A/N: Well, after becoming a HP addict back in January, I've finally sat down and plunked out my first fic. I'm just hoping that HP#4 won't destroy everything when it comes out....Anyway, I thrive on constructive criticism, so send some to me once you're done reading, por favor :) Also, I'm an American *ducks the tomatoes chucked at her by the British HP fans* and even though I did some research on the UK and Ireland, I may have gotten a few things wrong. Please tell me if I have!
Disclaimer: Polaris, Cassandra, and anyone else you don't recognize belongs to me, but everyone else belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling and the other people associated with Harry Potter. No copyright infringement intended.
Summary: It's Harry's fourth year, and a new student shows up at Hogwarts. Turns out he's Sirius Black's brother....
Date Completed: June 28, 2000

Northern Lights

The tiny room was damp, the floor slicked with water and the air so heavy with moisture that it was practically tangible. A bare sliver of glass, one so small it could hardly capture the light that filtered in from the outside street, lay discarded on the floor. Hovering over it was a man who was not much older than thirty, yet possessed a sort of weariness that made him seem decades older.

Using a rubber band he had dug from a trash bin earlier that day, he gathered up his long black hair and wrested it into a loose ponytail. He checked his faint reflection in the tiny piece of glass and captured a few loose strands that had escaped his first attempt. The band was loosened, then tightened again once all of his hair was secured back.

He picked up the glass, wincing slightly as it bit into his skin, and brought it back behind his head. Relying only on his sense of touch, he rested it lightly against the base of his ponytail. Then, with a decisive swipe, the clump of hair fell away, the slight tension on his scalp dissipating into nothing as it did.

The now-severed ponytail was tossed aside without a second glance, the glass dropped in front of him. A few streaks of blood marred its surface and drew his attention to his wounded hand. Swearing softly under his breath, he tore off a section of his ragged shirt and wrapped it around his palm. Turning back to the glass, he carefully picked it up once more and wiped it off on the makeshift bandage, then held it up to eye level.

The bottom of his quick haircut was grossly uneven, he realized as he traced it with one finger; some sections of hair didn't clear the base of his skull, while others hung an inch or more below his ears. But it was enough. The change, however small, had worked. Had it not been for the dark, dulled pair or eyes that returned his gaze, he would have barely recognized himself.

But who said you didn't want to be recognized?

~*~

Thump, thump.

"Yes?"

The door to Albus Dumbledore's office cracked open, and a curly-haired teen poked his head in. "Ye wanted to see me, Professor Dumbledore, sir?" he asked, his voice carrying with it a distinct Irish lilt.

Dumbledore adjusted his spectacles and offered a smile. "Yes, I did." He waved a hand inward. "Come in, please. Sit down. I just wanted to go over a few things with you to make sure I've got them right."

The boy slunk in and closed the door behind him, taking a seat in the chair the headmaster had gestured to. He immediately slouched down and folded his arms across his chest, contradicting his earlier air of cordiality.

"Now, then...." Dumbledore moved to a stack of parchment rolls and shuffled them about, searching for one in particular. "Ah, here we go!" He separated it from the others and unrolled it, smoothing it out in front of him. "Let's see here....Polaris Black, correct?"

Nod.

"And you're beginning your seventh year?"

Nod.

"That's a bit unusual," he commented, running his finger down the yellowed parchment. "You've been homeschooled in Ireland for the past six years after...oh, dear." His face darkened ever so slightly. "After you were expelled from the Rising Phoenix Academy for cursing another student and sending her to the hospital."

"I was provoked, sir," Polaris spoke up at last, absently tugging on the diamond stud in his right ear. His hazel eyes flicked up to meet Dumbledore's gaze, then returned to the carpet. "The witch made a remark about somethin' that's rather personal to me."

"I see." He set the first roll aside and dug another one out of the pile. "Well, your transcript from those six years is quite impressive, I must say. You appear to be a very promising student, but seem to exhibit a..." here he stopped to read directly from the transcript, "'lack of motivation,' as your mother put it. She says it's possibly due to the incidents dealing with your brother."

A muscle in Polaris' jaw twitched, but he stayed silent.

"Your brother...er, he is Sirius Black, correct?" he prodded.

Visibly tensing up, he muttered, "Yeah."

"And that's the reason you weren't able to attend Hogwarts - "

"I don't wanna talk about it," he snapped, involuntarily balling up his hands.

Dumbledore glanced up. "Of course," he said in a gentle tone. "It must be difficult for you, especially considering the most recent - "

"I said I don't wanna talk about it!" he all but shouted.

"My apologies," the professor said with a sigh, returning to the parchment. "Everything else appears to be in order here. I'm assuming you were able to get all of your books and equipment?"

Another nod.

"Great." Dumbledore tossed the rolls of parchment back into the gigantic pile and stood up. "Then all that's left is for you to be sorted. We had the ceremony yesterday, so we'll just have to perform a private ceremony here. Here." He gathered the battered Sorting Hat from its shelf and handed it to Polaris, who accepted it with a dubious look. Urged on by the professor, he dropped it onto his head, unable to contain the derisive eyebrow raise that crossed his face.

Silence reigned for several seconds. Then, "RAVENCLAW!" the Hat shouted. Polaris immediately snatched the threadbare garment off his head and glared at it.

"Ravenclaw? Ya've gotta be kiddin' me!"

"The Sorting Hat never makes mistakes, Mr. Black," he said mildly. "You should report to your tower as soon as possible. I believe the latest password is 'spiritus vitalis.'" Seeing that he was making no motion to leave, he amended, "Go on, Polaris. It's getting late."

Scowling, Polaris hauled himself to his feet and stomped out of the office.

~*~

A soft hoot stirred the man from his sleep in the alleyway he called home. Making an indistinguishable sound in the back of his throat, his eyes fluttered open and he reflexively motioned to push his hair back from his face. His hand hit nothing but air, startling him at first - until he remembered the previous day, when he had chopped the tangled mess off.

The hooting noise came again, and he swung his head around to try and locate it. Behind him perched a snow-white owl, an envelope clutched tightly in its talons. Seeing that he was finally awake, the owl ruffled its feathers and gave him an inquisitive look.

"I'm up," he managed to croak. Extending a hand from beneath his ragged blanket, he retrieved the envelope and tore it open with hands that shook with cold. "Thank you." Its duty done, the owl spread its wings and pushed off, soaring up into the sky.

A square piece of parchment fell onto the pavement, its surface marked with a familiar scrawl. Eagerly he snatched it up, pushing himself upright as he did, and began to read.

 

Dear Sirius,

Thanks for the birthday present you sent over the summer. I would have written back sooner, but my aunt and uncle won't let me send any letters with Hedwig when I let her out. I'm at Hogwarts right now. Ron, Hermione and Crookshanks all say hi.

We've got a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, a witch named Professor Macnamara. She looks pretty nice, but I don't know that for certain since I haven't had any classes with her yet. I doubt she'll be as good as Professor Lupin was, but anything's better than having Snape as the teacher. We're all hoping she'll actually last longer than a year.

Speaking of which...have you heard from Professor Lupin? He didn't write me at all over the summer. Hermione thinks that he was probably just busy, but me and Ron are a bit worried about him. I'm going to try and get in touch with him once I send this.

I have another question for you as well: Do you have a younger brother? I'm asking because there's a new student here named Polaris Black who just moved from Ireland. He's in Ravenclaw, so I haven't talked to him yet, but I've heard that he goes completely off his rocker if anyone even mentions your name.

Hope you and Buckbeak are doing okay. Write back soon.

Take care,

Harry

 

"Polaris?" he whispered hoarsely, staring at the paragraph in shock. "It...it can't...how...." He reached out and underlined the name with a trembling finger.

"Thirteen years," he mumbled to himself, his eyes still fixated on his godson's words. "And he was five, so...yes. Maybe." He folded the letter, using all of his willpower to keep his hands steady, and tucked it into his shirt. "But what was he doing in Ireland?"

One of the many people on the street hurried by, and he instinctively ducked under his blanket, playing the role of a typical homeless Muggle. Having allowed someone to spot him last night, he now had to be especially careful not to be sighted lest he be dragged back to Azkaban. The plan had been to get the dementors away from Hogwarts, not to return to the true hell on earth.

When another Muggle passed by, her shoe accidentally catching on the fabric, she uncovered a giant black dog that bounded away into the street.

~*~

Because of his delayed arrival, Polaris had been exempt from attending classes and had spent his entire morning lounging around in the Ravenclaw common room. A few of his housemates had approached him, wanting to know who he was, but quickly scurried off again once they got an answer. The one girl who had tentatively asked if he "was really related to that Sirius guy" had almost been sent to Madam Pomfrey with a broken wrist. By the time lunchtime rolled around, the story had been expanded to include his strangling her, snapping both her arms, and attempting to perform the Flying Flame Curse on her.

Needless to say, he was given a very wide berth at dinner that evening. He didn't mind. In fact, he was rather glad that a good three-quarters of his house was afraid to him. The fewer people that talked to him, the fewer chances -

"Hey, uh, Polaris?"

Polaris paused, a forkful of mashed potatoes halfway to his mouth, and glanced at the fourth-year seated across from him. "Yeah?" he asked, narrowing his eyes.

The boy squirmed and suddenly became fascinated with his own plate of food, mumbling something that he wasn't able to catch.

"Say that again, kid," he told him, leaning closer.

He took a deep breath. "Harry-Potter-wants-to-talk-to-you-after-dinner," he spouted off, then cringed and shoved his plate further down the table in an attempt to escape.

Harry Potter? The Harry Potter? "Wait." He slid down the table after him, then rested his arm across its width to prevent him from going any further. "Why?"

"Why what?" The fourth-year was now shaking uncontrollably.

"'Why what?'" he mimicked. "Whaddya think I'm gonna ask, kid? Why does Potter wanna talk to me?"

"I dunno," he mumbled, refusing to meet his eyes. "He just asked me in Astronomy if you'd meet him over by the exit to talk after dinner."

Gradually, the other students got up and began to drift towards the doors. Some of them, especially the first-years, huddled together with their friends and talked in hushed voices. Others simply strode out alone, ignoring the world around them. And beside the exit, three figures stood and whispered amongst themselves, scanning the crowd for the face of the student they wished to talk to.

Polaris saw them as he walked by. He recognized the Potter boy immediately, whose unruly black bangs still couldn't hope to hide the lightning scar on his forehead. The other two standing nearby were unfamiliar, but appeared to be his friends. All three looked at him hopefully.

He almost walked straight out the door, then reconsidered and made his way over to the trio. Fists clenched at his sides, he hissed, "I don't know what you want, Potter, and I don't wanna know. But if it's about my brother, then just leave me the hell alone."

The three looked at each other, bewildered, and watched as Polaris shoved his way out of the Hall.

~*~

Food was difficult to come by in this section of town, even more so because Sirius couldn't be seen as a human. Ever since his escape, he had survived only on the discarded edibles of the Muggle world, foraging through Dumpster after Dumpster in search of a spare hamburger or two. More often than not, he turned up empty-pawed and was forced to spend the day with the perpetual hunger gnawing away at his insides.

Today, however, was even worse than usual. His normally frantic hunt for food was now half-hearted; his mind was elsewhere, barely in the same area as the reeking trash can he was nosing through. Harry's letter was at the front of his mind, blotting out everything else, including his flirting with starvation. It was strange, he mused, how that one offhand paragraph had flipped his world around and drawn his attention away from much more pressing matters.

I haven't seen him in years, he thought, nudging a candy bar wrapper aside. He'll be fully grown now, hardly recognizable. Would he remember me? Maybe I could -

Don't be stupid, Sirius, his conscience snapped. You nearly got killed for going back to Hogwarts last year. And Harry - what about him? You could put him in danger again.

But Polaris....

Forget Polaris.

I can't forget him. He's my brother, for God's sake.

His inner monologue was interrupted by the discovery of a half-eaten hot dog lingering underneath a smashed soda can. He immediately wolfed it down. It was smeared with mustard and some other substances that he didn't wish to identify, but food was food, and he had eaten much worse than this during his flight. Besides, the dog's stomach was much hardier than his human one and could handle almost anything he ate.

He climbed out of the Dumpster and balanced precariously on its edge before jumping down. Trotting a little ways down the road, tongue lolling out of his mouth in the perfect expression of carefree innocence, he scanned the streets for his next target.

A lone trash can caught his eye. He jogged over and jumped up, propping his paws against the rim and peering into its depths. Unfortunately, it was a bin used solely for recycling, and was filled with nothing more than glass bottles.

