A/N: Thanks to everyone who's been patient, and for the great reviews last chapter! Let's keep them coming!
He had blacked out, quite literally. When the waves of pain pulsing through his skull had receded, he had thought only vaguely that his consciousness was slipping. It was a long while before he recognized the black in front of his face as something called darkness, and an even longer while before he realized where he was.
He had returned to beyond the veil.
James’s anguished cry still echoed in his ears, through the years and through the veil. As it appeared to him, strange things such as these seemed to happen often here. “Sirius!”
“James,” Sirius mumbled into the ground his face was still pressed against. “Prongs, I…I saved your sodding life.”
“Nothing short of it would have earned his forgiveness, I’m afraid,” Merlin said from above him. Sirius, who had returned to his body with a worse ache of guilt than any other time, had indeed forgotten his presence until now, when the sudden light of his scales blazed into sight and blinded his open eyes.
Sirius groaned aloud, shielding his eyes and urging his sluggish brain to work again. It was impossible to repress the guilt.
“You were young, you were drunk, and you had no awareness for what you were doing,” Merlin said forgivingly, anticipating or perhaps knowing what Sirius was about to do. “Although in my days, sixteen-year-olds certainly didn’t throw parties like that. Especially at school.
“In the end, what you did the night of the full moon by far outweighed your actions on that other night,” he continued soothingly. “But I think you know that.”
Now awake and recovered, Sirius would not be soothed. The guilt inspired from this latest episode of his life tore at his soul like nothing else could. In the past, as it was the first time around, it had taken him years to get over the feeling. But here, behind the arch, time seemed to pass slowly, if at all. Who knew how long it would take him to forget again, if he were stuck here for all eternity?
Was he scared of it? The prospect of falling and Vanishing forever was more welcome. He was so afraid and angry that he could not speak.
“Why the hell did you make that last so long?!” Sirius burst forth when he finally found his voice again. In his anger he didn’t care whether the question sounded stupid or not. Merlin would already think him the worst humanly possible, after what he had seen, so to add idiocy to his repertoire wouldn’t be much.
“Every second was torture, twice over!” he roared. Words were just pouring out from his heart, his anger lashing out at Merlin over what Sirius couldn’t control. “I had to watch myself again, be myself again, and I could change nothing!
“What was this for? What did you learn about me?” he raged. “What could you have to gain from this? Don't you know how difficult this was? You don't know what I had to do to make myself understood…”
Tears were coursing down his cheeks in furious frustration as Sirius stood, only a human channel through which strange, old magic could come and go as it pleased. This, he felt, was beyond disrespectful. It was the invasion of painful memories that he had not wanted to remember. It was just too bad that Merlin could defy anything and everything in his mad realm beyond the veil, and that Sirius was helpless to protect his own thoughts. He, like James, hated being helpless.
“Your anger is understandable,” Merlin said patiently. Again, Sirius was reminded of the same painfully slow patience and tolerance used long ago, far away, by a man named Albus Dumbledore. But his memories did not help him. He felt like screaming.
“But it was not I who invaded your memories, dear boy. It was your wand who thought it was important to show them to me.” Merlin sighed. “Though you may deny it, I’m sure these few weeks were very important to you.”
Sirius looked at him, met his gaze for the first time with haunted, sorrowful eyes. He could not bear to dive back into what he had just escaped.
“Your wand knows you better than any person, Sirius Black. It knows what defines and alters you, even before you were introduced to wizardry. It knows your memories, dear boy, because the wand and the wizard are one.
“The weighing of your wand shows me what is important to your fabrication, as I have told you, so that I may judge your worthiness of return. I have no answer as to why it chose to stay so long in that particular time, but perhaps you do.”
Sirius mumbled something incoherently, something that sounded suspiciously like “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But dear boy, everyone makes mistakes. Yours were not out of malice, but pure accident. Misunderstanding and ignorance. Do not be ashamed, Sirius Black. I have not judged you yet by what I have seen. I would like to know first why your wand knows that this meant so much to you.”
