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The summer before Regulus's sixth year drags on and on, leaving his mouth laden with a coppery taste: thunderstorms mixed with something salty and thick, something responsibility-flavoured. Like every summer, Regulus wishes rather desperately that there was anything to be done about his family, and like every summer he knows there is nothing for it. At least he's learned to hide his feelings about the whole thing—his parents might realize that he doesn't like being caught in the middle all the time, but they're always too busy to notice. They're always too occupied with staring at Sirius, screaming beacon of emotion that he is.

Regulus spends a fair bit of time staring at Sirius himself, the summer before his sixth year, and not only because they have a cigarette together every night after dinner. Sirius hates formalities with a vicious and burning passion (but then Sirius does everything with a vicious and burning passion, which closed, cold Regulus fails consistently to understand) and dinner at Number 12, Grimmauld Place is a formal affair. Often there are guests and always there are arguments; when, inevitably, Sirius slams his chair back from the table and storms out in a huff, it is Regulus' fraternal duty to get up and follow, casting a hopeless look at his parents. He isn't sure (he's never sure) what his filial duty is, but he doesn't ask. There have always been some ways in which he is beholden to his brother.

In the summers that came before this one—because they've been walking in the darkness after dinner every night since Regulus was thirteen, because Sirius has made a scene at every dinner he's attended since Regulus was thirteen—they've discussed anything but school and their family. Once, they had a spirited banter about which constellation was better, the lion or the dog, and they laughed like the children they usually forget that they are. However, more often than not, the conversation fades within the first few minutes of walking, leaving them in a silence as awkward as it is companionable.

This summer, the summer before Regulus's sixth year, is the first summer Sirius has come home with cigarettes. It means nothing; Regulus knows he's been smoking for years, because they've run into each in the middle of the night at school, behind the Quidditch pitch. Sirius is always smoking when Regulus sees him, and it is the only time that they allow themselves civility within the Hogwarts gates. Why Regulus took to wandering around Hogwarts in the dark to begin with, he doesn't know; he tells himself he wasn't looking for his brother, and fails to be convinced. Regulus fails at rather a lot, when it comes to his family.

It's funny, walking in the dark with Sirius, the orange glow of their cigarettes blinking like dying stars in the blackness. It's funny and it hurts, not that Regulus would ever admit it.

And this summer, this summer before Regulus's sixth year, is worse than all the other summers. If only Sirius would stop talking.

***

 

"Daddy," Regulus whispered, leaning back and forth on the balls of his feet. He was scared, he was scared, he was scared—he didn't know what it looked like but it was going to get him--he could hear it coming, it was going to eat him, and he was going to be crispy fried snack, and it was going to do something worse too, and what could be worse than being eaten but it was coming and he was scared, he was scared—"Daddy!"

"Regulus?" Orion said, surprised, sleepworn and blinking. Regulus wanted to sob with relief. "Is everything alright?"

Regulus nodded, then shook his head and bit his lip. "I had a bad dream," he said, all wavering six-year-old fear, panic still nipped sharply at his heels, and his father smiled indulgently.

"Boy," he said, "it's time I told you some things about being a Black."

When Regulus had returned to bed twenty minutes later, his head was heavy with words like "weakness" and "honour" and "image". His young mouth did not yet recognize the salty, thick taste of responsibility on his tongue, but he stared at his ceiling and told himself he was not afraid.

He was six years old, and he didn't sleep for three nights, and even later, at Hogwarts, he worried about what might lurk in the recesses of the dark. He never told anyone.

***

 

Sirius spends the summer before Regulus' sixth year outlining his brilliant plan for escape, which basically entails walking out one day and never, ever coming back. "One day I'm just going to scarper" he keeps saying, his eyes shining and wild, displaying his usual lack of tact. "That could have been my last dinner—this could be our last cigarette—one morning you'll wake up and I'll be gone. Maybe even tomorrow, Reg. Maybe even tomorrow."

That first night, that first time he says it, Regulus lies awake with the shadows, full of terror he hasn't know since he was small. When, the next morning, Sirius is scowling at him like always from across the breakfast table, something he didn't know was tight in his chest perceptibly eases. It is like that every day, all summer—Sirius and his cigarettes and his bravado in the evenings, Regulus with hastily concealed circles under his eyes in the mornings. Pain and relief—not that Regulus would ever admit, even to himself, that he would miss Sirius and his theatrics and his strange Gryffindor pride, if he were to go.

