“What was that thing Lily used to say?”
It's three in the morning, and he's scratching at old scars. His memories are a labyrinth, full of dead ends and false turns. He keeps plucking at weeds, trying to push aside overgrown brush. He'll be certain that he knows how something went, recount it excitedly back to Remus, and Remus will say quietly, slowly, no, no Sirius, that wasn't James who pulled that prank. Silence will hang, because they don't dare to say Peter's name. It's strange, because he's brightest in all of Sirius' memories, the untarnished statue at the center of Sirius' labyrinth – the only one he would willingly trade away. Instead, it's James who's faded, whose jokes Sirius can't remember.
(And here they all are, jeering at James as Lily answers him back tartly. A smile is hidden in the corner of her mouth, dancing in the green of her eye. She had said this line to him over and over again, the years softening it, turning the inflection of the words from hard to loving.)
Remus turns over in the bed, the candlelight catching in the silver of his hair.
“When?” Remus asks, obviously tired. (These questions pick at Remus' scars, too, knock on walls that Remus has bricked off.)
“When he would say he would love her for as many lifetimes as he could,” Sirius answers.
For a second, the house just groans around them. And how odd is it that they have been brought to this: two men, old in their thirties, talking about ghosts in the graveyard of the Most Ancient and Noble House of Black.
Remus clears his throat.
“She would say that he was more than enough for one lifetime,” Remus answers. (The meaning of those words shifts yet again. No one is laughing this time.)
He could have survived losing James. This is a sin he carries in his heart, where it quietly festers. People say, I don't think I could have done that, don't think I could have survived that. But you'd be surprised, when you're faced with decimation, how much you can really survive. (In turn, you'd be surprised how little of what you consider yourself actually survives. You turn back around and you're someone you don't recognize, your face gone gaunt, the spirit sucked from behind your eyes.)
But here is the truth: He could have moved past that. He could have mourned for the rest of his life. But if he'd had Harry to raise, he would have had some purpose, some way to pay James back for not being able to keep him and Lily alive.
The turning point of his life is the moment when Hagrid says no, no, that he's supposed to take Harry. It is that moment that spells out Sirius Black's fate. He's condemned. Dumbledore's not going to stand by him.
The entire world keeps spinning, but Sirius' stops then.
For an instant, he does think of going to Remus. (Everyone wonders why he never tried to prove his innocence. What innocence, he wants to ask. Isn't he the one who suggested Peter? Isn't he the one who made sure to keep Remus at an arm's length, so confident that he was the spy?) But he does think of running back to Remus, explaining everything, begging for forgiveness. In the end, he can't. In the end, he's too afraid. He's afraid that Remus won't believe him. What if he says everything, spills all his sins and fears and nightmares, and Remus still decides that he's the one behind it at all?
What kind of man is he that people can believe this of him?
That's what really shakes him down to his core. The ease with which everyone damns him in the following days, as if it's an inevitability. As if they should have known that it was him all along, that of course he didn't love James and Lily as much as he pretended to; of course he was going dark, all that rotted Black blood and dark magic in his veins. How could he be anything else? All those pranks, they all took a malignant edge now; Sirius Black using and abusing people, his temper uncontrollable.
He wishes James were here to hear how ridiculous it all is. They'd laugh. (Except it's not ridiculous, not one bit.)
He can't see that look on Remus' face: shuttered, tense, believing that Sirius is a liar. In those last few weeks they hadn't verbally spoken to each hardly at all, but that didn't mean they didn't communicate. That empty air had told both of them they thought the other was a liar. The absence of one of them in the flat was a declaration: I know you're unsafe. The inability to make eye contact: I believe what the others say about you.
So, Sirius sheds his humanity. He reduces himself to a singular instinct: Kill Peter.
Did he underestimate Peter? Absolutely. He can admit that. But his rage is still directed almost indiscriminately at Peter. He could have forgiven a single moment of weakness, of giving into fear. They've all had them in this war, a time when they'd stumbled and needed to be supported by the others. But that's not Pete. No, because he did this for weeks. He looked them in the eye, each and every time, unflinchingly. He didn't passively let this happen: He didn't let himself be scared into working for Voldemort and then just give up the information for fear of what worse could happen.
He played them. He preyed upon his and Remus' fears. He pitted them against each other, blowing up any little instant, whispering quietly, constantly, to deflect them. They were so focused on each other, the whole time, that it never occurred to them to consider someone else. Peter wormed his way throughout the whole Order, and Sirius wonders when he decided which one of them he could sacrifice. Was it set up so that it could be either of them? Was it supposed to be both of them?
