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Not By Force

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They had been hasty when they did the Fidelius. It covers their cottage, but only half of their garden. Sandbox toys and rubber balls mark the line, it goes over a stone bench, right down the middle. The swing is just barely inside it, between trees turned October golden and heaps of purple asters. This is where Lily sits, her son on her lap, and she swings gently. Any higher and she'd scare Harry, leave the safety of the Fidelius at each weightless turning point.

The world doesn't look any different on the other side.

The Death Eaters take Sirius in a flash, twelve dead Muggles and who knows what they'll find under the rubble. Remus doesn't stick around to find out.

Sirius is surrounded by monsters. He's been Secret Keeper for barely a week.

Told them he was a spy, he thinks. Let them write it on his tombstone, if they ever find his body.

The silence is pregnant with terror and impending pain. He looks around for someone he knows, a former friend, a former brother maybe, but they all wear masks. The only face bared to him is not even human. It's that face they're all moulded from, triumphant, dead, and unfeeling. It's that still raised hand that keeps the others from tearing him apart.

Blue eyes bore into his, and his Occlumency falls like France in the war. The house of his memories is bombed and crumbles, the ruins turned over by an army of snakes. They sniff it out, they zero in, they find the Secret inside unbroken walls. Sirius stands in the rubble, turns a brick in his hand, and he repeats to himself the truth he will stand by, over and over and over. The Secret cannot be taken by force. With that brick in his hand, he starts killing snakes.

France may have fallen, but La Résistance is still there.

Someone is approaching, autumn leaves crackling under each steady step. James is wearing rubber boots. They've taken up gardening, to withstand the illusion that time stands still while they hide. And it is an illusion, Lily thinks. Time revolves. The swing is a pendulum, slicing seconds off time. Each tic the brilliant sun sinks lower down the crab apple tree. Each toc they're closer to nightfall.

James is holding the mirror like he's given up.

"He's not answering," he says. "Lily, he's not answering."

Sometimes, Lily thinks there's no-one left out there anymore. Just the five of them: Lily and James and Harry and Sirius and the man they're hiding from.

And now? Lily and James and Harry and the man they're hiding from? How will they ever know? If the world burns to ashes (let it), if the sea swallows the land, how will they ever know?

"And what if he's –" she starts. They've been through this. They've been through everything, many times, because time doesn't pass. It revolves. They can't squash down their worries, they'll come back threefold, like weeds.

"He said he'd die for us," says James.

"I don't want him to die for us," says Lily.

Autumn rains on their faces, like it has yesterday, and the day before.

Sirius opens his eyes. No-one is laughing at Voldemort's failure. Well. No-one but him.

Voldemort takes away all his air with a flick of his wand, then nods to the Death Eater on his right. She steps forward and removes her mask.

"I shall have it within the day, my Lord," says Bellatrix. She spares a sweet smile for her choking cousin.

Sirius sways but he does not fall. This is what the Hat put him in Gryffindor for. What is the point of bravery if there is nothing to be scared of?

They've put Harry down for his afternoon nap when they hear it. A voice from the kitchen. They race there, wands raised, half scared, half relieved that finally, something is happening -

It's the mirror they've left on the kitchen table.

"James!" says that tinny voice. "James, please, there isn't much time!"

"Sirius?" James picks up the mirror and his face is like Christmas, thinks Lily, another revolving thing that comes and goes, Christmas and Hogwarts and best friends. She sees that face fall.

It's Remus.

"James," says Remus, "thank God you're alive –" He's laughing, but Lily can see there's autumn rain on his face, too.

"Where's Sirius?" demands James.

"That's why I'm calling," says Remus, all laughter gone but the rain is still there. Lily knows what he will say before he says it. "James, he's gone. They've got him."

James almost drops the mirror, scrambles for purchase. "Say that again."

"They've got Sirius," says Remus. His words are grey and sad, thinks Lily, like winter sludge. Like clouds heavy with rain.

"How do you know?" says James.

"I was there when they took him," says Remus, and his voice takes on a slightly hysterical quality. "Listen, there's no time, you have got to prepare. Is there anywhere else you could go?"

"We trust Sirius to keep our secret, always," says James. "We're safe here, that's the entire point, that's why we asked Sirius and not -"

"Do you trust that he's still Sirius when Voldemort is done with him?" says Remus, and now his voice is like a cliff he may fall off. "Listen –"

"We can't leave," says Lily. "The Trace. They can track our baby."

James looks at her as if she's given away a secret. But if Remus is the spy, then he's the one who tampered with the Trace in the first place, and if he's not, well, he's not.

