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Carthage by GubraithianFire

Format: Short story
Chapters: 3
Word Count: 4,006
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Horror/Dark, Romance, Young Adult
Characters: Sirius, Lily, James
Pairings:

First Published: 04/20/2011
Last Chapter: 08/10/2011
Last Updated: 08/10/2011

Summary:
Superb banner by violet ephemera at TDA





Sow the earth with salt.

Sirius/Lily/James.


Chapter 1: dido
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Author's Note I promise this will be really very short -- three chapters or so. Much simpler than anything I've embarked on recently.

Thank you to Annie, Gina, Ash, Rachel, Helena, Jordan, Mary, and everyone else who helped in the development of this.

Thank you all very much.

P. S. According to myth, Dido founded the ancient city of Carthage.




--dido


Quiet did not mean that she couldn’t hear him.

He was there.

He was watching her.

She let him.

“I never liked you,” he said from behind her.

She resisted the urge to turn around. She was better than that. There were dying embers in the grate to attract her attention. “You never had to.”

“But I did.” He sounded louder. Not because of volume, but because of proximity. “Your name was constantly on his lips. Your face was behind his eyes. I had no choice but to like you.”

“But you just said you never liked me. That’s a choice, isn’t it?” she asked. “Isn’t disliking someone a choice?”

There was a displacement of air from when he shook his head. She didn’t see it, but she heard. “Not always. I didn’t have a choice. I just never liked you.”

“I don’t think I understand.”

“I don’t expect you to.”

“Then why tell me?”

“Because I want to.”

“No, you don’t. You want to see what I’ll do in response.”

“I can’t see you.”

She turned around.

He smiled.

“Show me something, Lily.”

She would not smile. She was better than that.

Her face was composed.

“I never liked you, either,” she lied.

“So we’re on the same page.”

“Yes.”

She watched him go.

He let her.


James ignored that his best friend watched her.

But he saw it.

“We need to get you settled down.”

Sirius grimaced. “Old people settle down. I’m not old.”

James rolled his eyes. “Clearly. But you’re not going to let your youth go by without one meaningful relationship, are you?”

“Our relationship is one of many meaningful ones I have had in this time of youth.”

“Many?” James could count them on one hand.

“Meaning is overrated,” the other said. “Meaning implies there’s something deeper to a person.”

“And you don’t care enough to go under the surface.”

He paused, then said, “You know me very well.”

“I should.”

He did.

Sirius knew exactly how well.

“So besides me, Remus, and Peter, you’ve never cared much about anyone?”

“That’s not true,” he murmured. “I’ve cared about people. I’ve tried to understand them.”

“And then? You couldn’t? Or they didn’t understand you?”

Sirius shrugged. “It depended on the person in question.”

“Name one.”

He couldn’t help himself. Her name was on his lips before he knew what he was saying. “There’s Lily. I try to understand her for your sake.”

“Try?” James asked, amused. Perhaps upset. Probably not upset. But… at the very least, he was amused. He recognized that. “You failed?”

“Trying. I’m still trying. But you know what I think of her, James.”

He did.

Ignoring the looks was easier than seeing them.


James hadn’t spoken to her in days.

She missed his voice in her ear. She liked the way he said her name.

She liked meaning something to someone. She liked knowing what she meant to someone. Sirius never told her what she was, and she felt like he never would.

“Do you still not like me?” she asked him.

He looked at her from across the table, not to watch her but to see her. There was a difference. She felt it. “I’ve never liked you.”

“Could that change?”

“I doubt it.”

“Could I change?” she asked. Out of pure curiosity. She wanted to know what he would say. “Could I do something to change that?”

“You can try if you want,” he said.

So he didn’t believe in her.

Of course he didn’t.

He didn’t want to see her. He only wanted to watch. From the shadows, the beyond. He liked watching her because it brought the sun to his netherworld.

She liked showing it to him.

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Then don’t. I’m not asking you to change just so I could like you.”

“You like not liking me?”

His grimace was wry, his eyes quiet. “It’s a comfortable pattern of behavior.”

Hers was bright. It was perhaps drier than usual, but it was bright. She knew he liked that. “You never struck me as the type who falls regularly into a comfortable pattern of behavior.”

“I can see the appeal in it.”

“You don’t want to challenge that pattern?”

“You do?” There was disbelief in his tone.

“I don’t like being disliked.” There was sincerity in hers. But sincerity was not always disingenuous. She had an agenda.

“Then change.”

“But you don’t want me to.”

“Lily, you’re spinning me in circles. I have no idea what you want.”

“That makes two of us.”

He patted her hand. He was warm and she was cold, and they shivered at the touch. “When you’ve decided what you want, let me know, yeah? This moral vacuum needs to be filled.”

