Notes and disclaimers: JKR's, not mine. No profit ever. Thanks to Tigs and Musesfool.

HOW TO FUNCTION WITHOUT HOPING




As I lay dying won't you leave the window open on a
wide open star, open star
The trick in life is how to function without hoping on a
wide open star, open star - Robyn Hitchcock

Sirius opened his eyes and saw gray and yellow. It was not quite clouds and not quite sand, and it went nowhere without variation.

It wasn't how he pictured death. No one else was around, no one tormenting him or comforting him. He could stand up and he was, above all else, a little thirsty. He decided, for now, he must be alive. So he had to get out and back to Harry.

The ground ended at an edge and there was nothing to see beyond a gentle curve. He couldn't even go over that edge; an invisible barrier held him back. Nor could he blast through it. He could only Apparate as far as that same blank spot. Right, then, the way out would be the other direction.

The ground was not dirt or sand. When transfigured, it held shape, but did not provide real sustenance. Objects transfigured into food never provided more nutrition than their initial form offered. Sirius would need to start eating his clothes if he were here long. As Padfoot, he could run the entire sphere in five days around, two days straight from where he entered to the other edge. The landscape did not vary.

At the end of a fortnight, Sirius had already eaten one sleeve of his coat, transfigured into mutton and butterbeer. The sustenance was little, but at least the taste going down was tolerable. He took the other sleeve and made it parchment. Sirius remembered how to make a map.

The way out was straight across, one place in the barrier that smelled different to Padfoot. Sirius could push at it. He could, if he kept pushing, possibly fall straight into nothing. He had to get back and help Harry. He took a deep breath and walked through.

Closer to sand and closer to clouds, but still not the world. Another sphere.

There were seven. Seven linked spheres like pearls on a string, each not quite sand and not quite clouds, though by the seventh it was very close. It was the world's most boring puzzle, if it was in the world at all.

He'd hoped after seven spheres, he'd be out, seven being a mystical number if Sirius remembered Runes correctly and he certainly did. Instead he was in gently rolling hills of grass. Not actually rolling, though that might have been interesting to see. Once again, he couldn't go back. He'd yet to be able to reverse from an entrance.

The grass was again not quite grass. A construct of nothing. Except in two spots where he could make water and meat and have it feel right. It was nice to actually eat and still have trousers and shoes left.

The map kept tracing out spheres. Grassy hills to moors to fake mountain tops. A set of seven spheres where someone worked out how to build a mountain, it looked like. There were two or three spots per sphere that weren't just construct that Padfoot always sniffed out. It smelled like cemetery, Sirius thought. People had died here and he was eating them as mutton and butterbeer.

He had places to go and Harry to get back to.

The third set of seven was forest. Someone was getting better at world-building. This time there were streams and fish. Little of it was real, though Padfoot smelled more graves in each sphere than the sphere before. People had died here, Sirius thought, which meant they'd been alive before, so he wasn't dead yet.

He thought of Remus again. There had been Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries and certainly the Order would triumph -- they'd already been winning and he was only one man down, so Fudge would retreat from his stupidity and Sirius would be cleared. There was still Voldemort and Wormtail, but Sirius would leave the house. And he would take Remus with him. Their own place, perhaps, again. They would have a house right outside London where Harry could visit and Sirius would make Wolfsbane for Remus as Sirius was much more gifted at Potions.

He was gifted at everything and he was still stuck here.

In the fourth set of seven -- fields this time – Alphard appeared. Not Sirius's uncle Alphard, which would have been more pleasant, but a ghost. Who introduced himself as Alphard Linton-Merwick and bobbed up and down like floating on a mattress spring in front of Sirius. "There hasn't been anyone in ages," Alphard said. "I don't know how long, but a very long time."

Sirius raised his wand and said, "You don't know how long?"

"You have your wand. They didn't let me have my wand. If they'd let me have my wand things would have been different." Alphard sighed. "But they did intend me to die."

Alphard had been exiled through the Veil by his political foes. Near as Sirius could determine it had been about eight hundred years ago, before the Ministry of Magic had been fully established. A putsch, Sirius gathered. Alphard could really only be silenced by direct questions as to what he had done to get himself shoved through the Veil.

"Done fairly often in my day, you know," Alphard said. They were walking through the fields in the fifth of these seven spheres. If there were seven sets of seven spheres, then they had sixteen to go. Sirius consulted his map and saw the sphere they were in being traced in black. "Get on the wrong side of someone and then you were put through the Veil. An exile you never come back from, but we were never allowed to have our wands." Alphard looked down. "That map is very clever. Very helpful. I made it this far and then I died of hunger. I suppose many didn't even make it as far as I did."

"I thought the Veil was death. A construct of death. Some say they can hear voices from the other side of it. They're studying it as if it were a pathway to death in the Department of Mysteries."

Alphard considered. "Yes. The people in my time hardly created the Veil. It was discovered. Though it was someone's creation. Many centuries before my time. But it is a conduit, a tunnel. To something. But the Veil has its own intelligence. It recognizes the living when they come through it, I believe. In my day they had been building things in the space they found."

"I assume they built a way out," Sirius said.

"As do I," Alphard said. "Though anyone living who passes through the Veil is immediately taken for dead by all enchantments. They added that when they started using it for purposes of banishment. Very effective if you didn't want a body lying around for other use."