"Shit," says Remus, with emphasis. "Yes, I understand. He does produce rather a lot of accidental magic, doesn't he?" The background flickers as he moves around. Searching and searching and searching.

James narrows his eyes. "Where are you?" he says. "You've got the mirror, are you at his place?"

"I broke in here to warn you," says Remus. "Please, James, Lily, promise me you'll be prepared. Carry your wands. Reinforce the wards, anything, just be safe, okay?"

James makes a sound as if he wants to cry. "Don't worry about us, we're safe with Sirius," he says. "It's him. We need to find Sirius before it's too late."

Remus stops moving about. "You don't need to do anything," he says, and now his voice is hard, but not like ice, thinks Lily. Like wood. "Stay safe. You owe him that. The Aurors are looking for him. So is the Order. So am I."

"Why aren't you with the Order?" says James.

"Because," says Remus, "because, they're looking for me, too."

In the silence that follows, they can hear a pounding noise on the other side of the mirror. Remus's head whips around to scrutinise something outside their field of view. Then he turns back.

"For fuck's sake," he says when he sees their faces. "Of course I didn't betray him, he's my –"

There's a crash behind him, and his face vanishes in a cloud of dust.

Sirius is lying still when someone comes. Swish of cloak, hollow breath under mask. Step. Step. Step.

A touch to his shoulder, and pain, pain. He doesn't cry out, or does he?

"Hush now," says a voice.

"Does it make me a terrible person?" says James, softly, almost as if he doesn't want her to hear. "To wish we'd have gone with Peter, I mean."

"The war makes terrible people of us all," Lily says.

She knows that there's comfort in hypotheticals, they're like a holiday for the brain, and she lets James ignore what he already knows: They'd have gone after Sirius anyway. That was the whole point. He was always going to die for them.

When did she allow that?

A cup is raised to Sirius's parched lips, and he wants to bat it away. Mad-Eye would have his head if he drank from the cup of an enemy.

But he can't even raise his hand. "No. Nonononono –" Water trickles down his raw throat, mingles with the blood and acid and everything else, and he coughs up a spray of blood.

"It's all right, it's me," says the voice, now unfiltered by that mask. A friend.

A hand touches his head, awkward, running through his hair, but his hair is sticky and matted and catches between fingers. Everything is bad. Everywhere is pain.

"I know it hurts," says the voice. "Won't be long now. Just hang in there, you hear me? Not long now."

Sirius tears open his eyes, well, his eye, the one that's still there. Swimming in blood is a face that he knows. Friend. Friend. No. Can't be here, should not be here…

"You," he says. "You –"

"We've come to save you," says Peter, that angel.

There's someone at the far end of the garden, past the edge of the Fidelius where they don't go. Lily can see him from the kitchen. It's afternoon now, the shadows growing longer and bluer. She can't see the man's face from here, but something in the way he moves –

She strolls out, wand raised.

It's Remus. Of course, she thinks, he was here for James's birthday, before the Fidelius, he must remember the garden but now he can't find the house, he's walking in circles, revolving, revolving -

He's all she thought she recognised from the kitchen, tall, still as slight as he was as a boy and moving with the same kind of broken grace, dark blond hair sticking up like he's been running hands and hands and hands through it, and he's all in black, like he's mourning already. Not yet, my friend, she thinks.

He has a notebook, and he's scribbling and scribbling, and then he makes paper planes and throws them all, but they deflect from the Fidelius like they're just shit paper planes flying in broken arks but they're not.

It's fruitless, and he realises that, and eventually he sits on the stone bench that is half in and half out of the Fidelius, and he has his head in his hands. His shoulders are shaking.

She walks towards him, just clear of the line, she can't afford to go over, that line is what Sirius promised to die for, what he is quite possibly dying for right now, and she wells up but she wants to see Remus, too. Nothing is ever happening here.

She is so focused on him, she half trips over Harry's red rubber ball, and it rolls, just barely, over the line.

Remus's head snaps up. "Is someone there?" he asks. "James? Lily? Can you hear me? Please," and he's begging now, like a child, no, like a friend, "please, listen to me, if you're there."

She wants to ask if he's found Sirius, but she knows no sound will pass that line. Instead she shouts, "James!" at the top of her voice, and James comes out, wand raised, Harry pressed to his chest, and he looks like he, too, is mourning already, and she raises a finger to her lips and sits down on the other half of the stone bench, the one inside.

