Could we see when and where we are to meet again, we would be more tender when we bid our friends goodbye. - Marie Louise De La Ramée
The dull, red glow and the heat of the sun burning through his closed eyelids brought him back to awareness, closely followed by the scent of newly mown grass and the soft thwap, thwap sound of sheets drying in the breeze. Not even house-elf magic could recreate the smell and softness of bed linen that had been hung outside to dry, and despite his father's thunderous protests about the risk to security, his mother's wishes won out, as usual, and the practice continued. On washing day when the weather was fine, Kreacher would shuffle out to the normally shaded and damp garden and blast the overhanging trees aside to allow the sun to pierce the gloom below. On those days, Sirius would wait until Kreacher had disappeared back into the house before sneaking out to bask in the sunlight, luxuriating in the silence and the simple pleasure of warmth sinking into his bones.
Uncomfortable with the images of his parents and Kreacher, he pushed them easily aside and sucked in a deep, soothing breath, reluctant to open his eyes and allow full thought to return. He felt relaxed and at peace lying here and wondered how long it would last. Not long if Kreacher spotted him. The second the foul elf saw him he'd be scurrying off to tell tales to his mother, happy to report how young Master Sirius was lying in full view of any Muggle that might care to glance over the high wall and see him. As if any Muggle could. The house and garden reeked of more Dark Magic than most wizards came across in a lifetime. Thank God he'd be starting Hogwarts soon; he'd never wanted anything so badly in his life as to escape Grimmauld Place and everything in it.
The noise of the flapping sheets grew louder and he felt the breeze pick up and tear at his hair. With an annoyed grunt, Sirius rolled over to find a more comfortable position, and instead felt himself overbalancing into a fall. His eyes shot open and he let out a yelp of alarm, arms outstretched to regain his balance, very surprised to find himself somehow already standing, not lying on the ground at all.
Wide-awake now, he glanced around him, blinking dazedly in the harsh glare of blinding white light. Slowly his vision adjusted to the brightness, allowing him to see the seemingly endless rolling green fields around him and the pale orange sun that hung low in the bleached blue sky. He blinked again and scratched at a strange prickling sensation at the back of his neck. Something felt... wrong here. Turning slowly on the spot, he scanned the empty horizon for signs of life. He had the strange feeling that if he tried hard enough he'd be able to see an ant on a blade of grass a mile away, but when he lifted his hands towards his face, it took him a moment to bring them fully into focus, at first appearing blurred and indistinct as though he was viewing them through water. Gnawing at his lower lip, he turned full circle once more and then began walking, picking a direction at random.
Unsettled by the silence and unknown landscape, Sirius reached for the comfort of a wand he didn't have; his father had finally agreed to take him to Diagon Alley to buy his first one, but not until Saturday when Regulus could come too. Nevertheless, his hand moved automatically towards the pocket he always kept it in. Nothing there. Actually, nothing at all there. His gaze dropped lower to follow his searching hand and he let out another surprised yelp as his naked form came into view. But was it his naked form? Surely he hadn't looked like... that when he'd got dressed this morning. For starters there was an awful lot more hair than he remembered.
Now he really wanted his wand, and not that piece of crap loaner Moody had got him either. If he'd had his own wand, maybe Bellatrix wouldn't have been able to... The rest of the thought trickled away unfinished and he didn't try to recapture it.
Through the cocooning numbness threatening to engulf him, the strangeness of the situation sharpened his wandering mind and he straightened, alert to danger once more. Frozen in place, he scanned the surrounding fields with narrowed eyes, waiting for whatever had dumped him here to appear. Finally, at the edges of his vision, he glimpsed a flicker of movement and twisted sharply towards it. Moving cautiously forward, he saw a blurred, dark image beginning to appear in the nothingness.
'You'd better show yourself,' he shouted in a deep, bravado filled voice that felt wrong and right all at the same time. 'I know you're there and I promise you if I don't get an explanation pretty damn quick, you're going to be sorry!'
