And I that have not your faith, how shall I know
That in the blinding light beyond the grave
We’ll find so good a thing as that we have lost?
i. June 6, 1996
Sirius has never believed in an afterlife. He cannot fathom the idea of still walking, still breathing (in that peculiar way that you’re still inhaling and exhaling, mostly reflex, because the air here isn’t oxygen – it’s like breathing in redemption and feeling absolved of the sins you committed while living) when the world you once knew continues spinning, continues grieving your death.
It’s never made much sense to him, how people can put so much faith in an idea that you would still see your loved ones after dying, never too far from those you care about. Well, what about the ones you don’t care to see again? Do you still have to see them, with fingers clenched and boiling blood, blinded by red?
Sirius doesn’t want to think about seeing his brother again.
If he wasn’t standing in a dim room, surrounded by a half dozen other people – some bloody and torn, some seemingly healthy, but all most definitely dead – Sirius would still declare that he did not believe in an afterlife.
On the other side of the veil, he can still hear Harry and Remus angrily, desperately, trying to call him back. He pushes his way past a young wizard, forces his way closer to the tapestry that swallowed him whole, and can see Harry struggling against a restraining Remus. He reaches a hand forward, wants to grasp those fingertips (of a boy he doesn’t know as well as he should) that barely reach past the veil, hold on tight and pull, lift, get me out of here. He falls a few centimetres too short.
‘Harry!’ he calls, desperate now, because it’s not his time and he’s not ready to go, not yet. ‘Remus! I’m still here!’
Remus is pulling Harry away now, doesn’t want him to seek the same fate as Sirius and Sirius’s last chance at being saved is slowly sliding out of view.
‘Don’t leave me here, damn it!’ He’s yelling, screaming, trying to get someone, anyone’s attention.
There’s a low, wheezing laugh behind him, and he turns sharply to find a wizard in his mid-fifties, a dark grey fedora hat tilted forward over his eyes, shaking his head at him.
‘You won’t get far trying that, son,’ he says, still chuckling. ‘They can’t hear you.’
‘Why not?’ Sirius demands. ‘I can hear them.’
‘Things don’t work that way. You’re dead, they aren’t.’
‘I’m not dead. I’m still in my body,’ Sirius says, eyes flashing dangerously. He pats himself down, feels familiar skin and bone beneath his fingers, reassures himself.
The man raises an eyebrow and smirks, points a bony finger to a door that Sirius never saw before. Sirius’s stomach drops and he feels trepidation as he allows himself to follow the path the man’s finger has created. The door is cloaked in black, disguised by fear, and the hairs on the back of Sirius’s neck are erect. Sirius shivers. He reaches a hand forward, fingers grasping the brass handle (wishes he was grasping warm fingertips, a beating heart, anything real, tangible) and he turns, pushing his weight against the heavy wooden door.
The smell of rotting flesh makes Sirius want to vomit. He coughs, pulls his shirt over his mouth and nose and allows his burning eyes time to adjust to the darkness. He looks down at himself, still feels flesh, muscle, bone, but knows it mustn’t be real, can’t be the truth. He looks back into the room and sees himself – his dead self – and knows that it’s too late to do anything about it.
Sirius thinks this is really fucked up as he enters the room and kneels before his dead body. His fingers reach out to touch his face and he flinches as he touches cold skin. His face looks serene, as if he is finally at peace. But Sirius knows otherwise; a torrent of emotions and anger still rages inside him, threatening to explode, to destroy him from the inside-out. At least I’m already dead, he thinks, can’t do too much more damage.
Sirius sighs, knows that he shouldn’t believe this, that he should somehow be fighting death, finding a way back to those he left behind. But he feels tired now, worn down, and can feel the weariness making its way like a current through muscle and bone. He stands, looks at the rest of the bodies, most in more advanced stages of decomposition, and wonders if those other…ghosts, spirits, whatever the fuck we are, came to see their own bodies and felt a similar sense of acceptance.
‘Well, Sirius,’ he says to himself, ‘at least you died looking good.’ He mock salutes himself and walks back into the dim room, sitting down next to the old wizard who laughed at him earlier.
The two men sit in an awkward silence for a few minutes. Sirius fiddles with the cuff of his robe, observing those around him. He watches in fascination as a wizard slides across the floor, hands and legs still bound when some Death Eater probably tortured and murdered him before tossing him through the veil to hide any evidence of his death. Sirius speculates for a moment as to why no one has reversed the curse that has disallowed this man from walking freely, before rummaging through his pockets for his wand.
‘Won’t find it,’ the man replies, giving Sirius a sidelong glance. ‘You really think they’d let you walk around with your wand?’ The man whistles through the gap in his front teeth and Sirius subconsciously runs his tongue along his own now straight and clean teeth (after months of scrubbing away any hints twelve years of betrayal left behind). ‘Think of the damage you could do with a wand.’
‘Who’s they?’ Sirius asks, leaning back on the bench and stretching his legs out.
The man shrugs, raises a shaking hand to angle his hat back and stares out at the others milling around the room aimlessly. ‘Can’t say for sure. Never saw ‘em. But you hear stories the longer you hang around.’
Sirius clears his throat, feels uneasiness creeping through his body and tingling in his fingertips. ‘How long have you been here?’
The man grunts. ‘Probably longer than you’ve been alive, kid.’
