The Story of a Lifetime
This is for the Last Ship Standing Competition on HPFC at fanfiction.net. Prompts: nostalgia, Dialogue: "the worst part about all this is that I'm watching you drown and the only thing that you have to do to save yourself is stand up" and someone must hit something else.
First attempt at Muggle!AU so be kind. ;) Also, this is a death row fic so it's an American Muggle!AU because my muse demanded death row and orange jumpsuits. *shrugs*
It's the story of a lifetime.
They bring you in to a private room; a thick sheet of glass is the only thing separating you from him. It's fluorescent lighting and a telephone and a couple of corrections officers to witness, and it's everything and nothing like you expected it to be. Because in spite of the fact that you've been warned, that you've done your research, that you've seen scenes exactly like this one on the television, you have to admit you weren't entirely prepared for what you're about to do.
He lounges back in his chair with a satirical smirk playing around his lips. His orange jumpsuit is blinding in comparison to the dull grey of the walls. It's surreal and your heart is in your throat even though you don't have a reason to be nervous. You're not on death row. You're just visiting.
You look over the man's shoulder and see the corrections officer in the corner raise his eyebrows at you as if to say what are you waiting for? And you suppose he has a point. You have a job to do.
You pick up the telephone receiver with a steady hand, put it up to your ear and wait for him to do the same. Meanwhile, you flip open your notebook and go over the history you've pieced together through your own digging. Sirius Black… killed best friend James Potter and his wife, Lily Potter, October 31, 1981… psych evaluation unavailable to public… sentenced to death by lethal injection scheduled for ?
For a split second that question mark is all you see. It's the unknowable stretch of time that you have to speak to this man, to write down his story, to string together something coherent out of the chaos that he's caused. And you swore to your editor that you'd write it all down, every word, true or false, because it's not about what happened anymore. It's about his side of the story because that's what everyone wants to hear. They want a sensational story and that's the kind of thing you're known for. But something about that question mark gives you pause. It's just so…symbolic. The ultimate deadline.
After what seems like an eternity, he picks up the phone on his side of the glass, and you hear him sigh wearily and you are sure he's sick of being questioned. And while you know you shouldn't feel any sympathy toward a man tired of being treated like the criminal he is, you nod your head in understanding.
"I'm grateful that you're willing to speak with me," you begin.
He throws back his shoulders and laughs. It's loud and sarcastic and startling. "I have no idea why I agreed to this, but let's have it out, shall we? Who the hell are you, anyway?"
You shake your head at your own stupidity and hope to God you don't fuck this up. Your editor will kill you. "Sorry. My name is Remus Lupin from Time Magazine. I'm writing a piece and was hoping you'd give me as much information as you can."
You tap your pen against the desk. You wonder if he can hear it through the phone. "About yourself. This is all about you, straight from the horse's mouth. I want it all. Childhood memories, family dysfunctions, troubled teenage years, James Potter… everything you're willing to talk about."
"I could lie to you," he says. "Everyone who could verify my story is dead."
"Doesn't matter," you reply.
"Then why bother at all? You could make it all up yourself, paint your own fucking portrait and name it Sirius Black. You don't need me."
He moves to hang up the phone but you follow your first instinct and slam your hand against the glass. "Please don't," you say.
He meets your eyes and you notice for the first time that they are a stormy grey, clouded and angry, fucking scary. But you refuse to back down and he hesitates before raising the receiver back up to his ear. "What?"
"This is your opportunity to say whatever you want about what happened," you tell him. "And as much as you think people don't care, they do."
"They don't care. They're just curious. I don't exist to entertain the public, thank you very much."
"What if I told you I received an anonymous tip about a… Peter Pettigrew?" you ask. You feel your pulse quicken and you could kick yourself for giving up that bit of information. You were supposed to wait, Remus, you idiot.
"I was told to ask you about Peter Pettigrew."
His jaw twitches and the hand holding the telephone is shaking with anger. You catch the corrections officer reaching for his walkie talkie in your peripheral vision and you hope you haven't ruined everything before it's even begun.
"All right," he says through gritted teeth and you breathe a little easier. "But I'll have to start from the very beginning if you want to know about Peter."
"The very beginning is always a good place to start, right?" you say.
