There's a common misconception about leaving home. It's often thought that moving out matures you, educates you, transforms you into the upstanding member of society you were always meant to be. You drop your juvenile ways like hot coals and promptly grow a thick wad of facial hair and a world-weary cynicism. You start watching Newsnight and Question Time, and you understand the difference between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and you know what all the dials on the oven are for. You can even have a decent bash at the maths bit on Countdown. There's a common misconception about leaving home that it turns you into an adult.
Sirius Black does as little as possible to perpetuate this myth. One rainy morning in September there's a strained knock on the door of 36 Littlebridge Lane. Sirius answers, legs apart, water pistol in hand, aiming Pulp Fiction-style out into the open grey air.
"Halt! Who goes there? Friend or..." He cocks the plastic weapon. "Foe?"
"It's me, you wank," a voice behind a sodden Walkers crisps crate says. "Let me in my house."
"You wanna play rough? Heh, okay... say hello to my little -"
James barges past before Sirius can finish, knocking the gun from his hands and sending it skidding across the floor. It took Sirius a good twenty minutes to unearth that gun from the garden shed, and he's slightly put out to see it whack uselessly into the skirting board.
"Well!" says James. "Don't hold me up in the doorway of my own home."
"You assigned me warden of the house while you were gone," Sirius reminds him, scrabbling for the gun and following James into the kitchen, his socks slipping dangerously on the wooden floor. "That means you shall be subjected to all routine checks, regardless of your status as homeowner."
He finishes by spraying the last few drops of water from the gun on to James who, like a stressed and sopping Terminator, barely flinches. He dumps the Walkers crate onto the worktop.
It is brimming with enough food to feed the entire village of Dartmouth, though there's some chance they'd all be diagnosed with diabetes and Vitamin C deficiency not long after. James has never had much of a taste for green food, unless you count KFC lettuce and Haribo. Next to the crate are several boxes, each one lovingly labelled with its purpose - 'tins', 'condiments', 'sweeties', 'misc' (whatever constitutes 'misc') - all courtesy of Mrs Potter. James begins unloading the food and placing it into the separate boxes while Sirius sits at the breakfast bar and doesn't help.
"So," he says, picking at a loose thread on his pyjama bottoms, "was it busy, then?"
"The shop where you went, was it busy?"
James examines the use-by date on a Pot Noodle. "I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?"
"I hardly ever go to Tesco! How should I know what counts as busy?"
"Well, were there a lot of people there? Usually a place is considered busy if a fair number of people are occupying it. Although I suppose most folk are more organised than you and've already done their uni shopping."
"Yes, and I congratulate them. Truly, I do."
"Hm, so. Was it then?"
James' head snaps up again. He looks desperate, like he's being tormented. "Are you bored?"
"You could always help, you know."
"You didn't help me with my packing."
"I'd hardly call it packing!" James splutters, Pot Noodle tossed into 'misc'. "You don't have to worry about food, and you're probably gonna be kicking around in nothing but a pair of grubby boxers for the next nine months."
"Well, that's not very nice now, is it?"
Sirius looks at him, at James' red, perspiring face. His glasses are cock-eyed and ever so slightly steamy. James never gets worked up about anything other than Arsenal, and The Cube, and the auction bits on Homes Under the Hammer. There's something slightly unsettling to see him like this now. Especially today.
"Are you alright?" Sirius finally asks.
"I'm just!" Exhaling slowly, James lowers both hands. "I am stressed."
"Would you like a massage?"
"Would you like to grow a pair?"
"Shut up, Sirius," James mumbles, but at least he's smiling.
Job done, Sirius drags the porcelain fruit bowl towards himself. It's huge and white with a pattern of bluebirds around the outside and tiny orange flowers on the bottom. Thinking it to be the height of interior design, they bought it for Mrs Potter's birthday last year and filled it with liquorice satins, the stains from which never quite came out. Sirius picks out all the green grapes now, popping them into his mouth and tossing the reds to the side.
"Don't know what you're so worried about anyway," he says, mouth full. "Exciting times are to be had, Jamie boy, exciting times."
"Exciting, but no less trying."
"Trying. What could possibly be trying about good old-fashioned piss-ups and endless merry japery?"
"I don't know. The fact that none of that will involve Lily?"
Sirius forces back what he instinctively wants to say - "But it'll involve me, you ungrateful shaft!" - and instead says, "Lily? Which Lily is that then, James? You'll have to remind me."
"Shut - "
"Oh wait, you don't mean the Lily who, some time ago now, set aside your knobhead ways, became your loyal sweetheart, and promised that distance between you wouldn't be detrimental to your gooey relationship, do you? Do you mean that Lily?"