“It didn’t,” Sirius lied with a non-committal air.
“You are not a liar,” Merlin warned. “And the wand never lies.”
“Okay, I don't deny it,” he settled for muttering. “It was terrible, but yes, it was important.” Silence fell for a few moments as Merlin waited patiently.
Sirius sighed. “There was nothing more important to me in my life,” he admitted. “I felt like such scum! I had lost my best friend and brother, all by a disgraceful folly that was utterly my fault and my responsibility. Before that, I had been such an inconsiderate child. I was immature. But I think that changed me for good--I could finally put my priorities straight and realizing what it meant to live and be loyal.”
Merlin shook his head amusedly. “And you were sixteen?”
“Yes,” Sirius said defiantly. He did not appreciate Merlin’s laughing at him. He didn’t find the situation amusing in the least.
Merlin sobered up immediately at Sirius’s expression. “It sounds as though your midlife crisis came early,” he said seriously. “Most people, even wizards, do not reach that point of understanding, such foresight and hindsight, both retrospect and introspect, until their middle years.”
“My midlife crisis came early,” Sirius repeated slowly. He still had yet to come to terms with himself on this. “That makes sense, somewhat. After this, I had felt so old and burdened for the longest time. I began to spend a lot of time thinking, as you saw, thinking about nothing in particular. My life had been falling apart at the seams.”
“Friendship is important,” Merlin said. “Life would indeed fall apart at the seams without it. But it seems that you had learned just that.”
Sirius struggled to control another sudden urge to cry. He had cried more here, under this blasted arch, than he had cried in all his years at Azkaban. It struck him as funny, but he refused to laugh.
Merlin heard this thought, but did not seem entirely surprised. “Azkaban?” he asked. “What did you do to get sent to Azkaban?”
Sirius took a deep breath. He had known this was coming eventually, of course. But unlike the last cluster of events, it didn’t seem as painful to talk about as it did to keep it all inside.
“Voldemort killed James and Lily,” he began hoarsely, venom in his voice. “They were under the protection of the Fidelus Charm, but I wasn’t the one who broke its fidelity,” he explained hurriedly.
“James had wanted to trust it to me. We were best mates again, and all hard feelings forgotten. But Dumbledore told him it was safer with Wormtail—Pete, as we called him back then—because he was the last person Voldemort would ever think of torturing their whereabouts out of. He was protecting me, I think.
“But a lot of good it did, in the end,” Sirius snarled, voice cracking. “James and Lily ended up dead! And I ended up in Azkaban, because after Wormtail betrayed the Potters to Voldemort, I hunted him down.”
Sirius met Merlin’s heavy gaze steadily, challenging him to laugh. Of course, he did not, and expressed no surprise.
“I had to get him for what he had done. He ran, he hid like the rat that he was, but I found him. And in the middle of a London street, I tried to get him to talk to me. He was cornered, with nowhere to run. So he blasted the street wide open, changed into a rat, and ran in the commotion.
“I got sent to Azkaban. I was already half-insane by then, after letting Wormtail escape right through my fingers. All those Muggles that weren’t killed by the blast needed their minds wiped clean, and they all thought I killed Wormtail, too. But I sat in Azkaban, for twelve long years, all the while knowing that somewhere out there, Wormtail was still alive.
“It killed me to wait there forever. I knew I couldn't die without revenge, so I escaped. I have been hiding from the Ministry ever since. I reckon you didn’t expect to hear that, did you?”
Sirius glared at Merlin, driven half-insane again by the telling of the story itself, daring him to contradict, daring him to judge his actions and tell him that because he been in the wizard prison, that he was never to leave the prison in which he was held now.
“No,” Merlin said softly, shaking his head. “I did not.” He sighed. “It is a shame for one to have so many small tragedies, so young.”
