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It Comes Down To This

By Maverick

 

I walked down the corridor whistling to myself; Charms had just finished and I had an hour to kill before dinner. So, there I was, strolling down the hallway, minding my own business, when a hand shot out of a room and hauled me inside.

I was pressed hard against the wall with a person’s hand covering my mouth. I struggled violently, but my arms were pinned at my sides and I couldn’t move my legs.

"Shh…"

I stopped dead and then shoved the person away from me. "Sirius?!? You great prat!"

He smiled sheepishly, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Scare you?"

I snorted. "Of course not."

He shot me a look.

"You’d have been scared too, if someone attacked you like that," I conceded.

He placed a hand on either side of my body, preventing an easy escape. "Sorry," he said, not sounding sorry in the least.

"Yeah, well-" I was cut off by his lips on mine. Or rather his tongue on mine but who wants to get technical, right?

He shifted slightly as I pulled him closer to me. "James was asking where I was last night," he muttered between kisses.

"Mm hmm? And what did you say?" I asked as I ran my fingers through his dark hair, causing it to stick up all over the place.

He raised his eyebrow at me. "I said I was in your bed."

I pulled away, momentarily startled. "You did what?"

He smirked lazily. "Just kidding. I told him I was fooling around with my Hufflepuff girlfriend."

I tried not to smile and failed miserably. "That’s really cute, Sirius. Just let me know whenever you want to get a girlfriend from Hufflepuff."

He caught me around the waist, laying sloppy kisses on my neck. I pushed him away giggling like a fool. "I don’t want a girlfriend from Hufflepuff. You’ll do."

"I’ll do? Maybe I should just go then…I’m sure someone else’ll appreciate me…"

He tackled me to the ground, rolling over on top of me and attacking me with kisses once more. "Did I tell you what we did in

Muggle Studies?"

"Only five hundred times," I said good-naturedly, running my finger down his cheek.

He propped himself up on his elbows, looking down at me. "Oh…damn. I don’t have any other stories to share with you."

"I just saw you two hours ago! What could possibly have happened?"

"Two hours is a very long time. In fact…it’s almost the same length of time that we have between now and dinner…"

When we both arrived at the table, we were late, disheveled and I was trying my best to keep my neck covered.

"Aria, there you are! Professor McGonagall was looking for you… something about your Transfiguration test…"

"Thanks, Kath," I said, cheerfully, sitting down and trying not to look at Sirius.

"She was looking for you too, Sirius. She was getting really flustered, you know."

He raised his eyebrows innocently and I wanted to slap him. Only he could look that way when his robes were half open and his hair a tangled mess. With that look in his eyes and the way-

"Why? I didn’t fail my Transfiguration test," he said, smirking at me in a way that told me he knew exactly what I was thinking about.

I flushed and looked away. ‘Prat…’

Katherine Edwards snorted. "It’s more likely about why there was a flood in the Slytherin common room two weeks ago."

James Potter smiled pleasantly at her, putting down his fork. "Whatever do you mean, Kath? We still maintain that the taps turned themselves on."

"And that the sinks plugged up all on their own," chimed in Remus Lupin, a smirk on his face.

Kath dismissed them with a wave of her hand. "On to bigger and better things, Aria, what happened to your neck?"

Of course, after she said that, everyone’s attention was focused on my neck and the bruised skin on the side.

"Looks like someone bit you," Peter Pettigrew pointed out.

"Looks like a vampire, if you ask me," said Remus slyly, exchanging a look with James.

"Yeah, a very SERIOUS vampire," James put in.

I laughed weakly. "Don’t know what you’re talking about."

Lily Evans examined it. "I can see teeth-marks!"

Sirius practically spat his drink out all over the table and the attention turned to him. "Have I told you lot about…erm…you know… the… thing…"

Kath smiled at him, batting her eyelashes. "Nope. But your robes are undone."

"Oh yeah? And why are you fixating your thoughts on my robes? Hoping to get a piece of this before the holidays?"

She snorted. "I wouldn’t take that pleasure away from our Italian Opera over here," she said, indicating me and poking fun at my name at the same time. "Where were you two by the way?"

"The common room," I said at the same time Sirius jumped in with, "The library." We looked at each other. "The library," I said, while Sirius changed his answer to, "The common room." We looked at each other again. "Nowhere," we said in unison.

Remus snorted and James started snickering. Biting my lip, I took a long drink from my goblet, trying desperately not to blush.

Kath looked mildly amused. "Okay, so basically you two were snogging in an empty classroom?"

Sirius gave her one of his charming looks. "Whatever are you talking about?" he asked demurely, fixing his robes at the same time. I shot him a look and he shrugged, smirking. "Snogging? Empty classrooms? Me?"

I wanted to crawl under the table and disappear. Lily must have felt sorry for me then because she hauled me to my feet and started tugging me outside. "We’ll be late for Potions…bye!"

I didn’t bother reminding her that we all had Potions at the same time but it was probably just as well. She was saving my embarrassment level, after all…

*****

I avoided everyone until after breakfast the next day. I knew James was just dying to make me turn red in front of the entire house so I avoided him in particular. Sadly, I had to avoid Sirius too, as he and James were planning something spectacular for the Slytherins to wish them a Merry Christmas.

Which is why the sight that greeted me when I climbed in through the portrait stunned me. Half the house was in the common room, some were scattered on the stairs going up to the Boys’ Dormitories and everyone was whispering to each other.

"What’s going on?"

A Seventh Year walked over to me. "Something’s going on upstairs," she said conspiratorially. "Something to do with the Sixth Years. You know… James Potter and that lot."

Confused, I started climbing the stairs, ignoring the fact that it was a no-girls zone. At the top were Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, standing off to the side and talking in low voices. James was pacing back and forth and Remus and Peter were crouched on their knees, talking through the keyhole. "What’s going on?" I asked again.

Peter jumped, elbowing Remus in the eye. "Ouch, Peter, watch it!"

"Sorry!" Peter apologized quickly. "Oh, Aria, we were just wondering who should go and fetch you!"

"Fetch me what?" I asked, taking in the fact that they were all just staring at me now.

"Sirius has locked himself in his dormitory," said Professor McGonagall and she looked suspiciously teary-eyed.

I started to laugh. "Yeah, that’s a good one. Seriously, why are you all up here?"

