- January 8th -

Sirius broke out in a sweat whenever he was in a loud place or surrounded by a lot of people. He kept his head down and made himself as small as possible, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. He knew he was being ridiculous, knew he used to love crowds and being loud, but it was different now. He was different. That was part of the reason he liked to go out so early in the morning or late at night. There were fewer people about. That Liam bloke was right to call him out on it, though. He had no business invading their home without invitation, especially so early.

Sirius ran a shaky hand through his hair. Remus had cut it for him, but he liked it long, so it fell to his shoulders, curling loosely. It had thinned out since he'd been in Azkaban, and there were strands of white threaded throughout. He'd also decided to keep his beard and mustache, but he trimmed them short so they looked neat while still shadowing his jaw line, softening the harsh angles left on him from starvation. He was starting to look human again, and Sirius clung to that image with a death grip.

On the verge of a panic attack by the time they got back to Remus's cottage, Sirius had made a quick break for the bathroom. He stared into the mirror above the sink basin and let the reflection of the human being that stared back calm him until his breathing deepened and his hands stopped shaking. If visiting the boys in muggle London was going to effect him so, then he had no idea how he was going to handle the trip to the Ministry in less than two hours, but James and Harry were counting on him. He had to get it together.

Wiping his hands and face on the hand towel hanging on the wall, Sirius left the bathroom. He found Remus standing by the fireplace, his back to the room. Sirius grinned. His old friend was hiding. Remus was so different, so much older. It was another thing so disorienting. The man was and he wasn't the best friend Sirius remembered. It was like waking up in a different reality. When he did things like this, however, this new Remus became painfully familiar - he'd always been so damn shy, always hiding, needing to be coaxed and cajoled.

Sirius forced a grin and pretended to be the person he once was (if he pretended hard enough, he might be him again). "Come on, Moony. It can't be that bad. It never is with you." He flung himself on the couch and adopted a lounging pose.

Remus turned. His hair was shorter than his friend had ever wore it, clearly exposing his scarred and aged face. There was grey in his hair as well, but the anxious light brown eyes, the nervous body language, superimposed the brother he had loved over the unfamiliar adult standing before him.

"It's complicated," Remus said softly in an undertone. Almost petulantly.

Sirius couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. Tears instantly streaked his face. Wrapping his arms around his middle, he howled, hardly able to breathe. Remus was instantly there, sitting beside him and rubbing his back, talking to him softly, trying to calm him down.

Sirius bit his lip hard as his laughter took a wild turn into sobs. No! He had to get it together! He flung himself off the couch and went to the front door, flinging it open. The winter air hit him like a slap to the face. It calmed him. After a few deep breaths, he turned back to Remus, leaving the door open behind him, uncaring of the bitter cold that flooded in. He pretended his outburst hadn't happened and plopped on the couch next to his old friend.

"Come on, Moony. I'm not exactly dumb as rocks." He flashed a grin. "You can tell me."

Remus didn't look convinced, but he began to speak. "I may have… left a few details out when I explained about the boys." His posture changed, his gaze became more direct, almost piercing. It set Sirius aback and took the smile from his face. Remus seemed wholly unfamiliar all of a sudden.

"When Draco was kiddnapped from the New York orphanage, he was taken by a pedophile. He was kept and molested for some time before being sold to human traffickers. Because his magic defended him, he became unsellable, so the Master of the boat kept Draco on as his personal slave. He tortured Draco physically and mentally. He also raped him frequently. He may not have been able to do it himself, but he used toys and other objects to defile Draco's body."

"Merlin's blood," Sirius gasped, face pale and horror-stricken. He looked like was going to be sick.

Remus said nothing, looking away and giving Sirius a minute to collect himself. When his friend's breathing evened out, he turned his eyes to him again and continue the bleak tale. "When the Dursleys sold Harry, it was to the same group. That was how they met. Draco and Harry…" Remus sighed. "They fell in love there. Draco made it his job to protect Harry. He'd been honed into a warrior, allowed no weakness. He was used to making hard decisions and having no one care for him or look out for him, and he took to taking care of Harry like a fish to water."

"Bloody hell." Sirius's hands were shaking again. "Why didn't you tell me?" When Remus spoke of it before, his story had begun with him finding the boys. He hadn't really told him much about how the boys got to be in America or their situation there.

