Sirius knew it was too late, even before he saw the image of the Dark Mark that had been conjured above their house. He didn't know how he knew; he just did. The deep gut feeling had struck him out of nowhere when he had been getting ready for bed. It was as if a part of him had suddenly been ripped away. The fact that he had been unable to contact neither James nor Peter only seemed to confirm this.
The motorbike had not yet landed before Sirius was sprinting up the garden path towards the front door. It was almost funny to think that less than a week ago, this whole house had looked pristine. James had become restless after being cooped up in Godric's Hollow for so long and had finally got around to completing all of the jobs that Lily had been nagging at him to do for months. The lawn had been mowed, the bulbs in the living room replaced, the kitchen cupboards finally baby-proofed. Now, half of the cottage had been blown up and the shattered windows that lay scattered on the ground glinted in the half-light like shards of ice. All of James's hard work had been for nothing.
The sound of great, lumbering footsteps stopped Sirius in his tracks, jolting him back into reality. Gripping his wand tightly in his hand, he peered through the open doorway to see who it was. He hoped that it was Peter. Then he could make the coward pay for what he had done to Lily and Harry. For what he had done to James.
The shadowy outline was making his way towards Sirius and Sirius was holding his wand at the ready. But as the figure grew nearer, it became clear that it was not Peter who was leaving the house. No. This person was much too big to be Peter.
"Hagrid," Sirius greeted him.
"I'm sorry, Sirius," Hagrid's voice wobbled, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks and disappearing within the curls of his dark beard. "Bu' they would've wanted ter go like that - fightin' You-Know-Who, protectin' their son."
Sirius felt distantly surprised by the fact that none of those words meant anything to him. He had expected to feel sad when he was told that James was dead, but he didn't. All he felt was emptiness.
The half-giant came to a halt before him, looking down at him with compassion. In his arms, he was cradelling a bundle of blankets. A shock of black hair peeked out from beneath the folds and almond shaped emerald green eyes gazed out sleepily.
"Give Harry to me," Sirius demanded, reaching for the his best friend's child. "I'm his godfather, I'll look after him."
The massive man held Harry away from him. "Sorry, I can't. Dumbledore's orders."
"But..." Sirius trailed away, suddenly too exhausted to argue. "Fine. Take my motorbike; I don't need it anymore."
Hagrid was obviously too tired and shaken to question him. Nodding his thanks, he made for the bike that was lying abandoned on the pavement. Sirius waited until he was just a black speck in the darkening sky before stepping slowly into the hallway. Overturned furniture littered floor, the curtains had been ripped and the mirror that usually hung on the wall was scattered in pieces on the ground. Glass crunched beneath his trainers as he strode across the room. He followed the passage that had been cleared in the rubble, cleared by something large that had been dragged along the corridor. At the end of the pathway was a body.
James was lying on the carpet. He was dressed in simple jeans, a fleece and shoes; he must have been going out. His wand - mahogany, eleven inches, dragon heartstring core - was still clutched tightly in his right hand. His eyes were closed behind his glasses and if it were not for the thin trickle of blood that was running down his forehead, it would have looked like he was only sleeping. Sirius dropped to his knees, lifting James's limp arm, holding his hand.
"No," he whispered. There was a lump in his throat that no amount of swallowing would be able to shift. "No, please don't be-" He couldn't say it. "Wake up."
Blinded by tears, Sirius buried his face in James's mess if unruly black hair. "WAKE UP!" he was screaming now, shaking his friends limp shoulders. The body that he hugged to his chest still smelt like James, it was still warm and -
It was only after he had checked his pulse for the fifth time that Sirius could really believe it. He wasn't imagining it. This was for real.
Then they were in the hospital. He wasn't entirely sure how they got there - he must have apparated.
Doctors were crowded around them, trying to pry his hands off of James's clothes. Telling him to let go. Finally, they carried his limp body away on a stretcher and Sirius was left sitting in the middle of the floor. He felt cold.
"Sir?" The nurse with the blonde curly hair approached him some time later. "You can come and see your partner now."