He obsesses over Peter's mindset in the days to come. What was it like to look Lily in the eye and comfort her, to hold Harry while he was being fussy, and to still be able to go back to Voldemort and his Death Eaters and promise that the Potters would soon be in hand? What was it like to wake up beside Remus after a full moon, to see him weakened, and still just press a little bit further: Isn't it remarkable that Sirius had to go on mission during the full?
He knew all the problems they were having in their relationship. How many of them were natural, and how many were exacerbated by Peter? (Remus constantly worrying over his recklessness, his inability to think a situation through, and Peter hissing, hissing, hissing: Sirius was at the front of the fray again; and you should have seen him! He went straight for the Lestranges! All on his own. It was magnificent.)
(Sirius concerned that Remus didn't take care of himself enough, not liking the crap jobs he put himself through. Peter: Oh, he just dislocated his shoulder during that full – you were there, don't you remember? Oh, come on, Sirius, I'm certain you were there.)
It's not the weakness that grates at Sirius' skin; it's the deliberation. The finesse of Peter's manipulation. That viewpoint of his former best friend begins to poison all of his memories. It leaves a fine, glistening sheen. Peter was turned from the moment they met on the train at the age of 11, overeager to learn all he could about each of them.
Everyone else wants to see him as the fumbling martyr. They forget that Peter was right there with the thick of them. (And they don't know, not completely, the depth of Peter's magical capability. He was an Animagus, too, wasn't he? Illegal and untrained, and just as powerful as the rest of them.)
What kind of man is he that people can believe he is capable of such things?
He and James both sit the character and the aptitude tests to become Aurors. (Remus can't, of course, and Sirius is sure that Peter gave some sort of reason as to why he didn't, but he can't remember now.)
His results came in first. He fumbles with the envelope in the middle of the kitchen while Remus sleepily feeds their owl bits of his toast. And--
“They didn't accept me,” Sirius says. He stares at the words on the paper, reads them over and over again as if they'd have more meaning. An explanation. He doesn't want to be arrogant (okay, he is arrogant), but he'd had top marks in their year. He'd been recommended by both Dumbledore and McGonagall. One of his testers had said he'd had incredible spellwork and form, which practically went against regulations.
“Sirius,” Remus says gently, slips up behind him, wraps him up in the sweater he's wearing and kisses his bare shoulder. Sirius is too agitated to stay in the embrace.
“What kind of bloody war are they fighting if even I can't get in?” Sirius bursts out.
“Sirius,” Remus calls again after him, that voice that says he needs to stop and calm down – that voice that says that Remus is thinking more than he's saying, because he's not sure he has the words. But he doesn't want Remus' placidity at the moment. He tugs a shirt on and tosses himself through the Floo, to Lily and James'.
Lily is in the kitchen, just wearing one of James' shirts. She looks up, nonplussed, when he enters.
“Sirius,” she says his name as a challenge, but their banter is more play now. (In truth, he's grown fond of her, and he knows she's fond of him too. They'd held such a vehemence toward the other at first – gotten along like cats and dogs, Sirius had always said, smirking. But he's really come to like Lily Evans, who's faster at a sarcastic return than James and sometimes even Remus. Where he used to find her inability to not speak her mind completely irritating, now he's recognized that it's because she just cares so much.)
“Where's James?” Sirius asks, peering around as if he's going to suddenly appear.
“Out,” Lily answers. “What's the problem?” Her eyes drop down to the sheet of Ministry-official parchment he's still holding. “Oh,” she says an instant later. “Did you get your Auror placement?”
“If you count not placing as placement,” Sirius answers sourly. “James get his letter?”
“Oh, Sirius,” Lily answers quietly. Her eyes soften, but her mouth remains a straight line. She's not surprised by him not getting in. He frowns.
“What?” Sirius presses.
“Sirius,” she says patiently, “You didn't pass the background check.”
“What?” he asks, exasperated.
“Sit down,” Lily says, waving at him. “This is just what I've heard, mind you,” she says staunchly. “But I think the Ministry's been highly selective about which purebloods they've been letting into the Auror program.”
“Frank and Alice--” Sirius starts, but Lily just looks at him as if he's made her point. Sirius sputters.
“I'm not saying it's fair, Sirius,” Lily says softly. She reaches over and rests a hand gently on his forearm.
“I left them when I was 16,” Sirius says, agitated. “And I can't be an Auror because they think I might be a spy? I'm a bloody clever one, aren't I?”
