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The Fall of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black (the last of the family line remix)

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i.

The air was crisp and clean, chilled just enough that Regulus' cheeks reddened where they peeked out from under his scarf. His nose and ears felt numb, and his breath fogged in front of his face, forming into soft puffs that dotted the grey January sky.

It had stopped snowing just before the sun rose, and now a thick blanket of white clung to everything, frosting the trees and covering the ground. The sugared roofs and turrets made Hogwarts picturesque, and Sirius was out of place inside its frame, a nightmare with Muggle clothes beneath his unbuttoned robes and a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Their mother often complained of undesirable influences, and the tone she adopted when she whispered Gryffindor made it a dirty word. She said Sirius was wild. Untamed. An animal. Sirius looked up, the sharp wind whipping through his unkempt hair as he watched Regulus' cautious approach, and Regulus' stomach knotted, his insides colder than his skin in the brisk winter wind.

"What?" Sirius demanded. He leaned back against the castle, sheltering in the sudden jut of Ravenclaw Tower, and offered Potter the cigarette. His face hardened.

"May I speak with you?" Regulus asked quietly.

"You already are, aren't you?" Sirius replied. Potter returned the cigarette, passing it with a cupped hand, like he expected a professor to come along and tell him off. Regulus doubted the chances; Potter had a knack for disappearing at just the right moment, and he had a smile that could soften the sourest expression. He could charm Slughorn. McGonagall. Dumbledore. Sirius.

"Alone."

Neither breathed. A tight silence curled around them, and just when it threatened to strangle them both, Potter's hand brushed Sirius' sleeve. They shared a wordless glance -- one second, two seconds, three seconds, four -- then Potter's mouth twitched. He gave Sirius a nod Regulus almost missed for blinking and turned. He frowned at Regulus as he passed.

"Well?" Sirius asked. "What?"

"You didn't come home for Christmas."

"Well spotted," Sirius snapped, gesturing grandly. "You'll be remembering your own name, next."

"Sirius."

"No, that's mine," Sirius said with a snort. "Yours is Regulus."

"Sirius, please."

Please came harshly, the ends bitten and frayed, but it hung there, frozen into the sharp January air. Regulus scraped his teeth against his lip. A Black did not entreat. A Black did not beg, but Regulus could not take it back. That one word needed to express what Regulus could not: their father had kept to his rooms; their mother had been silent, and Kreacher had wept in the face of her fury. On Christmas morning, Grimmauld Place had been very cold and grey.

"Please, what?" Sirius asked. "I had a chance for a proper Christmas. I wasn't slapped or called names, and no one insulted my friends." He pulled a another cigarette from this pocket and lit it with the first. "I wasn't sent to bed without supper because I'm not of a mind to kill Muggles."

Regulus sighed. "She's never asked you to kill Muggles."

"Not directly, no," Sirius returned sharply. He flicked the finished butt away, and Regulus felt a flash of warmth as it sailed past his face.

"She's your mother."

"She's a shrieking, inbred hag."

"Blood traitor."

It was automatic, involuntary. Sirius' eyes narrowed, but his mouth curved into a slow, dangerous smile.

"Fifteen years in that house, and that's the best you can do?" He asked, and the smile grew twisted. Feral. "I would think, with all the extra time she's had since I left, she could've taught you a new one. Child of filth, perhaps." He paused, smoke trailing between his lips. "Shame of my flesh has a nice ring to it."

"Stop it," Regulus hissed. "Stop it."

"What, am I boring you?" Sirius asked, tilting his head to the side. "Heard it all before, have you?"

"I miss you."

Another silence -- heavier than the first -- and it rose between them like a wall. Sirius studied him, his eyes burning brighter than the star he was named for. His smile slipped. Regulus remembered when they still spoke to one another. When they still played together. When they were children, and Regulus had thought Sirius was the most important person in the world.

"You had your chance," Sirius said finally. Sighing, he pushed away from the wall. "I asked you to come with me."

Regulus closed his eyes. He saw their mother, in a Stunned heap at the foot of the stairs with Kreacher sobbing at her feet. "I couldn't just leave!"

"Why not? I did."

"She's my family."

Sirius formed his lips into a thin, white line. "Yes, she is."

"She's your family!"

"No," Sirius replied slowly, "she's not." Shaking his head, he dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his toe. "James is my family."

"You deserve each other," Regulus snapped. "He's as much a blood traitor as you."

"If you like," Sirius said easily, "but he's worth a thousand of you."

ii.

Cold and wet greeted the first Hogsmeade weekend of the term, but the weather did not dampen the village's spirits. Students ran heedlessly through the streets in defiance of the mud and rain. They laughed as they clamoured into Honeydukes for warmth as well as sweets, joked as they took shelter from the sudden downpours under the low sweep of Scrivenshafts roof. Elaborately carved pumpkins lined the path that led to the Three Broomsticks, a raucous crowd framed by the orange fairy-lights twinkling brightly in the windows.

The Hog Head was dark in comparison; it loomed at the end of the row like a silent, heavy shadow.

Regulus pushed inside softly, but the door groaned like a dying thing. Badly lit, the Hogs Head smelled of soured liquor and wet wool, and Regulus sneezed as dust curled into his nose. A sudden and violent spot of rain battered at the dirty windows, and the barman stopped polishing a filthy glass with an equally filthy rag long enough to give Regulus a curt nod. The pub was empty, save for an elderly wizard asleep at the bar, and a heavily-cloaked hag who, after a curious glance at Regulus, pushed away from her table and slouched toward the toilets. Regulus pulled a square of parchment from his pocket -- an invitation, which had arrived in the morning post -- and double-checked the date and time.

"Something I can do for you?" asked the barman. He'd set the glass aside; he was now wiping down the bar, and the tip of his wand peeked out from underneath the rag.

"No, sir," Regulus replied. He had the date correct, and eleven sharp had come and gone. "I was just--"

The door groaned again -- louder than before -- and a man swept inside. He was quite tall, and his deep hood hid everything but a sharp mouth and chin. His cloak suited the weather, but it was finely cut, too finely cut for a place such as the Hogs Head. Regulus looked at the barman; he had abandoned his earlier pretence and was now standing with his wand at the ready. After an uncomfortable pause, during which the man seemed to be studying Regulus with unseen eyes, he took a step forward and pushed back his hood.

"Malfoy," grumbled the barman. "Hadn't thought to see you here." He tucked his wand away, but the stiff set of his shoulders suggested he was not fully at ease. "Bit old for a Hogsmeade weekend, aren't you?"

"I am making a social call," Malfoy replied smoothly. He moved to the nearest table, and gestured for Regulus to join him. "I'm afraid I've already had tea, but perhaps you could find a Butterbeer for my guest."