‘And them?’ He tilts a head towards the crowd, suddenly wishing he knew their stories, how they came to rest in this room, how they learned to accept their fate.
‘Not sure. People come and go over the years. Don’t remember faces much anymore.’
Sirius sighs and clenches his fingers into a fist. ‘How long am I stuck here?’
The man laughs again, a deep rumble that reminds Sirius of Uncle Alphard and people who care about him. ‘That’s the thing, kid, no one knows for certain. It depends on how long it takes for someone to come and collect you.’
Sirius wrinkles his forehead and looks curiously at the wizard. ‘What do you mean, collect me?’
‘You don’t know anything about the afterlife, do you?’ the man asks incredulously.
Sirius can feel his cheeks burn in embarrassment and he shuffles uncomfortably under the scrutinising stare of the older man. ‘I never really thought much about the afterlife. I didn’t believe it existed,’ he replies honestly.
The man makes an odd noise in the back of his throat which Sirius takes to mean some sort of understanding. ‘Someone you know, someone you might’ve loved, comes and collects you when they’ve discovered you, well, you know, died. They take you away to ‘the promised land.’ The man snorts at this. ‘Hell if I know what it looks like. I’ve been here for decades.’
‘And what about those who don’t have anyone to collect them?’
‘Kid, you’re looking at them.’
ii. March 17, 1976
Sirius watched James’s hand run across the library table separating them, fingers mapping the valleys and hills that bruise the wood.
‘Sirius,’ he said without looking at him. ‘Sirius.’
It was a plea, one that asked Sirius to understand James’s silence because what he was about to say choked him, made him fumble over his words and curse in frustration. But this was one thing that Sirius couldn't figure out from simple gestures and tired eyes, needed to hear it from James’s own mouth.
The table made them feel worlds apart.
James’s hands had stilled and Sirius wished they’d kept moving, mapped the world that lay out in kilometres between them, until they were both standing on the same coordinates.
‘It’s Dad, Sirius.’
Well, now at least they were on the same page.
‘Is everything all right? Everything going to be okay?’
Sirius could see the slump in James’s shoulder, knew that everything wouldn't be fine and waited for the thin lines that outlined the world they created to disappear around them.
The owl came a week later.
Sirius couldn't look at James’s owl ever again without thinking of bad news and death, the end of a family that had become his own.
James didn’t talk to him at all that day, couldn’t look at him without being reminded of home and those that he loved.
But at night you can spill your guts and the darkness will curl around your secrets, keep them hidden and safe.
Sirius startled awake when he felt his mattress dip and a warm, dry hand curled around his neck.
Shh, shh, Sirius. It’s just me, the hand was saying. Just James.
‘James,’ he croaked, voice still laden with sleep. He rubbed a hand wearily across his eyes, saw the glint of the moonlight off James’s glasses. ‘You all right?’ Are we all right?
‘Yeah, yeah.’ His voice was soft and Sirius’s heart clenched at hearing usually cocky, in-your-face James Potter sound subdued. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’
Sirius grunted as he slid over, making room for James in the too-small bed. ‘C’mere,’ he said, let me help you.
James sighed, was hesitant as his fingers picked at some stray threads on Sirius’s duvet.
‘Hey, hey,’ Sirius said, his fingertips brushing against James’s knuckles. ‘It’s all right.’ No one has to know – the dark will hide your breakdown.
And James gave up, gave in, pulled the duvet up and slipped under, cold feet brushing against Sirius’s leg. James rested his head in the crook of Sirius’s neck and clutched tightly to his best friend, his saviour now.
‘We should’ve expected it.’ His voice was muffled against Sirius’s neck and Sirius could feel the vibrations down to his bones, held on tighter to James. ‘He was old. We should’ve known.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Sirius mumbled into his hair. ‘You don’t ever want to think about your parents, or anyone, dying.’
‘You don’t ever think about it, Pads?’
Sirius could feel James nod into his shoulder. Sirius sighed and rubbed soothing circles on James’s hip, skin warm beneath his hands.
‘I don’t know. It’s kind of morbid, don’t you think?’
‘No – not really. I mean,’ James sighed and curled in tighter towards Sirius, towards warmth, ‘like, the afterlife. Have you ever thought about what it’d be like and – and who you’d meet? What would I say to my father when I see him? ‘Gee, thanks for leaving me when I was sixteen, dad. But I certainly had a blast with you while you were alive’? It’d be so fucking awkward.’
Sirius snorted. ‘You actually believe in that bull? Of seeing the light and a life after death?’
James raised himself up on one elbow, glanced at Sirius through bed-tousled hair and calculating eyes. ‘You don’t?’
Sirius shrugged. He was raised on purity and aristocracy, not religion, and knew nothing about an afterlife or spirits, of burying people with prayers for redemption in mind. He knew only about dark magic and dark deaths, kept secret and unspoken of; prayers were kept for silent nights alone in bed for a life outside of the one he was born into.
‘I’m indifferent,’ he said finally, tugged at James’s shirt sleeve, pulled him back down.
‘You can’t be indifferent,’ James argued. ‘You either believe in it or you don’t.’
‘Fine, then, I don’t believe in an afterlife,’ Sirius conceded. ‘It’s not…practical.’
James groaned and pinched Sirius.
‘Ow! What was that for?’ Sirius muttered, rubbing his arm.
