Beyond the Pale.
It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch...
And Sirius saw the look of fear and surprise on his godson's face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind and then fell back into place.
"Ugh," was the man's first word when he woke upo a stone floor. It was cold, dank, dusty, and a nearby scratching sound alerted him to cockroaches, termites, or some similar pest. He groaned as he pulled himself to a sitting position, gingerly touching the swollen side of his face that had hit the ground first.
"Lumos," he rasped, before realizing that he no longer had his wand. He felt along the floor for it, finding nothing.
Then he remembered what had just transpired. "HARRY!" Sirius yelled. "HARRY!"
He tried to push himself to his feet, bells ringing in his head. When he found he hadn't the strength, he dug his knobby fingers into the cracks in the floor, dragging himself toward the veil and the way out of the darkness.
His eyes had not yet adjusted well enough to see that the veil no longer rippled, that no light came through the space between the hanging cloth and the floor, that there was no movement of air from the outside in. He only realized that he was trapped when the flat of his palm hit what felt like a wall.
Sirius wasn't afraid. He had been in darker places, and he had been in more pain. What was more, he had escaped. The only thing he needed now was to think.
He sat up once more, leaning his back against the damp, moldy wall, and draped an arm around his knee, squinting into the blackness that surrounded him as he waited for his eyes to adjust. He didn't have to wait long, however, because as he peered away from the veil, trying to judge the size of his newer, less-fearsome prison, a light floated toward him.
The light flitted toward him from a long ways off, bouncing rhythmically, then stopping and hovering in midair for a moment or two, before continuing again. Sirius steeled himself for danger as best he could, dragging in a ragged breath.
"Who's there?" Sirius asked.
The light stopped where it was, still several yards off. "Aha," said a voice. "Company."
"Who's there?" Sirius asked again, the urgency in his voice increasing. His hands found the wall behind him, fingers creeping up against the moss and slipping at the sensation of trickling water against the stones. Grinding his fingertips against mortar, he steeled his jaw, tugging himself to his feet slowly, every muscle in his body aching.
A dark silhouette formed around the light, the silhouette of a man's body in tattered clothes. The light bobbled upward, illuminating a gaunt, angular face. "I am," the voice replied. "Although I daresay I ought to be the one asking you. I say, we don't get many fellows down our way."
The man advanced rather swiftly now, offering Sirius an arm up. Sirius took hold of the other man's sleeve. The fabric was stiff with dust and mold, keeping the shape of Sirius' hand where he touched it.
"Come, we haven't all day," said the man. "Tea's getting cold, you know."
If Sirius had been hesitant before this, the suggestion that, in all this darkness and filth, he was holding up someone's tea put him at a complete standstill. "Tea?" he asked.
The gaunt man snorted, raising his light. "My tea," he answered. "So spit-spot, shall we? That's gratitude for you," he muttered, giving up on Sirius as he snatched him up by the sleeve and marched him back the way he'd come, down a narrow hall lined with what appeared to be frames of different shapes and sizes, all hung with dull, dark, musty fabric.
Sirius uttered a low growl as he wrested his arm from the other man. "I don't need your help," he said sharply, pulling himself his full height as he walked, his footing still uneasy.
"My, but I'm afraid you do," the other man answered, pulling out a large, rusty ring of keys. He clanked through them, shaking his head at one after the other. "And it hurts me to hear you say that, Mister Black. It's not too many men who find they need me. Most of them insist on Virgil. Huh. Not that they've ever read him, mind, but they say that's how it's supposed to go, you know."
"Virgil who?" Sirius asked, crossing his arms as he leaned back against the wall in an attempt to look as if he were taking the offensive and not merely trying to stay on his feet. "How what's supposed to go? Where the hell am I , and who do you think you are?"
"Well, the tour, of course," answered the man, nodding with an appreciative look as he held up one key, then fit it into the wall—or, rather, an unilluminated door in the wall. "We're not precisely in hell, terribly sorry to disappoint you. And I am Sir Francis Lovell, Lord Chancellor of the King's Household, though I'm afraid I haven't technically held the post in some time."
With that, the key clicked in the lock, and Sir Francis swung the door open with a creak, letting weak sunlight creep into the hall. "Now," he ordered, ushering Sirius in before him. "In you go."
The man didn't seem to expect any argument, let alone leave room for one, so Sirius went.
Sirius found himself in what appeared to be a reasonable facsimile of a modern kitchen. It was cheery and bright, with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and a whitewashed table and chairs in the French Provincial style.
On the table, sat a steaming pot of tea.
"Ahh," said Sir Francis, sighing delightedly as he sank into a chair, fussing with his teacup for a moment before pouring. He seemed to have forgotten that he had a companion until he had finished pouring sugar and cream in the sort of doses small children left to their own devices would choose. Only after his sixth spoonful of sugar was completely mixed in did he look back up at Sirius.
