And I would lay my head on your breast;
And you would murmur tender words,
Forgiving me, because you were dead
- W. B. Yeats
There is still a waiting period, a time for the now-deceased to accept that they are dead, to sit and contemplate their life that has now passed. It’s not always cold cement and hard, wooden benches; it’s what you make of it, James says, what you first imagine death to be like when you’ve crossed that line between breathing oxygen and then redemption (after a while, feelings like guilt and sorrow are rarely ever felt; only love, anger, forgiveness).
Sirius isn’t sure where he would’ve found himself had he died naturally or through some other means rather than finding himself suspended in time beyond a veil, waiting for James to come and collect him, only to be disappointed when it’s Regulus there. Regulus with his innocence still intact and forgiveness in his eyes, in his heart, that Sirius was too blind to see until it was too late.
Perhaps he would have woken on a hard dirt floor, with the musty smell of wet stone and the reverberation of waves pounding into steel and rock echoing in his ears. It would have taken a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dim light and his hands would have reflexively curved tightly over his ears in an attempt to drown out the sound of chains clanking and piercing screams – the dull thrum of life’s marrow being drained by misery and remorse.
It would be just his luck to spend the rest of his (after)life in a hell like Azkaban. Sirius thinks he might have laughed at the irony of it.
He whispers these fears to James when they’re sitting side-by-side on his couch, fingers clutching the necks of glass-bottled warm beer in the hours between sunset and sunrise. The alcohol acts like liquid courage, flows freely between them. He tells James about Azkaban – how life and happiness seemed to seep from the pores of the prisoners and into the waiting mouths of hungry Dementors. The guilt that had been gnawing at him since his imprisonment, the feelings of hopelessness that consumed him when it became apparent no one but himself and a traitorous rat knew the truth, begin to spill freely from his mouth in the form of fragmented sentences, half-choked nouns and verbs.
He says, “I was afraid I’d die a guilty man.”
James remains silent throughout, swallowing Sirius’s fears with every gulp of amber liquor. Before dawn, he wraps his fingers around Sirius’s wrist and draws him close, pressing his lips to the corner of Sirius’s mouth.
Sirius’s regrets are mapped in the trembling of his hands as they clutch desperately to thin cotton, in the stretchtwistpull of ligaments and muscle as his arms are pinned above his head. James leans over him now, his hair tickling his nose and Sirius huffs, laughter light and easy now that he can feel the alcohol coursing through his veins, can taste it sweet and heavy on James’s tongue.
It’s here, in the curve of James’s hand around his neck, the way he mouths apologies and reassurances along the planes of Sirius’s body, boundaries outlined in indigo ink and by years of desperation, Sirius finally knows what it feels like to be forgiven.
“If I’m supposed to be dead, I sure as hell wish I didn’t have to feel these aches and pains,” Sirius mutters, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck.
“You’re an old man, now,” James says lightly, though Sirius knows there’s truth to the statement.
James is still twenty-one years old, will always be twenty-one.
Sirius looks down at his own body and feels something akin to shame. He can see the way the years have aged his body, his skin, his bones; every inch of him marked by grief and a lifetime without hope, without faith.
“Way to make a man feel like he’s young again.”
“I thought that was what last night was about,” James replies with a grin – all teeth and that little quirk of his upper lip - that makes Sirius really glad he’s still sitting down.
He has to remind himself that he’s thirty-six and not a teenage boy anymore and to stop relying on false hope. He has to remind himself that offhand comments about his sex life were common among the boys when they were younger, before, before he fell in love with James. James never seemed to have gotten the memo, though, that those comments got really old, really fast.
Sirius looks at James through a curtain of hair and pushes his fringe out of the way. “Do you…do you feel guilty about what we did last night?”
“I don’t feel guilt anymore,” James admits, staring at his hands, at the cracks in the ceiling, everywhere but Sirius’s face.
Sirius bites back the scathing comment lingering on the tip of the tongue, wishes James would just fucking look at him. He finds his tee-shirt hanging over the arm of the couch and slips it on, pulls on his jeans and buttons them as he stands up and walks over to the window, bracing his arms against the window frame. He stares out at the empty street below. The glass is cool against his forehead and the pane fogs up when he opens his mouth and snaps, “Do you feel regret, then?”