"She’s not kidding," James said, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. People were starting to come up the stairs now, trying to hear what was going on.

"What’s wrong with him?"

There was silence. "He just won’t let anyone in," Peter said quietly, looking as forlorn as Professor McGonagall. "He finally went to see Professor McGonagall after breakfast…you know, she was looking for him yesterday but we sneaked out last night and she couldn’t find him-"

"And then he came up here. He’s been locked in ever since," Remus finished, shooting Peter a look that told him to shut his mouth.

"Well, that’s silly. Just ask him to let you guys in."

"He won’t." James was twisting his wand in his hands nervously, as if he knew something terrible had happened but he couldn’t place what it was.

I pushed past the three of them and knocked on the door. There was silence from inside. "Sirius, it’s me." Still silence.

"What makes you think he’d let you inside?" I turned around and positively glared at the Fifth Year who had posed the question. I doubt she was trying to be rude but I didn’t care. Or maybe she was trying to be rude. She’d taken quite a liking to Sirius and was a little ticked off that he hadn’t noticed. Putting all that aside, I was starting to worry.

I knocked again. "Sirius?" I could hear movement from inside now: a bed creaking, a trunk closing. "Sirius, it’s me. Come on… talk to me."

I could hear the Fifth Year whispering with her friends when the door was unbolted and opened a crack. "What?"

I was surprised at the anger in his voice. Leaning closer, I asked as quietly as I could, "What’s wrong? What happened?"

"I don’t want anyone else in here," he practically growled at me.

I stared at him helplessly. "Sirius, please. Don’t shut me out like this."

His eyes bore into mine but I refused to look away until he sighed and stepped back. "Just you."

Peter plopped himself on the ground. "We’ll wait for you." James and Remus joined him, their arms crossed, as if daring Professor Dumbledore to state otherwise.

Professor Dumbledore just smiled sadly and nodded. "Go ahead, my dear." He glanced at the other people, most of whom were standing on top of each other, trying to overhear what was happening. "The rest of you, back to class. Minerva, please let everyone else know that we have a meeting after classes today."

She nodded, wiping at her eyes. "Of course." She looked at the students standing on the stairs. "You heard the Headmaster. Back to class. Now!"

I stared at the door in front of me before pushing it open slowly and stepping inside. Sirius pushed it shut, bolting it once more and that’s when I realized all the blinds had been drawn and every single picture album Sirius owned spread across the floor.

"Sirius?"

He stared at me, his eyes hollow and defeated. "I don’t want to talk about it yet."

I nodded. "Of course. Whenever you want to."

He crushed me into a hug then, burying his face in my hair and I could sense the urgency, the anger, the fear that he was feeling. "Lie with me," he murmured.

We sank onto the bed, my arms wound tightly around his neck. He held onto me as if I were some sort of lifeline. We lay there for hours, our arms entwined around each other until he reached out blindly, his fingers picking up an official looking parchment.

He handed it to me wordlessly and I opened it. I had to read it through a number of times before it sunk in. "Oh, Sirius."

"Don’t," he said listlessly. "I don’t want to hear you say you’re sorry."

I dropped the parchment onto the floor and embraced him again.

Life wasn’t fair. Not for the living. And not for the dead either.

*****

"Ri?"

I shifted slightly, glancing at Sirius. We’d spent an hour screaming at each other until he’d just reached out and kissed me blindly. He was the only one who could do that; get me so angry one minute and so absolutely in love with him in the next. Then we’d sat underneath the window and I’d had the most heart-wrenching conversation of my entire life. Hearing him blame himself for things out of his control, hearing him beg me to tell him it was all a dream, hearing him say things that were so pained and so much older than Sirius should ever have been nearly broke me. Now we were lying on the bed, his head in my lap and my back against the headboard. His hands clutched tightly at mine and I tried to hold back my tears because Sirius had never held on to me like that before. Like he was expecting to lose me.

"I should let everyone else back in here. I’ve taken over their room and-"

I blinked, biting on my bottom lip. "Let me get them."

I got up to go to the door and he reached out towards me, his arms wrapping tightly around my waist. "Thank you," he whispered against my hair.

I kissed him gently on the cheek as he pushed himself into a sitting position on the bed. I unbolted the dormitory door and peered out. James, Remus, and Peter were sitting on the cold, stone floor, staring into space.

James stared at me and then spoke first. "Is he all right?"

I wondered how to answer that question. "No," I replied truthfully. "Can…can you guys come in here?"

They were on their feet in seconds. I stepped backwards and allowed them to enter. Sirius had moved to stand by the window. Slowly, he turned around, leaning against the wall. The three stared at him and he stared right back. "Sorry I locked you guys out of your room like that," he said, after a moment’s pause.

Remus, Peter and James exchanged looks. "It’s-it’s all right," Peter said quietly.

"We just want to know if you’re, you know, okay," James mumbled.

Remus said nothing and perhaps it’s because he could already feel what had happened. He was good like that. Good at judging other people’s emotions and feelings.

Sirius turned back to the window, still leaning against the wall. "My father died."

Hearing him say it made the truth all the more apparent. Austin Black was dead.

Remus recovered first. "How?"

Sirius shrugged. "Death Eaters. The Ministry said that he was on some sort of mission for them. He got cornered and one of them-" His voice cracked, revealing that he wasn’t as nonchalant as he was trying to be.

There was silence. I don’t think any of us realized how serious it was in the outside world. For nearly nine months of the year, we were away at school and when we went home, there was no mention of Voldemort or death. That’s what parents do though, isn’t it? Hide away the horrors so that your world will always be perfect and happy and safe.

Sirius turned back to face us and it was at that moment, that very moment, that I knew exactly how much it had really hurt him. There were no tears — not now. But the look in his eyes tore at my heart. "They said that he died trying to save someone else. A Muggle boy." The statement was unnecessary but I knew he was trying to say something else to them. And I hoped they would be able to convince him that what he thought wasn’t true.

The room was silent. I could hear the wind howling outside and I wished, more than anything, that it wasn’t five days before the holidays and nine before Christmas, that Austin hadn’t been on that mission, that Sirius hadn’t just lost his father.

James was staring at the ceiling and Peter at the floor but Remus was just watching Sirius, as if he knew what it was like. As if he understood.

