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the deception of the thrush

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Eight years after Voldemort's victory, they waited for Harry to grow up under the Fidelius. Sirius had a job teaching and a standing date Friday nights at Madam Blanchefleur's, a coffee house far too fashionable for him on his primary teacher's wages. The owner always eyed him a little strangely when he came in with his shabby black robes and the hair he cut off regularly and ruthlessly at the chin. He looked too much like a Black, even dressed like this, even with short hair, people wondered.

That or it was the person he met.

He cradled his tea carefully taking the rickety steps. The second floor was mostly empty; who'd be in a coffee house and not a pub at this time of day?

Bellatrix was standing across the room, looking out the window over Diagon Alley. She was wearing navy silk today, opaline threads lashing shooting stars and crescent moons for a hand span of embroidery around the bottom hem, a smaller border at the neck and cuffs. He thought the work was Madam Whitby's; so she would be deluged in orders soon if she hadn't been already. Pity; Sirius liked the way she built in wand sheaths, and with Bellatrix patronizing her he wouldn't be able to afford her on his own anymore.

Bellatrix always drank coffee deluged in whipped cream and never seemed to eat anything, so he didn't have any trouble identifying her table a few paces away. He set his own cup down and sat down, watching the handful of others until she elected to join him. He had always liked watching people, making up stories. The woman in the lilac with the notepad was a society reporter, putting gossip gleaned earlier in order - no, a young housewife trying her hand as a novelist, her sister was watching the children - no, a government spy, unfortunately plausible and unentertaining.

If so he had little enough to fear right now talking to Bellatrix Black (once more, her marriage being inconvenient to her overlord). The other couple was not so interesting to tell himself stories about because they were made up of a man in his forties and a teenage girl who certainly was not old enough to have graduated Hogwarts. He would have liked to tell himself they were father and daughter but the man's hand was on her thigh. He sighed and looked at his cousin instead.

Bellatrix turned, as though sensing his impatience, and came to the table. Her tread was heavy, slow; he guessed she was favoring the right leg and trying not to show it. It wasn't unusual.

"Hi, Sirius." Her face lightened when she dropped into the chair across from him, so he knew he was right about her leg. "How goes the education of our nation's youth?"

He wasn't sure if there was really irony in her voice, or if he only wanted it to be there. "Our nation's youth are developing wand skills reasonably but no good at all at concentration," he said, and told her about Claudia Rowle setting the table on fire during an argument because it was a safe subject. Primary had been instituted six months after the Ministry fell and made mandatory two years later, once the parents had stopped fussing over the non-optional nature of Hogwarts attendance (the better to instill brainwashing early, James commented).

Sirius was annoyed because apart from the political lessons it had been a good idea. All students entering Hogwarts had basic Latin and wand skills and knew what was meant by the terminology in Potions these days, not only purebloods from families who troubled to hire tutors. Of course, they had also spent several years learning to regurgitate the brilliance and wisdom of Lord Voldemort's rule. James had some faith that the sheer boredom of these lessons would inoculate the students of taking them seriously, but Lily, who had some education about other governments that had done this sort of thing, didn't seem optimistic.

Sirius was withholding judgment. Certainly some of his Elementary Spellwork students had come up with very amusing schoolyard chants on the subject of the fall of Wizarding society as he had known it. Voldemort was difficult to rhyme, but not impossible. He regretted fiercely that he was required to give out detentions when he caught them at it.

Bellatrix laughed in the right places and fiddled with her coffee cup. It was disturbing how she had acquired social graces in the last few years.

"You look tired," he said finally, sipping his tea. Excellent, as usual. Most lower class establishments were floundering with the new ban in wholesale trade with muggles, but of course Madam Blanchefleur's, which served the Death Eater class and their flunkies, was provided with the means to ignore any law that might result in Abraxas Malfoy or Rodolphus Lestrange being served bad food.

"I am tired," Bellatrix said calmly, stirring her coffee restlessly, her eyes far off on the distance. "I was up until three in the morning last night at Evan Rosier's damned engagement party..."

"Don't tell me he's finally killed Perpetua in child bed?"

"No, the younger one, the one that was in school with you. He tried to go shot for shot with Rabastan, got thoroughly drunk and ended up calling out Snape for supposedly staring at his fiancee inappropriately, so Lestrange and I had to break it up. Rosier would be livid if he ended up scraping his son off the walls. He decided the whole thing was my fault as usual and then the girl went into hysterics just as I got him to shut up."

"You have such nice friends, I really see why you go to their parties." All of this gossip would probably be worth a fortune if it wouldn't get any journalist who published it arrested for badmouthing the inner circle.

"You can't just snub Evan Rosier, you idiot," Bellatrix said fondly.

They talked about trivialities for a while longer: the budget for primary education next year, when it would be possible to get a decent cup of coffee in Britain again without resorting to illegal supplies, Bellatrix's younger daughter, who had just been weaned at a little over two years old and was still protesting a little at it.

Sirius carefully did not ask if she expected to be pregnant again soon. He tried to think about the father of his cousin's children as little as he could; this made it possible to treat them as family, though it did become difficult when he found one of them hissing at the snakes in the garden.

"Shall we go, then?" he asked when he had finished his tea and Bellatrix had begun absently dipping her spoon into hers and raising it so that the cream splotched slowly into drops on her saucer.

"Please." Bellatrix rose and took his arm. She Apparated them from the upper level without bothering to go out the door; it was possible for anyone with a Dark Mark to bypass the wards on Madam Blanchefleur's, for emergency calls. To display this ability in public was a mark of status.

Sirius had a moderately awful two bedroom flat with ancient gas appliances that Bellatrix perpetually sighed over and water stains on the ceiling. He had refused every offer his cousin made to get him somewhere better on the grounds that this was what he could afford as a primary school teacher and he didn't want people to think he was putting on airs.

Bellatrix knew perfectly well what he thought of the new regime and her place in it, but seemed to hope that eventually the experience of being woken at three am on the dot by the radiator banging itself slowly to death would wear him down (the landlord being a now-wandless muggleborn who out of spite would not allow her tenants to magically alter the premises). If so she would be waiting a long damn time.

"Cissy has the children?" Sirius asked.

"She said she can keep them all night if we want, Ulrike canceled at the last minute." Bellatrix went to the guest room door; by the time he caught up she was stripping her outer robe off. The shift under it was translucent periwinkle gauze, so light it could probably be drawn through a wedding ring, not that either of them had one to test it.

"What's the hurry if we've all night?" Sirius asked.

"Efficiency. I hate these damn things, you know." She pulled the shift up over her head carelessly, and it snagged on one sapphire earring. Sirius, wincing, supposed she must make the tailors of magical Britain wild in ecstasy with how often she replaced her clothing. "I'd rather go about naked, I'm not keeping them on in your flat when I've no need to."

"I might have wanted to see you in the shift," Sirius said, laughing.

"You might have been disappointed, then." Bellatrix unfastened her breast band and dropped that off as well, then sat naked on the bed. Sirius would have liked to look at her hair, half falling down now, but the sparkling earrings kept catching his eye. He didn't like to think of who bought it for her - though for all he knew she ordered it herself. Voldemort somehow didn't seem the type.

Fortunately she went to the empty dresser to take the jewelry off - one earring, two, the necklace, the bracelet at her left wrist. Pity she couldn't peel the Dark Mark off as well. She was favoring the leg again.