You clear your throat. "Sorry." You flip to a blank page in your notebook before looking him in his hurricane eyes once more. "Any last words?"
He truly does start at the very beginning. In the following hour or so he spills his guts, spins you a tragedy you don't want to believe. He lifts his shirt and shows you a galaxy of cigarette burns painted across his back, tells you of almost daily beatings from his father and the way his mother screamed into the night.
He says he ran away from home at sixteen with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few hundred dollars sent to him from an estranged uncle. He ran away to live with his best friend who he refuses to name, but the whole world knows it's James Potter.
"The best friend I ever had took me in," Black says. "Gave me a place to stay until I got my shit together. The best friend I ever had." His eyes glaze over and you wonder if he's forgotten that you're even here. He leans his weight on the elbow holding the phone and he pulls his face away from it for a moment, but you still hear the distant mumbling. "Best, best friend…"
You take this moment to write some jumbled notes until he pulls himself together and then you encourage him to continue, conscious of the time.
When he talks about his little brother, he cries. God, how you hate to see a grown man cry, and all you can do is sit in this plastic chair and let the flickering fluorescent light cast a sickly glow on his tearstained face as he recounts seeing a boy on the street with a belt strapped around his arm. Says he tried to stop him, but the next thing he knew he was reading in the paper about little Regulus Black who'd hung himself in the neighbor's barn.
You clench your fists and it occurs to you that you haven't written a word in about twenty minutes. You don't know what to do. You're in too deep, you know that much, because your heart is pounding and there is a lump in your throat that shouldn't be there. You're supposed to remain distant and detached because he's a murderer and you just have a story to write but this is so much bigger than all of that. You're on the phone with a man sitting right in front of you and this glass divide is meant to keep you apart, and yet it's hindering something more intimate than you could ever have anticipated.
He's baring his soul and all you can do is sit there and watch.
His shoulders shake as he sobs into your ear and you see the corrections officer in the corner motion to you that time is up. He moves forward but you put up a hand to stop him and you start talking.
"Mr. Black…? Sirius, listen to me."
He moves his trembling hand away from his face and looks up at you as if this is the first time he's really seeing you. Red-rimmed eyes meet yours and he freezes in shock or embarrassment or maybe a mixture of both. You keep your voice low.
"Sirius, I have to leave now. Can we continue this on Wednesday?"
He swallows hard and shifts his gaze down to the notebook in front of you before nodding his head.
The officer comes up to him and takes the phone from his hand and hangs it up. You wait to hear the resounding click marking the end of the conversation before hanging up the phone on your side and exiting the room.
This is going to be more difficult than you expected.
Your desk at work is a clutter of half written notes and newspaper clippings and photographs of Sirius Black at various ages and this story of a lifetime just might be the death of you. A stern looking woman hovers over the wall of your cubicle and stares you down over her glasses.
"Remus, how far have you gotten?"
"Hmm? Oh!" You look up from your notes and minimize the blank document on your computer screen. "I've just been trying to organize my thoughts, Minerva. I have another appointment on Wednesday."
"Another appointment? You mean you didn't get the story?"
"Not… not the whole story, no."
She looks down at the photographs littering your desk and then gives you a knowing smirk. "You best be careful, Remus. You could never keep your head in the game. It's just a story. Don't make it more than what it is, you hear?"
"I want it by the end of next week. Black's final trial is set for the week after. I want to run it before the opportunity slips by and they're all talking about the execution and all we have are yearbook photos."
She leaves you to continue your work, but it's difficult with the word execution ringing in your ear.
The next time you visit him, you swear this is the last time you'll be visiting prison. You are claustrophobic and you want sunlight and fresh air and Christ, how do these people live like this? But you suppose you're not supposed to care. You suppose criminals deserve this.
You try to set your conflicted feelings aside and flip open your notebook to where you left off and you think not for the first time that reporters shouldn't even be considered humans. How you got to be so good at this job you'll never know because you look up as Sirius Black is walked into the adjoining room and you don't see a murderer. Not anymore.
He picks up the phone without being asked. He seems ready to talk, almost as if he's looking forward to it. Perhaps this is the only conversation he gets in here. You're under the impression he's held under solitary confinement so it would make sense.
