August was blistering hot, the sun shone unhindered by clouds in a sky so blue it was almost painful to look at; insulting and offensive. The back of James Potter's neck burned as sweat beaded along his hairline and he trudged down the cobbled side street with Sirius beside him, seeming just as pleased with the outing as James. Though he couldn't imagine the entirely black outfit Sirius chose to wear was helping him any. Looking edgy for the sake of edginess was one thing, but if he had to sacrifice his comfort, then what was the point?
"I look good in black, and I'm willing to suffer," is what Sirius had told Remus with a defiant gleam to his eyes, and the only thing Remus had to offer in return was a blank stare before shaking his head slightly.
James was not as willing as Sirius. He opted for muggle undercover clothing that would best keep him from heat stroke, jeans and a plain short sleeved t-shirt. His hair was a mess already from a mix of sweat and running his hands through it while they walked.
The little village seemed to be plucked out of an older time and dropped somewhere in the middle of dead nowhere. They were miles from any sort of city, there were no buses, only one small grocery store, and it was so empty it seemed like a ghost town slotted into the countryside just to take up space so it wouldn't look as empty on a map.
Which was ridiculous, because earlier when James looked at the map, he hadn't even found this stupid town. Or was it even big enough to be a town? James didn't know and was too hot to care. He had a lot on his mind after all; always did these days.
It was nearing a full year since he became a single father, a widower. Almost a year since the Dark Lord had disappeared, since he broke into their cottage in Godric's Hollow intent on murder. James still wondered how he managed to survive it, when he had no wand, when he was certain he heard the Dark Lord hiss out a killing curse. One that hit him in the chest. He should have died. He wished he were dead.
He recalled the pain, the drowsy confusion when he came to with a hand cradling the back of his head, a voice choking from somewhere above him. He remembered peering up into steel grey eyes, and somehow his first thought was that... he was there; but it was Sirius hovering over him, awkwardly slumped over the stairs where James was lying, his grey eyes watery as he held James and repeated over and over that it would be okay.
James didn't know what had happened at first. He was too out of it from the curse to remember, until he woke up a week later at St Mungo's. People were still celebrating. Remus was there with Sirius, who was holding Harry. Both looked miserable as they sat on either side of the hospital cot where James was confined. It took a while longer to regain all his memories, and when he did, when he asked about Lily, when his friends didn't look at him, he knew... he knew...
"Please hit me," Sirius had begged James as soon as he was well enough to stand. "Hit me. Punch me. Hate me. Please. It's my fault."
James didn't hate him though. The agony he felt at the loss of his wife was consuming, but getting angry at his friends, what good would that have done? Of course he was angry, he just didn't take it out on Sirius. He'd seen him after all, when he was barely conscious lying on the stairs with his best friend leaning over him and sobbing. What more punishment did Sirius deserve?
Harry was two now, there was only a few more months till Halloween and the first anniversary of Lily's death, and the disappearance of Voldemort. The initial celebration was short lived before Dumbledore had appeared with a warning, that although his body had been destroyed, Voldemort was still out there somewhere.
The war was over, but how long would the peace last?
It was why they were trudging hopelessly through the backstreets of a British village neither had known existed before that morning, when Dumbledore had summoned them both. They'd left Harry with Remus, who didn't seem to envy his friends at all as they bemoaned the situation and disapparated away.
James had only one theory. They were about to crack down on a former Death Eater ring hiding in the country. The Ministry had been hunting them down for months now, but had so far only managed to catch a handful, while more had managed to escape conviction with the claim that they were under the Imperius Curse. Why the council believed Malfoy, James could never guess. He probably threatened them or something.
"I swear if this so called mission turns bust, I'm never trusting that old twat again," Sirius spat out, never one to keep his thoughts to himself for too long, and though James silently agreed, he was too hot to speak it.
"Ah, and you've arrived," a voice said from the left, and they both turned to look down a side path cutting between two buildings, where Albus Dumbledore stood conspicuously.
"Yea, we're here," Sirius panted against the heat. "So what do you want?"
"Because we didn't give enough of that already?"
"Sirius," James drew his friends name out slow and deliberate with undertone warning, because Remus wasn't there to keep him from snapping so James would have to instead (and because it was becoming habit to use that dad voice on everyone).