"Oh, yes," Sir Francis said. "You're welcome to take a seat and join me."
Sirius appreciatively fell into a chair. "I'll pass on the tea," he said. "I just want to know where I am."
"You're in my kitchen," Sir Francis replied. "Now do have some tea; we must keep up our strength."
"With a cup of tea?" Sirius asked derisively.
"My, but we're in a mood. And they told me I was in a snit when they pulled me in here." Sir Francis picked up a ladyfinger and began dipping it into his tea.
"Of course I'm in a mood," the older man said—for Sir Francis looked to be a few years shy of Sirius in age. "You were-- pulled in here, too?"
"Hmm, oh, yes," Sir Francis replied. "After the Battle of Stoke, you see. Our last efforts against the Dark Lord failed, and I had to go into hiding; I was a wanted man at that point, accused of crimes—" Sir Francis sniffed indignantly before continuing. "of crimes so hideous. I mean, conspiracy...murder...and them like family to me, you know. And I've been painted a villain ever since; I do wonder what happened to my account at Minster Lovell. No doubt that horrid house elf baked it in a pie and ate it as soon as I was gone. "
Sirius had stopped keeping his jaw on edge halfway through Sir Francis' monologue, slowly relaxing in his chair, and his eyes, which had been fixed on the other man since they had entered into the well-lit room, now darted about, looking at anything but the other man's face. "Sounds terrible," he agreed stiffly. "I wish I could sympathize...but...but..." he added, finally willing himself to look Sir Francis in the eye, "You're battling You-Know-Who, too? Why haven't I heard of you?"
"It was a long time ago, now, I should think," answered Sir Francis. "The last fellow that came this way; he said your Muggles had metal birds and such now."
Sirius raised an eyebrow. "Ah, yes; yes they do," he agreed. "So, who, then? Grindel—no, there were airplanes by then—"
Sir Francis gave Sirius an insulted look. "Come, now, you say you haven't even heard of me?" he asked indignantly, sloshing tea over the side of his cup. "Mister Black, you must know the rhyme, you know, 'the cat, the rat, and Lovell the dog—"
Sirius sat back in his chair. "You mean to tell me you're that Lovell?" he asked. "You fought Richard?"
"RICHARD?!" Sir Francis spat tea nearly the length of the table. "How dare you even suggest—I was loyal, I tell you, even when things were at their darkest. No, no, NO!" he exclaimed, his brow creasing in near-fury. "I would have laid down my life for Richard."
Sir Francis proudly pressed a hand to his heart. "Oh, no, Mister Black," he continued vehemently. "I fought Harry."
Sirius nearly tipped backward in his chair, righting himself only at the last moment. "Harry?" he rasped.
"Oh, yes," answered Sir Francis, looking somewhat startled by Sirius' violent reaction. 'Harry Richmond was a villain through and through, not that anyone is willing to admit it. Oh, no, everyone was convinced that Richard was the evil one, because of that hump. Hump, they say, you could hardly notice it. Richard wasn't the one who murdered the poor boys, you can be damned sure. And he made poor Simnel work in the kitchens with a lot of elves. That's punishment for you, couldn't even let him alone to have a proper hanging."
Sirius straightened up in his chair, finally reaching for the teapot. "You're talking about Henry VII?" he asked, sounding a bit relieved.
"A pretender!" Sir Francis exclaimed, rising from his seat as he slammed a fist down on the table, setting the cups to rattle. "A vile, horrible monster undeserving to be called a man, let alone a king!"
Sirius' hand wavered as he poured his tea, and he set the pot down carefully, swallowing half the cup in a single gulp. "I didn't mean—"
"Of COURSE you didn't mean," growled Sir Francis, his tone becoming more threatening. "They never mean anything by it, oh, no, they just—"
"Are you scaring the company again?" called a voice from the adjoining room. Sirius hadn't noticed until then that there were doors besides the one through which they had entered. "I say, Sir Francis, and then you yammer on about how we never get any company."
The voice was nearing the door, and Sirius was certain he recognized it, though he couldn't quite place it in his head.
"That rotten elf has been snickering all night," the voice said, as a familiar, corpulent, and surprisingly three-dimensional figure filled the doorway. "I told him—what in the name of all that's good and holy are you doing here, you wretched boy?"
Sirius dropped his teacup back to the table with a clatter. "Good...afternoon, Great-great Grandfather," he managed to blurt, sounding altogether too much like a wayward child.
"You didn't answer my question," replied Phineas Nigellus, shifting his bulk so that it fit through the door and poured into the kitchen. "What did you do, you peevish, ignorant twit of a boy? Your mother is going to be screeching half the night when she finds out; I'll have to vacate my portrait for weeks or I'll never hear the end of it.