Sirius rose from his chair and followed her into a small private room. The first thing that hit him was the overwhelming stench of antiseptic. The smell seemed to comb through his nostril hair every time he breathed in and was almost strong enough to make his eyes water. Then he began to take in everything else; the fluorescent lighting, the shiny linoleum floor, the white and windowless walls. Finally, his eyes rested on James Potter.
His friend looked defeated. The doctors had changed him into a plain blue hospital gown and lay him unconscious on the bed. His glasses had been removed and placed neatly on the cabinet beside him. Without them, sirius couldn't help but notice how old he looked. Whenever he pictured his best friend, he always saw the fifteen year old that he had gone to school with; his cheeky grin, his messy black hair, the mischievous glint in his blue eyes. It was a shock to see the wrinkles that now creased his eyes and the grey flecks that had appeared amongst his stubble.
I must look old too, Sirius realised with a sudden jolt of disappointment. And who wants to date an old man? He had never been worried about ending up alone before. At school, he had always had a lot of attention from the girls and took confidence from the way that people seemed to find him handsome. In fact, he had taken advantage of this more than he cared to admit. People thought of him as being a bit of a womaniser. He found it ironic that the only person he had ever truly had feelings for was a man.
He wasn't sure how long he had been asleep for; it could have been hours, it could have been days. He jerked awake to see James propped up in bed. His blue eyes were screwed up as he squinted to see without his glasses.
"James," was all that he could manage. Tears of relief streamed down his face. Snot poured out of his nose. He looked like a salty mess but for once he could not care less.
"Shit, Sirius," James chuckled and it sounded like music to his ears. "Didn't realise you cared so much."
"I th-thought-" Sirius tried to speak but he was too choked up.
James's face softened and he turned in bed, reaching out to squeeze his friends hand. "Hey - its okay now. You're not getting rid of me that easy!"
Then suddenly everything was more intimate. Sirius could feel his heart pounding in his throat. James was leaning out of bed towards him. Their faces were so close that Sirius should have been able to feel his breath warm on his cheek. But there was nothing.
It wasn't real.
Sirius tried desperately to cling onto the moment. To smell James's breath again; coffee and tobacco from the cigarettes that he kept saying he would stop smoking. He wanted to reach out and touch James's face, to feel his lips against the other man's. Kiss me. Please kiss me. But the scene slipped away like grains of sand between the gaps in his fingers.
He was sitting in the darkness of Azkaban prison and he was so alone.
Wind whistled through bars of the cell door and he shivered, pulling his ragged clothes tightly around his trembling body. His legs were numb from sitting for so long but he could not find the energy to move. The salt from the nearby sea coated the back of his throat, creating a familiar itch. He would give anything for a glass of water.
Sirius leaned back against the wall and listened to the familiar creaks and groans of the prison as his inmates settled in for another night trapped in this damp, dark place. To his left, he could hear a women muttering to herself in some made up language and to his right came the devastated sobs of his newest neighbour. This place was like a void. People would fall into the hole of misery and despair and rarely ever return.
When Sirius had first arrived, he had had so much anger pumping through veins. Its not fair. I don't belong here. Days had been spent punching the walls until his fists were red raw and bleeding. He had screamed until he could scream no longer. He swore that he would never let this place get to him. That was the Old Sirius; the Sirius who had waited for weeks for somebody to come and save him; the Sirius who couldn't understand that sometimes life just didn't care whether you were innocent or not.
Now, with all hope stripped from his body, all he had was routine. Each night, he would wait for his usual Dementor to float past his door. He would feel the familiar coldness that would wrap around his neck like icy tendrils. Then, with a shaking hand, he would grasp the tiny sharpened rock from the ground and scratch a line onto the wall to mark another day gone by. At first he had done it as an act of defiance - to show the guards that they couldn't get to him. Now he just did it out of habit. There were one thousand and ninety seven lines. Three years had passed.
He alive for James. He used to come every evening. Now his visits were few and far between.
This time, Sirius had to wait an entire month for his friend to appear in the corner of his cell.
"You came," Sirius felt his face light up in a smile for the first time in forever. He had no energy left in his body to move, so he just waited for James to come to him, to hold him in his arms.
Except this time he didn't. Something was different. James seemed older and for once was not smiling.