‘We’re talking about life after death, Sirius. No one said anything about practicality. I mean, we live in a world where we have spells for everything and creatures Muggles have never heard of. If you were an outsider, or a Muggleborn, you really think a world like ours would be practical?’
‘You know what would be really practical?’ a voice mumbled from the next bed over. ‘Being asleep at three in the morning.’
James bit his lip and smiled half-heartedly. Sirius thought it was better than nothing, better than tears even.
‘C’mon, James, let’s go to sleep, yeah?’ Sirius entreated, burying his face into James’s hair.
‘Sorry, Moony,’ James said. ‘G’night.’
James yawned, slipped a leg between Sirius’s, and threw an arm across his waist.
‘You’ll be okay, James,’ Sirius said, his fingers finding skin, drawing patterns, bringing comfort.
James breathed heavily onto Sirius’s neck, sleep came easier now that he was safe in the arms of Sirius. And Sirius knew James would be all right, knew James was always stronger than him and, after a few days, would be able to pick himself up and carry on.
Sirius pulled James’s glasses off and set them on the bedside table beside his bed.
‘’Night,’ he whispered, and pressed a chaste kiss above James’s brow before he slipped into a dreamless sleep.
iii. June 7, 1996
Sirius spends the beginning of the next day walking around the room he’s confined to until someone comes to collect him. The room is dim – the only light source is from a couple of lanterns hanging from the low, sloping ceiling – and slightly damp. There are two doors. The door in the south-east part of the room holds the bodies of those who have fallen through the veil like a tomb; Sirius has already been through this door, seen the evidence that let acceptance come easier than he expected. The other is dead-set north and Sirius isn’t quite sure where that leads. He can see a faint ray of light coming from the crack between the door and the floor and assumes this is his only exit, but he can’t even turn the doorknob.
‘Hey,’ he says as he approaches a young woman standing by the door. ‘Is this the way we get out, when someone comes to get us?’
The woman continues staring forward as if she didn’t hear Sirius.
‘Hey,’ he says again, placing a hand on her shoulder.
The woman’s head snaps toward him as she starts shrieking. ‘No, no, no,’ she mutters, pulling away from him and scurrying over to the other side of the room.
‘Huh, that was weird.’
Sirius shakes his head and tries again, and again, and again. Every occupant in the room, aside from the old man with the fedora hat, ignores him or goes into a complete frenzy as he approaches them. Sirius gives up even trying and walks back over to the bench. He sits down, pulls a leg up and wraps his arm around it, sighing.
‘So,’ Sirius starts, and he picks at a hole in the knee of his jeans, his fingers dancing up and down his leg, itching for something to do, somewhere to go. ‘So what’s the average waiting time before you’re collected?’
‘Bored of me already?’ the man retorts. ‘I knew I was bad company but most people can last a few days longer in my presence.’
‘Not bored of you,’ Sirius replies, ‘but bored of this. Waiting and not – and not being able to do anything but sit here picking at the dirt beneath my fingernails.’
‘You got someone waiting for you?’
Sirius thinks of James, of the night he found him dead and found Harry, surrendered his life to Hagrid, exchanged his freedom for twelve years in Azkaban.
Sirius says softly, ‘Yeah, yeah I do.’
The man makes a pleased noise. ‘I’ve heard that tone before. Significant other?’
Sirius sighs. ‘No, my best mate though. We were like brothers.’
‘Pity. He must’ve died young, eh? That’s always too bad,’ the man says, looking Sirius over. ‘You don’t look that old yourself.’
‘It’s because I’m not that old. But yeah, James was young, had a kid too. It was a damn tragedy.’
‘Well, at least you get to see him again. Bet you’re looking forward to that.’
‘It’s probably the only good thing about dying,’ Sirius mutters. ‘I feel like I had just started living again, you know?’
The man grunts. ‘Isn’t that how it always goes? The big guys up there…’ The man points a shaking finger towards the ceiling. ‘…see that you get yourself a new life, a happier life and then they snatch it away because they don’t think you deserve it or something.’
He shakes his head. ‘But I did deserve it, damn it!’ he yells, smacking a hand down on his bony knee. ‘And then bam! one day at work, I fall through that bloody curtain. I had myself a new mistress and everything. And let me tell you,’ the man leers, ‘my sex life – ’
‘Okay, whoa!’ Sirius exclaims, jumping up off the bench. ‘I don’t need the details.’
The man grins at Sirius. ‘Your loss, kid. But I’m telling you, I’ve got some real fascinating stories I could share with you.’
‘No wonder people get sick of sitting here talking to you. Why doesn’t anyone else here talk? Why can’t I strike up a conversation with someone normal who won’t tell me about their sex life when they’re like, fifty years old.’
‘Hey!’ the man exclaims, smacking Sirius in the back of the head. ‘Just because I’m fifty-six doesn’t mean I can’t have sex. I’m not that old.’
Sirius shudders. ‘But it’s like talking to my grandparents about sex. That’s, that’s just wrong.’
‘Keep digging that grave, kid.’
‘Hey, hey, you’re the one who brought it up,’ Sirius points out, cracking his neck. ‘So what about the others? They either don’t talk to me, or they go crazy and still don’t talk to me. Do they…are most of them mute?’