Suddenly, he felt someone deal a blow to his hindquarters. With a yelp, he dropped down from the recycling can. "Get outta there!" someone bellowed behind him. He turned around and looked into the face of a pale, wiry Muggle dressed in a white uniform of sorts. Putting on his best 'hurt puppy look' and tucking his tail between his legs, he whimpered and gazed up at him, begging to be forgiven.

"Honestly, you'd think the city would do something about these damn strays...." he muttered to himself. Then, "Bad dog!" he shouted, delivering an openhanded smack to Sirius' nose before continuing on his way.

It took all of his self-control to stop from howling in agony as he dragged himself over to a bench and flopped underneath it, putting his paws over his throbbing nose in a poor effort to ease the pain. Another dog, a fluffy snow-white poodle that a passerby was walking, heard his high-pitched whines and tugged on her chain. She managed to pull her owner over to the bench and ducked her head under it, looking at Sirius quizzically.

"No, Akita," her owner chided, pulling her away. "Stay away from the other doggie." She threw a disgusted look in his direction and allowed herself to be dragged along.

At long last, the horrible pain ebbed away. He hauled himself to his feet and stumbled out into the street. He was barely able to make it back to his familiar alley, he was so tired. With a sigh, he curled up beneath his rags and shed his dog form. The Animagus transformation always exhausted him, even more so as of late, and he found it impossible to stay as Padfoot for more than an hour or so at a time.

Softly, so softly that no one could hear him, he whispered the same senseless promise he had been making himself for only God knew how long now.

"Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better."

~*~

It is an almost unwritten rule that, when learning a new language, one must always master the most offensive words first. Polaris was no exception. Within a month after moving to Ireland, he had picked up about twenty curse words in Irish Gaelic - in fact, that was all he had bothered to learn. Now that he was back in his homeland, he found that they proved to be even more useful than they had while he was living on the Emerald Isle, since only a few people at Hogwarts could figure out what he was saying.

Unfortunately, as he soon discovered, Professor Snape was one of those few.

Double Potions with Hufflepuff was his very first class of the day. He had woken up at 8:45 AM, fifteen minutes before the lesson started, due to a malfunctioning Alarm Spell he had performed. After screaming loud enough to make his roommate's cat yowl in agony, he dove into the shower, threw on his robes, gathered his books, and sprinted for the Dungeon without any breakfast.

It was 9:04 when he barged into the room, gasping for air. The other Ravenclaw and Hufflepuffs looked up, surprised, then glanced at Snape uneasily. The professor very deliberately rolled up the parchment he had been reading from and turned to Polaris.

"So nice of you to finally join us, Mr. Black," he said. "Care to explain why you arrived so late?"

"But it's only - " He stopped, wavering under Snape's intense scowl. "My Alarm Spell didna work," he continued with a sigh, "an' no one else bothered to wake me up."

"Hmmm," Snape commented. "I must say, Mr. Black, I find it rather difficult to believe that not a single soul in your house tried to wake you up. Five points from Ravenclaw for your lateness and another five for lying. Take your seat."

Polaris grimaced and put several of his Irish vocabulary words to use as he headed to his seat. Snape spoke up sharply.

"What did you just say?"

He turned around slowly and stared directly into his eyes. "Nothin'."

Snape clenched his jaw. "You should know, boy, that I spent a summer in Ireland several years back. Ten more points from Ravenclaw; call me that again and it'll be thirty."

An angry murmur snaked through the classroom. Several other Ravenclaws turned to glare at him as he sat down, crossing his arms in his typical posture. Nicole Sirak, a Hufflepuff seated behind him, leaned forward and whispered:

"What did you call him?"

He told her in a hushed voice. She instantly turned bright red, mumbled, "Oh," and bent back over her open book.

After the rather interesting beginning of the class, it quickly meandered into boredom. But as dull as it was, no one dared fall asleep - rumor had it that Snape had taken one hundred points from a house when a student dozed off during a lecture. So now everyone was as alert as possible, scribbling frantically, filling roll after roll of parchment as the professor fired off herb names and formulas auctioneer-style.

"Now," Snape said once an hour of frenzied note-taking had ensued, "let's see just how well everyone's paid attention. Put your books away and get all of your notes out." When everyone froze with dread, he barked, "NOW!"

Books thumped to the floor and parchment rolls were retrieved. Snape stood up and walked in front of his desk, where he started to pace back and forth, biding his time.

"Black!" he snapped, to no one's surprise. "Give me three brews that have adder's tongue as their main ingredient."

Polaris shrugged languidly. "Dunno," he answered, strangely unconcerned.

"Really?" He strode over to his desk. "Did you pay attention at all this class?"

"Yes, sir, I did."

"So why don't you know the correct answer?"

He didn't respond. Snape grabbed some parchment off of his desk and set to work unrolling it.

"Let's look at your notes, shall we?" he said, succeeding in getting it open. For a while he did nothing but stare at the paper in front of him. Then a red flush began creeping up his neck, his hands began to shake, and he asked in a deceptively calm voice, "What is this, Mr. Black?" as he turned the parchment around for him to see.

It wasn't notes that Snape had grabbed, but a sketch. The class had grown so boring that he had drawn a picture of the Potions teacher as a vulture - his hooked nose was greatly exaggerated to resemble a beak, his eyes made large and fishlike, his greasy shoulder-length hair turned into feathers.

"It would appear to be a sketch of you as a vulture, sir," he said with a small smirk.

No one in the class dared to laugh, though several had to struggle hard to contain it.

"Detention," he snarled, leaning in close, "and twenty more points from Ravenclaw." Polaris met his gaze unwaveringly, keeping his face neutral. The scroll thudded back on his desk and Snape turned to his next victim.

Before he could ask a cowering Hufflepuff boy to list the thirty uses of eye of newt, the shrill bell that signaled the change of classes interrupted him. Everyone immediately scooped up their belongings and darted for the door. Polaris was about to follow when he was pulled backwards by Snape.

"Tomorrow night," he ordered, pressing his detention slip into his palm, "eight PM. Miss it and you'll be serving time until you graduate." And with those words, Polaris was sucked out into the hallway by the crowd of students hurrying to their next class.

"Way to go, Black," he heard a few Ravenclaws mutter as they passed him. "Forty points in an hour...we're never going to win the House Cup with you around...."

He rolled his eyes, ignoring them. The House Cup didn't matter to him in the slightest. Ravenclaw, he had learned, hadn't won the prestigious award in thirty-two years. What was one more year on top of that?

But it seemed that he was the only one who felt this way. The earlier fear he had instilled in his housemates evaporated as the story began to circulate. If the seventh-years didn't insult him outright, they at least directed a glare at him to let him know exactly how they felt. Even after he earned ten points for answering a question correctly (albeit reluctantly) in Defense Against the Dark Arts, they refused to forgive him for his earlier incident with Snape.

Noon arrived, and with it came lunch. Polaris grabbed a plate of food and retreated to the common room, not in the mood to be pestered any more by the other seventh-years. There he sat in front of the fire and halfheartedly nibbled at his grilled cheese sandwich, alternating between staring off into space and skimming through the books for his classes. Every now and then he reached for his quill to make a mark next to important passages or definitions, or to doodle curlicues and tiny landscapes on spare scraps of parchment.

He suppressed a groan upon hearing a clanking noise outside as the suit of armor admitted someone into the room. Lunchtime must have ended. He checked his watch and frowned, seeing that there was still a good fifteen minutes before the students had to return to their classes.

"Hello," he heard someone say. He glanced up, catching a glimpse of a red-haired, pixieish girl, then quickly returned to his notes.

"Hey," he muttered.

He sensed her set down beside his armchair and chose to ignore her, pretending to be absorbed in his History of Magic textbook, hoping that she would eventually get the hint and leave him alone. After a tense thirty seconds had passed, he looked back up at her and said, "D'ye need somethin'?"

She adjusted her wire-rimmed glasses. "Is it true?"

"Is what true?" I swear, if she mentions anything about....

"You got detention from Professor Snape for drawing a degrading picture of him," she said tentatively, seeing his eyes darken with the familiar hatred.

He exhaled, relieved. "Yeah, it's true," he said.

"Could I see it?"

He raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Why?"

"Just curious."

He shrugged, dropping his books on a vacant spot on the floor, and rooted around in his bag, flipping through his scrolls in search of the correct one. "Here it is," he said, tossing it to her. She caught it and unrolled it, then started giggling at the sight.

"That's really good," she said, continuing to chuckle as she studied it.

"No it's not," he replied. "I got the shadin' off a bit, an' his eyes turned out weird. I was tryin' to make 'em more...." He trailed off.

"I can't tell." She rolled it up and handed it back to him, still smiling. "You could be a professional artist someday. Seriously."

He shook his head. "It's just a hobby. I have no idea what I wanna do once I get outta Hogwarts."

"I don't either," she confessed. Her hands wandered up to finger a gold necklace, one with a dragon pendant strung on it, which was around her neck. "I'm thinking about working for the Ministry in a Muggle-related department, but all of those jobs are taken."

"A Muggle-related department?"

Pushing her glasses up her nose again, she said, "Yeah. I'm Muggle-born; there's only one other witch in my family, and she's a very distant relation. I'm hoping I'll be able to inform more witches and wizards about the Muggle world - you know, try and get rid of some of those stupid myths about them and such. They're really very nice people."

Polaris nodded. The girl suddenly seemed to grow a bit flustered, twisting her hands together and chuckling self-consciously. "I'm sure the last thing you want to hear about is my future," she said. "Anyway, I don't think I've introduced myself." She held out a slender, slightly pale hand. "Cassandra Bluehart."

He accepted her hand. "I'm - "

"Polaris Black. I know," she told him. "You're practically as famous as Harry Potter right now, what with being Sirius Black's brother and everyth - "

She stopped.

Polaris went rigid for a split second, then wrenched his hand from her grip and swept his books up, shoving them in his bag with an unnecessary amount of force.

"I'm sorry," Cassandra tried to apologize, jumping up and covering her mouth with one hand. "I didn't mean to - "

"No one ever 'means to,'" he imitated cruelly, throwing his bag over his shoulder. "But they do anyway, don't they?"

The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch and leaving them to dart to their one o'clock classes.

 

 

Breakfast the next morning consisted of the usual seating arrangement: Polaris at one end of the table, the rest of Ravenclaw at the other. By now every single person in the house had heard of his forty-point loss, and they whispered angrily amongst themselves, punctuating their remarks with a pointed look in his direction. After the fiftieth person stared at him, he made an obscene gesture, shouted an insult that he didn't bother to conceal in Gaelic, and returned to his scrambled eggs. The rest of the table immediately quieted down and turned their conversation to other subjects.

"Mind if I sit here?"

Polaris looked up. Cassandra was standing behind him, her plate carefully balanced on one hand, a textbook clutched in the other. "Nobody's stoppin' ya," he said with an indifferent shrug.

His lukewarm invitation was apparently enough for her; she plopped down next to him and set her book in the center of the table.

"Listen, Polaris," she began. "I just wanted to apologize for - "

"Forget it," he mumbled through a mouthful of French toast.

"No," she said firmly. "I know you've been putting up with a lot of crap from the other kids because of...well, you know. You're obviously really sensitive about it, and I had no right to say anything."

"I said forget it. It doesn't matter."

Just then, the daily flock of owls careened into the Great Hall and fanned out towards their respective owners. Callisto, Polaris' soot-colored owl, swooped down and deposited a white envelope beside his plate, then began pecking at his bacon. He shooed her away and examined the letter. The handwriting on the front looked like it belonged to his mother, and he sighed inwardly. Better get it over with, he told himself as he ripped the envelope open and unfolded the piece of paper inside.

Sure enough....He sighed and skimmed over the message. It was the usual blather - asking how his first few days had gone, what the weather was like, what house he had ended up in, what the other students were like, and so on and so forth. Rummaging around in his robes, he located a spare quill and scribbled a reply on the back of her letter: his first few days has gone fine (except for his Potions class), the weather was fine, he was sorted into Ravenclaw, and the other students either hated him or were scared to death of him. Then he stuffed it back in the envelope, crossed out his name and wrote "Andromeda Black" on the front, and gave it to Callisto. She took off in a rustle of feathers and joined the other owls that were slowly filtering out of the Hall.

"Are you trying out for Quidditch?" Cassandra asked him as she fed a small bit of her biscuit to her bird, an impressive Great Horned Owl.

"Huh?"