"Thank you, sir," Regulus said.

"You may call me Lucius," Malfoy said. "Please, sit," he added, nodding to the chair opposite him. Regulus obliged; the table was small and listed slightly to the left. "I am pleased you could join me on such short notice. I would have preferred to owl you sooner, but I only learned I would be in the area last night."

"I nearly didn't come," Regulus admitted. The invitation had been signed a friend of the family, and as Regulus didn't know anyone who frequented the Hogs Head, he had been almost certain it was one of Sirius' jokes. "Why didn't you give your name?"

"You may have told your friends," Malfoy replied. He caught Regulus' Butterbeer it floated past and uncorked it with a flourish. "Avery, or Mulciber, or that Snape boy." Malfoy wrinkled his nose slightly. "They may have wanted to join you, and I wished to speak with you alone."

Regulus sipped his Butterbeer. The bottle was dusty. "Alone?"

"It is past time we got better acquainted," Malfoy said, leaning back in his chair. "We shall be family soon, and I must confess, you interest me. My Narcissa speaks highly of you, as does her sister, Bellatrix."

"Oh," Regulus replied slowly. He got on with Narcissa fairly well, but Bellatrix could rarely be bothered with him.

Malfoy fell silent, and Regulus studied the invitation where it rested between their folded hands, next to a short, dusty stub of a candle. The parchment was very white against the gouged table top, and the grey, looping letters glittered like silver in the flickering light.

"Tell me about yourself, Regulus," Malfoy said finally. "What are you now, seventeen?"

"Sixteen," Regulus replied carefully. His mother considered the Malfoys to be a respectable pureblood family -- better, in her estimation, than the Potters or Prewetts or Weasleys -- but she had once told him that a Malfoy should not be easily trusted.

Malfoy nodded thoughtfully. "And how are you faring in school?"

"Well enough," Regulus said. Malfoy's steel-grey gaze was a bit unnerving, and Regulus turned his attention to his Butterbeer. The label was beginning to peel away from the bottle. "I received seven OWLs."

"Seven?" Malfoy echoed. "How remarkable." His tone was strangely bright; from Sirius, Regulus would've considered it mocking. "In which classes?"

"Transfiguration, Potions, Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, Charms, and Defence," Regulus recited, ticking each off on his fingers. "Oh, and History of Magic."

"All Outstanding, I assume?"

"Everything but History," Regulus said. "I'm not taking it this year. Sluggy -- um, Professor Slughorn, that is -- he said I didn't need it." There was a pause; Regulus felt the need to continue. "I'm also a Prefect."

"Very impressive," Malfoy murmured. "I quite enjoyed Arithmancy, myself." The rain was picking up; a clap of thunder rattled the walls. "I also enjoyed Quidditch. Narcissa tells me you play, as well."

"I do," said Regulus. "Seeker," he added, mostly to his Butterbeer. "I've been told I'm fairly good."

"You must be, if you're allowed to play for Slytherin House," Malfoy said, a bit sharply. "Never doubt yourself," he added, punctuating each word with a pointed finger. "It is not acceptable from one of Salazar's own, and a member of such a noble and respected family." He paused, and Regulus, abashed, filled the silence with Butterbeer. Then: "I am pleased to hear you are taking the proper classes. Hogwarts does allow for indulgences. I have never understood why bright and talented pureblood children would waste their time on such nonsense as Divination, or" -- His lip curled slightly -- "Muggle Studies."

"My brother's taking Divination," Regulus said. He regretted it immediately.

"Ah, yes. Sirius Black. The unexpected yet consummate Gryffindor," Malfoy said, and Regulus looked away. He hoped Malfoy didn't want to talk about Sirius. Sirius' House was a subject he could never escape; his house mates mentioned it as often as his family. "I understand he's the first Black Salazar has rejected in several generations."

"The first ever," Regulus said quietly. Andromeda once confessed the Sorting Hat had considered her for Ravenclaw, but Regulus hadn't believed her until she dishonoured herself. "Mother says the Blacks have been in Slytherin since the beginning."

"Your mother is an admirable woman. She has shown much strength, in the face of what I can only assume is a humiliating situation," Malfoy said, and heat crept across Regulus' face. "To have a first-born son fail so utterly. And the company he keeps -- blood-traitors and half-breeds -- I can scarcely imagine. I know my Narcissa finds her sister most embarrassing. She has often said she is glad their mother is not alive to witness Andromeda's disgrace."

Regulus remembered the day his mother learned of Andromeda's Muggle-born husband; she had been furious -- nearly as furious as she had been the day Sirius left. "My mother was very disappointed about that," he admitted quietly. "She had wanted Sirius and Andromeda to marry."

"And interesting choice," Malfoy said, as lightning flashed past the window behind him. "Very interesting, considering the paths they both chose." He tilted his head to the side, something Sirius did often, but the effect was very different. Where Sirius always looked like a dog wanting attention, Malfoy looked like a snake waiting to strike. "Had Andromeda been anything like her sisters... your mother had probably hoped a marriage inside the family would force your brother to accept his responsibilities."

"Uncle Cygnus kept putting her off," Regulus said. "Because they're cousins," he explained, although he thought it had more to do with Sirius being Sirius. "He said they were too closely related."

Malfoy considered this, but dismissed it with a wave. "Marriage between first cousins is not unheard of." His tone was cautious; he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "It is important that families such as ours maintain their strength and purity, particularly now." He leaned forward, and lowered his voice. "These are difficult times, Regulus. Very difficult times. Your brother is proof of that, choosing his disreputable friends over his family. And your cousin, who threw her good name aside to consort with a Mudblood."

The insult was sharp and sudden; his mother often used it at home, but she routinely warned Regulus not to say it in polite company.

"Do I offend?" Malfoy asked crisply. "As I said, these are difficult times. Ugly times, and when faced with ugly facts, one must put pleasantries aside. Our world is weakening," he continued, in a voice laced with heat. "Magic itself is weakening. This intermixing never should have been allowed. With each Muggle married, with each half-breed given a wand, our magic bleeds, and eventually, it will run dry. You know the Yaxleys, do you not?"

The question came unexpectedly; Regulus' mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. "Yes," he managed finally. "I think we're related."

"The Yaxleys are an old family," Malfoy said. "Each generation as pure as the last, until Matilda Yaxley -- she is, I believe, of an age with your mother -- married a Bones whose father was a half-breed. The youngest of their four children is a Squib." He whispered Squib, as if the word itself was a curse. "The news was devastating, I am sure, but Yaxley has no one to blame but herself."

