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set those ghosts alight

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When Regulus gets on the train to Hogwarts, his parents do not wave goodbye. They nod at him and Apparate back to Grimmauld Place almost before he's pulled his trunk onto the train behind him.

It's nothing more than he expected. Last year, Regulus was permitted to wave to Sirius, but only because he was young. He's eleven now and supposed to behave more maturely.

More maturely than Sirius, at any rate, which isn't saying much.

Regulus stays out of the way at home, and this summer had been no exception. His parents want him to go to Slytherin. His cousins want him to go to Slytherin. His grandparents probably want him to go to Slytherin, although they're subtle about it. Not like Bella, who's always telling Regulus it's his job to do better, or even Cissy, who talks to him nonstop about how nice the common room is and how elegant their uniforms are compared to the other houses.

Maybe Andy wouldn't have pestered him so much, but Regulus doubts he'll ever know one way or the other.

Anyway, they all want him to go to Slytherin, except Sirius, who wants anything but. Regulus isn't sure what he wants, but he knows he isn't pleased by the idea of everyone telling him where to go. He wants to be Sorted according to where he, Regulus, belongs, not according to where his family does.

Regulus pulls the crumpled bit of parchment out of the pocket of his robes and smoothes it out.

This is the first step.

He'd hesitated to accept Sirius's invitation to sit with him on the train. Being with Sirius is not exactly a clean slate. Regulus has been in the same rooms and houses and parties as Sirius all his life. However, Sirius and his friends are the only people on this train who aren't expecting Regulus to go to Slytherin.

At least, they're the only people who aren't certain of it.

That's good enough for Regulus.

Sirius had given him directions to his usual compartment, and Regulus scrutinizes them now. Sirius's handwriting has gotten worse since he left for Hogwarts. Actually, perhaps it's gotten better. It's less elegant, but much easier to read.

He picks up his trunk and starts walking.

The train is crowded, everyone in the aisle looking for their friends. Regulus doesn't want to shove his way through, so he slips through gaps, trying not to jostle people, keeping his head down, disappearing into the crowd for what may very well be the last time he can.

Naturally, it doesn't last.

He's made it about halfway to the compartment Sirius noted down when heels clack against the floor behind him and Cissy's voice says, "Hello, Regulus."

Regulus turns. "Hello, Narcissa."

Cissy is smiling, the close-lipped, careful smile of a Black in public, but she lets a bit of warmth show. Her Head Girl badge is pristine, and she's wearing a matching barrette in her hair. "Are you looking for somewhere to sit? I believe Poppea Rookwood has arrived."

Regulus does not like Poppea. He knows she's encouraged to practice a mask of polite indifference in public, of course—he is too—but Poppea overcompensates and projects more supercilious apathy than anything else. And she kicked her cat once for scratching her.

"Barty got on the train before me to find an empty compartment," Regulus lies.

Cissy nods. "Wonderful."

Of course it is. Barty will probably be a Slytherin or a Ravenclaw, and if Regulus ends up in the same house as him, he has determined that they could be acquaintances. The Crouch family isn't anywhere near as old as most of the people Regulus is encouraged to spend time with, but Barty's father is climbing ranks quickly at the Ministry, so it's permitted.

Regulus isn't sure he likes Barty that much either, but at least he's not annoying, just a bit dull.

"I'll see you at the Sorting, then," Cissy says, with a sort of glint in her eye that Regulus imagines is meant to be conspiratorial, as if they all know what will happen to him at the Sorting. "Would you like a Featherlight charm for your trunk?"

"No, thank you, Father did one already." Regulus smiles, because even if Cissy wants him to be a Slytherin, at least she's nice. "Have a nice trip."

"You as well." She steps around him and sets off toward the prefect compartments, robes swirling behind her. Cissy is tall enough that people notice her when she's coming. She doesn't have to wait for anyone to get out of her way.

That's settled. If Cissy ever finds out Regulus didn't sit with Barty on the train, it'll already be too late for her to do something about it. Anyway, he thinks she'd understand him sitting with Sirius. Everyone knows Cissy misses Andy the most.