They reached the first of the seventh set of spheres and Sirius walked through the space. There was the Chamber. He saw Dumbledore, Tonks, Moody scowling, and right in front were Remus and Harry. They were all smiling. Harry said, "We knew you'd make it back!" and Remus crushed him in a hug. He was home safe. He'd calculated wrong. Sirius had done that before. He felt tired suddenly, all that wandering catching up with him. Dumbledore explained that Voldemort had appeared at the Ministry after Sirius fell; he and Harry had defeated him. Sirius was cleared. Peter was dead. Remus gripped his arm and said, "Knew you would work out how to escape, Padfoot."

They Apparated back to 12 Grimmauld Place, he and Harry and Remus. They'd cleaned everything up, somehow, in those weeks since Sirius had been gone. It shined like it never had. Harry joked that he'd had to do it the Muggle way and Remus laughed like he was sixteen.

He was so tired. Remus said he'd come up in a moment, Sirius should go up first. Their room, it was theirs. There were pictures of Lily and James Sirius didn't recall seeing before. Everything was as it should be. He lifted one up and watched them dance.

"Sirius," Alphard said, his voice trembly. "Sirius. Can we look at your, your map?"

"Alphard," Sirius said. "We don't need to." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his map. He knew where everything was. He didn't need to see it.

The map showed black lines forming into a sphere. No Ministry, no 12 Grimmauld Place. Alphard bobbed next to Sirius and there was no one else. Sirius said, "What do you see, Alphard?"

"I see shapes, Sirius, I'm sorry."

It was like a Dementor had walked in the room. "Someone built this. It's using me to create it." He said, "I could lie down to sleep and never wake up." For a moment he thought it wasn't a bad death.

Alphard said, "This seems like your desires, this Voldemort defeated, your friends safe. I wonder, Sirius, what the next one will be?"

A transparent attempt to engage his thought in the puzzle. Sirius tucked the map away and made sure he had his wand. He jumped through the window as Padfoot.

The second sphere was his worst fears. Voldemort owned all of England and Death Eaters ran the Ministry. On the street, when Sirius made his way up there, no Muggles walked and most of the buildings looked torn and broken. It turned out Sirius's own phantoms could injure him as he took a nasty cut from a thrown knife.

He made it out.

The third sphere was the past, Sirius's vague memories dressed up like a quaint little fair. Then came the future. It was disappointing that the whole place looked like a science fiction film Sirius remembered seeing with Peter. "Peter," he muttered.

Alphard was jaunty. "Peter? Peter who you want to kill? Betrayer of your friends?"

"Peter, indeed. I saw this movie with him." Sirius sighed. "Let me explain what a movie is." It passed the time.

The fifth was a world without magic, a conceit that failed to stop the map from working. Sirius had to walk the whole way, though, as he couldn't become Padfoot. It took five days. Alphard found it all fascinating but Sirius was fighting to stay awake. He was being drained alive.

At least he was still alive to be drained. Somewhere was the world where Harry needed him.

He passed the sixth sphere in a haze of shapes and dreams. He was only sure he was awake when Alphard prattled in his ear. When he was alive he wore the finest robes, when he was alive his ankles always ached before a rain, when he was alive Slytherin was the finest House at Hogwarts, when Alphard was alive. It was a song Sirius was growing to hate but he knew he was walking and not dreaming to hear it.

Harry was in danger. Remus was putting himself in danger. Snape was sniveling around and Sirius was stuck.

He felt lighter in the seventh sphere. Perhaps it was easier to build from his bones. He Apparated out of the Ministry again and waited.

It was the worst of all. James, bright and smiling and twenty-one, clapping him on the back and laughing. It wasn't a true memory, James hadn't laughed like that back then. Another Dementor in the room.

"Why the gloom, Padfoot? Day's over, we go home. You to a hovel, me to my castle."

"Hardly a castle, Potter. Lily wouldn't allow that." He forced the words out. It would be so easy to relax here.

"Now that she's lying around all day, I can do anything." James shoved Sirius one way and waved. "See you tomorrow then?"

Sirius had no words for that. He waved. They never had a proper goodbye. They'd sworn off them when things were serious and now this was just a mirage. "Built from my blood," Sirius muttered.

If Alphard went away he would never leave. It was the best death he'd found so far. Surely he'd die before James and Lily did.

He Apparated in hops, picturing places from that time in London so he moved further in the sphere. His ulterior motive was defeated a few yards from the exit. "Sirius," he heard.

Remus, he thought. He wouldn't turn around. Remus said, "I know it's you, Sirius. Aren't you coming up to the flat?"

"I'm not, Remus." Sirius rubbed his hair. "I have to go this way."

"More secret Ministry things or just off to a pub?"

"I never had secret Ministry things." Tell the truth now, when it didn't matter. It was hollow in his mouth. "I had secret Order things."

"Ah, the Order."

When Remus was twenty-one, he had only a streak of grey hair by his right ear. He wore his hair long to cover it. Sirius turned around and blessed his memory for resurrecting that awful velvet blazer, frayed at the cuffs, to clothe Remus. He looked like David Bowie after a horrible bender. "You look wonderful, Moony."

"I dress my best for you and you aren't coming up?"

Sirius walked backwards towards the exit. Forty-nine bloody spheres and this was going to be home. The real Remus. Harry. Killing Peter. He swore and thought that someone might have already killed Peter. "I have to go, Remus."

Remus ran, still young in his stride and caught up to Sirius. "When will you be back?"

"I'm going back now."

"Ah, we're being poetic."

Sirius smiled. "I don't want to be." He was almost there. He looked down at the map in his palm and saw the formed circle. He stopped in front of the spot. They were speaking poetically: it was a door. It opened easily.

He kissed Remus. Maybe it would be the last time and it wasn't even real. He said, "Peter is a spy." Everything here was hollow.

He didn't even look; he gripped his wand and walked through the door.

