Chapter One: Technicality
1996, in Death
Sirius Black peeled himself up from the ground. So this was death. He was dead. Interesting.
His parents would kill him. If he hadn't already died, that is. Bit hard to kill someone who was dead. The last Black, dead before managing to produce a heir. Sirius could picture their angry, judging faces, all twisted up in anger at his failings. His mum would shout and scream, his dad would be silently angry.
Oh, he knew he was a shit heir to the Black family name, but this one would take the proverbial biscuit. He hoped the biscuit was a Ginger Newt.
He hoped death did not involve having to see his parents.
Sirius stood and stared around him. Death was an odd place. It looked much like the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Except lacking the students, which made it a whole lot less noisy. He definitely recognised the room though, from the pillars around the edges, the tall windows, and the house tables to the raised dais at the front with the teacher's table.
No teachers, either. Now here was something that was for the best. Death wasn't so bad, after all.
Sirius thought he'd try out getting himself some food. He walked over to the table that would have been the Gryffindor table, had this been the Hogwarts Great Hall, and took a seat on a bench. He plumped for the location he'd sat in his first night at Hogwarts, where James had sat next to him. It felt right, somehow.
To Sirius' great surprise, a few plates of food appeared in front of him. Not a feast, but a decent meal nonetheless. Pork chops, a plate of steamed rice, and what looked like banana fritters. He bit into one experimentally. Definitely banana fritters.
The House Elves of Death (which was what Sirius was choosing to call whoever had provided this food) were not quite as good as those at Hogwarts, but the food was better than anything Kreacher had ever given him. Sirius was a shit cook. He'd moved into a flat when he came of age, and it was the first time in his life he'd ever tried to make a meal. It had been an utter disaster, and James had come and bailed him out.
When he had finished his meal, Sirius turned his attention to working out where the hell this was. Perhaps he should have prioritised that over eating. Remus would have.
It was at this point that Sirius noticed he was naked. Funny. He'd died in clothes. And plates were available in death, so why shouldn't clothes be? Maybe they didn't transcend. That wasn't the right word. Was it? They didn't come through. Clothes couldn't die.
Still, he didn't need any. There wasn't exactly anyone else around. He was comfortable in his body.
He was slightly less comfortable when he realised that there was in fact someone else around.
James fucking Potter.
"Hello," said James.
"Hello! Fifteen years almost and you say 'hello' as if it was yesterday?"
Sirius made to hug James, and couldn't understand why his old friend was pulling back.
"Mate, you're not wearing any clothes."
"Yeah. Sorry. Forgot we'd banned naked hugging."
"It was a long time ago we had that discussion, wasn't it? Third year?"
"I think so. How do I get clothes around here?"
As soon as he thought he'd wanted some, a set appeared on the bench where he'd eaten his meal. Sirius pulled them on, not really noticing what they were, and hugged James. This time, the other man reciprocated.
"So, how have you been?" asked Sirius. "How's Death? What's it like? Can I watch what's going on down there? I want to make sure Harry is okay."
"It's not quite that simple," said James.
Sirius sighed. It never was. Not in his life. Each time something good happened, it was generally taken away fairly quickly.
"What now?" he asked.
"See, you're not technically dead."
"Not technically dead."
"I heard it, I don't understand it."
"Bellatrix's curse didn't kill you. It immobilised you, and you fell through the Veil in the Department of Mysteries. You never died. You fell into Death."
"Does that matter?"
"That's what I'm telling you. It does. Sirius, you never fucking listened in life and it's clear you don't here either. You. Are. Not. Dead. You're here by accident."
"If I'm honest, I'm not sure," said James, fluffing his hair in a motion Sirius had seen so many hundreds of times before. The action was the only familiar thing around here. "I'm the messenger."
"When you die, you get someone come out to greet you. Someone already dead, who was a figure you knew and respected or looked up to when you were alive. I got my parents."
"And I got you. I never looked up to you."
"Course you did. Me, star Quidditch player, leader of the most famous gang in school, beloved by girls, excellent student."
"Reckon they were scraping the barrel for you, if I'm honest. Couldn't use your parents, could they, and if you respected anyone it was McGonagall and Dumbledore and they're both firmly still alive. Remus would have been better, but also alive, so you're stuck with me."
"It's a good job Remus is still alive. Harry's going to need him."