Tears blurred my vision but I forced them back. It wasn’t right to cry — not when Sirius remained dry-eyed. What right did I have to cry? Sirius had lost his father — his father — and I was currently fighting with mine.

Sirius had turned his back to his, peering out the window as if he were searching for something when he spoke. "It was my fault, you know. If I had said I was going home for Christmas, this wouldn’t have happened."

And then I really did start to cry. He and I had already talked about this and I had talked myself hoarse trying to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that he couldn’t have prevented it and again, that it wasn’t his fault, but he wouldn’t listen to me.

No one said anything, not knowing how to respond.

"If I’d gone home, he wouldn’t have gone on that mission. He’d be at home right now, drinking tea and reading the paper."

He wouldn’t have. Even I knew that. Austin was like Sirius: both unable to sit still for longer than five minutes and both unable to digest the bitter taste of tea.

It was Remus who, in two swift strides, crossed the room, reached out and spun Sirius around. "That is not true." I had never heard Remus Lupin sound so angry; his voice was shaking with suppressed rage. Perhaps this is what woke James and Peter out of their trances but in the next moment, they had surrounded him, silently offering him the support that only best friends could give.

I think that night is when I began to understand what Sirius meant when he told me that those three were like his brothers.

That moment, when those three surrounded him, comforting him silently, is when I began to understand that they held a place in his heart that I could never have. And that instant is when I understood that I didn’t need it. I knew, without hearing any of them say it, that they loved him too and they would protect him with everything they had, the way I would.

I opened the door quietly and slipped outside. I leaned against the wall and sighed heavily, rubbing my eyes. It was nearly midnight. As I made my way downstairs, I could still hear voices from the common room. Not wanting to talk to anyone about why Sirius Black had been holed up in his room all day, not allowing anyone, save for me, entry, I pushed open the portrait and ventured into the corridor.

I must have walked around aimlessly for hours, although I couldn’t be sure. I’d lost my watch a week before and hadn’t been too concerned with getting a new one. After all, I had all the time in the world…

There were already decorations adorning some of the doorways and lights hanging from the ceilings. Christmas.

I suddenly felt horribly sick. Sirius and I go home every single Christmas. He goes because he adores his family and I go because it’s expected. This year he’d decided not to. He’d been so excited to stay as well.

"Dad says we’re going to visit my grandparents," he’d said, pulling a hideous face. "The crazy ones."

"They aren’t crazy!" I happened to think that Mr. and Mrs. Spero were extremely nice people with a strange sense of humour.

"They protest New Years’," he said witheringly, a smile lighting up his eyes.

"So?"

"You think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that."

I shrugged. "Not really."

"Maybe I’ll just stay here this Christmas," he said, switching topics with a gleam in his eye.

"On your own? Wow, you’re so cool, Sirius."

He cuffed me lightly on the side of my head. "Shut up. But just think of all the stuff I could do with no one else here!"

I shot him a disapproving look. "I sincerely hope that does not mean you’re going to be finding your way into the girls’ dormitories." It was a standing joke between us that he was constantly trying to find a way into the forbidden territory of the girls’ dormitories, most of the time succeeding.

He tried to look innocent. "Um, of course not."

I snorted.

"You could stay too…" he wheedled.

I rolled my eyes.

"Aw, come on. Just think of all the time we’ll have to spend together. Alone," he leered at me, cackling like a maniac.

I laughed, pushing him away. "Idiot."

He wrapped his arms around my legs, laying his head on my knees. It was one of those incredibly rare times when there was no one else in the common room, which meant we were free to sit together without evoking a series of giggles and rude jokes. "It’d be fun," he said lazily, looking up at me.

"Believe me, if I could, I would. But my father would have a cow."

"Or two."

"Or two," I agreed, yawning and picking up a book. "And then he’d have another cow."

"Why?" he asked, sitting up.

"To batter you over the head with for suggesting something so absurd!" I said, imitating my father.

Sirius snorted with laughter. "What is it this time?"

"Ah, nothing really. He just keeps badgering me about this, that and the other. I can’t even pinpoint it anymore."

Sirius leaned over me, grinning slyly. "Don’t suppose it has anything to do with your lousy Transfiguration mark, does it?"

"Shut up," I laughed, hitting him again.

He caught my hand and was about to kiss me when the door flew open and a herd of fifth years trooped in, moaning about how cold it was outside. We flew apart, me pretending to read and Sirius pretending to play exploding snap with himself.

I sighed heavily. Some people must have known what was going on between us. There was no doubt in my mind that James knew, at least, and probably Remus too. And if they knew, so did Peter. And twice in the past month, Lily Evans had caught me sneaking into the dormitory well after two in the morning.

"Ms. Walsh, is there a reason why you’re out of Gryffindor Tower at this time of the night?" A voice said quietly.

Professor Dumbledore was standing in the doorway to the library, his blue eyes twinkling at me.

"Just taking a walk."

I fell into step beside him as he chuckled. "Your honesty is refreshing, my dear. But it is late and you should be asleep."

"Not tired."

He glanced sideways at me. "Oh?"

"I want to stay for Christmas," I blurted out.

If he was surprised, it never showed. "Have you spoken to your parents about this?"

I paused. "No. But this doesn’t have anything to do with them. Sirius…already said that he’s going to be staying. His mother’s going to his grandparents’ and-"

"Yes, I’ve already talked to Mrs. Black." Glimpsing at him, I could see that the twinkle from his eyes had vanished and he had stopped smiling. "At Christmas too."

I knew what he was referring to. "It isn’t fair," I muttered, a feeling of rage coming over me and directed at the Death Eater who had performed the deadly curse.

"Nothing is."

I paused, wondering how to phrase what I was thinking. "I need to stay during Christmas."

"Don’t you think that discussing this with your parents first would-"

"No," I interrupted, even though I knew it was rude. "I need to stay. I want to stay."

Professor Dumbledore halted and turned to me, a half-smile on his face. "I’ll see that your name is put on the list then. Good night, Ms. Walsh."

Confused, I turned, expecting to see the door near the Charms classroom. To my great astonishment, I came face to face with the Gryffindor portrait of the Fat Lady. I turned back to question Professor Dumbledore, but he was gone.

*****

Sirius came back to classes the next morning. I don’t know how to describe the day. It was long. Almost painfully so.