*

He walked into black. For the first time, he felt a shimmer of the veil against his shoulder and he rolled forward. "Alphard?"

"Sirius? I'm here."

"Am I blind?" Sirius shook his head and thought, lumos. His wand lit up and he could see faint shapes. He wasn't blind.

"Sirius, we're out. Bless Merlin and all the stars, I can see the other side of the Veil. We couldn't do that before!" Alphard sounded joyful. Sirius pictured him bouncing him up and down. "How are you feeling?"

"Invigorated. Alphard, you're keyed to the map. You and I. Float up and over and find out where we are. What the world looks like. Get me a date. Tell me what everything looks like up or down or wherever the street is. All right, then?"

Alphard said, "Absolutely. I have my mission."

No one had come running at Sirius's spell, so he kept his wand lit and nosed around. It wasn't the same chamber. The Veil stood against a wall, a few inches from it so that either side was accessible. Everything was flat. He looked around as Padfoot. A room. No doors or visible exit. Some kind of vent in the ceiling that brought in air. Hungry. He was very hungry. Harry had to be safe somewhere, he had to be.

Alphard trilled as he came back. Sirius sat against the farthest wall from the Veil. Another Lumos lit the wand and Sirius looked down at his map. No more circles. They were many levels down on an ordinary looking street. Alphard said, "I found a date, Sirius. I read it on a box. It seemed to be today's date. It's November now. 2003."

Sirius took a deep breath and felt the stab in his gut. It had been seven years and a few months. He laughed. "It took me seven years to get back, Alphard. You have to appreciate that number."

"I'm sorry, Sirius."

"Last time it was twelve years trapped in hell. At least this time it only felt like weeks and I had company." He stood up. "All right, I'm going to Apparate out of here. Fly in, mate." When Alphard occupied the same space as Sirius, Sirius's Apparating carried Alphard with him.

Sirius chose an alley in a Muggle part of London he knew well. They were likely still in London.

The alley was still there. "We should go to the Ministry, I expect. We have to find Harry first. Muggles walk so Voldemort isn't in charge so Harry is alive, I'm sure."

"The Ministry," Alphard said. "Yes. Where is that?"

"I know where it used to be. Or we could go home. Harry might be there. We should find Harry." Sirius rubbed his forehead.

He Apparated to the alley by 12 Grimmauld Place. He wondered if it would even be visible to him, all the Secret-Keepers they might have gone through. Dumbledore, he thought, suddenly, was he even alive? He took a deep breath and walked forward.

Not only was the entrance visible, there was a sign hanging over it. The Noble House of Black and a jaunty cut out of a hag drinking. "Why, Alphard, they've turned my home into a pub." Sirius could not stop laughing.

"What desecration," Alphard said. "How appalling. Sirius, I'm very sorry."

"Why? I'm thrilled. What a perfect ending to that house of horrors. I hope they've ripped out every floorboard and molding."

They had. Sirius was waved in by a young wizard dressed in denim. Even the walls were gone and the entire first floor was an open room, stuffed with tables. "It's popular," Sirius whispered to an invisible Alphard. "This is marvelous."

The floor creaked under Sirius's step as he walked to the bar. He tapped the counter and it felt for a moment like it tapped back. The bartender look confused and then said, "Wotcher?" Sirius ordered a firewhisky and passed over the one galleon he had in his pocket. He'd never had much cause to use it in the spheres.

Sirius took his firewhisky to the upstairs gallery. The only thing they hadn't removed was the tapestry. When he leaned over to look, it felt like the floor pushed him closer. Someone had restored his name and his uncle Alphard's and Tonks's parents. Tonks herself was on there. She hadn't died. He was very pleased. He looked around and wondered who could tell him about Harry.

The floor was physically rolling. It was not his imagination. He looked up again and people were talking loudly, jumping away from the walls that were slightly poking out.

"Merlin," Alphard said, visible suddenly in his fright. "The very walls themselves are rebelling."

Sirius took out his wand and said, "Stop." It didn't work.

The crowd on the gallery parted and someone walked up to them. The bartender was saying, "It was him, Boss, when he walked up, the counter started creaking and ---"

He was cut off. It was Harry. "Harry," Sirius said. Harry was alive. As tall as James and still skinny, the only scar he had was the same lightning bolt, much faded under his fringe. Harry was alive and safe.

Harry stopped in his tracks. "Sirius?"

"Yes. I know I should have gone to the Ministry first. Sorry for the trouble." He was babbling, he suspected. But here was Harry.

"Sirius." Harry shook his head. "You're making the house mental. It thought you were dead and this was all mine and now you're back." He took a deep breath. "We're going to talk outside, all right?"

They Apparated out the door. Sirius turned his head and saw Alphard rushing out the door to join them. Harry said, "There's a ghost following you."

"Alphard. I found him behind the Veil. He came back with me." Alphard was a good friend and Sirius felt momentarily pathetic that his closest friend right now was an eight hundred years dead ghost. But he had just returned; he had time to make new friends. "Harry, you're fine, that's brilliant. How's Remus? What's happened?"

Harry muttered something for a moment to the woman standing next to him and she Apparated away. Then he said, "I don't know for certain you're Sirius. The Ministry is coming to examine you." He smiled like he hadn't meant to do so. "But the house thinks you are. And your question, well. Remus is fine."

He stepped forward and hugged Sirius, nearly crushing him. "You're back, aren't you?"

"I couldn't stay away," Sirius whispered. "I swear it's me."

Harry pulled back and looked away. "The Ministry is here."

