The rush of air against his face was no longer stale. There was some new quality to it, not fresh, but something different. No scent, no bitter taste on his tongue. It was not the air he was used to, yet his lungs took it in as they always had, noticing no difference. He was reminded of the time he’d gone off into the hills around Hogwarts, climbing higher and higher, his head swimming as air became scarce. But it was not the same feeling.
Blinded. The red light that had, just moments before, filled his sight was replaced by soft white light. Morning light, perhaps, or something like that. Even in its softness, his eyelids preferred to remain closed, just as they had all those mornings in the past.
What past? Beyond the red light, he knew nothing. His head was very clear. Empty, even. There should have been something there: some memory, something that screamed of familiarity. Nothing came to mind. Panic took root in his heart; he imagined muscle thumping loudly against his chest, just like it had when.... When what?
A tiny spark, that’s all there’d been. It had faded before he could grasp it, tear it apart searching for all the things that should have been flooding his mind. There should have been something there, anything at all. The first time he tied his shoelace; seeing a friend after a long absence; being with someone he loved.... He had remembered a place called Hogwarts, wherever that was, climbing those hills and had remember the red light. How could have he known those things?
He struggled to open his eyes, expecting to see something he recognized. And he did, in a way. It was a village common, green and untouched, so open and inviting, so familiar. A touch of knowing in his head that blew away with the unfelt breeze. There was no one in sight: no person, no animal, not even a bloody insect. This world was empty, except for his physical presence, and he didn’t think that counted for much.
Why was he here, of all places?
That was why he had to remember. Then he would know.
There was a bench to one side of the green, so he moved towards it. Moved, not walked. He couldn’t feel his feet hitting the ground with each step, no jarring of his bones as gravity took its toll. More nothing.
He could remember pain. Feeling pain, that is. Just a moment of it before the darkness swallowed him, at that same moment when the red light had hit him. The lack of it in this place had reminded him of it, strange as it sounded. But only that one moment, nothing else, nothing further back.
The bench was hard, but that was typical of their kind. He leaned his head back, thankful to close his eyes once more. But the nightmare was there in the darkness, waiting, always waiting. The red light flashed again and his eyes opened. A drop of sweat tickled the spot between his shoulder blades. Fear. Absolute fear. There was something else too, within that fear. Another joke gone wrong?
A joke. Another connection his brain made automatically, without the need for memory. The connection was meaningless to him – fear and laughter together in one moment, was that even possible?
He put his head in his hands. Too much. Too much too soon.
A sound. It resounded through the air, the only thing to break the silence of this empty, empty place. He did not look up, but tightened the grip on his temples. The sound bounced through his skull. It was as a sound he knew, that every human knew by instinct. Footsteps approaching. Someone to break the emptiness.
His name? It must be.
“Can you hear me?” It was a woman’s voice, soft and low.
He felt that he should have known her. “Yes.”
There was a long pause. He could feel her in the air near him. There was something there, but he could not grasp whatever it was. He was too tired to reach.
“Do you know me?” Tears flowed from her words.
He looked at her then and knew. Hair, eyes, lips, nose, hands...
She was beside him, a miracle of any sort. Usually she kept herself to herself, avoiding their winks and grins in her direction. She showed kindness to everyone but them, and it was for good reason too. Not that it stopped them from trying. Even Snivelly got more from her than the two of them, but they just wouldn’t give up. Who wouldn’t want to have part of her love?
...but no name. Fragments, nothing more. A random thought passing through that still held no meaning. How to tell her? What words could he use to convey his emptiness?
Blink, swallow, think. “I’ve seen your face before.”
The hope in her eyes was a distant one. “Oh, Sirius, no...”
He wanted to assure her of something, anything, but why?
“There are things I know, but they’re far away. I can’t remember....” His voice weakened as he stared at her. How could hair be so red? Eyes so green? How could he ever forget someone such as her?
He looked inward, trying to find the threads that made up his life. Where did this woman fit in? Who was she to him? Too many questions. He was not interested in the questions, only the answers she could provide. She was the single link between who he was now and who he had once been.
“You’re dead, Sirius. We all are here.”