‘Nah, just, after being stuck here for so long, people don’t have much to talk about anymore. They close in on themselves, you know? I think half of them are insane – only talk to themselves, those nutters.’
‘What about you?’ Sirius asks. ‘How come you didn’t close in yourself, go insane, or whatever?’
‘I like giving you headaches and bringing up my sex life,’ the man laughs.
‘Yeah, that’s for sure.’ Sirius grins.
iv. June 28, 1979
The night was just as humid as the day and Sirius wiped away a drop of sweat with the cuff of his robe. He was crouched down, hidden by shrubbery and cloaked by the darkness, and eyeing the back entrance of a known Death Eater hideout. He hated stakeouts, thought they were a waste of time, and much prefered the action and physical exertion of duels.
‘Where are they?’ he muttered to himself.
He had been waiting here for three hours since he trailed two Death Eaters to the house from a pub four blocks away. They had shown no signs of leaving and the shadows cast by the candle in the kitchen indicated that they were at least still inside, still plotting.
There were loud cracks behind him, and to any Muggle it would have sounded like a car back-firing, but to a wizard and trained Auror, Sirius knew otherwise.
‘The fuck?’ he said, whipping his wand out as his eyes darted from one edge of the wood to the next, searching for some type of movement.
He saw nothing. Then he jumped as a firm hand wrapped itself around his arm and he twisted around, shoving his wand into the throat of his assailant.
‘Are you kidding me?’ he exclaimed. ‘What the fuck are you doing, James? Why’d you leave your post?’ He shook his head as he pulled his wand down, and resumed searching the wood.
James rubbed his throat. ‘I heard someone Apparate. You see anything?’ he whispered. ‘And seriously, be careful with that wand, Black. You could’ve killed me.’
‘Well you shouldn’t creep up on me, Potter,’ Sirius snapped. ‘Especially during a stakeout like this. I was being prepared and you were being careless.’
James’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to retort, but Sirius quickly covered his mouth and pulled him closer.
‘Shut up, James. Shut up.’
There was a snapping twig somewhere to their left and they both turned, wands at the ready.
‘No one should be out there, Sirius. What the fuck’s going on?’
‘I don’t know.’
Sirius ducked as a flash of red rushed past his head. He quickly regained his balance and shot a spell back into the woods, illuminating the shadows to reveal four Death Eaters making their way towards him and James.
James turned around for a brief second before shaking Sirius’s sleeve. ‘We’ve got two behind us, Sirius,’ he whispered harshly. ‘Shit. Stupefy!’
One Death Eater fell to the ground, but that didn’t stop the other five from closing in on them. Sirius was trying to aim and fire spells, but he was constantly thrown off balance by the three or four spells being aimed at his head. He barely missed a blasting curse and he fell to his knees and rolled, popping up quickly to fire Petrificus Totalus at an oncoming Death Eater.
James managed to knock another Death Eater unconscious that had been approaching from behind and pulled Sirius back through the shrubbery, snapping branches along the way.
‘Okay, okay this was a fucking set-up,’ he said between firing spells at Death Eaters, his hand still gripping tightly to Sirius’s robe sleeve.
‘Impedimenta,’ Sirius cried as one Death Eater came rushing towards them.
James let go and ran off to the side to cut off one of the Death Eaters who had separated from the approaching group.
‘Be careful, you idiot!’ Sirius yelled after him, before squaring off and facing two Death Eaters at once.
One sent the Cruciatus curse at him and Sirius winced as he barely missed the spell, didn’t want to imagine the pain he’d feel if he had been hit.
‘Come on,’ Sirius taunted. ‘That the best you can do?’
And yeah, maybe he had a death wish or something because he was laughing now, the adrenaline pumping through his veins like a drug. He could be on top of the world. But then there was a spell flying past his head, barely grazing him, and he stepped back, stepped away before aiming and sending another 'Stupefy.'
‘What’s the matter, Black,’ one of the Death Eaters drawled, ‘afraid to use a little bit of dark magic? Afraid that you’ll end up like your pathetic brother with no heart and a head full of anger?’
Sirius clenched his fist tighter around his wand. ‘Don’t bring him into this,’ Sirius snarled. ‘This is between you and me.’
This time he didn’t miss and the Death Eater who had been taunting him collapsed at the feet of his comrade.
‘You got anything better?’ Sirius sneered, wand aimed at the chest of the final Death Eater.
He glanceed quickly to his side, saw James still duelling, and thought of the best way to cause this asshole the most pain possible. He wasn’t fast enough, though, and the Death Eater cried out, ‘Incarcerous,’ and Sirius was suddenly falling forward onto his face, legs and hands bound by thick rope.
‘You’re a pitiful dueller, Black,’ the Death Eater spat out. ‘And to think that the wizarding world is relying on people like you to save them from the Dark Lord’s reign.’ The Death Eater laughed harshly, playing with his wand. ‘You will not win this war. The Dark Lord will rule over the wizarding world and we will purge our society of Mudbloods and Mudblood-lovers like yourself, and your pathetic friend over there.’ The Death Eater nodded his head in James’s direction and Sirius could twist himself slightly so that he could see James on his knees, desperately trying to stop the advances of the other Death Eater.
Sirius growled and spat on the robe of the Death Eater. ‘As long as I am alive, you will never win this war.’
The Death Eater cackled. ‘Your death can be arranged, no worries about that. But it’s the method that I have trouble deciding on. Crucio!’
