Author's Note: This story was written for the Veil of Possibilities Challenge. The idea is that when Sirius fell through the veil in OotP, he went into an alternate reality. He is now repeatedly going through the veil, visiting several alternate realities, trying to get home. This story is one of the realities he visits. Go to Nuttersinc. for the entire Challenge.
Disclaimer: Sirius and the HP universe belong to JKR, but we refuse to let Sirius go home until she promises to be nicer to him in the future.
Dedicated: To Vixenette, to thank her for choosing to include my stories on her Midnight Musings website.
A grimy brick wall was just inches in front of Sirius's face. Wrinkling his nose slightly at the stink of rotting garbage, he turned toward the yellowish light from a street lamp leaking into the narrow alley and illuminating several rubbish bins. It may not have been the most pleasant surroundings to begin his stay on this world, but at least it was private. No curious Muggles were present to witness his sudden appearance, and even if some one had been here, the deep shadows surrounding Sirius would have hidden him.
First order of business: try to learn whether or not he had made it home. Second order of business: if he wasn't home, find the veil to try again. Third order of business: if he couldn't find the veil quickly, find a safe place to sleep. The inky darkness reminded him that opportunities for sleep had been far too irregular of late.
He moved nearer the street, but stayed in the deep shadow provided by the alley. The aging brick row homes and the sounds of traffic on a busier road nearby could be any city. Before he dared apparate to a location he knew, he'd need a better fix on his current location. "Like to know which city I'm in at least."
Hoping that this was indeed his own world, Sirius took the precaution he always took before venturing outside there; he shifted into Padfoot. A moment after his species changed, his priorities changed as well.
"Rat." An unmistakable odor of rat was thick around the rubbish bins. He quickly sniffed around the base of the bins and followed the scent up into an overflowing bin with a lid balanced precariously on top. He rose onto his hind legs as he put his forepaws atop the rubbish and began rooting through it with his muzzle. Jarred by his head, the lid slid off and wedged itself between the bin and the wall. The rat let out an annoyed squeak as it burrowed deeper. Padfoot pulled down on the front edge of the bin, and it crashed to the ground spilling both rubbish and the desired rat. Padfoot was upon the frantic rodent before it could even scurry back onto its paws again. A terrified squeal was cut short by the crunch of tiny bones breaking.
Padfoot trotted out of the alley while licking blood from his muzzle. Although not particularly filling, on another level, it had been a most satisfying late-night supper. Within a few blocks, the streets began to look very familiar, and he knew that he was in London. He turned south toward the park he had played in as a child. His parents had disapproved of his playing with Muggle children of course, but even as a young child he had been defiant and willing to sneak out of the house.
The park was almost identical to his childhood memories. The swings and metal climbing frame were gone, replaced by an elaborate plastic castle with tunnels, slides, and walkways with protective railings. He couldn't resist leaving the message, "Padfoot was here," on a large tree for the neighborhood dogs. Five more blocks brought him to Grimmauld Place.
It was no longer the fashionable address it had been in his mother's childhood, nor the semi-fashionable address it had been in his own youth, but for Sirius, it was much better. It was the decaying neighborhood he had last seen on the day he had first fallen through the veil. Perhaps…just perhaps… He ran straight to the stone steps of Number Twelve and looked up with hope. The hideous twisted serpent doorknocker was a beautiful sight tonight; this seemed to be his world. He trotted up the steps with a wagging tail. "Moony!" His mate could be inside. He whined and scratched at the door, but heard no movement inside. He sniffed around the door as he waited impatiently. No fresh scents.
Padfoot ran back down the steps and into the shadows beside them. There he transformed, and in human form, he hurried up the steps again. He tried to release the locking spell that Remus had put on the door, but he sensed that the spell wasn't there. His heart sinking fast, Sirius realized that despite the superficial resemblance to his own world, this might not be home after all. He put his hand on the doorknob and heard several bolts and a chain slide back. The house recognized him. At the very least, he knew that Sirius Black existed on this world, and that this was—or had been—his home.
The sight that welcomed him was identical to the one that had welcomed him one year ago—if one used the word "welcomed" very loosely. There was no sign of the cleaning war they had waged against the house throughout the previous year. The musty scent of mildew permeated the air, dust lay thick upon the floor and staircase, and no curtains obscured the framed painting on the wall. From where he stood, Sirius could not see the subject of the painting, but he was fairly certain that it was the portrait of his mother. He closed the door quietly so as not to agitate her.
