The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen—it’s not gasps and blood and falling about—that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all—now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back—an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.
You open your eyes in darkness.
It is oppressive, filling in around you like a wool coat, damp and prickly against your skin. It is familiar, and you recognize the cool absence of light, are unsurprised by the failure of the stars to shine. It should be silent, but somewhere off to the left you can hear the ragged rise and fall of breathing, catching tightly on the inhales before sighing gently out, and you know that you are not alone. You can feel the faintest sea-salt breeze on your skin, but it has no source you can discern.
There is something you are supposed to remember: a purpose, a task, a message to deliver. It is elusive, like the breeze, and whispers away into the unsuspecting dark.
You have been here before.
“Hello?” You reach for your wand as you fall, instinct ingrained by years of practise.
You land in a tight crouch, feet impacting with a crunch and rustle on what sounds like a blanket of autumn leaves. “Sirius?”
There is a sharp gasp behind you. “Oh god.” His voice is almost too soft to catch, but you would know it anywhere.
“Lumos,” you murmur, and light shatters the darkness. You are turning, stumbling forward before you can think, reaching for him with tears against your eyes and his name on your lips. He is hesitant, as though he has forgotten touch, but then his cold hands are cupping your face and he is kissing you like it’s a revelation.
“How long?” He asks when both of you can breathe again.
“How long for you?”
“I don’t know.” It doesn’t seem to bother him.
You wonder how meaningless time is, here; if it is years or seconds that he has been sitting on the same flat rock in the midst of a sea of brilliant scarlets and sunflower golds. You doubt the seasons change and you cannot see the sky. The light turns dusky blue, then brown around the edges, then tapers out into black.
“Where do the leaves come from?” There aren’t any trees.
He shrugs. “This isn’t a real place.”
Maybe not, but you wish it made sense anyway. There should be trees, if there are leaves, natural light, if it is autumn. It smells strangely like the sea, and the faint breeze that brushes your face should not be wet with spray. You frown, and he laughs.
“It’s not logical, Remus.” Then, more softly, “It doesn’t have to be.”
You wonder when he turned philosophical, but you don’t ask that, either. Instead, you sit next to him on the rock and rest your head on his shoulder until he wraps you in his arms. Silence settles in again, enveloping you in a blanket of something vaguely like contentment.
“I’m glad I found you,” you whisper in his ear before sound forsakes you.
Harry’s letter found you at a cabin in Wales.
Bring him back, it said, two lines in a scrawl too childish for his nearly sixteen years. I know you can.
You were rational, skeptical, collected. You stopped Harry from chasing after Sirius when he fell, remained calm throughout the painful aftermath, kept yourself pasted together with a glue of memories and desperation. But once the idea took root you couldn’t shake it. You told yourself that you looked into it merely to prove Harry wrong, to grant him closure.
A handful of questions asked in the right places, a trip to Knockturn alley under the cover of a moonless night, a raid on the restricted section of the Hogwarts Library, and you were left with a scattering of inconclusive answers. You sorted them with a professor’s eye, categorizing and denying until the pattern came clear: tea leaves in an abandoned cup at Grimmauld place, I-Ching cast on a blank stone floor, cards littering ragged black cloth, and you knew.
In the end, all it came down to was stepping through the veil yourself.
“What is this place?” You are stretched out on the ground, lazy and relaxed in a cushiony pile of crackling leaves.
“Limbo, I suppose,” he replies.
You make snow angel movements with your arms and legs until the leaves scatter into new drifts. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“Maybe it’s a waiting-place for somewhere else,” he offers dubiously.
You don’t think that’s right either, but it may matter in the abstract way that stories do to spells. You’re certain you should be taking notes, and search for a quill to write them down.
In your pockets are a burnt down match, a knotted piece of string, a folded scrap of paper with the diagram of an equation, half a bar of chocolate, and variously coloured lint.
You break the chocolate in two and hand him the larger piece.
“Thanks.” He grins, and you can see the ghost of youth around his hollowed-out cheeks. You are reminded of Merlin aging backwards.
“Was it very awful?”
He is silent as he finishes the chocolate. “I don’t really remember.” You wait as he unfolds the wrapper and smoothes it out against his thigh. When he speaks, it is matter-of-factly.
“I remember Harry like he’s a story I was told. There’s no solidity in my senses, no visual memory of a face that’s his and isn’t James’, nothing tactile, or tangible, no auditory recollection of his voice. I don’t remember being quarantined at Grimmauld place. I know Arthur Weasley has children, but I can’t picture them.”
He refolds the corners of the wrapper and flips it over, fingers moving against his words. “We’re outside the action. It’s not our story anymore.”
You are lost. “Sirius—“
“Am I?” He laughs. “I never thought so.” He flicks a few more folds in the wrapper and sets the finished structure on the rock between you. It is a paper boat, scattered with chocolate smudges and printed lettering.
The breeze rocks the boat gently back and forth until you are distracted by your senses. “Do you smell the sea?”
“Of course. It comes in on the breeze.”
“Yes, but where does the breeze come from?”
He points. “That way, I think.”
How can you be sure?”
He leans forward across the boat and twines his fingers in your hair. “I’m not. I’m never sure of anything.”