"Tryouts for Quidditch are on October first," she explained patiently. "They're holding them later this year - Dumbledore wasn't really clear on why." Her owl spread its wings and pushed off, heading for one of the windows, and she watched it flutter out of the Hall before turning to look at him. "So, are you going to go out for the team?"

He snorted. "Are ya kiddin'? Last time I tried flyin', I crashed into some Muggle power lines an' nearly got electrocuted. 'Sides, I don't have a decent broom."

"Too bad. I'm trying out for Chaser, and I was kind of hoping we'd be on the team together."

"Yeah, too bad," said, his tone making it clear that he didn't care one way or the other.

Cassandra sighed and shook her head, apparently giving up her efforts to be friendly. Picking up her book, she propped it against her plate and delved into it without a second glance his way. Grateful to be rid of her, Polaris seized the opportunity to scoot away and continue eating in peace.

He hadn't made a single friend in his life, and he had no intention of starting now.

~*~

Winter was coming. Sirius could feel its approach, even while he was human, and his fears were quickly compounded. Winter meant cold, snow, ice...possibly even his own death. He sure as hell hadn't come this far to die of hypothermia, but it seemed unavoidable....

At first, he hoped he had been mistaken, that his dog and human senses had fooled him into thinking that the colder months were coming. But his worst fears were confirmed by the snippets of conversation he heard from the passing Muggles: "early winter this year," "cold snap coming from the States," and, worst of all, "big blizzard's going to hit soon." Already he could see them bundling up, wrapping themselves in thick coats and scarves, and occasionally he awoke in the dead of the night to feel a slice of cold air nipping at his exposed arms.

Now his daily search as Padfoot included not just food, but a more permanent home. Anything was better than his alleyway, so long as it had a roof to protect him from the snowstorm. But as the days ticked by, counting down the weeks until the blizzard struck, he continually found nothing better than ramshackle buildings scheduled for the wrecking ball.

It was too late. He would never be able to find shelter. He was stuck in his alleyway, he was going to die, he'd be lucky to survive for two days outside, let alone the entire -

A single flake of snow twirled down and hit him on his wet, canine nose. The shocking cold startled him out of his thoughts; he stared at the tiny white dot, cross-eyed, and watched it melt slowly into nothingness.

No. Not yet. Please, not yet....

He tilted his head back, staring up at the gray expanse of sky. Another splotch of white struck him between the eyes, and others began to fleck his dark fur and paint the streets with a pale tinge.

No. No. No, no, no.

Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the snowflakes began to fall, heedless to the plight of a lone wizard trapped on the streets.

~*~

The weeks drifted by, and Quidditch tryouts arrived. Looking for an excuse to procrastinate his Herbology homework, Polaris wandered over to the field to watch the team hopefuls zoom around fifty feet of the ground. Cassandra, he couldn't help noticing, was one of the better flyers, only bested by an Asian girl who was attempting to return as the team's Seeker. When Madam Hooch read off the new members Ravenclaw Quidditch Team after tryouts, Polaris wasn't surprised at all when Cassandra was called. She blushed deep crimson upon hearing her name and ducked her head, embarrassed but proud.

Just as he climbed down from the bleachers and started back towards Hogwarts, a single snowflake floated downward and lodged itself in his black hair. Several others dotted his shoulders and hands, leaving behind icy water droplets as they dissolved. Puzzled, he looked up at the slate-gray clouds, watching in amazement as the light snowfall began to grow heavier. Several flakes landed disturbingly close to his eyes and made him blink.

A snowstorm? In October? How the....

The other students who had been at the Quidditch tryouts blew past him, sprinting for the castle and relief from the sudden, biting cold. He followed close behind, trying to pull his robes closer. The wind picked up, sending several abnormally large snowflakes bulleting towards his face. He shivered and began jogging to catch up with the rest of the stranded students.

The twenty-odd students and two teachers - Professor Flitwick, the House Head, had helped supervise the tryouts - tumbled into the hall, out of breath, soaking wet, and rosy-cheeked. Everyone was rubbing their arms and blowing into their cupped hands, trying to warm up. They could see how bad the storm had gotten through the windows; the entrance gates could barely be spotted through the thick clouds of snow. A few passing second-years eagerly crowded around the window as well, marveling at the blizzard.

It wasn't long before Professor McGonagall's magnified voice echoed through the halls, listing the classes that had been called off on account of the sudden snowstorm. It basically consisted of all the outdoor lessons: Herbology, Care of Magical Creatures, flying lessons for the first-years, and several others Polaris didn't recognize. By now the snow was lining the grounds in foot-high drifts and still coming down fast.

Care of Magical Creatures had been his one o'clock class. With nothing to do until four o'clock or so, he went to the library in hopes of locating a good book to pass the time. Unfortunately, the shelves were lined with thousands of textbooks, and the few novels Madam Pince stocked were by Muggle authors. Probably for Muggle Studies, he mused as he scanned the titles. I wonder if Cassandra's read any of them....

He immediately shoved Cassandra from his mind, silently berating himself for thinking of her. Selecting a medium-sized book by someone named Golding, he found a vacant armchair and settled down to read.

He had only read the first few pages when he heard several soft voices nearby. The words they spoke nearly made his heart stop beating.

"Do you think Sirius is doing okay?"

Quietly, quietly, Polaris closed his book and peeked around the armchair. To his amazement, he saw the Potter boy and his two friends - a frizzy-haired girl and a tall gangly boy - seated near the library's giant window, a plethora of books spread around them. Potter, who had a giant volume open in front of him and a half-written essay at his side, had been the one who had voiced his concern.

"What?" The boy looked up from a book he had been studying, confused at the question.

"Sirius," he repeated. "I sent him an owl a month ago, and he still hasn't written back. Do you think he's okay? I mean, this weather can't be helping him any." He gestured vaguely towards the window.

He wrote him? Potter's been writing Sirius? Polaris took a deep breath, slowly sinking back into the chair and fighting an irrational urge to jump from his hiding spot and beat the fourth-year into the ground.

"I'm sure he's fine, Harry," he heard the girl say, followed by a scratching noise as she continued scribbling on her own sheet of parchment. "He's been through a lot worse than a blizzard, you know."

"I guess," he said with a sigh. Another glance around his seatback showed Potter staring out the window at the falling snow, worry reflected in his green eyes.

Numbly, Polaris groped for his novel and made himself open it to his marked spot, fighting to stop his hands from shaking. He tried to read, but the words blurred in front of him, his concentration wrecked by Potter's seeming declaration of support for the murderer. It took all of his strength to restrain from screaming and throwing the book across the library.

Oblivious, the three students kept talking, though their topic had moved on to their essay, which all of them had to write for Arithmancy. The boy was bemoaning its length ("Five feet long! How does Vector expect us to finish this by Monday?") while the girl was trying to explain that, if he started now, he'd be able to get it done before class the next day. Throughout it all, Potter remained silent, continuing to focus on the ever-thickening blizzard.

Eventually, he gave up on reading for the time being and folded a corner of the page over to mark his spot. Still feeling as if he would either explode or faint at any minute, he stood up and made his way out of the library on shaky legs.

For a while he simply wandered through the school, dazed. Harry Potter, the famous Harry Potter, was allying himself with a convicted murderer. How could it be? Why? Hadn't Sirius even tried to kill him last year? How....

He was so lost in thought that, when he arrived at the suit of armor that led to the Ravenclaw dormitories, he had no recollection of how he had gotten there. Half-heartedly muttering, "dragon's fire," he climbed through the wall that was exposed when the armor shifted aside, then trudged up to his room and flopped onto his bed, staring up at the ceiling. Outside he could hear the wind pick up speed and howl around the castle, throwing white powder over the grounds.

Suddenly, he pulled himself upright and leaned over the edge of his bed, rummaging beneath it in search of something. It was a spontaneous gesture, one he often made without really knowing why, and it always ended the same way: with the extraction of a battered object from under his mattress.

It was an old scrapbook, one whose surface was covered in cracked and dusty black leather. Polaris traced the silver initials engraved on the front - P.C.B. - and then carefully swept away the dust that layered the front. He opened it and began flicking through the pages. Headlines jumped out and immediately faded as he went past them: "Black Escapes From Azkaban," "Black Still At Large," "Black Sighted at Hogwarts," "Black Recaptured," "Black Escapes Again." He had read and reread the dozen or so articles hundreds of times, practically memorizing their passages in the process, and so paid them no heed.

The last page fell back and was still. It wasn't a news clipping from the Daily Prophet that lay in its center, but a picture. A four-year-old Polaris beamed up at him, waving enthusiastically from the seat of his brother's beloved motorcycle. Behind him, a much younger Sirius laughed and carefully steadied the bike so his little sibling wouldn't tumble off onto the gravel. As he watched, his junior self grasped the handlebars and twisted them, making engine noises and giggling in his joy.

I remember that day....

I remember how I had pleaded Sirius to let me ride his motorcycle when he had finally come back from James and Lily's wedding. He kept telling me no, that I was too young and he was worried I'd hurt myself. How I begged and begged him for just one ride! I kept promising that I'd pay attention to anything he said, that I'd wear a helmet, that I'd be safe and wouldn't get hurt.

Still he kept telling me no. But at last he relented, just a little. I wouldn't be able to really ride it until I was seven, he said, but in the meantime I was free to play with it as much as I wanted, so long as he was there to watch me. That was the first time I had ever sat on his bike...it was so amazing, so overwhelming for a little kid like me....

What I wouldn't give to have that life again, a life where I didn't know the meaning of the word 'betrayer' or 'killer,' where I had a brother who loved me, and a name that didn't bear such a terrible stigma....

Polaris sighed and ran his fingers over the picture, feeling his eyes prickle with unshed tears. He quickly wiped them away, not wanting to show any emotion beyond his perpetual anger, but wasn't fast enough; a lone teardrop splattered on the page's protective plastic, sparkling in the overhead light. His counterpart in the animated photograph didn't notice - he had toppled off of the bike and was now in Sirius' arms, still laughing. Sirius was scolding him, but couldn't hide the small smile that played over his lips.

He slammed the scrapbook shut and shoved it under his bed again, then swung back up onto his stomach in one smooth motion. "You're never gonna have that life again, Polaris," he berated himself, angrily punching his pillow. "Stop wishin' fer it - it's been thirteen years an' nothing's changed. He's still a filthy rotten traitor."

Still, the childish belief that Sirius was innocent continued to nudge at his brain. He pushed it away, as he had so many times before, and buried his tear-streaked face into his pillow.

~*~

Sirius had always believed that, if he died, it would be at the hands of darkness. It had never crossed his mind that something pure and white, something that bore the color of goodness, would end up taking his life away. Death could take on many forms, he now realized, but it seemed as if he had learned this lesson too late.

The initial snowfall had only worsened as he sprinted down the streets, hell-bent on getting out of the city and finding refuge in a forest that was located several miles away. It wasn't long before he was trudging through drifts that buried his paws, then swallowed half his legs, then engulfed him to his chest. His initial run had slowed to a plodding crawl as he fought his way onward, pausing only to bite pieces of ice off of his paws. He didn't dare stop to rest, though he longed to more than anything else in the world. He knew of other travelers who had lain down in the snow to sleep and never woken up.

Soon the exhaustion proved to be too much. Taking a deep breath, he transformed from Padfoot to his usual self - and instantly regretted it. True, he was larger and could now navigate the drifts more easily, but the cold had tripled in intensity now that he didn't have a thick layer of fur to protect him. His threadbare robes, however tightly he hugged them to his body, did nothing to stave off the icy chill, and his fingers and toes quickly went numb. The rest of his body wasn't far behind.

Still he continued on, hunched low against the wind, concentrating on nothing more than placing one foot in front of the other. The forest was only a mile away...he could sense it somehow...shelter and safety wasn't much farther. He kept an iron grip on that thought, even as he lost all feeling in his violently shaking body, even as the shivers diminished to a slight twitch every now and then, even as his mind began to fog over.

As if from a great distance, he realized he had sank to his knees in the snow. The fluffy whiteness looked so comfortable, so inviting. He was so tired. It felt as if he hadn't slept in decades. Surely a short nap wouldn't hurt, would it?

No! Stop!

Sirius smacked his frozen face as hard as he could, trying to pull himself back from the recesses of approaching death. The faint twinge of pain kept him occupied long enough to haul himself to his feet and drag himself onwards.