Sirius was surprised, and taken aback, at Merlin’s sympathy. He was supposedly a timeless man and wizard, one who was very, very old. He was only supposed to care about whether or not to let Sirius back into the real world. How could he know about tragedies?
“To live long is to know much,” Merlin whispered, sounding old and defeated for the first time. “But timelessness is not always a good thing to possess, and neither is knowledge. It weighs on the mind, and indeed, the heart.”
The two men, old and young, stood stupidly for a long time, considering each other. “You’re lonely,” Sirius said finally.
He thought guiltily of the eagerness with which he sought to escape this place. What if Merlin had secretly wished to do the same? Tragedies could come in all forms.
“Never you mind about that,” Merlin interrupted his thoughts briskly. “Azkaban cannot have really been as bad as they say, if it has failed to leave even the slightest mark.” His voice was dry and stiff.
“And why do you say that?” Sirius asked sharply, offended.
“Your wand has not judged it as an important part of your life. I would not argue with it, nor could you.”
Sirius knew they were going around in circles again. Instead, he closed his eyes, and his brain fell back into what he did many a night: remembering Azkaban.
But this time it was different. Under the arch, everything was real. Immediately the cold began to drift in through the veil, enveloping him and chilling him to the bones. On his vision images began to play.
There was a long, colorless hall, and dimly lit, though a thousand torches could not have lifted the dark. The end of the hall was not visible no matter how far along he walked.
He lost count of the cells he passed, from which on the left and right continuously came jeers and howls and snarls. Some of the voices were neither human nor creature. Those were the ones who had been caged so long that they no longer knew which they were.
His legs propelled him into a cell of his own, a sad, bare room. The door slammed behind him with a metallic echo that rang in his ears.
The cold was almost unbearable now. Shivering, he looked up near the ceiling. There was one small barred window, nearly a slit, from which the moonlight came through. And that was the clock by which he recorded his life, sunrise and sunset. Every sunrise, he carved a mark on his wall. And every sunset, he would collapse into his bed with only the prospect of carving another mark in the morning.
His mind raced, despair sometimes overwhelming him in floods, filling his nose and mouth thickly like water. That was when the dementors passed in the hall. The whole world would seemingly black out, like the dark, endless tunnel.
But for Sirius there was a small consolation, a small light in the dark. He held onto the thought, for it could spare his sanity.
He followed the thought in desperation, followed the light. The cold’s silent suffocation and the despair of the dementors released their hold on him, and Sirius fell back to where his body stood. He pried his eyes back open to stare at Merlin.
“What do you mean, dear boy?”
“I spent twelve years in that godforsaken place. But it all just seemed to flow right by. I didn’t really go insane, did I?”
“You do not seem insane to me,” Merlin said slowly. “It could just be post-traumatic stress.” He chuckled. “You had a thought, a light, that you followed back, and it preserved your sanity. That is most unusual. What was it?”
Sirius frowned. He didn’t know. The thought, the light that created an end to the endless tunnel of Azkaban…what was it?
He had always taken it for granted, sitting in Azkaban as it brewed in his mind. He had faced each sunrise and sunset with a certain awe for himself and his meager existence, and the miracle that he was still surviving with his mind healthy and intact…
Merlin shook his head. This man in front of him defied all he had come to learn about wizards and humanity. “It is puzzling, you know, how you place more importance on a month in your sixth year than twelve years in a wizard prison, dear boy.”
Sirius turned away from Merlin’s stern gaze. “You think me foolish,” Sirius said.
“I do not think anything. I wish for an explanation,” Merlin said calmly.
Sirius sighed. Why did this have to be so difficult? But there was no getting around it. Merlin could defy anything and everything, in his mad realm beyond the veil, and Sirius was helpless to protect his own thoughts.
He supposed, with more than a twinge of guilt, that the less he argued with Merlin, the faster he could leave the arch.
Maturity, he knew he could claim. After all, hadn’t Merlin himself said that his midlife crisis had given him maturity beyond his years? Maybe, the difference was that, maturity. Certainly the claim seemed plausible.