Remus didn't answer directly. His voice became quieter as he continued his explanation. "I told you about the Scourers." His hand raised to subconsciously brush the puckered scars on his cheek. "And how we recovered in a hidden magical village. I learned a lot about Lycanthropy there. They have a completely different perspective on the curse. Lycans in America… They embrace the wolf. Find a balance. It makes them less dangerous, less bloodthirsty…"

Sirius began to grin, true happiness sparkling up from the depths of his soul. Remus had suffered so long. He'd genuinely hated himself. To hear him recognize that he wasn't a monster… It was the best feeling in the world. He turned and pulled Remus into a hug. "We told you that for years. You were never a monster," he rasped, so damn happy for his friend.

Remus ducked his head and shrugged uncomfortably. Sirius pulled back, but his hands still warmly held to Remus's shoulders. Remus steeled his resolve, terrified of losing that acceptance and care. "Well, it also brought the wolf instincts to the surface, even when the moon isn't full. Some of those instincts…"

Sirius frowned when his friend hesitated. "What are you trying to say?"

"I'm saying…" Remus took a deep breath. His fists clenched on his knees, but he raised his chin in defiance. "My wolf… No…" He met Sirius eyes firmly. "I… I see Draco as my Alpha."

Sirius didn't understand. "What do you mean?"

Remus refused to look away from his friend's eyes. "Draco is my Alpha. He's the leader of my pack, Sirius. He leads and I follow. Just as Harry does."

Sirius shook his head, uncomprehending. His hands fell from Remus's shoulders as he subconsciously leaned away from his friend. "Like Harry does?"

Remus pushed harder. "Harry is completely submissive to Draco. The Dursleys… They convinced him he was a freak, a subhuman monster. They'd scrub their skin raw if they ever touched him or he touched them. He cleaned and groveled and was barely fed. He was kept in a dirty cupboard under the stairs. Sometimes they didn't let him out for days."

Thinking about it put the edge of a growl in his voice. Remus coughed to clear his throat. "Draco… Draco made Harry his, and in turn made Harry worth something because in Harry's eyes Draco is amazing and perfect - powerful and brilliant. Anything of Draco's had to be worth something, too. It wasn't even until Draco told him that Harry even knew his name. Draco said it was like a vision. He knew Harry's name, knew something evil was after him, and chose to make Harry his regardless. Harry is Harry because of Draco."

Sirius was on his feet. He was breathing hard. He didn't understand why because he still didn't really understand what Remus was telling him.

Remus stood to face him. He desperately grabbed hold of Sirius's shoulders and raised his voice to be sure his friend was hearing him. "Harry was one step short of becoming an Obscurus, Sirius, and Draco pulled him free from that while Harry gave Draco something worthwhile to fight for, to protect and love, when all he knew was abuse and hate. That is the foundation of their powerful bond. That is what binds them together."

"But what does that have to do with you?" Sirius demanded.

Remus's hands tightened on his friends shoulders. "Draco… Draco overpowered my wolf. I recognize his strength of will. I trust him with my life."

"So you what? Bow to him? Take his orders?" Sirius asked confused.

"Yes," Remus answered, calm. "I do. He's my leader. That doesn't mean I can't argue with him or offer my advise. If I need something, Draco would do everything he could to provide it. Just as I would do anything in my power to give him what he needs and to protect both him and Harry. They are my life now. We're a pack."

"Have you…" Sirius swallowed, eyes wild. "Have you…?"

Remus gasped, hands flying from Sirius as if burned. "Merlin no! Sirius! I would never! They're children!" He forced his voice to calm. "Think of Draco as a child king or Lord. There have been plenty of those in history. I'm a part of his court. He has my allegiance, that's all!"

Sirius had grown up in a fanatical Pureblood House. He had rejected all of his lessons and avoided them as much as possible, but he knew the histories. Allegiance to a Lord, even a child Lord, made a bit more sense to him, but the idea had his skin crawling. Anything that touched on the lessons his family tried to teach him did.

"Okay. So… What?" He sat shakily, unable to keep his feet. "I mean, what does it all mean?"

Remus sat next to him, voice compassionate and kind once more. "Nothing. It just means Draco and Harry are special. And Liam was trying to tell you that. Harry…" His voice softened still further. "Harry and Draco are inseparable. You can't think of them in isolation. And if you want to have a close relationship with Harry, you're going to have to get Draco's approval first. That's all. Draco's the protector. He's not always right. His past has scarred him terribly, so he is overly against authority and doesn't always seek help when he needs to, but we can't expect otherwise after the abuse and torture he suffered. Really we can't. He's doing his best."

Sirius stared at Remus as if he had two heads. "He's your Lord. Draco Malfoy is your Lord."