You remember being lost once before, somewhere where the portraits asked riddles and the stairways moved without reason. You remember whispers and giggles in dark hallways, arms tight around each other, breath mingling in choked-off gasps. You remember pearly antlers and dark eyes, canine smiles and pranks gone awry, ramshackle glasses, unkempt robes, misplaced homework, and the easy camaraderie of children.
You remember a wedding in red and white and gold, rooms filled with music, dancing, and laughter. You remember the headiness of fighting for a cause you believed in, the fearlessness of youth in the face of danger, the thrill of escaping death for the fifth, tenth, twentieth time.
You remember the transition from laughter to grief as you knelt on a charred floor you weren’t supposed to be able to find. You remember standing in the rain, straining desperately for the roar of a motorbike. You remember the quiet aches of anger and loss, of sleepless nights, of a cold and empty bed.
You remember reunion and restoration, the revision of history you thought you knew. You remember mistakes leading to a whispering wind and a tattered veil, flashing lights and a long, seamless fall.
The memories are blurred and faded with distance.
“Are you ready to go?”
You sit up against the rock, stretching a spine no longer achingly brittle. “Home. Didn’t I say?” You think you did, but the recollection has crept away on slippered feet.
He nods, delighted. “Oh yes. Home. I expect they’re wondering what has taken us so long.” His words are smiling, but do not reach his eyes.
You are caught by his phrasing, “Has it?”
“Been a long time?” It’s like the arithmancy lessons where you’d found the solution but hadn’t grasped the pattern of the problem.
He shrugs. “Maybe. You don’t really keep track when you’re dead.”
“That’s not funny, Sirius.” You fix him with penetrating eyes. “You’re not, are you?”
“Don’t you think you’d notice?” He grins wickedly, and you cannot stop your mouth from quirking in response.
“Anyway, I doubt death would be like this.” He picks up a leaf and begins to shred it along the veins.
It would be quiet and strange, timeless and mythic. There would be a river, somewhere, that smelled like the ocean. You wonder where the challenges are, the three-headed dogs and scales to weigh your heart. “Are you afraid of it?” You never talked about death when you were children, but children rarely do.
“No,” he says. “I’m more afraid of immortality.”
You used to have a comforting response to fears, something calm and memorized to warm the chilled air like cider in December, but it has gone the way of answers. “What do you remember?”
“After all the things I’ve forgotten?” He climbs off the rock and stretches out beside you on the ground.
He crosses his arms beneath his head and leans back, staring up at the nonexistent sky. “Whispering in a hallway, dancing at a wedding. Finding Lily and James. You, older and more battered than my dreams. Flashing lights. The call of the moon. Landing.”
“Those are my memories,” you say.
He smiles at you, and says nothing. After a while you lie back down in the leaves and pillow your head on his chest. One of his arms comes around to hold you close.
You might fall asleep, or time might still. It makes no difference.
James once cornered you about Sirius.
“You watch him like he’s going to disappear, but he won’t. Not this time. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“You’ve seen what happens when I rely on him,” you said.
James shook his head. “He doesn’t betray his friends.”
You frowned. “Doesn’t he?”
James ran a hand through his wild hair, the gesture endearingly familiar. “Try trusting him. I do.” His eyes were green behind his glasses, but James’ eyes were brown, and maybe it wasn’t James after all.
“We should be getting on.”
“Yes.” Standing is disorienting, and it takes a moment to reestablish balance with no horizon to fix your eyes upon.
“Which way do we go?” He asks.
You frown. You had a map once, but it is buried in the layers of leaves.
“I’m sure I marked the path.” There were candles laid in a careful pattern, blood, sage, and a burning silver-backed mirror. At the Department of Mysteries you traced a circle around the dais in white and black sand.
“I don’t remember.” You say dismally.
“We could pick a direction,” he suggests, watching you with worried eyes.
“This was supposed to be simple.” You sink down on the rock and bury your head in your hands.
He slings an arm around your shoulders. “Don’t worry about it. You always worry too much.” He sounds 17 again, firm in the belief that everything is easy. You are slightly cheered.
“Anyway,” he continues, “we’ll figure it out together.”
You raise your head and meet his bottomless eyes. They remind you, distantly, of a scrap of ancient cloth fluttering in stillness. You can almost feel yourself falling, the bottom flying out of your stomach on butterfly wings.
He smiles. “You’re with me now. That’s what matters.” You think you may have had this conversation before, but you match his smile anyway.
“I love you,” you say. It comes naturally with the breeze and ruffles the hair at the back of your neck. It is not your story, anymore.
“I know. I won’t ever forget that.” He plants a sloppy kiss on the corner of your mouth and you turn your head to meet it.
“Besides,” he adds, his lips brushing against yours, “anything could happen yet.”
You have been here before.
There are leaves all around you, crisp and crackling in the faint autumnal breeze. The air has the cool sharpness of October, but the light is too strange for you to accurately name time or season. You can smell the salt of the sea, far beyond the ghostly edges of your vision.
You should be cold, but you are curled around a warm presence, soft and hard in turns and achingly familiar. Lying on the rock beside you is a wand, still glowing faintly at the tip. The light it casts is spreading out, widening in shaded stripes of sienna brown and smoky blue, fading into the indiscernible distance. Somewhere, the sun is rising.
You close your eyes against the light.
…It’s the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound….