Sirius remained standing, staring after the door that Beth had disappeared through, long after the fact. The Snitch in his fist had begun to dig into the palm of his hand, but he was far beyond caring about it. There was a slight ringing in his ears – probably from all the yelling he’d just done – and he slowly became aware of the fact that his chest was rising and falling with heavy gasps.
Almost guiltily, his eyes slid sideways to James, who was staring at him with a look of mixed incredulity and horror. “Oh, stop,” he snapped wearily, finally breaking his pose and reaching up to rub a hand over his eyes. “I don’t want to hear it, James.”
“You’re going to hear it,” his best friend said firmly. Sirius looked up at him again, and James crossed his arms tightly over his chest. “I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, but that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen you do, Sirius – and that’s saying a lot.” He sank down onto the chair Lily had been sitting in earlier, arms still crossed.
“You can’t tell me that” – and Sirius waved his arm in the direction of the front door, to indicate Beth and what she’d told the pair of them – “didn’t bother you at all?”
James shifted in the armchair, but didn’t respond right away. Lily had, probably intelligently, disappeared back into the kitchen, and seemed to be needlessly washing already-clean dishes to give the boys a bit of privacy.
“I’m not going to say I’m exactly thrilled about the idea,” he ventured at last, tapping the fingers of his right hand on the upper portion of his left arm. “But it’s not our choice, Sirius. It’s her life, not ours.”
“We can stop her from making stupid choices,” Sirius argued stubbornly. “And hanging out with Snivellus –“
“Just what is this about, anyway?” James interrupted him, features creasing in a slight frown. “Because you’re acting like a five-year-old, and this isn’t the first time you’ve acted strangely where she’s concerned. Are you really concerned for Beth’s welfare, or is it something bigger than that?”
James continued to tap his fingers; somehow the motion annoyed Sirius, and he gritted his teeth, but didn’t answer the question. What was he supposed to say? That he was trying to make sure that Beth wasn’t as lonely as he, Sirius, was? It had seemed an obvious choice to make when he’d made it, all those months ago after she’d shown up at his flat without warning. Now he wasn’t so sure that he’d even been anywhere close to the mark.
“Look.” James rubbed his eyes in an uncanny imitation of Sirius’s earlier gesture, although it was slightly more awkward when one was wearing glasses. “Sirius. You’re a great friend to Beth – you are.” He removed his hand from his face and gazed levelly up at him, and Sirius felt unneeded guilt swim inside of him. There was no way James didn’t know – hadn’t known for months – exactly what Sirius was on about.
“But she told me about this whole thing with Severus at Christmas. Nearly two months ago. You might have thought you were doing the right thing, but you were doing exactly what Beth thought you’d do. You freaked out when she was asking you to accept her as a friend, and she’s scared.”
Sirius blinked at him in surprise. “What do you mean, scared?” he said dully. His gaze dropped to the Snitch, his fingers flexing around it convulsively. He didn’t want to look back at James, didn’t want to feel worse for yelling at Beth than he already did.
“She’s just as scared of what might happen as you seemed to be,” James said. “And we’re supposed to be her friends, Sirius. To help her through that.”
Sirius let the Snitch drop to the carpet quickly. “But she wouldn’t need help through that if she’d just –“ He stopped, the words still in his mouth, bitter-tasting and shameful, but he would not say them, either. She wouldn’t need help if she’d just been with me, he wanted to say. But when it came down to it… He knew she never would have, Severus or no Severus.
James was eyeing him shrewdly. “Do you know what I told her, that Christmas when she was talking to me about all of this?” he asked. Sirius sort of jerked his head to indicate that no, he didn’t know. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to, either, but James plowed on ahead anyway.
“I told her she wasn’t doing anything wrong. That it’s important how she feels – and how he feels. And that, as her friends, we were going to support her in –“
“Okay, James. Okay. You’ve made your point.” Sirius ran his hand over his eyes again, feeling as though he’d swallowed several stones, so leaden was the weight in his stomach. “Merlin, I messed up. I messed things up really bad.”