"Listen," says Remus, and he looks like there are words and words and words just ready to tumble out, "listen, if you're there. You've got to smash that mirror. The Death Eaters came to Sirius's flat and they've got his now, I couldn't prevent it, I'm so sorry, I ran –"

Remus doesn't look like a man who wants to be forgiven when he takes a few deep, shaking breaths. He's so close to Lily she could touch him, just reach out a hand and lay it on his shoulder. She doesn't.

"Have you smashed it?" he asks. "Do it now. I am counting to five."

Lily and James are frozen to the spot. This is when they have to decide. Whether they trust Remus or not. Half a year hasn't been enough, and now they have five seconds. They don't.

"I think," says Remus, "I think, they could use it to spy on you, at the very least, or worse, they might use the connection to –" he makes a complicated gesture, "tunnel through, I mean, through the Fidelius, James should know, he helped charm the mirrors, I just watched."

Next to Lily, James pales. He regards the mirror he's been carrying around all this time. She's relieved to see it inactive. The surface is a deep, inky black.

"Is it possible?" she says.

"Maybe," says James. "Dumbledore should know."

But how to contact him without leaving the Fidelius? That mirror is their only channel to the outside world. They can't smash it. Because Remus is a –

Remus is still talking. "I'm not the spy, I'm not, I'm not," he says. "I realise this means it must be Peter," he adds with a wan smile, "and that thought is as absurd to me as it is to you, but –" he pauses. "It's not me. I swear it's not me. Smash that mirror, if you haven't."

It's still in James's hand. Still inky black.

"It goes both ways," he says.

And that's why she married him. "If the Death Eaters have it, we can find out where they are," she says. "We can find Sirius," and it feels like it's 1979 again and they can do anything, but -

"But –" says James, and he looks at Harry.

It's 1981, and Sirius is dying so they can all be safe.

"It'll have to be Remus," she says.

It all hinges on whether Remus has told them the truth. Are they going to trust him?

With Sirius's life on the line, can they not?

So James takes the mirror and kicks it over the line, where it comes to rest at Remus's feet. And now it's Lily and James and Harry and Remus.

Remus stares at it, and blinks. Turns it in his hands. He mouths a word. Idiots. His head turns to the other side of the stone bench he's sitting on, where Lily sits only an arm's length away, where he can't even see her. "I understand," he says. "I'll find him, I swear."

He rises, and there's none of that boyish grace anymore. None at all. "I'd say my farewells," he says, "but I've got a feeling we're headed for the same place." His young face is full of pain. "Stay safe," he says.

And then he runs and runs and runs to the distant Apparition spot, and they're Lily and James and Harry again.

Sirius blinks. Peter's angelic face fragments and reforms.

"Thank God they wear masks, eh?" says Peter. "That's how we got in."

His wand dances over Sirius as he performs the few basic healing spells he's capable of, eases some of the pain, stills some of the blood, mends some of the splintered bones. Sirius feels his body resist them. His memory is in ruins, his body is, too. La Résistance is crumbling, he thinks, and laughs.

"There," says Peter. "That's better, isn't it? We have healers waiting as soon as we get to Headquarters."

"Peter," Sirius says, and his voice works a little better. "Peter. Peterpeterpeter I think Padfoot's dead, I can't –"

Peter smiles bravely through that piece of information and reaches for a bundle underneath his cloak. "I brought you a cloak and mask, too," he says, "but listen, we need to hurry. We've breached their wards, there's an Apparition point just sixty yards down the hall. Do you think you can make it there with my help?"

"No," says Sirius. "Nononono –"

"It's all right, it's all right," says Peter, but his face is dissolving into tears. "Listen, I'm sorry, I know you need rest, but we need to hurry, Lily and James, we need to warn them –" Peter's voice breaks.

"Safe," says Sirius. "Safe. The secret cannot be taken by force –" He smiles with all the teeth he has left. "Run, Peter. They're safe. I'll keep them safe."

"We're running together," says Peter. "I've got you." And he pulls away the rag that covers Sirius.

"Fucking hell!" It comes out as a high-pitched little rat sound.

Because Sirius doesn't have any legs.

"Run," says Sirius. "Runrunrunrunrun –"

Peter forces his eyes away from him. Nowhere else is any better. It looks like he's just now realising he's standing in blood, his boots are shiny with it. He covers his mouth with his hands, like he's going to throw up. "Lily and James," he mumbles underneath it. "Listen, Sirius –"

He kneels down, cloak and trousers soaking in swaths of blood, and whispers, "They have the mirror."

Sirius breathes. It smells like he's dying. "They have -"

"The Fidelius is incomplete," says Peter. "The mirrors form a tunnel, or a… a pipe. Yes, like a hot water pipe in a frozen lake. Freeze the lake, but the pipe's still working. You-know-who knows. He knows. They're dilating it as we speak."

