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The Third Man by Violet Gryfindor
Chapter 1: The Third Man
Author's Note: the style of this story is based on a 1940s film noir that I love too much. That is my explanation for James's odd characterization - as in the film, his role is that of antagonist. One of the limitations of a Sirius/Lily story is what to do with James, and here, I've explored a more negative portrayal - though I don't particularly agree that it's correct.
The song lyrics are from "The Comedians", written by Elvis Costello.
The Third Man
I sat there alone upon the Ferris wheel..
I should be drinking a toast to absent friends,
Instead of these comedians.
I am the third man.
I was there when you lost the first man. You hardly saw me behind the second man when he hung Snivellus in the air by his ankles, your eyes wild and your hair aflame, burning holes through Prongs’s heart. I watched and laughed because it was a fantastic sight, a glorious spectacle.
Even then I knew that you loved Snivellus. I didn’t know why you did, but I could see it in the way you looked at him. You probably just thought that what you felt was friendship, but it was far more than I felt for Prongs or Moony or even Wormtail when he was being particularly brilliant. I could see then that it’d be trouble for Prongs if he really wanted you after all.
“You’ll help, Padfoot, won’t you?”
He would look at me, squinting as he usually did in that last year. He’d been working hard, you see, trying to impress you, which meant hours more studying than he’d ever done in his life. I thought that all the hard work would clinch it for him, but you deserved more than that.
“Of course. What do you need?”
It was the response I’d always given James, the one I’d give him until the day I died.
“I need her to love me, Padfoot. Isn’t that mad?”
I thought of your smile, though it had never shone on either of us.
He didn’t hear me. That was for the best.
“You see, old man, I can’t live without her, but you see how she is toward me. I can’t bear it.”
His eyes were glazed over, pain radiating from the new-forming lines on his face. But I knew that, as soon as someone mentioned Quidditch or our next great prank, they would fade away and he would go off, thinking about anything but you.
“Was it real?” That’s what people would ask for the next year, and afterward, when you two got married. And I would always ask them “Did it matter?” in reply.
I need you to know that I was always friends with James first. I was, after all, only the third man to love you. I held no precedence, no preference. To you, I should have been nothing. To me, you were almost everything.
They always said I had a weakness for a pretty girl.
When I left Gryffindor Tower, having heard your voice echoing down the corridor, I stared into the shadows, the Fat Lady chastising me for poking my head out without the rest of my body following. She was easy enough to ignore, and I heard your light footsteps trailing away. I looked back into the Common Room at sets of owlish eyes. I only looked at Prongs.
“I can look after this. It’s best if she doesn’t see you yet.”
“Good luck, old man.”
Against the protestations of Moony and the Fat Lady alike, I shut the door and went off in search of you. In the meantime, you’d vanished into endless passages and lonely corridors, terribly suited to your mood. It should have been Prongs doing this, the lazy sod, fearful of you now more than ever when he should have been the one on his knees before you, begging for any forgiveness you could muster.
But that wasn’t his style.
“You’re better with women, Padfoot. Admit it.”
I never did. Anyway, you weren’t just any girl.
When I found you at last, you were standing in the middle of a corridor, tears running down your face unchecked, as though you were the only thing left in the world, your feelings the only ones that mattered.
You were right.
What did Prongs and Snivellus know, treating you like they did? For all of my loyalty to James, I thought that, in regard to you, he was an unfeeling idiot. What did he know about love? If he really cared about you, he wouldn’t have gone after Snivellus, dirty Slytherin that he was. No, if Prongs really wanted you, he would have charmed you, seduced you, made you laugh, made you not just want, but need him.
He was an idiot. I hoped to be something a little smarter.
You didn’t seem to have heard, but when I placed my hands on your shoulders, you were not frightened. I squeezed them gently and you cried harder, holding your hands to your face, unable to hold back the emotion that, for days now, had welled up inside of you, only finding outlet in rage.
The only words I could think of to say were silly and clichéd, but I meant them. I wanted them to be true, if only for Prongs’s sake.
“It’ll be alright.”
One day, he would thank me for this.
I showed up at your door right on time, an August afternoon long past the dead of winter. You whisked me off before your parents could see me, though I’d been careful to comb my hair in a respectable way and make sure that my Muggle clothes were appropriately sombre. No ruby red tie and plaid sports jacket for me that day, though I hated leaving them behind.
“This is a surprise,” you said quietly, the ever-suspicious. Rightly so, to a degree.
“A good one, I hope.” It was easy to smile at you. Something about you, even when your face was set in the deepest scowl, welcomed it.
You swept the hair out of your eyes with a negligent hand. “Oozing charm today. You’re definitely here for Potter’s sake.”
I managed what I hoped was an equally negligent shrug. “He can’t stand these Muggle fairs. The Ferris wheel makes his head spin.”