Remus sighed. "Sirius, he's only known Lucius for two and a half years, and that time was spent half with Andromeda, so really he's only been with Lucius for about a year. In fact, he grew up thinking he was Draco Black. You can't think of him as a Malfoy. He's not."

The image of the small blond flashed to mind. He looked just like Lucius had growing up… and he also didn't. Draco's eyes were so much harder, so much more piercing. And that kiss… Sirius's cheeks went hot and he leapt to his feet, immediately rejecting the memory and the hot, painful tangle of emotions that went with it. "I'm going to make tea!"

Remus watched as his friend practically ran from the room. He was wracked with worry. He knew Sirius was overwhelmed, but what could he do? Remus felt utterly helpless. Helpless to explain in a way Sirius would understand. Helpless to make his friend well. It was a feeling that had consumed his life, but he'd begun to shed that feeling and come into something more confident. Feeling it well up once more made him feel so discouraged. As if he were losing ground that he had fought so hard to gain. It made him sweat, made him want to curl up and hide.

Teeth clenched, Remus lifted his hand to clutch the dragon pendant he never took off. The feeling of it solid in his fist made his heartbeat slow. Remus had a mission: bring Sirius into the pack. He just had to stay focused on that.

The Natural History Museum in London had a lawn that had been transformed into an ice rink. An enormous Christmas tree sat in the middle that glittered and sparkled. Dozens of people wrapped up in their winter scarves, thick jackets, and gloves circled the tree on their skates to the sound of pipped in instrumental music. The day was cold and cloudy, but the air was filled with loud voices and laughter.

Liam had learned to skate in New York. He had gone every winter with his brother until they got busy with their adult lives, and he'd always loved it. If his life had been different, he would have asked the parents he never had for lessons or maybe even played hockey.

Right now his hair had been pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of his eyes and he was grinning as he skated backward. He watched as Draco and Harry leaned on each other, their feet wobbling as they tried to stay upright. Both of the boy were smiling, their cheeks pink, their eyes bright. Harry lost his balance and flopped on his butt, skidding a few feet. Draco toppled down with him.

Skating up to them and sending shaved ice up into their faces playfully, Liam offered them both his hands. "Almost made it a full circuit before falling," he said with a laugh. "Getting better!"

Draco playfully growled and grabbed one of his hands. "Shut up. You just brought us here so you could show off." He was especially disgruntled because he had been skating with Narcissa and Lucius before during Yule, but the skates had been charmed to make sure they didn't fall. Doing it without magic was apparently a whole different story.

Harry grabbed Liam's other hand. "Sorry."

Liam shook his head and pulled them back onto their feet. "Would I do somethin' like that?" he asked and ruffled both their hair simultaneously- Harry's wild, black mop and Draco's straight, white strands.

"Maybe if we sped up?" Draco knocked Liam's hand away reflexively. "Momentum might keep us up."

"Sure!" Liam skated neatly behind them and put a hand in the center of their backs. "Here we go!"

Harry gave a delighted cry as Liam began to push them faster than they had managed so far on their own.

Sirius was pretending again. He was king of the world, free and unstoppable. Of course, the potion that Remus convinced him to take, the one prescribed to him by the healers to help calm his anxiety, probably helped. He also looked the part.

He was wearing Remus's best suit. The jacket was a muddy brown with cream pen-stripes. Underneath, he wore a burgundy vest with repeating gold fleur-de-lis. Under that, he wore a neutral brown dress shirt with a high collar even when it was folded in half. It also had cream pin-stripes. This was paired with brown slacks and a lighter brown leather shoe. Remus had even given him a golden watch and chain that he wore clipped to his vest. He looked respectable; James would have died laughing!

Sirius shoved away the immediate rush of grief the innocent thought had invoked and plastered on a wide smile. As he strode through the halls of the Ministry, the natural movement of people at work slowed and came to a halt. He was followed by whispers and murmurs, dozens of eyes staring. Sirius expected someone to jump on him or cast a Stupefy and drag him back to prison. His breath became harsh, his grin more fixed and brittle. The only thing that kept him from breaking and running was the fact that Remus walked behind him. His back was guarded.

Before he could truly panic or run back the way he came, Sirius was distracted by arriving at the door to the Department of Wizarding Child Services. He breezed through, pretending with all his might that everything was fine, and was faced with a small receptions desk positioned in the center of a small lobby. Behind it was a honeycomb of about two dozen desks partitioned off from each other by five-foot tall dividers. There was a low hum of dozens of conversations and people moving about with folders and files carried in their arms. Along the wall were cheerful, bright posters. The furniture was comfortable and slightly shabby, nothing like the Auror department. It made Sirius relax.