"Yes, I knew you would have reservations, Mr. Black, but if there had been anyone else I could have called, I would have." He moved from the alley to stand with the younger men. "The fact of the matter, you and Mr. Potter are the only ones who may well help me accomplish what I came here to do."
"What for?" Sirius asked. "After what happened, James needs rest, he needs to look after Harry, you can't just drag him back-."
"Sirius I'm fine, how many times do I have to tell you?" James snapped. "If Dumbledore needs help..."
He didn't finish, because while he had enough respect for the old wizard to offer his help, he could understand Sirius' resentment, and it honestly worried him. Sirius blamed himself for Lily, he blamed Dumbledore for Lily, and Sirius had never been afraid to snarl at even the strongest of wizards. It had gotten him in trouble many times in the past, and should Dumbledore decide he was done with the rebellion, it wouldn't take much to get rid of Sirius.
James couldn't let that happen. He'd lost so much already, he wouldn't be able to bear losing Sirius. No one else, he swore silently, nudging his friend to the side with his shoulder and stepping in front of him.
"What did you need our help with?"
It wasn't loyalty and trust that had him so willingly stepping up. It was respect, it was fear, it was stubborn Gryffindor bravery and recklessness. At least he had a wand this time.
"Come." Dumbledore gave a soft smile that settled James' nerves before turning and striding down the street.
James looked over his shoulder to make sure Sirius would follow, though he shouldn't have worried. Sirius had been stuck to him like glue for months now.
"It has taken me a very long time to find this ally," Dumbledore explained as he lead the two wizards from the main bustle of the thin crowd, down a side road towards the edge of the village where a stretch of trees spread out. "He hid himself very well, I must commend him on that. The protection spells were so thick I barely noticed, and I can't imagine he walks around in public very often."
"Who is this ally and why do we need them?" Sirius asked, scratching at his neck where a bead of sweat had itched its way down his skin and glancing around as they were led down the sidewalk.
"Ah, my dear Mr. Black... this boy has information that could well lead us to the Dark Lord."
"He's bloody gone, what-"
"I have said before not to get too comfortable with that belief," Dumbledore interrupted, "His body has been vanquished, but his spirit, whatever is left of it, has fled. Make no mistake, he will return in time, and if we are to defeat him indefinitely, we must be prepared for it."
"How are we supposed to do that?" James asked, "You talk like he's immortal or something. How do we kill something that can't be killed?"
"It's not so cut and dry, I'm afraid," Dumbledore cast a quick look at James. "Yet isn't it quite so? However do you think? You make it killable, Mr. Potter."
"And how might one go about making something unkillable killable again?"
"Why, you figure out what made him unkillable in the first place, and you reverse it."
He'd stopped, finally, in front of a closed gate. James hadn't even seen the fence before, but now he was right in front of it, he marveled how it could have escaped his notice in the first place. A stone wall like a cairn had been built around a yard of emerald grass and flourishing bushes and trees that dotted around a small, single floor cottage made of stone, a silent chimney poking out of the roof.
It was actually very beautiful, with climbing ivy spider webbed along the cottage walls, the glass windows foggy from age or maybe dirt. The gate in front of them was closed and locked, high enough to reach his thigh, and when James reached out to touch the top, he quickly retracted his hand at the sharp burn through his finger tips.
The entire area was heavily warded with protective charms and spells, James could feel the advanced and complicated weaving of magic that covered the cottage and the yard. Whoever had enchanted the place was extremely powerful.
"Lovely, isn't it?" Dumbledore stood there with appreciative eyes on the cottage. "Stunning really, that he was able to find such a place and work protection around it that not even I could detect. I dare say it may be the safest place in Britain, aside from Hogwarts perhaps."
"How did you find it?" Sirius asked, leaning down and opening the mailbox sitting atop the cairn beside the gate; empty of course, with no name or house number on the side. Clearly whoever lived here wasn't expecting mail.
"By chance? Or perhaps luck? Maybe I'm just that good?"
Sirius scowled as he shut the mailbox and stood up, exchanging a look with James, who was grinning in amusement. Just another secret Dumbledore wasn't willing to give up it seemed.