He was back in hell yet again, and this time he didn't have Remus standing just behind him to put a reassuring hand upon his shoulder and tell him that they'd get through this together.
Sirius didn't want to light the lamps; he didn't want to deal with his mother or with Kreacher. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the house and then silently made his way to the Drawing Room. The door stood slightly ajar, just enough space for a house elf to slip through, and Sirius opened it a bit wider to slip in himself. He made his way to the tapestry that displayed the lineage of the "Noble and Most Ancient House of Black." Here he lit his wand and looked closely at the lower edge of the tapestry. His parents, Regulus, the burn where he himself should be, his uncles, aunts, and cousins—it was all exactly the same. Perhaps this was not his world, but it was very close.
Sirius momentarily wondered if he should spend the night here before looking for the veil, but it was only for a moment. Spend the night in this house when he didn't have to? No. He needed to find the veil and get home to Remus and Harry. And since this world was so similar to his own, he knew exactly to whom to turn for assistance in getting to the veil, Albus Dumbledore. Sirius checked on the mantle and found the jade box he sought. He opened the dusty lid carefully and saw that it was half full of Floo Powder. After fetching an old cloak of his father's from the hall closet and pulling up the hood to conceal his face, he returned to the fireplace, started a self-extinguishing fire, threw in a pinch of powder, and—since one couldn't Floo directly into Hogwarts—said, "Hog's Head Inn."
As he stepped out of the inn's fireplace, he kept his head slightly bowed and tugged the hood farther forward. The patrons here were accustomed to their fellows concealing their identities, so he knew he wouldn't raise any eyebrows by these actions. The concealment was necessary. Given the similarities between this world and his own, Sirius Black was probably a wanted fugitive here as well. And although the clientele of the Hog's Head were not likely to risk their necks by trying to apprehend him personally, they would be quite willing to contact the Ministry in an attempt to collect the reward for "information leading to his capture." The clientele of the Hog's Head would turn in their own mothers if the reward were high enough. He did not linger at the bar; he went directly outside and began the familiar walk to the castle.
The castle doors admitted him—an encouraging sign. Remus had told him how Filch had taught the castle doors to recognize him and deny him entry. As far as he knew, the castle doors on his own world still considered him a persona non grata. Perhaps here he was not considered a dangerous fugitive. It would certainly make it easier to gain the trust and the assistance of the Headmaster.
Peeves suddenly whizzed by, his arms full of blisterberry pods stolen from a greenhouse. Sirius snagged the poltergeist with a binding spell.
"Hey! I've important business to attend to!" Peeves said angrily. He strained to break free and fly away.
"I'll let you go if you answer two questions. One, whom are you planning on tormenting with those blisterberry pods? Two, where can I find Professor Dumbledore?"
"One, not you, although I could change my mind in a moment. Two, not in his office. Good enough?"
"Good enough." Peeves had been headed in the direction of the dungeons, so Sirius saw no harm in allowing him to continue on his way with the blister inducing pods. He released the binding spell just as Peeves strained forward against the invisible force holding him back. The poltergeist rocketed forward and crashed into—or rather, through—the wall before him. Unfortunately for Peeves, the pods were more solid than he and did not go through the wall with him. He flew back through the wall cursing and ready to throw each and every pod at his cloaked tormentor. Sirius had expected that, transformed for speed, and run out of the Entrance Hall before Peeves could return.
After only a few minutes of wandering, Padfoot picked up the unique scent of Albus Dumbledore. Although the hour was late enough that he had not run into anyone except Peeves, Padfoot stayed to the shadows as he followed the Headmaster's scent trail. When he heard the elderly wizard's footfalls just ahead, he transformed back and checked that his cloak's hood still provided some anonymity.
Just as Sirius turned a corner and came within sight of the man he sought, Dumbledore turned to face his follower. A cloaked stranger was obviously not whom he had expected. Although taken by surprise, the old man was swift. He aimed his wand at Sirius's heart more rapidly than most opponents could have reacted. Sirius merely spread out his open hands before him to show that he was unarmed.
"Professor Dumbledore, I mean no harm, and I need your help."
"If you mean no harm, step forward into the light."
"Not yet. I'm not quite sure if you'll be glad to see me, or if you'll curse me into oblivion. It all depends upon what my counterpart in your world has done, or what you think he's done."
"I'm from another reality, another world much like yours. I came here by accident, and I desperately want to get back to the people I left behind." Sirius knew the story sounded farfetched, but the truth was all he had to offer. He stepped forward as he pulled off his hood. Dumbledore frowned in almost recognition. "My name is Sirius Black."