You've finished with his family history and he moves on to happier things. To friendships and boarding school and girls in short skirts. He barely graduated but grabbed a decent paying job selling cars and life was good.
He leans back in the cheap plastic chair, tugging at the collar of his orange jumpsuit in distraction. He's lost in the nostalgia of remembering and you see a glimpse of the old Sirius Black, the one in his yearbook photos where he was smiling and happy and his eyes shone like the sun on the water. It is beautiful. He is beautiful. And you are royally fucked.
You clear your throat but before you get a chance to ask, he brings up James Potter himself and you are glad because you don't think you have it in you to interrogate him. He starts rambling about anything and everything, not realizing he's giving you the perfect material, the kind of stuff the public eats out of the palm of your hand.
"I was best man at his wedding, you know. I swear it was the hottest day of the year and I didn't want to wear the suit jacket but James wanted everything to be perfect because Lily deserved the perfect wedding day. And she really did. She was… she was an angel." He nods his head to emphasize his point. "A fucking angel for putting up with the two of us."
"Tell me more about Lily," you say, scribbling away. "How would you describe your relationship with her?"
He ponders a moment and is about to speak when he catches on. This man isn't stupid. "Oh, you'd like that wouldn't you?" His eyes flash dangerously, a flash of lightning across a stormy sky. "Oh, yes. That would be the perfect motive. Man caught screwing his best friend's wife so he kills them both? Is that what you want to hear? Sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, shut the fuck up, yes you were! Reporters are all the same. I don't know what I was thinking."
And once again he goes to hang up the phone, and you pull out your wild card that you still don't understand. "Fine, Lily's off the table but what about Peter? What about Peter, eh, Sirius?"
The man sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "I don't want to talk about Peter," he says through gritted teeth.
"He's the reason you agreed to talk at all the other day, and now you don't want to talk about him? Come on," you say in exasperation. "You gotta give me something."
The corrections officer who walked you in comes to put a hand on your shoulder and you jump. You've forgotten he was in the room. "A few more minutes…"
But Sirius speaks into your ear, "Will you come back tomorrow?"
You turn to look back at the man who is also being pressured to leave the room. His eyes are pleading and sincere and you want to drown in them.
"Will you come back tomorrow?"
You swallow thickly and you snap your notebook shut. "Yes," you say. "I'll come back tomorrow."
You spin some bullshit about the "integrity of the story" and you manage to persuade the warden to let you meet him face to face. No telephone. No glass divide. You bring a tape recorder and leave your notebook home and your fingers twitch from nervousness so you doubt you'd be able to write anything legible anyway.
You are brought into a tiny room with white walls and no windows aside from the one at the top of the door and it makes you want to punch something. You sit at the table that's been set up and your breath hitches in your chest as he's marched in with his hands cuffed behind his back and he sits across from you. The officer leaves the two of you alone, to watch from the other side of the door. You are now breathing the same air as a man whose breaths are practically numbered. It feels…meaningful.
And even though you've met before, you've seen each other and he's given you some of the most intimate details of his life, you feel as though you should introduce yourself all over again. All you can do, however, is choke out an awkward, "Hi."
He smirks and nods. "Hi."
You pull the recorder out of your pocket and set it on the table between you. "Do you mind if I…"
He shakes his head so you turn it on. And once again he speaks before you have a chance to question him. "I killed Lily and James Potter."
"I…I know," you respond.
"I killed them. It was my gun and I killed them because I was angry and bitter and after my uncle died I was a wreck and I lost it, okay? I fucking lost it, and I killed them."
His deadpan stare…His emotionless tone…
"You're lying," you accuse.
"Very good," he says, almost laughs and the world is spinning. What have you gotten yourself into? "Very good," he says again. "How do you know?"
"You were trying too hard to convince me. No need to keep telling me you killed them. The whole world knows that. And your eyes…" It's such a ridiculous moment to be blushing but you do. "Your eyes speak louder than your mouth if you know how to read them."
"Bet you learned how to do that real quick, eh?" he says. "Had to in a profession such as yours."
"But I don't understand. You didn't kill them, then?"
"Oh, but I did. I did." His eyes water and he shakes his head sadly. "All my fault."
"Explain. What does this have to do with Peter Pettigrew?"