Can the mirrors do that? wonders Sirius. Punch a hole inside a Fidelius? They'd charmed the mirrors themselves, he and James, he remembers it was complicated, all of Hogwarts' protections, hell, all of Grimmauld Place's protections, but can it be? Can it?

(Can Peter be here?)

Try as he might, he comes up blank. But if anyone could do that just by messing around, it's probably them. Because James is clever. Sirius is clever. Remus is the spy. And Peter -

"They'll get there within the hour," says Peter urgently, his voice wrecked by sobs, "and we can't find them, we can't warn them –"

"Unless –" whispers Sirius.

He'd thought he'd always know when James is in danger. That he'd smell it, or feel it, or hear the rustle of a hungry veil. Well, he does that now, but it's not James, he thinks. It's him.

Please, he thinks, let only one man die tonight.

Let that man be me.

"Unless you go warn them," he says through a haze of pain. "Come closer, Peter. Listen. Listen –"

Peter emerges from the soundproof room and throws up in the hall, Chinese food on the Persian rug, and fuck him sideways, the crazy bitch is waiting for him. So much for nipping out to get a breather.

"Well?" snaps Bellatrix. "Is it done?"

Most days he's scared of her, but not today. The Secret is burning in his mind, dancing on his lips, but it can't out. Not yet.

"Did the Dark Lord release you?" he says. "Already? After what you've done?"

"My Lord holds me in nothing but the highest regards –"

"You cut off his legs!" shouts Peter. "What the fuck was that supposed to achieve?"

She waves her wand and sparks fly, and he's painfully reminded that she's crazy. And impulsive. Worse than Sirius, in a way. "Spot of advice, Pettigrew," she says in a voice like he's an idiot. "Always follow through on a threat, or your victim won't respect you."

Like Sirius respects her. "He almost died," he says. "You very nearly killed him before he could tell us the Secret!"

"Has he, then?" She comes closer, peering curiously into the darkened entrance. But apparently the Dark Lord, despite her words, has divulged a lesson of his own, and she doesn't dare. Thank fuck.

"Nearly there," he says. "I'll have it before nightfall." And by then, he thinks, he will be the Dark Lord's favourite. And there will definitely be consequences for the personnel. He can't stand Bella.

"And what exactly makes you so qualified –" starts Bellatrix.

The Secret shines bright and clear in his mind, and he wants to throw it at her, just to shut the crazy bint up, but he can't, he can't. He's not Secret Keeper.

"I'm his friend," says Peter. "And friends tell each other everything."

He's not Secret Keeper yet.

For that, Sirius has to die.

"For what it's worth," he says as he steps back into the darkened room, with its stink of blood and its air of death, "I am sorry. Sorry it has to be like this."

He tries not to breathe. "Sorry I lied about the mirror," he says, "but we got that idea when we overheard Moony – you know what, it might even work –" A pause, another shallow breath, "So we could have done it anyway."

It's not like Sirius is in any shape to fully grasp this turn of events. His breaths are rattling in his chest. The few healing spells Peter has managed are barely holding him together. Sirius's face, underneath the blood, is pallid, and he's as still as a corpse. For a moment, Peter thinks he's unconscious, but no. There are little noises of pain whenever his breath hits a bump on the ride.

"James," he whispers. "James and Lily, Peter, go go go don't wait up –"

"Just a minute now," says Peter.

He raises his wand, the spell on his lips. It's a mercy, he tells himself. Sirius is dying already, and it's Bellatrix who killed him. It's a mercy. Not murder.

Maybe that's why he can't do it, for he is not a merciful man.

Or maybe it's the familiarity, the closeness, that face directly in front of him. Maybe it's because it's by his own wand. Maybe that's why he can deliver James without a blink, but can't say Avada Kedavra now.

The silence stretches, each second taking them closer to the end.

"Look," whispers Sirius. "Look at all this blood." Peter leans forward to catch the words. "Look at all this pure blood, spilled again and again and again –"

Suddenly, he's laughing. Wheezing, wet, lungy sounds. "Oh, Wormtail. Wormtail." He fights for the words. "You really got us good." The laughter ebbs away and doesn't return.

It takes Sirius until nightfall to die.

Moony will find him, after.

They're in the garden, and it's just Lily and James and Harry now. Lily has Harry in a sling and she's put on her trainers, because she will run. James will hold him off. The sun is setting behind the crab apple tree, and they know it's a fairly terrible plan.

They're beautiful in the orange light.

And when night falls, it's Lily and James and Harry and the man they're hiding from.

The End.