The image shivered and wavered in front of him, like a large dog shaking itself dry. Maybe he should change into his Animagus form; he'd be stronger then, but if he did, would he be giving away his only advantage too soon? The fact that he was eleven years old and didn't have an Animagus form didn't concern him in the slightest for some reason.
'I mean it - stop playing silly buggers and let me see you,' he growled, and to his great satisfaction, the blurred image began to take shape. In seconds, a short, slight figure was standing in front of him, covered from head to toe in dark robes, a hood pulled low preventing him from seeing its face. He let out a relieved breath. For a horrified second he'd been certain a Dementor was about to appear. Whoever it really was under there, they certainly didn't have the physical presence of a Dementor, and now he could view the figure objectively, he was pretty sure he could take them in a fistfight. As long as they didn't have a wand either, that was.
'That's better,' he called, not moving forward. 'Now take the hood off. Slowly.' A sudden thought struck him and he paused in his instructions. 'Er, no, wait!' The figure froze obligingly. 'I was just wondering about the hood, is everything... you know, okay under there?' The head nodded once. 'Great! Get on with it then.'
With almost mocking slowness the hidden hands returned to their task, lifting to pull the dark hood back to reveal a pale face and a tumble of bright red hair.
'Evans? Lily Evans, is that you? You rotten bloody cow!' Sirius shouted joyfully. His face split wide in a grin and he bounded across the distance that separated them, arms outspread ready to scoop her into a bear hug. 'What were you trying to do? Scare the life out of me!'
Lily let out a startled sound, her smaller figure dwarfed by his, her own arms valiantly outstretched to hold him back.
'What are you doing?' he asked, surprise and the beginnings of hurt evident in his tone.
'Clothes, Sirius, clothes!' Lily squeaked, her eyes raised determinedly to chest level.
'Oh, God! Sorry! I'm so sorry, Lily!' Sirius muttered. He felt his cheeks burning red as he finally remembered his nakedness. 'I haven't got any... I don't know where my robes are,' he said helplessly, his arms and hands suddenly seeming far too small to cover everything he wanted to cover.
'Just imagine them,' Lily said. 'Your clothes I mean.'
'Will you just do as you're asked for once without constantly questioning everything?'
'Okay, okay,' Sirius grumbled. He closed his eyes to picture himself wearing familiar dark robes and opened them again when he felt the sensation of rough fabric materialising against his skin. 'Well, would you look at that,' he murmured, pulling at the material covering his chest. 'Nice one, Lily,' he smiled, bending down to hug her tightly to him, 'you saved both of our blushes there, although don't try telling me you weren't enjoying the view at least a little bit,' he teased distractedly, his eyes already searching behind her for a familiar shock of untidy black hair.
Lily pulled out of his hold and pushed him gently away from her to gaze up at him. 'It's so good to see you, Sirius,' she said with a watery smile. 'I can't believe how much I've missed you.'
'What do you mean, missed me?' he asked, ignoring the sudden sharp throb of pain in his head. 'I see you every day in school.' Even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true. The woman standing before him had long since left her schooldays behind and from what he had seen of himself, so had he. And, quite apart from the fact that if he hadn't started Hogwarts yet there was no way he could know her, there was also the small matter of the two of them not really being friends until their seventh year when she'd started going out with James, and not good friends even then. He'd been far too annoyed with Lily for taking James away from him to want to get to know her in any meaningful way. But that had changed when he'd seen how happy she made his friend and eventually he had come to realise how lucky he was; how many other girlfriends would have allowed him to tag along as often as he did? Of course, once Harry came along...
With that one name, his paper-thin pretence crumbled and everything came flooding back with such force that he actually staggered where he stood.
Lily reached out a steadying hand towards him, her expression kind. 'Are you okay, Sirius? Everything back where it should be now?'