At last, after what seemed like years, he staggered past the trees that marked the outskirts of the forest. Wading through the now waist-deep snow, he walked the path he had once walked many times before, using his fading senses to guide him. The familiar landmarks may have been partially obscured by the snow, but he could still sense the way to shelter, almost as if it had become an innate instinct.

Presently he came to a cave in an outcropping of rock. Its entrance was, to his great surprise, cleared away. There were fresh tracks near its mouth, tracks that appeared to be a mixture of hooves and talons, all of which were surrounded by a few smears of blood.

So. Even after five months, the hippogriff still hadn't left their original hideaway. Thank the higher powers for small favors.

"Buckbeak?" he said, unable to command his voice to be any louder than a whisper. "Buckbeak? Are you there?"

A strange sound echoed from within the cave, half-eagle cry, half-horse whinny, and Sirius peered into its depths. The world was becoming detached, his vision beginning to blur. Unable to stand up, he sank to his knees, digging his hands into the ground, struggling to keep his eyes open. Dimly he realized that Buckbeak had emerged from the shadows and was regarding him quizzically.

Let him remember me...please let him remember who I am....

It was his last coherent thought before he lost his battle to stay awake and collapsed onto the snow.

~*~

The blizzard continued throughout the night and all through Friday. When the students of Hogwarts awoke on Saturday morning, they were greeted with snowdrifts that, in some places, measured nearly six feet in height. All activities that involved leaving the castle, including the upcoming Hogsmeade visit and Quidditch practices, were canceled. Several teachers went outside to help melt away a path using magical fires that only burned in the presence of snow. Out in the distance, if he squinted, Polaris could see the top of Rubeus Hagrid's cabin, which had almost been swallowed up in the blizzard.

Still a bit sleepy, he yawned, rubbed his eyes, and started down to the common room. A lot of the other Ravenclaws were up already, as it was very late, and nearly all of the third-years on up were grumbling about losing their Hogsmeade weekend. Polaris was disappointed about the cancellation, too - from the descriptions that Cassandra had given him, Hogsmeade seemed like a fun place. Right now he needed a fun place to keep his mind away from Potter and the others.

Having nothing better to do, he went back up to his dormitory, grabbed the book he had checked out from the library yesterday, then went back downstairs and flopped into an armchair close to the fire to read. The outside cold had begun to permeate the building, and quite a few people were huddled around the fire, some with blankets wrapped around them. He spotted Cassandra seated slightly apart from the others, curled up with what looked like a mug of hot chocolate and a thick Transfiguration book. He opened his own book to its marked spot.

Soon he was sucked into the imaginary world the author had woven. It was about a group of Muggle children who had been stranded on an island after a plane crash. The beginning was a bit slow, but it quickly picked up the pace and captured his attention. So engrossed was he that he didn't notice when people began filing out of the common room, some to the library, others to their dormitories, still others to the Great Hall, which had started serving lunch. He was only startled out of his little world when someone tapped him on the head.

"Hi," Cassandra said with a smile. "What are you reading?"

Polaris didn't speak, instead showing the cover of the novel. She studied it and nodded.

"Ah, Lord of the Flies. That's a good book. We had to read that in Muggle Studies last year."

"I thought ya might've." Sighing, he set his book down and slumped down, looking out the window. "I wish we coulda gone ta Hogsmeade," he said morosely, changing the subject.

"Yeah, me too." She sat down in an armchair close to him, pushing her glasses up her nose and placing her book in her lap. "My cousin Scarlett - she's the other witch in my family I told you about, she gave me my necklace...." Here she pulled her gold dragon necklace out of her robes to show him. "Anyway, her birthday's coming up, and I wanted to get her something from Honeydukes. She loves their chocolate."

"I just wanted ta see the place," he muttered as he crossed his arms.

Cassandra gazed at him, her brow furrowing. "Is something wrong, Polaris? You look upset."

He shrugged and said, "I'm fine."

"No, you're not. I can tell." She scooted her chair closer to him. "Listen, if there's something bothering you, you can just tell me. I swear I won't spread it around the school. What is it?"

"Nothin', Cassandra. Really." He picked up Lord of the Flies again. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see her shake her head the way she did when she was frustrated or ready to give up.

"Please, Polaris?" she tried again. "I want you to trust me. I promise I won't tell anyone."

Polaris sighed and set down his book again. "Will ya leave me alone if I do?"

"Okay," she said, a bit uncertainly.

He looked back out the window at the tip of Hagrid's hut in the distance. "Yesterday I was in the library...y'know, gettin' this to pass the time while it was snowing." He waved the novel in the air. "An' I overheard Harry Potter an' his friends talkin' about somethin' while they were doin' their homework. Turns out...turns out Potter's been writin' Sirius. It just...y'know...threw me fer a loop."

Looking back over at Cassandra, he saw that she had paled. One hand was over her mouth in shock, and she slowly lowered it and said, "But Sirius tried to /kill/ him last year. And his friends, too. Why would he be...."

"I dunno," Polaris said. "I'm not sure I wanna know." He didn't dare voice his thoughts aloud - after all, accusing a famous wizard of being in league with You-Know-Who, especially one who had defeated You-Know-Who on more than one occasion, wouldn't get him high on anyone's list.

Silence reigned for a while. Finally, Polaris turned back to his book. "Ya said you'd go away if I told ya what was botherin' me," he said without looking up. "Well, I told ya."

"All right," she said softly. "I'm going to get lunch. See you down there, I guess." He heard her get to her feet and leave the common room, mumbling to herself, "Harry's writing Black...why...how...."

Exactly what I was thinking, he thought grimly before delving back into the pages of the book.

The hours flew by. Gradually the Ravenclaws drifted back into the common room. One of them, a timid second-year with incredibly curly brown hair, told him that lunch would be ending soon before sprinting away to join her friends, not wanting to spend any more time around him than was necessary. Suddenly aware of the acute hunger gnawing at his stomach, Polaris dropped Lord of the Flies off in his dormitory and headed to the Great Hall.

In his brain, he was poring over some passages from his book, mentally re-reading them as he walked through the hallway. It was a habit he'd had for as long as he could remember, and more often than not, he ignored the rest of the world while doing it. This time was no exception. In fact, he was so detached from the physical world that he barely even noticed when he collided with another student in the hallway.

"Hey, watch it," the boy snapped, his pale face flushing slightly with rage. The two heavyset boys on either side of him looked equally angry.

Shaking himself out of his trance, Polaris responded with, "You watch it, kid."

"I'm not the one who wasn't paying attention to where he was going!"

He glared at the student, who couldn't have been any older than fourteen. "Listen, I'm really not in the mood right now, so how about if ya just go on as if this never happened, all right?"

The pale boy didn't respond for a while. His gray eyes bored into Polaris' hazel ones. "You're Polaris Black, aren't you?" he finally asked.

"Yeah. Why?"

A malicious glint appeared in his eyes. "Oh, no reason," he said, deceptively casual. "Just that Harry Potter's been writing your older brother. Thought you might like to know."

"I already knew, but thanks anyway." He couldn't stop the hint of sarcasm from creeping into his voice.

"Oh." He seemed disappointed. But the gleam in his slate-colored eyes was back a second later. "Do you know why he's sending Sirius so many owls?"

Polaris peered down at him, frowning. "No."

A thin, snakelike smile traced his lips. "Do you remember a certain friend of your brother's when you were little? His name was...I don't know, James?"

He searched his memory, drawing up several images of Sirius saying that he was going to visit 'Prongs,' and a faint picture of a man with untidy black hair and brown eyes. "Prongs," he mumbled. "I think that was James...."

The boy's grin widened. "James was Potter's dad. And, from what I've heard, he was best friends with Sirius. Do you know what he did?"

"What?" Polaris questioned, restraining himself from grabbing him and throwing him into the wall.

The boy was clearly savoring the moment. Glancing left, then right, he leaned in close and said in a theatrical whisper, "He made Black Potter's legal guardian if anything should happen to him. Your brother is his godfather. And, according to Harry, he's also innocent."

A small explosion seemed to take place in the pit of Polaris' stomach as he spoke those words. The innocent belief flared up in full force, worse than it had ever been before.

Innocent innocent Sirius is innocent....

This time he didn't bother stopping himself. Consumed with rage at losing his grip on his childlike thoughts, he seized the boy by his robes and slammed him into the wall. His friends jumped back, surprised, then began advancing on them. Polaris ignored them.

"You're lying," he snarled, bringing his face close to his. "He's not innocent."

His face had gone even paler, but he still managed to protest, "Hey, I never said he was innocent! I'm not mental like Potty. I'm just telling you what I heard!"

"I'm sure." He spun around and threw him back out into the hall. The boy stumbled, caught himself, and turned to face him, panting slightly.

"You want proof? Go find Potter. Ask him if it's true."

Of course. Simple. Just find Potter and...but where would he be?

"He's in the library," the boy supplied, almost as if he could read his thoughts.

He didn't need to be told twice. Doing an about-face, Polaris sprinted in the direction of the library, robes flapping behind him, leaving the boy and his friends to continue on their way.

Reaching the immense room in record time, he paused for a second to catch his breath, then pushed open the heavy doors and calmly walked inside. Immediately he began to scour the room in search of Potter and his companions, but with little luck, as the place appeared to be deserted. Then, over in a corner, he picked up the sound of whispering voices...familiar whispering voices....

"Look at the date! Why do you suppose it took so long to get here?"

"Maybe the owl got caught up in the storm."

"Hey," he said loudly, striding towards them. The trio jerked their heads up from a piece of worn-out parchment, startled at the sight of him.

"Oh...hi, Polaris," the girl ventured weakly. They began to hurriedly fold up the parchment.

Polaris crossed his arms and glared at them levelly. "Potter, I wanna talk t'ya."

"Sure." Potter adjusted his glasses (both he and Cassandra seemed to do that a lot) and got up, walking towards him on slightly shaky legs. Evidently his fear factor hadn't completely worn off yet. The other two trailed behind, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. "What...what is it you need?"

He raised an eyebrow, putting on an indifferent face. His voice, in contrast, wavered with anger. "Well, I'd ask if you've been writin' ta my brother, but I already know ya are, so I won't. I'll ask somethin' else instead: Why d'ye think Sirius is innocent?"

Harry stopped, frozen, and his friends nearly ran into him. "How did you know?" he questioned faintly.

"I heard ya talkin' about him just the other day. Oh, yeah, and some kid stopped me in the hall, asked me if I knew."

"Malfoy," the redhead muttered, clenching his fists. "Must've been. He was spying on us the other day. I oughta...." Potter, by contrast, seemed unable to show any other emotions beyond shock and disbelief.

"Why do ya think he's innocent, Potter?" Polaris repeated. His eyes started to fade from hazel to dark, dark green.

"Because...because he is," was all he could choke out.

"Liar," he spat in return. He uncrossed his arms and started on him. All three expected him to pummel the skinny fourth-year, but instead he halted about a foot away and leaned in closer. "I was five years old when they took him away, Potter. I was at his trial. Hell, I had to testify at his trial...they dragged me up onto the stand, expectin' me ta support him, thinkin' I'd tell the jury that he was the nicest guy I'd ever known." He laughed hollowly. "I'd heard too much o' the other testimonies already. An' all I could do was sit there an' stare at Sirius, an' ask him why he'd done it. Why, and how." Shaking his head, he straightened up and looked away, adding barely above a whisper, "He couldna tell me." Quickly, before they could see, he dashed away the gathering tears with a swipe across his face.

Then, a sudden, sharp look back at the dumbstruck Harry. "I learned the meanin' of the word 'traitor' when I was five years old, Potter. Ye should know what it means, too. Get it through your head - he's a murderer, he deserves to die, an' he's not innocent."

Even now, Potter would not be defeated. He opened his mouth and started to object again, "But he - "

"HE'S NOT!" Polaris roared, whirling even closer. "HE'S A GODDAMN TRAITOR! HE KILLED YOUR PARENTS! HE TRIED TO KILL YOU! HE'S GUILTY...he's guilty...he's...." His voice faded. Shaking, he groped for a stool used to locate books on the higher shelves and sat down heavily, burying his face in his hands.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, running his hands back to comb through his curly black hair, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."

Cautiously, the group approached him. "It's all right," he heard the girl whisper. "We know how hard this whole ordeal must be for you. I'd feel horrible if I found out my brother or sister had murdered thirteen people."

Above him, he caught a glimpse of the red-haired boy beginning to speak, and how the girl cut him off with a violent gesture.

"We're just going to go now," she continued, still whispering, as if anything louder would send him into a rage again. "We're sorry." With a nod, the three padded off.

