i. A Few Suitable Boys
“Why are we doing this in the library?” Mary complained.
Doe hushed her. “Because this section is really quiet, and because it’s a non-suspicious place to meet boys. Except, you will ruin it all if you’re constantly talking.”
Mary perked up a little. “We’re meeting boys? How? Why?”
Doe steepled her fingers. She had spent the past few days racking her brain, pulling together a list of every age-appropriate, personality-appropriate boy she could think of for Mary. She didn’t tell her friend this, of course, but she was looking exclusively for short-term rebounds. Whatever Mary thought, Doe had a feeling she needed to pursue her mystery boy. If she needed to play at eliminating other possibilities beforehand, well, Doe would smooth out that process for the both of them.
“Well, I’ve got a list,” Doe said. “And I gave them appointment slots.”
Mary raised her brows. “And...they agreed to this?”
“Surprisingly, most of them did. You’re a hot commodity.”
Mary grinned. “Thanks, love. You know, this is how my grandparents tried to set my mum up with a husband.”
Doe leaned back in her chair. “And? Did it work?”
“Well — no. She ran off with Dad, so they were not very happy. They got over it, though.”
Doe made a tsk sound, though she was pleased at this story. The same could happen to Mary. She could just see it. Although, maybe they weren’t looking at marriage quite yet…
She consulted her wristwatch. “The first one should be here in a few minutes.”
Mary nodded, growing serious. “Is my hair okay?”
“And are you going to be sitting right there? The whole time?”
Mary and Doe were at the same half of a circular table; one chair was pulled up to the other side. Doe looked from the empty chair to Mary.
“Of course. I’m here to evaluate too.”
Mary considered this for a moment. “All right. I trust you.”
ii. End of the Road
Sirius, James, and Peter had been at Remus’s bedside for a good twenty minutes before he opened his eyes.
“Hello,” he managed weakly.
“Morning,” they chorused. Peter handed him a potion that Madam Pomfrey had left on the bedside table; James, having drawn the short straw, hefted up a bucket with a grimace. Remus sighed, threw back the potion, and…threw up noisily into the bucket.
“I’ve had this job too many months in a row,” James said. “You lot are rigging it.”
“Not at all,” Sirius said cheerfully. “I have to go all the way to breakfast. Don’t tell me you want to physically move.”
James considered this for a moment. “I suppose you have a point. This comes a close second, though.” Waving his wand, he emptied the bucket. “And let’s not think about where that went.”
Remus coughed, the sound rattling awfully in his chest. The other three tensed, turning to him again.
“Round two?” said James, wincing.
Remus pushed himself upright with some difficulty. “No — no. I think I can eat now. How was last night?”
Sirius clapped him on the shoulder. “Smooth sailing, mate. No cause for worry.”
Remus made a face. “Smooth sailing for you, maybe.”
“Aw, come on.” Sirius hopped to his feet. “All right, same as usual for everyone?”
There was a chorus of yeses. Sirius sauntered out of the Hospital Wing, heading for the Entrance Hall. Though he complained, he wasn’t opposed to breakfast duty, really. Peter and James never pushed for the really good stuff. He knew for a fact that Peter, at least, only went to the Great Hall and filled up plates from there.
Sirius could not stand for that kind of half-assery — especially not after a night out, when all four Marauders had roamed the grounds and fallen into their beds absolutely exhausted, waking up famished. No, there would be fresh, steaming-hot food in the kitchens, and that was where he was going.
He slipped into the basement, loitering in the hallway there so a gaggle of young Hufflepuffs could hurry up the stairs past him. When the coast was clear he tickled the pear, and stepped into the kitchens.
Only one house-elf really understood Sirius’s breakfast preferences. The stately elf spotted him through the morning bustle and swanned over to him then.
“Top o’ the morning, Mr Davenport,” Sirius said, grinning.
“Mr Black,” said Davenport with a sniff. “Come, the newest batch of foodstuff is right this way…”
And how could Sirius not be endlessly amused by Davenport calling eggs and sausage — which was, upstairs, being wolfed down by disgusting eleven-year-olds — foodstuff? Sirius bowed, not without sincerity, and made his way to the table in question. Only eggs and fruit for Remus, who grew a conscience on mornings after his transformation and didn’t need to be reminded of meat’s general existence. Generous helpings of just about everything for himself, James, and Peter. He portioned these into Davenport’s proffered old Prophet copies, which had been folded into roomy pockets.