He'd gone pensive, staring; Bella didn't like that. "Aren't you coming?" she called, and flung a laugh at him over her shoulder, casting the last piece off and shaking her long hair out, all the way down to her knees. She'd cut it to the waist at one point during the war, he remembered, but her battle efficiency wasn't important anymore.

He went to her, belated, and she kissed him hello and cupped his face. "Sulking? I could have been yours, you know. If you hadn't run away..."

"You could have been ordered to divorce me instead of Lestrange?" Sirius said sarcastically.

"Don't be ridiculous. I never shared his bed or touched the estate books, it was ridiculous for me to stay married to him," Bellatrix said, and finally, mercifully, she shut up.

Sirius clutched her to himself, kissing her. He wanted her; he wanted to possess her, to take her from this, and he only wanted her to stop talking. He knew he had always loved her, but she was easier to love when she stopped reminding him that he hated her, too.

She returned the kiss fiercely, one arm flung around the back of his neck, pulling him to herself. She was always eager for touch. They never talked about Voldemort, and he had no specific idea of what he was like in bed - thinking about it turned his stomach, so it was just as well - but Sirius had some idea that he didn't like to be touched much, from how Bellatrix acted with him.

It hurt him to think of it, sometimes; Bellatrix was such a tactile person and always had been. She flung herself at people and around them, kissed her sisters, sat in family members' laps. Trying to keep her without willingly touching her seemed cruel. But--

Sirius cut off that line of thought, knowing he didn't want to think of who else touched Bellatrix like this, whose children she carried, and ducked his head to kiss her shoulder instead.

After, they lay sprawled on the awful bed. Bellatrix elbowed Sirius into the spot with the spring and he groaned: "Can't you leave me the one good spot?"

"I could buy you a new mattress." She ran her fingers through his hair and he bit back the urge to whine at it like Padfoot.

"No."

"Then don't complain." She sighed. "Incidentally, you need to be more careful."

"What, mattress shopping?" Sirius squinted at the crescent-shaped water stain over the bed, trying to decide if it had gotten worse lately.

"Yaxley's received a tip--"

"He needs them, if he's ever had a thought of his own it got lonely and ran right back out of his head."

"Stop screwing around, Sirius. They know James and Lily Potter are still in the country."

Sirius's heart pounded wildly. He said lazily, "Then they're going to waste a lot of time looking, since last I heard James was planning to go to China."

"Sirius." The springs creaked as Bellatrix sat up, cross-legged. "I'm trying to help you. Don't be stupid."

"Genes like ours, I can't help it," Sirius said, and dodged when she punched his shoulder.

 

It was easy to hassle magical businesses over where they bought their wholesale supplies, but a lot harder to police individuals, and the exorbitant price of shopping magical businesses only meant that nobody actually obeyed the law. So it was not more suspicious than it needed to be on Saturday evening when Sirius took several large paper bags from the local muggle grocer out to the nearest Apparition point, turned on his heel and vanished with a crack.

Three stops later, Lily met him at the door, biting her lip with worry. "Let me take that," she said, relieving him of the heaviest bag. "Come on, quickly--"

The door shut behind them a whole fifteen seconds before a mad stampede of nine year old feet came down the stairs, and Harry threw himself at Sirius, pulling himself up at the very last minute before Sirius had to drop the groceries to catch him. "Sirius!"

"Hi, Prongslet," Sirius said, setting the bags down to pick Harry up in a fierce hug. "How are you doing? Driving your mother up the walls?"

Harry was a thin, reedy nine, with skin as pale as the Blacks'. Sirius knew Lily worried that he got enough sunlight, enough exercise, enough time with people: Sirius was not the only deliverer of groceries and news, but there were precious few and fewer all the time. They'd arrested Emmeline Vance on some trumped-up charge six months back, and it was clear she would never see daylight again, if indeed she was still alive. That left the suppliers of the Potters down to a count of four.

"Not too much," Harry said, letting himself down from the hug quite calmly now and taking a bag of groceries. "I learned how to levitate stuff this week, let me show you!"

"Not on the groceries, love," Lily said hastily, substituting the apples Harry had been eyeing with a much-repaired throw cushion. Sirius opened up his bag to set out his Prophet issues for the week on the counter, averting his eyes from the headline trumpeting Lord Voldemort's most recent speech.

Sirius duly exclaimed over Harry's new spell and ruffled his hair, then waited while he ran off to find his chess set for a game; as Lily muttered, it would take him twenty minutes to locate anything specific in his room, which left them with some time for adult conversation.

"Look," Sirius said quietly, "This might be nothing, but... my cousin said something Friday..."

"Andromeda?" Lily said, frowning.

Sirius bit his tongue and shook his head. "Bellatrix. So she might have only been fishing, but..."

"I wish you wouldn't--" Lily sighed and broke off, knowing it was useless.

"I know," Sirius said, not looking at her. "But look, if she hadn't tipped me off a couple of years back they'd have got Aberforth--"

"And ever since they've known you're talking to the Order," Lily said unhappily, "And they've watched you like a hawk--"

"I can't leave her, okay?" Sirius said in a heated whisper. "I know what she is, I know what she's done, and I know every damned person in her life but me is one of his inner circle--"

"I know, Sirius. I know." Lily rubbed her face. "What did she say?"

"She said that Yaxley'd had a tip that you and James were still in the country, and that I needed to be more careful," Sirius said.

Lily snorted. "Well. I agree with her there," she said bitterly. "They're one for one, then. I'll tell James to be sure to be spotted in Mumbai or something--"

"Make it Shanghai, I told her China, it'll look more like I slipped up and told her the truth mouthing off." Sirius sighed.

"I don't know, that might look too coordinated--"

The crashes were coming back down the stairs, and Lily went silent rapidly.

Sirius played four games of increasingly disorganized chess with Harry and hoped fervently that he would move on to something else by his next turn delivering the Potter groceries. He liked Harry, but chess was really more James's game. In fact the chess set Harry was using had been James's as a student; Sirius remembered refereeing Remus and James's games, backing up Remus's outrageous claims about obscure rules with a straight face, and felt something in his chest twist painfully.

The hour got later and later, and by the end of the third game Harry was drooping. He fell asleep a few moves from checkmate at the end of the fourth; Sirius gently laid him out on the couch and moved the throw blanket over him, kissing his forehead when he mumbled a protest, and went to find Lily.

The Fidelius covered the house and the back garden, ending at the hedge that divided the garden from the hills and woods surrounding Godric's Hollow. Lily was out back, curled in a ball on the small bench in the garden, looking into the trees. He thought she might be crying, but when he sat down he saw her face was scrunched up and dry.

"Hey," he said, softly, hand on her shoulder.

"I don't know how much more of this I can take," Lily said.

"I know."

"I haven't been further than the hedge in nearly ten years. It'll be ten this fall."

"I'm sorry."

"Harry's never been out of the house, and what kind of life is this for a child?" Lily looked up then, eyes wide open and desperate. "James wanted - needed - an heir, so I kept him and married James, and now what do I have? A husband I never see and never know is alive, the title for lands that were confiscated? Voldemort abolished the damn Wizengamot, after all of that--"

"Lily," Sirius said, and kissed her.

She kissed back as furiously as her speech, grabbing his hands and digging in with her nails. He groaned into her. They had done this perhaps four or five times, not often, his only regular lover these days was Bella, but there were days when he thought Lily would lose her mind if he didn't give her something to hold onto, something to take her out of her body and the house that had ceased to be a sanctuary and turned into a cage.