“Yeah, not your finest hour,” James quipped, giving him a small smile. Sirius was both annoyed and grateful with him for trying to inject a little humor back into one of the most serious discussions they’d ever had with each other. Feeling suddenly drained, as though he’d run for miles, Sirius slumped back onto the loveseat.
“Hey.” James spoke up again, leaning forward and propping his forearms on his knees. It was a conspiratorial sort of gesture, as though he was about to reveal a large secret. “This may not be the best timing” – Sirius laughed dully – “but you might need a bit of cheering up, mate. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“What’s that, then?” Sirius asked, stretching and leaning forward to roll the Snitch back towards him across the carpet with the tips of his fingers. He hefted it into the palm of his hand.
James wore a friendly, knowing sort of smirk. “Well,” he said slowly. “Lily and I wanted to know if you’d like to be the baby’s godfather.”
Sirius froze for the second time that evening, still all hunched up from grabbing the Snitch. “I – what? Are you serious, mate?” He sat up so quickly he nearly pitched over in his excitement.
“That’d be a pretty cruel thing to joke about, don’t you think?” James laughed, his eyes alight with anticipation, too. “You’ll do it, then?”
“Well, yeah, I’ll do it!” All previous vestiges of sullenness were momentarily forgotten as Sirius sprang up from the couch with a whoop. “Prongs, that’s incredible! Wow – thanks! Aargh, I’m going to be a godfather!”
James ruffled the back of his hair with his hand. “Just remember,” he said with mock severity, his eyes still sparking with fun, “that you can only be so much fun. I’ve got to be the favorite, you know.”
“Yeah, right,” Sirius snorted. “He’ll want to come and live with me after a year tops. You just wait. I’ll teach him how to fly a broom, and how to –“
“And you’re sure it’s a boy?” James asked, smirking again, one eyebrow raised.
“Yep,” said Sirius confidently. “No doubt about it, mate. Little Harry James –“ He stopped for an appreciative snicker, again enjoying the fact that, if Lily did have a boy, it would be in part named after the James he now sat across from. “Harry isn’t going to know what hit him,” he finished, and then sobered somewhat. “Hey, James?”
“What?” James was in the middle of a yawn, but instantly looked alert; if he’d been a dog, Sirius half-thought, his ears might have pricked with interest. Sirius glanced fleetingly at James before deciding he found the carpet much more interesting.
“Don’t… don’t tell Beth, all right? About… not the godfather bit. But the other thing… Keep this between us?”
James grinned. “On my word.”
Back in his flat, though, Sirius’s good mood was wearing off quickly, and guilty thoughts of Beth and the things he’d said to her in James’s living room were starting to creep back into his conscious. He found himself at midnight pacing up and down the length of his own sitting room, his bottom lip gnawed half raw with anxiety.
He didn’t know where she’d gone after she’d left the Potters’ place – but what if she’d decided to go to Severus? Did they go to each other’s flats? He had no way of knowing, because he’d spent the past however many months – years, if he was being honest with himself – blissfully ignorant of the fact that Severus Snape was still a factor in the life he now lead. He’d thought that after the end of seventh year Snape didn’t matter anymore, and now came the fact that Beth had been meeting him…
But so what? He, Sirius, hadn’t laid a claim to her, had he? She wasn’t something to be claimed, anyway – but stupidly, rashly, he’d naturally assumed that they would end up together. Like James and Lily, he remembered now, his lips twisting into a bitter, humorless smile at his own blindness. And the fact that he was, once again, going to be left alone was a thought that seemed too horrible for him to bear at the current moment.
Curing fluently under his breath, he stalked down the short corridor to his bedroom door and poked his head around the frame. He desperately wished he could take his motorbike out – going flying, or even riding on the streets like a normal person, always helped to clear his head – but he still hadn’t bothered to get his bike fixed, even though it had been many, many months since it had broken down in the first place. He wasn’t completely sure where you could go to get an illegal motorbike looked at, anyway.