'Where's James?' Sirius demanded. His wild-eyed gaze roved frantically around as though he expected his friend to step out from behind Lily's considerably smaller frame. 'I need to speak to him. I have to get to Harry, I have to find a way back to him. Dumbledore had arrived, but the Death Eaters -'
'James isn't here and Harry's fine. I promise,' she insisted when he didn't look even vaguely reassured. 'Harry's just fine.'
'How do you know? Can you see? You've got to show me-'
'I can't show you anything,' Lily broke in. 'Not here, and I can't really tell you anything either, but surely you know me better than to think I'd lie to you about something like that?' she asked, a frown darkening her features.
Sirius shook his head a little dazedly, his heart rate beginning to slow as his tensed muscles gradually uncoiled. 'Yes. Yes, of course, I just... So Harry's definitely okay?' Lily nodded, her eyes wide and unblinking on his. Sirius let out a deep breath and lifted a hand to push at the hair that was clinging to his sweat-soaked brow. 'Thank God. Wait!' he said suddenly, his frantic look reappearing. 'What about Ron and Hermione and the others? And Moony! What about Moony?'
'Everyone got out of the Ministry pretty much unscathed - a few hospitalisations and some tricky curse reversals, but no deaths. Well, apart from...' She gave an apologetic shrug and Sirius grimaced in reply.
'And the Death Eaters?' he asked. 'Were they caught, and how about Voldemort and the prophecy? Did he get it?'
Lily made an impatient sound. 'Do we have to go through all this now? Can't it wait until -'
'Until what?' Sirius pounced. 'Why am I here, and actually, why are you here?' Lily puffed up, an offended expression appearing on her face. 'Not that I'm not pleased to see you,' he hurried on, 'I just always sort of assumed it would be -'
'Well, yes. I mean, you are I were good friends, Lily, but... Anyway, it doesn't matter, except.... I'm not - I'm not going to hell or anything, am I?' he asked, feeling very out of his depth all of a sudden. 'Is that why James isn't here?'
'Don't be ridiculous!'
'I'm not! In fact, I think it would be pretty ridiculous if I didn't at least consider the possibility!'
'So what are you saying, exactly?' Lily asked, looking annoyed. 'That if it was your final destination, I'm the one who springs immediately to mind as a guide?'
'Of course not,' Sirius huffed, feeling his own temper stirring. 'You just seemed like an odd choice, that's all, and what was going on with that cloak by the way?' He scowled. 'It's hardly the time to be playing practical jokes!'
'I wasn't trying to scare you and you didn't leave me with a lot of choice,' Lily said sharply. 'It's taken me a long time to get you to see me.'
'It has?' Sirius felt the odd, prickling sensation on the back of his neck again and fought the urge to shiver.
'Yes,' Lily said curtly, her lips tightening into a thin line. 'Every time I appeared, you saw me for a second or two then you seemed to blank me out. You kept acting as if you couldn't see me or that you didn't know who I was when you did see me. That's why I eased into it this time,' she said with satisfaction, 'and luckily, it seems to have worked.'
'But why would I do that?'
A guarded expression appeared briefly in her eyes before her lashes fell, hiding all expression from him. 'Because you weren't ready I suppose.'
'You suppose? You don't know?'
Lily hesitated. 'Not common procedure, I don't think. Most people toddle off to the great unknown of their own accord, but the stubborn ones occasionally won't budge. They used to leave people to it, however long it took, but they changed the rules a while back. Someone got stuck down here for too long - thought the sound of seagulls calling was a baby's cry and refused to-'
'How long have I been here?' Sirius interrupted rudely, a sick sensation growing in his stomach.
'I'm not supposed to-'
'How long?' Sirius bit out through gritted teeth.
'What!' Sirius swore fiercely. He ignored Lily's disapproving glare. 'Dammit, why didn't you tell me! What's going on with Harry now, is he safe? Have the Ministry accepted Voldemort's back yet?'
'I can't talk to you about-'
'Yes, you bloody well will!'
'No, I bloody well won't!' Lily shouted back. She raised a furious face to his and jabbed him firmly in the chest with her index finger. 'They chose me to send, not James, so don't think you can start ordering me around like you did him!'