Breakfast was accompanied by nearly every person in the school coming over and asking Sirius if the rumours they’d heard were true. He didn’t answer any of them and eventually James pulled out his wand and said he’d hex the lot of them if they didn’t sod off. His words, not mine.

The questions didn’t stop there. They followed us to Transfiguration and then to Charms. And then they followed Sirius to his other classes. I was so angry with those people. Our classmates. Didn’t they understand? Oh, I know it wasn’t everyone. But still, the ones that did it, couldn’t they understand that he just wanted to be left alone? That, for once, he didn’t want to talk to anyone?

Peter came to Sirius’ defence and got punched in the nose by an unknown Hufflepuff. It was okay though…Remus sent the guy flying with a well-aimed blow to the jaw.

The crunch came at dinnertime. One stupid Slytherin insisted on standing behind Sirius and laughing all evening about the "mental head-case" who had spent the day holed up in Gryffindor tower because he was "losing his mind" and who was probably "messing around with his roommates at the same time."

I could see Sirius’ hands itching to grab his wand and hex Michael Trickson into the wall. He didn’t get the chance. Charlotte Harris, a Seventh Year Slytherin Prefect, got to her feet, picked up her drink and, walking over to our table, poured it calmly over Michael’s head. And she didn’t even get caught. If it hadn’t been such a sombre day, we would have laughed.

I don’t know why people didn’t just learn from that. Could these people not see that Sirius didn’t want to talk to them? How could they be so insensitive?

It wasn’t just the Slytherins though. Lily Evans slapped a Sixth Year Ravenclaw boy on the way back to the common room, because he was questioning Sirius about his ‘fragile’ state, and got detention for a week. She said it was worth it.

As soon as we’d walked through the portrait, Sirius dropped a kiss on my forehead and proceeded up the stairs wordlessly. I leaned against the banister, closing my eyes and wishing that everything could be different.

"What are you doing?"

"What does it look like I’m doing? I’m joining the navy!" I snapped sarcastically.

James Potter didn’t even look surprised. "Oh. Okay then."

He didn’t leave and he didn’t say anything else. I sat down on the stairs and glared up at him. "Do you want something, James?" I asked tiredly. He and I are friends but we’ve never been as close as Sirius and I or Remus and I. I’ve always been a little…well, jealous of him, I suppose. He’s Sirius’ best friend and…well there’s always that tension between James and I. Like we’re both competing for something that doesn’t really exist. It’s not like I try to. It’s just that, in all reality, Sirius is all

I’ve got.

He fidgeted with his sleeve for a second before dropping down beside me. "Are you going to be okay?"

A tear slid down my cheek and I brushed it away angrily. "Of course I am. You should be asking Sirius this."

He smiled sheepishly. "He might just kill me if I do."

I smiled too, pushing my hair out of my eyes.

"Listen," James said hesitantly, "if you need to…well, talk or whatever, I just want you to know that I’m, well…you know…I’m-"

"Thank you, James," I said quietly, saving him the embarrassment of telling a girl that she could to talk to him if she felt the need.

He nodded slowly. "You’re welcome."

I took a deep breath and got to my feet. "I’ll see you later then."

He nodded again and then reached out, grabbing my wrist. I turned back to him, confused. "I’m…I’m sorry," he said unexpectedly.

I raised an eyebrow. "For…what?"

"I didn’t know …no, I didn’t think that you loved him as much as that."

I stared at him, his blue eyes begging me to understand. "What?"

"I don’t know what I thought," he said quietly, his eyes refusing to meet mine. "I just didn’t want you to be like the others. And I didn’t want it to be the other way around. You know…him liking you more than you like him or you liking him more than he liked you…"

"James, what-"

"Just let me finish," he said hurriedly. "I didn’t want you two to stop being friends over something that wasn’t going to last…I just-I’m sorry."

Tentatively, I stepped closer, stood on the tip of my toes and hugged him. "Me too." I don’t think either of us really knew what we were apologizing for but it didn’t matter.

For a split second, James Potter and I understood each other and that was enough.

*****

I got a Howler the next morning. Usually, I would have been frightfully embarrassed but it just made me angry. I glared at the stupid red envelope until it burst into flames, ash scattering everywhere. For once, I was glad that the Gryffindor boys of dormitory number six were late for breakfast every single morning.

"Dare I ask?"

I fixed a nasty glare on Will McKinnon (my Quidditch captain, in case you were wondering), smashing my orange juice down on the table at the same time.

He raised an eyebrow and turned away. I sighed, spooning some cereal into my mouth before scribbling on some parchment hurriedly.

Dad —

The Howler was unnecessary and will not change my mind. Please say hello to everyone for me and give them all my love.

Have a Merry Christmas,

Aria

Short and sweet and hopefully, I wouldn’t be receiving another Howler tomorrow morning, telling me that I needed to get my priorities straight.

The smile had returned to Sirius’ face by mid-afternoon, although I could see it wasn’t quite reaching his eyes. It was fixed and forced and totally devoid of any real emotion, although I could certainly understand why. He seemed to float through the next four days on automatic pilot. He was there, but he wasn’t there. He would smile but the second the person he was talking to walked away, the smile would disappear.

I don’t think anyone realized how much he was hurting until the night before the last day of school. It was hard to, I suppose. None of us could even comprehend what losing a parent felt like. We didn’t know and we couldn’t pretend to.

Sirius and I were walking leisurely back from the library (I’d forced him to help me write my Charms essay), talking about nothing in particular when Severus Snape stepped into our path with two of his friends.

"It’ll be Christmas in a few days," he said loudly to one of them.

Sirius rolled his eyes and started walking faster. He had no patience for Severus Snape, who could be really annoying when he pleased.

"It’s just such a shame," he continued, his tone turning malicious, "that certain people aren’t loved enough at home. I mean, you know you can’t possibly sink any lower than being told you have to stay at school for Christmas. Oh, by the way, Black…is your father actually going to spend time with you this Christmas? Or does he still enjoy the office more?"

Sirius froze and turned back to face Severus, an unidentifiable look on his face. Austin Black was a well-known Auror, high in rank at the Ministry. As a general rule, high-ranking officers worked right through Christmas. Be that as it may, Sirius’ father always spent Christmas Day with his family. Always.