Harry didn't remember his father - James had left when he was four to draw the search away - and so he had Sirius instead, his godfather; and with Lily, too, he filled in for James's absence. James knew about it - Sirius had left his mirror with Lily, who needed it more, but he'd spoken to James occasionally - and said he didn't mind. Of course, he hadn't been picturing this either, marrying Lily.

They had spent those couple of years saying the war would be over soon, soon, it couldn't last much longer. It turned out they'd been right in a sense. The Ministry had fallen on December thirty-first, 1981: Tom Riddle's birthday, as Bella had told him once when drunk, and Lily and James's second wedding anniversary.

Sirius kissed her shoulder, kissed her hand and dropped to his knees in front of the bench. Her jeans were threadbare and soft with age; she wriggled out of them readily, and Sirius pulled down her knickers, nuzzling his cheek across her thigh and making her shriek and laugh: "That tickles," she said, gasping and fisting her fingers in his hair.

"I live to serve," he said, and licked a stripe between her labia, starting from her entrance and ending by sucking on her clit.

After she was limp and exhausted, worn out more by wild emotions than the actual sex. Sirius helped her put her jeans back on and swung her up into his arms to carry her, making her laugh raggedly again. She was so small, so light in his arms. He couldn't help comparing her to Bella in his head - the only two women he'd had sex with more than once - and contrasting her with Bella's broad shoulders, Bella's height within a couple inches of Sirius.

Lily would not appreciate this line of thought. He stifled it and got her upstairs and into bed.

"Sirius?" she mumbled when he went to rise, grabbing his wrist.

"I need to go," he said quietly, regretfully. "I'll bring you some tea first?"

"Thanks," she mumbled, and kissed his hand and let go.

 

Monday morning he was woken up by the downstairs neighbor's alarm again. She got up at three in the morning to cook in the Ministry canteen for the early morning shift workers. He turned over and thought about going back to sleep, but the spring was digging into his back and he was very sure he heard water dripping from the ceiling, so he gave up after twenty minutes and got out of bed. He showered painfully in cold water - the heater was presumably out again, getting muggle repairmen into a magical building required several permits and his landlady was lacking in bribe money for the relevant offices - used a quick charm to tame his hair and put his good, dark gray wool teaching robes on; and he was dressed.

"Happy days," he muttered to the mirror.

"You really ought to grow that hair out," it said. "You'd look dashing."

"I've been told," he said, and banged the door behind him on his way out.

There was a magical-owned diner a few streets away. He had plenty of time, and Bella had slipped money into his bag again - she was always doing that, she still thought of him as a runaway teenager - so he stopped in.

"Hiya, Black," said Madam Fortescue, wiping the counter down. Sirius had a vague recollection she had been a writer or something before the war ended; now she was banned from print and worked in her brother's restaurant instead. "What'll it be?"

"Eggs and bacon?" he said. There was a suspicious glint of resigned amusement in her eyes. He had a feeling this was not going to be a successful venture at breakfast.

"All out of bacon, I'm afraid," she said amiably.

"Just the eggs?" Sirius said hopelessly.

She cracked a smile. "Out of eggs, too."

"More supply problems?" This diner usually stocked actual food; Sirius suspected that the Fortescues Knew Somebody, although it couldn't be anyone that high up or Liese Fortescue would still be printable.

"Our usual supplier was arrested last week," she said. "Ministry confiscated the stock and generously offered to fill the order anyway... At three times the price. I declined."

"Naturally." Sirius leaned on the counter. "Still, they took the eggs?"

"Certified magic-owned chickens are hard to come by."

He couldn't tell whether she was joking or not. "Well, what do you have? Coffee?"

"I can get you some coffee," she said, abandoning the rag with evident relief. "We've got most of the dry goods in stock for cooking with, too, provided it's nothing you want dairy put in."

"Make me whatever you think is most likely to be edible and I'll risk it," Sirius said. He was trying to figure out whether there was any use complaining to Bella or if it would only cause trouble for the Fortescues to bring them more attention; he'd seen it play out either way when he mentioned things, often genuinely by accident.

Madam Fortescue brought him out some only mildly gluey sugared pancakes soon after along with the coffee, and in the total absence of other patrons sat down across from him while he ate. "I have to say you're up earlier than we usually see you."

"Neighbor's alarm got me up and the ceiling's dripping again, so I wanted to be out of the house," Sirius said. "There are only so many times you can cast Reparo on a bit of plaster before it just disintegrates."

The door swung open behind him. Sirius wanted to twitch but he didn't quite let himself. Just a restaurant, he reminded himself harshly.

"Mm. No chance of real repairs?" Madam Fortescue asked, pushing herself up from the table slowly.

"It's a muggle building, so..." He shrugged. "My landlady claims she's applied for the permits."

"Someone having issues with the government, dove? I never," Bella said behind him and - well, it would be an exaggeration to say his blood ran cold, but he certainly had an interesting moment of heart-stopping shock. Her voice alone displayed how very out of place she was: anyone trying to pass for their class would spend far more money on vocal lessons trying to emulate it than on the clothes. Sirius had worked hard to eliminate all traces of their accent from his, and only partially succeeded.

Madam Fortescue's face had gone entirely empty. "Madam Black," she said.

When he turned he saw that Bella was relaxed, moving without pain and laughing, in a good mood today for once. She wore red, a few shades darker than Gryffindor, her hair streaming around her like a heavy veil. "I'm just looking for my cousin," she said, going over to put a hand on Sirius's shoulder.

Sirius tried not to flinch but he couldn't quite stifle it. Black was a common name in the muggle world, and there were a few unrelated families, enough that nobody tended to assume he was one of those Blacks out of context. He probably would never be able to come to this diner again.

"Let me pay, Bella," he said, digging out his bag.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said, already scattering coins - far more than his paltry meal was actually worth - over the table. "Come on, we're in a hurry."

"For what?" he said, although he was going - he sort of had to if she was going to go fish him off the street in public. "I have work today, Bella," he said once they were outside.

They were on the street among muggles, both of them charmed to make their clothing less attention-getting, and relatively safe. Bella's laughing exterior dropped into a cool blankness the moment they turned the corner. "Yaxley got an arrest warrant put on you," she said flatly. "They're at your flat right now, they think you were tipped off. He's interrogating your landlady."

Sirius flinched, half turning towards home already. "I have to--"

"Don't be stupid, Sirius. They'll rough her up and let her go in a day or two. She'll be fine if you don't give them reason to think they're right."

"I thought you got them to stop this," he said after a moment, inanely.

He had been picked up every six months or so for the first couple of years post-war, suspected of involvement in every anti-government plot discovered. It had stopped abruptly when Bella began inviting him to have tea with her in public, just after the birth of her first daughter.

Bella looked away, fingers still tight on his arm. After a moment she said, "Rosier - senior, I mean - is trying to unseat me again, and he's got Brendan Travers on his side this time. Abraxas and Narcissa are together with me, of course, and Ulrike's in the inner circle since she took over MLE, but Yaxley went around Ulrike and got Travers to sign the warrant, and since he's special operations instead of MLE Ulrike can't directly rescind it.

"I'll have it sorted out in a couple of days, but only if you don't vanish into a hole somewhere in the meantime. It's a lot easier to keep a person out of Azkaban than retrieve them. Once you're locked up they think they can use you to extort me."

"So this isn't even about me, or the Order, or the Potters," Sirius said once he could talk. "They're just trying to get at you."

"I know it's terribly disappointing for a heroic type like you, but yes," Bellatrix said, jerked him around at the next corner, and Disapparated them both.