For a while, he simply sat there, digging his hands into his hair, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths in an effort to regain control. The library was empty now, save Madam Pince, who was eyeing him suspiciously as she polished the spines of several thick tomes. He suspected it was because of his outburst, which had been loud enough to disturb some dust that hadn't been moved for years. At last he raised his head and stood up, using a bookcase for support, and walked towards the door. Then, he stopped.

Lying on the floor, no more than a few feet away, was the parchment that Potter's group had been looking at before. Curiously, he bent over and picked it up. His heart leapt into his throat at the sight of the well-known, rounded handwriting. With trembling hands, he sat down again and began to read.

 

September 24, 1994

 

Dear Harry,

It's good to hear from you again. I was getting a bit worried when I didn't receive any owls - I know your aunt and uncle are a horrible lot, and I hoped they hadn't done anything to you. I'm sorry I'm writing so late, but I've had quite a time avoiding the Ministry.

So, you've got another new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher. What is this, the fourth one in four years now? Hogwarts certainly seems to have been going through them like crazy as of late. I haven't heard from Remus either, but I'm sure he's fine. He does very well with getting along on his own devices.

Yes, Polaris Black is my younger brother. I haven't seen him since I was convicted (for obvious reasons) and we've lost touch. I haven't a clue why you say he's from Ireland; our entire family has lived in Britain for as long as I can remember. Could you possibly ask him if you run into him?

Buckbeak and I are fine. Right now we're in separate locations to throw off the Ministry, but hopefully I'm going to join up with him in the near future. Why don't you meet us sometime, perhaps during the winter holidays? We probably won't be moving around much, since I've heard that a giant blizzard is moving in from America soon. I've put the Marauder's Charm on this letter - whenever you're ready to visit, just work it the same way you work the map, and it'll reveal my location.

Hope to see you soon,

Sirius

 

The Marauder's Charm? What was that? And what map was he talking about? He folded up the letter, racking his brains. There had to be something he could remember, something buried deep in his memory, like the image of James Potter/Prongs had been.

Suddenly, he located a very distinct scene. He was seated at a table. A young man, maybe eighteen years old, was across from him, tapping what looked like a blank piece of parchment with his wand and whispering, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good." And suddenly, a picture blossomed on the paper, spreading out to form an intricate map of some unknown place. He grinned at Polaris and said, "See? It took me and the others three years to get it right, but it finally works! I bet Sirius'll give it to you when you start at Hogwarts."

He drew himself back to the present. The seemingly innocent letter was still in front of him, still clutched in his hands. Holding his breath, he set it in front of himself with the greatest of care and withdrew his wand from within his robes. Hands still quivering, he touched the thin stick to the paper and said softly, "I solemnly swear that I am up ta no good."

Before his eyes, a single sentence bled through the paper, right below Sirius' untidy scrawl. Tucking his wand back in the folds of his robes, he underlined the newly formed words, brow crinkled in concentration. At last, after he was sure he knew where his brother was talking about, he shoved his chair back, seized the letter, and blew out of the library.

 

 

That night, all was perfectly silent in the Ravenclaw dormitories. Many people had spent the day playing outside in the snow and were now fast asleep, exhausted. Outside, the thick layer of crystals gleamed, lit up by the nearly full moon.

Nobody noticed as a lone figure stole his way to the broom closet, tapped his wand against the lock and whispered "Alohomora," retrieved his broom, and tiptoed out into the night.

~*~

For the longest time, Sirius was unaware of the outside world. He seemed to be floating through a world that alternated between blank whiteness and all-encompassing darkness, drifting without a sense of direction. Was this what dying was like? Instead of the peace that was supposed to overcome one as they made the transition from the physical world to the afterlife, he felt increasingly uneasy, almost as if he was missing something of dire importance, some action he absolutely had to do....

There was a sound now. It was almost like a very fast wind was racing past his ears. Before he could figure out what this noise meant, gravity took over in his dream world and he began to fall, faster, faster, scenes flashed by, clips of the world sped past almost too quickly for him to pick out, he tried to scream but couldn't summon anything more than a faint croaking noise, he saw a vast world of white and a dark cave -

And then, he picked up a snuffling noise and felt something wet on his cheek. His eyes flickered open, giving him a brief image of Buckbeak licking his face in a very un-hippogriffish manner, but he quickly shut them and pushed the creature away, hoping he wouldn't offend him badly enough to get a talon in the eye.

"Go away," he mumbled. Buckbeak didn't move, although he stopped running his rough tongue over his face. Opening his eyes again, he suddenly realized that he was huddled close to the hippogriff's body, with one wing covering him like a blanket, and that he was no longer freezing to death. He had remembered him, recognized him as a friend, and more importantly, recognized that he was dying of hypothermia.

"You...you saved my life," he croaked. Buckbeak responded with another stroke of his tongue and a friendly look. "Thank you. I...."

The hippogriff almost seemed to shrug in embarrassment. He climbed to his feet and withdrew his wing from around Sirius' body, plunging him back into the chilled air. Perhaps it was just because he was a great deal warmer than before, but it didn't seem nearly as cold to him now. Still, he couldn't contain the shiver that spread through him and made him clutch at his thin robes again.

He tried to stand up, but immediately tumbled down again, still too weak to walk. He settled on crawling over to the mouth of the cave. Poking his head outside, he saw that it was nearly pitch black outside; it had to be one or two in the morning. Only the stars, the moon, and the snowdrifts glittered, casting a ghostly light on the dark world. He had to have been knocked out for six hours, maybe even longer.

A slap of icy air sent him reeling back into the relative warmth of the cave. Buckbeak had settled down far in the back and was busily gnawing on the bones of some unidentifiable animal. He looked thinner than usual, Sirius couldn't help noticing. Their flight from justice had been harsh on both of them.

Now...what to do? A fire would be helpful to disperse the cold, but he had no kindling, and his wand had been snapped in half by the Ministry when he had been sentenced to life in Azkaban. He sighed in frustration and ran a hand through his dark hair, which was already beginning to grow out again. He would have given his left arm for one of Moony's portable fires he had been so fond of conjuring in their Hogwarts days.

Unless....

He called up a faint wisp of recollection from one of his classes all those years ago. Something about mano socerus...the practice of casting spells without the aid of a wand...it was a nearly forgotten but highly useful art, one that took a great deal of concentration and effort. They had been taught a small bit of mano socerus in Charms class, just to give them a tiny piece of understanding in the field. It hadn't been his forte, not by a long shot, but maybe, just maybe....

Sirius rubbed his hands together to warm them up both literally and figuratively, then formed a triangle, index fingers and thumbs touching, palms down, over a spot on the ground. Closing his eyes, summoning all of the energy he could muster, he vividly imagined a wand in his hand and declared, "Pyralis ascendi!"

Nothing happened. Discouraged, he shook his hands out and tried again, this time picturing a flame already flickering beneath his palms. "Pyralis ascendi!"

A tiny tongue of fire sprang upward from the frozen ground. He jerked his hands back, so amazed that it worked that he lost his concentration. It immediately petered out, leaving behind a small cloud of smoke that made Buckbeak raise his head and sniff the air in concern.

He repeated his actions and words a third time. This time a giant flame appeared, so tall it nearly scorched his hands. He pulled away, still concentrating, still focusing on nothing but the fire in front of him, and watched it grow, rather impressed with his handiwork. At last, when it reached a decent size, he dropped his hands. It still crackled as strongly as ever and did not threaten to fade out like his previous attempt. Soon the entire cave was filled with a soft warmth.

"Thank you, Flitwick," he said softly. He sat on the floor, several feet from his fire, and began to thaw out his frozen feet.

For the first time since his escape from Hogwarts, he felt as if fate was on his side. His life had been nothing but a string of misfortunes, starting from his twenty-first birthday, when he was convicted, up until the present. But now he finally seemed to be, if not safe, then at least comfortable. He leaned back, tucking his hands under his head, and stared up at the ceiling of the cave.

Buckbeak began to whimper. He caught sight of the creature lumbering to his feet and trotting towards the cave entrance. A split second later his loud yelp filled the cavern. Sirius sat bolt upright, his insides twisting in fear, the warmth from the fire displaced by the cold lump in his stomach. They were here, the Ministry was here, he'd let his guard down and now they were coming to take him back to Azkaban, if not give him the Kiss...no, no, please, no....

Cautiously, so as not to make a sound, he stood up. Buckbeak was still whining, scared about something, but soon stopped. Then, a voice.

"I know ya're in here."

Who was this? It couldn't have been the Ministry; the person sounded too young, nineteen or twenty at the very oldest. A Muggle, maybe? Still, he kept quiet.

Out of the shadows, half-illuminated in the firelight, stepped a young, muscular man. He was only a few inches shorter than Sirius, with curly black hair and hazel eyes that were currently filled with an immense hatred. An earring in his right ear glinted in the firelight. Another step, and his hope that it was just a curious Muggle was dashed to pieces - he had a wand clenched tightly in his fist, pointing it directly at him. The boy grinned ferally at the sight of him.

"Hello, Sirius," he breathed, walking closer. "So nice ta finally see ya again."

Sirius took a step backward to counterbalance his approach. "Who...who are you?" he croaked.

He seemed to find this highly amusing. He laughed, the wild smile growing wider, and stopped, spreading his arms apart. "Whassamatter, Sirius? Don't ya recognize yer own brother?"

My own brother.

The eyes, the hair, even the strangely accented voice suddenly clicked into place, somehow matching up with thirteen-year-old memories of a little boy seated on the witness stand, staring down at him with confusion as tears spilled over his cheeks.

"Why are they saying that you killed somebody, Sirius? Did you really? How could you have..."

"Polaris," he whispered.

Polaris Black laughed again. "Ah, very good," he mocked, resuming his approach. "I've heard o' people losin' their minds in Azkaban, but nope, looks like yours is as good as it ever was."

"How did you find me?" Sirius asked. He stumbled backwards, nearly running into the fire.

"Good question." Casually, he rummaged around in his robes, never letting his wand waver from his face, and dug up a piece of parchment. He shook it open and began to read. "'Dear Harry, it's good ta hear from ya again. I was gettin' a bit worried when I didna receive any owls....'"

"Where did you get that?" he demanded sharply, forgetting his predicament for a minute.

"Oh, that godson of yours," he spat out the word 'godson' as if it were a curse, "left it in the library yesterday." He pocketed it again and continued, "Lucky fer me, I remembered your friend Remus showin' me how ta work the Marauder's Map when I was a little kid. Otherwise, I never woulda figured out how ta reveal yer directions."

"Why are you here?" he asked quietly. "What do you want from me?"

"Ah, ya never stop askin' good questions, brother dearest," Polaris said in a voice laced with sarcasm. He was now only a few yards from him, and his wand was aimed directly at his forehead. The smile was gone, the anger back. When he spoke again, his voice wobbled with poorly suppressed fury. "I wanna see you suffer, just like I suffered," he hissed. "I wanna watch 'em torture ya, lock ya back in Azkaban so ya go insane like everyone else. An' I wanna watch as they give ya the Dementor's Kiss, just so I can laugh as they suck your soul outta yer - "

Sirius didn't think. He just swung his hand out again, shouted, "Expelliarmus!" and watched, shocked, as Polaris' wand was jerked from his grasp and jumped to his hand. His brother gaped, equally shocked.

"What the hell?" he asked weakly, unable to say anything else.

"Just a little trick I picked up," he said, not without triumph. "Professor Flitwick might teach it to you later this year." Now he was the one who pointed the wand at the other's head, threatening to strike.

"You wanna kill me?" Once more Polaris spread his arms with a bravado Sirius was sure he didn't feel. "Go ahead, Sirius! Kill me!"

He could do nothing but stare at his defiant face for a few seconds. Slowly, he lowered the stolen wand. "I'm not going to kill you, Polaris," he said quietly.

"Why not?" he challenged. "What's one more corpse on top o' all the other ones?"

"I didn't kill anybody," he said before he could stop himself. "I would never intentionally harm anyone."

"Yeah, right," he sneered, dropping his arms. "You've just been in Azkaban all this time fer somethin' ya didn' do."

He did nothing more than nod, his eyes never leaving Polaris' gaze. "Yes," he whispered. "I'm not entirely innocent...there is some blood on my hands...but I didn't kill those people and - and Pettigrew." For a split second he was blinded with anger at the thought of the true traitor.

The younger Black saw the hatred flicker through his brother's dull eyes at the mention of Peter Pettigrew and gave him a curious look, but received nothing in return.