Regulus thought briefly of the burns that dotted his family's tapestry. He was certain Marius Black had had two pureblood parents, but Malfoy's face was very hard, and Regulus could not bring himself to mention it.

"Your brother," Malfoy said suddenly. "Does he embarrass you?"

Regulus paused, because that had no easy answer. "Some," he offered finally, because he could not forget the Sirius who had taught him to play Gobstones and coaxed Kreacher into bringing them tarts before dinner. He still loved that Sirius, enough that he could not hate the Sirius who now played Quidditch with James Potter and studied with Remus Lupin, not in the way his mother said he should. "I try not to think about him, if I can help it." And that was true, but likely not in the manner Malfoy wanted or expected. There were days when he missed Sirius, but it was also very clear that Sirius did not care. "He's never coming back."

"As well he doesn't. He is unworthy of his family's name, and the place his birth accorded," Malfoy said sharply. "I assume that with him gone, you have taken the title of heir?" Regulus nodded, and Malfoy favoured him with a half-smile. "You are better suited, as I am sure your mother has told you. But" -- he straightened and gave Regulus and appraising look -- "you are young yet, and still impressionable. I must say, that is very troubling. It would be a shame indeed if you picked up what your brother tossed away so carelessly, only to make the same mistakes."

"I wouldn't," Regulus insisted. He hated the desperate tinge in his voice, so similar to the tone he used when he mother said the same sort of horrible things. "I wouldn't."

"You must not," Malfoy returned. "Not when your family's future is so uncertain. You are not just your father's heir. As your uncle produced only daughters, you are the last of your entire line."

Regulus knew this -- he had known this since the day Sirius left -- but hearing it now, from Malfoy, it was a very frightening thing.

"We should speak again, and soon," Malfoy said. "I am my father's oldest son. There is much I could teach you."

"Oh. Yes. That would be... I would like that. We could... I have another Hogsmeade weekend in December."

"You may owl me with the date," Malfoy said, rising. "If I am unable to meet you then, I will invite you for tea during the Christmas holiday."

iii.

The house felt still and dead. He found his mother in the sitting room, her narrowed eyes focused on the slowly dying fire. With her delicate hands folded neatly in her lap, she sat in a way that made her favourite chair a throne. The stuttering lamp cast her in strange shadows, but her expression was cold and blank. Regulus glanced at Kreacher, hoping his face would betray her mood, but as he stood guard near her feet he kept his head bowed.

"Your father is hunting. Again."

"Yes, mother."

It was just the two of them, as it had often been in recent years.

She shifted slightly. The tapestry waited quietly behind her, a stretch of blackness lit by the glimmering threads that wove his family together. In his dreams, the gold lines changed into vines, and they reached beyond the fabric, climbing the walls until they covered everything in their path. When he woke, they twisted and folded in on themselves. They were coppery and tarnished, choked with moss, and every branch led to him.

"It grows late," she said, more to the fire than to Regulus. "Will you be dining with Bellatrix or Narcissa this evening?"

Regulus considered this, lingering over the proper answer. She encouraged friendship with his cousins when she fancied dining alone, opposed it when she did not. The trick laid with discovering her mind without asking; she rarely gave her opinion until it was too late, and she liked Regulus to believe he had a choice.

"I hadn't thought about it," he replied slowly. His eyes flicked to Kreacher; the elf's chin inched closer to his chest. "Perhaps I will stay in, tonight."

She gave a slight nod. "Very well. In an hour, I think." Regulus turned to leave, but she stopped him with a sigh. "Tell me of Cedrella."

"Cedrella was a blood traitor," Regulus said. It was tradition not to speak of the burned, but his mother had taught him all their stories. Not so he would remember, but so he would not forget. "She dishonoured the family by marrying Septimus Weasley."

It was just the two of them, but the entire family watched.

"Kreacher, I would have tea before dinner," she said.

"Yes, Mistress."

"Come closer," she said, Kreacher already forgotten. "I understand you have something to show me."

Shadows danced across the floor. Her eyes were icy and cold, and the look she gave him was as measured and calculated as the tick of the family's ancient grandfather clock. He watched her quietly, waiting to see if her pendulum would swing in his favour. His breaths felt loud in the silence. Her face was a mask of pedigrees and bloodlines; her perfect nose and brow were the product of a Black marrying a Black.

Walburga Black had rebuffed offers from a Malfoy and two Lestranges before manipulating a proposal from her own second cousin. The Malfoy -- Abraxas' youngest brother, Julius -- had flown into a rage when she denied him; she had refused him for someone with less money, and he had considered that a personal slight. When confronted, she had told him that she did not care to risk his dubious bloodlines for the comfort of a few more Galleons. She had said that she had been born a Black, so it was only fitting that she should remain one, and she had declared that the children she bore Orion would be the strongest, purest wizards the magical world had ever seen.

Regulus rolled up his sleeve.

The mark was black and sinuous, a poisonous combination of promises and spells that crept over his arm the same way ink fell into water. It prickled as if it would be hot to the touch. A red, angry line ringed its edge, and pain pulsed under his skin. His mother reached out, her slim fingers stopping just shy of the darkness. She met the skull's gaze, matching its empty stare, and the barest hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her flawless, crimson-stained mouth.

"Is this what you want?" she asked.

Alphard detested his family, and argued against their pureblood ideals. He was banished for fraternising with half-breeds, and for providing money and shelter to a like-minded nephew who ran away from home.

A heartbeat, then another. Regulus nodded.

Her expression turned considering, and Regulus' eyes followed the sharp tilt of her chin. The shadows shifted, swallowing half her face, and she seemed to disappear into the tapestry. Into the walls. A chill swept over Regulus' skin, numbing everything save the tight throb hidden in the crook of his arm.

"Do you understand your responsibilities?"

Phineas supported Muggle rights. He felt Mudbloods should be allowed a magical education, and thought Muggles should be sheltered from the Wizarding World. He once addressed the Wizengamot on behalf of witches and wizards who wished to marry Muggles without relinquishing their wands, an event that caused the laws to be changed.

He nodded again, because he could not find the words.

"You are the heir to this house, and you are my only son."

Regulus did not reply. He didn't need to. Her words were grave and important, but they had not changed a single thing. He had become the heir the night Sirius left, had been her only son since the day Sirius was Sorted into the wrong House.

iv.

It was a humid, listless night. The streets seethed with Aurors, and Knockturn Alley was on fire. Smoke poured into the passage that ran behind the apothecary, escaping through the shattered windows as the walls caved inward with a groan. Most of the pub across the way was still standing; Regulus took shelter in its doorway and tried to catch his breath. He heard voices, then footsteps, their echoes skittering off the cobblestones. The sky flashed green. Regulus leapt away from the pub just as its façade ruptured. Spinning, he hurled a Blasting Curse at the first thing that caught his eye.

