with the heat of his blush.

“That is none of your business,” Remus snarled and Sirius was so taken aback by his sudden change in demeanor, the way his lips curled, wolf-like and predatory, that he took a step backwards and tripped over a fallen tree limb. He landed with a loud ‘Oomph!’ on his rear and winced as his wrist twisted awkwardly when he threw his arms back to catch his fall. Under his breath, he cursed a word Mrs. Weasley surely would have reprimanded him for, picked up from drunken arguments he eavesdropped on between his father’s guardsmen as an impish child. Remus let out a startled gasp at the curse, and he blinked owlishly down at Sirius as if he was just waking from a dream. His face morphed into one of embarrassment, and he immediately looked contrite.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it!” Remus exclaimed, rushing to kneel beside Sirius. Remus reached out to grab Sirius’s hurt wrist, but Sirius flinched and pulled away from the boy, looking at him warily.

“Don’t touch me,” he said darkly.

Remus inhaled sharply, his hand frozen in mid-air, and he looked at Sirius with such despair that Sirius almost felt sorry for the boy. But he remembered the utterly wild look that had possessed Remus at his seemingly innocent question, and he was frightened.

“I’m sorry,” Remus mumbled again and he rocked back on his heels, looking skyward, eastward, anywhere but Sirius’s face, pinched with pain and fear.

Sirius swallowed thickly before speaking again. “Mind telling me what that was about?”

“Please,” Remus begged. “I won’t harm you, I swear it. I don’t know what came over me. But please don’t look at me like I’m a monster.” He spat the word like a curse, and by the way it rolled off his tongue, vile and angry, Sirius knew it was one he had heard often in his short years on this earth. “I couldn’t stand it if you hated me like everyone else. My family couldn’t even look me in the face when they banished me to die in these woods. That’s why I can’t tell you my secrets, not yet.” He finally collapsed to the leaf-strewn ground, his forehead resting against his bent knees. “I just want a friend,” he said pitifully, and Sirius’s stomach twisted uncomfortably at the defeat in his posture.

There was royalty and purity in the blood that ran through his veins, but Sirius Black was still no more than a young boy of eleven, desperate for companionship in this stark, cold world that was so unlike his life of privilege. This was not how he was raised, to be fearful or judgmental of those who were different from him; his father would have his hide if he could see Sirius now, cowering like a child afraid of its own shadow.

Tentatively, he reached out with his good hand to bridge the gap between them, patting Remus on the knee. Lacking all the grace that had been instilled in him since birth, Sirius crawled over to the repentant boy and threw his arm around his shoulder, like he would to comfort his younger brother. “You saved my life, Remus. Friendship is the least I owe you for what you have done for me. And if it means anything, I’m sorry for questioning you. You have the right to keep secrets just as much as I do.”

Remus looked up at Sirius hopefully, his lips curled up in a small smile. “Friends?” he asked, turning his body slightly towards Sirius, extending his hand towards the young prince.

Releasing the boy from his half-hug, Sirius grasped Remus’s hand with his own, and with a single, purposeful pump, he declared them friends.

Scene II

Cissy entered the grand ballroom on the arm of a young pureblood by the name of Evan Rosier. She gasped at the extravagance and beamed haughtily at anyone who happened to glance her way upon her entrance. The ballroom was bursting at the seams, filled with loud music and raucous laughter, men in their finest dress robes drinking the best mead the kingdom had to offer from jewel-encrusted golden goblets, and women wearing gowns of silk, diamonds sparkling against the pale skin of their necks. Cissy felt like she was living a dream come true; she had spent her entire life watching her uncle grieve the loss of his wife and let his castle and its beauty fall to the wayside. This castle was built to host parties and great feasts and, like her father, Cissy was born to wear the robes of royalty and the delicate crown that rested perfectly upon her pretty blonde curls. All of this was made for her, not those stupid little boys who preferred to play Exploding Snap before supper and swords-play with wooden sticks like the knights in the old stories their nanny, Mrs. Weasley, told them at bedtime.

Cissy knew her father’s position as king was temporary, guardian of the kingdom until her youngest cousin came of age to take the throne as the rightful heir. Cissy caught sight of Regulus, still glued to the side of his late father’s aide, Kreacher, and being coddled by Mrs. Weasley. He looked withdrawn, sick with grief and loss. Cissy scoffed at the young prince. No great king he will make, she thought, though better him than headstrong Sirius, who would rather see their kingdom in ruin like his father before him. Sirius had no concern for keeping their line pure, and when she found out Sirius had run away after his father’s death, unable to deal with the burden of the kingdom, she thought, Good riddance.

“Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight, princess?” Evan commented from her side. He was young, Sirius’s age, but handsome and charming. Despite his youth, he still towered over petite Cissy, the youngest and frailest of Cygnus’s daughters. Dressed in black velvet dress robes, with his black hair slicked back, Evan was as dark as she was bright: Her dress was the color of emeralds, tightened to accentuate her tiny waist, and her soft golden hair was piled above her head in perfect ringlets. A beautiful girl fit for a queen.

She smiled serenely at her escort. “You have, but I don’t mind hearing it again,” she replied loftily, before catching the eye of her sister, Bellatrix. She waved quickly to her and then dragged Evan along, her hand still gripping his elbow. “Come, let us visit with my sister.”

“Well, don’t you look prissy,” Bella remarked upon their approach. Bella was wearing a black dress with a corseted bodice, her thick, dark hair pulled away from her thin face.

Cissy sniffed daintily. “I wish I could say the same for you. You look like you’re dressed for a funeral. We’re here to celebrate Father’s crowning. You could at least look the part of a princess.”

“We did just bury our uncle,” Bella drawled, though Cissy knew Bella cared even less for their former king than she did. “But why should I dress like a princess when you already fit the role so perfectly, dearest little sister? You were always the one to dream of pretty gowns and balls. I just want to find a husband.”

At nineteen, Bellatrix was already of age to be married to a respectable pureblood man, and the girls knew their father had hoped his daughters would find some suitable prospects at his coronation ball.

“Has anyone caught your eye?” Cissy asked. She wondered if there was even a man out there that could tame her wild sister.

Bellatrix smirked at her. “Perhaps,” she sang, and with a wink, she slinked off into the thick crowd around them, and it was only then did Cissy notice with a start that her sister had come to the celebration barefoot.

Shaking her head in disbelief, Cissy turned to make a snide remark to Evan when her eyes caught those of a man across the room, and her breath caught in her throat. He was appraising her, his eyes roaming the small curves of her body, a slight grin on his face, and she flushed from his perusal. His smile widened, showing off his gleaming white teeth, as he caught sight of her delicate blush.

“Evan,” she whispered, her eyes still glued to the other man, unable to tear her gaze away.

“What is it, princess?”

“Who is that man, over there?” she asked. She didn’t point for fear of being caught making a spectacle of herself, but Evan followed her gaze across the room until he caught sight of the man she had been asking about.

“The gentleman in the dark blue robes, with the white-blonde hair?”

Cissy nodded imperceptibly, and though it was with great effort, she glanced up at her companion, finally giving him her attention.

Evan pursed his lips as though in deep thought. “I can’t be certain,” he finally replied, “but I do believe that might be Lucius, son of Abraxas, of the Malfoy bloodline.”

“He’s handsome,” she giggled.

“He’s too old for you,” Evan argued fiercely.

“What? He is not. He can hardly be more than two years older than me.” She paused, and then looked at Evan accusingly. “You’re just jealous.”

“Ha,” Evan scoffed. “Jealous of what?”

“You’re just a little boy, Evan. You should go find a young pureblood girl your age to dance with,” Cissy said as gently as she could.

She thought he was certainly a charmer – easy on the eyes, and with words as sweet as honey on his tongue when he had first asked to escort her – but she hadn’t anticipated having to let the boy down. She thought he had known he was too young for the likes of Narcissa Black, youngest daughter of the newly-crowned king. She needed a man, like Lucius, who was slowly making his way across the room, his eyes never leaving hers. Cissy felt her heart begin to race in her chest, and her palms were slick with sweat.

“Get out of here, Evan,” she hissed, pushing him away from her. The young boy turned to look at her, confusion written in the furrow of his brow, and he opened his mouth to complain. Cissy shoved her hand against his lips. “Not a word. You are dismissed.” Evan huffed angrily and stormed away, shouldering an elderly wizard as he passed, who shouted drunken insults after the young boy.

Cissy rubbed her hands against her side to try and dry them and exhaled heavily, composing herself. Just as the crowd parted to allow Lucius through, she braced herself, and then greeted the handsome man with a brilliant smile.

Scene III

“If we don’t hurry up, we’ll be out here all day,” Remus said, rising to his feet easily.