"You know I'm not real, mate," he said finally. He did not seem cold - just matter of fact - as he leant back against the brick wall of the cell, folding his arms across his chest. "If I was here right now i wouldnt be hugging you. Id be telling you to fuck right off."
Sirius opened his mouth but no sound came out.
"I'm not like you," James continued. "Im not a queer."
"I'm not either," Sirius tried to protest but his objection was made weak when his voice began to crack. "It's only you, James."
James just raised an eyebrow. "If I was real I would be with my wife, not hanging around this shithole with you. Lily was the love of my life." James was already becoming fainter. "You were just my idiot friend."
Just like that he was gone.
Sirius felt as if his heart had been ripped out through his throat. Sobs wracked his body as he cowered on the cold stone floor. They hurt. It wasnt fair. It wasnt fair. James had been taken from him in reality and now he had been taken from him in dreams as well. He had nothing.
Through the tears, Sirius scrabbled around on the floor. The rough gravel scraped his hands, but he kept going until he grasped the small sharp stone; the one that he used to carve lines into the wall. The edge pricked his throat. Just one quick swipe and it would all be over. Except his fingers were trembling too much. He was a coward.
He had always been a coward.
It was a warm day in spring, not one single cloud to be seen in the bright blue sky. Remus was still in the hospital wing recovering from last night’s adventures and Peter was in detention for forgetting his transfiguration homework. They could not hear the noise of the water gently lapping the sandy bank, nor the distant chatter of some second year students. The only the noise they could hear was the loud thump thump thump of their own hearts pounding in their chests.
They had stolen a quaffle from the Slytherin Quidditch team and had used it to play rugby down by the lake. Now exhausted, the two boys had flopped down onto the warm grass to rest. They did not speak, just lay still on their backs to catch their breath.
James had collapsed with one arm behind his head, propping himself up. His glasses were askew and brown eyes squeezed tight shut. That beehive of black hair was plastered to his scalp and his forehead glistened with sweat. But as Sirius kept watching, a small smile toyed at the corners of his mouth. He looked happy, carefree.
Sirius could have told him then. But he didn’t.
Mid November, a couple of months after they had left Hogwarts. James and Lily’s first real fight. A dingy bar on the backstreets of Diagon Alley. Some shitty dance music pounded in the background and the light was so dim it made Sirius squint. The beer tasted like piss, but they were young and they were broke and this was all they had.
“I don’t know what to do,” James admitted. Elbows resting on the bar top, head bowed down. He looked so defeated.
In that moment, Sirius had to stop himself from reaching out to wipe the tears away from James’s brown eyes, from running his fingers down the stubble on his cheek. The words that had been burning inside of him for so long were at the tip of his tongue, but instead he gulped them down along with the last dregs at the bottom of his glass and tried to help James mend his broken relationship.
14th August 1978. A brief ray of hope in the middle of a war. The hottest day of summer, an ancient crumbling church, friends and family everywhere. The sun shone bright as perfect Lily walked down the aisle to meet a delighted James. Such a beautiful ceremony, don’t they look so happy?
Sirius was glad to escape the madness of the party as he slipped out of the tent to join James much later that night. Maybe the last time they would be alone for a while. James lit Sirius’s cigarette and they stood in the cool darkness, listening to the chatter of the guests inside.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” James looked at Lily so adoringly that it made Sirius feel sick. Sweet Lily, radiant Lily. Her striking red hair contrasted sharply with her flawless white gown. He watched her through the window dancing with Remus. He watched her and realised that he had never resented anyone more in his entire life.
“If I don’t say this now, I’m never going to say it,” Sirius was shaking all over. His chest was tight. Just breathe, just tell him. “James-“ I'm so in love with you.
Sirius was interrupted by Molly Weasley calling his friend back inside.
“What was that mate?” James asked over his shoulder as he re-joined his wedding party.
Sirius just shook his head. He couldn’t do say it. Instead he got a hand-job in the bathroom from the girl who had been making eyes at him all night. Then once he was done and overcome with guilt and shame, he got so shit-faced drunk that he vomited down her dress and passed out in front of the wedding cake.
He had always been a coward.