The Blasting Curse was returned in a heartbeat, and Regulus dove for the ground, rolling toward what was left of the apothecary. With no wind to drive it, the smoke simply hung there, stretching into sour white haze that stung Regulus' eyes. More footsteps. Regulus rolled again, casting a Stunning Spell as he picked himself up. His target hit the cobblestones with a heavy thud, and Regulus ran. He headed down the first alley he happened upon, a dark walk that separated the crumbling pub from what looked like a herbology shop -- tentacula vines had breeched the broken windows and were quietly slithering up the walls.

His brothers were scattered. Through the smoke, a small rind of moon clung to the rooftops, and the dark hulk of Gringotts loomed like a watchtower. A witch appeared at the end of the alley; she screamed when Regulus stepped out of the shadows, and he Stunned her before she could give him away. He took the next turn, skidding to a halt when he reached a dead end. Something exploded; a thunderous bang followed by screams and a shower of red and blue sparks. He backtracked quickly; the witch he had Stunned was gone. He turned again -- this time to the left -- and found himself alongside Borgins and Burkes.

The high street proper had devolved into chaos. Shops were closed at this hour, but those who had come for the pubs and brothels were now running in all directions. Pain shot through his arm. A dead Auror graced the entryway of the animal emporium, and Regulus gripped his wand so tightly his fingers began to turn numb. He inched forward, tempted to lose himself in the fleeing crowd, but froze as another explosion rattled the night. He saw Alastor Moody in the centre of the fray, waving his wand as he stumped through the throng. The fire was herding them toward Diagon, but the Ministry was pushing them back into the flames, and the stiffness in the air spoke of an Anti-Disapparation Jinx.

Regulus retreated a step, then another. He heard footsteps and turned; a man in Ministry robes was running up the alley with his wand aimed at Regulus' chest.

"Incarcer--"

"Protego!"

Regulus' shield sliced the air like a knife. The Auror stumbled, hurling a Stunning Spell as he fell backward. The spell slammed into the shield and rebounded roughly; it glanced off the roof of Borgins and Burkes and chips of brick showered down like rain. His arm was on fire. Regulus advanced, his wand trained on the Auror as the man found his feet. He was older than Regulus, but is face was somewhat familiar -- his last year at Hogwarts might've been Regulus' first. The shield was weakening; the Auror tried for another Stunning Spell, but Regulus was quicker.

"Crucio!"

The man pitched forward, screaming, his body twisting once he hit the ground. He thrashed violently, and Regulus' blood ran hot. He moved closer, flicking his wand, and the Auror arched, snapping taut, his arms and legs shaking.

"Very good, cousin."

Bellatrix melted out of the shadows, her hood thrown back and her wand arm raised. Her hair was wild. Gasping, the Auror stirred and groped weakly for his wand, but she paid him no mind. A dark line of soot streaked her cheek, and she favoured Regulus with a curious smile.

"You learn quickly," she said softly. "I would be proud, did I not know your full potential." Her smile grew dangerous. "You lack finesse. Crucio!"

The Auror convulsed, his eyes rolling as spasms racked his body. His screams rang in Regulus' ears, and they were different than before -- he was no longer a man in pain; he was a man who wanted to die.

A muddled noise rattled up the alley -- footsteps coupled with a strange shuffling. Bellatrix rounded on it, the Auror forgotten, her wand poised and a curse waiting in the sudden curve of her lip. The smoke parted. It was Wilkes, approaching at a full run and accompanied by a Petrified man who jerked along to the whim of his wand. The man continued on after Wilkes scuttled to a stop and crashed into a row of dustbins. Wilkes left him as he was.

"We've no way out!" Wilkes gasped. "No way out!" He sucked in a sharp breath; a blotchy, heated flush was creeping up his neck and jowls. "They've fixed us from Apparating," he added, flapping his hands over his head. "Locked the air from Gringotts to the Giant's Draught. They're moving the lot toward Diagon, and checking wands, I wager, as they're not letting them out but two or three at a time."

Regulus considered the last hour, curling back to the moment the rear of the Six-Fingered Hand had erupted with smoke and spells. "Spies," he said quietly. It had been an informal meeting, comprised of the five Voldemort had tasked with killing Frank and Alice Longbottom. He pictured Malfoy dodging the first in a shower of Stunning Spells, and Snape felling half the side wall while blasting them a way out. "Spies." It would take time and planning to cast an Anti-Disapparation Jinx of this size and scope, and to assemble an entire squadron of Aurors. "We were betrayed."

"We must escape!" Bellatrix said sharply. "We are our Lord's chosen. His faithful." The Auror groaned; Bellatrix silenced him with a causal wave. "If there is a traitor amongst us, we must warn him at once!"

"The Floo," Regulus said suddenly, glancing at Borgins and Burkes. It was blackened, but mostly intact. "We can try the Floo."

"What if it's blocked?" Wilkes argued.

"What if it's not?" Regulus countered. "The shops aren't open. Why would they have bothered?"

"We can easily find out," Bellatrix said, pointing her wand over Regulus' shoulder. "Bombarda!" The wall crumpled into a pile of stone, creating a hole roughly the size of a door. Wilkes hurried toward the Petrified man he'd left sprawled on the ground; Bellatrix seized him by the shoulder as he renewed the Petrificus Totalus. "Leave him."

"It's Dearborn," Wilkes said quickly. "He's one of Dumbledore's pets. I thought he might do for questioning."

At Bellatrix's nod, Wilkes hauled Dearborn to his feet, but instead of mobilising him, he aimed his wand at the sky.

Regulus wrenched his arm down by the sleeve. "No."

"The Dark Mark--"

"No," Regulus snapped. "Much was destroyed tonight, in pursuit of five people having drinks with friends. Let the Ministry take the blame for this folly."

Bellatrix's smile was almost a snarl. "You do learn quickly."

Regulus disregarded this. "What of him?" he asked, gesturing to the Auror. He was still and silent, but the twitch in his jaw suggested he would shortly regain consciousness.

"Kill him."

"Avada Kedavra!"

Bellatrix smiled again, and turned toward Borgins and Burkes.

v.

The door swung open slowly. A man stepped out into the hallway, followed by a stripe of yellowish light that danced across the balding carpet. The floor creaked softly under his bare feet. Regulus kept to the shadows shrouding the landing, rolling his wand between his finger and thumb. Sighing, the man leaned back into the doorjamb. His face was dappled by the single, naked lightbulb stuttering just above his head. Regulus swallowed the bile rising in his throat; a Black did not admit fear.