"What did you say?" Sirius voice was low and cold and unlike anything I’d ever heard. Snape typically said things like this to make Sirius hit him. Consequently, Sirius would get detention and the cycle would begin all over again. But this was not a good topic to have picked.

Even Severus was surprised at the amount of hate in his nemesis’ reply.

Before a fight could break out, I grabbed Sirius’ hand and pulled him all the way down the hall to Gryffindor Tower. James and Peter were sitting on the floor, James desperately trying to help Peter with his homework. Sirius shook me off and went to sit with them and without asking, I knew he didn’t want me to follow. Rolling my eyes at his temper (directed at me), I stormed up the stairs and threw myself onto my bed.

Remus wasn’t at breakfast the next morning and neither was Sirius. James looked tired and his cheek was shadowed, as if he’d been hit.

"What happened?" I asked, concerned.

James frowned at me obstinately. "Nothing."

"James-" I started.

He fiddled with his toast for a moment longer before getting to his feet and gesturing to the door. Mystified, I followed him out of the Great Hall and into an empty classroom.

"What’s going on?" I asked, even more perplexed when he appeared to be checking under desks and in cupboards.

"I don’t want anyone to hear."

"Hear…what?"

He turned back to face me, an unusually solemn expression on his shadowed face. "You…erm, know about Remus?"

I frowned. "Are you stupid?"

He smiled sheepishly. "I mean, of course you know. I just, well, erm, right."

I gave him a look.

"Did Snape do something to piss Sirius off yesterday?"

I glanced up at him sharply. "Why do you ask?"

And then the whole story came spilling out. How Sirius had gone down to the kitchens to get some food and had met Severus on the way there. How he had told Severus how to open the Whomping Willow and if he followed the path, he would find Remus at the end of it. How he had very nearly gotten Snape killed.

James paused in the telling of his story. "Are you all right, Ri? You’ve gone awfully pale."

"Did…oh my God, did Severus…?"

James sighed heavily. "Sirius told me what he’d done and I…well, I had to go after him."

"You got there in time, then?"

He stared into space. "Yes. I couldn’t let Remus…and I couldn’t let Sirius feel…you know. Regret or guilt for what he’d done.

He wasn’t thinking straight. I don’t even know if he was thinking…telling Snape something like that. He knew he’d go after Remus. He knew."

We didn’t speak for a while after that.

"James, I’m worried about him. I know that his father just died but he could have gotten someone killed yesterday! That isn’t like him."

He nodded sadly. "I know. I guess he just…doesn’t know how to deal with all of this."

"I don’t want to lose him," I said quietly.

He shot me his famous James-Potter smirk. "Me neither. And we won’t. Remus’ll be able to talk some sense into him. He always can."

"If you say so, James," I muttered doubtfully.

"I do," he said firmly.

"What about Christmas?" I asked, not really expecting an answer.

James fixed his gaze on the floor. "I don’t know, Ri. I really don’t. He still thinks it’s his fault."

I hopped off the desk I was sitting on and started towards the door. "I know," I said in a small voice. "I’m going to go now."

He nodded and waved to me absent-mindedly.

"Um, James?"

"Mm?"

"…nothing. I’ll see you later."

When Remus came out of the hospital wing, he was weaker and paler than he’d ever been before. I also saw him and Sirius sitting in the library one night, sadness, and guilt on both their faces. Remus and I never talked about it but I know he saw me standing in the doorway. He gave me a half-smile and then returned to his conversation. Sirius had his head down on the table. He never looked up.

*****

Perhaps it was my imagination, but Sirius seemed to avoid me after that. It was as if he thought I was angry at him or something. Whatever it was, he kept his distance and barely said two words to me the entire day. This didn’t upset me and if anything, it just ticked me off even more. He always did this; he always kept everything hidden inside until it completely exploded and I hated it.

Which is why I found myself creeping into the boys’ dormitories at three in the morning and shaking my whatever-he-was-to-me awake.

"What are you doing?" he hissed harshly.

"Get up."

"What?!?"

"Now, Sirius. I want to talk to you and if you don’t come with me, I’ll wake up your three roommates and you’ll have to explain why I’m in your room, in your bed right now."

Grumbling something, he got up and pulled on the rest of his clothes before opening the door and pushing me outside.

"Where are we going then?"

"I don’t care. Just somewhere."

We ended up outside, at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. It was freezing outside and I wished I’d thought to bring a sweater.

"Are you cold?"

"Of course not," I said scornfully, my teeth chattering.

Sirius snorted. "Is this some lame attempt to seduce me, Ri?"

I rolled my eyes at him. "Stop it. I’m trying to be serious." I could see he was just dying to tell me that he was Sirius, yadda, yadda, yadda but I didn’t want to give him that chance. "Why did you do it?" I asked in a hoarse whisper, the loudest I could get out.

Stunned, he didn’t say anything for a moment.

"It isn’t like you, Sirius. I know you don’t like him and that you get really ticked off when I talk to him or anything but getting him killed is another thing completely."

"He didn’t get killed," Sirius muttered sulkily.

I took a deep breath, forcing the angry words I wanted to shout at him away. "Sirius…" I said warningly.

"God, you always stick up for him!" he snapped.

My jaw dropped open and I stood staring at him in shock. "What?" I hadn’t been expecting that.

"No matter what happens, you’re always defending him! ALWAYS. He’s such a bloody ass and you’re always always always telling me what a nice person he is. Well, I don’t see it, Aria! I don’t see it and I don’t want to!" He sounded like an angry five year old having a temper tantrum.

"Sirius, I’m not always-" I started softly but he cut me off.

"Yes, you are. You stick up for everyone except me. You do it all the time and I can’t understand why."

"That isn’t true-"

"Yes, it is! And I hate this! I hate having to sneak around empty classrooms just to talk to you!"

"Sirius, it was-"

"I want to be able to talk to you in front of everyone, even your little boy-toy!"

"My-"

"Snape!" he shouted, startling me. "Snape, the ass that I nearly got murdered! Yes, that’s how you see it, isn’t it?!?"

"Stop yelling at me," I snapped, fed up. "Just calm down and tell me exactly what is bothering you! You’ve hopped around all over the place and I can’t understand what it is you want from me!"

"Don’t you get it?" he shouted again. "You! That’s all! That’s it! Is it so much to ask for, Ri?"