She felt brighter when he withdrew his hand and withdrew back into himself. Brighter and warmer. “A moral vacuum would by definition attract morality. It would suck us dry of it.”

He stood up. Looked down at her. But she was looking at him, not his face or his eyes or his mouth, and he said, “So do we personify immorality?”

She stood as well. She couldn’t match him in height but there was something in the way she held herself that seemed to indicate to him power. Not fragile power, like his own. Something bigger, stronger, brighter.

“No, not immorality. Amorality.”

“I like that better.”

“So do I.”

What was the difference between immorality and amorality?

Who knew?

Who cared?


Lily had never struck him as one with an explicit moral code. She didn’t live by rules. She made some, enforced some more; however, she didn’t especially play by them. But he wanted her to have one.

He wanted her to break it.

Not necessarily for him.

But he wanted her to make one and then break it. He wanted the satisfaction of knowing that she had done it.

He still didn’t know if she had made one, but she was certainly breaking some rule. Of decorum, propriety, something. He’d done it already. Not for her, but he’d done it. So it wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

“He isn’t here, is he?”

It didn’t sicken him to know that she missed her partner. That was natural.

It disappointed him.

“Some Quidditch emergency,” Sirius intoned. “I think Cooper’s on Skele-Gro for the next day or so.”

She didn’t know who Cooper was. She didn’t care about what had happened to him.

“So he’s in the infirmary?”

“I should think so.”

She collapsed next to him.

As always, he let her.

“Is he avoiding me, Sirius?”

Yes. “Yes.”

She felt awfully coy asking, but the words slipped from her tongue before she could take them back. “Do you know why he’s avoiding me?”

No. “Yes.”

She cocked her head to the side, intrigued by the monosyllabic answers. She didn’t like them. She was used to hearing more from him. She didn’t want to hear more, but she was used to it.

“Feel like sharing?”

“Not particularly, no.” He grimaced again. She was used to that as well. She couldn’t remember him smiling. Certainly not at her. How could he if he had never liked her? “You should know why.”

Oh, she did. “I wanted to confirm my suspicions.”

“And have you?”

“No.”

She crawled on top of him.

He found himself embracing her before he knew what he had done.

“How about now?”

She shook her head.

He kissed her forehead. It was a chaste move, but he did not want to go further. He couldn’t. He wanted her to know that.

“Still nothing?”

“You told me to let you know when I figured out what I want.”

His chuckle was hollow, as was his heart. He didn’t have anything to give her. “What, not who.”

“I want you to show me something, Sirius.”

His smile was as shallow as the desire in his eyes. He wondered if she could tell, wrapped in his arms as she was. “What did you have in mind?”

Her smile was mischievous. Her attitude was as reckless as he was reputed to be. There was an element of detachment in her expression even as her eyes bored into his, as if she didn’t know what was happening and didn’t care.

He knew she did.

“Surprise me.”

She knew he would.


It should have stopped there.

It didn’t.


Chapter 2: hannibal
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Author's Note Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who marched an army across the Alps. He is widely considered one of the greatest military commanders in human history.





-- hannibal



When he found out, he was not surprised. He was too observant to have been surprised. He knew by the way she looked at him and the way he looked at her.

It didn’t sicken him.

“Are you happy, Lily?”

She bit her lip, tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, and nodded slowly.

“I’m glad.”

It disappointed him.

“You don’t have to lie to me,” she said after a moment. “I understand.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

“You have every right to.”

He disliked how self-conscious she had become around him. As if she had something to hide. What was left to hide? He knew who she met at night. He knew who she thought about in the day.

He was not angry.

Not at all.

“Do you resent him for achieving what you never could?”

He also hated her being coy. He hadn’t always, as it had been a challenge then. A call to arms. If there was a gauntlet being thrown now, he wouldn’t take it up. He would not give them, either of them, the satisfaction.

“Why do you refer to yourself as an achievement?” James asked instead. “Do you think I wanted you on my arm to show you off? To display your photograph on my mantle at home? Do you think he wants that?”

She rolled her eyes, defiant and above every insinuation she had ever implied.

“He doesn’t, Lily.”

“Did you?”

He tasted hypocrisy in her breath. He didn’t want to think about what else was in it. “I wanted a relationship with you. I didn’t want you.”

If it were Sirius speaking such words, she would have engaged him. She would have played with him, drawn him out, seen what he would have done. But it was not Sirius she was talking to.

She felt this one deserved better than that.

“You’re sweet, James.”

“So I’ve heard.”

He didn’t like to hear it.

Especially from her.


She had never thought to define their association.

There hadn’t been time.

There had been plenty of talk, though.

“I’m never going to meet your parents, am I?”

He looked mildly horrified at the thought. It was the most emotion she’d ever seen on his face. “Did you want to?”

She shrugged. “It was just a question.”

“There’s no such thing as just a question. Do you really want to meet my parents?”