“You would make a terrible spy, Sirius,” Lily says, a curve of a smile on her lips. “As you can never keep your mouth shut.” Sirius doesn't allow himself to smile; he keeps his mouth shoved down into a frown.
“James won't be joining either, even if they take him,” Lily continues, her expression turning somber again.
“Why not?” Sirius asks, shaking his head. (He knows it's because he's still smarting from his own rejection, but there doesn't seem to be anything more vital to the war effort now than being an Auror.)
“We talked a lot about it and we don't like the tactics they're allowing Aurors to use now,” Lily says. She shakes her head, a flurry of red falling into her face. “The Unforgivables should stay that way.”
Sirius is quiet. He's never even considered that. He hadn't known James had either. He'd just shaken off the announcement, figured it was for the best.
“It's war, Lils,” Sirius answers quietly.
“I know,” Lily says. She squeezes his arm. “But we have to have something to come back to at the end, don't we?”
They all join the Order, formally, soon after, and it's like the hiccup with the Auror business didn't happen. At least for a little while.
Dumbledore sends Remus and him across the continent. They are supposed to be covert, supposed to be sensing the tremors that have been sent through the ground; which groups will support them if they call? Who will give into Voldemort?
It's only when he's in Azkaban that he wonders why Dumbledore picked them to be go on this trip. The version of himself that had gone would have assumed that it was because of his charm and Remus' steadiness; their ability to read people; and their capacity to handle themselves. On the other side of the war, he wonders if it was because Dumbledore wanted them out of the way. Was this a task he handed to the pureblood and the werewolf until he could figure out better ways to use them? Was it a training simulation, to see how Remus did at earmarking wizards before he moved onto werewolves?
It's only after he's out of Azkaban that he realizes it's probably a mixture of all of these things.
But for the time being, for them, fresh out of Hogwarts, that trip was a paradise of sorts. They were out of the country's turmoil, believing they were working toward peace. They meandered from sky to ground, weaving through Muggle traffic when necessary, gliding along countryside roads. Sirius had traveled a lot with his family, but never like this. He enjoyed being on the bike. There was a kind of tranquility that came from ripping down an empty road with Remus' arms wrapped around him. He smelled of leather and sunshine. His body ached when they got off the bike, and they always ended up at one of the rattier, more populated inns.
They took whatever room was available, sometimes two beds, but not always. Sirius slept in lazily some morning, waking up to Remus reading the paper and marking places they should check out, places where wizards frequented. Most mornings, Sirius pulled Remus back into bed and they would cling to each other, messily fucking. Sirius took it as a challenge to coax Remus to be loud – Remus, ever aware of how thin the walls were. (Most mornings, Sirius won.)
They ate greasy breakfasts down at the pub or would head to a nearby bakery, purchasing flaky and moist croissants.
Mostly they just needed to talk to people – and that Sirius was good at – and then pay close to attention to what the answer was – and that Remus was good at. They sent frequent updates to Dumbledore by owl. (No, no, France is safe from Voldemort. They hate him here, but I'd worry about Italy …)
“I love you,” Remus whispers into his mouth, their third week away, the first time Remus has said such a thing to him.
(They are young. They think they know the realities of war, but they don't, not yet. Their days are tinted a soft, lazy blue. They are in love. They think they will all make it out of this war and mostly whole.)
Sirius remembers little of this trip. He remembers he was happy, which is why he knows the memories are gone. Remus has to remind him that was the first time he said he loved him. (He tells him this, almost shyly, one morning, while they're the only two in Grimmauld Place. He can't meet Sirius' eyes when he says it. Sirius is shaken by this, because it feels as if they're strangers because Remus can't say those words anymore.
He doesn't realize until after Remus has left that they're a confession. He's renewing the commitments that come with those words.)
The next time Remus visits, he brings a box. There's a handful of pictures in there that they had taken on the Muggle camera that Remus had brought along. (It will make us look more like tourists, Remus had argued – the memory flares, vivid, to the forefront of Sirius' mind, just for a moment.) Some of the edges of the photos are burned, but most are intact. Sirius' arm is always lazily thrown over Remus' shoulder. They are still in all of those pictures, more in place there than they are in Sirius' memory.
They kiss again that night, their bodies relearning each other. (It is devastating for Sirius to see Remus. He feels guilty over this. But he remembers all the nights in school they had stayed up trying to convince Remus that he would be fine, that all his concerns about being a werewolf were overblown. He sees now that Remus was in the right. He is worn down by the world, by the constant battle his body wages against itself and the constant war his soul is at it with everything else.)