But had he really been so mature, would he have gone chasing after Wormtail like a crazed madman? Behind Wormtail, there was Voldemort to contend with. Placing oneself at odds with Wormtail, who was only a disposable vessel, meant placing oneself at odds with his owner Voldemort.
No…it had to be more than that. It was more than the sanity he had taken for granted.
He was prompted to say innocence, for no conceivable reason. For certain beyond all doubt, he had already been experienced in emotions more complicated; and it was not innocence (or the lack thereof) that saved him.
“Innocence,” Merlin mused, more to himself than Sirius. “Were you?”
Sirius was startled. He had forgotten that Merlin could read his thoughts, and a flush of embarrassment rose to his cheeks. “Was I what?”
“Were you innocent of the crime they locked you in Azkaban for?”
“Of course,” Sirius replied immediately with conviction. “I told you already, it was Wormtail who blasted that street to pieces in order to escape me. I only cornered him so I could make it known that his betrayal had led to the death of the Potters.” He paused. “Although to be fair, had he given me the chance I may well have killed him. I was out of control.”
“But you didn’t,” Merlin said. He now sounded certain, but about what Sirius had no idea. “You were innocent.”
“Yeah, so what? I knew this already.”
“Yes,” Merlin said triumphantly. He had finally gotten through to this dense man before him. “You knew it in Azkaban, and you knew it now. You knew you weren’t a bad person for being locked in there. You knew you were innocent.”
“So that’s it?” Sirius asked dubiously. “I definitely knew I wasn’t innocent of messing around with Lily that time.”
Merlin nodded, and Sirius frowned. “I could’ve felt a lot worse in Azkaban about what I’d done,” he said thoughtfully. “And…didn’t we just agree that I didn’t actually do anything?”
Merlin sighed, feeling a sudden urge to laugh. So this was what it was like to be human, he thought to himself. To Sirius, he asked patronizingly, “So why wasn’t Azkaban your mid-life crisis in lieu of what happened in your sixth year?”
Sirius stared at him, anger beginning to bubble up again. He didn’t know. He would never know, which meant he would never get back to the real world. “If you know, why don’t you just tell me?!”
Merlin was too dignified to roll his eyes. Instead, he said, “You knew you were innocent in Azkaban. It saved your soul from being eaten by the dementors’ despair, and your own guilt. But the mid-life crisis? You knew you were not innocent. You deserved all the punishment you received.”
Merlin was telling him the answer. This bit did not register in Sirius’s mind, still filled with desperate thoughts of the real world. With these came a hilarious realization.
Pushing back the lump of frustration in his throat, Sirius laughed bitterly. “Well, I suppose if I were to die now, it really would have happened in mid-life. I was only sixteen, but I had not more than twenty more years to live anyway, as it turns out.”
“How many times must I tell you that this is not the parting between life and death?” Merlin did not shout for all his aggravation. He only spoke harshly. Sirius could not help it, but he had managed again to try Merlin’s patience of a million years. “You are not dead yet, Sirius Black!”
Sirius threw his hands up in the air. “And does it make a difference?” he cried in anguish. “Whether I myself am alive or dead, now or later, does it matter if I am never again to see those I love who are still living?”
Sudden sympathy flickered across Merlin’s eyes, not for the first time. He regarded Sirius as something he would be sorry to part with. “I’m sorry you lost James and Lily to the Dark Lord, dear boy. But you seem all the more eager to return though your best friend and his wife are gone. Why is that so?”
The brilliance of the Weighing scales, which had faded while they had been talking, flared stronger than ever.
Sirius sighed, almost resigned to another trip back into the past. He was a seasoned traveler now. He was a martyr.
“I have not yet lost everything,” he told Merlin a split second before he was yanked away once more.
A/N: Yes, another mild cliffie. Not much action this chapter, but I feel like it was about time I explained things and started tying up the story. I hope this chapter was enlightening, and reviews would be appreciated. Thanks! :D