cxcv. the dog star

The bottom of the bottle clinked against the top of the headstone.

"Sorry, mate," Sirius said to the anonymous resident, patting the stone he used as a seat. It was as cold as Nimue's heart under his backside, snow piled in clumps on the ground, though he'd done his best to clear it from the plot across from him. He could see the names James and Lily stark as day despite the flimsy light.

Sirius lifted the bottle again and held it out as if to toast the grave. "Cheers to you both."

The cold settled over Godric's Hollow like a heavy hand shrouded in gray clouds. It might snow again, though Sirius didn't care one way or the other. He'd been in the old cemetery since dawn and had worked his way through a fifth of Ogden's Best. Each steady pull from the bottle stirred guilt in his chest before it numbed the feeling. It numbed everything.

He couldn't stay at Grimmauld. The house was too big, too empty. He'd spent the last days of the girls' holiday formulating plans in his head to extend their time home, but there was nothing he could say, nothing he could do. Remus had to leave as well for all that Sirius wanted him to stay. For all that he didn't want to be alone.

But that's selfish, innit? his less than sober inner voice put in. You can't drag others down with you, ol' boy.

Sirius set the bottle down, scuffing the bottoms of his trainers against the ice and cold, packed earth. He didn't know why he came here, honestly, and he certainly didn't tell anyone how often he did. They might start thinking he wanted to join them in the ground. No, Sirius valued his life—if only because his worthless hide survived when so many more deserving people didn't. He kept breathing because James would want him to—James and Remus, and the girls.

He knew he had places to go, people whose hearths he could haunt instead of this tired, winter-bound graveyard. Andromeda left her home open to him despite her occasional need to nag, and others of the Order were always good for an ear to bend or a pint to share. He didn't need to be here, but Sirius came all the same, because he was lonely, because he wanted to grieve and make bad decisions without someone tutting over him.

People cared about him. They cared enough to shame him for the things he shouldn't do because they wanted him to shrug this weight off his shoulders and move on with his life, and Sirius kept promising he would. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he'd dump the booze down the drain and stop cursing at Kreacher or rowing with Elara. "You must be the adult," Remus would tell him. "Elara is precocious and stubborn, but she is still fourteen."

Sirius knew he had to do better because he and Remus and Marlene had agreed to bring Elara into this world, to give a person life, and twelve years in Azkaban didn't excuse that. Had he been alive, James would have probably kicked him in the teeth.

Exhaling, Sirius tipped the bottle over and let the remnants trickle into the snow. Once empty, he vanished it. He needed to sober up, get home, or go somewhere else. He had nothing pressing to do, just as he never had anything pressing to do. Nothing but drink and worry and remember.

He started walking, shoving his hands into the pockets of his Transfigured jacket, passing through the kissing gate to the street outside. He walked by the empty lot where his best friend had died and didn't stop to look, though the area lurked in the corner of his eye like a looming shadow. Sirius closed them until it passed.

He continued to the edge of town, using the stroll to clear his head enough for Apparition. Merlin forbid he end up Splinched and pissed at this hour in the morning. Remus would be disappointed, which was bloody worse than him being angry.

Sirius stepped between a fence and a garden shed, using the cover to disappear from Godric's Hollow and reappear again in Balder Court. Fresh snow fell upon him as Sirius stumbled, unsteady on his feet, and nearly tossed his liquid breakfast on the pavement. He managed to keep himself upright, however, and swallowed back the nausea as he walked up the steps to Number Forty-Seven.

The elf answered the door—Sirius couldn't remember his name for the life of him—and let Sirius inside. "Mistress is in the dining room," the creature said with a slight nod toward the room, and so Sirius headed in that direction, calling out his cousin's name as he went.

He found Andy seated at the head of her table, her morning tea steaming in its cup, the paper folded over her empty place setting. She had her eyes on an empty landscape on the wall, watching the painted mist crawl about the foot of the rolling mountains. She stirred when Sirius stepped into the room.

"What are you doing here?"