Sirius gritted his teeth but couldn’t stop the cry from escaping his mouth as the pain intensified. He could feel it in his bones, like an electrical current shocking every nerve ending in his body.
‘That’s the hard, painful way you can go,’ the Death Eater said, walking around Sirius full-circle, and Sirius could hear the shit-eating grin on his face despite the mask. ‘Or, I can take pity on your hopeless soul and kill you the easy way. How’s that sound, Black?’
‘Bite me,’ Sirius groaned out, breathing heavily, face buried in the dirt as the pain eases.
‘You are weak!’ the Death Eater snarled.
‘And you’re inexperienced,’ James said from behind them, before shouting, ‘Expelliarmus! Stupefy!’
James grabbed the Death Eater’s wand as he tumbled to the ground. James kicked him with his foot. ‘You should know to always watch your back,’ he said, before tossing the wand and performing a binding charm on the wizard.
‘Diffindo.’ Sirius felt his arms go slack and James rested a reassuring hand on his neck, pulling the ropes from his hands and feet. ‘Have a little trouble there, Pads?’ James teased, helping Sirius to his feet.
Sirius groaned and leaned on James for support, his sweaty forehead pressed into James’s neck. ‘Hey, hey, it’s okay, Sirius. You’ll be all right.’
‘I don’t think I’d ever want to wish that pain on anyone,’ Sirius mumbled as James pulled him even closer. ‘It feels like my bones are on fire. Fuck. I really thought he was going to kill me.’
‘Yeah, but he didn’t, because I came just in time to save your sorry ass,’ James said lightly, ruffling Sirius’s hair.
‘I thought I saw the white light and everything,’ Sirius insisted, lifting his head to rest his forehead against James’s.
James curled a hand around the back of Sirius’s neck and pulled his head down for a chaste kiss. ‘I thought you didn’t believe in an afterlife or Heaven and Hell. Plus, a white light would imply you were going to Heaven,’ James snickered. ‘Not sure I’d back that a hundred percent.’
‘Hey!’ Sirius cried out indignantly, punching James weakly. ‘And I don’t. But I know what I saw. Maybe, maybe it was the spell you cast to knock out the Death Eater you were duelling, huh, James?’
James shook his head. ‘Sorry, but that was blue light, not white. Maybe you were about to see the other side.’
There were suddenly five cracks that startled the both of them; James could feel Sirius tense beneath his soothing hands and he winced as the sound ricocheted.
‘James!’ a voice called out, and Sirius slumped into James’s arms, exhausted and in pain, as Lily rushed towards them.
‘Sirius!’ And Remus was there too, all of them moving in, suffocating.
Someone was checking the perimeter, making sure everything was clear, and securing the unconscious Death Eaters. There were hands everywhere, and voices, and someone was trying to pull him away from Sirius, but James wouldn't let go.
‘James,’ Lily was saying, trying to keep her voice calm and steady, ‘let go of Sirius, we need to check his wounds.’
And James was shaking his head no no no, you won’t take him away from me, because he had finally realised that he really could have lost Sirius tonight. But Remus was tugging and James thought that being a werewolf gave him abnormal strength, or something, as he peeled him away from Sirius into the arms of a slightly hysterical Lily.
Dorcas Meadowes was given the duty of checking Sirius’s injuries and Remus had now turned to James, tried to get James to look him in the eye, but all James could do was stare at Sirius’s fragile body and watch as Sirius’s eyes struggled to remain open, despite how tired he must have felt.
‘James, Prongs? What happened here?’
Lily was smoothing his hair back, whispering nonsense in his ear, and James looked dazedly at Remus, whose hands were holding his face too roughly, and not enough like Sirius.
‘I don’t know,’ James said finally, slowly, sagging against Lily as the adrenaline began to wear off. ‘But…but, I think we’ve got a traitor in our midst.’
v. June 8, 1996
‘You know,’ Sirius is saying as he sprawls out across the bench, the old man sitting beside his head, ‘there wasn’t any ‘white light at the end of the tunnel’ for me. I thought that when you died, there was supposed to be white light and God waiting for you. Instead, instead I get stuck in a dirt room with a lewd man who can’t keep his mouth shut.’
The man huffs. ‘What kind of stories have you been reading, kid? Obviously you’ve heard that old Muggle tale. Didn’t your parents teach you any better?’
Sirius bristles at the mention of his parents but swallows his pride and shakes his head. ‘What old Muggle tale?’
‘You really are an idiot when it comes to the afterlife,’ the man says, rolling his eyes. ‘But, ah, I guess I’ll enlighten you.’
‘Oh, please, if you would be so kind,’ Sirius replies.
The man ignores his sarcasm. ‘Some say it originated as far back as anyone can remember, when the magical and non-magical worlds first began to collide,’ he begins. ‘Obviously, wizards were using memory charms on Muggles to keep the wizarding world a secret. No one really knows for certain how the idea sprung up, but one day, Muggles who had had their memories erased started claiming to have been on the edge of death when they saw a bright white light, leading them to Heaven. Well, it’s quite obvious that the white light came from the memory charm, but you know Muggles, they like to tell tall tales to their young ones. Keeps them entertained and from misbehaving, you see? If they’re good, they’ll know that the white light means they’ll be going to Heaven, and the idea just grew from there.