He brandished his wand into his hand and tapped the top of the fence three times in succession. There was a click from the other side as the enchanted lock disengaged, creaking open slowly, almost politely allowing them entrance. The three of them stepped into the yard, and the gate closed and locked behind them.
James turned to look back at it. Even though the fence wasn't exactly high, he suddenly felt like he was in a box. The protective weave of magic sat heavy over his head, and even as people passed by, some glancing towards the cottage, they didn't seem to notice anything. It was like he was under his invisibility cloak, but larger, and far more powerful.
He supposed he should have felt anxious, but the magic around him didn't feel oppressive or dangerous at all. In fact, it was warm. Not hot like the sun, like the blistering August that had his bangs plastered to his forehead, but tender like a heartbeat.
When Dumbledore reached the door, thick wood carved with curls and Celtic knot work, runes seared into the door frame, he tapped out another set against it with the tip of his wand. This time he had wand to wood nine times and seemed to be in a specific design. There was a low click, and Dumbledore stepped back.
"Mr. Black, if you may."
"Me?" Sirius stared at him suspiciously. "What for? Is this a trap?"
"No I can't imagine. You're simply the only one who can touch the door with flesh."
"I suppose we'll see, once the door has been opened."
"You can't do it?"
"I'm afraid not," Dumbledore didn't appear too upset by that. "I managed to find this place and discover the counter spell to let us through the enchantments by watching and observing, but the one thing I cannot undo is the magic weaved into the very heart of this house. It is ancient, and cannot be undone by conventional means."
"I'm unconventional you mean."
"Why yes, I thought that obvious."
James snorted and Sirius glared at him before looking at the door, reaching out and letting his hand hover over the doorknob before glancing again at James.
"If I start screaming, get the hell out of here."
James frowned. "Well I won't, but feel free to think I will, if only for your peace of mind."
Sirius rolled his eyes and inhaled deep, grabbing the doorknob fiercely and turning it, pushing the door forward. That was that, not even a creak sounded from the hinges as it opened, and the three of them crept cautiously inside with their wands in their hands.
Sirius shut the door once they were inside, and James stood there taking in the interior with a slow sweep of his eyes. The enchantments were even heavier here, the room was a pleasant cool to rival the weather outside. It was eerily silent, aside from the rhythmic ticking and tocking of clocks that hung on the walls around them. James felt like he'd walked into a different world.
There were bunches of herbs, flowers, and other strange looking dried things hanging on the ceiling by twine, the fireplace off to the left was dead, but there was wood sitting patiently to the side in the event of a cold night. The furniture was old and Victorian, the colors deep and dark red, purple, and green. There were no pictures, no personal effects, not even a folded newspaper or a half finished cup of coffee.
To the right was a set of closed wooden double doors, in front of them was a wall that must separate the rest of the house from the kitchen. Two more doors must have lead to the bathroom and bedroom respectively. It seemed a bit bigger on the inside than James had guessed, suggesting a well managed extension charm that had been perfectly cast.
The inside of the house had a warm, inviting atmosphere, shelves lining each wall were filled with books, it was so impossibly neat and comfortable. James, for all his caution, started to lower his wand, because he felt inexplicably safe.
"Don't lose your nerve yet," Dumbledore warned, wandering towards the double doors. "Search around, but don't touch anything. Mr. Potter, the kitchen if you would?"
"Yea," he strode across the room, footsteps muffled by carpet, and heard Dumbledore direct Sirius to one of the other doors.
The kitchen was much like the entry. Pristine, with rather muted colors, eggshell and white and bits of black and grey. There was a small rounded table sitting in the middle with four matching chairs around it, and a door that must have lead to the yard and into the woods that backed the cottage. A diamond shaped window filled with stained glass was set into the top half of the door.
There were no dishes in the sink, the room appeared empty, but James went about his search, looking into cabinets to find sets of plates and cups, silverware in the drawers, food and drink in the fridge. He'd just pulled down a tin, setting his wand on the counter so he could grab hold, and turned it around in his hand before popping off the lid.