It's good Bella has graduated already. She sneers at Sirius. (She's probably jealous that he's still the heir even though he's a Gryffindor.)

Regulus keeps walking.

He hears Sirius before he sees him, voice raised like he's talking over his entire compartment.

"And then— no, James, I said we're bloody getting there—Bella said she thought Malfoy would waste his whole fortune by the time he turns thirty."

Oh, yes. Regulus knows this story.

He walks a bit faster and tucks the parchment back into his pocket. He doesn't need directions when Sirius's voice is practically a beacon.

"And Cissa hexed her skin green for being jealous that Malfoy has a fortune in the first place. That's verbatim." Someone laughs as Sirius keeps talking. "And Bella couldn't remove it for a week. And I bribed Reg to get a picture, since he's sneaky—"

Regulus knocks on the door to their compartment and slides it open.

Sirius, lying on one of the benches with his feet kicked up on the wall, looks up and grins. "Fabulous timing."

The other people in the compartment look up at Regulus in eerie unison, like how Andy and Bella used to say the same thing at the exact same time.

He's never met any of these people before, but he can guess, based on Sirius's descriptions. James Potter looks like he just rolled out of bed. (He's shoved almost entirely to one end of the bench he and Sirius are sharing, so Sirius can lie down, but James doesn't look like he cares.) The short boy by the window must be Peter Pettigrew, open curiosity on his round face. Thus, by process of elimination, the tall, thin one closest to the door is Remus Lupin. He looks guarded. Huh.

There's also a tawny owl in a cage between Pettigrew and Lupin, which Regulus doesn't know anything about, but he's fairly sure it's not important.

"Hello," Regulus says. He does not shift his feet nervously. He hasn't done that since he was eight. It's tempting, though.

Sirius gets up and claps a hand on Regulus's shoulder before levitating his trunk up onto the rack. "Didn't get lost, did you?"

"Narcissa intercepted me. I told her I was sitting with Barty Crouch."

Sirius raises his eyebrows.

Regulus shrugs. "I didn't want to get another speech about how Slytherin is so much better than all the other houses in every possible way, especially Gryffindor. Do you know, I think she might be hinting that she wants me to go to Slytherin."

"Impossible to be sure, since she's so subtle about it and all." Sirius plops back down on the bench, properly this time, which leaves space for Regulus to sit near the door. "Everyone, this is Regulus, upon whose shoulders rest my parents' hopes and dreams for our family being the tiniest bit respectable. Regulus, this is James, Peter, James's owl Robert, and Remus."

"Should I be offended Robert was introduced before me?" Remus says dryly.

What kind of an owl name is Robert? Regulus does not say out loud.

"He's in between you and Peter, I was going in order," Sirius says.

"Right," Regulus says. "I'm the one who should be offended that Sirius thinks I can't tell the difference between an owl and a person."

James laughs and pokes Sirius. "Bit rich of you, considering—"

"Absolutely not," Sirius says loudly. "Peter, tell us about your summer."

 

They don't talk about the impending Sorting, but eventually the train ride ends, and Regulus leaves the others to cross the lake. He neatly avoids Poppea Rookwood and finds himself sitting with Barty and two girls he doesn't know.

"Rachel Smith," the blonde one says without prompting. "I'm Hufflepuff for sure. This is Athena Jones."

She nods at them. "I'm not sure where I'm going, but my sister's Gryffindor."

"Bartemius Crouch," Barty says, and for approximately the eleventh time Regulus is grateful his name is better than Bartemius. "I'll probably be in Ravenclaw or Slytherin."

The girls look at Regulus expectantly, and he decides to get it over with. "Regulus Black, and I don't know."

"Because of your brother?" Rachel Smith says. "My cousin said he got Howlers three times after going to Gryffindor. I wouldn't want that."

"Tactful, Rachel," Athena Jones says.

"I just don't know," Regulus says. "I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

He's started to make up his mind, though. Maybe even to hope.