"He will." James took off his glasses and rubbed them, before looking at Sirius. Sirius thought he could see a small tear in his old friend's eye.
"I tried," said Sirius.
"You did your best."
"I was stupid. I shouldn't have gone after Peter and got caught. I could have been there for Harry."
"I'd have gone after that slimy rat if I'd have been in your shoes."
They sat in silence for a moment. Sirius inspected his clothes. They were Muggle clothes, the exact style he wore in his teens when he was trying to annoy his parents. The t-shirt was a Flashing Bludgers one, which he'd bought almost an exact duplicate of the summer after fourth year when the band was big amongst young wizards and he'd gone to a concert with James and Remus.
"So," he said. "If I'm not dead, what am I?"
"Alive," said James, as if explaining the basics to a young child.
"Right," said Sirius. "Are you going to send me back then?"
"It's not quite that simple," said James, again. Sirius groaned. "I can't. Something to do with damaging the reputation of the Veil. You can't go back to your current timeline because otherwise everyone would know that falling through the Veil doesn't kill you, and Death would be swamped with people trying to get in here for fun or to see loved ones."
Sirius' first thought was that it was an absurd suggestion. Then he thought about it a little bit more. For a starter, at least half of the Gryffindors he'd ever known would have done it for a dare, because they could. Some smarter types would want to research Death.
And would he honestly have wanted to talk to James, if he'd known he could? Of course.
He realised James was right.
"So what, then?" he asked.
"That's your choice," said James. "If you want to, you're allowed to die at this point and go on. Or become a ghost, if you prefer. Why anyone would want that, I don't know. I'm not supposed to tell you which to choose or make one seem better or worse. Or you can choose to live, but you can't go back to the point you died and I can't set you down in the future."
"I can go to the past?"
"If you want."
"And will I be me at my age, or me as I was then?"
"You, as you are now. Shit. How old are you? How old would I be now?"
"And I could go back anywhere?"
"I wasn't given any restrictions."
"I don't understand."
"I've explained it all to you in baby steps. Twice, at points. I'm not sure what is left to not understand."
"Everything," said Sirius. The text on his t-shirt was flashing different colours, just as the original had.
"Look," said James. "Maybe give that tiny brain of yours a rest, and stop trying to understand it. Just take the choice. I'm not allowed to tell you what to do… but, I know what I'd do."
"What?" asked Sirius. He thought he knew already.
"Go back a bit, and stop Voldemort and his Death Eaters before they could get my wife and son. Saving myself would be an obvious bonus."
"I can change the past?"
"If you go into the past, you change it. Don't you remember the lecture we got from Dumbledore that time we tried to make a Time Turner so that Remus didn't have to get bitten?"
"Yes. I was saved with a Time Turner by your son and his friend Hermione, on Dumbledore's orders."
"Good lad. Knew he had enough of his father in him."
"Your head hasn't deflated in being dead, has it? Okay. I choose to go back."
"Where to? When you choose, that's our time up."
"I don't want to leave you again, James."
"I don't want to be stuck here. Unfortunately, I died properly. Like a man, or more like a fucking Muggle, since I didn't even take my wand to to the door with me. You regret going after Wormtail; I regret that."
"It wouldn't have made a difference."
"That's what I try to tell myself. And I'm choosing to take that as empathy, not saying I'm a shit wizard."
"It's not really like that up here. I'm only here and now because I'm needed. That's how it works. Until we're needed, it's like being asleep."
"Better choose your time. I was told this wasn't a school reunion. Sorry I can't have longer with you, mate. I've missed you. I've missed all of you, except that fucking rat."
"I've missed you, too."
For a few moments, they sat in silence again. James, dressed in grey robes, wiped the lenses of his glasses on them again. Sirius eyed his feet. He'd not bothered to ask for shoes. Would he need them? He didn't want to wake up in his new time without shoes.
As he thought that, a pair of black leather boots and some slightly lurid stripy socks appeared. He pulled them on, in silence.
"Nice socks," said James.
"What's with the Great Hall?" asked Sirius.
"I don't know," said James, looking around. "You choose your own environment, up here. My parents met me in our old sitting room from when I was a child."
Sirius thought about that.
"Okay," he said, finally. "1978."
"Good luck," said James, as the Great Hall began to fall away around them, the edges of the room fading into black. The two men hugged, breaking away before James began to disappear too. Sirius was alone once more.