Bravery, he thinks, is something he finds in the moment between fear and resignation. Between short, haggard breaths and the racing beats of his heart. Between the shaking of his hands and the sweat on his brow.
He's a coward; Regulus knows this. His brother's called him one often enough. More and more as the years pass and lines are drawn and they find themselves on opposite sides. As his brother goes to Dumbledore and stands in that shining light. As Regulus himself eases farther into the shadows and obscurity.
He isn't his brother, however. He doesn't have that same fire, that same freedom as a firstborn does. He's just a second son. One his mother had as she desperately wished for a girl to dress-up and smother. She's made him regret not being a daughter his entire life, and in the end, she doesn't love him until she has no other choice. Until she needs an heir. Until all that she's left with is the spare.
His father has never even noticed him to begin with. Regulus has always been beneath his view. Has been too quiet, too shy as a boy. Too disappointing.
He's a side note to the rest of his family. Convenient when their first choice isn't available. Bella comes to him when her sisters are too busy, and Cissy uses him as a sounding board when Lucius is away. Andy hasn't seen him for years, not even when she was still around.
He joins the Dark Lord because he had no other choice. Bella, he knows, would've killed him if he refused. He means in that in a literal sense, too. All of her mercy was used on Andy, and if another of her family turns away, Regulus knows her wrath would be a thing of nightmares. She might love him; he might even be her next favorite. But Bella's devoted to the Dark Lord; she worships him. Has fanatically followed him from the moment the option became available.
That isn't even covering what his mother or Lucius or even the other Death Eaters would do to him.
The Dark Lord both is and isn't what Regulus expects. He isn't Dumbledore for one. Regulus actually merits a look, something he's never had from his old headmaster. However, being seen by the Dark Lord is rather like standing in front of a polite dragon, one with a taste for human flesh, even as his impeccable manners keep him from taking too deep a bite.
His face is something many would consider handsome, even as the black magic takes him further and further away. Still, there's a gleam to his eyes. A glint that speaks of madness, of burning, of terrors beyond words.
Regulus sees it. Of course, he does. He's a Black. He's spent his entire life around crazed wizards and witches with a lust for power and the desire to wield it over others.
Regulus himself prefers the quiet twilight. Prefers reading by the fire or sipping tea as he looks out at the back garden. He should've been a Ravenclaw, he knows. He would've been happier there surely, and he should've let the hat put him where it wanted. Yet, his brother had already been Sorted, and his mother would tolerate nothing less than Slytherin. Not even one of Rowena's fledgings would've been welcome at Black Manor, and Regulus had nowhere else to go as a frightened and unloved little boy.
Besides, his path's been laid out before him. Just as it's always been. He's so rarely given the luxury of choice. His way has always been shown to him; he's forever being shoved forward in the direction they want, even as his stomach roils as he sees it. Winding and dark, skirting through deep places and out of sight. But Regulus knows if he were to shed just the tiniest hint of light that he'd see monsters and horrors lurking.
It wouldn't change anything though.
He goes to Slytherin. He makes associates with the right-sort. He keeps his head down. He obeys their whims. He joins the Dark Lord. He kneels. He serves.
Somehow, he finds favor from his lord. Somehow, his master looks at him and sees a loyal heart that Regulus knows he doesn't possess. Somehow, those vivid red eyes gaze his direction with approval.
It's a heady sensation, even as it makes his heart heavy and his belly clench. It's less like the pleasant buzz of wine and more like the morning after. The sickness of too much drink and too little time to recover.
Regulus wisely says nothing. He plays his part and gazes at the floor. He bows and scrapes and obeys.
It's almost tolerable. He almost thinks he'll be okay. That he might even make it out of this alive.
Then, the Dark Lord orders him to bring a house-elf.
It all unravels from there. Every careful omission. Every lie Regulus never even had to tell. It comes crashing down as Kreacher looks at him with beseeching eyes and wringing hands.
The house-elf's quite possibly the only true friend Regulus has. Surely, the only member of the Black household who'd truly miss him if he were gone. Regulus had only brought him to the Dark Lord because he'd had no other house-elves to bring.
The truth of what Kreacher saw, of what almost happened to him, nearly brings Regulus to his knees. In truth, it brings bile to his mouth as his stomach threatens rebellion and he races for the toilet.
Afterwards, Kreacher tells him about the locket. If anything, that's worse. More so as Regulus considers it before realization hits him like a lightning bolt. Before comprehension dawns with garish horror and he finally understands what the Dark Lord means when he says that his reign will be eternal.
Regulus knows what he has to do then, and it isn't bravery but certainly. But knowledge in his bones and acceptance on his breath. Kreacher, however, knows Regulus better than anyone else ever has. He sees the plans already forming, and he throws himself at Regulus' feet.
Regulus is weak to his tears. To his sobs. To the thin arms wrapped around his legs. To the sound of his name murmured over and over again. To the pointed face staring up at him with despair. To precious creature his brother and mother and cousins had always treated so poorly.
Kreacher begs him not to go.
Sometime later, he sits in a Muggle pub and looks at nothing but his half-full glass. He weighs possibilities and awareness and dread. Maybes and could bes and should bes.
His options are limited, more so since he's promised Kreacher.
The headmaster – Dumbledore – might be one, but in his heart, Regulus knows that won't be his salvation. It'll be another form of servitude. One with false smiles and glittering eyes and a world full of sacrifice for scraps.
Regulus honestly doubts that Dumbledore even knows his name. For all that he's now the Black heir on everything but paper. For all that he's the brother of one of Dumbledore's biggest supporters. For all of that and for all the years that he attended school, he's never been worth the old man's time.
But there are more people at Hogwarts than just her headmaster. More professors than ones who gaze out at four of the houses but only manage to truly see three. More men who walk those halls still and actually have the best interests of everyone in mind.
His decision is made, and later, Kreacher claps with joy and a great deal of relief.
Regulus goes then. Goes to the only other person who's ever truly treated him fairly. Who's never looked at him like scum to be scraped from a shoe or like a slimy, soulless Slytherin. Who's been nothing but kind, patient with each and every student who enters his doorway.
He feels the wards as he passes through them; Regulus doesn't even bother to try for stealth. For once in his life, it's better to be open, honest. He strides to the house with his head lifted and the summer breeze tugging at his robes.
On the stoop, he falls into old habits though. He kneels and keeps kneeling. Bending lower into a bow. Then, lower still. The ground is barely an inch from his face when the door finally opens minutes later.
He knows he must be a sight. Whether a good or bad one depends on perspective, but he can still hear the sharp inhalation. Can feel the subsequent tingle of magic over him.
Regulus begs then, completely and utterly unashamed. He already has practice, after all. The Dark Lord likes them on their knees. Bowing and beseeching before him. Pleading for mercy that will never come.
The man in front of him is a different sort. He's always been. From the moment an awkward eleven-year-old first sat down in his classes and received a smile. Right up until graduation and Regulus – all the Slytherins, really – got an actual hug at the farewell party.
Regulus still begs. He has no other choice. Has never had the option of simply asking. The luxury of help.
Filius Flitwick merely sighs. Looks at him long and hard. Searching. Wondering. Before quietly offering him a hand up.