"Yes, that Lily."
"That Lily." He points a finger. "Got it."
"Good, I'm glad."
James reaches into the bottom of the crate to drag out a large multipack of Tesco value crisps. He looks at it for a moment. Then he sighs and lobs the whole lot at Sirius. It hits him in the face.
"You wouldn't understand," James grumbles. "You're single. You've always been single."
"Well now see, that isn't true." Sirius rips the bag open and lunges for the first pack of smoky bacon. "First year I went out with Ava-Rose Polgar, remember that? And then later, the buxom Lauren Ellsworth."
"When did you go out with Lauren Ellsworth?"
"Year nine. When she broke up with Ryan Ebbings for eight days."
"Snogged her behind the stage curtains in the drama studio," Sirius tells him with a waggle of his eyebrows. "Twice."
"And not long after proclaimed yourself gayer than Boy George in a tutu?"
"What can I say? She merely served as the seal of the deal, as it were. The deal being that I love a good -"
"Don't!" James interrupts by shoving a messy handful of Sirius' crisps straight into Sirius' unassuming mouth, neither fair nor pleasant but nonetheless effective. "I've spent the whole bloody summer with you talking about penis and I need to be in a masculine frame of mind for when Lily gets here."
"What could be more masculine than penis?" Sirius asks, spraying crumbs.
James doesn't answer. It is clear, in spite of their brief camaraderie, he's still that dreaded word: stressed. He eats a couple of Sirius’ crisps, as though refuelling, and finishes unpacking the rest of the shopping with the determination of a patient mother, jaw set as though it's some incredibly intricate task.
"Ooh, party rings!" Sirius reaches for the packet, crisps still stuffed in both hand and mouth, only to have his fingers batted away.
"Sirius, this is supposed to last for a while yet so bloody hands off."
"You're not fun," he grumbles, sticking his slapped fingers back into his crisp bag. "I'm not going up north with you if you're going to be a miserable piss-wank. You weren't a miserable piss-wank at school."
"I wasn't with Lily at school."
"I wasn't with Mimy mih mih mih."
He throws a crisp at James' head. Then another. James doesn't rise to it for once, and Sirius quickly grows bored. His laptop is sitting on the breakfast table and he returns to it when it becomes clear his potato snack warfare isn't going to garner a reaction.
"Check if she's on Facebook, will you?" James says over his shoulder.
Annoyed, Sirius considers ignoring the request but only manages to be stubborn for a few seconds before obediently switching tabs from a YouTube compilation of dogs refusing to take baths over to Facebook, where he scans his Newsfeed.
"Not anymore..." He scrolls and squints. "But she updated her status an hour ago."
James rushes over, panicked. Sirius doesn't know what he thinks it's going to be. That his girlfriend has abruptly decided to dump him over the internet for all to witness? Lily's a freak, but she isn't that cruel.
Sirius reads aloud, "'So excited for the highlands, gonna be amazing, kiss kiss'. Ah bless." He moves the cursor to Like it.
James visibly relaxes, and Sirius goes to update his own status too: 'gettin ready for north east 2k12¬!'. He tags it 'with James Potter' and within minutes six of his friends have Liked it.
Grunting, James returns to the counter and collapses the cardboard crate, dumping it in the bin.
"That's supposed to go in the recycling bin," Sirius reminds him.
"Right, that's everything!" says James, ignoring him. He frowns. "Do you think I'll have enough food?"
Thanks to copious amounts of extra-curricular sport, lashings of charm and, of course, appropriate smarts, Sirius is attending the University of Durham, a catered institute. James meanwhile is off to Newcastle, sixteen miles up the road from Sirius. While this is indeed his first choice university and he is more than convinced he will receive there not only a top-notch dentistry degree but also a plethora of once in a lifetime experiences, as per the colourful university brochure, he's going to be living in a flat with five other people. He's going to be left to fend for himself. It's an idea so hilarious Sirius sort of wishes he was going to Newcastle too, just to see his hopeless best friend attempt to become domesticated.
The two of them scan the vast array of crisps, biscuits, soups, tins, instant noodles and pasta bags and then look at each other, nodding solemnly.
"Brilliant." Heaving something close to a sigh of relief, James claps his hands. "Right. Mum's bringing us medicine, bathroom stuff, washing powder -"
Sirius snorts, stuffing another handful of crisps into his mouth. "Why?"
"So that just leaves you on bedding. Did you pack everything up while I was gone like I asked you to?"