He wore an easy smile now that the young boys had declared their friendship, though his eyes were still wary. He reached a hand out and helped Sirius stumble to his feet. Sirius let out a small whimper of pain; while they were walking he had hardly noticed the blistering skin on his feet, but now that they had lain idle for some time, his feet, still tender from his night in the woods, felt as though they had been rubbed raw from the pinching leather. Like his hands, blistered from the wood of an axe, the skin of his feet was thin and delicate, not callused and rough like the other boys, who were used to working and walking long distances with secondhand clothes and meager meals in their stomachs.

Remus frowned when he peered down to look at Sirius’s feet. “We’ll have to buy some healing salve when we get to the village, and see if we can get someone to look at your wrist.”

He shoved his hand into his trouser pockets and pulled out a fistful of coins. He bit his lip, an anxious tic, and furrowed his brow when he counted out how much he had. Sighing, he said, “Or maybe not. I don’t have the coins for a Healer and clothes if we’re going to buy some healing salve, which you definitely need if you’re to walk back to the cottage tonight. Is your wrist broken?”

Sirius rotated his wrist, and though he wasn’t sure what he was feeling for, he poked around at the already-bruised flesh with his other hand. He had seen Madam Pomfrey do it once when he brought Regulus to her after he had fallen out of a tree and had snapped his wrist clean in two. With a shrug he said, “I don’t think so. When my brother broke his wrist, he could hardly move it.”

“We’ll have James look at it tonight. Maybe he can use some magic to help with the pain and swelling. We really should be going – your feet will slow us down.”

“I’m sorry,” Sirius muttered.

Remus gave him a half-smile. “For what? It’s not your fault. You’re just a little soft, that’s all. We’ll harden you up quick.”

“I suppose it’s better than death,” Sirius said as he scrunched up his nose at the idea of becoming thick-skinned.

Maybe it would be for the best; perhaps if he had been tougher, those men wouldn’t have been able to kidnap him, or scare him away from his family and home like a pitiful child. He should be brave and strong, not soft like a delicate flower; he was a prince of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, after all.

“Most things are better than death,” Remus laughed as he continued to pick up the pace towards the village.

“Is there anything worse than death, you think?” He thought of his father’s body, lying cold and still on his bed, and of his brother, who was too young to die.

Remus became unusually quiet, and Sirius peered at him out of the corner of his eye. Remus wasn’t looking at him; instead he was staring down at his hands, twisting them anxiously. So drawn to the scars that marked his face, Sirius never realized that the boy had scars all over his hands and forearms too. Now he was really curious about Remus’s story, though he knew better than to ask.

“I used to,” Remus finally said. “Sometimes I still think so.”

“My father used to tell me there was honor in death and that heaven was peaceful, beautiful, even. If there’s a world after ours of golden hills, sunshine, and nights where I can watch the stars for the rest of eternity, I don’t think death would be all that bad,” Sirius said after another pregnant pause.

“No, it wouldn’t,” Remus agreed.

They spent the rest of the walk to the village discussing various serious topics, ranging from their favorite books to the dirtiest joke they had ever heard. They never strayed to more personal questions, and for that, Sirius was grateful.

He sighed in relief when they finally reached the outskirts of the village. Having never ventured further than the forests that surrounded the castle, and the small village just outside the castle walls, Sirius had little experience with other villages that populated his kingdom. But if they were anything like this one, he felt disgusted by the extravagance of the royal family. When he was king… But then he stopped in his thoughts because he never would be king. Scarface and Crooked-Teeth took that choice away from him, and that angered him more than the situation he found himself in.

The village itself was dreary. The houses were small and in desperate need of repairs. The people walked in drab clothing, shapeless, lackluster, and worn until the threads had been frayed beyond repair. Despite the sad state of their homes and clothing, the villagers all had smiles for each other. Children played in the streets and shrieked with laughter as they chased each other around squawking chickens and stray dogs that nipped at their heels as they ran by.

“Come on, we’ll get something for your feet first,” Remus said, tugging on his arm to wind him through the throng of people that crowded the main street. They stopped in front of a mid-sized building with a sign dangling from the awning above the door, reading “Madam Sophia’s Magical Remedies.”

“We’ve visited Healers in a few different villages to test their products, but I really like Madam Sophia’s healing salve. It works immediately on your cuts and bruises. Doesn’t prevent scarring, though.”

Sirius shrugged. “My father always said that scars tell stories of our adventures and trials. That they prove to people how strong we are. See –” He pushed his hair back out of his eyes and pointed to the ugly, puckered line that scarred his forehead. “I got this one after my brother dared me to climb a tree and jump onto the roof of the garden shed. Fell short and my head caught the edge of the roof. Took a nice little tumble into a bed of pansies.”