"You can come out," Lupin said quietly. "I know you're there; I've been watching you watch this flat for the last twenty-seven minutes."

Regulus flattened himself against the banister, curling his hand around the splintered rail. Lupin waited; Regulus did not breathe. Pettigrew rarely spoke of his former house mates, but Snape had once said Lupin was the most dangerous of the four. Regulus remembered little of Lupin from school, beyond the image of a quiet, somewhat bookish boy in shabby robes, but he had seen Lupin duel the night the McKinnons died. He was a tenacious fighter, and skilled in Defence. Regulus tightened the grip on his wand.

"There's a Caterwauling Charm on the hallway," Lupin continued conversationally. "I'm sure you didn't hear it -- it sounds inside the flat, since I'd rather it didn't wake the whole building." Regulus inched backward; the floor surrendered him with a groan, and Lupin sighed. "Go if you like. I won't stop you. But I haven't been idle all this time. There's a nasty surprise waiting for you on the stairs."

The bile returned; Regulus took his next breath through gritted teeth. He hadn't come for Lupin, but Lupin believed to have him cornered, and a Black never backed down. Regulus stepped into the hallway and levelled his wand. Lupin quickly moved to meet him.

"Stupef--"

"Expelliarmus!"

Regulus felt his wand abandon him, but he did not watch it spin to the floor. He faced Lupin instead, defending himself with the only things he had: a hard mouth and lifted chin. Lupin's eyes lit with recognition as the shadows fell away, but it was slow and strange -- he did not see Regulus at the first, but the strong resemblance he bore to Sirius.

"Well," Lupin said stiffly. "This is unexpected." Regulus' wand had come to rest near Lupin's foot; they both pointedly ignored it. "I would invite you in for tea, but I'm afraid you've come at a bad time."

"Don't trouble yourself," Regulus said shortly. "I wouldn't accept."

Lupin's mouth twisted oddly. "Why not?"

"I've heard you're a werewolf."

"I've heard you're a Death Eater."

They fell into an uneasy silence. Buzzing, the lightbulb flickered balefully. Lupin's face betrayed nothing. He looked tired and worn, and his hair hinted at grey near the temples. The flat waited patiently behind him; the slice visible through the open door was cluttered and unkempt, and the furniture had the fatigued, mismatched feel of charity and Transfiguration. Lupin settled into his original stance, with one shoulder propped against the doorjamb, his wand disappearing as he folded his arms.

"Your brother isn't here," Lupin said finally. "He buggered off for the pub just before you arrived." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and the floor groaned in complaint. "I'm not sure when to expect him, really, but I'll let him know you stopped in."

"Don't bother," Regulus replied shortly. "I have no desire to speak with him."

"Of course you do," Lupin countered. "You wouldn't have come, otherwise, unless you were hoping to kill him." His voice was low, and very, very tight. "If that's the case... well, I seem to have fouled up your plans. We had a row earlier, and Sirius has a habit of ending fights he can't win by leaving." He paused -- rather deliberately -- but Regulus did not rise to the bait. "He headed for the pub as soon as he realised I wasn't going to let up. Said I was a gormless knob of a martyr while standing in the bloody Floo."

Sirius had escaped Grimmauld Place on a muggy summer morning. Hovering on his broom, with the sun large and yellow behind him, Sirius had said farewell to Regulus through the kitchen window -- spoilt and cowardly pureblood toadying bastard.

"Do you also live here?" Regulus asked suddenly.

"I do," Lupin said slowly.

Sirius had asked Regulus to leave with him, had said they could take a flat if the Potters did not have room for them both. Regulus had never regretted refusing -- and he still didn't; it would've been dishonourable accept, disloyal -- but the memory now tasted bitter and sharp. His stomach knotted.

"Well, I did," Lupin continued. "Like I said, you came at a bad time. I am moving house in the morning."

"He tossed you out?" Regulus asked.

"No," Lupin replied. "Contrary to what you may think, your brother can be extraordinarily kind. I have eaten his food and slept on his couch for nearly six months, and for free." His words were short and clipped, and he took a deep breath, as if gathering his thoughts. "I have a job now, and I've managed to save a few Knuts, and I think it's only fair that I strike out on my own." He sighed. "Sirius disagrees, of course, which is why he's at the pub and I'm here with you."

The hallway was stuffy, but Regulus was strangely cold. "Does he drink?"

"Why do you care?"

"I don't," Regulus insisted. His voice caught, and he cleared his throat. "I'm simply asking."

Lupin sighed. "More than some, less than others," he said neutrally. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"It will do."

"I'm not sure how it matters, considering your purpose."

"Believe what you like," Regulus snapped. "I did not come here to kill him."

"Sirius!" Lupin growled, his face hardening to stone. "His name is Sirius! Have you forgotten already? Has it been that long since you thought of him?" He straightened, and Regulus was suddenly aware of their proximity, that the hallway was less that five feet square. "Did you remove him from your mind by choice, or did you trade him for that shadow on your arm?" He lifted his wand, fingers white around the handle, and aimed it at Regulus' throat. "Sirius is far from perfect, but he is a good man, and he should not die nameless and faceless at the end of his brother's wand. If you must kill him, say his name before you take his life. He deserves that much from you."

The walls were closing in.

"Tell me," Lupin continued, and he was close, very close. Regulus could hear him breathe. "Are you here at your master's bidding, or is this a personal affair?"

"I don't want to kill him," Regulus said quietly. The knot in his stomach tightened. In the last year, he had learned that what he wanted to do was very different than what he needed to do. What he must do.

"Why did you come here, then?" Lupin demanded.

Regulus did not have an answer to that. Not an answer Lupin would believe, or an answer he cared to admit. His silence was heavy. Crouching, Lupin retrieved Regulus' wand and hurled it toward the landing. Regulus closed his eyes as it rattled down the stairs.

"If you mean to kill me, please do so quickly."

"I should kill you," Lupin said. "I should, but I won't. Your brother is one of my closest friends, and I do not want his family's blood on my hands."

Regulus' mouth thinned. "You are his family."

"I should call the Ministry, but they'd kill you, or have you Kissed, and I'd be responsible, just the same," Lupin said quietly. "I lied, about the nasty surprise on the stairs. Go, and do us both a favour." He sighed, and a strange look passed over his face. "I won't tell Sirius about this. He wants to think you died in the raid on the Lestranges, and honestly, I think he's happier that way."

vi.

I require an elf.