Dumbledore sighed deeply and nodded. "Let's go up to my office and talk. You can tell me how you got here and what I can do to help send you back."
Sirius took Dumbledore's willingness to believe him as another good sign. Whatever else may have occurred on this world, Sirius Black had never lost—or had regained—the trust of Albus Dumbldore.
They walked together in silence, something Sirius had once hated—unless the silence had a purpose like avoiding detection by Filch, or later in life, avoiding detection by those who hunted him. Walking silently behind his parents: because they had nothing to say to each other. Walking silently behind a professor: because he merited a punishment severe enough to bring him to McGonagall or Dumbledore. Walking silently with Remus in the dark days: because they both feared saying the words that would force them to admit their relationship was over.
Only recently had he learned how silence could be comforting and familiar. Lying awake at night in Remus's arms, unwilling to fall asleep and waste another moment they had together. Sitting on the sofa with Remus's head in his lap, running his fingers through brown hair threaded with silver and watching as his lover slept off the fatigue of travel or of a transformation. Feeling the sharp teeth of the wolf close firmly, but gently and carefully, around his own muzzle, —"Mine,"—to claim Padfoot as his packmate. Knowing from that silent claiming that Remus had forgiven him even in the deepest depths of his soul—for the wolf never lies.
Sirius itched to ask questions about this world. He wondered if Harry was safe here. Had this Harry had as difficult a life as his own Harry? How was Remus faring on this world? Had the Sirius here made the same mistakes and forced this Remus to live a lonely life? He resisted the impulse with difficulty. If he found that their lives were difficult and dangerous, if he began to worry about this Remus and this Harry, he might be tempted to stay for a little while and help however he could. But they weren't his responsibility. They were the responsibility of the Sirius of this world. His responsibility was to get home as soon as he could and to return to his own Remus and Harry.
The gargoyle recognized the Headmaster and jumped aside without waiting for a password.
"Are you as fond of using sweets for passwords as the Albus Dumbledore that I know?" Sirius asked as they ascended the moving staircase.
Dumbledore smiled. "It's 'fudge flies' at the moment."
The office was much as Sirius remembered, both from his own schooldays and from the evening of anxious pacing he had done the final night of the Triwizard Tournament. Dumbledore gestured for Sirius to take a seat on the sofa while he himself went to his desk and rang a small silver bell. A house elf with hairy ears popped into office and performed a sweeping bow before the Headmaster.
"What may Rugger do for you, Headmaster?"
"Could you send up some tea and perhaps some of those delicious looking tarts from dinner tonight." Dumbledore looked over at Sirius with a smile. "Perhaps you'd care for something more substantial?"
"No thank you, Professor. I had a small snack quite recently."
"Alright. Just the tea and tarts then, Rugger." The house elf disappeared in mid-bow. "Poppy is concerned that I've put on a bit of weight recently, and I didn't dare sample the tarts while she was watching," Dumbledore explained as he beckoned an armchair with his finger and positioned it face Sirius. "But she isn't watching now, is she?" Sirius smiled and shook his head. "Now, tell me how you came to be here," Dumbledore instructed.
"I was in the Department of Mysteries," Sirius paused when he saw Dumbledore frown, seemingly puzzled, "and an artifact is kept there, a stone archway with a black curtain or veil."
Dumbledore nodded. "I'm familiar with it." A laden tea tray appeared on the table between them, and Dumbledore began to pour the tea.
"I fell through."
"Fell? You don't seem the clumsy type. Our Sirius certainly wasn't."
Sirius noticed the use of the past tense. He wondered if Dumbledore was using it because he was referring to Sirius's schooldays, or—but he did not ask. It would explain why he had never resumed residence in his parents' house.
"Thank you," Sirius said as he took the proffered teacup. "Clumsy, no. Brash, yes. I should have ducked. Got hit with a stunner just as I was running in front of the arch." He rubbed the center of his chest absentmindedly.
"A stunning spell?" Dumbledore's white eyebrows rose slightly. "Why were you in the Department of Mysteries to begin with?"
"Voldemort wanted the prophecy about himself and Harry Potter. Voldemort's only recently back on our world, and not quite ready to publicly tip his hand that he's back, so he couldn't go after it himself. He tricked Harry into going there by making him believe that I was there. When I found out, I went to protect Harry from the Death Eater welcoming party.
