23rd January 2004: I've revised the story slightly, by altering the chapter breaks so that the lengths are more even, and making a few minor editorial changes. If you've already read it you're not missing much, except for having to sit through the 20 pages that originally formed chapter 10.
7th February 2008: ... I really have no words for how awesome it is that people are still reading and reviewing this four years on. Thanks so much! Just to clarify a question I've been getting in reviews: no, there will not be a sequel, especially since this story is now completely AU after the release of books six and seven.
01: The Other Side
Strangely enough, the only thing that struck him as odd to start with was that he felt no pain when he hit the ground.
That was after his head had cleared, the world had stopped spinning, and he could hear the sounds around him again. Sirius lay on his back, staring at the blackened ceiling of the Death Chamber, and wondered absently why it hadn't hurt. He'd come down hard.
He couldn't move, of course - a stunner to the chest will do that for you - but since Bellatrix didn't come charging around the archway to finish him off, he had to assume that she had been taken care of. The sounds of battle seemed to have died away, in fact: someone would be over any second to check he was alright. Probably Moony. He was sure to be scolded something awful for letting himself get taken down like that, but damn, it had felt good to taunt Bella. He hadn't felt so alive in months.
He could hear someone yelling. Harry? Then the sound of running footsteps, fading.
It was odd that no-one had come over yet. How much longer did he have to lie here? Maybe Moony was angry with him for risking himself like that, and was going to let the curse wear off on its own. He dismissed the thought immediately. Remus wasn't like that. But still, it was strange.
Sirius tried to move, and found to his surprise that he could. Not only that, but his chest didn't hurt at all. Movement was difficult, though, and not in the way it usually was following a stunning spell or an impediment jinx; it felt like he was trying to move through honey or glue, like the air was a sticky, resistant mass that pushed against him on all sides. He half expected, drawing a deep breath, to feel it sliding down his throat like treacle, and repressed a shudder when he felt - nothing.
Not even the coolness of air in his mouth.
Finding it impossible to sit up, Sirius managed to turn slowly onto his side. He was lying on the stone dais in the centre of the room - but he might as well have been suspended in mid-air, he realised suddenly, because he couldn't feel the stones under his cheek.
The archway was barely two paces away. The curtain hanging in it appeared to flutter slightly in an unfelt breeze, but he couldn't seem to see through it.
He could see beyond it, however; he could see people moving in the dark chamber, slowly, like victims of a sudden shock. Sirius frowned. He could see Remus. The other man was halfway up the rows of tiered seats, as if he'd been following someone but stopped halfway. He had just turned back, moving as if in a dream. He began to walk down the steps, but Sirius saw his gaze turn, as if magnetically drawn, to the stone arch by which he was lying.
Remus sat down very suddenly on one of the stone benches. Sirius couldn't be sure from this distance, but Remus looked even paler than usual - white in the dimness - and his hands, when he raised them mechanically to brush his hair out of his eyes, were shaking.
A coldness began somewhere in the pit of Sirius's stomach. He tried to move again. With a supreme effort, he worked his way into a sitting position. He was beginning to understand why it was so hard to move: he couldn't seem to exert any pressure on the floor beneath him. It was like floating underwater without a solid surface to push against, and the only way he could get anywhere was to try and find purchase on the air itself.
Sitting, now, he could see some of the others. Many Death Eaters, stunned or immobilised; Mad-Eye Moody, stumping around with blood dripping from his head. A boy with a broken nose, who alternated between horrified glances at the door through which they'd entered, and frightened ones at the stone archway.
The archway, Sirius realised belatedly, through which he had fallen.
The Gateway in the Chamber of Death, through which the living could not pass.
"Moony." The word was on his lips without conscious thought. "Moony!" he called louder, looking frantically towards his friend. For a moment, his heart lifted in hope as Remus stood up; a second later it dropped again when he saw the other man was simply making his way to the broken-nosed boy. "Remus!" he shouted desperately. "Remus!"
Remus didn't so much as glance in his direction.
"Moony. Moony! Please, for the love of Merlin, look over here! Just for a second! Remus!"