Kicking the door frame in frustration, and only being rewarded with a chip in its paint for his efforts – yet another thing he’d have to go and get fixed – he turned and moved back into the living room, his restless eyes searching for something to occupy him. The room felt crowded and stuffy with all this thoughts and guilty feelings massing about him, so much so that he actually yanked on his color, trying to breathe better.
Suddenly, something popped into his mind – and if it wasn’t grasping at straws, then he didn’t know what was, but somehow he felt like he needed to get it out tonight. It was something from back when things made a bit more sense, although saying it out loud in that way would have made Sirius feel extraordinarily stupid. And somehow, he needed that bit of then.
He half-ran back to his bedroom and flopped onto his stomach, squinting at the dimness under his bed for what he was looking for. His hands grasped a thin box, one Sirius had had since he was little and had managed to sneak away from Grimmauld Place under the very watchful eye of the horrible woman that was his mother. Grunting slightly with the awkward angle, he yanked the box out and opened the lid. Inside was a seemingly blank piece of parchment, although Sirius knew better. He hastily fumbled around in his pocket, his fingers finally closing around the handle of his wand, which he pointed to the sheet in front of him.
“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”
And, for the first time in nearly two years, he was looking at the Marauder’s Map.
It hadn’t changed much – but then, why should it have? Hogwarts was sturdy and invariable, built over a thousand years ago and likely to stand for a thousand more. Most of the tiny labeled ink dots roaming the castle’s corridors had names that weren’t familiar to him, but there was Professor McGonagall, apparently staying late grading papers in the Transfiguration classroom. Professor Slughorn seemed to be sneaking about the kitchens, and Filch was up on the third floor, standing next to a small dot labeled Peeves. Sirius felt an absurd wash of homesickness engulf him, staring down at the ink lines and dots he’d watched blossom into view two years previously.
Clutching the map tightly and swallowing hard against the lump in his throat, he rose, closed his eyes, and turned once on his feel into crushing, suffocating darkness.
Apparating without a destination completely and solidly in one’s mind was a risky thing, at best – Sirius wasn’t dumb enough to think otherwise. But somehow – perhaps through inner wisdom, or possibly just inner foolishness – he’d known that he would land without a scratch, and wherever he ended up would be the exact place he needed to be at that moment. So when he looked up above him and saw the dangling, creaking signpost for the Three Broomsticks swaying in the slight winter breeze, he had to smirk to himself. Of course his subconscious would know that he needed a drink or three.
Although it was a fairly late hour, time didn’t usually deter patrons from crowding around the tables and barstool at the pub, and Madam Rosmerta, the landlady of the Three Broomsticks, was so popular that she got customers in nearly twenty-four hours a day. Sirius slipped in just as a man was climbing down off the end stool, wobbling a bit from too much firewhisky.
“You’d better take it easy, Mr. Calvert,” Rosmerta was advising him, simultaneously wiping out a glass and keeping a close eye on the tottering old man. “Don’t need to see in the morning’s Prophet that you stumbled into the wrong house again.”
“I’m okay,” Calvert said thickly, although Sirius could see, standing by to give him a wide berth, that he clearly was not. “You just… you just tell Barry I’ve got that hippogriff for ‘im.” He hiccupped, and then added, “But only the right kind.”
“I certainly will,” said Rosmerta with a straight face. Calvert pitched out of the door, and Sirius slid onto the slightly sticky stool he’d vacated, hastily tapping the map with his wand and stuffing it into a pocket, out of sight. By the time he’d looked back up, Rosmerta was staring at him, smiling a bit.
“Sirius Black.” She crossed over to the shelf behind her, replaced the glass she’d been wiping out, and walked back over to him, leaning on the counter. “It’s been a long time since you’ve shown your face around here.”
“Things have been a bit busy, Rosmerta dear,” Sirius grinned, stretching his arms over his head, trying to act as though nothing was wrong. Harmless banter and flirting – surely this was what he needed, right? “Surprise me with something strong.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, pursing her lips as though giving his demand serious thought, though they both knew she’d fulfill it. “You sure about that?”