His mother said Grimmauld Place was a fortress. His father had secured it against all forms of attack, but his arsenal of dark and dangerous spells seemed unable to withstand the weather. It had been raining for days, pouring down in heavy sheets whipped into a frenzy by the wind, and the house felt dreary and damp. When Regulus woke, the sky had been a heavy, guarded grey. Now that night had fallen, the windows framed starless squares that were empty and perfectly black. The walls rattled with the force of the storm, creaking as often as Regulus breathed.

Ignored, the fire died without a fight, its embers quietly fading from orange to grey. The floor groaned and sighed under Regulus' feet, his shadow stretching and shrinking as he paced in front of the hearth. A cup of tea waited on the spindly table at the arm of his mother's favourite chair. Regulus ignored this as well; he had forgotten it before Kreacher set it down. His mother had retired shortly before dinner, but he was not alone. He was never alone -- the tapestry watched in her place.

I require an elf, Regulus, an elf who will obey my commands as it would its master's.

Lightning interrupted the night, painting the darkness in bright stripes. Regulus paused, his feet stuttering on the carpet, and watched his shadow tremble as thunder rattled over the house. His arm ached, throbbing in time with the tick of the clock. His mind was restless. More lightning, and the sitting room flashed a searing and impossible white. He could hear the pendulum sway, and it sliced the stillness like a knife.

His eyes itched, and exhaustion prickled at his skin. He sat in his mother's chair, but it was stiff and uncomfortable, shifting as if it wished to reject him. His thoughts were not fit company. Catching a draught, the tapestry fluttered softly behind him, and the floor complained when he stood.

You have served me faithfully these last three years, but I must confess, your brother's madness concerns me. I've often wondered if you possess the same taint. If you succeed in this, I will know I need not doubt your loyalty.

He had not asked why, but he knew he would not have received an answer. It was not his place to question. His was to serve. His was to obey, and he had seen what became of those who did not. Those who had failed. Hutchinson, who had died in a raid, but not at the Ministry's hands; Williams, who Malfoy had dragged from his bed, past the bodies of his wife and children; Underhill, who had screamed for Bellatrix until his throat had bled and his voice had disappeared. Burke had killed himself, to spare his friends and family the pain.

Regulus obeyed, and Regulus served, but he did not know this man who owned him. None of them did -- even Bellatrix, who so prided herself on being his favourite. The night before last, Regulus had been the one favoured, and he had prided himself on being given this task when Bellatrix had been overlooked.

My Lord requires an elf.

He paced again, his feet as unsettled as his mind. Kreacher had prepared a splendid supper, but his hands had shook as he served the plates, and now Regulus' tongue felt covered in ash. The storm took a violent turn, raging from all sides, and the house quaked as it faced the onslaught. Morning crept closer. Regulus paced. Stopped. Paced. He stepped into the hall, but the clock seemed to chase him. His arm began to burn, a heat so sharp and fierce he nearly doubled over with the pain.

"Come back, Kreacher," he hissed. His teeth found his lip, and blood welled in the corner of his mouth. "I told you to come back."

My Lord requires an elf, Kreacher, and the family who provides that elf would be greatly honoured.

The crack was loud and rippled; Regulus almost mistook it for thunder. Kreacher shivered. He was naked and soaked, his white hair hung limply from his bowed head, and he clutched the remains of his familiar rag in swollen hands. Scratches followed the lines of his ribs -- red, angry things that bled sluggishly -- and his pale arms were covered in purple bruises that favoured the shape of fingers and hands. He shivered again; Regulus realised he was crying.

"Kreacher is sorry, Master Regulus, Kreacher is so sorry, so very sorry, he never wanted Mistress to beat Master Regulus the way she did, Kreacher did not want to tell Mistress, Kreacher didn't, but Mistress asked if Master Regulus had been writing is lawless, traitorous brother, and Kreacher had to tell Mistress, Kreacher did not want to, but Kreacher had to." Regulus bristled slightly at the memory, but it seemed a lifetime ago -- it had been a lifetime ago, when Sirius' departure had been his biggest concern -- and he subsided. "Kreacher is sorry, so very sorry, Master Regulus has always been kind to Kreacher, Kreacher would never want Master Regulus beaten."

You are a good elf, and you have served my family faithfully. Even my brother, who was a traitor in the end, but I do not blame you as my mother does. Do as my Lord bids, and when the time comes, I will have my mother place your head highest on the wall.

"I'm not angry, Kreacher," Regulus said softly. "You are a good elf. You have always been a good elf."

Wordlessly, the fire expired. Dawn broke, and Kreacher wept in Regulus' arms like a child.

vii.

The sky over Ottery St Catchpole was a reddish bruise. Regulus could not breath; the air was thick with ash and soot and the itch of a Fidelius gone wrong. Voices punctured the darkness, startling and harsh. It had been a poky little cottage; what was still standing was guarded by a flowering hedge, and the cloying stench of charred jasmine clung to Regulus' robes. The wall to his left had crumbled in on itself, showing stars muted by billows of smoke, and rubbing the sting from his eyes, Regulus watched the flames lick at a scrap of curtain resting on the rubble.

Bellatrix slipped past the doorway, a sickly crimson light blazing from the tip of her wand. Moaning, the roof pitched against the fire. The next shadow was Dolohov, tall and hulking and hard on Bellatrix's heels. Jagged purple streaks followed their disappearance, and Bellatrix's mad taunts echoed off the walls. A crumpled body murmured in the corner -- a guest of the Prewetts with an unfamiliar face. He shifted, eyes fluttering, and Regulus Stunned him as he reached for the shattered remains of his wand.

He heard a scream -- a girl -- and then laughter -- his Lord. A strange, weighted silence spread through the wreckage, broken only by the crackle of flames and the pop and snap of burning wood. Regulus waited, listened to his heart beat; with his next breath he heard the heavy thud of a body dropping lifelessly to the floor. Pain flared in his arm, a throbbing centred around the mark, and he turned. It was a summons. A demand. It was no different that his Lord calling his name.

Bodies littered the hallway. Regulus stepped over a motionless Death Eater bleeding from the nose and mouth, and another man who was lying face down, frozen in a rigid, reaching position that stank of Cruciatus. He paused at the next, a girl he thought had once worked the till at Flourish and Blotts. A Dark Mark watched from the walls, crudely drawn and speckled with ash. The girl gave a gasping, shuddering breath, clutching weakly at her belly. Regulus killed her as he passed, and the skull's eyes were empty and wide.

A man sat slumped against the wall -- a Death Eater by his hood and cloak. He stirred as Regulus drew near, struggling to speak and reaching for Regulus' foot, and Regulus slowed long enough to aim his wand.

"Avada Kedavra!"