"I - I know what you must have had to put up with over the years," Sirius continued, but was interrupted as Polaris snorted in disgust.

"Ye don't know the half o' it," he snapped. "Ya asked Potter why we'd moved to Ireland. Wanna know why? Because of you. Because we were so shamed by what ya'd done that we couldna stay in Britain anymore. Everywhere we went...people knew we were related ta ya. They yelled at us, said we were all disloyal an' part of You-Know-Who's band, an' cursed our very names." He sighed. "I couldn't even get inta Hogwarts when I was eleven 'cause of you - said they couldn't trust anyone related to a Dark wizard. That, an' I attacked a student at Rising Phoenix," he added in an almost offhand manner

"You attacked a student?"

He nodded curtly. "Yeah. Ariadne Wolfe. She started insultin' you an' the rest of my family, and I cursed her. That was back when I still had a little hope that you were innocent." The last statement was almost growled, and he advanced closer to try and grab his wand back. Sirius stopped him by lifting it again.

"Stay right there."

"I thought ya said ya wouldn't kill me."

"I won't. But I never said I wouldn't curse you."

They stared each other down for what seemed like hours, Sirius keeping the wand directed at Polaris' heart in a silent threat. Both were so fixated on the other that they paid no attention when Buckbeak began to snuffle and paw at the ground further up the tunnel, obviously agitated about something. Nor did they notice when his cries suddenly fell silent, much more abruptly than they had earlier. In fact, Polaris didn't even realize that something was wrong until he saw his brother's eyes widen, his upraised hand drop to his side, and heard him say, "Oh, sh - "

"Neither of you move," a strange voice said. Polaris whirled around into a blinding bright light. Blinking, he raised his hand to ward off some of the beams, confused. Beside him, Sirius had frozen in horror, mouth agape.

"Sirius Black," the wizard controlling the light said smugly. "At last, we've found you. Did you honestly think that you'd be able to elude us forever?"

"I - " Sirius began, but was unable to finish. A series of snakelike cords shot from behind the light, binding his wrists and ankles; he overbalanced and toppled to the ground. Polaris could do nothing more than stare.

"And you," the Ministry representative said to Polaris. "An accomplice, no doubt. Who are you?"

"He's my brother," came Sirius' reply from the floor. He was breathing heavily, staring up at his captors in a mixture of disbelief and terror. "Leave him alone, he hasn't done anything - "

"He's in the presence of a convicted Dark wizard, in a hidden area, in the dead of the night, and yet you say he hasn't done anything." The wizard sounded amused.

"I'm not a freakin' accomplice!" Polaris shouted, panicking. He backed up, stooping to seize his wand, which had dropped from Sirius' grip when he fell. "I was gonna kill him!"

"State your name."

"Polaris Black," he said, "but I tell ya, I had nothin' ta do with it! I'm innocent, I - "

In an instant he found his arms and legs held together by magical bonds, his wand ripped from his grasp. The light dimmed, revealing a old-looking wizard, whose brown hair was peppered with strands of gray. The next words he spoke made his heart stop beating.

"Polaris Black," he began, "you are hereby arrested for consulting with a convicted and known supporter of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, for helping said supporter of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named escape criminal justice over the past four months, and for passing information to said supporter of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

All of the blood drained from his face, leaving him light-headed and dizzy. His heart resumed beating, only now its pattern was horribly irregular, and he found he couldn't take in anything deeper than a series of rapid, shallow breaths.

"I didna do anythin'," he whispered, eyes wildly darting from his fallen brother to the wizard in front of him. "Ya - ya've gotta believe me. I didna do anythin'...."

The Ministry representative overrode his panicked words. "Sirius Black, you are hereby arrested for a flight to escape justice, for undergoing an illegal Animagus transformation, for sheltering a dangerous hippogriff, and for your earlier crimes that led to your original imprisonment in Azkaban." He nodded to two wizards behind him, who stepped forward, wands at the ready.

A short sentence was spoken, two beams of light shot from the ends of their wands, and the Black brothers spiraled down into unconsciousness.

~*~

It was a long time before Polaris awakened. When he did, he remained on the cold stone floor where he lay, perfectly still, keeping his eyes trained on the watermarked ceiling above him. It's all just a horrible nightmare, he thought. I'll wake up for real in a few minutes, back in the Ravenclaw dormitory. It has to be a nightmare. This can't be happening.

But it was. When he sat up several minutes later, he came face-to-face with a wall of bars. Beyond the bars were ten burly wizards, wands conspicuously dangling from their loopholes, dressed in the shade of midnight blue that signified an Azkaban guard.

"Ah, the other's finally up," a guard towards the back spoke as Polaris clambered to his feet, never taking his eyes off the bars. Noticing where his attention lay, the guard added, smirking, "Wouldn't recommend touching those, boy, 'less you want to be knocked out for a few more hours."

He tore his eyes away from the bars to stare at the guards. "I'm innocent," he mumbled, mouth dry. Louder, "I'm innocent." He strode as close to the bars as he dared, gaining momentum, shouting, "Do ya hear me? I'm innocent! I had nothin' ta do with him! I was gonna kill him! I didn't do anythin'! I'M INNO - "

"That won't get you anywhere," someone spoke behind him. "Believe me, I've tried it already."

He whipped around, his screams fading to nothing. Sirius was huddled in a corner, legs drawn up, head resting against the concrete wall. His dark eyes flitted over Polaris' features, then settled on the guards.

"No dementors yet," he observed quietly. There was a strange hint of resignation in his voice that Polaris had never heard before. His glance fell on him again. "Be glad. When they get here, that's when...." He didn't bother to finish the sentence, instead stretching his legs out and leaning back.

"They're not coming," another guard said bitterly, his prominent American accent making his words sound even harsher. "Fudge says that they're only supposed to be in the presence of convicts. And at least one of you is innocent until proven guilty - load of crap, if you ask me."

"Oh, but we didn't ask you," Polaris muttered under his breath.

"You know, Black," he continued, ignoring Polaris, "you should consider yourself lucky we caught Junior over there along with you. Otherwise the dementors would be all over your cell."

Sirius didn't do anything but nod.

"Anyway...." The guard hauled himself to his feet, which looked exceedingly difficult. "It's my duty to tell ya that your trial's in two days. Yes, both of yours," he added, seeing Sirius' surprised expression. "It's a double trial. Say they've gotta have some justice with you two, even though one of you's already been sentenced before." He shook his head, as if that was the most absurd idea he'd ever heard of.

"We appreciate yer thoughtfulness," Polaris sneered, taking a seat as far away from Sirius as was humanly possible.

"You mean Fudge's thoughtfulness," he corrected. "I say just give you both the Kiss and be done with it, but no, we have to handle you 'democratically.'" He air-quoted the word "democratically," punctuating it with an eye roll, and sat back down.

According to his wristwatch, Polaris had woken up at 8:49 AM. When the guards opened the door a mere inch to shove their food through, it was 12:14 PM. Even though Polaris was ravenous, having eaten nothing since the previous night's dinner, he was barely able to choke down the grayish-colored mush he was given. It tasted like soggy newspapers and did very little to ease the cramp that was beginning to form in his stomach. The elder Black only stared at the "food" for a minute before shoving it away and curling up again.

I bet he's had this stuff before, he thought, nearly gagging on another mouthful. No doubt he knows how bad it tastes. Or maybe he's trying to starve himself to death...if so, good riddance to the bastard.

The head guard, the American one, seemed to have read his thoughts. "Eat up, Black!" he barked at Sirius. "It's no use trying to starve yourself - we'll feed you through a needle in your arm if we have to."

Resigned, Sirius crawled out from his corner and grabbed the bowl. After poking at the mush with his spoon, as if half-expecting it to come alive and ooze out of its cracked container, he began to eat.

"Not that we don't wanna see ya dead," Polaris couldn't help but add snidely, tossing his empty bowl aside. His brother didn't even look up. He was already tuning out everything Polaris said to him, most likely because the majority of his comments had been centered on cursing his existence, blaming him for ruining his life yet again, and vowing to kill him if they ever got out of Azkaban. In any other situation he would have returned the remarks, or at least told him to keep quiet (being sixteen years his senior, he had some authority over him), but now he didn't have the strength to bother.

Being recaptured had given him a strange feeling of depression that had nothing to do with the occasional dementor that drifted past toward the maximum-security wing of the prison. Everything felt pointless. His sentence, he knew, was already etched in stone - convicted, given the Kiss, and left to die after years of entrapment in a body devoid of spirit. What did it matter if he didn't eat? What did it matter if Polaris insulted him? He'd be a soulless shell in a week's time.

He tried to take comfort in the same thought that had kept him sane for twelve years: that he was an innocent man, that he didn't belong in this hell. But instead of giving him hope, the thought made his existence seem even more futile. Pettigrew - he clenched his jaw in fury - was still out there, possibly reporting to Voldemort at this very moment. The true traitor would live on, continuing to kill, while he would be put to a fate worse than death.

The sound of a guard snickering dragged him back to the real world. "Hey, look at this," he said with a laugh. "You two made the front page." He held up a copy of the Daily Prophet, allowing them to glimpse the bold, gloating headline.

"Lemme see that," Polaris demanded, jumping up and approaching the bars. The guard looked at his superior, who gave a curt nod, then shrugged and passed it into their cell. He snatched it up. Curious, Sirius moved closer until he could read over his shoulder.

 

BLACK CAPTURED BY MINISTRY!
Younger brother taken into custody; believed to be accomplice

Sirius Black, a convicted supporter of You-Know-Who who murdered twelve Muggles and one wizard thirteen years ago, was captured by the Ministry of Magic early this morning, ending his year-long run from authorities. He was found in a remote area of the Twilight Forest, along with a hippogriff that escaped from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in June, and in the company of Polaris Black, his younger brother. The hippogriff was disposed of, and the two men were taken to a holding cell in Azkaban, where they are presently under around-the-clock surveillance.

Several people have spoken out against the capture of the younger Black, who was brought in for supposedly aiding his older brother and passing information to him over the course of the past four months. "There's no evidence to support that idea," argued Thalia Lisse, head of the Security Against Dangerous Criminals Office. "It's like saying that Albus Dumbledore has been helping Black just because he spoke to him last year when he broke into Hogwarts. I'm wholeheartedly convinced that Polaris was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time - why should he have to suffer because of that?"

But many others beg to differ, including Roger Deremiges, the Ministry representative who found the Black brothers. "He was with Black in a hidden section of the forest at two o'clock in the morning, when, by all accounts, he should have been asleep at school," he said. "Is that innocent behavior? I think not."

In what may come as a shock to quite a few members of the magical community, both Polaris and Sirius will be put on trial in two days, as opposed to simply giving them the Dementor's Kiss. This is presumably due to a new set of charges that have been brought against Sirius, which include sheltering a dangerous hippogriff and undergoing an illegal Animagus transformation. Key witnesses in the trial are said to include Severus Snape, a professor at Hogwarts, and Harry Potter, who had an encounter with Black last year during the Hogwarts incident. Jury selection is currently underway.

 

On the left side of the article were separate pictures of Sirius and Polaris. Sirius' photograph was the same as the one that had adorned the papers last year, while Polaris' was from a vacation to Spain he had taken over the summer. Angrily, Polaris crumpled the newspaper into a ball and threw it against the wall of the cell as hard as he could.

"Hey!" the guard protested. "I wasn't done reading that yet!"

"Too bad," he snapped, sitting back down on his half of the floor. "Get another copy."

Sirius, on the other hand, retrieved the paper and smoothed it out as best he could. He riffled through it, absorbing the rest of the news, then passed it back to the guard, taking care not to touch the bars. Surprised, the guard accepted the wrinkled newsprint.

"Thanks," he said. Sirius shrugged and retreated to his own half of the cell.

Usually visitors weren't allowed in Azkaban, due to the number of hazardous convicts within its walls. Polaris guessed that they probably weren't considered "dangerous" quite yet, because when his wristwatch read 3:02 PM, the crowd in front of their cell dispersed and someone called, "Move out of the way, one of 'em's got a visitor."

He had been stretched out on the floor at the time, trying to sleep, but had sat up upon hearing those words. Interested, he scooted closer to the door and got up, trying to spot the person who wanted to see them. When he did, his knees became so weak that he was forced to drop back down to the floor.

"Cassandra?" he asked, his voice unsteady and faint.

She did nothing but look at him over the rims of her glasses. Her brown eyes, usually so warm and friendly, were curiously flat and dulled.