In the middle of this task, Pansy, who had been skulking nearby, came right up to Sirius and prodded him in the thigh.
“Oh, hello, Pansy.”
“We’re watching you!” she said, which would not have been threatening coming from someone of her size if not for the way she said it.
“Yeah, enjoy the view,” he replied. She scowled, and marched away. What had Peter said to her anyway at the Start-of-Term Feast? She had been even more disagreeable than usual lately. Never mind, Sirius thought, he could worry about that later.
He tied up the parcels with string, thanked Davenport, and went into the Great Hall now. There were letters for all of them — the other three had mail from their parents, and Sirius had a letter written by an unfamiliar hand. He picked up three copies of the Prophet too — which was silly, honestly, why did three of them get the Prophet when they could all share? Pete had the right idea…
Not all the girls were at breakfast. Lily and Sara sat opposite each other, both reading the Prophet, but the former having just returned from social calls at the other tables.
“Morning,” Sirius said.
“Hello, Sirius,” said Sara.
Lily did not reply immediately. Then: “Oh, hi,” she said, morose.
“That is not a weekend voice, Evans.”
She sighed. “It’s Marcel bloody Thorpe again. You know the Muggle-born Mediwizard they found attacked in an alleyway? He’s saying something about it being Muggle thugs… Honestly, as though St. Mungo’s can’t identify spell damage.”
Sirius put down all the parcels. “Yeah, I reckon he’d find a way to spin anything to fit his thinking. You Know Who could be in the Ministry of Magic doing a naked tango with a centaur while shouting blood purist propaganda and he’d say… I dunno…” He cleared his throat, affecting the elder Thorpe’s baritone. “Why shouldn’t the man be able to provide his own music as he dances, unusual though it may be? ”
Lily snorted. “Your imitation of him is startlingly good.”
“I know his type, unfortunately.”
Sirius found he was enjoying this conversation, on the whole. Of course, that might just have been because he was always in a good mood after their nights out. But he had, overall, a rather tepid opinion of Lily Evans, having assumed the role of the cynical, protective friend.
Whatever her flaws, she was all right to talk to. He admitted this to himself reluctantly. If James had gone ahead and decided to really get over her, then Sirius was free to think positively of her. He just wasn’t sure he could count on that yet.
“What’re all the newspaper bundles?” said Sara, peering at his parcels with interest.
“Foodstuff.” The girls looked perplexed. “Er, Moony’s ill, so I’m taking him breakfast.”
Sara made a moue of sympathy. “Poor thing. I keep hoping this is the term he’ll be able to stay out of the infirmary, you know.”
“I’m sure he does too,” Sirius said, managing to keep a straight face.
“My parents sent me a massive box of sweets. You should take him some too!”
Lily nodded. “They’re so good.”
Sirius brightened. “Yeah, Moony would love that.” And so, more importantly, would I. “Hand ’em over.”
“Oh — Lily and I had our fill, so I dropped it off at the Ravenclaw table. But don’t worry, there’s so much, they definitely haven’t eaten it all yet.” She rose to her feet. “I’ll come with you.”
There was no better escort. Sara wove easily through the crowd, and when they had arrived at the Ravenclaw table she snapped her fingers and said, “Go on, get your grubby hands off the box, Black wants some.”
Producing the box took some time. It appeared to have moved beyond Sara’s — admittedly wide — friend circle of fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-years, and someone thought they had seen it at the Hufflepuff table. Sara only rolled her eyes, told Sirius to stay put, and headed in that direction.
He exchanged smiles and nods with the Ravenclaws around him, some of whom had sweets in hand.
“Which ones should I pick, then?”
“The one with the pistachios on top, definitely,” said a perky blonde he could not immediately place, waving a pale blobby sweet crowned with a green sliver of the nut.
“If you’re going to eat the little brown ones, you should know they’ve got liquid inside them,” the girl next to her said darkly. “It exploded all over my hands.” Her, Sirius knew; Emmeline Vance, also a sixth-year, played Seeker for Ravenclaw. She was too proper for him to consider her actually likeable, but she came under his mental “all right” column.