The bedroom was small and destroyed. The Dark Lord held court in the centre, with Malfoy behind him and Bellatrix at his side. Dolohov guarded the door, his wand resting against the hard line of his jaw, and Snape stood stiffly at the window, his hand crudely bandaged with a tattered bit of cloak. Hunched on the floor, Avery and Rosier were wounded but alive; between their bodies, Gideon Prewett was quiet and still. His brother Fabian was stretched at the Dark Lord's feet, twitching as he strained against a Full-Body Bind.

Regulus studied the smoke and shadows and considered the story they told. The window; flanked by ripped curtains and yawning into the night; the closet, its blackened door hanging jauntily on the hinges; what was left of the bed, now a twisted, misshapen lump at Bellatrix's knee; the thick residue of defensive magic that hung around the doorway like a fog. Their arrival had interrupted a party, and the Prewetts had died protecting their guests. Shoulder to shoulder, they had held the enemy off at the door while their friends escaped through the window.

"Regulus," the Dark Lord said softly. His voice rolled over Regulus like water, and Bellatrix frowned, as she always did when he spoke another's name. "You keep me waiting, when I had thought to let you do the honours."

"My apologies, my Lord," Regulus replied. Fabian's ginger hair was dark against the beige carpet. "Dolohov left unfinished business in the hall."

"I trust you dealt with it?"

"Of course, my Lord."

The Dark Lord nodded once. It was not approval, but Regulus no longer required it. The roof pitched again, shrieking as a large section collapsed just outside the door. The Dark Lord ignored it, his face thoughtful, and considered Malfoy, Bellatrix, and Dolohov in turn.

"Severus."

"Yes, my Lord?"

"You may kill him."

Snape stepped forward, his wand at the ready. "Thank you, my Lord."

The room flashed a familiar shade of green.

vii.

The basin glowed in the centre of the cave, the deadly, emerald light reaching vainly for the ceiling. The stillness was absolute; Regulus' heartbeat thundered in his ears, and when his boots scraped against the rocks, the sound was grating and harsh. Everything was black, save for a greenish circle afforded by the basin and the wavering light from Regulus' wand. Kreacher baulked, burying his face in Regulus' robes, and Regulus stopped to soothe him. Just where his vision surrendered to the shadows, a pale, withered hand broke the water to claw uselessly at the shore.

"Incendio!"

The hand retreated, white fingers wiggling like ghostly worms before sinking into the lake. Kreacher whimpered, his large eyes wide and wet, and Regulus brushed his hand through the elf's scraggly hair. The water rippled softly, and Regulus watched the motion spread and slow and stop. He didn't fear the Inferi; he'd been present when Snape helped the Dark Lord create them.

"Kreacher," Regulus said, crouching. He rested his hand on the elf's bony shoulder. "Do you remember what I told you?

"Kreacher remembers, Master Regulus, but... oh, Master Regulus, Kreacher doesn't understand!" Wringing his hands, Kreacher ducked his head. "Kreacher is back in this place with the dead things in the black water, and Master Regulus says Kreacher must make him drink, but Kreacher doesn't want Master Regulus to drink. Nasty... foul... and Master Regulus will die! He cannot... Master Regulus cannot mean to do this thing!"

"I do," Regulus said simply. "I must, and I need your help to do it properly."

He pulled a large gold locket from inside his cloak and pressed it into Kreacher's hand. Kreacher glanced at it, then looked back up at Regulus, tears welling in the corner of his eyes. He shook his head. The water lapped quietly at the shore, and Regulus frowned at the gold flashing between Kreacher's fingers. He had braved Muggle London to find it, paying with a Memory Charm because he had not dared to tangle with the money. It was an imperfect replacement -- he had made Kreacher describe the Horcrux in detail, and what he'd settled for was smaller and less ornate -- but it would suffice.

"Kreacher has an idea, Master Regulus," Kreacher said softly. "Please, will Master Regulus listen?"

Regulus began to smile, as he often humoured the elf, but sobered quickly. "I will listen, but I make no promises."

"Perhaps... after Master Regulus has drank the horrible green stuff, and Kreacher as switched this gold for that as Master Regulus asked" -- he took a step closer to Regulus, and planted his small hands on his hips -- "Master Regulus does not need to stay behind! Master Regulus can come back to his house... to Mistress' house... Kreacher can bring him!"

Regulus sighed, and the shadow of the basin stretched darkly between them. He could not survive this. He dared not. He would not live only to see his mother suffer, or Kreacher, who he'd hidden so carefully and who loved him so honestly, or Sirius, who he had not seen in almost two years, and who was happier thinking Regulus was dead.

"Kreacher," Regulus said, his voice firm. "This is the last order I will ever give you, and you will obey it. I must drink that," he added, pointing at the basin, "and I must drink all of it. You must see that I drink all of it, no matter what I say once I begin. When it is finished, you will switch the lockets, and you will leave. Alone." He snapped the end off alone, and Kreacher face disappeared behind his spidery fingers, the fake Horcrux swinging between his arms. "You will return home, without me. You will tell no one what happened here. You will never, under any circumstances, speak about this with my mother."

"Yes, Master Regulus," Kreacher croaked, in the same tone he had used the night Regulus had prepared the cabinet. He had jumped as bolts shot out of the clock, fussed over Aunt Elladora's music box, and complained bitterly about the waste of perfectly good robes. Regulus had not wanted to take chances; he wanted a safe place for the Horcrux to rest, if Kreacher failed to destroy it. "Kreacher does not like it, but Kreacher must do as Master Regulus says."

Regulus lifted the goblet from the basin and dipped it inside. The shadows shifted, and the crystal glimmered green.

"No, Master Regulus! Stop! Stop! What of the hands, Master Regulus?" Kreacher demanded, with a nervous glance toward the shore. "What of the hands?"

"The hands?" Regulus asked softly; Kreacher's own were fisted in Regulus' robes.

Regulus closed his eyes --

(The Dark Mark. His mother's face, and the Hogwarts Express. Tea with Lucius Malfoy. A shadowed hallway, and the hard, disdainful line of Remus Lupin's jaw. Bellatrix's hair. Sirius striding from the Quidditch pitch in a swirl of red and gold robes, his arm slung over Potter's shoulder and his Beater bat aimed at the sky. Crucio. His first Potions class, and Slughorn's oily smile. Caradoc Dearborn. His Prefects badge, and a dead Auror. Kreacher, wet and naked and sobbing. Snape, with Fabian Prewett at the end of his wand, and the curve of the Dark Lord's wrist.

It was fogged in green -- Slytherin green, Avada Kedavra green, the green of his mother's jade and silver ring, and the dress robes Sirius had always refused to wear.

A house was slowly crumbling around him, and Marlene McKinnon was screaming.)

-- and laughed.