“I bet your brother wasn’t calling you a pansy after that,” Remus remarked with an incredulous laugh.

“No way! He almost wet himself when Father called for him after he found out what happened.”

“Serves him right. You could have killed yourself.”

“Nah,” Sirius replied with a snort. “The shed was hardly taller than I am now. It wasn’t a far drop.”

“You again!” Sirius started when an old woman called out suddenly, and he realized that they had been standing in front of the shop, talking without moving.

Remus waved sheepishly at the store owner. “I’m back!”

“You used up all my salve already?” the woman asked as she waddled to one of the shelves lining the far side of her store. All Sirius could see of her was her hunched back and the beige shawl that covered her white hair.

“Not for me, for him,” Remus replied, shoving Sirius along behind the woman. “He cut up his feet pretty bad.”

The woman pulled a small round tub off the shelf. Through the clear glass of the tub, Sirius could see the bright green color of the salve. The woman turned towards them then and Sirius bit back a gasp at her horribly disfigured face. She had a black patch over her left eye while the surrounding skin appeared to be covered in burn scars. The woman cackled at the look of horror that was surely plastered all over his face.

“Do I frighten you, boy?”

Sirius shook his head frantically. “No, ma’am. I was just caught off guard. You are very lovely. Yes, not frightening at all.”

Remus snickered at his rambling and led him over to the small bench by the front counter. “Here, put this on your feet,” he said, grabbing the salve from the woman and handing it to Sirius. He then pulled out two gold coins from his pocket and placed them in the woman’s equally disfigured hand, the fingers bent at unnatural angles.

“Better get some new shoes, boy,” the woman commented, looking at his raw, bleeding feet. “Those look a tad bit too small.”

“You think?” Sirius bit out, grinding his teeth as he rubbed the salve over his wounds. Sirius sat there for a few minutes, breathing heavily through the pain, until he could no longer feel the ache in his feet.

Remus grinned widely at him. “Best salve I’ve ever tried. Am I right?”

“Gods, that’s fantastic,” Sirius exclaimed. He wiggled his toes and smiled stupidly up at Remus, glad to be able to move around without feeling like he was ripping his skin off.

“Let’s get you some new shoes. Give those back to me,” Remus demanded, grabbing his shoes from Sirius. “They still fit my feet, at least. See you later, Madam Sophia!”

Remus then dragged Sirius down the road barefoot to a little rundown clothing shop. “It’s not much, but it’s cheap,” Remus said, pulling him inside.

“I thought you guys stole all of your things?” Sirius asked a little while later as he rummaged through a bin of trousers that looked like they might fit him. He had two pairs of shoes dangling by their laces on his arm and he was excited to finally wear clothing that wasn’t too small.

Remus’s eyes darted up to check where the store owner was and to see if any other customers were around before replying. “We do, but sometimes we have to buy things, and that’s where the gold comes in. Money is tight, but it was just easier to buy clothes for you so we know they fit you. Rummaging through trash and stealing things off racks isn’t always successful. You done?” he asked, gesturing to the small pile of clothes that Sirius had managed to accumulate while they chatted. Sirius nodded and handed everything over to Remus. “I’ll pay and meet you outside.”

Sirius wandered around a bit while he waited for Remus. He saw an old man sitting in a rocking chair on his porch reading a copy of The Daily Prophet. He squinted to see if he could read the headlines from where he stood, but the print was too small.

“Excuse me, sir?” he called out as he approached the man. “What news from the castle?”

The old man growled, deep and low from his chest. “Bloody idiots, the lot of them, throwing pretty feasts while the rest of barely have enough food to feed our families. They jus’ celebrated the crowning of King Cygnus.” The man spat at Sirius’s feet.

“What about the prince?”

“Prince?” the man asked in surprise. He flipped through some pages of the paper. “Dunno. There was an article a few days past ‘bout Prince Sirius running away. Gossip columns running rampant, o’course. They say maybe the boy had something to do with the king’s death, drove him to an early grave.”

“Hey!” Sirius turned and saw Remus waving at him from down the road. He waved back and then asked the man, “What of the other prince? Regulus?”

The man shook his head. “Not much about that young’un, jus’ a picture o’ him the other day at the king’s funeral. He looked sad.”

Sirius sighed in relief. At least Regulus was still alive. “Thank you!” he said, before jogging to catch up to Remus.