They landed on a forest trail. Bella started walking immediately to distance their next Apparition trace. "I just need to stash you out of the way for a couple of days while I Crucio a few people," she said as if there had been no pause. "Travers doesn't do anything unless he feels like the risk is handled so if I can convince him this was stupid he'll happily throw Yaxley to the wolves, and if I can take Rosier down with him--"

"Is there a reason Travers didn't think this might be too stupid to do at all?" Sirius said.

Bella hauled him off the trail, over a fallen tree trunk and into a thicket of bushes before Disapparating again. This time they landed on the top of a gray sea cliff, with waves pounding in the distance and no buildings as far as he could see. She started walking again along the top of the cliff, and for a moment he thought she wasn't going to answer.

"I had an argument with the Dark Lord and Rosier thinks he can take advantage of it," she said curtly, grabbed his wrist with bruising force, and Disapparated again. They landed, this time, in a small office with boarded up windows and dust so thick Sirius nearly choked on the air. "Change," Bella said, rooting through a box and throwing a sack of clothing at him. "Quickly." She pulled out a second one and yanked her own robes off over her head.

It was muggle clothing, to Sirius's surprise - but then the magical world had always been too small to hide anyone easily, and these days it was even worse. "What was this argument about, exactly?" he said, unfastening his own robes and beginning to shuck them in favor of the rumpled trousers and shirt inside. Fortunately whoever had put together the supplies had actually known what they were doing with muggle clothing.

"It's not important," Bella said, teeth gritted. When he turned back towards her, buttoning his shirt, he saw she had pulled a soft blue sundress over herself and was coiling her hair; muggle women didn't generally wear theirs down to the knee.

"If it might get me killed I think it's important." Sirius straightened his collar and watched regretfully as Bella burned his robes with a twitch of her fingers. They'd been new, and fine quality wool didn't come cheaply.

"It's not - Travers and Rosier don't even know what it was about, they're just hoping he'll be less responsive to my complaints than usual. They're wrong, obviously," she said, seized his arm, and Disapparated again.

This time they landed in a crowded muggle street, falling smoothly into place among the shoppers. It was a truly impressive feat, the kind of thing that needed iron control and a lot of power, and still risky as hell - typical Bellatrix.

"Okay," he said, hearing the defensive quality to her voice and knowing she'd tell him anyway if he didn't press.

She stalked through the muggles, clinging to his hand angrily. "It isn't as if we never fight," she hissed. "I've been his lover for more than twenty years, I'd have to actually be enchanted to never fight with him. It's not important."

"Okay," Sirius said. She turned off the street so abruptly she wrenched his shoulder, starting into a hotel. "I'm not arguing."

"It was personal anyway," she said to him, pulled a wallet from her bag and slapped a card down on the counter. "One bed, please, through Wednesday night."

Sirius blinked as the receptionist took it away, briefly distracted - holding a muggle bank account had been illegal for years. "Tell me that's not an official account."

"It's Marius Black's card, don't be ridiculous."

"The squib?" Sirius hissed, wondering when the hell Bellatrix had gotten into contact with their mutual grandfather's estranged younger brother.

"The Ministry doesn't know about him," Bellatrix said, and then the receptionist was back. Bellatrix rattled off a fake name and identity with no apparent hesitation, handling the transaction more smoothly than half the Order could have back in the day, and whisked him off to the room before their lack of luggage could attract comment.

"It was just about Ursa," she said, naming her eldest daughter, and Sirius took a minute to realize that she was still thinking about her so-called argument with the Dark Lord.

Dread coiled in his stomach. If she'd fought with Voldemort so seriously the inner circle knew about it, about her daughter, and she was still this obsessed...

"What about Ursa?" he hissed, finding room 117 and opening the door.

Bella whipped her wand out the instant the door closed again and began casting wards on the room. Sirius decided he could let her handle it and collapsed into the closest chair. It was a luxury hotel, and actually now that he thought of it he was fairly certain they'd come here before to have sex. Probably how Bella knew about it. She usually reserved the rooms before he got there and paid herself, so he hadn't had any idea how she was handling it; he'd probably have guessed it involved Obliviation rather than her erstwhile great-uncle's bank accounts.

"He loves her," Bella said, which seemed like a very bad start. "I swear, it's just that he has no idea how to - no practice holding his temper, or--"

"He hurt Ursa?" Sirius asked.

Bellatrix cast the last spell, dropped onto the bed and began to cry, silently, arms wrapped tightly around herself.

Bella didn't tell him anything else about what Voldemort had done to their daughter or why. He got her calmed down after an hour or so and she left, making him promise to order room service rather than leaving the hotel, and saying she'd be back when she had news. He spent the night luxuriating in the now-foreign access to muggle news and trying to stop himself from hoping that Bellatrix might finally be reachable; that Voldemort might have at least stumbled into a way of hurting her she wouldn't forgive.

The next day he ordered breakfast and, having no other clothing, lay around in the hotel's complimentary bathrobe. The city below was full of people who weren't stressed out of their minds and shops that actually stocked their ostensible products; it was extremely appealing, but he'd promised Bellatrix and unfortunately she was right. He paced and worried and ordered room service again for lunch, and a couple of hours later she turned up with a bag of clothing and another of food for him. She looked, absurdly, cheerful.

"Hi, dove," she said, setting down her things at the door and kissing him on the mouth. He answered her kiss, arms wrapping around her shoulders automatically, and thought of muggle movies, husbands coming home to greet their adoring house wives. For a moment they seemed an absurd caricature of themselves, or like characters in a book.

Then Bella pulled away and said, "I talked to Ulrike and Travers and I think everything will be sorted out in another day," and the illusion burst.

"Yaxley got a warrant out for me to attack you and Travers went along with it, and you think everything will be sorted out?" Sirius said.

"Go put clothes on. Or at least take that off, it's absurd," Bellatrix said, absently digging in the bag of food. "Did you eat? --I see you did. Well, I'll have this then, I didn't get lunch yet and I'm starving.

"And yes, Travers wasn't actually at the meeting I missed half of. Apparently Cissy rather exaggerated my state and the argument she overheard to Abraxas - you know what she's like when she's upset - so he got the wrong idea when he overheard. I told you it would all blow over. Anyway, I've gotten Yaxley arrested for falsifying information--"

Sirius winced at the thought of that fate.

"--And Rosier's in a meeting with the Dark Lord right now being punished, and Travers is taking me to dinner tonight to apologize, so it's clear enough to everyone else he's licking my boots and the three of us are a united front again." By the three of us, she meant herself, Brendan Travers, and Abraxas Malfoy, Sirius unfortunately knew well: the three high commanders during the war. "I'll just swing by your landlady's office and make sure she's back at home and the repairs on your flat are paid for and you can go home."

"Please don't." The thought of Bellatrix and his landlady in a room together was about equally hilarious and horrifying; it was certain to end in someone turned into a goat or set on fire. "Look, Bella, what about the original fight?"

"Original?" Bellatrix quirked an eyebrow at him and stuffed half a roll in her mouth. Her table manners, Sirius thought, had really gone to shit once she stopped spending all her time at society balls, not that he had any room to complain.

"Bella, what did Voldemort do to your daughter?"

"Oh. That." She shrugged. "It doesn't matter, I got him to Vow it wouldn't happen again."

Sirius had opened his mouth to protest the first statement. He cut off, gaping, at the second. "You got him to Vow?"