At first her words made no sense. Dead? How could he be dead? It was just some sort of amnesia, that’s all. Not death. She certainly didn’t look dead, not with her porcelain skin and shining hair. No, death could not keep such beauty alive. Death was about destruction, the removal of all that was living. Death was not this.
“Something went wrong with you, though,” she added, her voice quiet, but still it echoed in the emptiness. “You didn’t die, Sirius, not in the usual way.”
It was like she was speaking some foreign language: Greek, perhaps. He’d never liked that one much, not that he could remember why.
“What is this place, then? Hell?”
She shook her head, the hair shifting over her shoulders. “No. This is where you make the final decision.”
“A village green?” His impatience was beginning to show. As much as he needed this woman, she was not being of any help thus far. She was, in fact, only making him feel more empty than ever.
“This isn’t any village green. You’ve been here before, many times.”
He looked around him to the row of prim houses to one side. His eyes halted at the last house, a brownstone with shuttered of mis-matched shades of white. The number on the door, six. Half of twelve. The name on the door was faded gold: Potter.
Still nothing. He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
With a sigh, she sat on the bench beside him. Up close, she was less angelic and more... real. It was not a letdown for him – he’d never liked girls to be too perfect. This one was just right, he thought, even though she couldn’t speak a single intelligible sentence. Part of him still wanted to assure her that it was alright, that everything would be fine. Even though it was the furthest thing from the truth – dead? could he be dead? – the need grew with each passing moment.
“There’s a lot I’ll need to explain to you, Sirius.” Her voice was hardening. She’d been one of the smart ones, that much he could remember. “Just a few minutes ago, you were duelling with your cousin in the Ministry of Magic. You know that place, right?”
The mention of it set off some more remembrance. Maniacal laughter echoing in a strange circular room, stone benches lining the walls, an archway....
The fear returned, gripping him with force. He expected to hear his heart skipping a beat, but there was no sound, no feeling. Empty. He took in a breath, but no air entered his lungs. If he moved his hand, would any muscles be working? If he ate, would any of the food digest? If he cut his finger, would he bleed?
Death. The endless, dreamless sleep. Yet here he was in a dream; dead in a village green with a beautiful girl he couldn’t remember.
If this was Death, the old bugger had certainly gotten the last laugh.
She was watching him, the green eyes assessing him like he was some sort of experiment gone wrong and she couldn’t quite figure out why. He looked back at her, searching her face for some sort of sign, something he could grasp onto and use. The sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks. The flecks of hazel marring the colour of her eyes.
Hazel. What was it about that colour?
“If you look close enough into her eyes, they have a bit of hazel in them,” the be-spectacled boy was saying. “That’s a sign, Sirius! No Divination professor could see any clearer than that!”
He’d then run his hand through his hair, making it stick out in all directions. An electric shock, that’s what it had reminded Sirius of. His friend. This was his friend. His friend who talked about the perfect girl all the time. But Sirius never tired of it.
She was his perfect girl, too.
His eyes fell from hers, staring down at his feet. He recognized his shoes – the ones he’d missed all those years in... that other place. Not here. Not even where he’d come from, with the red light. It was another place. Dark. Cold. Damp. Unhappy. No, more than that. It was the most terrifying place he had ever been.
What was it called?
“Sirius, are you alright?” She sounded worried now.
Licking his dry lips, he shook his head. “There’s so many little things in my head, but together, they make no sense at all.” He paused, then raised his gaze to meet hers. “I remember being somewhere terrible. A prison?”
She rose from the bench, hugging her arms to her chest even though the air was warm.
“It’s called Azkaban. You were sent there for... for betraying us to Voldemort.”
Voldemort. Mort. Death again. Would that word chase him across eternity?
“And did I? Betray you, I mean?” He already knew the answer. The guilt was filling him, cooling his heart against this girl – woman – who fascinated him with her very presence. Had that betrayal been the cause of her death?
Yes, he could see it in her eyes. He had killed her.
No wonder she was ignoring his question.
She stood, back to him, face turned towards the little street that would have no end. He did not want to see her face, afraid that there might be tears in her eyes.
Of all the things she could hide from him, she couldn’t hide her tears. They dripped down her cheeks and she rubbed them off with her sleeve. It was an inelegant sight. Tears did not suit her; they only made her nose turn the brightest colour of red possible. At other times, he had laughed at how she looked after crying, but not this time.
