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the phoenix in the water

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London was never quiet.

People who wanted quiet moved out into the west country or if they had no particular inclination towards cider festivals, down to Devon or Cornwall. Tonight was as close as it could get. The weather wasn't bad; it was hot and close, clouded over but without a dampness in the air. It wasn't the kind of night where it was comfortable to sit out for too long without clothes clinging to you or the kind where you wanted to stray too far from home. A few stray drops of rain threatened to become more.

As such, it was unlikely anyone heard the pop or took much notice of a man with an over-sized umbrella that'd obviously been blown inside out a few times too many and a dog trailing after him. The only thing they may have noticed was a lack of lead, but it was long after midnight. No one was about. They came to a stop at a lamppost by a row of townhouses. The grubby sign at the end of the street declared it to be Grimmauld Place, an appropriate name if ever there was one. The dog took a few more steps, sniffed the air and flopped onto the ground outside one of the more dilapidated looking townhouses. The brick was dark enough it looked almost to be another colour, dust and grime clogged up the windows and every curtain was drawn blocking anyone from looking in. Overgrown weeds surrounded the front of it, threatening to spill through the rusted over the gate and attack the neighbours. It was, in short, the kind of house that kids in the neighbourhood would say was haunted.

Or they would, if it were not only visible to witches, wizards and others of magical heritage.

“I take it we’re here then,” the man said, seemingly addressing the dog.

Unsurprisingly, the dog didn't seem to have much to say on the matter.

The man pushed the ornate gate out of the way and walked the few steps to the heavy door with an ornate snake knocker and a total lack of lock. He drew out his wand from his jacket and tapped the door, trying a few simple counter-spells for locks. He was disappointed, but not surprised, when nothing happened. Stepping down to outside the gate once again, he sighed. "I don't see him. You're sure he got the message?"

For a dog, this one gave an excellent side-eye.

"Alright, there’s no need for that. I suppose we are a bit early — oh, nevermind, I see him.”

As if emerging from the shadows beside the neglected street light, a second man joined the street and promptly shuffled up to the gate.

“Alright, mate." The newcomer tipped his head at the man.  "‘Ere, is this it, then?”

“Yes,” the first man replied. “Do you think you can get in?”

”’Course I can,” the second replied, sounding deeply offended at the prospect of being thwarted by an overgrown dust pit with delusions of grandeur. “You try the ol’ stand by’s? They d’in’t work?”

“As the door remains shut, no, it appears they didn’t.”

“Alright, alright, give us a sec then,” the second man said, fiddling about in his pocket until he came up with a wand. He slinked up to the door and tapped it a few times, muttering spellwork under his breath while his companions waited impatiently. He swore a couple of times, but after a few minutes, the sound of rust scraping and old bolts creaking was followed by the door to shift and slide open to a dark, narrow hallway. “Bah, piece’a cake. After you, Remus.”

There was a sudden change to the air, a soft crack or popping of ears.

“No,” said a third voice, as two men had suddenly become three. “I’d better go first. You don’t know what to expect.”

With that, Sirius Black took his first steps inside Number 12, Grimmauld Place in almost twenty years.

 


 

 

As the door creaked shut behind them, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black and Mundungus Fletcher took in their surroundings.

“Lumos.”

The smell of must in the air, the old gas lamps barely illuminating the hallway, the torn and peeling wallpaper; none of it painted a picture of a welcoming place. There were portraits hung up and down the hall, but the people in them kept dozing. Sirius was hoping they’d remain that way.

“Remus, mate,” Dung said, looking around the place a bit uneasily. “Where are we?”

“Home,” spat Sirius, before Remus could respond.

“You live here?” Sirius took pride in the shock on Dung’s face. If he didn’t seem like the kind of bloke who lived in a place like this, maybe there was hope for him after all.

“Not by choice.” He gestured around lazily with his hand, “Gentleman, welcome to the noble and most ancient house of Black.”

They were both staring.

Sirius didn’t have to wonder why. Almost anyone who was a decent sort had the same reaction of wondering the hell they’d just walked into. The snake pit, he’d taken to calling it in his youth. It was apt. There were snakes everywhere from door knobs to grand chandeliers. Or what used to be a grand chandelier. It looked more like a funeral home than anything else right now. Once, when he was young, he tried to spend the day transfiguring them all slowly into lions. It took less than a day for his mother to notice. He’d thought his ears would never stop wringing from the screeching about that.

“There was a reason sleepovers were always at James’,” Sirius said, trying and somewhat failing to keep the defensiveness out of his voice.

Remus, to his credit, seemed to pull himself together. “Where’s the portrait?”

“Upstairs,” Sirius said, looking up the staircase and steeling himself for this.