“Sirius…” James sighs. “You know…”
“Don’t,” he hisses, turning around and grabbing James by the shoulders, gripping tight. “I don’t want to hear your lies anymore, James. Don’t say this doesn’t mean anything to you.” He’s begging now, pleading for this boy, this man, who’s so old but still looks young, to stop playing with his heart. “I thought…I thought maybe things would be different…here.”
Sirius has never been eloquent with his words – that was Remus, with his Yeats and Shakespeare – and he finds himself faltering when James finally makes eye contact.
“Lily, she’s still my wife, Sirius. We exchanged vows, wedding rings.”
“But she doesn’t have your heart,” he spits out, shaking his head. “You exchanged vows that said ‘till death do us part’. You’re already dead, James. That means –”
James stands up and steps forward, placing a hand on his shoulder, brushing his lips against his cheek. “Stop. We can’t…we can’t keep doing this,” James whispers harshly in his ear. “I did it for you last night because you needed it.”
Sirius can feel himself stumble, but James has a tight hold on him, has always anchored him. “You didn’t feel anything last night?” Sirius looks him straight in the eye, can tell if he’s lying.
“No,” James replies.
He knows it’s not the truth.
Sirius pushes James away, resists the urge to punch him in the face. “You need to stop. Stop acting like this doesn’t mean anything, because I know, I can tell, James. I’ve known you for so fucking long that I can see right through your lies. You need to stop lying to me, to Lily. To yourself. Death, it doesn’t make this any easier to bear. Doesn’t make it any less painful and I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”
James collapses on the couch and buries his face in his hands. “I know,” he mumbles. “I’m sorry, Sirius. I’m so sorry. I can’t - ”
Sirius remembers hearing those apologies before – the kind that slip easily from the tongue. He remembers a burning ache and gasping for oxygen as James leaned above him, outlined by a hazy red-orange glow from the setting sun. James looked so beautiful then, on the verge of tumbling over the edge, fingernails leaving harsh red marks on Sirius’s already on fire skin.
James looks forlorn now, choking on feeble apologies, with his face shadowed in the dim grey light of early morning London and with the weight of unspoken promises and regret. Sirius doesn’t feel anything remotely like sympathy.
He pulls on yesterday’s socks and his trainers and tosses James his shirt when he hears a shuffling from the bedroom. He’s already out the door when he hears a bright ‘good morning’ from Lily and he shuts the door behind him.
He finds a wooden bench in front of an old (deserted) antique shop. Everything is quiet, still, like the world is still asleep, blissfully unaware of everything – human tragedy, war, heartbreak. But to Sirius, it’s all so real, so personal, and it takes all his strength to suppress the anger that bubbles up – that threatens to pull Sirius apart, seam by seam, until he’s coming undone, unravelling.
But what did he expect to find here, in a place he didn’t even believe in at first? That things would honestly change? That James would no longer be that foolhardy, noble boy, who played carelessly with Sirius’s heart? It would have been a nice thought, if this afterlife could give him anything he wanted at no cost. But Sirius scoffs. There’s always a price for everything.
Sirius wearily rubs his eyes with the heel of his hands, stretching out the length of the bench and focuses on the silence, on finding comfort in the isolation.
He briefly wonders what James told Lily after he had left. What could he have possibly said?
“Look, Lily, I love you and everything, but Sirius and I had sex last night while you were asleep in the bedroom. How about a nice cup of tea, then?”
Sirius snorts and knows that in his heart, James simply told Lily that everything was fine, that Sirius was just trying to adjust, that they were working on making things as they had been.
Sirius can’t exactly figure out what ‘had been’ really is, can’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t kind of, sort of in love with James and James wasn’t trying to convince himself that he’s straight and that everything he does with Sirius is purely for sexual gratification.
Sirius closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and tries to expel his anger, to ease the tension in his body. He feels himself drifting off slightly. Though the bench is hard and uncomfortable, he’s nowhere near James and therefore doesn’t have the need to jump him or punch him, whichever feels convenient at the moment.
Sirius is startled by the sudden intrusion on his thoughts and nearly topples off the bench. “Fuck, Lily…where did you come from?” He struggles a bit to sit up, moves over to make room for Lily.