If you ask me, they blew it completely out of proportion, because the idea of walking down a tunnel and meeting God at the gates of Heaven? Completely bogus. Sure, we have magic and we can do a lot but, creating a pathway to Heaven for every single person who dies? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ The man shakes his head and Sirius bites his lip, trying to control his laughter. ‘The things these Muggles come up with astounds me.’
‘I don’t think I’ve seen you this worked up over any story you’ve told me so far,’ Sirius guffaws.
The man seems indignant and smacks Sirius’s forehead. Sirius yelps and sits up straight, rubbing his sore head.
‘What was that for?’ he mumbles.
The man snorts. ‘For being a wise-ass kid.’
Sirius opens his mouth to retort when there is a sudden loud, echoing knock and everything just stops. Then, as though they had been practicing for years to synchronise their movements, every person turns towards the door. Sirius looks at the old man, who nods towards the door.
‘Go on,’ he says, smiling encouragingly. ‘They’re waiting for you.’
Sirius can feel the anticipation mounting and his hands begin to shake. He urges himself forward: right foot forward, left foot follows, right, left.
The room seems infinitely large and Sirius isn’t sure why he’s this nervous, why the butterflies are the size of birds as they swoop and tumble in his stomach, because this is James. And maybe, he’ll admit, he’s afraid that he won’t be anything that James is expecting and this reunion won’t be like anything he had hoped. So he braces himself, tucks his heart away so that disappointment can’t worm its way in through existing cracks, spread like a plague and shatter his already fragile heart, and grips the doorknob tightly. The knob turns easily now, without much exertion, and the door swings open.
Sirius steps back, an arm shielding his eyes as the all-too-bright light is a sudden stark contrast from the dim room, and releases a shaky breath. When his eyes become adjusted, Sirius does not see what he is expecting and there is a sharp aching in his heart as the birds in his stomach turn to a fire in his veins.
His tongue is thick is his mouth, and he clenches his fists as he spits out, ‘Regulus?!’
vi. December 21, 1979
Sirius trudged up the stairs to his flat, face smudged with mud and exhaustion nestled deep in his muscles, making every step a challenge. He reached the third floor and sighed in relief. The noise on his floor was a cacophony of spouses screaming, babies crying and teenagers blasting music far too loud and frequently. Sirius rubbed a weary hand over his face and fisheed for his keys in the pocket of his leather jacket. His fingers curled around the doorknob and the door swung open. Sirius looked up in surprise and suddenly, the tension that had been slowly easing comes back full force. His eyes narrowed and his wand came out of his pocket in a flash as he slipped past the open door. The flat was dark save for the moonlight filtering in through the window and Sirius could feel his senses heighten.
He walked into his kitchenette, found that half his loaf of bread has been eaten and someone had been drinking from his firewhiskey. He growled softly and gripped the countertop momentarily, swearing.
He heard the floorboards outside the kitchenette creak and he whipped around, his wand straight and steadily pointed at the doorway.
‘Who’s there?’ he called, the doorway hidden by shadows.
‘You really should take more care about your safety. I was able to walk right in using a simple charm,’ Sirius heard before a figure stepped forward into the moonlight.
‘Regulus,’ he hissed, fingers tightening around his wand as his eyes landed on his younger brother.
‘Sirius,’ Regulus greeted jovially.
‘Get the fuck out,’ Sirius snarled. ‘Get out! I don’t want to see you.’
Regulus raised his hands in defence. ‘I’m not armed, Sirius. I just – we need to talk. Can we talk? I need your help.’
In that moment, Regulus looked as young as he was, and vulnerable with his hair a mess and his face caked with dried blood, and something wrenched at Sirius’s heart. This was the little boy he had taken care of, looked after through childhood, and now, now he needed Sirius’s protection again. But Sirius pushed his thoughts aside, replaced compassion with anger and shook his head fiercely.
‘No, no. Get out, get out! I don’t want to speak to you!’ He rushed forward and grabbed Regulus by the collar of his shirt, dragging him towards the door.
Regulus tried to put up a fight but he was weaker compared to Sirius, always had been, which was why Sirius had had to always look out for him.
‘Lily and James are expecting a child, aren’t they?’ he spat out.
Sirius glared at Regulus and threw him to the floor. ‘Don’t you dare speak of my friends ever again,’ he said, a hint of a threat lacing in his words. ‘I swear to God I’ll kill you myself if you even mutter their names.’
Regulus managed a bitter, hollow laugh before sighing and dropping his head to the hardwood floor beneath him. ‘Don’t have to worry about that, brother. I’ll be dead soon. The others will kill me.’
‘Good. You deserve it.’ Sirius’s eyes hardened as he stood menacingly over his brother. ‘Now, get out of my flat.’
‘Sirius,’ Regulus said, a little desperately now, ‘Sirius, listen to me. There is a prophecy…’
‘Stop, stop!’ Sirius yelled. ‘I don’t want to hear your lies. You’ve had your share of food and alcohol. Now get out before I kill you with my bare hands.’
Regulus whimpered softly as he scrambled to his feet, making his way towards the door. Sirius followed inches behind him. When he reached the doorframe, he turned around quickly and gave Sirius a look of sympathy.
‘I’m sorry, Sirius,’ he mumbled before Sirius slammed the door in his face.