This hadn’t been what he’d had in mind at all when he’d asked if Dumbledore wanted to use it. It was almost easy to remember, even with the puff of dust rising from the carpet as he took up the stairs, that the last twenty years simply hadn’t happened. That by some bizarre twist of fate, he was still only fifteen and awaiting going back to Hogwarts. Trying get through the day without sparking off another argument, impatiently writing to friends every other hour, secretly tuning up his motorcycle and ready to take on the whole fucking world if he had to.

All too suddenly, he felt very much not fifteen. He felt old, and worn thin. But he persevered. Bravery without being scared isn’t bravery, it’s bravado, as Andromeda had once informed him before telling him he had a healthy dose of both and that his problem was the inability to tell the difference between the two.

“Whose bedroom is this?” Remus asked, curious as Sirius wandered into one of the guest rooms.

“No one’s.” Sirius shrugged. They’d had a large family when this house had come about. Even Phineas himself had six children, though only five he’d have recognised. Sirius was, after all, named after one of them that had died several years before he was born. Such was the tradition. It had dwindled down to just Regulus and himself, and then just Regulus, and then he supposed, just him. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

“There’s a lot of guest rooms. Can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a guest here, but we had them. There’s the portrait.” He pointed over to the wall. “Phineas!”

There was no answer. Remus looked worried, but Sirius just rolled his eyes. “PHINEAS!”

“Do you know how much like your mother you sound when you do that?” came a snide response from the empty frame. Sirius’ nostrils flared, but he tapered down on the instinct to rip the damn portrait apart. He’d promised Dumbledore. He didn’t break his promises. “Can you tell Dumbledore we’re in and doing a search now?”

“Sirius, it’s very late. Can it not wait until morning?” came the response from the still blank portrait.

“No.” Sirius gritted.

There was a sudden clatter of noise from downstairs, two clunks and a smash. Sirius and Remus exchanged a look before Sirius heard the screeching. His stomach plummeted. He was clearly having some kind of traumatic flashback. He could hear his mother, plain as day, screeching about thieves and trespassers. Then he looked at Remus, who looked similarly disturbed.

“You can hear that?” He asked.

“It’s hard not to hear it!” Remus raised his voice and winced in response. “What is that?”

“Someone appears to have woken your mother,” Phineas said, his head finally popping back into frame with his usual dour countenance.

“My mothers dead,” Sirius said shortly. McGonagall had told him so a few weeks ago. That was how this whole thing had started.

“It doesn’t seem to have done much for keeping her quiet,” Phineas replied. “I suppose I can speak to Dumbledore, if only to get away from this infernal racket.”

“Thank you,” Remus said earnestly but Phineas had scarpered.

Remus seemed to pick up on the tension, because he tried to nudge Sirius to leave the room.

Sirius hadn’t noticed that he’d been rooted to the spot until he had.

“It’s probably a portrait." Remus explained, giving his should a slight shove as if unsure of if it was something he was allowed to do.  "We should try and do something about that before she wakes the whole neighbourhood.”

 


 

In the entrance hall behind what Sirius had stupidly assumed was just another old family painting, they found the cause of the commotion.

A life-size portrait of his mother had obviously been hung at some point long after he’d left home. He shouldn’t have been surprised it was the source of the screaming. Shouting was par for the course; Walburga Black could be considered many things but quiet had never been one of them. It wasn’t all that different from standing in her presence during an argument, except you weren’t thinking about whether you needed to duck if you were cheeky enough. Not that this wasn’t a little disturbing since she was long dead, but more disturbing than that was the painting itself. She had died almost a decade after he’d last saw her, but the difference was startling. In his memory, Walburga Black was a force to be reckoned with. Tall, severe and haughty, but she was iron on the inside and in her presence, she liked everyone to know it. By her mind, power is not something that should be announced, but something that can be seen without utterance and she lived by that. Regardless of how he might think of her, he’d never considered her anything but powerful. He hadn’t expected to see a frail, old woman, shrunken in despite her shrieking. She looked old.

It was at this moment the portrait seemed to notice him. “You! came the guttural shriek. “Traitor! You dare to return here, to the house of my fathers? With your mudbloods, freaks, half-breeds and thieves!”

“SHUT UP!”

It took a moment for Sirius to realise he’d been the one to yell back.

The portrait, again not unlike his mother, seemed to take no particular notice of this and kept ranting about traitors and her shame in having given birth to him.

Then, suddenly, the shrieks disappeared. At the side of the portrait, Dung was holding the curtains closed by force. The curtains themselves seemed to be twitching, attempting to pull themselves back open. Remus leapt into action as well, helping Dung keep the curtain in place till the noise quietened completely.

“How did you know how to do that?” Remus asked asked him, his voice now barely above a whisper.