The pleasant scent of herbs filled the air, and somehow it washed a wave of nostalgia through him, making him stare dizzily at the counter. What was that smell? Why was it so familiar? It yanked at a string in his mind, something he wasn't sure he wanted to pull at, before a voice rose from his memories.
"The tea is not bland, Potter. If anything is, it would be your nasty personality."
"You should give it a try sometime."
The scent became heavier as the tea was shoved into his face. "As should you."
He slowly set the tin down, brow furrowed, and picked his wand up instead. James didn't know how he noticed, because not a sound had been made since he'd come into the kitchen, but surviving the Dark Lord had given him an intense paranoia, a sixth sense. Someone was in the room with him. It could have been Sirius, but wouldn't he have spoken up?
James spun fast with his wand brandished and drew a spell into the air as he shouted: "Stupefy!"
The rebuttal was merely uttered, and the flash from James' spell burst into nothing, leaving him staring down the top of his wand towards a young man standing at the open back door. James felt petrified in shock, eyes wide, and he suddenly remembered why that tea smelt so familiar.
He looked different, but exactly the same as James remembered. He had the same line of his jaw and slope of his nose, more slender than his brother's but still distinctly a shared familial attribute. His skin was pale, maybe too pale, and his eyes were like melted silver. They glinted, filled with suspicion and, if possible, inconvenience. His black hair must have grown, out of his control, collected and pushed up to the back of his head, tied there with strands hanging in his face and held up by ties and silver hair sticks. Maybe he couldn't have been bothered to shorten it, maybe he didn't want to.
His clothes were all black, cloak still around his shoulders, wand pointed at James, piercing eyes sweeping over him as James merely stood in a state of shock, unable to move even a muscle as the younger man slowly shut the door. James noted the tiny twigs and leaves stuck in his hair and caught on his robes, he must have been in the forest till now.
Was... this cottage, was it his?
"Ho-... wh... R-Reg?"
Regulus Black. It had to be. He looked just like him. Maybe a bit older, maybe his eyes a bit more haunted, but it was him. He looked too much like Sirius for it to be coincidental, yet not at all like his brother at all. It had always been like that.
Sirius had a kind of look that was always a little unkempt and rugged, always a little dirty even if he'd bathed. He was rough and sloppily cut corners, grunge and frayed edges.
Regulus, though, had a kind of elegant edge that must have come from how he was raised, to hold himself like that. He was cold and glass and pride, and he was staring at James like he was a mild inconvenience.
"Reg...," he whispered again, only seconds had passed that felt like eternity of staring, trying to take in everything about the younger Black. "How... how... you were dead... I thought..."
Regulus was lowering his wand. "How did you find me?"
"I... didn't, I didn't, we didn't, Dumble-"
The moment broke, Regulus lifted his wand again as his brother ran into the kitchen with his wand up and a curse on his lips, jerking to a halt when his eyes found Regulus at the door, mouth dropping open. Regulus stared back, it was impossible to read his face, but he was lowering his wand again. Not wanting to fight.
Maybe it was because James had trained his eye to catch these things now, but Regulus looked tired. There were bags under his eyes, and the frown looked like an uneven crack through marble. Something about this, something about Regulus, didn't feel right. He looked stable and unaffected, but there was something in his eyes, something he'd seen in his own reflection, buried so deep under "I'm fine", "I'm tired". He looked at Sirius and James saw a star glint in his silver eyes that begged to break down then and there.
Instead, they steeled like cold stone and grew unbelievably hard as his hand curled tighter around his wand and lifted it towards Sirius. James panicked, until he realized Regulus wasn't aiming at Sirius, but at Dumbledore, who was moving around Sirius to enter the kitchen.
"You," he spat, and James could hear the echo of Black prejudice as Dumbledore merely smiled; it seemed to make Regulus angrier.
"Found at last after being lost so long," Dumbledore greeted, and Regulus scoffed.
"Who ever said I was lost? Get out."
"Forgive me, but is it not Black etiquette to offer tea and biscuits to your guests?" Dumbledore ambled into the kitchen and took a seat at the round table, and Regulus seemed to seethe on the spot, white hot anger in his eyes, though the rest of his face remained neutral.