"Can I help you?" a blond witch with her hair piled in a messy bun asked as she looked up. "Mr. Black! Good morning."

Sirius's stiff grin relaxed into a charming smile. "Good morning, love. I'm here about Harry Potter's guardianship."

She smiled back. "Of course! Department Head Abbot is taking your case on personally. Please have a seat; she'll be ready momentarily." She gestured to the line of chairs pushed up against the side wall. "Can I get you anything while you wait?"

Sirius waved the suggestion away. "No, thanks." He'd caught sight of a woman waiting, posture perfect. He knew that face - aged though it was. A curly-haired toddler sat in her lap bouncing a stuffed pink monster doll up and down happily. A man sat at her side. He was round and aged, but Sirius thought he recognized him, too.

"Andromeda?" He asked, stopping in front of the seated woman.

She blinked and looked up at him. A huge smile crossed her features. Handing the girl off to the man, she stood and pulled him into a hug. The Black family had been very against public displays of affection - saw it as a weakness. Feeling Andromeda hold him made Sirius grin - this was one of the reasons why she had always been his favorite.

"Sirius! I'm so glad to see you. So glad!" She squeezed him tighter before pulling back. Tears glittered in her eyes and roughened her voice.

"Me, too, Dromeda," he said warmly.

"We were very happy to hear you were acquitted," Ted added as he wife finally released the man.

"Thank you," Sirius said with a grin. "You're looking good, Ted." He looked at the little girl in his lap. "Who's this then? Can't be little Dora."

Andromeda took her daughter back from her husband and rested her on her hip. Lifting the toddler's hand, she waved it at Sirius. "This is Denebola Regina Tonks. She's our little miracle."

Sirius grinned as the girl smiled up at him happily, babbling something incomprehensible. "Greetings, young lady. The pleasure's all mine," he said with a winning smile, bowing. The little girl giggled. Sirius straightened and asked happily, "How old is she?"

"She'll be turning two on the first day of May," Andromeda answered proudly and kissed her daughter's cheek.

"I've heard you've been taking care of Harry," Sirius said as Andromeda sat, shifting Dee onto her lap. He took the seat next to his cousin. "Thank you for looking out for him."

Remus sat on Sirius's other side without saying a word of greeting to the other two. Not that Sirius noticed. Sirius did notice, however, when Andromeda's expression darkened and Ted sighed. Remus sat tense, ready to intervene. This wasn't a good place to get into anything too sensitive.

"I did my best," Andromeda said, voice low with heavy undertones.

Sirius stared at his cousin, surprised at the dramatic change in mood. "Dromeda?"

Ted waved his wand and cast a muffling spell so their conversation would be private. "We've had a recent falling out with the boys," he said softly, explaining.

Sirius looked at his cousin expectantly.

Andromeda lifted her chin, tears filling her eyes once more. She hugged Dee closer to her chest and the little girl looked up at her curiously. "I've recently begun to question Draco and Harry's… relationship. I feel it would be better if they spent some time apart… Gained a little perspective…" When Sirius continued to stare, she added a bit more sharply. "I think they are confusing the bond for other types of feelings. I was hoping to speak to you about this before now, but my owls were returned and I didn't know where to floo-call you. If you win custody, I'd like you to petition to have Harry and request that the Malfoys take charge of Draco."

"What does Lucius think about this?" Remus asked when Sirius didn't answer.

Andromeda looked away anxiously. "He is… confused," she said stiffly. "Draco is… manipulative. He's used our pity for him to get his way with Harry, but I don't think it is healthy or appropriate." She met Sirius's eyes. "We're the adults and it is our job to set boundaries and teach them right from wrong. Draco has run rampant long enough."

"We disagree," Ted cut in, surprising everyone, including his wife.

Andromeda knew they didn't agree on this - they had argued enough about it that it was impossible not to know - but to go against her publicly… She felt her breath catch, a burn of betrayal and hurt searing her chest.

"I understand that the boys have a very unconventional relationship, but they have had an unconventional life." Ted's eyes darkened. "To put it mildly." His gaze shifted to his wife. "I understand why you are struggling with this, I do, but I believe separating them is not the answer."

Andromeda looked furious. "They are children. And boys at that."

"Yes, but they've been having sex forcibly and violently since the age of six, Dromeda. They've been abused and suffered pain we can't imagine. I understand they are children and by no means do I think children should ever be exposed to sex at such a young age - not when they can't understand emotionally and physically what is happening to their bodies - but the reality is that Draco and Harry were. There's no taking back that knowledge."