"Came for the excellent company, obviously." Sirius snorted as he knocked the snow from his shoes and vanished the mess from Andromeda's carpet. "And here I thought you said I didn't need a reason to come visit."

"That's not—." She stopped and stared at him, her black brows lowered over her dark eyes as she considered something. "You haven't read the paper."

"No. Been out." Sirius sighed as he threw himself into one of the dining chairs by the hearth, soaking the heat into his chilled bones. "Why? What's the miserable hag said now?"

Instead of answering, Andromeda merely levitated the Prophet toward him, and Sirius snatched it out of the air with a grunt. It wasn't hard to miss the main spread, nor the twirling, glimmering photographs of the Triwizard Tournament champions with their dates. Sirius' eyes darted down to the image of Harriet and Krum, his goddaughter looking beautiful in her tailored robes, if decidedly uncomfortable in the milling crowd staring her way.

"Wretched cow," he murmured as he read on. Skeeter had made Harriet out to be a conniving, money-hungry tart—never mind that she was a Potter and heiress to one of the biggest fortunes in the kingdom. Never mind that Sirius wasn't sure Harriet even liked boys, given how awkward and uncertain she'd acted around Krum. She was fourteen and had enjoyed herself far more by dancing with her friends than worrying about her date.

"Keep reading," Andy told him, peering darkly at her tea. "The last article."

Sirius did as she said, turning the page. His eye caught upon the words, "THE STRAYING HOUSE OF BLACK."

His heart lurched in his chest.

It wasn't anything Sirius himself hadn't heard growing up—the snide comments whispered from the corners of mouths, the wrinkled noses, the disgusted grunts in the back of pure-blood throats. He'd said some terrible things himself when he'd been a child and hadn't known better—mostly to Snape, actually. Snape had been skinnier than the rest of the blokes in their year, fond of reading and brewing and always sitting with Lily. That behavior lent itself to the cruelest remarks, Sirius parroting the dogma his parents had drilled into his and Reg's heads since birth.

It didn't help that as he hit puberty, boys started being just as attractive as the girls in Sirius' eyes—even bloody Snape, the tosser. It had added to his confusion, and his anger, until Sirius learned to accept himself. He couldn't think back on the things he said without regret.

Things had changed since his boyhood, fewer and fewer people seeing same-sex couples as something "deviant." It was even becoming acceptable for pure-blood families to openly seek surrogacy, unlike how it'd been for Sirius, Remus, and Marlene. However, dissenters still existed and probably always would in some shape or form. It was one thing for Sirius to go through a difficult, questioning period in his teenage years privately—it was quite another for Rita fucking Skeeter to splash his daughter's possible sexuality across the bloody newspaper for all and sundry to read!

"That—!" Sirius couldn't think of a word foul enough to encapsulate his sheer rage and upset, the churning morass of sour booze and bile in his stomach crawling up his esophagus. He had the sudden urge to shift—to howl and bite and snarl, to sink his teeth into any part of Rita Skeeter he could reach and not let go until he tasted blood.

Sirius was on his feet, the dining chair skittering on the floor as he shoved it back and made for the door. He didn't know where he was going, a vague thought of Diagon Alley and the Daily Prophet's headquarters pinging about in his head until he remembered his daughter, his flesh and blood, and the extent of what Skeeter had printed. She hadn't just exposed Elara's sexuality; she'd mentioned the children's home. Elara never spoke of the children's home.

Sirius had only just emerged into the cold air again, stepping past the wards, when he twisted and Disapparated. The second trip proved too far for his gut, and Sirius bent over the nearest bush when he reappeared in the brutal highland weather, vomiting. The sudden shift in altitude played havoc with his lungs, and for several moments all Sirius could do was gasp and fight the black spots eating away at the edges of his vision. Sweat blossomed on his face and chilled in the frigid air.

He spat for a final time, then directed a spray of fresh water from his wand into his mouth, clearing the taste. Sirius shook his head in an attempt to clear the last of the black spots, then shoved his wand back into his pocket. He stepped toward the castle gates—and promptly found himself sprawled on his arse, gasping as he blinked at the sky overhead.