"Perhaps you're in shock, it has been a while since you've seen your brother, and I imagine you've been through quite a trauma," Dumbledore waved a hand and the seat across from him slid out towards Regulus. "Why not take a seat with me? I imagine Mr. Potter here wouldn't mind making some tea?"
"What?" James asked, and Sirius finally broke from his staring at Regulus.
"Would you like to make the tea instead-?"
"Fuck the tea!" Sirius yelled. "What the hell is going on?!"
"I did tell you, didn't I? That I needed your help?" Dumbledore lifted his hands to motion at Regulus. "I needed the help to convince young Regulus into joining us as our ally."
Sirius looked fifty shades of red and white as the corner of Regulus' lips curled horrifically. "Get. Out. I will not work with you. I will not be another of your pawns, put out there to die for you just like...," he trailed off, his eyes flickered to James for half an instant, and James tensed up.
"My dear boy... am I not being clear?" Dumbledore asked it softly, gently, like he was talking to a toddler. "You know what has happened, you surely must have sensed it? He is gone. You've no need to hide."
"Who said I was hiding?"
"What is it you believe you are doing then, Regulus?"
Regulus didn't answer, but he definitely had an answer to give. He chose not to speak, but James wanted to know what he was thinking too. Sirius probably did as well. Though he was certain what his friend would say, was certain he wanted to start yelling and cursing and spitting. For all they had known, Regulus had died. He'd gone missing and never turned back up, just fading off the face of the planet entirely, and no one knew what happened.
Dead. Sirius ranted for weeks at the slightest mention of his brother, that the weak minded sod had gotten cold feet about being a Death Eater and tried to flee, only to be hunted down and murdered like a wild animal. James used to hope that Sirius would find comfort in just the idea that his brother tried to defect from the Death Eaters, but instead he used it to fuel his anger at Regulus.
Because, as James well knew, feeling anger was so much easier than feeling anguish. Hating Regulus was easier on Sirius' heart than loving him and losing him.
"You were marked by him," Dumbledore said, Sirius scowled, Regulus' posture went tight and he hid his left arm behind his back, something new and wild in his eyes. "That makes you liable to the consequences falling to the rest of his Death Eaters. If you will agree to help us, I will guarantee your immunity."
"Immunity," Regulus hissed a whisper. "You mean you'll keep me out of Azkaban so long as I suit your needs. The moment I'm no longer useful, off I go. Is that what you told him?" His eyes were growing wilder. "Defect into a spy for your precious Order, and you'll provide immunity. Immunity, not freedom, not protection. Surely he's upset with you."
Dumbledore eyed him, calm as ever, but James couldn't help being confused. "You know much, for being dead these last few years."
"I keep tabs," Regulus stated. "I watch and listen, I don't trust anyone. That's why I'm not dead yet," a cloud passed over his eyes, a yearning, James felt his throat close, then it had been blinked away and Regulus was glaring again. "If you'd just let me be, I would have stayed here unbothered, gotten in no ones way, forgotten like a bad memory. You just had to show up..."
"We need your help."
"Why? Why should I? How do you know I even can help? How do you know I'm not still loyal to Voldemort?"
"Because if you are I'll kill you were you stand," Sirius snarled, and Regulus turned his wand to his brother, his eyes suddenly alight.
"Do it then."
"No, enough of this!" James stepped forward. "Sirius, put your wand away! We don't even know what's happening!"
"Away, Sirius!" James snapped in that same voice as before, and Sirius went rigid before lowering his wand, teeth grinding together.
Regulus glared back at him, until James turned to look in his direction. "You too, put that away!"
The younger Black's eyes popped wide and he gaped at James, taken aback at his tone and quickly retracting his arm. The room grew silent for a moment, Dumbledore waved a hand again and the other two chairs slid out from the table.
"All of us, we will have a pleasant talk over tea."
"I'll make it," James muttered, finding Regulus still staring at him as he turned to grab a kettle.
Their eyes lingered together, catching like flailing fingers, before scratching and breaking away, leaving James squinting like it had physically pained him.
"Have a seat, Regulus," Dumbledore urged, slipping into a more informal address. "You as well, Sirius. We have much to discuss. Oh and James, do remember the sugar. I do enjoy sugar with my tea."