“Get the news you were hoping to hear?” Remus asked, shoving a brown paper bag into his arms and then handing him one of the pairs of shoes.

Sirius grinned and put the bag down to slip the shoes on. “Yes, and thank you,” he said.

“Sure. By the way –” Remus leaned over to whisper conspiratorially in Sirius’s ear. “I snagged another sweater on my way out.” He winked at Sirius and threw an arm around his shoulders, then said aloud, “Let’s go home.”

Scene IV

The ballroom was stuffy: Too many bodies packed tightly together, dancing and drinking, the rafters ringing with loud laughter and cheers. Molly sat at one of the long tables that lined the edge of the ballroom with Regulus slumped against her. In an affectionate gesture, she brushed his hair off his forehead, sticky with sweat, and pressed a kiss to the crown of his head.

“It’s too hot in here,” he complained to her.

“Are you tired?” she asked. “I can take you up to your room.”

“Will Uncle be mad if I leave?”

Molly’s eyes searched the cavernous hall for the newly crowned king and found him, red-faced and laughing, having another glass of wine with the Lestrange brothers. The Lestrange brothers had many footholds in various trading companies that dealt mostly with items sold on the black market. She was surprised to see Bellatrix standing next to her father, for she had no interest in illegally bartered goods, and had been dancing with many men throughout the evening, only pausing to snag goblets off passing silver trays being carried by servant girls. Then Molly noticed that the young woman was batting her long eyelashes at one of the men, and she realized that Cygnus was not simply chatting with his guests about business, but with potential son-in-laws. Politics, she thought with a huff. If that was her daughter, she would never let her get involved with that sort of trouble.

“Your uncle would hardly notice your absence, young prince,” Molly finally replied, ripping her eyes away from the flirting Bellatrix. “Let’s get you to bed.”

She helped the boy to his feet and then took him up a back staircase. When they finally got to the boy’s room, he was stumbling with exhaustion.

“Will you please take a Dreamless Sleep draught?” she pleaded with him.

He nodded tiredly and Molly sighed in relief as she grabbed the vial from his bedside table and watched him drink the liquid before flopping onto his bed. Too sleepy to even undress, Molly disrobed him and then tucked him into bed, stroking his hair tenderly as he fell into a deep sleep.

The prince had refused to take any draughts for the last few nights since his father’s funeral, and he was paying for it with only a few hours of restless sleep a night. He was overtired, and prone to tantrums that left Molly at her wit’s end.

She had been this boy’s nanny since he was born, having no children of her own. She had been a young widow, losing her husband in a small goblin rebellion before the princes were even born. With no family of her own, she was hired by the king and queen to nanny young Sirius when the queen was bedridden for most of her pregnancy with the second-born. Then the queen died giving birth to Regulus, and Molly had to step in as mother to both boys. She loved them both fiercely, each in their own way, and it pained her to see her youngest charge so grief-stricken. She missed Sirius immensely and worried about him constantly, praying every night before bed that someone would find him and return him home to his brother, to her, to his rightful place on the throne.

She did not trust Cygnus. He spoke slippery words and had a malevolent smile that seemed to haunt Regulus’s dreams on the nights he did fall asleep. Molly and Kreacher alternated shifts in his room at night to quiet him after his nightmares ripped him from sleep. She would murmur stories to him: Epic tales from the goblin rebellions, and his favorite fairy tales about princesses, dragons, and knights who fought with swords instead of wands, and he would drift to sleep for a few hours before he woke again, mid-scream, with watery eyes.

Now that his father was dead, and with his brother missing, Regulus was heir to the throne. The stress of that responsibility ate at the little prince’s heart like a vicious monster, and Cygnus was no help, speaking of grooming him to be the greatest king the land had ever known. Cygnus was her king now, though, and if she wanted to continue watching over Regulus like any good mother would, she had to hide her disgust for his serpentine uncle.

“My poor, sweet boy,” Molly murmured, still running her gentle fingers through his hair. She watched him sleep and she smiled softly at his innocent face, still so full of life and youth. She would protect him, no matter the cost.

Scene V

“You should have seen his face when Madam Sophia turned around,” Remus guffawed, slapping his knee as he retold James and Peter about Sirius’s first meeting with the old witch. They were sitting around their small table in front of the fire, eating a bowl of hot rabbit stew with some potatoes and onions James had stolen from a farmer’s field on his way back from his own little adventure. The boys traded barbs over goblets of mulled cider and laughed easily into the night.