“You obviously don’t want me to.”

Sirius’ eyes got darker. “Stop saying that sort of thing. My wanting something doesn’t stop you from wanting something else, does it? Tell me. Do you want to meet my parents?” His voice was no louder or more intense.

“I know what kind of people they are, so no, I don’t want to meet them,” she answered, a little disturbed.

Although he had not been tense, he now relaxed. His posture was not as stiff. His eyes, though, were dark, as always.

She had never seen him happy.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” she added. “Just… you’re supposed to meet your boyfriend’s parents, you know? It’s part of that process in a relationship.”

“Would you let me meet your parents?”

She thought about it. She couldn’t just answer; that was preposterous.

He saw the hesitation and smiled.

“So indecisive,” he said.

“I must disagree.” She propped her head up with her hand, mouth open in playful disbelief. “I made the move. You would have been happy watching me from afar.”

“I would not have been happy,” he protested.

“I’ve never seen you happy, that’s true.” Not even with me.

Sirius shrugged, pushed back his hair. His face seemed more open that way, but not by much. Not enough to open himself to her. “To be fair,” he said matter-of-factly, “I’ve never made you happy, either.”

She thought back to James’ question and her answer.

She wondered if he knew how many lies she had spun out of gold thread and dark eyes.

If either of them knew.

If either of them cared.

“Can we just kiss and ignore that?”

Sirius shook his head and smiled at her again. “Maybe later.”

Lily didn’t like being told no, in any terms.

Again, she was forced to make the move. The fascination of seeing him make his had not yet died.

“How about now?”

When he acceded to her, she realised it never would.


The boys’ conversations had become few and far between. When they did happen, they were as shallow as one’s interest in the girl and as fraught with self-deception as the other’s.

They avoided each other as best they could.

It did not always work that way.

“Are you leading her on, mate?”

“No.”

“She said she was happy with you,” said James, showing his suspicion in only the lightest of terms.

Sirius hid his own better. “I don’t doubt that she said that.”

“But you doubt it’s the truth.”

“She made her choice.”

“She chose you.”

Sirius nodded.

“Are you happy with her, at least?”

James knew he shouldn’t have asked. He knew the answer, after all.

He had known what Sirius thought of her for years.

He doubted that a relationship had changed that.

“She’s an excellent liar,” Sirius said all of a sudden, as if groping in the dark for purchase. As if he wanted approval, support. As if he wanted to assuage his conscience.

Did Sirius have a conscience?

Did he care about having one?

“You know that, James.”

Somewhere, he did know that. But not here. Not now. Not with him.

“I’m a phase for her. You know that, too.”

“I don’t care about that,” James lied vehemently. He was not at all the smooth liar, as Sirius was. He was not cool. Everything he did was grand, was bold, was vehement. “I want to know what she is to you.”

“Join the club.”

James exhaled. “You… you don’t know.”

The other one was impassive, as always.

It took a lot to rouse him from that perpetual state of being. If not Lily–if being near her and next to her and–and–if that was not enough, what was?

“Could you at least learn to like her?”

That should not have been too much to ask.

Why did he make it seem like it was?

“But you won’t leave her,” said James, dumbly.

Sirius enjoyed using the wry grimace, the laidback reckless image. He embodied it, he lived it. He had never bothered James with it, though. He had always thought him above that.

Until now.

Now the wry, self-aware grimace was out in full force for his best friend. He knew what it meant to use it, and he did it on purpose. A taunt. A gauntlet. A plea?

“You know why.”

James knew.

He always had.

You don’t leave valuable things lying around in the open.

They can be stolen.

They can be broken.

They can be killed.

“Relax, James. It’s not like she loves me.”

There was not bile in his throat. There was venom, and there was snow.

“How could she?”


It could have stopped if they wanted it to.

They did want it.

But it didn’t.


Chapter 3: scipio
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Author's Note Eek, sorry for the delay! It turns out that moral ambiguity at this level is very difficult to write at speed. I know I said that this would probably be three chapters, but looking at where the end of the chapter leaves us, I can't say this is the end. I have no idea how much longer it will be, but hopefully it's all worth the wait.

Scipio Africanus was a Roman general, nicknamed "the Roman Hannibal."




-- scipio



Lily walked up to him and stole another kiss.

“Do you love me?” he asked her.

She closed her eyes. She pondered the question.

“I don’t think so,” she admitted.

He bowed his head. He had expected this.

It didn’t disappoint him.

“Do you want me to?” she asked.

Sirius shook his head. “I was just curious.”

“You weren’t being serious?”

There was an easy joke here that he didn’t want to make. “I wanted to know, Lily, that’s all.”

She kissed him again, celebrated the push back. “Was I giving off the impression that I loved you?”