They took Sirius's wand and restrained him magically, but they were insufferably polite. Alphard bobbed along behind them, smiling at Sirius and snarling at the Ministry people before they Apparated. They sat Sirius in a small room with a number of amulets mounted in the corners of the ceiling.

A dark-haired man came in and sat down across from Sirius. "We've retained your pet ghost, sir."

"He's hardly my pet. More like a friend." Sirius sat back, relaxed.

The insufferable ass explained that the amulets were examining him for enchantments and potions and after an hour, all magic masking him would be gone. Then he sat back and glared. Sirius twiddled his thumbs. He was thinking suddenly of detention with James and McGonagall. All these years gone and he was still in detention. He felt savage as he thought he would not be doing this again.

After ten minutes or so, he said, "So who is the Minister these days? Surely not Fudge."

Dark-hair snorted. "Hardly. You know who the Minister is. Stop playing, sir. Sirius Black is dead and you are not he."

Sirius thought of a number of hexes and curses and said nothing. Why, look, James, he thought, I've gotten so much smarter.

He knew it had been an hour when Dark-hair started glaring, raising his wand at the ready. Sirius smirked for ten straight minutes. Dark-hair swore and left.

Then Harry and the Minister walked in, grinning. "Sirius," he said.

"Arthur," Sirius said, standing. "Wonderful. Minister now, how brilliant."

"A load of work, I tell you, Sirius." Arthur looked over his shoulder and Harry came in with Alphard trailing behind him. "We, er, questioned your friend Alphard and he mentioned you had some sort of map. Can I see it?"

Sirius dug in his pocket and handed it over. "I don't suppose I need it now." He peeked at it, though, to be sure this, too, wasn't another circle. It wasn't and he sat back.

"How clever," Arthur marveled. "And here are all the spheres and here we are in the Ministry. Ah, you were in the Chamber. After I became Minister, we had that Veil and some other, er, devices and the like moved down there. Some things have had enough of study." Arthur looked down, blinking and then sighed.

"Someone will tell me all that's occurred now?" Sirius looked from Arthur to Harry and waited.

He wasn't surprised by the list of dead; Voldemort, all the Malfoys, Snape, Peter blessedly, Dumbledore even. Hagrid and Moody and Shacklebolt, Percy Weasley, some of Harry's schoolmates, even Mundungus. Remus, though, was teaching at Hogwarts again. McGonagall was headmistress. It was a sad story but even as Harry talked, it struck Sirius that it was already becoming a story to them. The five years since all of it had begun to heal them. It felt yellow and gray to Sirius. All the urgency of his homecoming had been needless.

Arthur handed over Sirius's wand. "I suppose you're free to go, Sirius, but we do have some things to take care of."

"I suppose you have all my money, don't you, Harry?"

Harry nodded. "You can have it all back, I've got my own."

"What are you doing now? Besides running a wizarding pub in my ancestral home."

Harry blushed. "We can turn it back, if you want. After you left, the walls stopped rebelling, though, so it would be some work. Maybe not if you were there."

"I insist you keep it open." Sirius smiled.

Arthur said, "Harry's nearly the best Seeker the Magpies have had, Sirius. And most likely Captain for England next year."

"Arthur," Harry said. He was nearly blushing again. "Ron and Hermione are working for the Ministry. She's an Unspeakable and he's working for the Ministry in the Quidditch department."

Sirius nodded. He said, "Is Remus coming? Did you owl him?"

"It's a full moon," Harry said. Sirius hadn't even noticed. "He'll find out in the morning. Why don't you come home with me? We'll transfer your money in the morning at Gringotts and worry about the rest later."

"May I come?" Alphard said loudly. "I'd like to find some place of my own. Now that I'm out from behind the Veil."

"Why not Hogwarts? I promise, Alphard, I'm going to Hogwarts."

Alphard smiled. "That would be ideal."

Arthur said, "We'll send an owl to Headmistress McGonagall immediately to expect both of you."

Harry lived in a flat in a Muggle part of London that looked small from the outside and the same from the inside. How very Harry. Sirius ate for what seemed like hours, his first real food in weeks or years, whichever it was.

The transfer at Gringotts took hours as the Goblins pored over parchments and waved amulets at Sirius and Harry both. Finally, Sirius had an account with an obscene number of galleons in it. "I think this is more than I had before, Harry."

"Well, I decided you should get half of the profits from the pub. Since it opened and continuing on. It is your house, after all."

Sirius nodded, not really caring. He wanted something to clean to wear and he wanted to get to Hogwarts. He said, "How is Remus? Is he, er, married or dating someone?"

Harry looked down with a small smile. "I know why you're asking. He's not, not that I know. I think I would know. He was engaged, but they broke it off. They were going to wait until after Voldemort was defeated, and then they were waiting for things to get back to normal and then they were normal and they still waited. So then they broke it off because they'd been waiting so long, it seemed like they didn't really want to. Timing, I suppose," Harry said heavily.

"Who?"

"Er, Tonks. She'd always been pretty fond of him."

His own cousin. Sirius almost snarled. He turned to stare at the window of the Quidditch supplies store. A new model Firebolt gleamed in the window. Sirius could afford it. He could fly into Hogwarts in style, get around quite nicely with one of those. "I'm buying that. Come on, Harry."

In every store with robes, there were now trousers and skirts in denim and in Muggle style. Even smart boots like the punk kids wore charmed for wizards. The latest thing, Harry said, more Muggle style. The old wizards and witches weren't wearing them, but everyone under eighty was. Alphard thought they were all hideous but he liked the look of Sirius's new broom.

Finally, Sirius took his smart new boots and pants and trousers and shirt to the local Floo in the Leaky Cauldron and went to Hogsmeade.