"Polaris," she finally said.

"Listen, Cass," he said urgently, getting back up with the help of the wall, "I didn' do anythin'. I swear on my life. Ye know how much I hate him," here he threw a hand towards Sirius, who looked up at them, "ye know I'd never work with him o' You-Know-Who, please, ya've gotta believe me, please...."

She held up a hand, stopping him. "Don't," she whispered. "Just...don't." Hitching in a shaky breath, she made a motion to grip the bars for support, but was halted with a few hurriedly whispered words from the head guard. Instead she twined her fingers together, the way she had the first time they had met.

"I don't know what to think right now," she said, her gaze dropping down to Sirius and back up to Polaris. "I - I really don't. I mean, it doesn't seem like you'd ever be one to do something like this. But...." She waved a hand around, indicating the cell, the guards, and Azkaban itself. "Here you are, about to go on trial in two days for a crime that - "

Her voice cracked, and for the first time he saw that her eyes were glistening with tears.

"Don't cry," he pleaded. "Please don't cry."

She sniffled and wiped her eyes. "I trusted you." He could barely hear her, she spoke so softly. "I know that you thought I was just an annoying little girl most of the time, someone who was barely even a friend, but it's true. I would have trusted you with my life."

"You still can."

She shook her head. The silent gesture sliced his heart much, much deeper than any words ever could. "I can't. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Cassandra...." His own voice was starting to break now, and he could feel his throat tighten to try and hold back the tears that were forming.

"No, Polaris."

"He's telling the truth, you know."

Both turned, startled, to look at Sirius. He raised a skeletal hand to brush a strand of hair back and continued, "He didn't have anything to do with me. I don't know why he came, but it wasn't to help me or give me information. He's not lying."

"See? See?" He pointed at his brother again. "Listen to him! He's - "

" - an insane prisoner who's worked with You-Know-Who for years," she finished, meeting his gaze again. "Why should I listen to him, Polaris? Give me one good reason."

"Because he's tellin' the truth."

"How do I know that?"

"Because...because...." Polaris faltered.

There was a long moment of silence.

"Right," she murmured almost inaudibly. She started to go, then turned back around to face him. "They asked me to speak at your trial," she told him, her voice a bit stronger. "You know, testify in your defense."

"Are ya?"

"I don't know. Not yet. I need some time to...to think things out."

He didn't take his eyes off of her until she rounded one of the corridors and disappeared from sight.

~*~

"Today is the start of the trial which will determine, once and for all, the guilt or innocence of Sirius Black and his brother, Polaris Black. As you may recall, Sirius Black was sentenced to life imprisonment in Azkaban back in 1981 for the murder of thirteen people, including the wizard Peter Pettigrew. Polaris was caught two days ago and is thought to have helped Black elude capture over the past four months...."

The outside of the courthouse was pure pandemonium. Quite a few news reporters lined the steps, talking hurriedly into microphones and smiling for cameras that seemed to hover everywhere. Polaris could hear clips of their reports as he was shoved past by the same guards that had watched their cell. Camera flashbulbs popped in his face at every turn, temporarily blinding him and leaving purple spots to swirl in front of his eyes.

"Polaris! Polaris!"

Several microphones were shoved in his face. He stared at them, blinking in bewilderment.

"How do you feel about being charged with assisting a supporter of You-Know-Who?"

"What were you really doing in the Twilight Forest?"

"Is it true that you once attacked a student at the Rising Phoenix Academy?"

"Shut up, all of you!" The head guard stepped forward, using his slightly taller and much heavier stature to his advantage. "You'll get your questions after the trial's over. Trust me, it won't take long."

The reporters shied away, glaring at the guard. Two of them skirted around the group and tried to descend on Sirius, who was being escorted about a yard away, but the guard flexed his muscles and made them scurry back to their cameras.

The inside of the courthouse, in sharp contrast, was quieter and more serene. The air was warm and slightly muggy; Polaris' robes began to cling to his back in a rather uncomfortable manner. Sirius seemed fine - then again, he was bone-thin and his robes were quite tattered. A handful of people had taken their seats already. As the pair entered, they twisted around to get a better look, and more witches and wizards hurried to grab a spot on the long benches.

Polaris spotted Potter in the crowd, who, as usual, was accompanied by his two friends. Snape was there as well, looking over his hooked nose with a self-satisfied air. In fact, a lot of the Hogwarts staff had turned out, including Albus Dumbledore himself. He felt sick at the sight of the Headmaster peering over his half-moon spectacles...he had been the one person willing to give him a second chance, the only one who gave him benefit of the doubt, and he'd failed him.

Scanning the group, his heart gave a leap as he saw Cassandra sitting quietly off to the side. She sighted him at the same instant and nodded, looking incredibly sad. Unconsciously he started towards her, only to be brought up short by the burly guards. He was herded to the front of the courtroom amid the whispers of the attendees, where he was forced to sit on the bench in the very front and wait with Sirius.

"You like her, don't you?" Sirius inquired, testing the magical bonds secured around his wrists.

"Like who?" he replied suspiciously.

"That girl. The one who came to visit you." He gestured vaguely. "Cassandra's her name, right?"

"Yeah. An' what business is it o' yers if I like her or not?" he snapped.

He shrugged and fell back into silence.

Slowly the courtroom began to fill up as more and more people came inside. It seemed as if most of the magical community had turned out for the trial, probably just to make sure Sirius was really going to be given the Kiss. The reporters were sent to the very back and told to keep quiet for the entire trial, with no flash photography and no live recording of the event. At last the heavy oak doors swung shut with a boom that echoed through the marble hall and made the bench vibrate. The jury filed in, the court-appointed lawyer assigned to the Blacks walked up the aisle and took a seat beside them, and the judge - an exceedingly thin old wizard with flashing blue eyes - climbed up onto the stand and banged his gavel.

"Order, please," he said. "Today's case is brought against Misters Polaris Castor Black and Sirius Pollux Black by the people of the magical community of Britain. Would the accused please rise."

They were nudged to their feet by their lawyer and made to face the judge.

The charges...." He picked up a stack of unrolled parchments and shuffled through them, finally extracting one full of neat handwriting. "Polaris Black, you have been charged with consulting with a convicted and known supporter of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, for helping this supporter of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named escape criminal justice over the past four months, and for passing information to this supporter of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. How do you plead?"

"Not guilty," he all but snarled.

The judge raised his eyebrows. "Very well." He turned to Sirius. "Sirius Black, your latest charges are a flight to escape justice, undergoing an illegal Animagus transformation, and sheltering a dangerous hippogriff. Your older charges are supporting He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, passing information to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named which resulted in the deaths of one Lily Potter and one James Potter, and murdering twelve Muggles and one Peter Pettigrew. How do you plead?"

"Guilty to the new charges, not guilty to the others." A smattering of whispers broke out upon hearing the word 'guilty,' but faded away as soon as he had completed his sentence.

The judge marked their statements down. "Plaintiff, you may address the jury whenever you're ready."

Their lawyer stood up. To any one else he would have appeared confident and steady, but from his location Polaris could see the thin beads of sweat on his forehead and the way his knees wobbled as he walked towards the jury. When he opened his mouth to speak, a faint squeak was all that came out, causing the audience to titter with laughter. Swallowing nervously and clearing his throat, he tried again.

"We're screwed, aren't we?" Polaris muttered to Sirius out of the corner of his mouth, forgetting that he was supposed to be hating him.

"Some of us were screwed to begin with," he returned with a dry laugh. "But yes, we are."

Polaris hissed the most obscene word he knew and watched their lawyer stumble through his opening statements. He was either new at the job or so nervous at being on such a big case that he was driven to neuroticism. A grueling fifteen minutes passed, and he shakily returned to the bench, his forehead now drenched with sweat.

"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled hurriedly, reorganizing his papers in his briefcase. "Just nerves, you know...."

Neither of them bothered to chew him out, figuring that making a fool of himself in front of five hundred people was punishment enough.

The attorney representing the magical community of Britain was up next. Unlike her competition, she delivered her convincing words with ease and perfection, accentuating at exactly the right moments, punctuating the occasional sentence with a hand movement towards the Blacks, looking every member of the jury directly in the eye to get her point across. Polaris could see several jurors nodding in agreement as she continued and slumped lower in his seat. When she finally retreated to her side of the courtroom, smiling rather nastily at him, he knew that they would never win the case. He could already feel the clammy atmosphere of Azkaban...sense the dementors going by...hear the agonized howls of the prisoners surrounding him....

Witnesses came next.

"The plaintiff wishes to call Mr. Harry Potter to the stand to speak in defense of Sirius Black," their lawyer said, his voice losing some of its earlier shakiness. That very shakiness seemed to be transmitted to Harry, whose legs were shaking so badly that he had to hold on to some of the benches as he walked up. Polaris caught Sirius giving him an encouraging smile, which was returned, albeit with less enthusiasm and much more apprehensiveness.

Once he was on the stand, the attorney began to question him. It was general questions at first that were used to confirm already established facts - whom he lived with, which school he attended, what classes he was taking, if Sirius Black was really his godfather. He quickly steered on to more pressing matters.

"It is true, is it not, that you had an encounter with Sirius Black on June sixth, when you were attending Hogwarts as a third-year?"

"Yes."

"Could you describe that for me?"

And Harry launched into a wild retelling of the night he had run into Sirius Black. Most of it was impossible to believe - Pettigrew, alive, hiding out as a rat? As he continued on, his face grew hot with embarrassment, and the lawyer's ears began to turn crimson. More than once the defense attorney tried to object, claiming that Harry was obviously lying, but each time she was struck down by the judge.

There was an uncomfortable blanket of quiet that descended on the courtroom after he was done. Then, "So, you believe that Sirius Black is really innocent? That he didn't kill all those people or betray your parents?"

"Yes! He hasn't done a thing!" he burst out. A few people in the audience snickered, prompting furious glares from the judge.

"All...all right. Thank you, Harry."

Now the defense attorney stood up. "The defense has no desire to cross-examine the first witness," she said smoothly. "The jury may form their own opinions about Mr. Potter's highly, er, original story."

The judge motioned for Harry to leave. He stepped down and returned to his friends in the back row, acutely embarrassed but no longer shaking with fear. Polaris heard someone in the jury mutter, "If that's the best they can come up with, this case is going to be over by noon."

The plaintiff attorney rose again to speak. "The plaintiff wishes to call Miss Cassandra Bluehart to the stand to speak in defense of Polaris Black."

Polaris turned to watch her make her way to the front of the courtroom, letting out a nervous breath he had been holding. "Thank you," he mouthed. She nodded again and offered a tiny smile.

As with Harry, the questions started out simple and worked up to ones dealing with the case. When asked to describe his personality for the court, she paused to consider her answer.

"A lot of people at Hogwarts didn't like him," she started slowly. "He's very withdrawn and quiet, and incredibly sensitive about his relation to Sirius. People were always bringing that up around him, which upset him and made him lash out." She sighed and bit her lower lip. "But he's truly a very sweet person. I don't think he could ever be working for You-Know-Who - I get the feeling that he doesn't want to turn out the way his brother did, you know, labeled as a traitor and sent to stay in Azkaban for the rest of his life. And I don't understand why everyone thinks he's been helping Sirius. He hates him. He's told me so himself."

Weak with relief, Polaris barely listened to the other questions presented by their lawyer and the defense attorney. When Cassandra was finished, she stopped by his side long enough to whisper, "I don't know if that'll make a difference or not, but I tried my best."

"It will," he reassured her in hushed tones. "Thank ya so, so much, Cass."

She briefly squeezed his manacled hand, much to the displeasure of the judge, and went back to her bench.

Several more witnesses were called - Andromeda and Orion Black, their parents; Professor Sinistra, the Astronomy teacher, who had been a favorite of Polaris'; Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Potter's two friends. Polaris and Sirius were also called up to testify in their own defenses. The defense attorney grilled them both so brutally and for so long that his head was spinning when she finished.

Those who had evidence against the Blacks came next. The major ones were Snape and Roger Deremiges, the man who had found the two of them in the forest. There were others, too, lesser-known people that Polaris never would have expected to make an appearance. One of them, he was shocked to see, was the girl he had almost injured at Hogwarts on his first day.

The evidence was overwhelmingly against them. No matter that most of it was distorted and taken out of context, or fabrications of actual events, or outright lies. Anything, he knew, would be more believable than Potter's wild story. He felt as if he was about to throw up the little food he had eaten that morning, but instead buried his face in his hands, willing himself to hold back the tears that pricked the corners of his eyes. He was hardly aware of a light pressure on his skin - Sirius had placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him.