"It was my cousin Bellatrix who got me, actually. Use a six year old girl's doll as bludger, and she'll never forgive you. Am I right that none of this happened on this world?"
"There is a prophecy about Harry and Lord Voldemort stored there, but as for the rest, you are correct. Those events did not happen here. Would you care for a tart?"
"Thank you," Sirius said as he took two of the small treats.
"I find it very interesting that you say Voldemort is 'back' on your world. We have been free of him for almost fifteen years here, but I fear it is only a matter of time before he is back here as well. The Death Eaters have been increasingly active the last two years, and the Dark Mark has begun to reappear on the arms of his followers. One of my sources heard a rumor that Barty Crouch Jr. somehow escaped from Azkaban and has found Voldemort. He may be actively trying to restore his master to full power."
Sirius was unable to resist asking, "Is Harry safe?"
"As safe as I can keep him."
"Peter—do you know about Peter? In my world, he was masquerading as the pet rat of Harry's friend, Ron Weasley. If he knows that Voldemort is coming back, he could be a danger to Harry."
Dumbledore nodded and took a small sip of tea. "He made an attempt to abduct Harry from the Weasleys' home just last summer. Harry, with help from Ron and Ginny Weasley, succeeded in turning the tables on him. It made front-page headlines in The Daily Prophet when a supposedly dead 'hero' and friend of the Potters turned out to be alive, a Death Eater, and an attempted-abductor of Harry Potter." Dumbledore looked down into his teacup and sighed. "Unfortunately, before Peter's disappearance all those years ago, he framed our Sirius for his crimes. By the time the truth came out, he had spent fourteen years in Azkaban."
"Twelve for me," Sirius said bitterly. Dumbledore looked up in surprise. "I'm glad to hear that in this world, at least, my name seems to have been cleared. I'm still a fugitive in my world. At least the people who matter the most to me, including my world's Albus Dumbledore, know the truth."
"Fugitive? Did you escape from Azkaban?"
Sirius smiled. It was good to know he could still impress the old man even after all these years. "And unlike young Barty Crouch, I did it without my mummy and daddy's help."
"Peter wasn't the only animagus. All three of us became animagi so we could keep Remus company during the moon. Surely that came out when Peter was captured."
"Only that he was, but I did suspect that Remus had been the reason, so I suspected that you and James were animagi too."
"I escaped in animal form. The dementors couldn't read my emotions clearly when I wasn't human, and I'm a pretty good swimmer when—" Sirius leaned forward in his chair as he shifted into canine form. He landed on his paws and trotted around the table to nudge his nose under Dumbledore's hand. The elderly wizard smiled as he rubbed the top of Padfoot's head and stroked down to his thick ruff.
"But I still don't understand how you were able to escape when our Sirius never did."
Sirius shifted back and pulled one knee up to his chest as he remained sitting on the floor. "A lucky accident, I suppose. I accidentally found out that Peter was here, at Hogwarts. It was my fear for Harry that lit the fire in my mind and gave me the mental focus I needed to escape. Thanks to Remus, I had the animagus ability that I needed to stay sane. Thanks to Harry, I had the focus that I needed to escape."
"Thanks to Remus," Dumbledore echoed softly. He was silent for a moment and then in a more businesslike tone he asked, "Do you suppose that going through the veil again will send you home?"
"I've been through it about a dozen times," Sirius said as he used the hem of his father's old cloak to polish a scuffmark on his boot. "Each time, I end up on a different world. Sooner or later I should get back to my own—and I'm hoping for sooner."
"I'm certain that I can arrange for you to have an opportunity to go through again.
However—" Sirius looked up warily. "—would you be open to doing a small favour for me first?"
"Of course, Professor, but I am anxious to get home. Will this favour involve a long stay on your world?"
"Not at all," Dumbledore replied as he rose from his chair and picked up the silver bell. "I'll try to make arrangements for it to take place tomorrow morning." He rang the bell, and a house elf appeared with a crack of the air. It wasn't the hairy-eared Rugger, but a long-nosed elf wearing a maroon sweater and mismatched socks.
"Dobby, please take Mr. Black to one of the guest suites and see that he is settled in."
Sirius awoke to the warm smell of coffee. He opened his eyes and stretched slightly but made no move to leave the warm bed. This bed was by far the most comfortable one he had slept in since—since as long as he could remember. It was far superior to the sagging and slightly musty mattress of his bed in Grimmauld Place. And far, far superior to a cold cave floor with a restless hippogriff for a pillow. But this bed was empty, and somewhere, Remus was lying in an equally empty bed. Any bed—or no bed—with Remus was where Sirius wanted to be. "And today could be the day I see him again." Sirius threw back the covers and swung his legs out of bed. "Cold." He pulled the duvet off the bed and wrapped it around himself as he walked barefoot into the adjoining sitting room.
A silver tray with a coffeepot and a teapot both, and several covered dishes awaited him on the low table in front of the sofa. Sirius poured himself a cup of the coffee. He preferred tea during the day, but he liked the jolt of black coffee to start his morning. A parchment envelope lay atop one of the covered dishes. Sirius recognized the purple "Sirius' on the envelope as Dumbledore's hand.
I hope you won't mind having breakfast in your room. I believe that breakfast will be a more peaceful affair for all if you avoid a particular member of our staff. He and our Sirius were classmates and rather detested each other."
"Snivellus," Sirius chuckled.
"After breakfast, please avoid the dungeons but feel free to wander anywhere else. Please meet me in my office at ten. I should be ready to travel to London with you then.
After breakfast, a luxuriously warm bath, and a second breakfast—opportunities for meals had been as irregular of late as opportunities for sleep—Sirius found that he still had time to spare before meeting the Headmaster. Trusting Dumbledore's word that he could wander through the school without causing a panic, Sirius decided to let nostalgia be his guide. Perhaps this was not the Hogwarts he had attended, but it seemed to be an exact match.
He wanted to revisit Gryffindor Tower most of all, but without the password, he knew he'd never get in. He'd learned that lesson all too well. "When I do get home to my own world, I really ought to find a way to apologize to the Fat Lady," he thought. "Maybe I could send her a painting of a box of chocolates."
He found himself standing in front of the open library doors and wandered inside. Madam Pince gave him a curt nod in greeting and returned to her record keeping. She did not seem to recognize the troublesome teenager in the gaunt man before her. Sirius was tempted to enter the Forbidden Section under her very nose—he wasn't a student anymore, after all—but he wandered among the other stacks instead. He ran his fingers along the leather and cloth bound volumes on his left. So many titles he remembered; so many he did not. So many times he had been here with his friends.
"Here it is!" a seventeen year old James whispered excitedly as he stepped onto the edge of a lower shelf and reached up to pull a leather bound book off the top shelf.
Sirius looked up from where he was kneeling on one knee to read the titles on the lowest shelf of the previous stack. As Sirius straightened up, James stepped down but was leaning too far backward to keep his balance. Sirius grabbed him around the waist just in time to prevent James from crashing into the stack behind him.
James looked over the top of his glasses and said, "If you wanted to cop a feel, Padfoot, you brought the wrong dorm mate to the library."
Sirius pushed him away and gave him a cuff to the back of his messy head for good measure. "Prat. Next time I'll let you fall on your skinny ass. See how much you like riding a broomstick with a bruised tailbone. It's not fun, believe me."
James laughed. "'Riding a broomstick' and 'bruised tailbone' in the same sentence. I could have so much fun with that one if I didn't know you'd done it falling on the stairs."
Sirius laughed and winced at the same time. "Oh, I'm suddenly so glad that happened fourth year and not this year."
James batted his lashes. "Not tonight, Moony dear, I have an ass ache."
"Glad you find us entertaining, Prongsy. Would you like it if we teased you about your sex life? Oh, that's right! You don't have a sex life at the moment. What a pity." Sirius laughed at his friend, but James just smiled.
"I don't care. She kissed me. She finally likes me. I'm a happy man."
Sirius smiled back. "I know the feeling."
Tears stung Sirius's eyes, but he smiled. The happy memories, the good memories—those were what James would want him to remember, but those were the memories that had been denied to him for so long. To discover one unexpectedly like this, it was a gift. "Thank you, Prongs. I miss you," he whispered.
As Sirius wiped away his tears with his sleeve, he made his back toward the isolated desk where Remus used to retreat when he wanted to work without the distraction of his friends. Remus disliked studying from books—he was more of hands-on learner—but he had been determined to do well in school and prove himself worthy of the chance Dumbledore had taken on him. Thus, Sirius had found Remus here more times than he could count.
Sirius detoured toward the nearest window. Once he and Remus had fallen in love, he had lured Remus away from his desk to this window many times. In his mind's eye, he saw two figures entwined on the broad sill, kissing.
"What are you doing, Padfoot?"