I took a step backwards. "Sirius, stop screeching at me. I can bloody well hear you!"

He took a deep mouthful of air and didn’t say another word.

"What is going on with you?" I asked, my voice returning to normal again. "I know…that…you’re upset about your father. But trying to get someone else killed is not your style." Upset was the biggest understatement ever but there was no other word I could find for it.

"How would you know?"

"Because I do not love a murderer."

There. I’d said it. I’d said it and from the look on his face, I knew he’d heard me say it. The entire time Sirius and I have been friends, not once have I ever told him that I love him. It’s just something we both take for granted. That I love him, that he loves me. It’s just what we know. It’s what we trust.

"He deserved it," he choked out.

"Why?"

"He said things. About you."

I rolled my eyes. "What did he say?"

At this, Sirius seemed to freeze. "Just…things." He dropped onto the grass and leaned back against a tree.

Uncertainly, I sat down too and waited for him to continue.

"He said that I wasn’t good enough for you. That I’d just get you into trouble."

I made a face. "Sirius, he’s been saying things like that since Second Year. Why are you-"

"Because it’s true."

His words were so muttered that I nearly missed them. "-even listening to him, what the hell did you just say?"

He glared at me, obviously saying that he was not about to repeat himself.

I stared at him and finally the light dawned. "You’re jealous."

"I am not!"

I crossed my arms. "All right then. Tell me what’s going on."

His eyes dulled suddenly and his shoulders sagged. "I don’t want to lose you," he mumbled. "And I don’t want you to wake up one day and realize that you should have wasted your time on someone who was worth it." Sirius did have a way with words, although it didn’t show too often.

"I highly doubt that I will wake up one day and think that I should have been with Severus Snape instead of you. Come on, Sirius. You’re my best friend."

"And what else?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.

I paused. "What do you mean, what else?"

"Best friends don’t grope at each other in broom closets," he replied testily. "They don’t sneak around to steal kisses from each other. And they don’t feel the way that I feel about you."

He turned away from me and I stared up at the sky, wishing more than anything, that I knew what to say to him.

"What brought this on?" I asked quietly.

He gave a half-hearted laugh. "I think I’ve just realized how easy it is to lose someone you…love."

My throat seized up and I swallowed hard. "I’m staying for Christmas, you know."

He made a derisive noise. "Why?"

I didn’t know how to reply and I was quiet for a long moment. "To be with you."

He turned around and just stared at me. And then, he pulled me into his arms suddenly, crushing me against his chest. One of his hands tangled in my hair as he held me. When he kissed me, it wasn’t his typical, lazy, gentle, ‘Sirius’ kiss. It was almost frantic, as if he were afraid it would be the last time. "I’m sorry," he choked out, placing a tender kiss on my neck. "I’m so sorry…please don’t hate me."

I pulled away slightly, so I could see into his eyes. "I don’t hate. Anyone. Especially not you. Never you."

He gave me a watery smile. "I do, you know."

"You do what?"

He got up, pulling me to my feet. We walked slowly back to the school, his arm around my shoulders, and he still hadn’t answered my question. He didn’t speak until we’d reached the inside of Gryffindor Tower and he was standing on the landing of the girls’ dormitories.

"I love you," he whispered. He placed a gentle kiss on my cheek and ran his thumb over my lips lovingly before kissing me in a way that made my knees tremble and my heart race and that left me breathless and weak. And then he slid down the banister and hopped up the stairs to his own dormitory, not once looking back.

*****

The first day of the holidays dawned bright and cheerful, a stark contrast to the light dusting of snow still on the ground.

Sirius and I waved goodbye to everyone at the main doors and then walked back to Gryffindor Tower, my fingers intertwined with his.

We were both quiet and I knew he was thinking about his father.

"I still can’t believe this is real."

I looked up from my book in surprise. Sirius was leaning against the foot of the couch, not looking at me.

"I’m going to the funeral tomorrow." He still wouldn’t look at me. "I know that I…that you probably won’t want to but I just…I need to ask you if you’d come with me." His eyes finally met mine. "Your parents’ll probably be there and I-"

I would have gone even if he hadn’t asked. Austin Black was like my second father and more of a father to me than my own had ever been. It was he who had read me bedtime stories (I only ever heard them when I stayed at Sirius’ house) and who’d bandaged my knees when I’d fallen. I could not recall one single occasion when my own father had even bothered with me when I’d been crying.

"What time are we going?" I asked gently.

He stared at me for a second, an unreadable expression on his face before he nodded. "Thanks," he said hoarsely.

I closed the book and slid off the couch so I was sitting next to him. "Always."

He sighed and then lay his head down on my knees, closing his eyes. I felt the tears fill my eyes again but I didn’t let them fall. There was a time for laughter and a time for tears and right now was not a time for either.

The rest of our day was quiet and as peaceful as it could be with three Second Years and two Fourth Years shrieking outside. Sirius had been sleeping all day. First on the floor and then after lunch, on the sofa. I turned back to the window, smiling as I saw one of the Second Years tackle her brother (one of the Fourth Years) to the ground, shoving snow into his face.

Strong arms draped around my waist and I leaned back against Sirius’ chest. "You’re up."

He chuckled lightly and I smiled as I felt it vibrate through him.

"You have a really sick mind."

He kissed my cheek and I could feel him smirking at me. "You know you want me."

I snorted. "Sure. Like I want a toothache."

We settled into a comfortable pause, the kind that can only exist when you trust someone with your life. "What exactly are you watching?"

"Everything."

There was another pause and then he said, "Ri…when school starts again…when everyone comes back, I don’t want to be sneaking into Filch’s disinfectant closet anymore."

I didn’t say anything.

"I know we never really agreed to tell anyone or not to tell anyone…but I just…I want everyone to know. You know?"

I turned around, hugging him tightly. "That’s sweet, Sirius," I teased.

His shoulders relaxed and he laughed softly. "Actually, I just want Paul McDonald to stop flirting with you. I hate that guy."

I rolled my eyes but had no reply.

We settled on the floor in front of the fire and no words passed between us. As I leaned against his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around me, I didn’t need to tell him that I loved him. Because he knew. And I knew. And that was all that mattered.