“Plenty of these ol’ places got portraits like ‘em, people use ‘em for security and the like,” Dung gave an indulgent wink at them. “You just gotta close them curtains and keep your gob shut till settle down.”

“Neat trick,” Sirius told Dung, who tipped his head at him.

“What were you doing down here?” Remus asked. “We could hear you on the second floor.”

“Nuffin,” Dung replied, looking more than a little sheepish. Then he shrugged. “I went down the basement, see what was what and I swear, summat ran past me. Next thing I hear is the pans coming out of the cupboard and hell was breakin’ loose.”

What would his mother have had in the kitchen cupboard?

Oh.

Oh no.

“The one by the boiler?”

“Aye, could be.” Dung stroked his chin. “How come?”

All at once, Sirius knew who had caused the ruckus and knew it was likely with the hopes of waking up the portrait. He swore to himself. Sirius supposed it was too much to hope for that he’d just keeled over or Narcissa or even her parents had taken him when dear old mum copped it. No, instead they had an errant bloody house elf watching a thief, a prison escapee and werewolf break into one of the most fortified homes in Britain while talking to the head of a secret society. The word ‘screwed’ came to mind.

“KREACHER!” He bellowed, loud enough that the curtains sprung open on the portrait and started screaming at him again. “Get out here!”

Remus gave him an exasperated look. “Sirius,” he said, or Sirius was fairly sure he said, since it was hard to hear over the din.

Dung was already back on the curtains, but he didn’t look too pleased either.

Sirius didn’t much care; he wasn’t exactly thrilled by this new development either.”Now, Kreacher!” He called out into the house, for several of the other portraits to wake up and instantly start complaining.

Remus promptly covered his ears in an attempt to block it out. “Sirius! Can you keep your voice down or we’ll never get these closed!”

Apparently even in her death, Sirius was incapable of not causing a scene with his mother. He flushed a little red, remembering he had company and was definitely entirely too old to be reacting like this. He cast an apologetic look to Remus, but before he could say anything, Kreacher popped up. He’d looked old twenty years ago; now he looked more like his ancestors mounted at the stairs than a living creature.

“Kreacher did not know the master had returned,” the house elf croaked, giving a flourished bow before muttering under his breath about thieves and traitors and murders.

“Erm,” Remus said, eloquently.

At least they’d managed to get the portrait to shut up.

“Stay right there,” Sirius snarled at him, before stomping right back up to the second floor.

He thought Dung was supposed to be good at this. Shouldn’t he have known to look for a bloody house elf? He needed to know what the hell he was supposed to do with Kreacher; it’s not like he could go in and request a relocation, anyone else doing it would raise alarm bells and if he set him free, he’d probably run straight to Narcissa and tell her everything. He told this to Phineas, who with his trademark irritability, eventually went to inform Dumbledore of their current predicament.

Behind him, he heard Remus come back in just as he waited on Phineas to return.

“I’d keep an eye on him if I were you,” Sirius told him. “I’m disowned, there’s no guarantee he’ll actually listen to me.”

“He’s not like any house elf I’ve ever encountered,” Remus confessed, looking a little unnerved. He could join the bloody club.

“Know a lot of house elves, do you?” Sirius asked, wryly. “

Yes, we’re in the not considered human but still considered magical club.” Remus commented, with a raise of his eyebrows. “There’s meetings every month, but somehow, I seem to always be busy around the full moon.”

“Don’t compare yourself to him!” Sirius said, mostly because it’s what James probably would have said and he wasn’t here to do it. He really didn't want to think about that.

“It’s what people think,” Remus said, though he sounded serious this time.

“It’s not what I think. Last time I checked, I was still people.” Sirius gestured to himself. “At least when on two legs.”

“That’s usually the problem,” Remus sighed. “It doesn’t appear to matter to most how many legs I’m standing on. A werewolf is a werewolf.”

Merlin, he sounded maudlin. When the convicted mass murderer on the run so he didn’t have his soul sucked out found your outlook on your future depressing, things were messed up. Had he been trying to seem a bit cheerier, since Sirius showed up? He hadn’t sounded this bad before. Or maybe it was Voldemort returning. Nothing brightened the spirits like a resurrected Dark Lord.

Or, he reasoned sadly, maybe he just didn’t know him very well anymore. He and Remus were still trying to navigate each other from their years apart. There was a lot between them; anger and resentment over each blaming the other for what turned out to be Peter’s betrayal. The realisation that in the last decade or so, they had spent a collective few days together at most compared to living together in and out of each other's pockets and around each other constantly. They didn’t know each other as adults. Sirius didn’t really have a life to get to know, not yet. He was missing twelve long years of it, and whatever those years had done to Remus, they hadn’t been kind to him either. He wondered idly what had happened to their flat, to the things they’d had there. He’d owned it outright, it’d been the one major investment he’d made with his inheritance. He always wanted a home to come back to. Now it was probably being watched by the Ministry.