'I never ordered James about!' Sirius said hotly, shocked by the anger Lily had suddenly turned on him. 'We were friends! Equals! He wasn't some lackey! Anyway,' he said quickly, not wanting to risk the situation deteriorating into one of their semi-regular slanging matches. 'You never said - why are you here and not him? It doesn't make any sense.'
Lily's furious green eyes slid away from his. 'I don't know why it's me; I just know I was chosen and here I am. But it's a one-off, Sirius, and now that you've seen me properly, I won't be able to do this again, so please don't do anything silly.'
Sirius bit back the angry words that were bubbling away at him with difficulty. James wouldn't have kept him in the dark this way. 'You should have told me, Lily,' he said finally. 'You should have told me how long it's been.'
'What difference does it make?' Lily demanded impatiently.
'Because I've missed so much,' Sirius said, struggling to keep his tone even.
'So what? You have no control over the events down there, the best you could have done is occasionally watch them happen!'
Sirius made a scornful noise in the back of his throat. 'Of course it isn't all I can do - I'm going back,' he said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
'What? Did I... did you just say you were going back?' Lily gave a small laugh that petered out when Sirius didn't join her. 'You can't - you can't go back.'
'I can if Harry needs me. Anyway, what's the big deal? People do it all the time. Why can't I?'
'Who? Who exactly comes back from the dead, Sirius, because apart from a single, rather notable exception, I can't think of anyone else!'
The noise of the flapping sheets increased and the wind picked up to match it. Sirius pushed his hair furiously back out of his eyes. 'Okay, so perhaps it doesn't happen often, but - but what about Nick and the other Hogwarts' ghosts!' he said triumphantly. 'They didn't just die; there's obviously a way.'
'And is that what you want?' Lily asked quietly, all irritation gone from her voice now. 'To be a ghost?'
'No!' The instinctive denial was out of his mouth before he even realised he was going to make it.
'I suppose that must have been your answer when the option was first offered to you.'
A look of confusion spread over Sirius's pallid features. 'I've already been asked that?'
'It's the first decision you make.'
Sirius felt shame flood him. He'd been given the choice of returning to Harry's side and he'd rejected it? What sort of godfather was he? James would never forgive him. 'I - I'm no good to him like that, Lily,' he found himself protesting, despite his own self-recrimination. 'How could I keep him safe when I can't even touch anything?'
'You couldn't, of course,' Lily immediately agreed. 'And you shouldn't feel bad about deciding that either; after all, both James and I made the very same decision.'
But Sirius found he wasn't in the mood to have his guilt appeased. 'So you don't blame me, then?' he demanded, turning to pace across the soft grass in front of her in short, angry bursts. 'So you haven't been acting all sniffy since you got here because you think I've let Harry down?'
'I've never said that -'
'Yes, but you've been thinking it!' Sirius snapped, turning to pin her with furious eyes.
'Okay, you're right, I have!' Lily shouted. 'I do blame you! You have let Harry down! Are you happy now, do you feel better now you know that?'
'You blame me?' Sirius questioned hesitantly, utterly taken aback by her sudden agreement. 'For not going back as a ghost -'
'No, you idiot, for getting yourself locked up in Azkaban for twelve years when you should have been with him! I trusted you, Sirius, you were supposed to be there, protecting him, raising him in our place, and instead you were too eaten up with petty vengeance to -'
'Petty vengeance?' Sirius repeated dangerously. 'Wormtail had betrayed us, betrayed the Order and caused your deaths, and you call that petty vengeance?'
Lily made a savagely impatient gesture with her hand. 'It doesn't matter what you call it, you should have let someone else deal with Peter. You had responsibilities -'
'And you didn't? What about joining the Order and going into battle against Voldemort when you had a baby to care for-' Sirius came to an abrupt halt when he caught sight of Lily's frozen face, deeply ashamed by his words when she lifted a trembling hand to her mouth.