Marissa Beasley laughed. “Emmeline, Sara literally warned you about the liquid. You just put off eating it for so long that you forgot.” Turning to Sirius, she said, “Ignore her. Get that one too — and it’s even better if you don’t tell whoever’s eating it that it’s liquid inside, hey?”
“Cheers,” said Sirius, returning her grin. Beasley was certainly likeable — she was Head Girl, which ought to have lost her some points, but she had successfully branded herself the fun Head. Given that Crollins was the other one, actually, it wasn’t that difficult a task.
“Get the diamond-shaped one,” a dark-haired boy — Caradoc Dearborn — suggested. He waved the silver-topped diamond wedge at Sirius. “It’s fucking incredible.”
Sirius took this in kind as well. Anything that drove the bloody prince of smart-arses to such high praise was worth a consideration too.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m back!” Sara said, appearing at Sirius’s shoulder. She was slightly out of breath, but she clutched an enormous box in her hands. “I had to literally pry it away from Crollins, the prat.”
“The prat ,” all the Ravenclaws and Sirius agreed aloud, nodding.
Sirius borrowed a goblet from the table and dropped his sweet selections into it, thanking Sara. Juggling all this, he strolled out of the Great Hall and back towards the Hospital Wing. After a while he got tired of actually holding everything, so instead he levitated it all. And then he made them do a little dance around him just because he could. All this still did not take up all of his concentration. So Sirius pulled his own letter from the prancing collection of things and tore it open, humming off-key to himself.
There were, in fact, two notes enclosed. He unfolded one and scanned its first few words: Dear Mr Black, I am so sorry to inform you that—
Four parcels, three letters, and the goblet of sweets all tumbled to the stone floor.
iii. A Few More Suitable Boys
It was nearing lunchtime, and Doe and Mary were still exactly where they had been in the morning: at the table in the library, huddled together.
“That last one was weird,” Mary was saying.
Doe rolled her eyes. “Okay, Henry is perfectly all right.”
Mary shook her head. “He’s all right as a person. But as a bloke...he’s a little odd, Doe.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“It means he can’t be my rebound, obviously!”
Doe had struggled to control her annoyance all morning, but she could not keep it out of her voice entirely now. “There are only so many boys at Hogwarts, Mary, so unless you want to be disgusting and hit on children you’ll just have to settle!”
Mary glared at her. “Don’t snap at me!”
Deep breaths, Doe told herself. Mary was only being so frustrating because she was hurt. She didn’t mean to be infuriating.
“We should take a break,” she said finally. “Neither of us has eaten all morning, and the next guy only comes in after lunch. We’ll drive ourselves mad if we keep talking and thinking about this.”
Mary made a face, but she nodded. “Let’s go, then.”
“You go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute — have to find this Ancient Runes book.”
It wasn’t a bluff, not exactly — Doe did need the book. But she also needed a minute of breathing room, just a brief moment away from Mary. Her friend gave her a look as if to say she wasn’t fooling anyone. But Mary headed out of the library without argument, leaving Doe alone at the table.
Pushing her chair back with a sigh, Doe stretched and made her way to the Ancient Runes section.
“Look who it is,” a voice said.
Doe turned around. “Oh! Michael!”
His hair was sticking up, as though he’d only just left his bed. Doe thought a more likely story was that he hadn’t properly looked in a mirror all morning; she smothered a smile. Boys .
“I saw you with your friend,” Michael said. “You’ve been here for hours. Knocking out homework before the professors even assign it, eh?”
Doe laughed. “I wish. It’s ridiculous to explain, actually, but — Mary is trying to get over someone, and she wants a rebound. So we’re interviewing candidates.”
His eyebrows rose. “That’s… dedicated.”
“It’s hilarious, but yeah, it does take more effort than you’d think.”
Michael grinned. “Look at you, being such a good friend.”
“That’s me,” said Doe, doing a curtsy.
He shook his head. “You know, I’d have thought a girl like Mary could get any bloke she wanted.”
Oh, how to explain this without explaining too much? But when Mary said not to tell anyone, surely she’d meant Lily and Germaine and her friends, not Michael Meadowes.
“Yes, she’s trying something new,” Doe said. At Michael’s curious expression, she clarified, “Nice boys.”