He put his arms around her, holding her close to his heart. Her smell drifted into his nostrils, consuming his senses. She was there. All his.
“Am I making the right choice, Sirius?” She pushed her face into the hollow of his collarbone. “I love James,” she whispered. “But I love you as well.”
It all would depend on her meaning of love.
He swallowed. “One day, you won’t be able to love us both.”
When she faced him once again, he noticed that she had not been crying. That had been a memory, a fantasy. Her lips were moving; she was telling him of his past.
“In the Department of Mysteries, there is a series of rooms, each containing something that no one else can understand.” She was pacing the tiled floor in front of him, not once looking at him. “One of these objects is a stone archway with a black curtain hanging in it. Some people call it the Veil.”
The Veil. Black fabric fluttering over his skin. A rush of air, fresh and tasteless. The red light hitting him squarely in the chest. Someone crying out as he fell. So slowly. Surprise. Fear. No time to scream.
“Come on, you can do better than that!”
His words echoing through the room even as he fell into death. They were with him now, still echoing in this empty village green, echoing in his empty mind. That last bit of egotism, perfectly typical for who he had been, would be his last regret.
Separation. Who had cried out for him? There was someone else, someone he had left behind. Those green eyes.... James. He’d called him James. Potter. That was his surname, the same as that on the house she claimed he had known.
“Sirius.” She had stopped at his silence. She must have seen the remembrance on his face. “It was Harry. He was there.”
Harry. The boy. The one he’d sought for so long, but had lost not once, but twice. Looking into Lily’s face, he could see Harry’s eyes. It had been extraordinary that first time he’d seen Harry and mistaken him for James. Then he had seen the boy’s eyes. That had been the difference, knowing that Lily was there within Harry, preventing the boy from ever becoming his father.
Green. The colour of jealousy.
“Will it ever come back?”
She bit her lip, hand dropping from his face. “I don’t know.”
He sighed. “What can I do now? What is there to do here?”
Her hands were clenched. “You can make a choice. This is the point between life and death, where those have lost life come to chose their final destiny.”
It was all gibberish to him, but the sound of her voice was enough to make him listen. She had one of those voices he could never tire of. He felt transfixed by her words. Final. Choice. Destiny. Lost. Was this not now the time to re-make that choice he had made so long ago? She had asked him one thing. One little thing.
“Will you take me away, Sirius? From here, from him, from everything.”
Her name. He’d almost had her name.
“What choice do I have?” he asked, emotion drawing his throat tight.
Her face was close to his now. He felt her breath against his skin. Wafting. Drifting. Like a ghost. His eyes closed, but she did not draw nearer as he had – hoped? – expected. It was as it had always been. She would come so close, painfully close, but never would they meet. Something always stood in their way.
Fated for failure.
She shifted slightly, catching his attention. “Most people, when they come here, choose to move on to whatever’s awaiting them: friends, family....” She hesitated. But there are some who choose to go back.”
He almost had her name now. The white flower was there in his mind, part of a larger bouquet. It was an image that had been with him most of his life, but he could not remember where it had first been imprinted on his mind. A sombre occasion, perhaps. Something like... something like...
His breath caught in his throat.
A funeral. Some great-uncle of his had died, and there had been large bouquets lining the coffin at the ceremony. Predominant in these bouquets were large white flowers. What were they called? A French flower....
“Those are the ones who become the ghosts,” Lily was saying. “They don’t have anything here to keep them, or they left something unfinished before they died. They’re haunted souls, Sirius, with nothing even in death.”
Those flowers were used for their strong smell. It masked the smell of death.
“But what happens when you decide to stay?” he asked, mind whirling. Too much. Too much going in and getting muddled with whatever fragments chose to reveal themselves.
It was like she did not notice his preoccupations, the strangled sound of his voice.
“You go on to live out your death.”
Her name was that of the flower of death, and here she was, welcoming him into the land of the dead. While she could not be his partner in life, she could take on that role in death. All the things he had dreamt of, desired, he could now have in a world where there could be no suffering, no pain, no semblance of mortality. She could stand with him for all eternity, with nothing to prevent them from being together.
It was so perfect, so fated.