"I told you. He doesn't want to lose his temper, he just doesn't have any practice not doing it. Actually telling you about it helped, Cissy goes into hysterics any time the subject comes up and Ulrike's solution to literally every problem is to kill it, so I can't think it through if I'm talking to either of them. So thank you for that." She shrugged elaborately.

Sirius stared at her a moment in wordless horror, then joined her at the table to steal bits off her plate while he regrouped. Belatedly he said, "If Cissy was hysterical over your state at the meeting, what did he do to you?"

"Doesn't matter," Bella said, swallowing her food. When he tried to argue, she fisted her hand in his robe collar and kissed him.

Her body had an urgency that belied her cheerful exterior. Every time they had sex she tried to crawl into his skin; it was part of why he had no will to deny her despite all the blood on her hands.

They were sitting at the hotel table, it was a terrible place. He got up, pulling Bella with him and braced her against the wall, still kissing her. She was wearing muggle clothing to get into the hotel, a dark sweater and jeans. "I hate trousers," Sirius muttered, fumbling to unfasten them.

Bella laughed throatily under him, arms around his neck. "They should be banned."

"I hate them," he said again, and got them down her legs, retreated a moment to pull the sweater off and swept his eyes down her exposed skin, but whatever Voldemort had done to her was healed now. There weren't any marks.

The proliferating grid of scars over her shoulders and hips might be denser than before, but he was used to that; Voldemort's cutting curses had long ago chiseled her skin into iridescence, silvery scar tissue only a shade or two paler than Bella's skin covering it. He wondered if it was starting to cause problems for her range of motion; Bella didn't really fight anymore, so he didn't know.

He kissed her neck, open mouthed, sucking at her pulse point and feeling her shiver and gasp under him. "I love you," he said into her skin; it was true, it had always been true, and she knew that too, so saying it wasn't giving anything up. "I love you," he said again, kissing her shoulder and feeling her fingers digging into his hair.

There was a tiny scar on her upper arm on this side that wasn't anonymous to him the way most of the others were. It was from where her arm had been broken and the bone had come through it, and she hadn't been allowed a wand to heal it with.

You couldn't torture a Secret Keeper; there was no point. They couldn't give up information under duress like that. But free will was relative.

Sirius kissed the scar, mouthed it, then turned his head to nuzzle Bella's breast instead before he upset her.

You couldn't torture a Secret Keeper directly, but torturing others in front of them wouldn't interfere with the magic. Of course the first thing Voldemort had tried had been his friends, but it wasn't as if Sirius thought they'd really let, say, Alice Longbottom go because he gave up the Potters. Of course he still saw her being dismembered in front of him in his nightmares, but everyone had nightmares these days.

"Sirius," Bella groaned, fingers twisting painfully in his hair. He nipped her breast and made her gasp and laugh; her fingers eased on him.

So Voldemort had thought, if his friends weren't enough, and his brother was dead, what about his cousins? Andromeda had left the country by then, so it had been the Death Eater cousins, Bellatrix and Narcissa, and there was never any question which of them he was closer to.

"I love you," Sirius said into the hollow between her breasts, and dropped to his knees, slowly enough to give her time to let go of his hair.

All of her years of service, all of the crimes she'd committed for him, all of the years in his bed had been nothing. He'd spent a month torturing Bellatrix to convince Sirius to give up the Potters. Sirius wasn't sure if he'd really been paranoid enough to believe that Bellatrix was conspiring with Sirius or he'd only pretended, but...

Well. He hadn't been willing to kill her in the end, and Sirius hadn't given in.

He buried his face between her thighs and spared a thought to pray, again, that she would live through the time between now and her next visit.

Bella had brought him a couple of changes of clothing as well and she told him that he could probably go home tomorrow. Sirius hoped that he wasn't about to lose his job, but he wasn't about to express this worry to Bellatrix. She'd only offer to cover his expenses again, as though that was any kind of gift he wanted.

 

He did not, as it turned out, lose the job. Another month passed; another supply run. "No Harry?" Sirius asked Lily, putting a final milk carton away in the fridge.

"He's upstairs, but he's been sulking lately," Lily said, grimacing. "He wants to go for a walk."

"Well. Natural desire," Sirius said. "Do you want me to get the washing up?"

"Would you?" Lily looked at him like he had brought her a million galleons, or possibly just an exit visa. "I get so tired doing everything myself..."

"Sure, it's no trouble," Sirius said, rolling up his sleeves and directing the sponge with his wand.

"Remus said you'd had some legal trouble," Lily said after a few minutes, curled up at the kitchen table and watching him, cat-like with her grace and her green eyes. "He thought you'd gotten picked up again?"

"No, I wasn't actually arrested, and it turns out it's nothing to do with the Order," Sirius said, and sighed. "I mentioned that tip to you last month? Well, it's just as well James didn't get sighted, because it turns out it was Death Eater politics all along. Evan Rosier was trying to get my cousin in trouble with Voldemort, from what she said, and he talked Brendan Travers into going along. They used Yaxley as a stooge, and he's dead in prison as of this week."

Lily sighed and blew hair out of her face. "Typical. She warned you?"

"Yeah. Dragged me off to a muggle hotel for two days and said she would sort it out." He did not pass on Bella's comment about Crucioing a few people. "Which she did, I didn't even get fired for the two day absence."

"Like they would, there aren't enough wizards to staff all the positions they need as is," Lily said irritably.

Sirius knew her use of wizards was intentional; they hardly banned women from working, not with veterans like Bellatrix Black and Ulrike Selwyn in the ranks, but a lot of witches were staying home to have children these days. The government spent a lot of time talking about the birth rate, as though they could possibly keep the population up without marrying muggles.

"They still spare enough people throwing them in prison," Sirius said, and sighed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to snipe."

"Neither do I, really," Lily said. She was hugging her knees, hiding her face behind all that brilliant hair. "Sirius... How much longer can we do this for?"

"As long as we have to, I guess." Dishes sailed from the sponge to rinse off under his wand and into the dish rack. If he focused on it hard enough he didn't have to consider anything else.

"Harry's going to be ten soon," Lily went on ruthlessly. "How is he supposed to kill Voldemort - to live his life - if he's never been outside this house? If he's never been able to really use magic? If he can't talk to people, how can he lead them?"

"I don't know, Lils," Sirius said, staring into the sink. "I don't know what to tell you."

"Try this," Lily said, and took a deep breath. "I think Harry and I need to leave the country."

Sirius thought about border wards and patrols and exit visas and friends arrested at airports and ferry crossings and random places on the British coastline, and he swallowed and said, "You're probably right. What can I do?"

 

It wasn't unusual. It was rather a done thing, trying to get permission to leave the country. The problem was that Sirius had become lazy and let Bella handle most of his official contact, and he knew better than to tell her about this one, so he couldn't handle it that way. Sirius made bribes and inquiries and lists of smugglers and exit methods and countries willing to accept British refugees and found himself, eventually, sitting in the Ministry in front of Rodolphus Lestrange's desk.

"Sirius, how have you been?" said Lestrange, who looked surprisingly good for a man who had lost his ancestral property to his ex-wife's land reclamation and use commission. He'd had a sort of hollow look during the war, a tendency to stare blankly into space until he realized someone was watching and turned himself on by force. Of course that could have just been that he knew Sirius was watching now.

"Surviving, and you?" Sirius asked. He was here because Lestrange was the head of international relations and his department had to authorize British citizens leaving the country, but more because he had known Lestrange as a child, when he and Bella had still been close. He had thought of drawing on that connection only belatedly. He still wasn't sure it had been a good idea.