“Don’t tell me he’s afraid of heights.” You raised one of your elegant, pale eyebrows.
A nerve in the corner of my mouth twitched. “No, it’s his heart. It can’t handle being up there alone with a girl.”
“Especially a pretty one?”
“Oh, that just makes it worse.”
You laughed then, and I think it was in that moment that I was lost. You could talk with me like you never could with him, and I hoped for Merlin’s sake that it hadn’t been like this between you and Snivellus. Now there was something my heart couldn’t handle.
We came into the noise and lights and colour, the bustle of shrieking children and harried parents, of balloon sellers and men in clown suits hawking cotton candy and candy apples. You did not have stars in your eyes, having seen all of this before, every year stretching back into your infancy, but there was a flush upon your cheeks as you dragged me toward the towering wheel, a sort of impish glee in the twist of your smile.
“Come on, Sirius! Let’s test your heart.”
If you only knew that it already had been tested, that, even at that very moment, I was tied to the stake while they threw the torches at my feet, I was tossed into the water, my hands tied behind my back. They were trying me for treason and I was guilty.
There had to be limits to a friendship, even the kind that I shared with James. We would live and die for one another, fighting to the end side by side. We would go down in flames, and nothing could possibly come between us. Until you. Until that moment when, at the very top, you gasped at sudden halt of the wheel’s motion. I had seen the boy in front of us tip the operator for an extra moment with his girl.
What I got was an extra moment with the girl my best friend loved.
“Yes?” I shifted awkwardly, our shoulders knocking together.
You pulled down on the hem of your skirt. “I’m cold.”
It was summer, but I supposed that there was a little breeze in the air, a hint of autumn already rearing its ugly head, reminding us both that time was waning, that night was falling around us, life crashing in on the dream.
I put my arm around you. It was all I could think of to do, and you didn’t complain, moving closer, forcing my spine to turn at a painful angle, but I didn’t complain, especially when you head leaned back against my shoulder, even when the wind blew your hair into my face. Maybe I was mistaken, but after a time, you let out a sigh, a low, sad sigh.
This time, I did not shift awkwardly, did not dare to move. “Yes?”
“We’re starting to move again.”
Slowly, surely, the wheel creaked to life once more.
“So we are.”
Another pause, another sigh. We neared the quarter-mark.
“Kiss me, dammit.”
For a moment, I was not the third man.
I was the only man.
Things were different after that. James suspected that something was up, and my assurances that I was getting closer to making you think well of him did nothing to keep him from seeing that I was as in love with you as he was.
He couldn’t fathom that I loved you more.
“What are you up to, old man?” There were red blotches on his cheeks. I thought they were from too much sun.
He’d caught me whistling a little tune, the same that we’d heard at the fair, not that he knew that. It came to mind whenever I thought of you those days (it does even now, though it’s too late to call you back from the dead), those happy days at the end of summer before our seventh year, the first and last decent summer I’d had.
“What d’you mean?” I looked at him with innocent eyes.
He adjusted his glasses, thinking it made him seem older. “You spend all your time with her now. One would think–”
I put up my hands and took a step back. “Hey, hey, it’s not like that.”
There was a spark of pain in his eyes that cut me deep. I’d never seen him look like that before. I never thought that I’d be the one to make him look that way. It made my innocent eyes turn guilty with the knowledge that he’d trusted me with something, and I’d betrayed him. I’d fallen for the girl he loved and nearly stolen her away from under his nose.
“Honest?” His features were relaxing, but my heart beat faster.
The memory of her kiss, and the kisses afterwards, was clear, too clear. One spell and he’d have them out of me, clasped in his hands.
“Honest.” I gave him a sideways smile and turned away.
What had I done? To him, to you, to me? I was meant to be on the outside of this, a simple go-between to sweeten you up for James when autumn came. You would have hated me if you’d known, back then, what I’d been doing for him. Perhaps you did know. If you did, then it was your choice to have me and not him. But, then again, if it had been your choice, would you have chosen me in the end?
One smile from you and caution was tossed into the wind. There are limits to every friendship, I told myself. If James wanted you, he could damn well come and get you himself. I wouldn’t easily set aside my prize, however accidentally it had been won.
“You’re quiet today,” you teased, throwing a spent daisy at my head. You’d picked off all the petals, but never spoke of the outcome. Love you or love you not?
I lay back in the grass and stared up at the sky, the clouds floating past on their pleasant way. We never went into the city, never left the area around your home. James’s fear was that, if you and I were to be seen together by other wizards, we would cause a stir, an endless tirade of rumours that would endanger us all, but particularly you.
I never complained. You were different here, more comfortable, natural, free.
“What has Potter been doing while you’ve been here?”
You were a sharp one, always on the ball.