Remus had been deeply engrossed in a Defense text when Sirius had entered the library, and for a change, Sirius had left him undisturbed. But the sound of Sirius scratching with his pocketknife at the wood of the windowsill had obviously caught Remus's sharp ears. He pressed up against Sirius's back and peered over his shoulder to see the engraving of a heart enclosing a star and a crescent moon.
"Do you mind?" Sirius asked, realizing belatedly that perhaps he should have asked his lover's permission before creating this public, albeit coded, declaration of their relationship.
"No," Remus assured him as he traced the star with a fingertip, "but Madame Pince might."
"She'll just have to get her own boyfriend to carve their initials; we're taken."
Remus chuckled, and Sirius loved the way the vibration of it rumbled through them both. Nothing made him happier than Remus being happy.
"Pince really will have a fit if she sees this—correction, when she sees this," Remus pointed out again.
Sirius resumed his carving, thickening one side of the heart for better symmetry. He sought for words to explain why he had felt the sudden need to make this mark. "It's just that we'll be leaving Hogwarts soon, and— I don't know. Part of me feels like we've already left. Well, not really, but—I'm already starting to miss this place."
"Premature nostalgia," Remus murmured before kissing just below Sirius's right ear. "I'm already missing this place too."
Sirius nodded as he closed and pocketed the knife. He turned to face Remus and pulled him onto his lap. "I was watching you reading, and I just felt that since here is where we fell in love, that there should be a record of it."
"Here? In the library?"
"No, Hogwarts. We fell in love here at Hogwarts and now our love will always be a part of this school."
Remus stared into Sirius's eyes before nodding with a smile. "I could have suggested several more appropriate locations—"
"You're right, but it was kind of impulse thing."
"With you, it's always an impulse thing," Remus replied still grinning. "Thus, this location is very appropriate. May it always remain as a tribute to the impulsive Sirius Black and the foolish sod who puts up with him."
"And may you always be foolish enough to put up with me," Sirius thought as Remus kissed him.
Sirius ran his hands over the unblemished wood of the windowsill. He wondered what the heart's absence meant. Perhaps on this world, Sirius and Remus never fell in love. He felt sorry for the Sirius of this world if that were the case. Never to have known what it felt like to love and to be loved in return.
"Never to have seen Remus's beautiful eyes full of joy just because you are with him," Sirius said quietly to his imagined counterpart who had once dwelt in this castle. "Never to have seen Remus turn away to hide the pain in his eyes born of your mistrust—that's an experience I hope you were spared. But I hope you were spared it because you were wiser than I, not because he didn't love you."
Sirius turned and walked away. He hoped that the heart's absence simply meant that impulsive Sirius had carved it elsewhere, or that responsible Remus had talked Sirius out of "defacing the school."
It was a quarter of ten when Sirius reentered the Headmaster's office. His desire to get home wouldn't let him delay any longer. Dumbledore put aside the parchments on his desk with one hand while he gestured for Sirius to take a seat with the other. Sirius hesitated. Now that he was so close to another opportunity to try to go home, he felt too keyed up to sit quietly.
Dumbledore seemed to understand. "Please sit down for just a moment," he asked. "I need to explain the exact nature of the favour I am asking of you. It may be a shock."
"Of course," Sirius said as he sat opposite Dumbledore's desk. He had not forgotten his promise to perform a small favour to Dumbledore before leaving—not completely forgotten, at least—but he had been much more focused on their visit to the veil instead.
"I mentioned to you last night that the Sirius Black native to this world was also in Azkaban. I'm afraid that he didn't fare as well as you did. He's been in St. Mungo's ever since his release."
A chill, a faint echo of the soul-killing cold of Azkaban, brushed across Sirius's skin, and he shuddered slightly. Azkaban battered its inmates physically as well as psychically, but Sirius could think of no physical harm that would have come to him there which would have required a year's hospitalization. He knew without needing to be told that his counterpart had either gone mad or been kissed.
"Last night," Dumbledore continued, "I wrote to the Healer in charge of his ward and told her of your presence here. I received her reply this morning. We both think that you may be able to give her some insights into her patient so that she may be better able to assist his healing."
"Healing," Sirius thought with relief, "so he wasn't kissed. He has a chance of recovery." Somehow, it seemed very important to him that his counterpart be given a chance for recovery, a chance to set things right with those he had hurt through his mistakes in the past. He nodded and stood up to leave. "I don't know if I'll be of any help, but I'll be glad to speak with her, of course."