"Well enough." Lestrange's smiled was still tired and friendly and just a little bit ironic. He seemed to say constantly in any situation, how funny that we are here, and who should say that it shouldn't be the other way around? How funny that I am behind this desk and you are sitting in your best patched dress robes trying to work out how to best beg for an exit visa. How funny that I am holding this wand and you are a corpse on the other end of it. "What can I do for you?"

Sirius began to go through the careful polite words he had rehearsed and said a million times before, about the economy and opportunity and so on and so forth when Lestrange raised a hand and he stopped.

"Sirius," he said, "If you just want an exit visa I'll sign it, although I will also ask you politely not to use it, because I think if you leave the country without her Bellatrix may commit suicide." He did not give Sirius time to absorb this comment. "I think I am not wrong in assuming that you don't plan to leave alone, and more specifically that this may be related to a certain woman and child who are officially missing - don't say anything. You don't have to deny it. Let me see." He dug in his desk absently for the relevant forms.

"I will sign this and give this to you and you can think about whether you really want to use it, and just in case I will also provide you with some advice. And that is that the border guards are not, unfortunately, under my jurisdiction, they're controlled by Ulrike Selwyn as head of MLE, with a certain number of Brendan Travers's spies. Bella could get someone concealed through them, probably. I can't. And I will also tell you that there has been a multi year operation now to infiltrate the smugglers in order to identify high priority targets. I sincerely hope this advice is of no use to you whatsoever...

"Here you are, and please, while you're in the country, stop by for tea any time. I remember you as a child quite well."

 

Sirius took the exit visa and the advice to Lily, about a week and a half later.

"I don't think he knows anything, I mean," he said, late at night when Harry was in bed and he and Lily had had a couple of shots of the whiskey he'd brought. "Nothing recent - when I was seeing you in school, someone told Bella and she wrote to me, and he did, too, so she must have told him we'd dated. It's just a guess. But the rest of it..."

"They'll pay special attention to you," Lily said dismally. "That bit about the smugglers - it might have been meant to funnel us through the official border--"

"It might be true even if it was. I'd be shocked if they weren't trying." Sirius stared glumly into the bottle. He read the label: "Guaranteed manufactured in magical Britain by magical heritage employees and elves."

Magical heritage employees; no muggle parents and no more than two muggle grandparents. The measure that made a citizen or a stateless resident these days. Sirius felt faintly guilty he'd never had to worry about it the slightest bit.

"We're not going to know unless we do it," Lily said, sinking back into glum.

"I could talk to Bella," Sirius said. He read on the bottle that all ingredients came from magically managed farms.

"Sirius..." Lily trailed off; Sirius thought she would ask him if he was crazy or maybe just if that was a good idea, but what she said was, "You're sleeping with her, aren't you."

"I. Yes," Sirius said, and followed it up with a large swallow of whiskey so that he could not be expected to talk. His eyes watered and he regretted it immensely.

Lily rolled her eyes. "I'm not - look. You know her, and I'm trusting your judgment. You haven't given us away yet. If you go to her and ask her for help getting us out of the country - us, not you - what will she do?"

Sirius took another long swallow and delayed by about thirty seconds his answer, which was, "I don't know."

 

The weeks blended on. Harry turned ten years old. Sirius thought of all the things he would have bought a ten year old in other circumstances - a broomstick, a pet to bring to school next year, child-sized Quidditch gear, even dress robes.

Harry could only use his gifts in the house or the garden and Sirius couldn't buy anything obviously out of the norm, although he might have passed off small things as meant for his students. In the end he thought it over and brought two boxes of Honeyduke's chocolate (Harry never having seen the store, he deeply enjoyed the candy), and a backgammon set, and after long and careful scrutiny and consultation with Lily for approval, a cat.

Wizarding toads and rats were invariably magical subspecies. Owls were not really owls at all, but a sort of spirit, a little like wand cores, that served willingly as messengers and behaved radically differently from the actual birds whose forms they mimicked. Cats however, barring actual kneazles and kneazle crosses, were just cats. Any cat could become a familiar, were it so inclined.

He went quietly to a muggle pet shop, thinking he could get Harry a kitten or something, and came out with the scrappiest scrawniest black cat in the place, two years old and killing a feather thoroughly dead when Sirius came to look. He came out of the cage and rubbed all over Sirius's face at once, just like Harry. He hoped that the kid wouldn't mind.

Harry was or pretended to be ecstatic with the cat. He pounced it - to Lily and Sirius's mutual relief it began to purr instead of trying to remove his face - and cuddled it and spent the evening after his birthday dinner sitting on the floor going through Lily's mythology books and trying out names. "Mordred," he tried, and Lily and Sirius winced. "Lancelot. Kay? Or..." He shuffled books. "Apollo? Hermes. Hermes?"

The cat miaowed. Hermes it was, apparently.

"Thank you for that," Lily said, when Harry went upstairs to show the cat his room. "It's not - not a real friend, I can't get that for him, but--"

"Animals can be friends." Sirius spoke only from the most abstract of knowledge. He'd never had a pet. The Black family had possessed various owls but did not send them to school with its children, and the closest they had otherwise come was a kneazle kitten smuggled into the house when he was three or four. Sirius vaguely remembered its silky ears and fluffy tail. His mother had caught his cousins with it after a week and cut its head off.

"I suppose." Lily sighed. "After the last cat..."

Sirius winced. Lily had had a cat at school and a cat she and James chose when they got married, and neither had come to a good end. "This one will do better."

"Sirius," Lily said. They weren't drunk; it was only morose sentiment that left her head drooping into her hands. "Sirius, why is it that everything I love, someone takes from me?"

"Lils," Sirius said.

"The cats. James. You," Lily said, and then looked up, appalled. "I don't mean--"

"It's fine." The taste of Bella's cigarettes came back to him, and the smell of her perfume, phantom. "Lils, I--"

"I'm not talking about Bellatrix. You told me what he - evil, twisted bitch or not, I wouldn't deny her comfort from you. Just reading about him in the newspaper makes me sick, she has to sleep with him." Lily took a breath. "Just, in school, when we broke up..."

"I thought my father would kill you," Sirius said. "Should've gone for it, knowing what I know now."

"Should have," Lily agreed shakily, and moved closer, fisting a hand in his hair.

Sirius got home late and was as worried as he always was by it on Harry's birthday; this of all days the regime should have been watching him. No one in the street, no one in the stairwell, but then there was a light on behind the door to his flat. Had he left the kitchen light on? Sirius palmed his wand, spelled the door open to find--

Bella. He froze for a moment, because she didn't do this, not since - since everything, but she wasn't sitting with her wand up or sprawled back in languid mockery. In fact she mirrored Lily, sitting at his table, head in her hands.

"Bella," he said, wary, and came in the door.

She looked up, slow, through a curtain of her hair. He smelled the brandy as he came closer, and his steps hitched; Bella didn't drink. "What was my first word?" he said.

Her lips turned up, crooked. "Andy," she said, and he lowered his wand.

"What's going on?" he said, crossing to the kitchen table.

"Nothing," Bellatrix said and laughed, shakily, pushing the half-empty bottle at him; Sanguinary Wizarding Brandy, thirty galleons a bottle, was a quality he undoubtedly had not touched since he was a teenager sneaking into his father's liquor cabinet. Sirius did not touch it now, only warily pulled a chair out. "What could possibly be wrong?" Bellatrix hissed and raised her head so that her hair fell back from her face and he could see the wound.

His breath caught.

