My memory begins and ends in fog. Cloudy spots over what I've taken to be the sun. It's not--the screams are still echoing in my ears when I try to take my first breath and find my lungs filled with lead--my mouth tasting like pickles. The sun spot above me, grown green and distant, is finally blotted out by long foggy tendrils. My mouth opens and shuts, and opens again, and the black tendrils sneak in, pulling my jaws apart. They pop and the crack makes waves. I blink back tears as I feel the touch of the tendrils on the inside of my cheeks. They creep down my tongue and into my throat, crowding in on every side. They are down into my lungs, now, pushing the lead aside, scraping against the sides and they burn. I stare at the spot where the dim green sun used to be, and I feel the tendrils wrapping gently around my hands, lacing with my fingers. I can't pull them away-the tendrils are stronger than their foggy material. The screaming has faded into a dull pulse, like a heartbeat. It's slowing and drifting away.
It had only dawned on me that I didn't want to die when dead, wet hands were already dragging me under the water, knotting their skeletal fingers in my hair.
I remember that. I remember the horror of those moments. Then nothing, or close to it. Then I woke up. I woke up spitting. Then I vomited.
"Are you okay, son?"
I opened my eyes to see a pile of yellow-green vomit, which the tide was washing over my knuckles. My fists were still clenched white around a splintered length of wood. The remains of my wand.
"Am I alive?" I croaked, which in retrospect, was a pretty dumb thing to say.
"Looks like it." This disembodied voice laughed, which I found offensive. "Sweet Jesus, you had me worried."
I turned over and every muscle in my body attached itself to the closest bone like a clingy toddler latching on to his mother's leg. From there I could see the body--from the knee down anyway--of the previously disembodied voice. I rotated my head slightly to see the rest of him, and immediately decided it hadn't been worth it: this man--my savior, I guess--was about sixty and balding. The little hair he had left was still mostly red, as were the long whiskers coating his cheeks, chin, and upper lip. His eyes were small and wrinkly, but their irises were a pale, baby blue that reminded me, in a very disconcerting way, of Dumbledore's.
"Christ." The man leaned back, his red eyebrows raised in mystification. "Are you okay?"
Instead of answering, I scraped a lob of goopy sand off my tongue with my fingernails. Finally, I realized that he was waiting for some kind of recognition. "You saved my life," I said, looking back up at him and trying to sound grateful.
"I was on the jetty and I saw you bobbing in the surf. Popped right outta the sea. Thought you were a goner for sure."
"Oh." I sat up, wiping the vomit on my knuckles off on my pants.
"I'm Frank Grisham." He stuck out his hand. "What's your name, son?"
I again tried to wipe the vomit off my hand before offering it to him. "I'm Regulus Black."
"Well, that's quite a name."
"Are you a Muggle?"
"What?" Frank Grisham frowned.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, I must be delirious. Nevermind." Grisham gave me a kind of concerned and distrustful look but didn't say anything. I was glad he was a Muggle. I'd had it up to here with magic. "Anyway, thanks for saving me and all. I guess I'll get out of your way now." I made a valiant attempt to return to a bipedal state. My legs slid out from under me and Mr. Grisham grabbed me under the arms. Then I vomited down the front of my shirt and passed out again.
When I woke up for the second time, I was lying in a bed in dry clothes. At first I thought maybe the events of the past hours had all been a gruesome nightmare, and I was just about to yell for Kreacher to bring me some aspirin and a glass of whisky when I cracked my eyes and realized that if there were one place I was not, it was Grimmauld Place. This foreign room's ceiling was little more than a collection of crudely cut wooden planks barely touching one another, and the fresh breeze that had been so lovingly caressing my face was not blowing through my bedroom window, but through the cracks in the similarly ill-constructed wall. My call to Kreacher became a bemused, "Well, fuck," as it left my mouth. I reached up to my neck and felt long, raised welts running parallel, widthwise across it.
I sat up and momentarily suspected some unseen individual had just hit me across the head with a two-by-four. I fell back down, but the headache did not abate.
I wondered if this was a lingering effect of the poison. I wondered if I was dying. I wondered how far away St. Mungo's was. I wondered if, even if I could somehow manage to get there unaided by my wand, I wouldn't be arrested on the spot. I wondered if the Dark Lord wouldn't find me first. I wondered where the toilet was. That proved to be my most urgent concern.