Sirius swallows the potatoey paste in his mouth. "Er..."
"Hey guess what, I found your old Arsenal bedsheets! The -"
"Oh fantastic! Now we just need a bloody duvet to put them on." James flaps his arms like a demented insect, storming into the living room where their bedding is, sure enough, laid out and definitely not in any way, shape or form packed up.
"Christ," Sirius mumbles. He rolls his eyes and follows. "Just out of interest, at what point was it that you miraculously morphed into a clapper-clawed middle-aged woman? Because it's hardly deniable, Jamie, that you're acting somewhat odd."
James frowns at him as he begins gathering the pillows and blankets strewn about the floor. Sirius helps by kicking a few nearer to him.
"Are you just having a bad day, hmm? Are you having your bi-monthly hissy fit - ?"
"Sirius." James' head snaps up abruptly. "Just help me out here. Please?"
Begrudgingly, because he hates the dirtying feel of cold sheets, Sirius places his crisp packet aside and helps James pack the huge duvets up as tightly as they'll go. They have to bind them with the gaffa tape and bicycle rope nicked from the garage.
They both give the goose-feather-stuffed parcels a pat when they're finished, panting slightly. They aren't used to having to do practical things like this. It's a wonder James even managed to do the food shopping. They are the only two boys in their year who didn't do the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, instead wiling away their weekends on their X-boxes - usually in different rooms of the house - communicating via headsets and consuming vast portions of disease-inducing foods. Much more worthwhile activities to engage in, clearly.
"We're going to uni," James breathes, "like, practically together. How did that happen?"
"For it was written," says Sirius, slinging an arm around him. "It's fate. Nought could tear us apart, pal."
James doesn't laugh. He just smiles this really strange, fond smile, the kind he might have practised in a mirror.
"I'm glad you're coming with me," he says after a beat. "Really."
"Careful. Don't go all gay on me, that's my job."
"No, it's just... I didn't realise how weird this was all going to be when we applied. I mean, it's hard enough..." James shakes his head. "It's hard enough leaving Lil. I can't imagine having to say goodbye to you too."
"James, is there something you want to tell me?"
James scoffs and shoves him away, pretending to fuss with the duvets again. It's not Sirius' fault for feeling uncomfortable; it's not like James to start giving hearty speeches and being all romantic about feat and friendship and whatnot. It's weird.
"Forget it. Should've known I couldn't trust you to be serious for once." He's still smiling but he sounds sort of hurt too, and Sirius looks at him anxiously.
James is his brother, and Sirius loves him with every bone and muscle and gut in his body, but he never knows what to say in these situations. What is he supposed to say? Ever since Sirius told him he was gay James seems to have expected him to be the fountain of feelings and sentimentality and All That Is Sweet, when really, Sirius is about as in touch with his emotions as the arse end of a pumpkin.
"Look," he says finally, placing a hand on James' shoulder and stopping his movements. "I know you're upset about Lily. But trust me, buddy, you're gonna be fine. She loves you, though God knows why. What's two hours really? Two hours is a rugby match. Two hours is four episodes of DIY SOS. Two episodes if it's Big Build. It's nothing!"
Actually, they've looked it up on Google maps and the distance between Newcastle and Edinburgh is two hours and thirty-one minutes. James brightened up considerably upon learning this, but it doesn't seem to be of much use now. He still looks totally forlorn.
"You don't get it," he says, shrugging Sirius off. "No offence, but you don't have a clue."
Often Sirius tries to be annoyed with James. It rarely ever works, unless James has done something really terrible like corrupted one of his saved games on the X-box or bad mouthed Marlon Brando or misplaced one of his DVDs.
Since James hasn't done any of those things - having merely confessed his worries and vulnerabilities concerning his recently-developing love life and blossoming relationship with one Lily Evans - Sirius has to sigh, slide down beside him and nod away like a little Jack-in-the-box.
"I know. You're right. I don't."
Eventually James' small smile widens into a grin. He shakes himself, clapping Sirius on the back.
"Sorry for being a sod today," he says. "Sorry, sorry, sorry."
"Nah, you're alright, partner. De rien. It's understandable, totally and utterly. But you know what? When things seem bollocks, just think of all the other exciting stuff you have to look forward to!"
"Is that what you're doing?"
"Sure, I'm excited. As a fox in a chicken coop. As you when Evans let you get a look-in. As Frank that time Alice Everett got her tits out at the Leavers' do -"
"Alright, alright, you're excited about piss-ups and sodomy, I get it."