“If you’re quite done,” Phineas interrupted, sounding incredibly put out. “Dumbledore says make sure he doesn’t leave.”

“I don’t know how long he’ll listen to me,” Sirius pointed out.

“You’re the last living Black,” Phineas rolled his eyes at the both of them. “He has to listen. A burnt parchment does not negate legal magic, and as the last living male, it goes to you before it goes to anyone else. That includes Kreacher.”

Sirius shot him a look of disdain. “Yippee.”

“Dumbledore says stay there and he’ll be in touch tomorrow.”

“All of us?” Sirius asked.

“No,” Phineas said. “Just you. I’d send the delinquent home if I were you, before the whole family silver is pilfered.”

Sirius wanted to protest. Not about the silver, that could go to hell and be smelted in the fires. While he knew it was probably the best way to make sure Kreacher didn’t leave, he wasn’t happy about it. The idea of being stuck in this house, even for a few days, filled him with a claustrophobic panic.

Remus must have picked up on it. “I can stay if you like.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” Sirius muttered, but he couldn’t put much heart into it.

Remus, thankfully, completely ignored him. “I’ll need to get a few things, but there’s no sense in both of us going home alone.”

“This isn’t my home!” Sirius snapped.

“Headquarters, then.” Remus said.

Damn it, he’d done it again. He didn’t mean to snap at him.

“Headquarters.” He agreed.

 


 

When Remus and Dung left, Sirius had to stop himself from bolting outwards and not looking back.

It was alright for Dumbledore; he didn’t have to sit in a prison of his history. At least in Azkaban, he only had to worry about dementors. He’d take soul sucking fiends over his mother any day. But there was Harry to consider. He wanted to make sure he was here when Harry needed him. And Dumbledore was Dumbledore; he was their best chance of getting through this and he had to listen to him, even if it grated on him.

With a sigh, he banished Kreacher off to clean though held no real hope he’d actually do it. What he’d been doing for a decade, he had no idea but the place looked disgusting.

Even more so than usual. Silently, he wandered through the place feeling as if he was a ghost haunting the place. There wasn’t a lot of note; everything seemed more or less to be as it had always been, just older. It just looked as if the house had been shut up for the summer holidays and remained that way static and waiting. When he made it up to the top floor, he stopped briefly at his brother’s door. He ran his fingers across the sign and smiled, almost surprising himself with it.

Do Not Enter Without the Express Permission of Regulus Arcturus Black.

The sign itself had never done much good. Sirius, even when he was young, had a tendency to waltz into whatever room he so chose. He was less frequent with his parents rooms, the study or drawing room, but it was mostly because he found the rooms boring rather than any sort of respect for them.

(That’s what he told himself anyway.)

Sirius pulled the handle down and the door opened. It didn’t really look any different than it always had. The feeling of vertigo here was much stronger than anywhere else in the house. He could remember taking books from this bookcase (he had his own but it always seemed better to take them from here), he could remember putting his feet up on the bed with muddied shoes to his brothers exasperated ire, he could remember arguments over everything from Death Eaters to Quidditch but none of it felt far away. It felt as if his brother had simply nipped out for an errand and would expect everything to be as he’d left it. It felt like the beginning of an errant prank, moving things just enough and seeing how long it would take for him to notice.

Except for the fact he never would.

Dust that smudged Sirius’ fingers as he dragged them along the cabinet, a reminder that no matter how much it seemed like it was not so, Regulus was gone along with their parents.

Then he saw the clippings. Yellowed paper, depicting various Death Eater activities mish-mashed together. Sirius felt a stab of annoyance. “Stupid idiot,” He muttered to himself. A seventeen year old kid dead over misplaced hero worship.

Sirius found he didn’t want to be in there after that. He got up swiftly, almost slamming the door had enough it reverberated behind him but the feeling welling up in his chest was no looser in the landing.

He pulled open a door more from habit than anything else and found himself staring at his own room. It was hard not to think of the place as the one he’d grown up in with the Gryffindor banners, though mottled with dust, staring back at him. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Remus had hit the nail on the head; this had been his home and it had his fingerprints and his wandwork all over it. His photographs, his posters, books, they all seemed to be laying exactly where he’d left them when he’d gone out the door for the last time. Shit, even his quilt was still half bunched at the end of the bed where he’d left it twenty years before.

It had been twenty years and it seemed as if no one had touched it.

The welling emotion in his chest threatened to choke him and he found, suddenly, he very much didn’t want to deal with any of it. It was too much. The happy photographs, half written letters to James or Andromeda or Remus or—

There was a soft pop, and Sirius was replaced with a large black shaggy dog which climbed onto the bed and curled up to sleep.

It could wait. It could all fucking wait.