“Do I look unsure?” Sirius crossed his eyes at her, and she laughed throatily before reaching under the counter and pulling out a tall, thin bottle full of something dark brown and faintly oily. Sirius didn’t recognize it on sight – it sure wasn’t butterbeer – but asking about it didn’t seem important at the moment. If he could lose himself in it, that was good enough for him.
She bustled about with the drink, clinking glass together in an almost inanely pleasant way, and Sirius slouched over the stool, his chin almost level with the top of the counter. He tried desperately hard not to think, and began counting the glasses on the shelf behind the barmaid, just for something to do. He would not think about Beth, or Severus, or any of it…
A female voice – absurdly familiar – startled him, and he nearly slipped sideways off the stool. His drink stood finished in front of him; he didn’t remember Rosmerta placing it there, nor had he seen when she’d sidled over to the other end of the bar. Had he fallen asleep?
He half-turned on the stool, and his stomach jolted a bit unpleasantly. Sarah Wright stood there, smiling down at him a bit shyly. “I thought that was you,” she laughed, sounding a bit nervous. “You really haven’t changed a bit.”
“Erm, yeah. Hi.” Sirius rubbed his hand over his eyes for what felt like the millionth time that day, and tried sitting up a bit straighter, reaching for his drink just for something to do. “Sarah, right?” He didn’t know why he felt the need to ask; she didn’t look all that much different from how he remembered her at Hogwarts, either.
She nodded anyway, her fingers playing absently with a bit of frayed thread at the hem of her jumper. “Well, anyway, I was just wanting to say hello. I’ve got to get back to –“ She moved her hand over her shoulder in the direction of the table she’d come over from, and Sirius’s eyes slid in that direction without his being able to help it. A tall man he didn’t know, sitting there with a half-empty bottle of butterbeer in front of him, waved a cautious hand in greeting.
Something bitter and sour-tasting welled up in the back of Sirius’s throat, and he quickly replaced his glass on the counter along with a few coins dredged up from the depths of his pockets, despite the fact he hadn’t taken a single drink of whatever Rosmerta had made him. Sarah watched, frowning, as he mumbled a hasty goodbye and left the pub just as quickly as he’d came in, insides heavily weighed down.
Did everyone but him have somebody? What was so wrong with him that made it impossible for him to do anything but live alone forever, pretending to be content in solitude while the rest of the world paired off in neat rows? His own thoughts sounded so pitiful and self-indulgent that he felt like kicking himself, and a mixture of sadness and guilt more complete than any he’d felt in a long, long time hit him with crashing clarity.
He refused to be this sort of man anymore – the one who hightailed it to a pub to lose himself in firewhisky when things got tough, to wallow in self-pity instead of actually trying to turn things around. He had made a mistake in getting angry at Beth for – well, for wanting to end loneliness. Which was exactly what he was doing too, wasn’t it?
He would move on with his life, and he would be happy – of that he was sure. From this moment on, Sirius resolved silently, looking up at the sky instead of the ground. He would make things right, starting with his friends – his friends, the family he’d been taking for granted up until now – and then he would do more than that. He would make things better.
A/N: Sirius is such a mess right now, yeah? Poor guy -- I really do feel a bit badly for him. Although at this point he's starting to get over his Beth-and-I-are-meant-for-each-other delusions, which is always nice, because I think I prefer bitter and angry Sirius over delusional Sirius any day. He just needs lots of hugs.
Also! As of last Monday (September 17), I have completely and fully finished writing In The Red! I'm so excited like you guys wouldn't believe, while at the same moment I'm wondering where time's gone, and when it came to be that I only have one more book to write in this trilogy. I haven't yet started Breaking Even, but that should be forthcoming before too much longer. Except by my calculations, you guys have 15 more weeks of this story, and then a bit more waiting time before I start posting. Lucky you!
Continued thanks, as always, for all the reads and reviews. Seriously. You guys are awesome!