Alphard said, "Hogwarts is much larger. I'm impressed."

"Yes, yes," Sirius said. "Now you find McGonagall and she'll get you set up in your new home. And don't come looking for me, all right?"

Alphard smiled. "I'll speak to you tomorrow."

Thankfully, the Defence Against Dark Arts classroom hadn't moved. Perhaps not even since Alphard's time. But there was the classroom and the door and in Sirius went.

Remus was sitting at his desk, quill in hand. He hadn't written a thing, Sirius knew. "I knew you'd come," Remus said. He sounded calm, one of Remus's skills.

"And you weren't feeling well. Are you better now?" Sirius did not sound calm. It was not one of his skills.

"Yes, thank you." Remus stood up and said, "I'm very glad you're back. But, we need to talk."

"Absolutely," Sirius said, walking closer.

Except they met somewhere next to the desk and they were already kissing, clinging. Remus's robes and Sirius's new shirt were behind the desk and Sirius's new boots were at the entrance to Remus's chambers with Remus's trousers. Everything else ended up by the bed. Remus tasted the same everywhere, like skin and sweat. There was nothing extraordinary about Remus except everything.

Remus was still strong and he had no new scars. He still groaned when Sirius nipped at the inside of his thigh, he still refused to wait as he thrust into Sirius and he still came with a whisper. They were tangled in the sheets and with each other, breathing hard, when Remus said, "We should talk still, I think."

"I missed you every day," Sirius said. "You, I hear, mourned excessively and never did look on another ---"

"I refuse to apologize for knowing you were dead and trying to be happy despite it." Remus sat up. "You were dead to us, Sirius."

"Fine. But my cousin? Tonks?"

"Is a lovely woman whom I cared for very much. You've met her, Sirius, it's hardly like I was with someone unpleasant." Remus lay back and rolled slightly away.

He'd loved her, clearly. Sirius understood it and if Remus had ever been gone like Sirius had, he would have moved on as well. He'd never had the chance to find out. Remus had had lovers and Sirius had only really had Remus. Still, Tonks was his cousin. Sirius sighed and said, "Fine. But now. Here we are."

"Here you are," Remus said. He had turned back facing Sirius and he was smiling. A brilliant smile. Sirius didn't notice the lines or the grey hairs, he saw Remus all over again.

"I thought I'd stay."

"I think that's an excellent plan," Remus said. "Though you can't stay here."

"Hogwarts won't have me?"

"You're hardly suited to be a professor. And Filch is nowhere close to retirement."

"I can't just be with you?" Sirius sat up and stretched.

Remus laughed. "That's hardly an occupation. I have a flat in Hogsmeade for the summer months if you're not interested in living in a pub."

Sirius explained his effect on his ancestral home and after a few more hours in bed, they looked at Remus's sad little flat. "Well, I will get something larger," Sirius said. "I need to do something with all these galleons." Remus nodded and smiled, like he was already imagining even more bookshelves stuffed to overflowing.

At the flat, Remus mentioned the shocking changes that had happened at Hogwarts. "There are no Houses anymore," he said casually.

"What do you mean by that?"

"After Dumbledore died, the Sorting Hat refused to sort. And has continued to refuse. It sits in McGonagall's office and apparently still sings, but when placed on the head of a first year, it simply refuses to say anything. I suppose it has decided that House rivalry was threatening Hogwarts's unity."

"How, how does that even work, Remus? How do you stand for it?"

Remus smiled like Sirius was one of his students who'd said something particularly stupid. "The students who were already sorted stayed in their Houses, and everyone else was sorted by where they're from, to decide where they would stay. That's also how we organize the Quidditch teams and the like. House cup as well, though the name doesn't really apply now. It works very well to put the Muggleborn with the children from the older families that way."

"But, it's daft. What does Gryffindor even mean now?"

"The children from London live in the tower now. Many of the parents agree with you, Sirius. But the Hat doesn't. It won't sort and we can't simply assign the children. They've all grown quite used to it."

"Because they don't understand. Houses mean something, Remus. It's mental. It's wrong."

Remus refused to be swayed or even plot to get the Hat back working. It was quite frustrating.

In the morning, he met with McGonagall. She stared at him for a moment. He could have sworn he saw a small wetness in her eyes but all she said was, "Have a biscuit, Black."

"So there are no positions for me here?"

"I think your seven years here were more than adequate to prove that this school can only take seven years of you." She nearly smiled at that. "Though we certainly appreciate your map."

"Not all mine," he said. He thought suddenly of Peter and James and was unaccountably sad. "What is this I hear about no longer Sorting the students?" He saw the Hat on a nearby pedestal. He could have sworn the folds were twisting into a smile.

McGonagall frowned. "There's nothing I can do. Now, about your friend Alphard," she said. Sirius always had difficulty getting her to talk about what he wanted to discuss. Instead Sirius shared his positive opinion of Alphard and how nice he would be to have around the students. Though he still had no idea what Alphard had done to be exiled into the Veil.

A week after Sirius had bought his new flat in Hogsmeade and moved all of Remus's belongings into it, Arthur asked him to come by the Ministry. Sirius sat in Arthur's office and waited for Arthur to come.

There were pictures of Weasleys everywhere, all of Arthur's children, Molly waving over and over again. One, he noticed, was of Arthur, Molly, Ron and Hermione at what was clearly Ron and Hermione's wedding. Good to know and good for them. Harry had probably mentioned it and Sirius forgot. There was so much to take in. Another picture was of Harry and Ginny, hugging and happy. Sirius wondered what had happened there as they weren't together now. Harry would certainly have said and Sirius had seen him nearly every other day in the twenty days since he'd returned home. He should ask next time.