***

 

When Regulus was seven, he had a nightmare. He woke in a terror so great that he could hardly move, and he tried to remember his father, tried to recall the words that were so important to being a Black, but he couldn't. He was scared, he was scared, he was so scared, and he couldn't go to his parents' room so he went across the hall instead.

"Regulus," Sirius muttered, half-asleep, when his brother poked him. Then, louder, "Regulus? 'S it morning? Am I in trouble? I didn't touch the pudding!" And then, after a long moment, and in a curious voice, "Hey, are you ok?"

"I had a bad dream," Regulus said, his voice small and ashamed, staring at his feet. When he looked up, Sirius was gazing at his with wide-eyed interest.

"Were there monsters?" he inquired, seriously. When Regulus made a quick, embarrassed noise of assent, Sirius nodded perfunctorily and hopped out of bed. He walked briskly to his door and locked it, muttering under his breath. After a moment, he made a speculative face and kicked the doorframe, apparently for good measure.

"Can't be having with monsters," Sirius said, by way of explanation, waving a hand with as much elegance as an eight year old boy could manage. Regulus stared at him with gratitude and awe, and thought somewhere in the back of his mind that he wished he'd gone to his brother instead of his father, last time.

Then, he remembered something, and, in the interest of full disclosure, added, "I don't know if it was a…monster." He put his head down and looked hard at the floor, and said in the same small voice, "He was a bad—I think he wanted to eat my brain."

Sirius didn't say anything; Regulus tried to tell himself that he wasn't afraid, that he could go back to his room alone, that he was a Black, that he—and then Sirius had an arm around his shoulders and a fist in his hair.

"No one," Sirius said firmly, "is allowed to mess with your brain but me."

"You're very brave, Sirius," Regulus whispered, voice still small but less ashamed, and Sirius laughed, long drawn amused syllables of mirth filing themselves away in Regulus' memory to pop up later, at odd times. But Regulus laughed too, a short, stunted, gasping sort of laugh—a laugh that was still scared, but remembering how to breathe.

"You can sleep in my bed tonight, alright?" Sirius said, kindly. "But don't steal my covers, or I will be forced to tell Mum that you put those firecrackers in that pudding."

"But Sirius," Regulus protested, logically, "that doesn't even make sense. I didn't even buy firecrackers when we went to Diagon! I bought candy."

"But you've eaten the proof!" Sirius laughed, waggling his eyebrows and grinning. Then he yawned and shoved Regulus forward. "Get into the bed, stupid, I'm knackered. Probably because certain little brothers can't go to sleep."

Regulus smiled and said "You're stupid," but didn't mean it, and crawled into his brother's bed. Sirius got in behind him and ruffled his hair affectionately. "Thanks," Regulus said quietly into the pillow after a moment.

Sirius made a scoffing noise and scooted deep under his covers. "Like I'd ever let a monster get your brain, Reg," he said dismissively, and Regulus couldn't remember another time he'd slept as soundly.

***

 

"Maybe tomorrow, no probably tomorrow, I'll never have to talk to that bitch again, I'll turn around and never ever come back—" and Regulus can't handle it anymore, the unacknowledged terror and the waiting and the talk, all the talk, the talk that may or may not mean anything at all.

Regulus rounds on his brother, his wildly gesturing brother with the slightly mad look behind his eyes and in his voice, rounds on him and says, "Why don't you just go, if you hate it so much. Why don't you just fucking go, Sirius, if that's what you want to do. Why don't you just go." Regulus is full of sick pride at how even his voice is, how much he sounds like the heir he will soon become.

"Regulus, what—I mean, I don't have to go, I mean I fucking want to go—what the hell are you playing at anyway?" Sirius is confused, Regulus can see it, and he thinks Good somewhere deep under all the anger. Regulus hopes Sirius will be confused forever, will never understand. Regulus hopes Sirius spends the rest of his life wondering why his own brother doesn't want to be family anymore, because only then will they be even.

"If you don't want to be here then we don't want you. You're a filthy blood traitor and a bastard besides, all you ever do is torment me, us, I hate you, with your scenes at dinner and your stupid plans and you're not even a Slytherin! Get out, Sirius. We don't want you here; I don't want you here. Go! That was your last dinner, just like you wanted. Go!"

Sirius whirls away with his face a mottled purple, and Regulus is so satisfied that he might have to break down and cry about it. His satisfaction keeps him up all night, keeps him biting his nails to the quick, until he goes downstairs to discover his brother's scowling face missing from the breakfast table.