"I'm not afraid of the hands, Kreacher. The hands will only be welcoming me home."

The first swallow was foetid and foul -- the taste brought slugs to mind, snakes and weeds, mandrake roots, and the stagnant water puddled on the pavement -- and it burned his mouth, seared his mouth the way the Mark had seared his skin the night his Lord had placed it on his arm. Kreacher was sobbing. Gritting his teeth, he choked it down, shuddering as the liquid heat scorched his throat and gut. His skin crawled. He filled the goblet again, wincing as the potion touched his lips. His throat spasmed, and he sucked his next breath in through his nose, because he'd retch on the rocks if he opened his mouth.

"Oh, Master Regulus, Kreacher told Master Regulus, but he would not listen, and now Kreacher must watch him drink that horrible stuff... it burned Kreacher's mouth and made Kreacher cry, and now Master Regulus will cry, and Kreacher will have to watch."

His tongue was heavy and sour and covered in carrion and slime. The air was thick. He could not breathe. The walls were closing in, and he could hear the water approaching, swelling over the rocks and inching toward his feet. The hands were waiting, pale and cold and white, waiting to drag him under, waiting with long, bony fingers that would fill his nose and ears and mouth and hold him down until he drowned.

"Kreacher cannot watch... Kreacher cannot watch."

His vision blurred, speckled dark and grey around the edges. Kreacher was vague and hazed, a small, misshapen form pacing franticly between the shadows. Regulus reached for him, his mouth working silently, his voice trapped and burned in the back of his ragged throat. The world tilted; pain bloomed along Regulus' side as the rocks thrust up to meet his elbow and side. He rolled, scratching at the ground with his hands. Kreacher should help him. Kreacher should take him away from here, Kreacher should bring him a glass of cool water, and wet towel for the sickly fever raking over his skin.

"Kreacher is sorry, Master Regulus, but Kreacher promised." Regulus felt hands on his head; they wrenched him up and a cup was pressed to his mouth. "Kreacher promised. Kreacher promised."

Sirius sat slumped on his bed, his head and shoulders bowed. A bruise darkened the side of his face -- a gift from their mother -- and he winced as he probed it with shaking fingers. He sighed -- a heavy, rattling wheeze of a sound -- and flopped back onto his pillows. He rolled, putting his back to the door, but through the keyhole, Regulus saw a shiver travel the line of his brother's body. Regulus backed away, unable to watch his brother cry.

"Sirius... I'm sorry, Sirius... it was my fault. I stole her snuffbox... I didn't think she'd notice, been in the cabinet for ages... and I hid... she started screaming... Sirius, I didn't know she'd blame you for it."

Kreacher hovered over him, the goblet clutched in his hand. Regulus reached for his wand, but his arm was useless and weak.

The common room was cold and dark. Snape stood in the corner, dappled by the shadows from the slowly dying fire as he cast an Imperius on Avery's pet kneazle. Regulus approached carefully, but betrayed himself by stumbling over the couch. Snape whirled, the kneazle forgotten, and his sallow features twitched with anger and fear. Righting himself, Regulus smoothed his face into the pureblood mask he had learned at his mother's knee.

"Black," Snape said shortly. "I was just--"

"--practising your Unforgivables," Regulus finished. "Don't worry, I won't tell your Mudblood girlfriend."

Snape's face twisted with a snarl. "Don't call her that!"

"What, your girlfriend?" Regulus asked. "She isn't, of course, but only because she won't have you. You'd certainly have her, Mudblood that she is. What would your children be like, I wonder? Ugly Squibs, I wager, between her blood and your face and your Muggle father."

"Snape... Snape... Evans was... I'm sorry, your father... I shouldn't have... Snape!"

"There is more, Master Regulus. Kreacher is sorry, but there is more, you must finish, Master Regulus, you said you must finish."

Mulciber brought the half-breed in Stunned, her body rigid in his arms and her face frozen with shock and fear. Mulciber suspended her, trapping her wrists in the ancient manacles hanging from the ceiling. She screamed once released from the Stunner, her body twisting and snapping taut, screamed again when hit with Regulus' first Cruciatus. The unfamiliar spell caught on his tongue, but he spit it out, because the Dark Lord was watching. The half-breed's eyes were green. She convulsed as another wave rolled over her, her stretched arms straining, and pulled at her bond until blood wept sluggishly from her wrists.

"No, no more... stop... she was screaming... I couldn't... he was watching... no more, please, no more... I can't!"

"I'm sorry Master Regulus... Kreacher does not want to, but Master Regulus made him promise."

The Muggle was young, perhaps two years older than Regulus, and his round face and watery blue eyes reminded Regulus of his brother's friend Pettigrew. Sprawled on the ground, he cried and shook, sucking in sharp, wet, uneven breaths as his body slowly recovered from the burn of Cruciatus. Bellatrix's eyes were hard, but approval was hidden in the secret smile painted across her face. The Muggle began to weep, his soggy pleas for his life muddled with desperate cries for his mother. The Dark Lord nodded, and Regulus silenced him with a flash of green.

"I can't... stop, please... I should'nt have... his mother was dead! Dead! I watched... I watched... Rosier killed her... before... stop, please stop!"

"I won't tell Sirius about this. He wants to think you died in the raid on the Lestranges, and honestly, I think he's happier that way."

"I know, I know... Sirius... I never... don't hate me, Sirius... I wasn't, I didn't... you weren't there, you left me... please, Sirius, please!"

A house was slowly crumbling around him, and Marlene McKinnon was screaming

"I didn't... Travers, it was Travers, I saw him... I wasn't... she'd just married... her husband... Muggle-born... Travers... stop, no more, I can't, I can't watch!"

Fabian's ginger hair was dark against the beige carpet.

His mouth opened, wide and slack, but the words -- his screams -- died on his tongue. He rolled, gasping, his stomach heaving as he retched dryly. He was thirsty, so thirsty his throat ached with it. He could hear the water, soft and calm compared to the roaring in his ears. His skin was hot. His blood. His eyes were heavy and bleary, but he forced them open, blinking against the darkness as he searched desperately for the water. He could feel it. Smell it. He pushed himself toward it, but his arms rebelled, and he dropped weakly to the ground.

"Kreacher is here, Master Regulus, Kreacher is here. Kreacher will take Master Regulus to the water now... if Master Regulus must do this thing, then he must do it... Kreacher cannot watch... Kreacher will not watch any more."

Kreacher heaved and pulled; the ground was rough, scratching and tearing at Regulus' skin. The lake lapped quietly at the shore, and Kreacher's muffled sobs floated in the silence. Regulus shivered. Everything was dark.

Toujours Pur.

The water was cold. The hands were colder.