Michael burst into laughter — then, with a glance backwards in the vague direction of Madam Pince’s desk, he tried to turn it into a cough. “I hope that works out for her.”
“Your sort are very novel to her, so we’ll see,” said Doe dryly.
“My sort? I don’t think I’m a nice boy, really. I can be quite a prick sometimes — though I’m working on it.”
Doe squinted at him. “You? A prick? I’ve yet to see any evidence of that.”
He winked. “Let’s hope you don’t have to.”
iv. All Your Loving
The mysterious reading room on the seventh floor was refusing to show itself.
Dex had paced up and down the corridor about a dozen times, with Lily watching and wishing she could do some thing to help. She was beginning to think the best thing she could possibly do was suggest they go somewhere else.
“This has never happened before,” Dex said finally, his voice tight with frustration.
“It’s all right,” said Lily, snaking an arm around him. “We can work in the library… or in our common rooms. Really, there’s a lot of options.”
Dex sighed. “They aren’t very private.”
Lily arched an eyebrow. “What do they need to be private for?”
He met her gaze. “You know, just in case we want a study break.” Dex cut her off mid-laugh, pressing his mouth to hers. Lily hummed appreciatively, tugging him closer.
“Three feet apart in the corridors, lovebirds,” a voice called.
Lily jumped, recognising its owner immediately. Dex did not; he turned around in search of the speaker. Lily saw his expression grow dark and grimaced. This was not going to be a fun conversation.
“Potter,” said Dex.
“Good afternoon,” James said, looking between the two of them. “Young love, eh?”
“What do you want? Are you going to be dropping another stale pie on us?”
“No, it’s fresh this time.”
“James, stop messing,” said Lily, sighing.
As if he had just noticed her presence, James sobered. “Right. See you around, Evans.” And without another word — or even so much as a glance at either of them — he strode past them and round the corner.
Why was he so hot and cold? She recalled his reluctance at their truce. Had she misjudged him, projected her own desire for peace between them onto him? She forced herself to put it out of her mind. Whatever argument he was having with himself, she gained nothing trying to parse it from his cryptic clues.
“I’m sorry,” said Lily, squeezing her eyes shut a moment. “For him, I mean. He’s — he and I are in a strange phase of pre-friendship and I don’t think either of us is handling it well.” That was being generous, she thought, but considering the look on Dex’s face Lily thought she ought to head off any conflict right away.
“Okay,” said Dex finally, taking her hand. “You’re right. Let’s just go to a common room. Yours or mine?”
Lily considered this. There was the problem of the girls’ staircase, if it so happened that they wanted to go somewhere more private… She flushed at the very thought.
v. Last Chance
Dear Mr Black,
I am so sorry to inform you that your uncle Alphard passed away here at St. Mungo’s late on Friday night. I meant to notify you sooner, but Alphard had a note that he wanted delivered along with this notice. It is enclosed here. You will be comforted, I hope, to know that your uncle did not suffer at all in the end, but passed away in his sleep.
My deepest condolences,
This letter will be hurried, unfortunately. I should have written it sooner — but even someone like me doesn’t enjoy thinking of the pain my passing will cause others. I will keep this brief: you have only my best wishes, and I will be leaving you a small amount that I hope will be of use to you once you leave Hogwarts.
Once again, I ask that you get in touch with your brother. I have received a letter from him since I wrote you last, but I am still worried about the company he keeps.
All my love,
Sirius put the letters down and cleared his throat. “And that’s it.”
He, James, and Peter were in their dormitory, a tableau of sobriety that Sirius would otherwise have found quite comical. Peter looked rather uncomfortable, tugging at a loose thread in his covers. James was watching Sirius with an intent that the latter did not like.
“You should’ve told us he was worse,” James said.
Sirius threw his arms in the air. “It would hardly have made a difference!”
“And of course the last thing he writes me is about that insufferable git Regulus—”
Peter was wide-eyed. “You aren’t going to do it, then?”
“Do what?” said Sirius.
“I dunno… talk to him?”
Sirius scoffed. “Regulus doesn’t respond to a stern talking-to from anyone but our bloody mother. It won’t do any good.”
As if sensing he was approaching dangerous territory, Peter said timidly, “But it was the last thing Alphard wanted you to do.”