Arthur came in and sat down with a sigh. He sighed more than he ever had before Sirius fell. Sirius said, "How is the Ministry coming, Arthur?"

"Bloody irritating," Arthur said and blushed at his own tone. "Oh, it's all good work, I suppose, but everyone has so many opinions and complaints. But that is not why I called you in. I have a proposition for you. A position, actually. It's not permanent but it will most likely take you a few months. We need someone to tear down the Malfoy manor."

It was an ideal position for him. The cumulative curses and hexes and evil in the house meant that only purebloods could get in without harm. The manor would probably welcome a Black, so Sirius could get in and defuse each part. Then the manor could be razed and something could be rebuilt there.

"The first step will be mapping the grounds and the manor itself. I would imagine Malfoy made some secret additions, of course," Sirius said.

Remus hmm'ed and kept looking at the parchments in front of him.

"I'll be working by myself the first week or two until I can make safe a few entrances or so. Though you could stop by for supper."

Remus made a mark with his quill and moved on to the next parchment.

"And you could listen, Moony." Sirius came forward and nearly sat on the stack left to be graded.

"I am listening. You have a plan. I have essays to grade." Remus tugged his work closer, away from Sirius.

And that was that, so Sirius had to wait another hour before Remus put the damn things aside and came to bed. By then Sirius had his own books spread across the quilt. "Look at you," Remus said smiling. "I seem to recall scenes like this occurring when we were at school. At least once a year."

"For pranks," Sirius said. He closed the books one by one and carefully stacked them by the bed. "I would never study like this for classes."

"Oh, yes, you didn't need to. I once thought you were sneaking off when we were all asleep to study so we'd never see you because I could not see how you did so well without effort."

"My secret, Remus, was that I was allowed very few friends as a small child. I read everything in my father's library." Sirius looked up and saw that Remus was still standing by the bed only now he had completely disrobed. Sirius cleared his throat. "And I learned a fair amount with all those pranks."

Remus hmm'ed again and stretched out on the bed next to Sirius. "You certainly don't have to stop for me. Keep up with that."

"I think not," Sirius said.

Alphard thought helping Sirius would be more interesting than Hogwarts. "That professor teaching History refuses any corrections, Sirius," Alphard said. "I think I will take a rest from my assault on his misunderstandings with you."

"Bloody Baron giving you trouble?" Sirius had created another map and he was currently pacing off the outer edges of what Malfoy had claimed as his property.

"He is not. Upstart. I am older than he is and he rules entirely by reputation." Alphard bobbed along in silence. "Though I do think a rest there would be helpful as well."

It took a fortnight to map and disarm just the grounds. Sirius came home to the flat every night and waited for Remus to arrive with his usual stumble from the fireplace. They talked and had dinner and ended their days in bed.

"I've become James's parents," Sirius said to Harry. "Work all day, come home to dinner and a pint."

Harry grinned. "Is it so awful?"

"Certainly not. It is, however, disconcerting." Sirius patted Harry's hand. "Now, let us talk like godfather and son. Who are you seeing these days, hmm?"

The grin was gone. "No one. I go home to my flat. I see you and Ron and Hermione and my teammates, friends from school. I'm perfectly well."

"You were seeing the Weasley girl, right? Jenny? Ginny?"

"Ginny," Harry said quickly. "I was. I'm not now."

"Doesn't seem like the sort of thing you'd be able to discuss with your best mate, since it's his sister, right? But you could talk to me. If you wanted." Sirius nodded vigorously. He could certainly do this. He'd listened to James enough though he was fairly sure his own counsel to James had been horrible.

"It was years ago," Harry said. "She was always too good for me anyway."

"That's hardly true."

"It's not like you know her, you can't say that." Harry was frowning.

"So it was years ago and you care enough to snap at me. Don't bottle it up, Harry."

Harry sniggered. "I've heard that, I have. But we were only together for a few years and it's been years since."

"It's not my fault I'm late for this." Sirius sipped his firewhisky. "Sorry."

"No, you're right," Harry said. "I never really did talk to Ron about it all. And Hermione tends to take Ginny's side. But I'm not in the habit of, er, sharing, you know?"

"No sharing, Harry. Sharing is for Americans. We'll get a little more pissed and we'll talk."

Harry outright laughed at that and Sirius felt accomplished.

With Alphard's help, Sirius had mapped the entirety of Malfoy Manor in the next fortnight. "Fourteen secret chambers and two rooms that one can not even enter unless you're pureblood," Sirius said laughing. "Paranoid old bat. No wonder he got along so well with my mother."

Alphard looked pensive. "It seems like excellent planning. The pureblood charms are quite advanced."

"Oh, Alphard, you need to come into our modern times. Pureblood, what does it really mean? We'd be nothing without marrying Muggleborns and Muggles."

"Muggleborns I can understand," Alphard said. "They have magic. But Muggles. They're like sheep, Sirius." Alphard sighed. "I suppose you're right, though, about adapting to these times. I should trust you."

Sirius surveyed the hall. Everything of value had been stripped away, dehexed and sold to support the three new orphanages Arthur's Ministry had established. Remus said they were fairly nice. Sirius couldn't imagine wanting to visit them but it was a good thing they were there. He thought about all the times he'd wished he'd been an orphan. Strange cruel world where his parents had lingered on and parents who weren't evil and vicious fell to Death Eaters and Giants.

Sirius concentrated on disarming the charms specifically aimed at blood issues so he could have a little help with all the rest. And was rewarded with one Auror, a Muggleborn named Clarence Rothman to help.