When it was time to go to bed, Sirius felt warm and full for the first time in days. He burrowed down into his makeshift bed as James went around blowing out all the candles and listening to all the boys settling into their own blankets. There was a lot of snuffling and shifting, and the noises of the animals outside usually lulled Sirius to sleep, but tonight all he could think about was the news he had heard from the castle.

He was beyond relieved to hear that Regulus was still alive. He knew that his uncle would be interim king, but he hadn’t realized how soon the coronation ceremony would be after his father’s death. It stung to think that he missed his father’s funeral, and the guilt made his stomach churn uncomfortably. For the first time since his kidnapping, he allowed himself to cry. He trembled, and though he tried to muffle his cries in his blankets, it was like a dam had finally burst and his grief poured out of him in waves of anguish. Unable to keep himself quiet, Sirius kicked his blankets off and stumbled clumsily to his feet. The moon lit the small cabin easily, and Sirius found his way to the front door unscathed, slipping out without a jacket. He shivered the moment he stepped outside but he couldn’t be bothered to head back in. Closing the door behind him, he walked over to the nearby row of hedges and vomited.

He gasped for air once he was through, hunched over, with his hands on his knees. For the smallest moment, he remembered what it had been like when he was back in the comfort of the castle, with Mrs. Weasley rubbing soothing circles on his back as she handed him a cool glass of water to rinse his mouth out. But that memory was cruelly ripped away from him and he was left with the stark realization that he was alone in the woods, struggling to survive in a foreign environment.

He felt older then, like he had aged years, and he wondered if this is what happened to everyone who had experienced a loss.

He shivered violently from the cold, his tears frozen to his face. There was a hand on his back now, but he was stuck in reality, so he knew it was not Mrs. Weasley.

“Are you all right?” It was James.

Sirius nodded and swiped at his face with the back of his hand. He stood up and turned towards James, though he would not look him in the eye. James threw a coat over his shoulders and handed him his shoes, both of which Sirius slipped on gratefully.

The boys wandered to the back of the cabin, away from the smell of Sirius’s sickness, and began walking along the stream.

“Want to talk about it?”

James was being surprisingly kind to him, and it left Sirius speechless. It wasn’t that the boy had been particularly cruel to him the last few days, but he never went out of his way to be nice to Sirius. That was Remus’s job. Bleeding heart, James affectionately called him. It was strange to hear that affection being directed at him now.

Sirius started to speak, but his words caught in his throat. He coughed, and when he spoke again, his voice was gravelly. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted.

James didn’t even have to ask what ‘this’ was. “You’re going to have to, rich boy.” There was no malice in the way his nickname rolled off of James’s tongue. “It’s either this, or you die.”

“I don’t know how to do this,” he clarified. “This is so different from everything I have ever known. I’m still a child, but I feel like I need to grow up, take care of myself, and I don’t know where to start.”

“You don’t have to take care of yourself, not when you have us. We’ll take care of you as long as you take care of us, too. We’ve all had to grow up, some of us quicker than others. It’s a part of life. But this little friendship we have, it’s keeping us alive, and that’s all that counts.

“I may seem like a bully, but sometimes you have to be mean to get what you need to stay alive. I may say things that will hurt you, but it’s only so you’ll grow some thicker skin, toughen up. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive, kid.”

“How old are you, James?” Sirius wondered, awed at how much control the boy possessed. It was like he was born to be a leader, and he ran this little group of thieves like a well-oiled machine.

“I’ll be thirteen soon, in March. How about you?”

“Eleven.”

James whistled, long and low. “That’s how old Peter was when Remus and I found him, half-starved, lost in the woods, and look at how well he turned out.” He grinned at Sirius, and Sirius found himself smiling back, tentatively, though the urge to cry was still there.

“I miss my family,” Sirius whispered, only certain he was telling James these things because he felt safe under the dark cloak of night. For some reason, he just knew what he said would not be repeated come morning.

“Me too,” James replied easily.

For here, in the quiet of the night, there was no judgment, no snide remarks, just James and his hand resting between Sirius’s shoulder blades, a silent, steady comfort.

Author's Note: I have an endless amount of love for NaidatheRavenclaw and TenthWeasley for their speedy beta work. Also, a lot of thanks to WitnesstoitAll and justonemorefic for letting me talk some things through with them and making me laugh when I was frustrated with how the chapter was going. Thanks to all of you who continue to follow this little novel of mine and for leaving reviews on every chapter - this wouldn't be here if it wasn't for all your support.


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The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven: Act VI

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