I jumped up--this time my legs miraculously supportive--and staggered across the room to the only door. "Bathroom," I gasped to a bald old man whom I vaguely recognized but really didn't care anything about, who was reading a newspaper at a kitchen table. He pointed to a door directly to my right, and I made it to the toilet just in time to empty the contents of my stomach into it.
"Regulus," the old fisherman said, peering around the door, "I think I'm going to call an ambulance."
"No, no, let's not-" I paused to throw up again "-overreact, now." I held up my hand. "I'm feeling better already." Muggle doctors. That was all I needed. Probably decide to remove my stomach, or amputate my head.
"If you keep throwing up like that you'll get dehydrated pretty quick."
"No, really, I feel better now." That was not entirely untrue. I thought I was getting rid of the poison, maybe. "If I can just get a glass of water and a bowl of soup or something--I'll be in great shape."
"Of course; I'll go fix you some." The old man, whom I had just remembered was called something like Gingham or Grisham--that was it--lumbered away back into the kitchen.
I flushed the vomit and sat back on my heels. I'd done it, after all. Kreacher had the Horcrux and strict instructions to destroy it and then keep his mouth shut about it, which he couldn't help but follow. Everything had gone according to plan, except for one niggling detail: I was not dead. I didn't think so, anyway (what a gyp of an after-life, if I was). I couldn't say I was unhappy, per se, about this turn of events, but it did throw some kinks into the plan. The Plan. For instance, now I would be hunted by both the Ministry and the Dark Lord.
I was already in trouble with both when I first made the Plan. I'd decided I was going to perform an amazing act of selflessness and heroism that no one save my maker would ever know about, and then I was going to die. Not exactly suicide, more like voluntary martyrdom.
The easiest way out now, I supposed, would be to commit suicide, but where would the heroism in that be? I hadn't gone through all that mess in the cave just to die a coward, thank you. And besides that, I'd never been surer in my life I wanted to live, maybe even take a nice, quiet Ministry desk job, marry that hideous Lydia Travers my parents were so keen on, and move to a two-bedroom in the suburbs. Wouldn't that be calm and free of excitement?
"Soup's ready," Mr. Grisham called from the kitchen, and I recalled what was really important here.
While I sat at the kitchen table and inhaled the soup, Mr. Grisham sat and watched, occasionally drumming his fingers, which I probably wouldn't have noticed at all if my bowl hadn't shuddered every time he did.
"What happened to you?" he asked, finally. "Where on God's green earth did you come from?"
"Well. I-" Again, I was at a loss to think up an inventive lie. This was dismaying, since previously I had considered inventive lies my particular specialty. "I really don't know."
"Did you hit your head? You should get to a hospital."
"No, no." I shook my head fervently. "I didn't hit my head. I'm fine, really."
"But you don't know what happened to you, or where you come from?"
I pulled at my collar, which, despite being unbuttoned, suddenly felt tight. "Well, I'm from Islington."
Mr. Grisham laughed. "That's a ways from here."
I smiled feebly.
"Are you in some sort of trouble? Is that why you won't go to a hospital?"
As if on cue, a sharp pain shot up my forearm. Before I could stop myself, I grabbed it and started massaging. "Sorry!" I said through gritted teeth. "Muscle spasm." This wasn't good, especially when I was minus one wand and with only my apparently failing wits to rely on.
Mr. Grisham, who seemed more discerning that I had previously given him credit for, shot me a skeptical look. "Those clothes you're wearing-" He gestured with a meaty hand to the shirt and torn blue jeans "-they're my son's. He's about your age (how old are you? Nineteen? He's eighteen). Right now he's out fishing. He'll be back this evening. Now, I personally don't care what kinda trouble you may be in or who you're running from. But if you are in trouble, and I have to assume you are, just to be on the safe side, I can't let you stay here. Cos of my boy, you see. I can't let nothing put him in danger. So I've been happy to help you, and if you need I can drive you to a hospital, or to a hotel if you'd rather, but after you eat and maybe rest a little more, I have to ask you to leave."
I nodded, embarrassed now about eating the soup in front of me, which I was staring into intently. I never thought I'd live to see the day I was lectured like a naughty second year by a Muggle. Especially not a Muggle fisherman, of all the nervy things.