Raising myself up on one arm, I pulled the mutilated daisy from my hair.
“You know what he’s like.”
I watched you through hooded eyes and couldn’t help but admire what I saw. Any hint of that adolescent awkwardness you may have had was gone and there you were, a full-blooded woman sitting beside me on the grass in a lonely field under the late summer sun. Anything could have happened.
You shifted closer, slipping another flower, this time still whole, into my hair.
“I wish he was more like you.”
Your hands found themselves on my shoulders, your face leaning over mine.
“Why’s that?” I looked up into your eyes, glad that I was still able to speak.
The smile on your face was more than a little sad. “Because you’re the only boy who hasn’t wanted me.” You kissed me once on the forehead. “Who hasn’t looked me up and down.” You kissed my eyes. “Who hasn’t put me on a pedestal.” Then the tip of my nose. “And worshipped me from afar.”
Your lips finally met mine, my hands already reaching around your waist as the ground came up to meet us, the earth our pillow, the grass our sheets, and the sun beating down above the blanket that kept us warm.
The summer ended too soon. When we returned to Hogwarts, you said I changed and you were right. James watched us with dark-smudged eyes and I knew he hated me for what I had and he did not. You, or the something that had captured you. I was never certain.
Under his gaze, I felt the chill of winter even as the swan song of summer resounded through our ears. I could not kiss you in dark corridors behind suits of armour when I knew he could be behind the next. I could not sit beside you in class because he called on my allegiance. I would stop before the tapestry of Camelot and feel at one with Lancelot.
I know what you will ask next. The repetition is inevitable.
“Are you alright?”
You touch my arm with reassuringly solid hands. I gestured toward the tapestry.
“It’s how I see it, all of this. James here.” I pointed to Arthur, King of the Britons. “You there.” To Guinevere beside him. “And then there’s me.” The kneeling knight, head bowed low, his sword flat in his hands, offered up to the king. I imagined a look of distain on Arthur’s face that you would never see.
“But you’re Sirius Black,” was all you said, head tilted knowingly.
I never knew what you meant. Perhaps it was that, on the order of things, my family was more noble, more pure, and thus I should have been the king. Or perhaps it was the more logical, the most logical, as you always were, answer: I was Sirius Black, not Lancelot.
You were tender and kind, and I wonder if you could understand what it would be like to enter my dormitory and find James there, waiting, that look on his face. I will not tell him where I have been, and thus he will know that I have been with you, his Lily. Yes, his. You’ve always been marked for him.
It’s not that you tired of me quickly, or that I tired of you. It’s like I said, you were meant to be his, not mine, not Snape’s. James’s.
I no longer saw that suspicion in his eyes the day that you were to be married and I felt myself brighten inside. No longer Black and black alone. The trust, the friendship, it was all still there, unearthed by the proof of my loyalty and love.
He gripped my hand and shook it before he was to leave the room, with me to follow.
“I owe you everything, old man. Everything.”
He pulled from me a laugh and a smile. “No hard feelings, Prongs?”
His laugh was stilted, but only at first. “It was a close one, wasn’t it.”
I nodded although he did not ask it as a question. Something started shaking within me. The thought of you, perhaps, coming down the aisle toward us, but to stand beside him instead of me, to exchange vows with him, to leave with him, to be with him until the end.
But he was my friend, my best friend, the friend I would live and die for. I would not have forsaken that friendship for anything, even you, especially you.
You told me once that James did not deserve such regard. He was too much the prankster at heart, his manipulative mind seeing only the end and not the middle, seeing what he wanted and only that. Were you, then, sad that I let you go so that you could be his? Did you believe that I could feel more for him than I could for you?
We all have our weaknesses.
“Are you coming?”
He was standing by the door, brushing back his hair with an easy hand, but of course his hair would not stay in place, even with the strongest sticking spell. He showed not an iota of anxiety or anticipation, only satisfaction.
For a moment, I wondered whether, had I been him and he me, would he have done the same? Would he have given you up?
When I followed him, I was glad that he could not see my face.
I am the third man.
The first is lost. He had you, but had he loved you, he would have saved you.
The second is dead. He wanted you, but had he loved you, he would have saved you.
I must not have loved you, not enough. All the times that I’ve gone over in my head the times that I could have saved you from your fate have driven me mad. It is not Azkaban, nor the dementors. It is the thought of you that chips away at my soul, driving cracks through my sanity.
Sometimes I see you in the light. Never the darkness. You are there on that summer’s day. I always remember the date. You are there with me on the Ferris wheel, high above the clouds, watching the little ants below who live and die and make no mark. You are there in the lonely corridors where, with quiet voices, we find comfort with each other.
In each other.
You are still in all those places, alive as you once were, and when you turn your face to mine, your lips touching mine, I know that it is I who must be dead.