Remus leaves the photographs with Sirius and he thumbs over them time and time again as if they can be re-memorized. He looks for clues in these pictures, studies the scenery to try and coax his memories back to life. (They were really in love then, weren't they?
Why wasn't it enough to save them?)
Dumbledore tells Remus in person that Lily and James are dead. That Sirius is on the run, but every hit wizard and Auror in the country is looking for him. He advises Remus not to leave the country, but to be on alert. It's possible that Sirius might try to contact him. Five Aurors are posted to his flat, just in case. (He suspects this is also because Dumbledore doesn't want him to try and track Sirius down on his own.)
So, he is trapped. He wants to run. He wants to flee the country.
(He considers, so fleetingly, what would happen if he went to Sirius' family – to his mother, to Bellatrix, and demanded to know the truth, demanded to know if Sirius had actually done all those things he had said.
He has nightmares about that afterward, where he follows Sirius' star to where it hovers above Grimmauld Place. He knows the location, but he's never been. Sirius never let any of them come over to visit when he was still there. In the dreams, he knocks on the door and it burns his knuckles, inlaid with silver.
Walburga Black, wasted and diminished but glistening with the sheen of madness, answers. She has suffered the death of one heir, but it matters not, because the other has returned home to her; Bellatrix and Sirius skulk in the background. Remus reaches for him – and always wakes up to the sound of cruel laughter ringing in his ears.)
He doesn't stay numb in the flat for long. He begins to gather Sirius' things. He starts bagging them up – all of Sirius' ratty T-shirts, all of his leather jackets. (He catches himself for a moment, burying his face into one of the older jackets, creased in the arms and smelling of Sirius and sunshine and cigarette smoke. How many times had he been tucked underneath the arm of this jacket? He looks up then, at one of the newer jackets, worn only a handful of times, and he remembers how many times he has been tucked underneath the arm of that jacket.) In goes Sirius' toothbrush, all of his stupid hair products. His quill and the half-scribbled on pieces of parchment. (He saves a few of the things that Lily and James have given Sirius. They go into boxes, not to be thrown away.)
He waffles when it comes to the pictures. He looks at the smiling faces in them, and he doesn't recognize the people in them. Even in the wizard photographs, Sirius is still beaming up at him, waggling his fingers, tossing his hair like a berk. He sets fires to the corners with the tip of his wand, watching as they evaporate into puffs of smoke. It becomes too much to bear and they are tossed into the box with the rest of the things that needed to be hidden but shouldn't be destroyed. (Remus' heart is in that box.)
He realizes, stupidly, that he can't throw any of these things out. All he can think of is people digging through Sirius' things, dedicating them to some macabre display. (Bragging points, family heirlooms, museums, locked up somewhere inside the bowels of the Ministry.)
He burns everything until the air turns ashy and grey. He can feel it on his skin. The air tastes of Sirius and destruction, which have become the same thing.
After they catch Sirius, after Peter is declared dead, Remus lets their owl go. He watches her disappear on the skyline. He packs what he can in a single suitcase. He deserts the rest. He leaves Britain.
It's disquieting how easily Remus falls back into the rhythm of a battle. He remembers this: how you need to be concentrated on the duel in front of you and simultaneously aware of everything around you. You don't have time to think. You just have to be. You can't consider your spell choice. It has to be in your lips even as you're sidestepping that curse intended for you.
(Did Sirius ever learn this, he wonders.) He hears Sirius laughing and taunting Bellatrix and has to bite back the instinct to tell him not to do that. They're both old enough to know the costs of such gambles by now. This isn't a game. The purpose, really, isn't to win; it's not to lose.
His senses prickle when he hears Sirius go quiet. He turns his head toward where he had last seen him, goes still for a moment too long. He takes a stinging hex to his side, but he ignores the pain of it. Instead, he races across the room, only managing to catch Harry before he runs after Sirius.
Remus watches Sirius disappear again, smoke in the clouds.
The veil is cold. The grey and the damp seeps into Sirius' skin first, but then buries inside of him too. (He knows this sensation, has lived with it everyday he was in Azkaban.) The taste of smoke is in his mouth. His mind struggles even as his body give up, gives in. This isn't the worth the fight, it tells him. But what fight is there after this, his mind asks in turn.
(The fight is irrelevant, all of him fails to realize.
He closes his eyes, the image of Remus fading from them. He is gone.)
He opens his eyes to sunlight.