"I'll be happy to make you a pack--some canned soup and a water bottle, and maybe a blanket. And you can keep those clothes. Yours have seen better days, I'm afraid."
"I can't thank you enough for your kindness," I said, though I felt inexplicably violent towards him.
"Now, are you trying to get back to London?"
I hesitated. Where was I supposed to go now, anyway? I thought, briefly and longingly of Narcissa, of showing up at her front door and running away with her to the Bahamas where we'd have sex in a hammock and drink pina coladas and laugh at Lucius Malfoy, that poncey prick. But I quickly dismissed that fantasy, at least for the time being.
I flipped through my mental rolodex and eliminated the rest of my friends and allies with as much speed and significantly less pleasure: Evan was increasingly psychotic and obsessed with "the cause"--he was an unpredictable choice at best, despite his understandable infatuation with me; Rabastan would of course be looking out for number one, a trait which I generally found admirable, but which was now rather inconvenient, as it meant he would hand me over, gift-wrapped, to either the Dark Lord or his equally Dark sister-in-law, &c.
Going to my parents was, of course, out of the question. I couldn't put them in danger, not to mention that they wouldn't understand. And I'd desecrated a family heirloom. They would think I was another Sirius.
Sirius. What would he think? He might be willing to believe I'd had a change of heart. He might also, like any self-respecting do-gooder, turn a known Death Eater in the second he saw him. I might not even get a chance to tell my story before Sirius stunned me and I woke up in Azkaban. Sirius was certainly volatile. But along with that volatility came rebelliousness, and along with that rebelliousness came distrust for authority. Though Sirius was a dedicated do-gooder, I thought that among known do-gooders, he was one of the least likely to turn to the Ministry to dole out justice, especially--I hoped--when the suspect was his really heroic and repentant little brother.
All this ran through my head in the time it took me to utter a drawn out, "er..," before I answered. "Yes. Yes, I would like to go back to London."
"Well then, whenever you're ready I can take you to the bus station." Mr. Grisham smiled, looking quite satisfied with this stroke of brilliance, and turned back to his paper. Prematurely, in my opinion.
Bus station? A Muggle bus? Oh, fantastic. "I don't have any money." I heard the words coming out of my mouth without any prompting on my part, but I was pleased with them all the same.
"I know," Mr. Grisham said. "I looked for a wallet in your clothes, so I could figure out where you were from and if I could get in contact with your family. I'm sure we can spare a few pounds."
"No, I couldn't accept that." I shook my head, but the more I thought of it, the more I realized that I didn't have many choices. If I couldn't use magic, I could either walk to London (which, according to Mr. Grisham, was a longer trek that I was willing to deal with) or take the Muggle bus.
It was about that time that my stomach decided it hadn't completely rid itself of the poison.
The next morning I was sitting on a suspiciously stained bus seat next to a middle-aged fat woman with a bird cage (bird included) in her lap. Every time the bus hit a bump, which was often, the bird squawked and flapped its wings around, sending a blizzard of feathers and flecks of birdseed in my direction, in response to which the woman cooed and spoke baby talk to it in a pathetic attempt to calm it down. As if this weren't enough, I had the added misfortune of sitting in the back by the tiny bathroom, which a large man with a ponytail frequented throughout the trip. Whenever he opened the door, a breeze that reminded me of nothing more than that fetid lake swarming with Inferi hit me directly in the face. I was starting to think I'd made a huge mistake turning traitor to the Dark Lord-he was right, Muggles were repulsive. I had never liked the Knight Bus, but I would've given my left nut to be there now, drinking a lukewarm cup of mediocre cocoa and getting motion sick on those damn sliding beds, instead of this hellhole.
Some number of hours that felt like years later the bus pulled into its station in London. I stumbled out into the polluted smog of Muggle London and was sorely tempted to fall to the ground and lick the cobblestones. I managed to restrain myself by calling to mind the numerous problems and hardships and various unpleasantries I had yet to address, first and foremost among which being that I had no idea how I was going to find Sirius's flat. I had a street name and a hazy guess at a number, but the only thing I really knew for sure was that it was in Muggle London.