The wards, he reminded himself, the thought swimming up through the teeming worry and anger sitting thick in his brain. Dumbledore increased the wards this year.

Grunting, Sirius rolled to his hands and knees and shifted forms, the stabbing cold lessening as his hide sprouted thick fur. He made for the boar-flanked gates again, and this time he could feel the magic humming, pushing and tingling against his skin as if the wards sensed something not quite right but couldn't get a grip on him. Sirius squeezed through the bars—stripping off a fair bit of fur in doing so—and transformed again on the other side. He still had the Prophet clutched in his white-knuckled fist.

Growling, he hurled it into the nearest thatch of gorse.

His plan hadn't been well thought out. It wasn't much of a plan at all, merely a sudden, unflinching need to find his daughter and stay as far away from Rita Skeeter as possible, lest he murder the witch and end up in Azkaban again. Sirius had never killed anyone in his life, but twelve years facing the same stone walls, stuck with his worst memories, listening to real murderers carouse and scream had played hell on his morals and his restraint. Sirius knew he would do it in his current frame of mind. He wouldn't hesitate.

He headed higher, walking a familiar path toward the Headmaster's office, the corridors all but empty aside from a few Aurors who paid Sirius little to no mind. They chatted with one another or smoked or simply slept against the walls, and Sirius rolled his eyes at their lax security. Of course, the Order already knew the Aurors had been placed there for Gaunt to thumb his nose at Dumbledore rather than for any real, pressing need. Still, it was bloody ridiculous a former convict could walk right inside without a side-glance.

Sirius reached the stone gargoyle guarding the upper tower before he remembered his need for a password, and he cursed at the blighted thing. He yanked his wand out, determined to cast a Patronus and send Albus a message—but the gargoyle suddenly leapt aside, unprompted, and Sirius didn't question the opportunity. He darted up the spiraling steps and didn't bother to knock on the door at the top. He wrenched on the knob and stepped inside.

Dumbledore sat behind his desk and was not alone. As if he'd known Sirius would arrive, the Headmaster had already summoned Elara—and Remus knelt by the red-faced girl's chair. For an instant, Sirius felt a surge of anger, of jealousy, because no one had thought to get him, because Remus was here and—.

Sirius shook himself and the ridiculous sentiment from his head. He focused on his daughter and didn't notice when Dumbledore greeted him; he waited for Elara's wet eyes to rise and find his own. The aching loneliness he'd felt since his kids left home quelled and dimmed.

"Hey, little moon," he said, using a name he hadn't dared say since she was a tiny thing he could cradle in his hands. His girl wasn't quite so little anymore and not nearly so guileless. But she was hurt, the pain visible in her slouched shoulders, clumped lashes, and worried hands. She made a passable attempt at a haughty sniff, but even that could not hold.

Sirius came to stand in front of her, one hand reaching out to squeeze Remus' shoulder, the other gently carding through Elara's fringe.

"I found her crying," Remus whispered, keeping a gentle grip on one of Elara's arms. She'd wrung her fingers so much that Sirius could see she'd torn a cuticle, blood smeared on her raw skin. "I thought it best to bring her here before sending you a message."

Sirius gave Remus' shoulder another soft squeeze. Elara sniffled.

"Don't listen to anything that—woman says," he told her, hand coming down to cup her cheek, feeling the stickiness of tears against his skin. "Any person that matters won't give a single care for her opinions or the opinions of some old duffers on their way out."

Elara sniffled again, eyes on her knees. "She's right, though, isn't she?" she said in a miserable voice. "What if—what if I don't ever have children? I'm supposed to. The House—."

Sirius knelt so she'd be forced to look into his face. "It doesn't matter. You are the House, Elara, and whatever you choose to do, whatever path you follow, it goes with you. Whether you like blokes or don't. If you decide you want kids, then you can try surrogacy or adopt or whatever you want. But you're fourteen, for Merlin's sake. You don't have to think about that for a long time."