Sirius was slightly drunk, celebrating Christmas Eve with James and Lily when the owl arrived. He sobered immediately as he skimmed through the ‘we’re sorry for your loss’ to find that Regulus had been killed, a victim of a quick and painless Avada Kedavra. Sirius shook his head and laughed grimly when he thought that his brother wasn’t even worth the Death Eaters’ time to torture.
James read the letter over his shoulder and wrapped an arm around his waist, head bumping into his shoulder.
‘Hey, you okay, Pads?’ he mumbled, breath tinged with alcohol and warm against the back of Sirius’s neck.
‘It was his own fault,’ Sirius said defiantly. ‘He’s the one who got into that mess when he was too young and too rash. He didn’t understand the consequences. It’s his own fault.’
Lily looked at him sadly, gripped his hand tightly and kissed his cheek.
‘It’s okay to be upset about it, Sirius. He was your brother,’ she reassured him.
Sirius shook his head and cleared his throat. ‘No, I won’t be upset about it. When I ran away from home, I ran away from Regulus too. He’s not my brother anymore.’
James held on tighter to Sirius and nuzzled his neck. ‘I’ll always be your brother, Pads.’
Sirius sighed and slipped his hand over James’s, nodding. ‘I know.’
vii. June 8, 1996
Regulus has been eighteen years old since 1979. His hair is still dark, eyes still bright and unwavering and his body is not a victim of age and grief, like Sirius’s, like everyone who survived the first war. Sirius can feel the lump rising in his throat, looking at his younger brother who appears just as innocent and vulnerable as before.
He swallows and shakes his head. ‘No, no,’ he says, stepping back into the dim room. ‘What are you doing here? Where’s James?’ He looks around frantically, eyes landing on the old man who looks on with some sort of sympathy.
‘I’m here to collect you, Sirius.’ Regulus looks anxious and out of place, his hand rubbing the back of his neck – a sign Sirius recognises to mean that he is nervous.
Sirius is silent for a few moments, staring hard at Regulus, caught someplace in between anxiety and hate. He pulls his hair slightly and bites his lip, sighing as Regulus waits patiently for him.
‘I’m going to Hell, aren’t I?’ Sirius whispers finally, looking at Regulus with something akin to dread in his eyes.
Regulus bursts out laughing, a real hearty laugh, and Sirius, Sirius hasn’t heard Regulus laugh like that since they were children, and it makes his heart swell.
‘There’s no such thing as Heaven and Hell,’ Regulus says, still chuckling, beckoning Sirius forward to cross the line that separates the waiting room from the afterlife. ‘But your comment certainly doesn’t surprise me. I really was a rotten brother.’
‘So – so there’s just an afterlife?’
Sirius is hesitant and it isn’t the first time he’s ever felt uncertain; the nervous knots that twist and tug are no stranger to a man who’s had expectations to meet his entire life.
Regulus nods. ‘Just an afterlife. I’m merely a messenger sent to collect you. I have my own life to return to. But James and Lily are waiting for you.’
Sirius sighs and takes a step forward towards Regulus. He feels like he’s eleven again and walking down between the House tables in the Great Hall on his way to the Sorting Hat, to where his future was decided and his friends were made.
‘Well, goodbye,’ he says, turning slowly to wave to the old man. He frowns for a moment. ‘I don’t think I ever got your name either.’
The man grins. ‘I’m Gabriel. It was a pleasure meeting you, Sirius,’ he replies with a wink.
Sirius snorts and crosses over the line just as the door to the waiting room closes behind him with a resounding thud.
‘Welcome to the afterlife, Sirius,’ Regulus says.
Sirius blinks. He had been expecting bright white light (enveloped in innocence, salvation for the sinners) or wide open, rolling fields to lounge around in with loved ones, talking and catching up about time lost. Instead, he’s met with the grey slab and busy sidewalks of London.
‘Follow me,’ Regulus says, keeping one hand on Sirius’s shoulder to guide him.
Sirius’s feet follow a familiar path. He remembers walking these streets, feeling the concrete drag out for kilometres beneath his trainers.
‘Where are we going?’ he asks, taking in the sight of buildings he hasn’t seen for years – twelve years of Azkaban may have broken his body, but not his memory.
Regulus smiles softly. ‘You’ll see.’
Sirius continues following Regulus, reminding him of a time when Regulus would have followed him blindly anywhere; Sirius realises that Regulus must have invested a lot of his trust in him when he was younger, wonders if he still does.
Sirius stops when he’s standing in front of an old, run-down building.
‘You’re kidding, right?’ Sirius stands in shock before walking up the stairs, fingers dancing along the black coiled rail that lines the stairs.
The door opens to reveal James and Lily, both still twenty-one and beautiful, youthful, standing with their arms around the other’s waist. Lily smiles at Sirius affectionately, stretching out her arm to pull him into a hug.
‘I’ve missed you, Sirius,’ she admits.
Sirius grins into her skin, planting a kiss on her collarbone. ‘It’s been a long time, Lily.’
He pulls away and looks up at James, his eyes shining and his heart threatening to burst.
‘James,’ he says softly.
James steps forward and wraps Sirius tightly into a hug. ‘Welcome home, Sirius,’ he breathes.
Sirius buries his face into the crook of James’s neck and smells all that is James: sweat and dirt and something delicately James, and clings tighter.