It occurred to me then that I was only sixteen and much too young to be in love. As my father said, I was too young to even know what love was and definitely too young to know what I wanted for the rest of my life. But on that winter afternoon, with the sun streaming in and reflecting off the window panes, lying in Sirius’ arms, all I knew was that I was young, I was in love and that Sirius Black was all I wanted for the rest of my life.

And later, when I was unable to sleep and I crept into Sirius’ bedroom, just to make sure he was there, I knew that I would do anything to make sure that he never felt the pain he did right then. Watching him in that room, with the moonlight streaming in through the gap in the curtains and his hair all tousled and messy, I knew that I would sell my very soul to keep him safe.

*****

The funeral was accompanied with grey skies and a light drizzle. But doesn’t it always rain when you bury someone? Sirius didn’t cry. He stood to the side, his arm around his trembling mother, but he didn’t cry. And everyone wore black and the only sounds were tears of sadness.

My parents ignored me or perhaps they didn’t even see me. Surely they understood why I had broken such an important family tradition. In any case, they left soon afterwards and uttered not a single word to me. It didn’t really bother me the way it should have. Should that have frightened me? That I cared more about someone else’s feelings than about my family’s?

People milled around afterwards, offering their condolences for "the loss of such a great man." Sirius remained stony-faced and thanked them like he should. Soon, it was just the three of us, Sirius, his mother and me, left standing in the cemetery.

Alcina Black was younger than most mothers and had a perpetually happy smile on her face. Seeing her cry and the look of complete despair on her face was something I knew I would never forget.

I reached out instinctively and grabbed Sirius’ hand, tugging him away. When we stood six feet away from the newly dug grave, his mother crouched down, nearly clutching at the damp earth. Quickly, I moved so that Sirius’ back was to her. He adored both his parents but his mother especially. Seeing her break down like that would ruin him.

"I can’t believe this is happening," he said, shaking his head. "How did this happen?"

I bit my lip hard. "I don’t know."

"I miss him."

I tightened my grip on his hand. "I know." I hugged him as hard as I dared and that’s how we remained until Alcina staggered over and laid her arms around the both of us. I kissed Sirius chastely and backed away. His mother embraced him a moment longer before letting go and staring tearfully at him.

"Your father was so proud of you," she whispered. "Is so proud of you," she added a moment later. "And he loves you Sirius.

He does. More than you can even imagine."

I turned away, knowing I would start to cry if I didn’t.

"We’ll be okay, Sirius. We will be." She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself more than she was Sirius. She hugged him again. "I don’t want to send you back to school," she said sniffling as she laid her hand on Sirius’ cheek, "but I need to tie up your father’s business stuff. I don’t want to…" she trailed off.

"It’s fine, Mum," he said quietly.

"No, Sirius, it isn’t. I’m so sorry…" she took a deep breath, her voice wavering slightly. "You’ve never spent Christmas alone and I…" she choked now, her eyes filling once more.

"I won’t be alone," Sirius said, glancing at me beseechingly. He hated watching people cry. He said it made him feel helpless. "Ri’s staying with me."

Alcina raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow, smiling through her tears.

"It’s not like that," I put in hurriedly.

"Of course it is," Sirius mumbled under his breath.

I trod on his foot and he shut up.

Alcina seemed to have taken this time to gather her wits. "All right then, you two," she said. "I should put you back on the train."

The walk back to the station was silent. Sirius found my hand and refused to let go, despite the interested looks his mother was throwing the two of us. We found a compartment quickly and then Sirius disappeared to find something to drink. I suspect that the atmosphere was just getting too much for him. Watching your mother cry is one of the most disturbing visions you could ever have.

"Austin suspected, you know."

My head snapped up. "Suspected…what?"

She smiled at me, her eyes twinkling slightly. "That you two were together. I think he even convinced me. Although now I don’t exactly need convincing."

I ducked my head, too embarrassed for words. Was this a parent thing? Did they always have to do this?

"At least now I don’t have to worry about my son." She sat down opposite me, rubbing her eyes. "Oh…how Austin would have loved to see you two…"

I fiddled with the sleeve of my sweater, pulling out a single black thread.

She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Aria…please…make sure that he’s happy."

I stared at her. "You’re not going to…"

"No, no! Nothing like that. I wouldn’t do that to him. He can’t lose both of us." She gazed out the window wistfully. "He’s away at school for nearly nine months of the year," she continued quietly. "I just need to know that he’s happy."

"He’s one of the top students."

Her hazel eyes met mine sharply. "That isn’t what I meant."

"I know."

She smiled, as if suddenly reassured by something. "I know my son, Aria. He won’t let it show but I know. I just need you to be there when it hits him."

I swallowed hard. "I will be."

She hugged me, kissing my cheek quickly. "You’re so special, sweetie. Don’t believe otherwise."

She met Sirius on the platform and I watched him kiss her goodbye. And I felt something inside me twist. I wished, that just once, my mother would tell me that. It sounds cheesy and ridiculous but I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear that I was special and that, even though they had no reason to be, my parents were proud of me.

*****

‘It’ didn’t hit Sirius until Christmas Day. He slept past noon as I sat and read in the common room. At five o’clock, he stormed down the stairs, into the Common Room and slammed the door.

I looked up, my heart racing. I hadn’t expected him to make that much noise. "What’s wrong?"

Sirius started cursing and screaming about things I couldn’t even understand. He cursed Death Eaters, he cursed Voldemort, he cursed Severus Snape, he cursed all the Slytherins, he cursed the full moon, he cursed Christmas. He kept going and going until his voice gave out and he crumbled to his knees in front of the chair I was sitting in.

"I hate them!" he shouted, his voice croaking. "I hate them…I hate them…"

I reached out towards him impulsively. "You’re crying." It was a stupid thing to say. Unthinking and obvious. Excruciatingly obvious.

He buried his face in my shoulder and I could feel his tears coursing down my neck. I pulled him closer to me, stroking his hair.

"-isn’t fair," he said croakily. "He wasn’t supposed to-wasn’t his fault-hate them-my Mum…" And then he gave up and let me

hold him.

I wasn’t about to tell him that it was all right, that everything was okay. I wasn’t about to lie to him. We stretched out on the floor and I still wouldn’t let go of him. Oh, how unfair this was. How imbalanced this was. And this was the world we lived in. Where innocent blood was spilled, where families were ripped apart and where murderers walked free.