'I wasn't a bad mother,' Lily muttered fiercely, her eyes wet. 'I wasn't. But I couldn't just stand back and ignore what was happening. What sort of world would that have been to bring Harry into? But... but maybe we were wrong to have him at all... the way things were...' she trailed miserably off and Sirius cursed his unthinking words.
'No, Lily, you don't have to justify yourself to me; I was completely out of order. No one could have sacrificed more for their child than you and James did.'
Lily shook her head, her gaze trained intently on the collar of his robe. 'Doesn't matter.'
'It does matter. I shouldn't have said it, especially when it's me that I'm angry with, not you. It eats away at me that I missed so much of his life because you were right - it didn't have to be that way. Of course, knowing that didn't make me value my second chance with him any more highly, did it?' he asked bitterly.
'You did the best you could in the circumstances,' Lily murmured.
'And a pretty shoddy best it was, too.' He was very aware that Lily didn't try to contradict him. 'I don't know how I could have been so careless,' he continued, the words seeming almost forced from him. 'I still remember as if it was yesterday how proud I was when you and James asked me to be Harry's godfather; how much I wanted to pass on to him, all the things I was going to tell him that no one ever told me.'
To Sirius's relief, his last words seemed to jolt Lily out of her introspection, her tone now holding a hint of curiosity instead of pain. 'Like what?'
'Oh, I don't know,' Sirius began, not even sure what he was saying, just knowing he didn't want to see that look of blank despair return to her face. 'Back then probably just unimportant junk like - like never get a haircut before a first date and if you're going to break up with a girl, make sure you do it after your birthday and before hers.' He smiled crookedly when Lily rolled her eyes. 'Well, I was never supposed to be in charge of the biggies,' he defended, 'that was for you and James. I was going to be the one he came to when he was sick of you two lecturing him day and night.' He hesitated, allowing the silence to gather around them as he shifted restlessly on the spot. 'I spent a lot of time... afterwards though, planning what I'd say when I saw him again, when my name was cleared, when I was free. I mean, I knew that would never actually happen, but it was good to imagine it; the heart-to-hearts, the advice, the stories...'
Lily's expression softened and she moved a step closer. 'You would have been good at that.'
'Maybe.' Sirius gave a half-shrug, his expression unusually uncertain.
'So what would you have told him?'
Sirius shrugged again. 'Not to drink, well, not to drink too much, anyway,' he amended with a quick grin. 'To avoid Dark Magic and wizards, that how much he enjoyed his life was just as important as what he did with it. And that he shouldn't ever forget that he could ask his godfather anything and that he'd... that I'd always love him and be there for him no matter what.' He paused then and blinked rapidly, an unaccustomed sheen of brightness to his eyes. 'Never managed that one,' he said gruffly. 'Wish I had. Don't think he knew.'
'Oh, Sirius -'
Sirius gave a loud cough and dropped his gaze. 'Don't go getting all maudlin on me, Lily.'
'- I'm sure he did know. Deep down, I'm sure he would have.'
'Yeah, course he did. I know that.' A series of forceful nods accompanied his words. 'Don't know why I said it. Stupid really.' Sirius glanced around the bare, sun-drenched landscape, desperate for a change of topic, however mundane. 'So, did it look like this to you and James?'
Lily stilled, seeming to hunch in on herself. 'It looks different to everyone,' she said finally. 'I don't know what James saw. I... I suppose the scenery doesn't really matter; it's just a place you go to make peace with yourself and your old life before you... move on.'
'But what did you see?' Sirius pressed, eyeing her tense features with curiosity.
'Oh, I... I don't remember.'
'Is it Oblivated after you leave?'
'No, it was just so long ago.'
'Only fifteen years; I still remember everything that happened on the day you died - don't you?'
'I... no, not really. Time moves differently here; it's longer... endless.' Lily frowned unhappily when Sirius continued to watch her silently. 'All right! It might have been... the beach, maybe.'
'Oh, Lily.' Sirius pulled her stiff form into his arms, his hold tightening until he felt her give in and collapse against him. 'The seagulls, the change of rules...?'