He rocks backward and forward, contemplating. He seems to come to a decision because he stops and sits up as straight as he can with his hands behind his back and sticks out his chin.
"I'll tell you. Off the record."
"Off the- WHAT? You have got to be kidding me."
"Off the record," he repeats.
"Why bother telling me at all?"
"Because I have to tell somebody! Don't you see?" He loses his composure and bows his head, his shoulders heaving with the effort of holding back the sobs that are lodged in his throat. "I have to. Have to tell someone. Listen to me, all right? Just listen."
Against your better judgment, you lean forward and press the stop button on the tape recorder. "All right," you say. "Off the record."
"Peter Pettigrew was a classmate. Went to boarding school together. He was kind of the third wheel to James and I. Followed us around like a lost little kid. And we always noticed he was a bit…odd."
"Yeah. Skittish. Got scared really easy. Always looking over his shoulder or at a blank spot of wall. Kind of like a cat, ya know? You ever see a cat staring at nothing in particular and think it sees something you can't?"
"Yeah," you say. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
"Yeah, well, we finally questioned him about it and he kind of broke down. Said he saw shadows in the corner all the time. Three big, great black shadows that followed him everywhere. Said they were watching him.
We tried to get him some help after we got out of school. Tried to get him to see a doctor, a therapist, but he refused. He didn't trust them. He didn't want to take medicine. He decided he'd take drugs instead. LSD was his favorite."
Sirius breathes deeply through his nose to steady himself. Meanwhile all you can do is sit frozen in horror because you can see where this is going.
"He was one bad acid trip away from losing it completely and then he finally did. I'd shown him my gun once…" At this point, Sirius begins to cry, and then you realize that you are too. "I heard the first shot. That was James. Then… I ran in and Peter's hands were shaking and he was screaming about something to do with spies and the shadows getting bigger and it all… it all happened so fast. I tried to get the gun away but he shot her. He shot Lily." He sniffs loudly and tries to wipe his face against the shoulder if his jumpsuit, as he rocks back and forth in his chair. "I told him to get out, and picked my gun up off the floor. My gun that did it. How could I have been so stupid?"
"Why did you confess?" you ask incredulously.
"It was my fault."
"But you didn't do it!"
"It might as well have been me. It was my gun, my fault. I showed Peter where I kept it, and I knew he was crazy. He wasn't in his right mind."
"You're not in your right mind! Jesus Christ, you're really going to let this happen? Off the record my ass! I'm going to the warden right now." You move to get up, and he stands up as well.
"No, you're not," he says with certainty. "They won't believe you. I confessed; that's all these people care about. I'll tell them you're lying for the sake of your precious story."
"But if you didn't do it…"
"It's my fault."
"Who pulled the trigger, Sirius?"
He doesn't answer. You shake your head in disgust. "You expect me to let you die for a crime you didn't commit?"
"I expect you to honor my last wishes and let me die however the fuck I want."
You can't argue with that. As much as you want to, you know you can't. You grab the tape recorder from off the table and brush past him toward the door. The corrections officer looking in the window nods but you hold up a hand for him to wait just a moment more.
You turn to look at the broken man you've come to pity, admire, appreciate. You look him in the hurricane eyes that get you every time. If you could, you'd shake his hand but both of them are tied and yours are not and it's not fair. He's still alive but you can already see the blood on your hands, and you struggle to say goodbye. It's a final goodbye.
"I hope you die happy," you say. "I hope you die happy and at peace, and I hope this is really what you want. Because you know the worst part about all of this, Sirius? I'm watching you drown, and the only thing that you have to do to save yourself is stand up."
And with that, you walk out and you don't look back. The fluorescent light at the end of the hall blows out as you leave.
You write your story and it ends in a lie. Just like he expected it to. Just like he wanted. You can practically hear him go on about goddamn reporters making shit up for the story and it almost makes you smile.
Three weeks later, a letter is delivered to you from the prison. Inside is an envelope with My Last Confession written on the front in an untidy scrawl. You don't open it.
The next day, they inject his veins with poison. The whole world waits with bated breath until they announce it over the television. Time of death: 6:57pm, Eastern Standard Time.
The storm is finally over. The question mark becomes a period.
It was the story of a lifetime.
It was the story of a lifetime, and now it's over.