"Are you all right, Polaris?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah, just fine," was the muffled, choked response. "I'm about ta be sent ta a place that's hell on earth for somethin' I didn't do. Everythin's great, thanks fer askin'."

The jury was gone when he raised his head. His palms were wet with teardrops and sweat; the nausea was back in full force again, and it was all he could do to stop himself from sprinting to the nearest bathroom. He didn't even realize he was shaking at first, but he was: his arms and legs were trembling, making him feel horribly weak.

This was it. This was how it was all going to end - in a courtroom, convicted for a crime he didn't commit. He had always told himself that, like Cassandra had said, he'd never end up like Sirius. Life had a hideous sense of irony sometimes....

A piercing shriek suddenly erupted from the back of the courtroom. Hundreds of heads whipped around to locate the cause of the commotion. A dumpy little witch had leaped onto her bench and was now cowering there, whimpering in fright, clutching a handkerchief to her chest. A grayish blur shot beneath her, causing her to scream again.

"A m-m-m-mouse!" she screeched. "There's a mouse over here! Help!"

A few attendants jogged over to calm the woman down. She continued to squawk about how much she despised mice, having been deathly afraid of them ever since she was a little girl, all while adamantly refusing to come down from where she was standing. Three or four people chuckled at the sight of the attendants bodily pulling her down from the bench. The entire courthouse joined in when she sank her teeth into the hand of one of them, who gave a great yell and dropped her on the floor, where she quickly scurried back up onto her seat.

But one person was ignoring the present drama, instead focusing on the creature that had caused her outburst.

"IT'S SCABBERS!" Ron Weasley shouted, making a running dive after the animal. Harry and Hermione were up instantaneously, chasing after the rat.

"Pettigrew!" Sirius snarled. Before Polaris could process his words, he was up and running down the aisle like a man possessed. Everyone began to scream and dart away, panicked. The judge, who had been banging his gavel furiously to try and restore order, jumped to his feet and whipped out his wand, shouting, "Locomotor mortis!" Sirius immediately pitched forward, legs fused together, and just managed to twist enough to prevent from cracking his head open on the white marble floor.

The judge followed this up with a spell nobody could hear over the commotion, but which caused the entire room to fall silent. He had placed a tongue-binding spell on the courtroom.

"What is the meaning of this?" he thundered as the people turned to look at him, confused. "I have never seen such shocking behavior in my entire life!"

A furious squeaking cut through the air. Ron had managed to seize the rat and had the writhing ball of fur clutched firmly in his hands. He opened his mouth to try and speak, but, as the spell hadn't been lifted yet, found that he couldn't. With an impatient wave of his wand, the judge undid the tongue-binding spell and the leg-locker curse, allowing Sirius to stand up and Ron to speak.

"Please, Mister - uh, Your Honor - this is Peter Pettigrew," he said.

"Bring the mouse up here, boy," he ordered. Ron meekly walked up to the judge, his ears turning as red as his hair, Pettigrew - no, the rat - still sandwiched between his large hands. Sirius trembled with barely concealed rage, looking as if he was about to bolt down the walkway and skewer the animal.

"You say that this is Peter Pettigrew?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

"The same Peter Pettigrew that Sirius Black murdered in 1981?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

The plaintiff attorney stood up and cleared his throat. "With the court's permission, the plaintiff would like to perform an Exposing Charm on this animal," he said, trying to regain some of his credibility by hitching onto Ron's words.

The judge closed his eyes briefly, as if to steel himself against such appalling actions. "Very well," he muttered, not at all pleased. "I don't see what harm it can do." To the bailiff, "Go get the jury out here."

The bailiff hurried off. Sirius was escorted back to his seat, where he began muttering nonstop under his breath. Polaris was able to pick out a few words: "Wormtail," "traitor," "Lily and James," as well as too many expletives to count. The jury filtered back into their seats after a few moments, several of them looking quite annoyed.

When they were all seated, their attorney extracted his wand from his robes. "Hold him tightly now, Mr. Weasley," he warned. He whispered the spell under his breath, and a blinding blue light rocketed from his wand towards the rat with a thunderous crack. As soon as the beam hit the rat, Ron dropped him.

A collective gasp snaked through the hall. Sirius leapt up, growling with rage. Polaris could do nothing but stare, openmouthed, at the sight before him.

Where the rat had once been now stood a short, squat little man with thinning hair and beady, watering eyes.

"Can anyone identify this man as Mr. Pettigrew?" the judge asked.

"Yeah..." Polaris found himself saying faintly, still in disbelief. "I remember him from when I was little. Him an' Sirius were friends."

"I - I - I..." Pettigrew stammered, spinning around, taking in the courtroom, the jury, Sirius' enraged expression, all as if for the first time.

"The plaintiff wishes to call Mr. Peter Pettigrew to the stand," their lawyer said, somewhat smug. When Pettigrew refused to move, the same attendants who had helped the frightened witch bodily dragged him up to the stand. All the while he stuttered uncontrollably in a squeaky voice that reminded Polaris of his Animagus form.

Questioning began immediately.

"You are Peter Pettigrew, correct?"

"Y...yes."

"Were you once friends with Sirius Black?"

"Yes."

"He obviously didn't kill you on the street that day....Tell me, why have you spent so much time in your Animagus form?"

"I was hiding from Sirius," he squeaked.

"For thirteen years? When he was safely locked away in Azkaban? You were in no danger during that time. Certainly you know how secure Azkaban is?"

"Well, yes...."

"And what were you doing here?"

"I - I wanted to make sure he was really, truly going to be sentenced to death."

His weak defense was stripped away immediately. Under oath, the true traitor broke down and confessed to everything through a thunderstorm of tears. The whole ordeal went by too quickly for Polaris to follow; his mind was still stuck on the image of Pettigrew exploding up from the floor, and Potter's words....

"So you believe that Sirius Black is really innocent?"

"Yes! He hasn't done a thing!"

Thirteen years...thirteen years of prosecution, thirteen years of hatred and tears and pain, and the whole time he was truly innocent....

Several guards detained Pettigrew, where he was placed in the same type of binds that held Sirius and Polaris and made to wait off towards the side of the courtroom. The jury left once more, then reconvened after five minutes had passed. During that time the hall was submerged in a cloud of disbelieving whispers, with the occasional glance thrown at the trio of convicts.

In contrast to his earlier despair, Polaris now felt confident and light-hearted. Yet there was still a tiny, apprehensive twinge that made his breath quicken as the jury foreman unfolded the paper containing their final verdict and began to read.

"The sentence will be read in two parts," he said. "First, in relation to Mister Sirius Pollux Black...."

Sirius swallowed and got to his feet, facing the foreman.

"Sirius Black, you have been found guilty of - "

Once again their was a outburst of startled gasps, punctuated by shouts of "NO!" coming from Harry, Hermione and Ron's direction Sirius had to grip the table in front of him for support. The frantic pounding of the judge's gavel managed to bring everyone under control.

The foreman tried again. "Sirius Black has been found guilty of undergoing an illegal Animagus transformation and sheltering a dangerous hippogriff. However, the jury believed that having to spend twelve years in Azkaban and another year on the run has been more than enough punishment for these crimes, and so they will be dropped from his record, along with the charges that originally earned him life imprisonment in Azkaban. He will also have to sign the Animagus registry to avoid breaking the law any further."

Sirius grinned broadly and could scarcely contain the whoop of joy that rose up inside him. In the back, the sounds of some scattered applause and cheering could be heard.

"And Mister Polaris Castor Black...."

Polaris stood up.

"...has been found not guilty of all charges."

"Case dismissed." The judge banged his gavel, the bonds holding their hands together dissolved, and the reporters from the back rushed forward to reach the Blacks.

Cassandra reached them first. She darted ahead of the press, a wild grin on her face, and threw her arms around Polaris. Before either of them knew what was going on her lips were against his, and he was pulling her closer into his arms. She suddenly broke away from him, flustered.

"Sorry," she apologized hurriedly. "I - I didn't mean to - it's just - "

He silenced her with another kiss, this one deeper and longer than the first one. There was a photographer from the Daily Prophet a few feet away, snapping pictures of them, but he didn't mind. The world could have ended and he wouldn't have cared, so long as Cassandra was with him.

At last they separated, gasping for air and smiling. Her arm slid down to capture his hand, and they entwined their fingers together.

"Well done, Mr. Black."

It was Headmaster Dumbledore. He beamed at the pair over his glasses and patted Polaris on the shoulder.

"I had a feeling you were innocent," he said. "You're remarkably like your brother, you know. Always getting into trouble, but never meaning to...."

And for once, he didn't boil over with rage at the thought of Sirius.

"Thank ya, Headmaster, sir," he replied with a grin.

A second later he found himself tackled by Mrs. Black, a plump woman with wildly curly hair trapped firmly over a ridiculously big sunhat. "My baby!" she wailed, hugging him fiercely, her accent even thicker than usual due to her tears. "I knew ye couldna have been workin' with Ye-Know-Who, I jus' knew it, but when I got th' call I was so worried, an' the neighbors were makin' such a huge fuss, an'...."

"Mum!" he said, managing to push her away with a chuckle. "It's okay! Everythin's fine now!"

"I know, I know," she bawled, producing a handkerchief from thin air to wipe her eyes with. "But I'm still all choked up....I best find yer brother now, haven' talked ta him in thirteen years, after all...." And she faded back into the crowd.

"Your mother, I'm guessing?" Cassandra inquired.

"Yeah. She usually controls herself better'n that." He pondered her last words for a second. "Ya know, I'd better try an' track down Sirius, too. We need ta talk."

She nodded, understanding the message beneath his words. "I'll be waiting outside," she whispered, pecking him on the cheek and slipping away.

When he finally stumbled on Sirius, after searching for him for ten minutes, he was being interviewed by a reporter. Harry, Ron and Hermione were nearby, Harry's eyes lit up with pure happiness. The reporter wrapped things up, thanked the elder Black for his time, and disappeared among the throng of people.

"Sirius," he said. Sirius turned to face him.

"Yes?"

"I...." He closed his eyes, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths. "I'm sorry, man," he said at last. "I'm really, really sorry."

He nodded. "I know. Like I said, I know how hard it must've been for you - "

"No, it's not just that. All these years I've been hatin' ya...spendin' all my time cursin' yer existence...and - and I shouldna've been doin' it."

"I understand," he said gently, stepping closer. "You thought I was guilty. It's only natural."

"But yer my brother," he insisted. "I shouldn'ta been sayin' those sort of - "

"It's okay." He flashed a smile. "Try and get a grip, Pole," he added, using his childhood nickname, "you're starting to act like Mum."

He laughed at that remark. "Sorry," he apologized again, clearing away the tears that had started to collect in his eyes again. He stuck out his hand. "Can ya forgive me?"

"Of course." Sirius shook his hand, then pulled him into an embrace, patting him on the back.

"Hey Sirius, Polaris!"

They spun towards the speaker. It was another photographer, who raised her eyebrows at them.

"Mind if I get a picture of you two?" she questioned, gesturing to his camera.

"Go right ahead." Polaris put his arm around his older brother and grinned broadly for the photographer.

The lightbulb went off, dazzling them with light.

~*~

The Daily Prophet ran a three-page article about the Black trial the next day. On the front page was the headline, "BLACK BROTHERS ACQUITTED OF ALL CHARGES." Beneath that, in smaller print, "Peter Pettigrew found to be alive and working for You-Know-Who - trial date set for mid-January." The picture displayed with the article was the one the photographer had taken of the pair.

Polaris carefully worked his scissors around the article, making sure not to cut off a single word. The dusty scrapbook was produced from underneath his bed, the clipping slid into an empty spot beside the articles from earlier in June. Then he flipped back to the older picture, the one from when he was only a toddler astride Sirius' flying motorcycle. That was eased out of its protective cover and lay for a second on his bed in his dormitory.

He rooted around in his trunk and came up with a frame he had bought in a Muggle shop a little while after the trial had ended. The man running the store was bewildered by his strange dress and disheveled hair, but chose to ignore it as he picked out what he wanted. Now he flipped the frame over and opened the back, allowing him to slip the old photograph inside, and sealed it back up again.

Carefully extending the prop piece, he set it atop his nightstand. For a little while he watched the younger Blacks play on the bike, laughing and shouting silently. He smiled a small smile and switched off his bedside lamp, curling up under the covers and falling fast asleep.


~*END*~

 

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