Author's Note: The ensuing snapshot of a story demanded to be told.
Sirius Black slammed his fist against the wall and succeeded only in bruising himself.
"Peter, you fucking bastard!" he screamed. "You sneaking fucking bastard, I'm going to rip you limb from fucking limb!"
A howl of rage that defied words broke and subsided into wretched, heaving sobs as he slumped against the wall. Bony fingers that might once have been deft and sure danced over the stones, their cracked, dirty fingernails probing uselessly at the crumbling mortar in the crevices. There was a whisper by the door, a whisper that cast a shadow over the wreck of a man crumpled in the corner.
"Oh, James," the trembling lips gasped out. "James, James… I'm so sorry, James… This… this is all my fault… You have to forgive me, James… All… my… fault…"
The shadow seemed to gain in size and definition. A chill crept insidiously through the cell.
Through a curtain of lank, lifeless hair, with tortured, hollow eyes, Sirius Black saw his breath turn to mist in the air before him. For a moment he was fascinated. And then he realized just what it entailed.
"No," he said slowly, hoarsely, barely audibly. "No, James. It wasn't me. It was Peter. It was Peter all along." He raised his head, and his eyes smoldered into the abomination lingering just beyond the bars. "It was Peter," he repeated, louder now. He mustered up another rasping shout. "It was Peter! It wasn't me, it was never me, and it will never be me, you fucking ghost, so get the fuck away!"
Obediently, having no reason to feed, the Dementor passed on, and Sirius Black was free once again—free to curl up in the corner and duck away from the pitchforks of his demons.
Persistent little bastards, they were. Persistent little bastards with damn good aim.
Shortly, the huddled remains of a man whispered something, at which point his form shifted and churned until it did not belong to a man at all. A mangy black dog rested its muzzle on its paws. Sometimes—most times—it was easier to be a dog. And the Dementors didn't care.
That was a fine joke. As if Dementors were capable of caring.
Sometime later—time was an abstract concept here—the dog became a man again, a man sprawled forlornly on the floor, watching it as if it might move at any moment. You couldn't be sure. Lots of things he had thought were steady had leapt up and bitten him in the ass just when he tried to rely on them
The man rolled over onto his back on the unyielding surface of the stones. His back ached. But then, everything ached, his mangled, wizened corpse of a heart worst of all. Sometimes he imagined how that heart looked. The picture he had was of a little slab of meat, raw once, and accepting; now scorched to a decaying brown. There would be so many holes in that heart—rips and tears and cracks and punctures. The blood caked in the crevices would be thick and black, settled there, contented, having claimed its prize. It would not heal. Some things couldn't and didn't. And Sirius Black didn't have the strength to throw himself at another brick wall—to fight another battle he knew he would lose.
But as he lay there, dully, staring at the ceiling, something sprang up within the spread-eagled man, pushing delicate, pale green tendrils through the parched soil.
"Remus," Sirius Black whispered.
With emaciated hands he scrabbled at the precipitous incline of his sanity. He needed to grip some of those skittering stones, cling there—he knew he did. He was willing to take any handhold he could find.
Remus would know. Remus would figure it out, and Remus would understand. Remus had always been so smart, and so much smarter than him. Remus would see, Remus would know, and Remus would forgive him.
A shadow fell again, a shadow like a sliver of night. It almost seemed that the shadow bore weight—but that, of course, was impossible. Sirius Black pulled his tattered robes a bit closer around him against the cold. So cold. It was so cold.
His mad, stupid hope died before it could flower and lay withering on the arid ground. Remus wouldn't forgive him. Remus was naïve, but naïveté had its limits. Remus would believe the same thing everyone else believed—that he had killed Peter after betraying James and Lily.
He shivered and pulled his robes a little tighter.
Remus was the last one of them now—the last of the dumb, grinning boys that had waltzed out of the school after seven long years of toil and triumph. He should have known. Sirius should have known that it would end like this. Peter was dead. James was dead—and Lily, too. And he was here, in his own personal Hell—cell? Hell? They were the same—because he had betrayed them.