It wasn't, objectively, that bad; it wasn't even cursed. It was an ordinary and unremarkable head wound, a jagged cut stretching from her cheek to her temple and twisted with clotted blood, surrounded by spreading bruises and rug burn, which continued down her jaw. While her robes covered everything below the neck, she carried herself gingerly below the alcohol's sloppiness and he supposed it must be mirrored underneath down her shoulder and side. At a guess, someone had thrown her into the floor or wall, or perhaps both in succession.

He might have supposed that person had been acting in self defense if it weren't for the fact that it had obviously been some time, hours at least, for the bleeding to stop; and the injuries had not been healed with magic.

"He took your wand?" Sirius asked.

Bellatrix did not bother to answer, only refilled the chipped tumbler she had taken from his kitchen and drank again. "I could heal it anyway," she said. "Salt and candle wax, or blood from the wound, or - or Mrs. Marvell's Healing Elixir off the shelf. Taking my wand was just an insult. It's not the trouble, it's - it's--"

"That he'd know if you did and you're not allowed," Sirius said.

Bellatrix hiccoughed and nodded, vaguely, gesturing with the tumbler. The brandy slopped alarmingly side to side, and Sirius got up.

"I'm getting you water," he said.

"I don't want to be sober."

"You're at no risk of that," Sirius said dryly. "Alcohol inhibits wound healing, you know."

"So?" Bellatrix's eyes were cloudy, but her face was indignant at any attempt to care for her; she usually was.

"So humor me." Sirius got water from the sink rather than summoning it, which would require him to stop shaking with rage. "Drink the water and tell me what happened."

"If I told you what happened I'd have to kill you," Bellatrix said without a trace of humor, either because she was very drunk or because she was totally unfamiliar with muggle popular culture. She did drink the water. "Sirius - oh, Morgana blast it, this isn't why I'm here."

"Why are you here?" Sirius asked, watching to make sure she drank the water rather than spilling it on herself. He suppressed the flutter of hope deep in his stomach; he had learned long ago, or so he told himself, not to hope for Bellatrix.

Bella raised her head when she was done with the water, and her cloudy eyes suddenly focused into a frightening intensity. "Sirius," she said, speech now distinct. "I'm sorry. You were right."

"Was I?" Sirius said, not daring to think in case... "About what?"

"About him." Bellatrix swallowed, glanced down at the still quarter-full tumbler but didn't reach for it. "Siri, I need to leave," she said. "I'm sorry, but there's no one else I can trust."

Sirius took a deep breath.

She might not mean it in the morning. She might not remember it in the morning. She had gone from blistering rage to forgiveness before, half a dozen times... But she'd never gone this far. If he could get her to act on it, now, before she had time to rethink it...

"Let me sober you up so we can plan," he said. Bellatrix looked like she might argue for a moment but nodded; he got her to drink another glass of water to forestall a serious hangover before he cast the charm.

"--Well," she said when her eyes opened, and huffed out a sigh; but she didn't storm off, only rubbed at her bruised temple and winced.

"If you want to leave him," Sirius began, "You know you have to leave the country."

"I did think that far, Sirius." Bellatrix grimaced and, balefully glaring at it, vanished the brandy in her glass; Sirius rapidly rescued the bottle before it met the same fate, thinking if nothing else it was high enough quality to bribe someone with. "I started drinking after I got here and you weren't home."

Sirius ignored that. "I have an exit visa already," he said, not looking at her. "It's only good for me, though. Will they try to stop you at the border?"

Bellatrix shook her head. "I've got permission to go, I just have to explain myself after. I'm sure Travers's people will report it in a state of blissful glee, but if I'm not coming back it doesn't really matter. The children will be more difficult, but I don't know that anyone would try to stop me; I just need to come up with an explanation they can pretend they believe for a few minutes."

"Okay. There's that handled, then." Sirius looked at Bellatrix and thought about a shared childhood, about hundreds of people's blood on her hands, about Harry's intent face as he drew the picture of Hermes playing with a ball of yarn currently hung on Lily's fridge.

They were going to get caught if they stayed in Britain. It was only a matter of when.

"Can you get someone else out?" Sirius asked. "A woman, and a child?"

Bellatrix looked up from her study of the table top, slowly. "A high priority woman, I imagine?"

"They'd have to be," Sirius said.

Bellatrix swallowed and nodded, once, her face sharp. "Well. The story still only needs to last long enough to get us across the border. I'll ask Lestrange and Ulrike to meet me for coffee tomorrow." She hesitated. "I can't heal it, it would be suspicious now, but - could you cast something to numb it? Just so I can get some sleep tonight."

She left not much time later, animated and focused in a way he hadn't seen her since the blowup with Travers trying to get her in trouble. She had always functioned best with a goal in mind. He could only hope he hadn't gotten them all killed; that she was planning to subvert Voldemort and not regain his favor.

 

He warned Lily to be ready to flee, that he had asked Bellatrix for help. Lily was taut and emotionless at the news, waiting, like him, to see which way the coin would fall. Then he went home and tried to focus on teaching his classes so no one would notice anything amiss. It was hard, incredibly hard, and he was sure his students realized he was upset, but then people going around with strained faces and nervous laughs for reasons they would not explain were not too unusual these days. His students would not get the context. He hoped.

Three days later Bellatrix walked into his office and he nearly cursed her in surprise. "Bella," he said, forcing his voice even; the coworker he'd been chatting with went ashen, looking between them, and Sirius could hear her thoughts without Legilimency: Sirius Black - oh, Merlin - you are one of those Blacks. It was a good thing that soon he would be either dead or out of the country, because Bella was destroying his social life.

"Siri," Bellatrix said, voice light. Her face had been healed, but there were two tiny specks of scars under the worst of the cut, artifacts of the time she had been prevented from using magic on it. "I tried to get you at home, but you never answer your mail. Little cousins are the worst about that, aren't' they?" she said, eyes flicking to Mrs. Khan beside him, who mumbled something and, at an encouraging nod from Sirius, fled. "--Squeaky, isn't she?" Bellatrix added, now tired, as Sirius shut the door.

"Was it really a good idea to show up at work?" he said.

"Better than your flat would have been, your downstairs neighbor's a Ministry informant," Bella said, making Sirius swear. "Anyway it's not like anybody here talks to anyone who could do something about it in less than a month." She handed a file over the table to him. "Open it somewhere private, dear cousin. I'll see you at Madam Blanchefleur's as usual and we can discuss the rest there."

"You couldn't have handed it to me then?"

"Please, if I gave you a file there half a dozen people would have Flooed or written the inner circle by the time we finished our drinks. There are many kinds of privacy, dove. Tell your friends I said hello!" Bellatrix finished, grinned at him, and got up.

Sirius sighed. He put the folder in his briefcase with his grading, and sat down to go back to writing test questions. He might as well leave a thorough record for whatever poor bastard replaced him.

At home he checked the file thoroughly for trackers, eavesdropping or recording spells and curses before he opened it; then he took it along with the groceries to Lily. It contained two identities for a Fortuna Weasley and her son; a note explained that they had been killed in an accident a few months ago along with Mrs. Weasley's husband and remaining children, and Bellatrix had obtained the relevant identity documents and had the records amended accordingly.

As identity documentation had not existed before Voldemort's rise to official power, the official archives were constantly having to be amended for people who had just discovered a need for them, and one visit would not be remarked upon. Sirius was aware of this; the Order had taken advantage of it before.

"Well," Lily said, and took a shaky breath. "That sounds... very reasonable."