"Splendid," Dumbledore said as rose from his chair. A traveling cloak in the same cerulean blue as the elderly wizard's eyes appeared from nowhere and settled about his shoulders. "Shall we Floo from Hogsmeade? Or perhaps take a couple of thestrals?" he asked with the familiar twinkle in his eye.
Sirius had heard rumors that the old man still flew on the winged beasts from time to time, and he wouldn't mind seeing it in person; however, "Tempting, but Floo powder is quicker."
As they stood outside the Janus Thickey ward of St. Mungo's awaiting the Healer, Sirius found himself both tempted to go in and afraid to do so. As he stared at the door, he wondered how close he himself had come to going completely mad. "Did two fewer years in there than this poor bastard make all the difference?" he wondered.
"Do you want to go in and meet him?" a woman asked. Sirius turned to see that a white-haired woman in healer's robes now stood beside Professor Dumbledore.
Sirius nodded before he could consider. "If you think it will be alright."
"I don't think it could do any harm," she replied. Sirius found that response more ominous than reassuring. It hinted that the other Sirius was so far gone that nothing, not even the sight of a doppelganger, could unhinge him further.
The healer put her hand on the door handle and the double doors unlocked with an audible click. "He's usually near the window," she said. The direction was unnecessary. Sirius immediately spotted the dark-haired man sitting on the floor in front of the window. His hair was cropped even shorter than Sirius had cut his own after escaping from Hogwarts with Buckbeak. The hospital staff had probably cut off the hopelessly snarled tangle of hair upon his release and then kept it short for their own ease.
The patient's gaze was fixed somewhere outside the window, and Sirius was able to approach and sit on the floor near him without attracting attention. The other man neither blinked nor followed the clouds or birds with his eyes. Whatever it was he was seeing, it was not out there.
"He always sits on the floor when he's looking out the window," the healer said quietly.
"I had to look up like this to see the window at the top of my cell wall," Sirius explained. "I couldn't actually see out —too high and too small—but I knew it was there and I could sometimes see sunlight or moonlight coming in."
"I used to like moonlight," the other Sirius said.
"I still do," Sirius replied.
The other Sirius turned calmly to see with whom he was conversing. For a moment, Sirius thought that the other man might simply look at him without seeing him, as he seemed to do when looking out the window. But the impression only lasted a moment. The patient's eyes narrowed as he tried to place the semi-familiar face in front of him. "Who—"
Sirius thought of the brief moment of shock he himself experienced every time he looked in a mirror. Somehow, he always expected a younger man to look back at him. After Azkaban, mirrors would only show him a stranger's face.
Panic and confusion suddenly filled the patient's eyes, and he scrambled backward away from Sirius. "NO! Get out of my head! No more—no more—no more! You're not here! You're dead! Mother killed you!"
"Mother killed?" Sirius realized with a start that he had been mistaken for a hallucination of his own father. He had never accused his mother of having a hand in his father's untimely death, not even in his own mind, but a small part of him had always wondered.
Before him, his counterpart was now backed into a corner and still shouting at him to leave. Behind him, the healer was pulling at his sleeve for him to leave while she gave orders for a calming potion to be administered. Sirius knew he couldn't stay, not in this form at least. He transformed into Padfoot and simultaneously lay down upon the floor. With his head between his paws, he looked up at the suddenly silent man.
"You aren't real," the other Sirius
whispered. "But you're a good
memory. I don't have many of
those." He reached out with an unsteady
hand as if to pet Padfoot's head, but faltered and pulled his hand back tight
against his chest.
Padfoot was dimly aware of the Healer telling her assistant to wait with the calming potion. He whined once and inched forward. Sirius again reached out and scratched between Padfoot's ears. His fingers slipped down and got the one perfect spot just below the right ear that Padfoot liked best. Padfoot rose to his feet again and moved close enough to sit beside the man. Sirius encircled Padfoot's back with one arm while he continued to rub and scratch the dog in all his favourite places.
Sirius whispered in Padfoot's ear, "I used to be you, but not anymore. There's no Padfoot without Moony. I haven't changed since he died. I don't deserve to be Padfoot anymore."
Padfoot whimpered and looked into his counterpart's eyes. Pain, and sorrow, and regrets without end. Now he understood why this other Sirius could not stay sane in Azkaban. He could not—or would not—escape into Padfoot.
He waited until the patient was again staring out the window, unseeing, and the hand running through his fur had lain still on his flank for several minutes before he rose to his feet in order to leave. As he slipped out from under the man's hand, he heard him say quietly, "Take care of Moony, won't you?"