"And don't you think that has warped them?" Andromeda hissed furiously. "They need help, Ted!"

Ted shook his head. "Yes, of course they do, but I don't think it's right to judge them for the way they have found to heal from what they have experienced. In fact, it wouldn't have surprised me if they had hated their bodies and hurt themselves after everything they went through, but instead they are reclaiming their bodies and their sexuality in a positive way through love. That's a good thing, isn't it?"

Andromeda gasped. "Ted! How can you say that?"

Ted put his hand on his wife's knee, expression imploring. "A huge part of what led me to believe this is the fact that the boys have such a deep magical, psychic, and emotional bond. Dromeda, think about it. They are literally bound together as one. They have one magical signature. You can't tell the difference if Draco has cast a spell on something or Harry. They are linked at a soul-deep level. I've known those boys for two years same as you, and I don't see how you can possibly entertain the notion that Draco would do anything to hurt Harry. Or that Harry would do anything that would hurt Draco."

"Their perspective is so twisted they don't know that they are hurting each other!" Andromeda countered furiously, yelling. Dee began to cry, but she ignored that. "That they're only continuing the abuse they've suffered because that is the pattern that was laid out for them!"

Ted took Dee from his wife. Andromeda resisted, but he shot her a sharp glance so uncommon for him that she relented and let Dee go. He kept his voice calm as he gently cradled his crying daughter, but he wasn't backing down. "They love each other, Dromeda. They are attracted to each other. Perfectly normal eleven-year-old boys are capable of that, I assure you. That doesn't mean their mind is twisted."

"Ted!" Andromeda was aghast. "How can you say those desires are normal?"

Sirius flinched beside her and Remus put a supportive hand on his arm.

Ted stared her down. "Draco and Harry have lived long enough with people enforcing their will on their bodies and giving them no choice in what is done to them. We have to take that into consideration." He raised his hand sharply when Andromeda opened her mouth to say something else. "I'm all for the boys finding a mind healer they can trust and seeing them regularly, but I am against this idea that they shouldn't be in love or together." Almost coldly, he added, "Just because they are both boys. You know how I feel about that prejudice."

Andromeda looked furious and terribly shocked. They had argued about this and argued about this, but still neither of them could compromise. "I truly don't understand how you can believe what you are saying. How can you not see how depraved all this is?"

Sirius flinched again. Tears burned his eyes. "What the hell does it matter if you have a penis or breasts?"

Andromeda turned to him, shocked. "What?"

"What does it bloody matter, really?" He hissed, fists clenched on his knees and shaking. "When you die, you don't take this body with you. Who you are isn't your legs or your arms or your face. You aren't defined by your body if you're crippled or deformed, so why are we so bloody defined by what's between our legs? It's just tissue!" Sirius was yelling now, tears streaking his face. "We're made of energy; we're made of spirit and will! That's what makes us who we are! What does that have to do with the shell we're wearing?"

Sirius was on his feet now with no memory of having stood. Remus had a tight grip on his arm, but Sirius could barely feel it. A lifetime of pain, fear, and self-hatred welled up inside him and was unleashed in a tidal wave of words.

"What does it matter if a few people here and there match up man-to-man and girl-to-girl? We're all just bloody muscle and skeleton anyway, so it doesn't fucking matter, does it? At the core, we're all the same! Male and female didn't matter for shite in Azkaban let me tell you! Everyone screams and cries and shits and suffers the goddamn same! So what's the bloody difference in the end, really? Does anyone really have the right to say what happens in someone else's heart is wrong or right? That some people are better than others? That this person is right, but this one isn't? Can't you see how bloody senseless it all is? What the hell does it have to do with you anyway? IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU!"

Andromeda stared at him speechless, mouth falling lax and eyes wide with shock.

"Come on, Siri. Let's go cool down," Remus cut in very gently, tugging at Sirius's arm. With a golden-eyed look at Andromeda, he guided the hyperventilating man to the bathroom.

After about three hours, Draco and Harry had officially gotten the hang of ice skating. They were speeding around the ice rink, Liam chasing after them. They took turns sharply and could do sliding stops, sending ice flying. Liam tried to show them some spins, but mostly they were just happy to race along the ice, dodging the slower people, feeling the bitter cold wind on their faces.

They skated until their feet ached and blisters had formed before limping off the ice. Huge grins were spread across all three of their faces. Liam helped Harry take his skates off while Draco got their shoes from the locker that they had rented. He brought them back and let them fall to the grass in a tumble as he plopped down on the bench next to Harry.