Elara's lower lip quivered, fresh tears welling in her silver eyes. "Girls aren't supposed to like girls." She spoke so quietly, Sirius almost lost her words to the cheerful crackling of the fire and the quiet, solemn breathing of the surrounding portraits.

"Look at me." Sirius tucked his fingers under her chin and lifted her eyes. "Girls are supposed to like whoever they want to like," he said. "And boys like whoever they like. It's not the bloody eighteen hundreds anymore. People aren't like those ruddy sods you lived with—not any of the ones worth the breath in their lungs."

She rubbed the heel of her palm against her cheek, fighting to wipe the mess away despite how new tears appeared to replace the old. "How does she know about St. Giles'?"

"I don't know." Skeeter shouldn't know about it. Sirius hadn't even known the name of the place, which begged the question of how in the world bloody Skeeter managed to drag it out of the dark.

From his desk, where he'd been sitting with his attention politely directed at the wall, Dumbledore cleared his throat. "I believe Elara would benefit from visiting our esteemed Madam Pomfrey and resting for today."

Sirius agreed, even if the expression on Elara's blotchy face told him she had no interest in resting and probably being drugged with a Calming Draught. She nonetheless allowed Remus to take her by the hand and lead her from the room—though not before Remus turned his head to meet Sirius' gaze with a meaningful look. Tired, Sirius nodded.

The two of them left, the door shutting with a quiet thump, and the whispers from the wall came in repressed waves.

"To think I would see the Blacks degrade in this way," Phineas Nigellus sneered from his portrait.

"Shut up," Sirius snarled as he gained his feet, wheeling on the painted man. "You've been dead for centuries, so it's none of your business. The worst Headmaster in Hogwarts' bloody history—and I shagged men in your ancestral home, you bigoted codger."

Gasps resounded throughout the portrait gallery, and for a moment, Sirius delighted in outraging the stodgy old administrators. He'd always hated them, the prudes.

"Sirius," Dumbledore reprimanded, but his tone remained suspiciously light, as if he didn't much mind him taking a jab at his predecessors. Scoffing, Sirius dropped himself into the chair his daughter had just vacated, reaching up to rub at his temple and brow. The headache brewing there would be worse than the hangover he'd inevitably experience.

Dumbledore steepled the fingers of his only hand against his chin. "Miss Skeeter's most recent articles have me quite concerned."

"What? That she's openly outing little girls to the public's inspection?" Sirius snapped.

The Headmaster tipped his head in acknowledgment but pushed on with his point. "No. Rather, I am concerned about where she seems to be finding her information. Her pieces on Miss Black and Hagrid especially contained sensitive information not available to the public."

Sirius rubbed harder at his brow, muddled confusion churning in his head as he tried to suppress the outrage for logic. "I…I don't think anyone knows about the children's home. Especially the name. I didn't know it—Remus doesn't."

"Minerva would." Dumbledore tapped his chin in thought. "After the…peculiarities of Harriet's address came to our attention, she checked the automatically addressed letters of the other students. She would know where Miss Black's first Hogwarts letter was sent."

"I can't imagine McGonagall having a nice chinwag with Skeeter."

"No, she would not." He lowered his hand, a sharp glint darkening the warm blue of his eyes. "I will not stand for her scavenging information from this institution, especially when the safety of certain other students relies heavily on the school's confidentiality."

Harriet, Sirius thought, exhaling through his nose. If Harriet's living situation came to the attention of the Ministry, they'd take her in as a ward. She'd vanish into the system, right into Gaunt's greedy hands.

With that, the Headmaster seemed disinclined to say anything else, and Sirius decided to take his leave. "I'm going to have a chat with Remus before heading home," he reported to the older wizard. "Bloody well send me a message the next time my daughter's having a crisis, Headmaster?"

"Of course."

Sirius departed—with one final two-fingered salute to his ancestor's infuriated portrait.