"It does," Sirius said. "Do we risk it?" Bellatrix knew he was in contact with Lily, but unless he had missed something important on the papers she had been given nothing that would actually lead her back to them. Sirius might be interrogated, but it had happened before; and there were others who could supply Lily if he died, still, if their number was dwindling.

Lily took a deep breath. "I don't think we have a choice," she said. "But explain it to Harry, would you? I can't bear to get him killed trusting me."

Sirius put the papers down accordingly and went to sit on the sitting room floor with Harry. He explained very seriously that he had a cousin who he loved very much, who his father had been very angry with once; and the man Harry knew as Voldemort had rescued her from Sirius's father, and she had fallen in love. She had done many bad things for him, because she loved him for saving her, and she had put up with him doing lots of bad things to her. But now she had finally woken up--

"Like from a spell?" Harry said, leaning forward with interest; stories about people breaking free of epic magical captivity were favorites of his for reasons Sirius did not like to think about.

"A little like that," Sirius said; and went on to explain that she had children herself, a little younger than Harry, and that Voldemort had begun to hurt them too. She had asked Sirius for help getting away, and had offered to use what she knew to help them go away too; but if her loyalty to Voldemort won out it was possible that she would betray them. They wanted Harry to agree if they were going to trust her.

"Of course we should," Harry said, child's eyes bright and clear. "No spell lasts forever, that's what Mum told me, right? And if she's breaking free, you've got to help her, it's what you do."

Sirius swallowed. It wasn't just a children's love of fairy tales; Harry had demonstrated himself courageous and forgiving many times within the confines of his walls. "Okay," he said. "If you're willing to risk it, we are, too."

 

The plan he and Bellatrix hashed out over tea did provide them with some surety; when all of them met for the first time, Bellatrix, reluctance telegraphed in ever line of her body, handed over her younger two children to Lily's care for the journey: her four year old son Eridanus to masquerade as Osric Weasley and her two year old daughter Cassiopeia, too young to be obviously female, as Coenred, the remaining two of the late Mrs. Weasley's three children.

"We're playing a game where Harry here is your older brother Maelrhys," she said, bent over to talk to her son. Her lips were pressed so hard together they were white. "You always wanted a brother, right?"

Eridanus, dark haired and solemn faced, looked at Harry and hissed. Harry hissed back readily enough and Lily rolled her eyes as Bellatrix said, sounding worried, "And you can't speak Parseltongue in front of other people, alright? Or they'll know who you are."

"It's okay," Harry said, looking at Bellatrix with no small measure of curiosity. "He just wanted to know if I could." His green eyes turned on Ursa, seven years old and fully aware of what was going on because - Sirius knew, although Bellatrix had not shared the details - she was as much the reason for it as Harry; she clutched her mother's hand, eyes down. "She's not coming with us?"

"She'll be with me and Sirius," Bellatrix said and, looking at Sirius and Lily, "I told Ulrike half the truth, that I wanted Ursa out of the country and you agreed to come. She thinks I'm leaving the other children with her and Cissy; she tried to talk me out of it, actually, but..." Bellatrix swallowed. "Anyway, we'll need to go through separately; I think it's best to send Evans first, since if an alarm is raised the two of us will be in a better position to fight our way out with one child than Evans with three."

"Of course," Lily said, eyes cool, and did not comment that this plan would also leave her safely across the border first - if she was not meant as a distraction to occupy the guards.

In previous years there had been official exceptions to the national enchantments that stopped people blithely flitting through Britain's borders without permission, so you could take a portkey from the International Floo Station or directly to and from certain authorized events so long as it was registered.

The spells had been tightened these days in the wake of the new legal restrictions on travel. It was now necessary to travel to the border, whether by portkey or Floo or Apparition or even the train, and walk across the edge of the enchantments before you could take a second portkey to your destination at the edge of the coast. Furthermore the enchantments had somehow been tightened further still so that anyone with magic trying to leave by muggle means would bounce off the border like rubber, and an alarm would sound in the Ministry. The smugglers mostly had or claimed to have means of bypassing these provisions.

They were lined up at the checkpoint by the coast, therefore, having arrived separately; Lily took a domestic portkey, as a weary mother of three might be expected to, while Bellatrix and Sirius Apparated with Ursa. Sirius was careful not to stare, not to betray any interest in Lily, but his heart leapt with relief at the glance he dared when she arrived; he had been half-terrified that she wouldn't, that the portkey had been a trap. Bella might easily have told anyone on the other end to expect her children.

Women of breeding age, particularly women with several young children, were not usually permitted to leave Britain; but enough people knew people, or could at least bribe them, that exceptions were made all the time. Sirius did not dare watch, but listened with all his might for a commotion, when Lily and the children reached the head of the queue.

The official reason on the application had been financial hardship; the widow's only means of support being a fictional brother who had moved to France. Lestrange had signed it himself, something Bellatrix assured them was common enough especially of women trying to get out. ("The people who'd object mostly think they're all sleeping with him," she had said drily.) Would anyone recognize her? Lily had been hard worn by exhaustion and worry, but she had not really aged, her magic was too powerful and it had not actually been so long; then again, few had ever really known the face of the young James Potter's muggleborn wife...

Sirius looked up and Lily was spreading papers out to show the guard. He looked down and bent to adjust Ursa's hat for her. She giggled and hugged his leg. Bellatrix glanced down, smiled indulgently; she was projecting an excellent air of malevolent relaxation and generally carrying the act a thousand times better than him. Sirius glanced up again - Lily was shaking her head, was it good or bad? But before he could tense or look away she was striding off, free to cross the border, Harry and Eridanus each holding a hand and Cassiopeia in the shawl around her neck.

She had been allowed out. She was now on French-run territory. She was safe.

Sirius did not actually let himself sigh with relief but it was a near thing.

He felt mostly composed after that, and it was easier to take on the persona of someone merely going on holiday with his cousin; Bellatrix was easily able to pull rank against any mere border guard. Therefore he was both appalled and taken aback to see Brenden Travers himself, elderly but hair still dark, politely clear his throat from the head of the line.

"Madam Black, really?" he said, eyes flicking over her. "If you were here on legitimate business you'd hardly have waited in line; I thought you were smarter than that."

Ursa whimpered and pressed her face into Sirius; he stroked her hair, shoulders tense, and let Bellatrix respond. If she could just smooth it over...

"Yes," Bellatrix drawled, "Because I was waiting for someone to go through ahead, and thank you for drawing attention to us."

"You expect me to believe that?" Travers rolled his eyes as Sirius's heart practically stopped. Bellatrix stared resolutely and he sighed as though put upon. "Look, let's talk this over privately - have a drink in my office instead of standing on a windy coast..."

Bellatrix drew her wand, silent.

Travers was contemptuous. "Madam Black, the days when you could simply go about killing anyone you pleased have passed along with your favor--"

"Avada Kedavra," Bellatrix said quite conversationally.

The green light blinded Sirius for a moment. He heard people scream as though from a distance. It had been years since his last battle and so he was still reeling when Bellatrix pragmatically grabbed his wrist and yanked him along the last steps through the gap in the border, the guards having wisely hid from someone like her.

"Christ, Bella," Sirius gasped. Ursa's little hand gripped his so hard his fingers hurt.

"I never liked that creep anyway," Bellatrix said, not a touch sanctimoniously; then her arms were around him and Ursa, and she yanked them together into the nonspace and tight squeeze of Apparition; onto to somewhere else, somewhere new.