She smiles gently, a mother’s smile, and shrugs. “Shall I explain how a baby is created, then?”
“I see death hasn’t erased your sense of humour,” he replies dryly.
She sits down beside him and wraps an arm around his waist, resting her head on his shoulder. “I’ve missed you,” she admits quietly. “I think James will be a lot happier now that you’re here.”
Sirius thinks they’d both be happier if he had never shown up.
But he says, “I’ve missed you both too. It’s been…it’s been weird growing old without you.”
She says, “Life here slows. The days don’t pass by as quickly here. Your perception of time, it all changes. It feels like only yesterday I saw you standing on our porch with Peter beside you. I don’t remember much from that day, you know.” She looks up at him, her brow furrowed in thought. “It’s funny what your mind chooses to remember of moments you wish you could forget.”
Sirius wishes he didn’t understand what she was saying.
“I don’t…it’s like everything is such a blur, from the moment we did the spell up to the point that you both were leaving with such a weighty secret burdening your hearts. Then…time seemed to slow. I remember what sweater you were wearing, and the way you smelled when you hugged me goodbye. Is it strange?” she asks. Her fingers are now entwined with Sirius’s and she’s holding on tight, like she’s afraid to let him go again.
Sirius thinks he’s supposed to feel guilty at this point. Lily, she hadn’t always been this close to him. It was only when they found out that Voldemort was after them and the life of their son that Sirius began spending as much time as possible at the Potter household, discovering quickly why James had fallen in love with Lily so hard and fast. Lily, she had the temper of a red-head but she always thought before she acted. Her sense of humour was often times sardonic and scathing, but she was honest, and Sirius appreciated that about Lily. He thinks what really sealed the deal with James was Lily’s heart – and how big it is, how giving. She always seems to find the hidden beauty in everyone.
But now, here she is before him, admitting that she missed him and all he can think about is him and James on the couch last night while she was asleep in the next room.
He thinks he’s supposed to feel guilty, but he doesn't.
If she notices Sirius’s suddenly flushed face, she doesn’t say anything. Instead she asks, “How do you find yourself coping with this, then?”
“It’s weird,” he starts off slowly. “I don’t – where is everybody? I thought…I thought that there would be more people, more familiar faces. What happened to Regulus after he left me with you?”
Lily smiles, and it’s genuine, not at all condescending, and she doesn’t act surprised at his questions, as though she was expecting them to be brought up sooner or later. Probably sooner – because it’s not like Sirius wouldn’t ever notice the fact that they’re well…they’re alone, the three of them in his old flat.
“It’s a little difficult to understand at first,” Lily says, “because it sounds absolutely absurd – ”
“How absurd could it possibly be if we’re in the afterlife? The simple thought that something like this exists is absurd in and of itself,” Sirius butts in.
“That’s true,” Lily nods in acknowledgement, “in the case of non-believers.”
Sirius twists himself so he’s facing her side. “Were you always a believer?”
She looks down briefly, but when she looks up again, she looks directly at him. Honest, true. “Not always.”
“When did you…?”
“After we graduated from Hogwarts and we suddenly found ourselves faced with the threat of war, a very real threat, life began to seem a bit more important to me. Then,” her voice is soft, low, reminiscent, “when we found out that Voldemort was after us, after Harry, it seemed like death was very real and imminent. I began to hope, to pray that there was something more waiting for us. I just couldn’t imagine dying and then having that be the end of it. It was difficult for me to accept that.”
“Yeah,” Sirius murmurs, “I get that.”
She squeezes his hand and clears her throat. “But, back to your other questions.”
“Right. Right, so…other people? Because obviously we’re not the only people to have ever died.”
“Of course not. It’s just that we all, we all have our own lives here. The best way to understand it is that we live in different dimensions, or, cells, boxes. It’s all one place, but there are boundaries, borders that separate you from everyone else. It’s not impossible to see other people, but the thing with the afterlife is that it relies a lot on what you did while living. The connections you’ve made with the people you’ve met. So, say Remus dies in twenty, thirty years…it’s not like you can never see him again, but depending on the type of relationship you had with him during life, that is what decides the impact you’ll make on his life here. The fact, the fact that you’re here with me and James right now, says a lot about your relationship with James,” Lily says knowingly, her eyes bright and certain.