Dumbledore had been conversing with another patient for several minutes, but he deftly brought the conversation to a close when he saw the dog heading for the doors to the corridor. Sirius waited until they were back in the corridor before shifting back into human form. He idly noticed the stack of signed photographs in the Headmaster's hand, but felt too emotionally drained to even muster a remote hint of curiosity.
"His Remus is dead," Sirius said as they walked away from the ward.
"Yes," Dumbledore replied sounding slightly surprised. "I just assumed that he was in your world too."
"How did it happen?"
"It was a long time ago."
Sirius grabbed Dumbledore's arm and forced him to halt. "How did it happen?" he asked again in a more steely tone.
"A student accidentally found out how to get past the Whomping Willow and went into the tunnel during a full moon. James got the student out before he was harmed, but it was close, too close."
"Accidentally," Sirius repeated. "You mean I did it. I told Snape how to get past the Willow."
"No, our Sirius told Mr. Snape how to get past the Willow."
Sirius shook his head. "We both did it. There's no difference."
In Azkaban, the worst memories of Sirius's life had replayed through his mind so often that sometimes he feared that they were permanently burned on his retinas. Even now, he needed only to close his eyes to see them again as clearly as the first time.
One of those images was the brief glimpse he had gotten of Remus in the hospital wing the morning after they nearly killed Snape. In his anger at losing his prey, the wolf had turned on himself more savagely than ever before. Sirius had believed himself inured to the contrast of red against white. He seen white bandages stained red with Remus's blood on many mornings after the full moon. But that morning, the bandages were red—just red. White was Remus's skin with no blood left to warm it, and red was the blood dripping from the tips of Remus's fingers. Remus was so pale that Sirius feared he was already dead. Remus had been barely alive, and Madam Pomfrey had almost been unable to save him.
Just as clearly, he remembered when Remus had faced the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures a short time later. The vote had been close, three to two in favour of dismissing the charges. One red-robed judge voting the other way, and Remus would have been executed as a dangerous animal.
"One mistake on my part, and Remus almost died twice," Sirius thought, not for the first time. He had always been grateful that Remus did survive, but perhaps he had not been sufficiently aware of just miraculous Remus's survival had been. Sirius wondered which of the two ways this Remus died, but he did not ask. Either way, it was his fault. He wondered if he could have stayed sane in Azkaban if he had had Remus's death on his conscience as well. "No. I couldn't have. There's no Padfoot without Moony. But Moony has to carry on even without Padfoot. I need to get home. Remus needs me, and I need Remus."
The healer had come up quietly as the two men spoke. "Excuse me, Mr.—uh—Black, but I was hoping you could you give me some insight into how to help our Mr. Black."
Sirius shook his head. "He needs Remus."
"Harry," Sirius said as he suddenly changed his mind. "Talk to him about Harry Potter. Show him photos of Harry and his friends. When I was in Azkaban, I had difficulty remembering that Harry survived on the night that his parents died. I kept assuming that he died too. If he knows that Harry's alive, that Harry needs him to get well, maybe that will give him a reason to live. Maybe."
Sirius found himself in a dark and non-talkative mood as they left St. Mungo's, but Dumbledore seemed to understand. Other than directing him where to go in order to apparate safely to the Ministry of Magic's Visitors' Entrance, Dumbledore walked in silence beside him. Images of Remus near death, in pain, angry, disappointed—all were replaying before Sirius's eyes again, and he didn't even need to close his eyes to see them.
As they entered the room of the veil and its ampitheatre, Sirius stared at the portion of the room where he had last seen Remus fighting against Death Eaters. "I don't even know if he survived the battle," he realized. Until now, he had not feared for Remus. His lover was swift, clever, and powerful. Sirius had believed that Remus would always triumph—but had Remus really just been living on borrowed time for years? When would fate exact payment?
The events at St. Mungo's seemed to still be preying upon Dumbledore's mind as well. He reflected, "So Remus's death made all the difference between your surviving Azkaban unscathed and our Sirius losing his mind. What a tragic waste."
"I wouldn't say I'm 'unscathed,'" Sirius replied, "but yes, it made all the difference."
"Why?" Dumbledore asked. "I knew he felt guilt over that mistake, but—"
"Could you survive having killed the love of your life and then spending fourteen years with Dementors to make you relive it over and over again?"
"I didn't know," Dumbledore said quietly.
"No reason you should have." Sirius touched Dumbledore's arm in farewell, hoped it was enough to express all the gratitude he wished to convey, and stepped through the veil again.