Sirius glared at him. “So what? Why do we put so much stock in — in last wishes anyway? What’s it to Alphard now? It’s not like he can see.”
Peter flinched. James looked away. Feeling as spent as if he’d played a gruelling, hours-long Quidditch match, Sirius sat down on his bed, hard.
He had known this was coming, of course. But he had convinced himself that it would not be so soon — despite what Alphard had said about his grim evaluations at the hospital. Fuck, no matter how old or how ill his uncle had been, Sirius had childishly thought he would hang on. Maybe that was why he hadn’t told any of his friends about the latest tests. The questions that topic would inevitably prompt would force him to accept that things were indeed bad. That they had become worse.
And now there would be a funeral. One that he would have to attend. With his fucking family. And only Sirius would know how many of them Alphard held in contempt, because the old man had never fully broken away from the Black clan. They would sprout some family pride bullshit that his uncle would’ve hated, and he, Sirius, would have to sit there and listen.
He sprang to his feet. “The pin—”
“The what?” said James.
“The — the pin… the bloody brooch thing he sent me last year, d’you remember?”
It was a clunky, worn silver brooch, wrought in the shape of a bramble bush. The significance of it was indecipherable, but Alphard had said it was a family heirloom. One of the few unconnected to snake symbols or blood, he’d written, and so perhaps it was something Sirius could see himself keeping. Honestly, his feelings about his family weren’t far off from that twisted knot of bramble. There were the good ones, like Alphard, and his cousin Andromeda, the few unchipped jewelled flowers; the rest, well. Some things were better not spoken of.
Sirius strode over to his dresser and began haphazardly pulling out the drawers. “It has to be here somewhere — I should wear it to the funeral, that’ll stick it to everyone—”
A hand touched him on the shoulder; he jumped.
“Padfoot, don’t worry,” Peter said. “We’ll help you look.”
Sirius was dimly aware that he probably looked manic, and frantic, and in general fucking bonkers. His friends wore matching expressions of cautious concern.
“Oh,” he said faintly.
“Yeah, mate,” James said with a smile. “And, I mean, why not just try — Accio Black family brooch!”
James sighed. “Worth a shot.”
“Yeah, you did all right,” Sirius said.
The three of them stared at Sirius’s dresser, which had clothes bundled into it with no eye for order. A faint smell, like rotting fruit, was coming from somewhere inside it.
“I’ll take the trunk,” said Peter quickly.
Half an hour later, the three had made significant discoveries about Sirius’s general cleanliness and hygiene, but the brooch was nowhere to be found. Poor Peter had gingerly pushed aside Dungbombs to sift through the debris at the bottom of his trunk.
“Maybe you left it at your parents’ house,” James said. He had gone back to his bed, since Sirius’s dresser was a lost cause.
Sirius screwed his face up in thought. “I might have. I don’t think I did…” He sighed. “Well, if it gets back to them in the end it’ll all have been for nothing.”
“It was a pretty ugly brooch anyway,” Peter offered.
Sirius considered this. “Yeah, it was,” he admitted.
“What’s this?” Peter fished out a crumpled-up scrap of parchment, holding it up to squint at it. “Black, your last chance. Blood. What the hell? That’s all it says.”
“Let me see.” James slid off his bed and snatched the parchment from him. “Oh, you weren’t joking. That is all it says.”
Peter scowled at him. “Thanks, Prongs.”
“Oh, that,” said Sirius. “I thought it was rubbish. Someone slipped it into my Potions notes.”
“It’s literally addressed to you,” Peter pointed out.
“It says BLACK. They could mean the colour. How should I know?”
James rocked back on his heels. “It was in your Potions notes? We have Potions with Slytherin…”
Sirius met his gaze, frowning. “You don’t think one of them put this in there?”
“Who else would be capable of this demented shit?” said James with a shrug.
“You’re not curious?” Peter said. “I think it must have a password.”
Sirius gave him an incredulous look. “This isn’t a cozy little boys’ mystery novel, Wormtail. And besides, if it is meant for me, and it is supposed to have a password—” he raised his eyebrows meaningfully, underlining his scepticism “—then how would I be expected to know it? I have no bloody idea about any of this.”
“The clue is obviously blood,” Peter said, ignoring Sirius’s eye-roll. “So, er…” He waved his wand over the parchment and said, “Pure-blood!”