“Lily – ” Sirius begins, hesitates, has no idea what to say.
She untangles her fingers from his and rubs her hand up and down his bare arm, bringing comfort with her touch. “I’m not an idiot,” she whispers, resting her chin on his shoulder. “I’ve always known.”
“We both have our secrets, Sirius.” She presses a chaste kiss to his jaw, before pulling him into a tight hug. “I don’t think I’ll always be here with you. Not forever.”
He casts a questioning glance in her direction, but she ignores him, looks down at her feet again and lets her hair fall, cascade around her face, like a fiery curtain, a shield against his inquisition.
“I’m not ready to let this go, not yet,” she says. “But eventually…” She looks up again, stares at the abandoned shop across the road. “Eventually I’ll just be another ghost of your past.”
She’s smiling again. Sirius thinks she’s just trying to make him feel safe with these harmless smiles, thinks there should be some poison, venom in her words. He finds none.
After a few pregnant pauses, she stands up and reaches for his hand. “C’mon, James will be wondering where we’ve gone off to,” she says, pulling him to his feet.
They walk back to the flat hand-in-hand. Sirius thinks if he wasn’t already sort of, kind of in love with James, he’d definitely want to spend the rest of his afterlife with Lily.
The only one who seems unaffected is Lily, who’s positively beaming. Sirius, he always said that James was the one who shined, who would shine so bright, even in death, because he was always loved. But here, he thinks that Lily – she could outshine them both.
“I could kiss you right now,” he says to her, suddenly. He isn’t sure why he says it, just knows that he really could kiss her right now, if only because she’s finally given him the one thing that had always been unattainable for him: hope.
She laughs, a sound that bubbles up and explodes once it slips past her lips and pulls Sirius close, kissing his cheek.
“Good man,” she whispers, holding him tightly, reassuringly. Sirius can now understand how she’s kept James grounded all these years.
James looks like they’ve both gone crazy, but at least he doesn’t look nervous anymore. Lily pulls away from Sirius, reaches for James and drags him to her for a kiss.
“Today is a good day,” she declares, resting her head in the crook of James’s neck. “A very good day.”
James looks at Sirius, searches for the anger from earlier, the hopelessness. But Sirius shrugs – an apology – knows they’ll sit down and talk later. Maybe the three of them, and work something out, make James understand that Lily knows, has always known that her husband’s heart was never hers to own.
But for now, Lily moves across the room lightly like an angel, an apparition, and she blows the dust from one of Sirius’s old records, slipping it on the phonograph. The first notes hit Sirius like a bullet, a train colliding with him head-on and leaving him to deal with the wreckage, the fragmented pieces of his past.
Lily toes off her shoes and slips her hands into his, casting a cautionary glance in James’s direction. “You’ll get your turn after,” she says airily.
James offers up a small smile and sighs in a way that lets Sirius know that he’s okay, that things will be okay between them eventually. Sirius closes his eyes and lets Lily lead.
James doesn’t try to kiss him, tries to avoid touching him as much as possible after that first night. He sleeps in the bedroom with Lily and Sirius takes the couch – which isn’t all that uncomfortable as long as he sleeps on it the right way, or else he wakes to a sore neck. But then Lily will massage his neck for him, rub out the kinks and sores of old age and really, he doesn’t mind.
Sirius spends his days walking through the empty streets of London. Sometimes he finds a pretty flower and he’ll take it home to Lily, who puts it in a vase with no water, because hey, it’s the afterlife and if people don’t need sustenance to survive, why should nature?
Sirius thinks it all still takes a bit to get used to.
Lily has collected a nice bouquet to sit on their windowsill and whenever Sirius returns to the flat, he inhales deeply, taking in the slight fragrance the flowers give off. It’s refreshing and Sirius feels light again, free.
Their nights are spent listening to old records or sitting by the fireplace, laughing and reminiscing about their childhood. Sirius has forgotten some of the stories Lily and James tell him again. He doesn’t remember the last time he’s laughed this much or felt this young again, but the aches and pains become less frequent and he thinks, maybe, maybe he could someday look like he was twenty-one again.
He mentions this once to Lily and she smiles that god-awful knowing smile and says, “The afterlife, it’s surprising sometimes, you know?” and leaves it at that.