Remus was silently helping the injured boy to stem the bleeding from his nose. Moody paused momentarily to say something in his gruff way; Remus just nodded once without answering. Moody walked away. Remus glanced up, following him with his eyes, and for a second his gaze flickered over Sirius.
He looked back to the injured boy, and Sirius realised that he couldn't be seen, either.
For the first time, he looked down at himself. He half-expected to see a ghost's body - white and translucent - but he looked utterly solid to his own eyes. Tentatively, he laid a hand flat against his chest and pushed. It definitely felt solid, but there was no warmth under his fingertips and he couldn't feel the fabric of his robes either. He tried grabbing a handful of cloth and tugging: again, he could feel the resistance against his fingers and the tug on his body, but his hand might as well have been dipped in numbing solution. He touched his face: neither his cheek nor the palm of his hand registered warmth or the texture of skin.
Fighting mounting panic, Sirius tried to stand up. It was even more difficult than sitting had been - he was constantly on the point of losing his balance, and he had a feeling that, if he did, he would float downwards like a feather. The people around him took not the slightest notice of his struggles.
Was he dead?
There didn't seem any other explanation. But how had he died? Sirius ran through the last few moments of his memory before he'd hit the veil. Bella had hit him with something painful - more than a simple stunning spell, he suspected, but certainly not the killing curse. The light had been red and tightly focused, not the flaring green brilliance of Avada Kedavra. His chest had burned and his balance had been irretrievably lost; he hadn't even been able to stagger backwards, but had simply fallen in an arc like a tree in a storm. He had felt the veil fly out behind him, letting him through. Then there had been a blank nothing.
He'd fallen through the Gateway - which, according to what little he knew about it, was utterly impossible. Things came out of the Gateway. Spirits returned to it. The living did not pass through. It was impossible for the living to pass through.
Walking was almost beyond him, but somehow he managed it, feeling more like he was swimming against the tide. One step. Two. He fixed his gaze on the archway. He had to walk back through the veil. Everything would make sense again if he could just reach it. Another step. Another. He was within an inch of the veil.
Sirius stepped forward. Or rather, tried to. In fact he found himself stopped as effectively as if he'd just walked into a brick wall.
Sirius slammed the palms of his hands against the veil. It didn't move like fabric should; it was as if he'd hit an invisible wall that stood rock-steady behind the curtain. He tried to grab hold of the edge of the veil, pull it aside; his fingers scrabbled across a frictionless surface and slid away as if he'd touched a block of ice.
Moving as quickly as he could, Sirius circled the archway and tried the same thing on the other side, with similar results. The ragged curtain hung serenely before him, mocking his anger.
He began to hammer on the invisible barrier with his fists and kick it as hard as he could, barely aware that he was shouting spell after spell, counter-curse after hex after jinx, spells for breaking, dispelling, opening, tearing...
Sirius sank to his knees, frightened and defeated. His hands didn't even hurt, he realised numbly. The veil would not let him pass. His heart was hammering - except that it couldn't be, he thought hysterically, because he didn't have a heart, but nevertheless he could feel it, and the sick, panicky feeling that he had lost control.
A creeping horror nudged its way through his whirling thoughts. Maybe when they said the living could not pass through the veil, they simply meant that they would cease to be living if they crossed the threshold. Remus, he had always suspected, knew more about the Gateway than he did. Remus had refused to tell him any more than what he already knew.
Remus was only a short distance away, and Sirius realised that he was leading the broken-nosed boy towards the exit.
"Don't go!" Sirius shouted frantically, struggling to his feet again. He tried to run after his friend, but he couldn't move fast enough. "Please! Remus, you have to help me! Remus!"
His voice had trailed off into a painful whisper that was barely audible even to himself.
"Don't go, don't leave me... don't leave me here and forget about me... not again... don't leave me here..."
Remus hesitated by the door and looked back. His wandlight, which he was holding aloft to guide their way, illuminated his white face and caught the grey in his hair. He looked so tired, so shocked, so lost. His eyes were empty. They closed against the sight of the Gateway, and he turned away, and Sirius fell silent, because he knew then that Remus thought he was dead.
And to Sirius's mounting horror, there wasn't a lot of evidence to contradict him.