Peter deflated a little. “You could help by thinking in that vein,” he told the other two.
Sirius let out a long-suffering sigh, though the distraction this was posing came as a definite relief. He waved his own wand over the paper, saying, “Toujours pur.”
The words had the effect of a pebble dropped into a pond; the ink on the parchment rippled and then rearranged itself into new shapes, until the message now read: BLACK. YOUR LAST CHANCE. DADA DUNGEON, OCT 5.
Peter looked very smug indeed. “Merlin, it feels great to be right.”
“Yeah, it’s a novel feeling for you, isn’t it?” said Sirius, giving him a doleful look. “What the hell is happening in the Defence dungeon?”
“What the hell happened, more like. You’re a few days too late to find out,” James said regretfully. “Unless…”
Sirius recognised the expression he wore. “Oh, spit it out.”
“You can ask Regulus about it. That way you’re doing what Alphard wanted, and you can figure out what the note is supposed to mean.”
Triumph was evident in James’s voice, though Sirius did not think he had solved much.
“And why would he know anything about it?”
James shrugged. “Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. It’s probably good news if he doesn’t, eh? I can’t think of a good reason someone would send you that note.”
Sirius gave a noncommittal grunt. “Don’t look so fucking thrilled, you two. I know you’re only interested in this because you think you can talk me into talking to Reg—”
“All right, Padfoot,” said James. “We’ll leave it alone.”
When Sirius turned his back, he exchanged a knowing glance with Peter.
vi. None of the Last Dozen Boys Were Suitable At All!
However Doe had expected this day to end, it was not like this. The last boy had left, and rather than turn on Doe in anger once more, Mary — Mary Macdonald! — had begun to cry.
“None of them liked me,” Mary said, sniffling.
Doe was nothing short of amazed. “They didn’t like you? You had criticisms of all of them! Plural!”
Mary blew her nose loudly. “This is so fucking unfair. None of them liked me!”
Doe sighed and took Mary’s hand. “That is not true. All of them liked you. Because they’d be mad not to!”
“Maybe they all liked this.” She gestured at her body. “But — none of them wanted to ask me things.”
She wasn’t wrong, but how could a first awkward meeting rule out all of these boys?
“Ask you things like how you’d describe your favourite Queen song?” said Doe dryly.
Mary frowned. “That’s not funny.”
As if there were a timer going off her head, Doe felt herself reach her breaking point — and, snap!
“No, what’s funny is that I’m investing time and energy in the project of your rebound relationship and you’re spending all of it complaining about how guys like you for the wrong reasons!” Doe hated the whiny note she heard in her voice, but once she’d started speaking she could not stop. “At least you know they like you!”
Mary scoffed. “Please. You’d know they like you if you only asked.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to be asked first, all right?” said Doe hotly. “Only you wouldn’t know, because that’s your default.”
Mary opened her mouth to respond, but the glaring face of Madam Pince suddenly appeared between them, making both girls start and scream.
“Lower your voices,” Pince hissed. Mary and Doe stammered out apologies. Finally she slunk away, leaving the girls alone once more.
They locked gazes.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said with a sigh. “I know I’m being the worst friend right now.”
Doe mirrored her sigh. “You are, a little bit. I know you’re upset, Mare. But I really don’t think this is going to help.”
Mary pouted; Doe’s heart softened. She looked so uncertain — an expression that Mary wore like an ill-fitting shirt.
“Forget about me,” said Mary. “I’m sorry I haven’t… asked about you. The reason I don’t ask you if you want a boyfriend is, well, you seem like you want something real . Not a quick snog in a broom closet — or something just for fun — you really want love. And that’s… something I don’t know much about. But I’ll help you, if that’s what you want.”
Doe wasn’t sure how to respond to this. She had nothing against quick snogs in broom closets — but Mary’s words brought something else to mind. What if she was casually seeing someone, and then she really fell for him? No, better to wait until someone as all-in as she’d be came along. She could hear the problem in her thinking, and she knew Mary would point it out to her if she vocalised it.
So instead she smiled and patted her friend on the shoulder. “I’ll let you know. And then you can be my wingwoman.”
“I’d be so damn good at it. I’ve been practising for years, you know.”