This was the moment he had been waiting for. There was no room in his mind for anything else but her. No thoughts of James or Harry or whoever else had played a role in his dismal life. What did they matter, he could hardly remember them. They were shadows on the face of his memory, blotting out the areas where she was.
A twinge in his memory. A cloud of mist fading before him. Her name was the key, but to what? There was a sense of wrongness in this memory. It was not one he would have chosen to remember, not with her so near him.
“Sirius, we can’t be doing this.” Her anxious whisper in his ear.
He touched his lips against her neck one more time, sucking in her taste. So sweet, so satisfying, but still he wanted, needed more of her. Her fingers dug into his chest. She sighed, her breath fluttering against his curls.
“What would they think if–”
“If we were caught?” He laughed against her skin, making her gasp with pleasure. “Do you think that is possible?”
She pulled away at last, pulling down the hem of her robes. “Yes. This isn’t what I wanted, Sirius. Not what you wanted either.”
He grabbed her hands, clenching them in his own. “You asked me before to take you away.” The desperation had reached his voice. He would not let her go this time. Not again.
It was not a weakly-spoken word. She meant it.
“I won’t betray James, not now.”
“Why the hell not?” He wanted to scream. At that perfect moment, she would ruin everything with her stupid guilt. She was too perfect, so perfect that she could never be his, always his friend’s. The friend he had betrayed for her.
“I’m pregnant, Sirius.” There were tears in her words. “With James’ child.”
The nightmare that was worse than death itself. He had felt no pain in dying, only shock. But then, oh Merlin, then he had felt all the worst things any human could be made to feel. She had betrayed him, not James. And now as he remembered, as she sat so near him that he could smell her sweetness, he only wanted the thing he had wanted all his life.
Freedom. That was what this place meant to him.
“Why are you here now?” At his voice, she raised her eyes to his, their anxious glance a reflection of the memory. Her guilt was all-too apparent to his embittered state. He knew, then, what decision he must make.
“It isn’t what you think, Sirius.” She kept her voice low, as though to calm him. “Death frees us from all things, even the mistakes we made in life.”
He pulled away from her, rising from the bench. Escape. “That memory, Lily. If only you knew....” His feet took him down the green, towards whatever road would take him somewhere else. Anywhere but this place where she would remind him of all the things he wished would stay forgotten.
“It’s not like that here,” she said, moving to follow him. “Anything can happen. Anything we want to happen, will.”
She reached for his arm, but he walked – floated? – faster, silent.
He would have stopped to listen, to stay near her, but his will, his pride, his memory, were all too fragmented. He was confused. Death was enforcing its cruelty: providing temptation, then ripping it away just before one could gain what was more desired. He wanted her. He would have done anything to keep her near him for one more moment, but choice blocked his way.
Ghost or death? There would be no paradise for Sirius Black, but he could return to the world he had left, go back to Harry, who needed him, and to all the others who would mourn his passing. You can only die once, but perhaps he could live twice.
“Sirius!” She had given up on chasing him, her words cried out from far behind, now echoing in the emptiness. The blessed emptiness.
But then he blinked. In the tiniest moment, the whole world can change. Sirius could see the Veil drifting in the air before him. He reached out to touch it, but felt nothing – his hand passed through the transparent material. Spells still flew across the room, most missing their target. Familiar faces surrounded him, but he was frozen, watching. They rushed past him, unseeing, unable to see what was not truly there.
Was this, then, his choice? To watch the world in helplessness, eternally observing all the deaths of those few he still had in this world? To become a ghost was to lose it all over and over again, suffering for all the sins of life. More chains. Trapped in the prison of eternity with no hope of escape.
“Sirius.” Her whisper floated through the Veil. She was there behind him, still by the Potter house, bathed in the light of peace. “Come back.”
He felt the pull of her voice, the touch of her hand upon his.
“People change,” she whispered through the veil. “Look at yourself, Sirius. Death has cleared your name. Would becoming a ghost do that, would going back there give you all the things you’ve lived for?”
He swallowed and stepped back onto the green. The scene vanished.
“Have you changed, Lily?”
Her hand tightened around his. Words were lost in the moment, in the realization that she had made another choice, different from the last. A new choice, a new life, and new world. While death may have been a certainty of life, there was nothing at all certain about death itself.