Sirius sighed softly, tugging at the end of his ponytail. "I fell," he replied.
"I fell," the old man mimicked, dropping into a chair, which complained with a squeak as he rolled back into it, his thick thighs slapping the seat. He reached for the teapot, pouring himself a cup of tea. "When was it you children stopped listening to your elders?" he asked. "How did I wind up with such a rebellious brat in my illustrious bloodline?"
"Luck, I guess," Sirius mumbled.
"Oh, come now," Sir Francis said amiably. "Really, you're supposed to be family. That's something there isn't enough of in the world, now, is there?"
"There's too much of it, if he's involved," the portly ex-headmaster replied, raising his teacup to indicate Sirius.
The younger Black raised a sharp eyebrow at his ancestor. "You're supposed to be dead," he informed him lightly. "I don't see why you're asking me what I'm doing."
"Oh, we're all supposed to be dead," Phineas Nigellus informed his progeny. "But did anyone bother asking what happened to me? Oh, no, that old bastard's gone, never cared for him anyway, let's appoint a new headmaster, shall we?" he asked in a patronizing tone.
"Oh, come now, Phin, old boy," replied Sir Francis, refilling his tea cup, a mild expression on his face, as if he'd heard this complaint too many times to count. "You couldn't really administer from behind a picture frame, could you? It was your own fault you fell in, same as the rest of us."
"It wasn't my fault," Sirius objected hotly. "I—"
"Children should speak when they are spoken to," Phineas informed Sirius. "Sir Francis, I really must protest. I was perfectly capable of carrying out my duties in the capacity of headmaster."
"As long as you had someone to carry your frame from room to room, you mean," Sir Francis agreed cheerfully.
The elder Black muttered to himself and turned his attention to his tea.
"Do you mean," Sirius ventured cautiously, "that you're the one in the pictures?"
"Oh yes," Sir Francis replied. "As am I. Not many pictures left of me, I'm afraid. No one cares about Old Lovell now," he said sadly. "No, I'm only memorialized in a rhyme, and as the lap-dog to an imaginary villain." He sighed into his tea. "Poor, poor, dear Cousin Richard. I wouldn't want to inhabit all those paintings they made after he died, oh no."
The younger Black placed his hands flat upon the table, a glint in his eyes as an idea struck him. He recalled the covered objects in the hall. "Paintings of me?" he asked intently. "Where would they be?"
"Oh, no, it's not so simple, I'm afraid," Sir Francis replied with a sigh, putting down his cup. "You see—"
"You have to really inhabit a place," Phineas interrupted. "Your spirit has to belong there, for your portrait to be inhabitable. The other pictures are mere shadows of their subjects. And you, why, you didn't really belong anywhere for very long, did you, except for prison, you reckless buffoon."
Sirius bit his tongue before replying the way he wished he could, glaring at his ancestor from across the table. He sank back into his chair. That plan wouldn't work.
Phineas shifted his sizeable girth as he rose from the table. "And, ahem, speaking of portraits, I do believe it's high time I checked in on that windbag of a headmaster Hogwarts is currently employing. Always making students sit in his office while he yammers on about things he ought to have told them months ago, he is; he's both vain and senile." The elder Black snorted. "I don't know how that school would get on without me."
Sirius gripped the table edge tightly. "Great-Great Grandfather," he asked, attempting to sound deferential, despite his distaste for his relative, "if you're speaking to Dumbledore, could you give him a message for me?"
"Hmph," replied Phineas. "What do I look like, your messenger boy?"
"Oh, be kind, Phin," said Sir Francis. "He merely wants a tiny favor."
"Well, right, what is it?" Phineas asked tiredly.
"Tell him I'm not dead. Tell him I'm still alive," Sirius instructed urgently. "Tell him I've just been detained."
"Well, but you're nearly as close to dead as you can be," Sir Francis pointed out. "No one goes back once they slip behind the veil."
Sirius leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. "I will," he insisted.
"It sounds foolish to me," Phineas informed him tiredly. "But what else did I expect?" He shook his head sadly. "And you, the last of the family line. A disgrace."
"You'll tell them," Sirius demanded. "Or I'll—"
"Or you'll what?" Phineas asked with a smug look. "We're all already dead, my boy." He waved a red, pudgy hand at his great-great-grandson, shaking his head. "If it comes up in conversation," he assured him, "I'll say my piece."
"Thank you," Sirius replied through gritted teeth.
Phineas waddled out, removing himself from the kitchen, on his way toward the dark hall.
"Am I to understand," said Phineas Nigellus slowly from Harry's left, "that my great-great grandson—the last of the Blacks—is dead?"
"Yes, Phineas," said Dumbledore.
"I don't believe it," said Phineas brusquely.