Sirius rolls his eyes, but it stings a bit too. It's sort of annoying how James expects him to act like a girl when it comes to advice and feelings, but there's a coarseness, at times an uncomfortable tone, whenever he describes what he imagines to be Sirius' primary interests, all kinds of crass nonsense that is barely even physically possible, let alone emotionally plausible.
Still, James isn't totally wrong either. When it comes to Sirius, James is rarely wrong about anything. Because of course, Sirius plans to spend three years studying, three years attending dandy little parties looking dapper, three years soaking in the lovely atmosphere of historic Durham, but it's also a chance to spend three years with lovely university boys, all done up in their chinos and sexy cardigans, smoking roll-ups, drinking absinthe, reading e.e. cummings by the fire after sex.
This uni thing will be a perfect doddle, the non-academic perks of which, it has to be said, are more than a tad bit appealing to Sirius Black.
* * *
The farewell between James and Lily is awkward for everyone except James and Lily. The Potter parents have since returned from the chemist loaded with off-the-shelf medicines and travel sweets and, rather embarrassingly, condoms. Now they're sitting in the lounge, and Sirius is sitting opposite them, and they all have to wait there and act as though they can't hear a word of the goodbye that's taking place between James and Lily in the kitchen.
James' house on Littlebridge is lovely and sunny and everything that Sirius' old house was not, but it's also a new build with walls like paper and you can hear practically everything that goes on in any other room of the house, which are all crammed in close together with no locks on the doors.
This means that, over the past two summers, some very uncomfortable and sticky situations have arisen. Topping Sirius' own personal list are: 1) overhearing Sir and Lady Potter engaging in some good old-fashioned hanky panky while he'd been trying to watch a midnight screening of Halloween, and 2) having a rather involved bedtime wank interrupted by Mr Potter storming into his bedroom with a cricket bat, claiming there was an intruder in the house (which later turned out to be a pigeon with its head stuck in the kitchen vent).
Luckily, the Potters are the most accepting parents. They'd have to be to let Sirius crash with them every holiday between school terms. But now as they hear the shrill, "If only you'd said yes to me in year nine, eh, Lily? Ha ha ha..." trembling from the kitchen, Mr Potter grows slightly red in the face. Mrs Potter is trying to pretend she's overly concerned with her cross-stitching, but Sirius can see her lifting one ear ever so slightly towards the door.
Sirius has been given a jammy dodger to keep him occupied, but he can't keep from wolfing it down in one bite, and when it's gone he's anxious to find he no longer has anything to concentrate on.
"You're such a fantastic baker, Mrs P," he says cheerfully. Even ballsy Sirius has never been able to bring himself to call her Helen; she's got this odd mix of homeliness and toughness that commands respect.
"Thank you, chickie. Be sure to send me your new address so I can post you more. I know you're going to be in catered accommodation but you can never be sure what you're signing up for until you get there, and then when you do it's too late because you're three hundred miles away from home and there's nothing you can do about it."
Leave it to Mrs Potter to give a last-minute confidence boost.
It's at least another twenty minutes before James returns to the living room. Lily has gone. They've certainly taken their time which is annoying, because Sirius and James have a journey of at least six hours ahead of them and it would be best if they could get something close to a move on.
James looks all pale and shaken too. Sirius feels bad for him, of course he does, but he still doesn't really get it. Perhaps it's because he's never been in a relationship himself or perhaps it's because he has little appreciation for the fairer sex. It's one of the reasons he's glad he's gay actually; James claims to love Lily, and yet the woman seems to cause him so much bloody misery. If that's what heterosexual relationships are like then Sirius is glad to be thoroughly exempt from them.
He doesn't exactly dislike Lily. In fact, in spite of how they acted towards one another during their time at school, he finds her rather refreshing. She can be quite funny when she isn't going mental about something, and she doesn't dumb herself down around James like some girls do.
No, Sirius dislikes the way James has changed since finally getting with Lily (clearly because he's so desperately, hopelessly in love with her). What could have been an amazing, six-hour car journey full of sing-alongs and games of Guess the Movie and Fuck Off (the premise of the latter is simple: wave to a nearby driver, gain their approval, then promptly flick your finger up at them) is ruined.
Once they all finally pile into the Potters' car and wave goodbye to number thirty-six, James is silent for practically the whole journey. In fact, the only time he speaks up is when his dad asks him if he wants to stop at the next service station for a piss.
It bothers Sirius, despite the fact that he's had James blabbing in his ear for the past seven years, but he guesses his commentary and attempts at consolation are not wanted right now. With an appropriate look of sympathy fixed on his face like a true best friend, he digs out his iPod and soon falls asleep to The Human League.