The shadow widened.
And then there was the anger—white-hot in his shredded heart, searing his veins.
No. Remus would be wrong. They were all wrong. Whatever Sirius Black was, he was not a traitor. He hadn't been the one who had led the Dark Lord by the hand to Godric's Hollow, pointed out the house, handed him the fucking keys—
It was Peter who had done that, ickle Peter, with his big, round eyes and his self-deprecating little shrug. The cute one. The sweet one. The harmless one.
Once again the shadow faded and disappeared.
Sirius was on his feet before he knew it, pacing the little Hell-cell with shaking legs. Didn't have much of a choice, did he, if he didn't want those muscles to atrophy. Had to use them. Had to keep them hale and whole. Had to be ready when the moment arrived.
Because there would be a moment, one of these days. He had days. He had as many days as he wanted.
Filthy, callused hands found the bars of the cell. Slowly he caressed them, stroked them, learned their chinks and their contours. They were merely metal. And they weren't very tight.
Yes. There would be a moment, and at that moment, he would slide between those bars and go back, back to a world madder than this one, and he would strangle Peter fucking Pettigrew with his bare hands.
His fingers tightened around the bars, and ropy veins stood out on his pale arms.
Then he remembered. Peter was already dead.
The iron bars were cool against his forehead; the rust scraped gently as if his mother was trying to scratch a bit of dirt off of his skin. God knew he needed it.
Peter was already dead. They were all dead, except Remus. And him. Though he might as well be.
Had Peter killed himself? He didn't know. He hadn't done anything—or at least, he didn't think so. He might as well have killed Peter. Intent was good enough. And everything in him had wanted to. Had he uttered a curse? He didn't think so. But it was possible. Anything was possible in a world where James and Lily were dead. Anything was possible in the twisted limbo that was Azkaban. Shadows were heavy and death was elusive and madness was reality.
Or, rather, there was no reality but madness.
It was all gone. Everything was gone. All that he'd had, all that he'd wanted—vanished, stolen, violated, in one hellish night. James and Lily were dead. Peter was dead—Peter had caused it, had done it, had—
Couldn't think that way. It would finish him once and for all. And then there would be nothing, nothing at all, not even the grief and the madness.
So. James was dead. Peter was dead. Remus was… God knew where Remus was. Safe, he supposed.
And he was here, far safer than he'd ever wanted to be: immune to every danger but himself. Alone with his mind and his memories.
And the Dementors.
Smarmy bastards, those things. He would have killed one, if it were possible, just to feel it writhe and then stop moving, to hear the last breath rattle out and stay there. Only thing that wasn't possible in Azkaban, that. Killing Dementors. Killing yourself, of course, was perfectly acceptable—and cheerfully encouraged.
With a single fingertip he traced the pattern of grime on the nearest of the bars. Yes. His confines would free him. Maybe there was no good left in the world, and no justice. They'd pitched him in here, after all, despite his salient lack of a hideous black mark on his left arm. No justice. No good. No kindness. But there was a man left, a man named Sirius Black. And if that cruelly unresponsive world thought that he couldn't take a punch and come back swinging, it was fucking deluding itself. No. There were things to be fought for. Things to live for. Things to escape for. Things to stay sane for.
It wasn't hope—not exactly. Determination, maybe. A—cracked lips curled into something like a smirk—dogged obstinacy that couldn't be crushed, that defied destruction. And no fucking Dementor could take that away from him, no, sirree.
This wasn't over until he said it was over.
He could wait.
Something welled in his dry throat and spilled out like vomit. It was a weak, coarse, unsavory sound, grating and endlessly unpalatable. It choked and bubbled and rasped like death. It was the sound of Sirius Black laughing a cold, broken, utterly humorless laugh.
He could wait a long, long time, because the waiting would be worthwhile.