He took her in his arms, the same way he had that day–he wasn’t sure which in particular, but he was sure there had been a day when he held her that way–and kissed her. Once on her left eye, once on her left cheek, three times along her jaw, and then once on her lips. “I wanted to know, Lily,” he repeated as earnestly as he could fake. “I wanted to know what I am to you.”

This statement puzzled her.

“Do you know?”

“I never know,” she said brightly. “I want you, Sirius. Isn’t that enough?”

He ran his fingers through her hair. “It’s never enough.”

She laughed, a lilting sound.

It sickened him.


She didn’t like the idea of him thinking. That wasn’t what he was for. He was supposed to be shallow entertainment, hollow desire. She was supposed to take her fill of him and move on.

But there was a problem with hollow desire.

It could never be slaked.

“Sirius,” she said, bare in his arms, “how can I make you happy?”

“I didn’t think you cared about that.”

“I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

“Happiness in general is… overrated.”

She didn’t think so. “So if it came along, you’d ignore it.”

“Depends on what form.”

“Another girl, for instance.”

His lips scraped her shoulder. “I thought you didn’t love me.”

“I don’t have to love you to want to make you happy. Or to be happy myself.”

He rolled on his back and stared up, almost dead-eyed but for the enigma she thought engulfed him. “It all boils down to desire.”

She knew that. It was why she pursued him in the first place. The fascination of someone alien to her, who never liked her, who she knew was attracted to her. It was all a study.

It had nothing to do with anything deeper than attraction.

But now she feared that she wanted it to be.

“What about desire does it boil down to?”

He sighed. “Like you said. You want me. I want you. I don’t need to be happy, and I don’t need you to try to do that.”

“What if I want to?”

“We’ve talked about this, Lily.”

“What if I want to, Sirius?”

“I don’t see the point.”

“Why not?”

“It won’t work.”

“Do you want me to fail?”

“I want you here. Nowhere else.”

“Where else could I go?”

There were many possible answers to that question.

Sirius thought about them. So did Lily.

Then he embraced her. And kissed her bare shoulder. And then kissed her lips.

Her lips were not bare, though.

They had the taint of an idea on them.

He didn’t taste it, but he was sure it was there.

He would have been disappointed if it weren’t.


James was still bold. His love had been stolen from him, but not his boldness. Nor his ability to watch her.

She was languishing, he could see that. She brightened at Sirius’ touch–and he touched her. Oh, how he touched her. But James was beyond being upset about that. His blood didn’t boil anymore. His heart didn’t leap out of his chest. He did not challenge his best friend. He wouldn’t. All he would do was watch.

He saw her dying.

“Is he always like that?” she asked one time, when Sirius had left them both. He left her a fleeting kiss. Her fingers were on her mouth but her eyes were on James.

“Yes.”

Lily quieted.

“He doesn’t believe in change.”

Her fingers fell. “I know.”

He didn’t think she did. “You could marry him one day, Lily, and he’d be no better off than he is now.”

She recoiled, an unspeakable horror appearing in her features.

It suited her.

Her fear spurred him.

“You can’t fix him.”

She didn’t question how he knew.

“Can I help him?”

“No.”

“Is there–anything, James, anything–”

He didn’t pity her.

She didn’t deserve it.

“He’s yours.” He stood. Her eyes followed his. He let them without looking at them. “That should be everything to you, shouldn’t it?”

He left her. He knew he left her desolate, terrified, despairing. But he left with a smile, because he knew now what it felt like to have power. He’d had it before, but in different incarnations. In what now felt like different lives. Nothing good enough for what he now understood. Reality required a different power, one expressed and dealt out with more than mere symbols and charisma.

He’d once been in love. Perhaps he still was.

But with her?

How could he be?


She didn’t cry. She had nothing to cry about. James was right. She had what she wanted, she had Sirius. And yes, she had him. She had him around her finger, wrapped around her waist, slung across her hips, hanging like a dead man over her heart.

But that heart of hers–it didn’t seem to be working.

It beat for him.

For Sirius.

But it did not love him.

“I love you.”

He glanced at her, a withering, awful glance. His expression pierced her in the gut. She felt delightfully sick. Gorgeously twisted. But in love?

“I thought you didn’t.”

So had she. “Can’t I change my mind? Can’t I fall in love with you?”

His expression softened. Melted, almost, as if his face were made of wax. She stroked his face: it was warm. “It isn’t a question of can you.”

It was a question of have you.

“I love you.”

Sirius took her hand. He kissed it.

“I love you too.”

When he kissed her lips now, he tasted something. Not the idea from before. At least, not exactly. The idea he thought was there before had crystallized by now into something solid. Something loud. Something that pounded in his head like a hammer, like a drum, like a heartbeat.

He smiled into her kiss.

He felt her desperation. To be loved. To be happy.

But of course, she had chosen him.

God, she was a fool.



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