* * *
They drop Sirius off first. Mr Potter drives as far as he can before the abundance of cars about the packed university city force him to stop. Still, they manage to make it far enough to park only a seven and a half minute walk away from Sirius' assigned college.
University College: the oldest of them all. It's set in this great big castle which Sirius has a feeling he's supposed to appreciate immensely. To him though, the important factors are that it's near to the buildings he'll be studying in and it has the best food.
After lugging his case from the boot of Mr Potter's Peugeot, the four of them walk in total deathly silence until he's standing outside the entrance to the castle with cases that have the next year of his life packed into them. He gives a tight smile when Mrs Potter presses a large box into his hands.
"Just in case there's nothing you like at dinner time," she says sweetly.
He suddenly doesn't want them to go. It must show, because James' mum takes hold of his face in her hands and says, "Now now, don't look so woebegone. You'll be back home with our James before you know it."
Back home. Oh God, she's such a dear woman. He feels the moment calls for sobbing, or collapsing in the street, or a cracked, broken voice like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, but when he opens his mouth to speak he sounds surprisingly normal and his eyes stay dry.
"Thanks for looking after me," he says.
She taps his face with her palm and kisses his cheek. "Are you sure you don't want us to come up with you? Help you unpack, get you settled? It won't take a tick."
He very badly wants them to, but he knows they're anxious to get their own son settled into his new home. Besides, dear old Mrs Potter tottering about his dorm trying to plump cushions and force biscuits on to everyone who walks past the door might not give the kind of dignified first impression Sirius is aiming for.
"I'll be fine, honestly," he says. "I'll ring you tonight, let you know how I've got on."
She smiles at him, giving his face another gentle pat. "You be good now."
Mr Potter thrusts a hand out and Sirius takes it and gives it a firm, manly shake. Mr Potter prefers it when boys act 'like boys', and Sirius would like to leave a good lasting impression. Not that he isn't going to see them again soon. Because he is. Of course he is.
Then it's James' turn. Sirius looks at him, and James looks back and it seems as though he's going to laugh. They start to speak at the same time.
"Right, well -"
"So I'll probably see you -"
And so they pause, embarrassed. It's Sirius who continues.
"I'll probably see you later or something. Or tomorrow. Or not, if you're still settling in, but there's a bus that goes more or less straight to Newcastle, I think, so any time..."
James is nodding, glancing all around himself as though thoroughly entranced by the ornate gate and rain-slick, cobbled street surrounding them. Nearby, some girl in a onesie and Ugg boots is bawling her eyes out on what is presumably her dad. It doesn't make things any easier.
Sirius isn't sure why this is so awkward. Things between himself and James have never been awkward. Besides, Newcastle isn't far, they can see each other practically whenever they want to.
But then again, since meeting on that first day of boarding school seven years ago they've barely ever been apart. Sixteen miles isn't far but it's still distance, and Sirius isn't sure whose bed he's going to jump on when he has a fantastic new idea for a film or a prank or an invention, or who he's going to flick cornflakes at during breakfast, or who he's going to chat to about Hitchcock when he wakes up in the night, or abuse via the X-box headsets in the next room over.
Whoever it is, it isn't going to be James.
"Yeah," James nods, "we'll go for a pint or something. Your place or mine. Either or."
"Yeah, either's fine. I hear Newcastle has one of the best student unions, so..."
"But Durham has history," James says after far too long a pause, and his tone suggests it's supposed to be a joke and it's not the slightest bit funny, but they both snigger anyway.
"It does," says Sirius, and they laugh again and this is awful.
"Do you want some help with your...?"
Sirius stares at him, then suddenly registers the bundle of stuff at his feet. There isn't much. He hasn't had to bring a lot more than clothes and bedding and wash stuff. It's James who's had to go all-out for his new flat. His new flat with his new flatmates who he'll throw flat-parties with. A flaternity, if you will.
"No, no, you're alright. Not to worry. No, you head off. To Newcastle. Go and learn how to fix some teeth!"
"Yeah, you go and read some stories. Write lots of essays."
It's six in the evening. All of Sirius' energy and restlessness and jokes have seeped from his very being like slime, and he's left with nothing but a sore arse and a suitcase and this overwhelming urge to hug his best friend. So he does.
"Oof, steady on," says James, but he hugs him back, and when they part he forces a grin. "Right, away with you, you soppy arse. See you soon."
And they all say goodbye again, and smile at each other, and with an obvious determination not to drag the ordeal out any longer James takes a step back with his hands in his pockets, then another, and then he turns, and then he’s walking away.