An hour later, his tears had diminished but his anger had not.

"I’ll kill every last one of them," he growled. "The second we get out of here, I swear-"

I chewed on my lip but wisely said nothing.

"I’ll destroy all of them. No matter what. They’ll pay."

"With your blood?" I snapped, finally getting fed up. "Your life?"

"I’ll kill them all," he said, and I knew he wasn’t listening to me.

"The second you do that, you’re lost. You can’t be the same after you kill a man in cold blood. Your life will be for nothing. Is that what you want?"

He glared at me. "If that’s what it takes. I’ll get my revenge. They deserve it."

And I slapped him. "You’re just going to leave me, is that it?" I said angrily. "I don’t matter now, is that it?"

He looked away, a guilty look falling on his face. "Of course you do. But this is important."

"And your life isn’t? Sirius, I know this is important to you-"

"The hell you do!" he bellowed suddenly. "You don’t know what this feels like! You can’t sit there and tell me what to do!"

"Then don’t tell me you love me!" I shouted back. "Don’t tell me that if you’re just going to take the easy way out and become a goddamn murderer!"

He stopped, looking as if I’d just slapped him again.

"It isn’t you fault he’s…dead, Sirius," I said firmly. "If you want to become an Auror, then do it. You know I’ll support you. But I won’t support you if you seek them out, get yourself killed and leave me on my own. Please, Sirius. Don’t ask me to do that. We’ll stop them, I swear, one day we will. But it won’t be because you went searching for revenge. It won’t complete you, Sirius. You’ll become the very thing you hate."

He wouldn’t look at me.

I nodded slowly. "All right then. I’m just going to go and get something to eat. Do you want anything?"

He shrugged, turning slightly away from me.

I sighed in a mixture of sadness and irritation before getting up and leaving the room. I was on my way to the kitchens when I crashed into someone heaving a large black trunk.

"James?" I asked incredulously as the trunk toppled to the ground.

He straightened up and smiled sheepishly. "Uh, hi."

I frowned at him. "You’re…here."

He puffed up his chest and smirked. "Yup. Came back for Christmas."

I stared at him and a slow smile spread across my face and I had to physically restrain myself from throwing my arms around him. "I have never been so glad to see you in my entire life."

He looked slightly confused. "Um…you haven’t?"

"Your parents let you come back?"

He shrugged. "They didn’t really have much of a say in it. Remus and I decided we were going to come back anyway. And Peter too, of course. They’ll be here later though. Remus wasn’t feeling well and Peter had to spend some time with his relatives." He took a closer look at me. "Why are you crying?"

"I’m not," I lied, forcing myself to smile.

"Is Sirius upstairs?"

"What? Oh yes…I just came down to get some food."

He nodded. "I’ll just leave this here for Moony, shall I? He and Peter can get it when they come. They’ll be here before ten, I expect." He grabbed my arm and started pulling my towards the kitchens. "I’ll help you."

Help me, my ass. He picked out the chocolate and the cakes and all that other sweet stuff that makes you sick when you eat too much of it.

"Right…ready to go?"

And then I started to cry. I sat down at the table, laid my head in my arms and cried. James hovered for a second before he sat down too and waited for me to calm down.

"What is it?"

"You," I whimpered. "You guys came back for him."

He placed an arm around me and patted my shoulder gently. "Of course we did. We love him too, you know. And if you ever tell anyone I said that, I’ll kill you."

I laughed reluctantly before looking up at him. "James, he wants to be an Auror."

James shrugged. "He’s always wanted to be an Auror."

"This is different though. He wants to be an Auror so he can hunt down his father’s murderer."

There was silence. "No, you misunderstood him. Padfoot isn’t like that."

"He said it, James."

"You heard wrong." I looked at him, defeated and he ran a nervous hand through his already-messy hair. "Then we’re just going to have to watch him, aren’t we?" He sounded determined and so sure of himself.

I sighed, getting up. James pushed me back into the chair.

"I know that we aren’t the best of friends," he started, "but neither of us wants to lose our best friend. We aren’t going to lose him. We’ll watch him. And we’ll do whatever it takes to protect him."

You might think the two of us were making a big deal over nothing. But then, in those times, the threat of Voldemort was very real. People were dying every day. Auror death-rates were increasing by the minute and I wasn’t about to lose my best friend because he went on a sudden rampage. I didn’t want to lose him to Voldemort. In any way.

I nodded. "Whatever it takes."

*****

The three of us spent the Christmas evening sitting around the fire, doing absolutely nothing productive. Remus joined us shortly after eleven, looking tired and worn out but happy.

"You’re here!" James exclaimed. "Thought you weren’t coming."

"Yes well…Mum nearly didn’t let me. And then I met someone’s trunk in the middle of the hallway. Wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?"

James shrugged. "You brought it though, didn’t you?"

Remus looked perturbed. "Yes… damnit. You knew I would. You great prat."

We laughed and we argued and we told stupid stories and we were happy. We remembered and we forgot and we sat in long periods of silence. But we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

So, that’s how I spent the Christmas of my Sixth Year. With James and Remus, who kept smirking at each other knowingly, until Sirius just gave up and kissed me (granted, it was under the mistletoe and James had dared him to), and then later with Peter, who stumbled in at two in the morning. He’d missed the last train and had walked fifteen miles to get to school. Just to make sure he spent at least part of Christmas with his friends.

And that’s what love and Christmas are really all about. Both have nothing to do with what you get but rather what you give: which is your smile, your tears, your laughter, your life and your soul. And it’s not enough until you’re prepared to give everything. That’s when you discover that you don’t have to. Because someone who loves you would never take any of those things.

On that Christmas, we knew that our deaths were closer than they had been the month before. On that Christmas, we knew that evil would come and claim us. Oh, we knew that one or more of us would fall. We knew, oh yes, we knew. We also knew that we wouldn’t cower in fear and wait for it to torment us, to break us, to destroy us. We would stand and we would fight it.

We would drift, like petals scattered on the wind, for eternity, but we would hold onto each other, so not one could drift too far.

Or we would fall, like stars raining down onto the Earth. No one could catch us and every time they tried, we’d just slip through their fingers like sand. We’d fall forever…but we wouldn’t fall alone.

And that’s what it comes down to. Friendship. Because in the end, that’s all there is.