"I'm starving," he said with a groan.

"There's some food stalls over there." Liam pointed.

"Thank you," Harry said sweetly as Liam tugged off the final skate. He quickly grabbed his shoes from the pile, watching Draco. "I can cook if you want."

"No," Draco waved away that suggestion. "I love your cooking, but that'll take too long. Let's see what the stalls have."

"If we don't like anything, there're restaurants nearby," Liam said, pulling his shoes on.

Draco nodded and turned his attention to Harry. His whole face shifted, warm affection practically glowing in his grey eyes. "Did you have fun?"

Harry looked up at him with a bright smile. "Yes! Thank you, Draco."

Draco's shoulders relaxed. "Me, too." He leaned forward to place a lingering kiss on Harry's cheek, his hand coming up to gently stroke along the boy's jaw.

Liam rolled his eyes, but he couldn't stop the smile that formed at seeing Harry's adorable blush. "Come on, lovebirds. Let's eat!"

Lucius strode into the Child Services Department like a king visiting a vassal provence. He was dressed impeccably, his expression serene, his eyes cold. He stood before the secretary who babbled and stuttered, face red with embarrassment. It was Department Head Abbot who came to her rescue.

"Lord Malfoy. Thank you for coming. If you would walk this way, I have reserved a private room."

Lucius observed her subtly as he followed her down an adjacent hallway and into a meeting room. She looked like she had aged. The mistake with the Dursleys and learning the details of Harry's case - it hadn't been easy. She had none of her usual Hufflepuff warmth and exuberance. She looked tired. A sneer tugged at the corners of his mouth; there was no excuse to display such weakness. Spells, potions, and other little rituals would have concealed all signs of exhaustion. He would know; Lucius had used them himself before he had come.

The meeting room was as shabby as the reception area had been. A battered round table, six padded chairs that did not match, a sideboard with a glass pitcher of water spelled to stay chilled and some glasses for those who grew thirsty. Lucius let a looked of derision shade his expression as he entered.

It looked like he was the last to arrive. Andromeda and her husband along with their second child sat on one end. Black and Lupin sat at the other. This was interesting. He lifted an eyebrow minutely. He had expected Black and Andromeda to be slobbering over each other in joy. Perhaps there was some hope for Black yet. However, this did put him in a dilemma. Where to sit? Between Andromeda's husband and Black or Lupin and Andromeda? He detested either option. Why the hell was the table round to begin with?

"Please have a seat, Lord Malfoy," Abbot invited, all politeness.

Lucius gave her a look cold as ice before finally sitting in the closet chair, the one between Black and Andromeda's husband. That forced Abbot to walk around the table and settle in the last chair.

Abbot folded her hands before her on the table and gave them all a small smile. "Thank you all for being here. I want to make it clear that no official ruling regarding the boys' custody will be made today. Change of custody takes time and needs to go through the proper channels. This meeting is to see if an agreement upon a shared custody can be reached so that I may start the process to get it approved."

"Is this really necessary?" Black asked. He looked pale and gaunt. It was to be expected, of course. It was the impatience in his tone and demeanor that Lucius approved of. "I'm Harry's legal godfather. I don't see how you can deny me custody of my own godson. I've been kept from him long enough as it is, don't you think?"

A little heavy-handed but overall it was a sound strategy. Lucius only just managed to hold back a smirk.

"Yes…" Abbot looked flushed and she almost squirmed in her chair. "That's true, but we are required… considering your long term exposure to… We have to be sure you're…"

"Sane?" Black's eyes glinted and his smile was predatory. "Is that what you're trying to say?" He turned to Lupin who looked alert and focused. "What do you think, Remus? Am I sane?"

Lucius was the only one who noticed the subtle kick Lupin gave Black under the table.

"We have to be sure you are capable at this current time of caring for two children," Abbot said much more diplomatically.

"We understand that you're only thinking of the best interests of the boys," Lupin said, calm and reasonable. Lucius tilted his head curiously. Had the vagabond always been so smooth? "Sirius has cleared several mental health checks and has been assigned a mind healer. He has regular appointments scheduled."

"All of which is definitely a step in the right direction," Abbot said with a smile, perking up. "I am very glad to hear that you are taking your recovery so seriously, Mr. Black."

Black opened his mouth, but Lupin again surreptitiously kicked him under the table. Black shut his mouth. Lucius almost snorted.