'I could hear him, Sirius,' she said, her voice barely above a whisper. 'My baby was crying for me, but I couldn't find him. I looked and I looked, but I couldn't find him.'
Sirius held her away from him and gripped her trembling shoulders in a gentle hold. 'Because he wasn't lost.'
'No,' she said, his intense gaze seeming to steady her. 'I was.'
'And who found you? James?'
Lily took another step back, breaking all contact between them. 'My grandmother, actually. She'd died giving birth to my mother so I'd never known her. I suppose the idea was that she would understand what was keeping me here.'
'I see,' Sirius said slowly. 'So what is it that you and I have in common, Lily?'
Sirius let out a sigh that felt as if he had been holding it in forever. 'And that's all that's stopping me from, er, moving on?'
Lily nodded. 'The main reason at least. There's probably some other strong emotions lurking about -'
'Yeah, like embarrassment. I mean, Bellatrix for God's sake - James will never let me live it down! I really wish I could have just one more shot at it,' Sirius said, a glum note entering his voice. 'I hate the thought of that utter balls-up of a duel being everyone's last memory of me.'
'I know,' Lily commiserated, 'but I somehow doubt they're going to send you back for another go because you made a prat of yourself.' A smile hovered at the edges of her lips. 'Because, if we're being completely honest, it was hardly a rare occurrence, Sirius, now was it?'
'What do you mean, "send me back"?' Sirius questioned sharply, his features suddenly tense, all light-heartedness gone in a heartbeat. 'Do you mean there is a way after all?'
'No, of course not.' A flash of panic sped across Lily's face. 'I didn't... I didn't mean -'
'Are you hiding something?' he demanded, shoving his face aggressively towards hers. 'Don't think I haven't noticed how careful you've been to only tell me what you wanted me to know! If there's a way, Lily...'
'There isn't! I haven't lied to you, Sirius! The only reason I've been so cautious is because I didn't dare risk saying the wrong thing and having you go off half-cocked the way you do!' Her voice softened and became pleading under his hard-eyed stare. 'I don't want you to end up like I almost did - trapped here by guilt and spending an eternity searching for a way back that doesn't exist.'
But Sirius was no longer listening. His quick mind was turning over all the information he held, sifting through the images and his own disjointed thoughts since he'd found himself here, waiting for the satisfying "click" of the pieces as they slotted themselves into place.
'What?' Lily demanded, reaching out to grab at his arm. 'What noise? Look it doesn't matter; I thought you were ready to come back with me-'
'That noise, the flapping,' Sirius muttered, Lily's voice and sharp grasp not even registering. 'That was the first thing I heard. Was it wings? Maybe a bird? No, something bigger, had to be if it carried me here, unless it was a phoenix, but the noise... too loud for a phoenix and all wrong for a Hippogriff...'
'Nothing carried you here, Sirius! You just appeared like we all do and that only happens when you're dead!'
His gaze lifted to meet hers, all vagueness gone now as he focussed on her once more, seeing Harry's bright green eyes looking back at him. When had that happened? When had Lily's eyes become Harry's instead of the other way round? He pushed the distracting thought aside; there was no time for it now. 'No you're right, not wings. I thought it was... I thought it was... sheets?' He shook his head angrily, impatient for the answer. 'The arch... it was the curtains covering the arch I heard! I have to find it, Lily!'
He was already turning as he spoke, transforming into the faster form of Padfoot as the last human words escaped his mouth. His bunched muscles responded instantly to the demands he set them as he pounded towards the place where the sound of the shifting veil had been loudest. He could see no difference in the landscape, but he knew it was there. One leap would send him through the arch and back to Harry's side. Somewhere in the distance he was dimly aware of the panicked cries of a woman - a stranger - behind him, but he paid them no heed.
The dull, red glow and the heat of the sun burning through his closed eyelids brought him back to awareness, closely followed by the scent of newly mown grass and the soft thwap, thwap sound of sheets drying in the breeze...