‘Let’s go inside,’ Lily suggests, smiling warmly.
Sirius turns to say goodbye to Regulus, but finds him already gone. His heart feels heavy, knowing that he never had the chance to apologise to Regulus for turning him away that night, to say that he never meant to leave him behind to pick up the pieces of an already broken family.
James looks at Sirius knowingly. ‘Don’t worry, Sirius, he knows. He’s always known.’
Sirius nods and follows Lily and James up the stairs to his old flat, feeling like he’s eighteen again and alive, at peace with himself as he’s reunited with those that he once lost.
James turns and grins. ‘Can you believe it?’ he asks, throwing an arm around Sirius’s shoulders as he ruffles his hair. ‘We’re together again. I always knew we’d see each other again.’
Lily fiddles with the doorknob and the door to his flat swings open. James plops down on one of Sirius’s old armchairs, stretching his legs out over one of the arms as Sirius sinks into the deep cushions of his favourite chair by the window.
‘So,’ James starts, ‘you need to tell us everything.’
Lily sits down in an adjacent chair. ‘How is everyone? Remus and Harry? Are they all right?’ she queries.
‘What have you been doing since we last saw you?’
Sirius takes a deep breath and opens his mouth, fifteen years of memories spilling like secrets through his teeth.
It’s late before Sirius actually realises the time and he feels the familiar ache of exhaustion settling in. Lily has fallen asleep, hair fanned out on the cushions and mouth slightly open. James is looking at her fondly as the dimmed light in the room casts shadows across her face.
‘When we heard the news that you had died,’ James says quietly, dragging his sight away from his wife, ‘Lily was worried that there would be some mess up and we would never be able to see you. She almost panicked when we didn’t get a message telling us that we had to pick you up.’
Sirius smiles and watches the rise and fall of Lily’s chest. Breathe in, breathe out. ‘You weren’t worried at all?’
James scoffs. ‘No way. I knew we’d see you eventually. Not even death can tear us apart, Pads.’
‘Wow, that’s so cliché,’ Sirius snickers.
James shrugs and stretches his legs out, pulling himself up off the chair to sit at Sirius’s knees. He leans his face against rough denim and sighs.
‘How are you coping with all of this Sirius? Honestly.’
Sirius runs his fingers through James’s hair. ‘I don’t know. The transition – it’s a lot easier than I expected. I’m just…I’m just glad that you’re here with me, James.’
‘Me too, Pads.’
They sit in a comfortable silence for a few minutes before Sirius asks, ‘James, earlier, when you said that Regulus knew that I was sorry – how did you know?’
Sirius can feel the stretch of lips against his leg through his jeans and James looks up at him, the smile still on his face.
‘There’s a mutual understanding between the two of you,’ James says. ‘I think now you fully understand why he did what he did and the sacrifices he had to make and he realises the same of you.’
James scrambles up into the armchair and squeezes in between Sirius and the arm. It’s as though they’re fifteen again, sharing secrets and beds. He rests his head on Sirius’s shoulder.
‘And I’ve come to a realisation about you too, Sirius,’ he murmurs.
Sirius hugs James close, knows this is the closest they will ever get now, knows it’s the closest they’ve ever really been. ‘What’s that?’
‘You still blame yourself for mine and Lily’s death.’
Sirius looks at James sharply. ‘Let’s not discuss that now, James. It’s been fifteen years.’
‘Exactly!’ James exclaims. ‘Fifteen years and you still blame yourself.’
Sirius is silent, refuses to look at James though he knows James is trying desperately to look him in the eye.
‘Sirius,’ James says, pressing a kiss to Sirius’s forehead, sweeping away stray hairs from his eyes, ‘Sirius, it’s not your fault.’
‘Fuck you, James,’ Sirius hisses. ‘You don’t understand the torment I went through in Azkaban because of what happened. You will never understand that torment. How can you – how can you just come right up and crawl into my fucking head, telling me that it wasn’t my fault?’
James growls in frustration. ‘No, no, I know I won’t understand that, but I do understand that what happened that night had nothing to do with you and everything to do with Peter.’
‘It was my idea to switch. My idea to put your life in the hands of a traitor.’ Sirius brushes away a tear.
‘Stop it, Sirius. Stop blaming yourself.’ James puts his arms around Sirius and hugs him fiercely.
‘I’m sorry, James,’ Sirius whispers. ‘I never would have wished this on you. You know I would have rather died before you. I’m sorry.’
James sighs and clasps his hand with Sirius’s. ‘I know. I don’t blame you. These things happen for a reason. It was my time to go. I wasn’t happy about it – I didn’t want to miss out on Harry growing up, or being able to see you and Remus become such fine, distinguished gentlemen…’ Sirius rolls his eyes at this, presses closer to James. ‘…but I learned to accept it. That there wasn’t anything I could do to reverse what happened. And you need to learn to accept that too.’
‘I’m trying, James.’ Sirius closes his eyes and rests his head against James’s shoulder.
‘Go to sleep, Sirius,’ James whispers, placing a kiss at his hairline. ‘I’ll be here when you wake up.’
‘Goodnight, James,’ Sirius yawns, his breathing becoming slower and steadier as he drifts into sleep.
‘I forgive you, Sirius,’ James murmurs, lips brushing Sirius’s temple. Sirius sighs but James can feel the tension easing from his body. ‘I forgive you.’