Abbot cleared her throat, clearly bracing for something uncomfortable. "I understand you were disinherited by your family at the age of sixteen. When your parents died, Lordship of the Noble and Ancient House of Black was transferred to a secondary branch of the family, to your father's second cousin and your mother's youngest brother Cygnus Black. That being the case, unless Lord Black reinstates your inheritance and transfers Lordship rights to you…"

"I'm broke, is that what you're saying?" Sirius asked, looking genuinely confused.

"Mr. Potter is unable to access his vault or fulfill his duties as Lord of the House of Potter until the age of seventeen, so it is not possible to use…" Abbot said carefully.

"I'm not going to touch his money," Sirius snapped, furious.

"Yes… of course… I was just clarifying the facts."

"I'm waiting for a settlement from the Ministry to clear. You know, as compensation for being unjustly imprisoned for ten years," Sirius stated coldly, wielding his words like a weapon.

"Why are we talking about Father like he's still around? I thought he was presumed dead?" Andromeda suddenly voiced.

Abbot looked surprised. "Oh! I was informed that Lord Black has returned to the wizarding world. It has been officially confirmed. I have the paperwork here if you'd like to see it. He currently resides in the hidden Black Manor."

Lucius's fists clenched. As he wasn't a Black, he had no idea where the manor was, but the comprehension on Black and Andromeda's faces told him that they knew. And that meant they knew where Narcissa was. He mentally filed that away to be used later.

"As for the settlement from the Ministry… You are perfectly entitled to compensation, Mr. Black, but it will take some time for that to clear and be processed. In the meantime…"

"I am currently staying with a friend," Black said carelessly and gestured at Lupin. "I'm also talking to publishers. There have been quite a few offers for me to sell my story. A biography of sorts. So I expect a pretty sizable income soon."

Abbot when nearly white at hearing that.

Black continued, practically holding a knife to her throat with his words. "It was a very terrifying and confusing time, I'm sure, when I was arrested and wrongfully imprisoned after the downfall of Voldemort. I have a lot of time to make up for, of course. Including raising my dearest friend's son. It was James Potter's last wish that I take Harry under my care. I'd be just devastated if the Ministry prevented me from fulfilling his dying wish. I'd be forced to question why the Ministry would do something like that. This isn't a confusing time, after all. Not like it was then. I'd have to wonder if the Ministry somehow found me lacking in some way. Or maybe had some prejudice against me or even my bloodline."

Black leaned forward, looking relaxed and causal except for his frostbite eyes. They were identical in every way to Narcissa's when she was coldly furious. It made Lucius's heartbeat accelerate. "I've been away for a long time, Mrs. Abbot. Does the Ministry now possess anti-Pureblood sentiments that I don't know about?"

Abbot looked like she was about to faint.

Lucius had the urge to get up an applaud. The Purebloodlines had thinned and been reduced over time, but they were still very powerful. Yes, some families had fallen into disrepair and poverty, but there were still some very respected and influential Purebloods in key positions of power throughout their society, including Lucius. Without their support, the Ministry would be put in a very precarious position.

"Legally I have as much right to retain custody as you do, Sirius," Andromeda cut in. "That's why I'm here. When you were unavailable to take up your duty as godfather, guardianship was legally awarded to me. I have performed no act to warrant losing custody. Even if you passed the reasonable…" She emphasized the word to indicate how petty she found his veiled threats, "… mental health, financial, and environment checks, I would still have to sign my guardianship rights over to you." She lifted her chin, her own eyes cold and challenging. "I'm not sure I'm prepared to do that. I have to do what I feel is right for Harry. That is my obligation as his guardian, and I'm not at all convinced leaving him under your supervision and guidance would be the best thing for him."

Abbot didn't look surprised by this. Lucius made an intuitive deduction that Black and Andromeda must have argued about this very thing before his arrival, thus the reason they had been sitting opposite each other. Interesting although not unexpected.

Andromeda stared thoughtfully down at the top of her daughter's head. "To be honest, I was ready to forfeit my rights to Harry when I arrived here… but after your outburst earlier and the heavy-handed maneuvering I've witnessed at this table - when this department is only looking out for what is best for Harry - I don't think you'd be the right guardian for him." She looked up and met her cousin's eyes. "I love you, Sirius. I am very happy you are out of that horrible place, but I don't think you're able to put Harry's needs before your own desires. I refuse to relinquish guardianship rights."