"He's quite laconic," Sirius said to Remus. "I say, well, looks like Malfoy'd trained up a little army of doxies here and he says cheers. Or nothing. I say, break for supper, he sits down and pulls out his sandwich. It's like working with Alphard except Alphard and I converse."

"Not everyone is going to be a friend, Sirius." Remus poured tea and settled next to Sirius on their sofa. Remus looked away for a moment, like the bookcase was intriguing him. "Also, I believe Clarence is a good friend of Tonks."

"Ah. Good friend or something else, you think?"

Remus winced for a moment. "I have no idea. We're not in touch these days."

Sirius considered. James, he thought, I have learned something. Thinking of James made Sirius wince himself and he finally said, "It would be good for her to move on. Rothman's a very nice fellow and probably talks more around people he doesn't, er, well, however he views me."

Remus smiled slightly. "Do you really think that?"

"I certainly don't want her with you. Now. I don't want her seeing you now. I'm not interested in sharing you, you understand." Sirius felt himself scrambling for the proper words. It was all so delicate now, perched on the edge, and he simply wanted to do the right thing and shove it so it would stay exactly right.

"I understand, Sirius."

Remus stood up and got biscuits for both of them. It was a kind of ending the conversation. Sirius respected that and said, "Any sign of that bloody Hat starting with the sorting again? Alphard is on my side, you know, it's mental. Completely mental."

"Alphard should talk to the Hat. I don't think it's taking votes."

With Rothman's help, it took only two months to finally render Malfoy's lands and manor safe. They had a large crowd the day they reduced the entire structure to rubble. "We're using a Muggle thing called a bomb," Sirius said to Remus. They were standing a few yards away from the house.

"I'm familiar with what bombs are. Surely they didn't let you plant it?" Remus stepped back a few feet.

"No, no. They're letting me press the button." Sirius grinned. He called out, "Everybody away from the structure!"

Alphard flew out and said, "No one in there, Sirius, set off the boom!"

"It's a bomb," Sirius said, pressing the button. "Not a boom." The house imploded into dust and sticks with a loud sort of boom, as Sirius and Alphard smiled at each other. "Though I do see your point, Alphard."

*

Arthur had four more manors for Sirius, though none of them took as long as Malfoy's. He never missed any of Harry's games, even the World Cup qualifying ones. He and Remus went to a few parties, the kind where they both shifted through the room in a sort of dance of avoiding Tonks if she came, or ended up in a corner talking with Harry or one of the young Weasleys. Ginny, Sirius discovered, was delightful company. Alphard settled into Hogwarts and became nearly closer friends with Remus than Sirius.

Sirius found himself at loose ends. "I need an occupation, Harry, and I've run out of houses to dehex."

Harry looked deeply concerned as he sipped his Muggle beer. "My career counseling at Hogwarts was ten years ago. I'm at a loss."

Ron sat down next to them and plunked down his mug. "What are we doing?"

Sirius grinned. "What are you doing here? Hermione lets you free in the evenings now?"

"Yes," Ron said heavily. "She said I should get out and be away from her because when the baby comes it's all over. We'll need to stay in and be parents. Also, I suspect she wants me away from her."

"Lily made James stay in. Decorate the nursery and help her knit booties or something, I suppose," Sirius said. "Hermione's way seems more logical. But you didn't go out much before this, did you?"

Harry clapped Ron on the back and said, "No, he did not. 'Hermione's teaching me Muggle card games, Harry.' 'Hermione's teaching me to cook the Muggle way, Harry.'" Ron and Harry were both laughing.

"Well, then, Ron, be useful here. I need a position. An occupation while Remus is off stuffing the minds of children."

Ron was blushing and holding back a giggle, Sirius suspected, but he'd intended that. Then Ron said, "You could be an Auror. Someone should be."

Harry rubbed his forehead. "You were one, once, right?"

"For a year. But in then it was all catching Death Eaters and what is it now? Catching the mad and misguided and those too weak to die with Voldemort? I think I'll pass." Sirius sighed. "Won't let me teach at Hogwarts. I should stay away from authority."

Ron said, "You should be one of those private people. Like on the telly. Hermione showed me. Seems to require growing a mustache and having a flash car."

"I'm already a private person. Without a mustache."

"I think," Harry said, "he means private eye. A private investigator. You could do that, Sirius. Be a consultant fellow. People come to you with their rooms or problems and you help them."

"We have those in the wizarding world, Harry," Ron said. "No, no, we don't." He held up his mug. "Was this butterbeer?"

"No," Harry said. Their evening was over shortly after that.

Sirius told Remus about Ron and Harry's idea. "It's not a bad idea," Remus said. "You were always excellent at research when you had a reason to be."

"I so rarely did." Sirius rested his feet on the kitchen table. Remus knocked them off quickly and set down his book. They were an old married couple now and Sirius was eighteen months returned from the Veil. So easy, Sirius thought. Without actually being easy. How James had done it those years with Lily, Sirius had no idea. "What sort of business would I get, you think?"

"I think you should find a storefront, put an advert in the Prophet and find out. Your name alone will draw people in." Remus smiled. "It sounds fascinating. You should get a fedora."

"Is that a sort of hat?" Sirius started laughing and sat back with a thud in his chair. "My mother would be appalled."

"You think of that now," Remus said, smiling.

Remus bought him the hat and brought it to Sirius's new storefront, in the outskirts of Hogsmeade. Sirius said, "No clients yet."

"It's been a day, Sirius." Remus sat down behind the desk and tapped his fingers. "Did you say you discovered what Alphard did to get banished to the Veil?"