It’s a wonder they haven’t run out of things to say yet but Sirius worries if in a decade, an eternity, will they still have enough words to speak to each other? Would they even notice the silence?
The day is bright and clear when Sirius takes his first step outside for the morning. It’s refreshing after a period of cloudy or rainy days, though he doesn’t mind the rain because it’s cleansing. However, he also likes the sun. Things grow in the sun; they bloom and flourish, and maybe he’s thinking in metaphors, but metaphorically, he’s begun a new life.
He stays out longer today, finds the bench in front of the antique shop and relaxes, thankful for the small gift of warmth because it’s autumn now, and usually a bit cooler, crisper. His eyes are closed and there are patterns spinning behind his eyelids, fluttering against the red-orange backdrop. He hears the shuffle of feet approaching him, but he doesn’t open his eyes, knows that it’s only one of two people. When the bench creaks beneath the weight of the second person and Sirius actually does open his eyes, it isn’t who he expected.
Well, this is ironic, he thinks.
He says, “James.”
James is grinning sheepishly, fiddling with the cuff of his shirt. “Thought it was a nice day to join you,” he replies, answering Sirius’s unspoken question.
“There have been plenty of nice days to join me,” Sirius shoots back.
“Sirius, don’t do this.”
“You can’t even be in the same room with me alone anymore, James. What are we, fifteen again?”
“I can’t – I’m confused, Sirius. After a while, you lose certain emotions here, which I’m sure you’ve noticed, and I wish, I fucking wish confusion was one of them. But it isn’t and I just keep staying awake at night, wondering what I’m supposed to do.”
Sirius bites his lip, wonders if this is the moment Lily was talking about, if the opportunity has presented itself. But it doesn’t feel right; he remains quiet, lets James do the talking.
“I don’t want to lose you, Sirius,” James says. “But I don’t know if I can be the person you want me to be.”
He really just wants to tell James how much of an idiot he is and get it over with. He clenches his fists, feels the frustration pulsing, thrumming through muscle, straight to the bones of his knuckles. He stands up abruptly and paces, tries to tell himself that while punching James in the face would really feel good right now, it’s probably not the best choice of action.
“What sort of person do you think I want you to be?” Sirius asks. “Someone who cheats on his wife?”
Sirius can feel James stand up behind him, can feel his presence overwhelm him, overshadow him, like always.
“You’re too noble,” Sirius sneers, turning until he’s in James’s face, has a couple of inches on him though he still feels inadequate. He feels his stomach churn because Lily, she shouldn’t be dragged into this mess with these angry words. Sirius doesn’t feel guilty but he feels sorry for the things he’s saying. But he can’t stop himself, not when James is standing right there, and fuck, he really just wants to kiss him.
“Someone in this friendship has to be,” James snarls, pushes Sirius back up against the brick wall of the antique shop. Sirius thinks James is making a point to tell him he’s too old for this.
The frustration, it gives way to anger, blinding white and red beneath his eyelids and he relies on reflex, on tendons and muscle to pull his fist back and snap him forward, knuckles grazing James’s cheekbone.
So much for listening to his conscience.
James stumbles back and Sirius slumps slightly, feels the brick scrape harsh, rough, against his back.
James is clutching his face and glaring at Sirius. “What the fuck?”
“I’m so tired of your bullshit, James. Why can’t you just stop being an arrogant prick and get your head out of your ass?”
“I’m the one being arrogant? You presume too much. I just came here to talk, Sirius. Because this, this living forever thing? It’s not going to work if we can’t just…if you can’t just get over your stupid little crush on me.”
Sirius laughs, feels his body shake with hysterics. “Are you serious? Stupid little crush? James, if I remember correctly, you’re the one who came to me the night before your wedding. And my first night here, you came on to me then too. The only reason we’re having a problem here is because you can’t admit that maybe, just maybe you have a stupid little crush on me too.”
James’s face is bright red but Sirius can’t tell if it’s anger or embarrassment.
Sirius gives up. “You are an idiot,” he mutters, holds back the ‘liar’ threatening to slip out. He pushes himself off the wall and brushes past James as he makes his way back home.
James just lets him walk away, fingers still gently nursing his injured cheekbone, his bruised ego.