Lucius braced for an explosion of rage, his hand tightening on his cane, but Black seemed to crumble instead. Tears streaked his face. He looked utterly betrayed and bewildered. Lupin was quick to brace him. He practically had the gaunt man in a half embrace, his mouth close to Black's ear, murmuring words they could not hear. Black had done well considering; his lack of follow through expected. It was Lucius's turn now.

"While Harry's guardianship is under review, I will hold custody of both boys." He spoke evenly. It wasn't a question but a statement of fact.

"The contract…" Andromeda protested, glaring.

"The contract is void while Harry's guardianship is being contested." Lucius looked calmly at the still shaken Black. "You are contesting Andromeda's guardianship, am I correct?"

Black looked at him with wide, uncomprehending eyes.

Lucius took that as agreement and returned his attention to Narcissa's sister. "Draco and Harry will not be returning to Hogwarts until the Aurors conclude their investigation of the school. In the interim, they will remain with me."

Andromeda looked ready to murder. "The contract is not void until Sirius wins custody. In the meantime, I am the guardian and we will alternate months as the contract demands. At the end of this month, the boys will reside with me."

Lucius tilted his head curiously. "The boys have been through a very traumatic experience, Andromeda. Their healer prescribes stability and quiet in order for them to regain their mental balance. It was their choice to stay at the manor. An understandable decision as I understand you and your husband are currently suffering some marital strife. Such a stressful environment would be detrimental to their recovery. Insisting upon it when they have a more stable alternative would make you negligent and unfit as a guardian." His cool grey eyes shifted to Abbot. "In that case, I believe that would disqualify her from guardianship and Mr. Black would be awarded full custody. Am I correct?"

Abbot just stared at him.

Lucius turned back to Andromeda. A cool smile curled his lips. "I, of course, know none of that will be necessary. Your first priority is the health and wellbeing of the boys, after all. Taking that into consideration, I have decided to offer you and Mr. Black free visitation while the boys are recovering. If you contact my elf, I am sure we can arrange a schedule. I trust this meets with everyone's approval?"

"What investigation of Hogwarts?" Abbot cut in, looking very disturbed. "I was not informed of this. The boys are not returning to school?"

Lucius inclined his head regally. "Unfortunately I cannot reveal details at this time." He lifted his head and met her eyes evenly, showing her he had nothing to hide. "The Wizengamot has not chosen to release information to the public as of yet considering the highly sensitive nature of the investigation. I've been told there will be a closed hearing to determine any rulings regarding the case. What I can tell you is that after certain violent events at Hogwarts over Yule break, Harry suffered injury and there was at least one death involved."

Abbot gasped and Lucius knew her niece would be getting an owl as soon as this meeting was adjourned.

"Yes," he said gravely. "This is no light matter. Our personal healer assures me that switching homes every four weeks at this juncture would be detrimental to the boys' mental stability. When the boys were consulted, they expressed their preference to reside at the manor with me and my wife. Andromeda's home is currently full of tension and conflict, not to mention the home of a demanding and rambunctious toddler. Draco and Harry both felt they would not get the rest they needed there."

Abbot looked back and forth between Andromeda and her husband. "I understand that this is a very personal question and you may not feel comfortable answering in such a large group, but for the sake of efficiency, and as this pertains to Harry's guardianship, I feel I have to ask. Is it true you are currently having marital problems?"

Andromeda sat stiffly, cheeks red with anger, her expression blank. She refused to answer, leaving it to Ted who, Hufflepuff that he was, told the truth.

"We are currently in disagreement," he said in his soft voice. "The children have been present for a few arguments."

"I see," Abbot did not look pleased with this admission. "We will have to investigate this further. In the meantime, the contract will be temporarily voided. Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter will reside with Lord and Lady Malfoy. Should Mrs. Tonks be judged the better guardian over Mr. Black, the contract will be reinstated. However, should Mr. Black win custody of Mr. Potter, a new contract will have to be agreed upon."

"I understand." Lucius stood and bowed to Abbot. "I thank you for your efforts and understanding in this matter." He then politely inclined his head to both Black and Andromeda. "Mr. Black. Andromeda. Please contact me with the times and days you would like to see the boys."

Lupin and Abbot both offered polite farewells, but the others remained silent. He was unbothered by their impolite and boorish behavior. After all, he had achieved what he had come there to achieve. He had secured Draco temporary (possibly even permanent) freedom from Andromeda.

Lips curled in a subtle smile of victory, Lucius decided it was time to pay the Minister a visit. He'd like another update on the investigation of Hogwarts.

Chapter end.

A/N: Not a lot of action, but we see a lot of character development here. Let me know what you think of Sirius, Andromeda, and Lucius!