Sirius nodded. "Yes, I did. Alphard and his friends created the modern Cruciatus curse. They refined a number of wounding and tormenting hexes into the curse we know. Once they were done, they were banished. The intriguing part? They used Muggles to test it. People they kidnapped from the local villages." Sirius sighed. "Appalling, really."

"I'm not surprised." Remus stopped tapping his fingers. "He hides his opinions on Muggles fairly well these days, but it does come through in private conversation."

"He's learning, one hopes." Sirius looked through the glass on the door to see if anyone was coming.

"He can't learn, Sirius, he's dead."

"But he seems to be learning," Sirius said, turning around. Remus looked slightly annoyed.

"Ghosts don't learn. They adapt to their surroundings. They know they can't say certain things, so they don't. But they still feel it. They don't learn. It's the same with portraits."

Sirius nearly rolled his eyes. "Fine, I understand. Underneath it all, our friend Alphard is an appalling man. No different from my mum, I suppose."

"That's not my point, Sirius. His essential personality remains and it's a damn sight more pleasant than your mum's, but he's dead. He can't grow or change his mind." Remus sighed. "It is appalling."

Sirius's first client was an elderly witch searching for her mother's china. It took Sirius a week to trace it to a Muggle family in Greenwich who willingly parted with it. The grandfather said the china sometimes seemed alive. They took Sirius's pounds happily. He charged the witch the pounds he'd spent plus another ten galleons. She trundled out promising to tell all her friends.

After three months, Sirius had a small but constant stream of clients and a select few of them were younger than McGonagall.

"It still feels like I'm doing nothing," Sirius said. He put his feet up on their coffee table and cleaned under his fingernails.

"You're not doing nothing," Remus said. He sounded tired.

"I thought I would help. I thought I would kill Peter and make Harry safer. I did nothing and I'm doing nothing." Sirius put down his knife.

"Well, you didn't. You're back and this is your life." Remus glared at his plate. "You do understand that, yes?"

"Of course I do. I simply wish it was different, do you understand that?"

"I'm fairly certain Ron Weasley would be perfectly happy to trade his experience of killing Peter for yours." Remus was clearly angry as he said every word in a perfectly calm voice.

"I wasn't on vacation."

"No, you were trapped. You were once again taken out of the action and you were once again able to get out of it all on your own."

Sirius closed his eyes. He was already tired of fighting and they only fought once a month since he'd returned. Fights over expanding the flat or moving to London or who did all the cleaning up or Remus's stubborn insistence that Hogwarts was better without Houses. This felt different. Sirius said, "What was I supposed to do?"

"You could have said you were innocent. You could have stayed at the house." Remus rubbed his hands together. "Then you wouldn't be you, would you?"

"I was just being pigheaded," Sirius said, frowning.

"No," Remus said, sounding defeated. "But this is the hand we were dealt. It is what it is."

Remus went to bed early and Sirius fell asleep on the couch. The next day Sirius made Remus's Wolfsbane and gave it to him without comment. Remus drank it and said, "Thank you." It was their version of an apology.

Sirius went to Hermione and Ron's flat because Hermione knew more than Sirius about the history of Hogwarts. He'd spent his years at the school getting to know the grounds, not the ins and outs of teachers. But his most recent client wanted to trace the history of his family, four generations of which had been Herbology professors, so Sirius came to Hermione for pointers.

"She's taking Percy for a walk," Ron said. "She'll be right back. She doesn't like him to get too much sun. When I was a baby, Fred and George would leave me out in the sun all day. Thought it was funny."

Sirius grinned. "It is, a little."

Ron pulled out two cups and filled them with tea. "They said it was why I had so many freckles." He grinned. "Being a private person is good for you, isn't it?"

"Private eye," Sirius said. "The Americans call it a private dick." They both laughed at that. Sirius thought, he killed Peter. Ron had done what Sirius should have. Like Tonks, in a way. Sirius still entertained daydreams of strangling Tonks, but he felt suddenly like apologizing to Ron. He was more than twenty years older than Ron and he felt like they were the same age. Twelve years in Azkaban, seven in the Veil, if you subtracted those from Sirius's age, maybe they were.

Ron had killed Peter. Sirius had never killed anyone. Alphard, Sirius recalled, had killed scores of Muggles trying to find the proper way to say Crucio and cause pain.

Sirius said, "Do you have pictures? I haven't seen Percy since he was born, when you made Harry godfather, and I'd like to see."

Ron stood up immediately and said, "We have loads. He's much bigger now. I think he gets bigger the minute you look away. Sometimes I suspect Hermione was seeing Grawp behind my back, the boy's getting so big."

Sirius kept one of the scores of pictures Hermione and Ron showed him and gave it to Remus. "There's a Weasley boy," he said.

Remus smiled and pinned it to their calendar. "And the first that isn't a pureblood."

"Good to see the Weasley clan getting stronger, then. If he inherits half his mother's brains, he'll be Headmaster of Hogwarts one day."

"You said Harry'd be Captain for England."

"Well, Ron's not as good a player as James. So something smaller for this one." He'd said something right after all as Remus leaned over and kissed his cheek.

Remus still taught the third years about Boggarts by bringing one into the classroom. So when Sirius found one in the grandfather clock in a house he was cleaning out, he saved the clock. The witch who'd lived there had died and her grandchildren had hired him since none of them wanted to put up with her portrait. On his last day, Sirius had charmed the portrait to only speak when spoken to and garnered himself a tidy bonus.

So he didn't have to face the Boggart, he could leave it to Remus and the scared students. He knew what the Boggart would show him: a map forming a sphere. His life still static and stuck. But he knew already it wasn't true.

THE END.

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