So I had to turn to Muggles for help, and fat lot of good most of them did me, pretending like they didn't hear me, or they were in some big rush when I tried to talk to them in the streets. Finally, I'd had enough of it and retreated to a cheap-looking pub to calm my nerves with the change I had left over from the bus ticket. When I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the greasy mirror behind the bar, I could understand the pedestrians' feelings a little better. My hair was still matted with saltwater, I had dark purple circles around my eyes and black scruff starting to fill in the hollows of my cheeks and chin. Most disturbingly, the red welts on my neck were both immediately visible from a distance and now surrounded by greenish purple bruises. My hands wrapped around the pint in front of me were crusted over with dirt and my cuticles were torn and bloody, and I already knew the sorry state of my torn jeans and grimy undershirt. All things considered, I had to admit it was no wonder people preferred to avoid me. iI/i would have avoided me if at all possible. But at least now that I was a paying customer somewhere, the establishment in question had to acknowledge me. I inquired with the bartender, whose appearance rivaled my own for untidiness and general repellence, and who was happy to draw me a kind of crude little map, which indicated the way to Sirius's street, "to the best of his recollection."
And since the best of that bartender's recollection was the best I had to go on, that was the path out on which I set. I ended up on the supposed right street, anyway, and after prowling around for a while trying to identify building numbers in the admittedly seedy neighborhood, I finally found a door with peeling numerals that matched those floating around in my memory. I tried the door and found it was locked. I knocked and no one answered. I even started to go for my wand before remembering the sad fate it had met with. I was about to resign myself to sitting on the stoop and pouting until someone came in or out (which was not an appealing option, considering that every moment I spent stationary and out in the open was a moment in which the Aurors and the Dark Lord both could be closing in, and they were at least slightly more organized that I was, though judging from my experience with each, not much) when I noticed a large panel with a list of flat numbers and names to the left of the door. I delighted upon finding Sirius's, and then, though unsure what might happen and highly suspicious of booby traps, pushed the little white button located beside it.
At first nothing happened, and, frustrated, I jabbed the button again. This time a voice crackled in my ear: "Yeah, I heard you, who is it?" I jumped, and searched for the source of the voice, which turned out to be a collection of little holes punched near the top of the metal panel. "Oi, are you gonna say anything? Is anyone there?" That might be Sirius's voice-it was too distorted for me to tell.
"HELLO?" I said into the holes. "It's--your brother; let me in."
"Is anyone down there?" The voice continued, and my fists tensed up. "Look, you have to hold the button down for me to hear you."
Oh. Well. I jabbed the button down. "SIRIUS, IS THAT YOU?" I shouted into the holes. No reply. I scowled. "IT'S REGULUS." Still nothing. Now, in addition to highly frustrated, I was getting nervous. I had just yelled my name for anyone who cared to hear and Sirius clearly wasn't overjoyed to hear from me-apparently wasn't even going to let me in and oh god there were footsteps on the pavement behind me. I didn't even have a wand, but I spun around to face my foe anyway, and encountered a plain-looking teenage girl crossing the street in front of me. She gave me a rather offended look and pulled her handbag closer to her side, but she didn't appear to be my particular enemy after all. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"-diot, let go of the goddamn button, fucking moron, I-"
I spun around again, feeling like a ballerina now, and jabbed the button, "SIRIUS?" This time I let it go when I was done.
"Yes, and stop shouting you great git. Have you got the hang of the call button, yet?"
"I THINK so..."
"Fantastic. Now, what do you want?"
"To be let in would be nice." Apparently my wits were still on holiday and couldn't come up with anything that sounded more urgent or pertinent.
"Give me one good reason." Sirius's voice, masked by the static, sounded distant and inhuman.
"Because--because-" I stuttered dumbly. It was starting to rain and I had no succinct, convincing answer to give. "Because I'll die if you don't."
It might have been a little dramatic (I seem to recall flapping my arms around a bit as I said it), but it wasn't really a lie. Anything was possible. Really.
For a while there was silence, and I thought I'd overdone it, or made Sirius suspicious, but then: "When you hear a buzz and the door click, open it, yeah?"
I readied myself and when I heard that click, I pounced, and mercifully, the door succumbed to my ministrations. After an abortive attempt to figure out the lift, I located the stairway and--delighted that it had not been complicated by any of these excessively confusing and unnecessary Muggle contraptions (honestly)--climbed to the fourth floor and flat B.