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The Life You Lose

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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.

Chapter Text

 

 

Sirius was standing in his doorway, looking almost humorously grim when I, winded, burst through the door at the top of the stairs.

"Lift too complicated?" Sirius asked, his smugness almost unbearable and his fingers drumming against the doorframe.

I nodded and attempted a smile, which died rather pathetically on my lips.

"Well, you weren't kidding. You look like death just barely warmed up."

"Thank you, you're looking rather dashing as well." The only thing I could think to do was to spout off as many weak jokes as possible. That had always worked well enough to cheer Sirius up when we were kids, and I snitched on him to Mum, or got the bigger half of a biscuit, or was Sorted into Slytherin.

"Why are you wearing those clothes, and what happened to your neck?"

"It's a long story. Can I come in, maybe get some water?"

Sirius hesitated, giving me the Eye. "Where's your wand?"

"Broken. Gone to wand heaven."

"I don't believe you."

"Why else would I look like this?" I stretched out my arms.

"I'm serious," he said.

"And I'm Regulus, nice to meet you." Honestly, if he was going to set himself up for cheap shots.

Sirius rolled his eyes, but I saw the tension in his arms and neck ease just a little bit. "I thought you were better than that, really."

"Give me a break, I almost died yesterday and today I was on a Muggle bus for like. Hours."

"Don't give away the ending now, I've only just made popcorn." He didn't looked terribly excited, but I knew my story was impressive and moreover, I knew that if Sirius hadn't Stunned me yet, he probably wasn't going to.

"Don't feel too bad about the lift, by the way-it's broken," he said, stepping aside and pointing at the door with a flourish of his wand that I was sure was meant to be antagonistic. "After you."

To my horror, the first sight I encountered upon stepping into Sirius's flat was James Potter watching television in the sitting room.

"Sirius, I really need to talk to you alone," I said, turning right back around. He was already locking the door behind him.

"Well, that's too bad, Reg. You're the one who's intruding on our quiet evening at home."

"This is more important than television-" I all but hissed the word "-I assure you."

But Sirius wasn't listening and had already pushed past me into the sitting room. "James, we have a guest," he announced, though Potter must have heard the entire call button fiasco and probably a good deal of our encounter in the hall.

Potter turned from his seat on the couch. "Hullo, Regulus," he said dully. I felt my nostrils flare and a dozen vicious insults sprang to my tongue, but I managed to force them back down my throat for use on a more auspicious occasion. "Potter."

"Stop lurking in the doorway and come sit down," Sirius said, waving his wand. A glass of water sped from the kitchen to the coffee table, sloshing all over the carpet on its way.

I forced my fists to relax and walked stiffly to the chair in front of which the water had landed, which was, fortunately, the chair farthest from Potter.

"He doesn't have his wand," Sirius said, addressing Potter. "Broken, isn't it?"

"I broke it in the course of destroying the Dark Lord's Horcrux, if you must know," I said, sticking my chin in the air.

Sirius and Potter stared at me blankly.

"Oh, come on. Don't tell me you don't know what a Horcrux is."

"Why should we bother to know Dark Magic?" Potter said.

"Isn't that the entire point of Defense Against the Dark Arts? I mean, honestly, if this is the best Dumbledore has to work with-"

"We didn't learn about Hor--whatevers in DADA, Regulus, as you know perfectly well." Sirius interrupted. "But if you would be so kind as to enlighten us."

I grew red in the face. "Well, it's complicated magic," I said, "but I'll try to summarize."

"I'm sure we can take in the 'complicated magic'. After all, we even have wands." Potter grinned. Sirius was smirking, too. I knew then that I had made a mistake.

"Look, if you're not going to take me seriously, I can leave." I made to stand up.

"Oh no you can't." Sirius and Potter rose quicker than I could, like they were sitting on springs. Sirius even managed to have his wand out and trained on my chest before my knees were even straight. "Don't think I won't turn you in cos you're my brother, whatever that means. I know what you are."

"And if you don't want to talk to us, I'm sure the Aurors can convince you to talk to them," Potter added (quite unnecessarily). I felt like the two of them had just cornered me in some remote Hogwarts corridor and were about to hang me from the ceiling, steal everything that fell out of my pockets, and leave me there to be buzzed by Peeves until someone happened by. Maybe if I'd had my wand I wouldn't have felt like such a bullied second-year, but right now I was as helpless as one.

"If you'd actually listen to me rather than ponce about playing Defenders of Good, Foes of Evil, I'd be perfectly overjoyed to talk to you," I said. "That's why I came here, after all."

"So, sit down and tell us about 'Horcruxes'," Potter said.

"Why don't you tell us what in the bloody hell happened to you, first?" Sirius said, his nostrils flaring.

"What don't you stop pointing your goddamn wand at me, first? I'm fucking unarmed."

Sirius looked unconvinced, but lowered his wand slowly. I flopped back down into my chair and sunk into the cushions, glaring out at them morosely. Sirius and Potter followed suit. "What happened to me actually involves Horcruxes, as I'm sure I mentioned earlier, so I'll start there." And I did, and when I was done, they were staring at me with moronic expressions that looked right at home on their faces.

"So... Voldemort made one of these and you... destroyed it?" Potter's eyes narrowed in disbelief.

"Well, if any nineteen-year-old idiot who barely passed his Charms O.W.L. can destroy one, a Horcrux doesn't seem like a very effective plan."

"It wasn't that easy," I said.

"Oh?" Sirius raised his eyebrows.

"No." When it became obvious that neither Sirius nor Potter was going to ask me to elaborate, I did so of my own volition. It was surprising and slightly offensive that in less than five minutes, I was finished with my tale of heroism. "Any questions?" I asked, still reeling from the shock.

Sirius and Potter gave each other a significant look. "How did you get out of the cave?" Sirius asked, turning back to me.

"I don't know," I said, shrugging. "My only guess is incidental magic, you know, like when you're too little for real magic."

They looked skeptical.

"I told you, I blacked out." I wished that they would at least try playing good cop/bad cop, as opposed to wanky cop/wanky cop. "I thought I was going to die. I thought I was dead when I woke up."

"Right. And you didn't actually destroy the Horcrux."

"I gave it to Kreacher-"

"You trust that sniveling animal?"

"I gave him orders, Sirius. He has to follow them. Besides, I couldn't very well do it myself after I drank that poison. I could barely move."

"But you could fight off the Inferi that tried to strangle you?"

"Why didn't you have Kreacher drink the poison?"

I tried my very best not to get flustered, but I couldn't stop the red creeping up the back of my neck and around the shells of my ears. I tried to think cooling streams and ice cubes and took a drink of the now tepid water. "It wasn't very hard, Inferi are weak and stupid--and brittle--and I didn't make Kreacher drink it, because--because I needed someone to come out alive, and I--I," I swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat. "I didn't want to be the one."

Sirius flattened himself against the couch as if a fierce wind has just pinned him there. I myself felt a ball of lead form in my stomach and sink down to the tips of my toes.

Potter, taking no notice of any discomfort on anyone else's part (as I'm sure was his wont), continued interrogating me. "You didn't have anyone you could take instead of a house elf? Not anyone who would be better equipped to understand what a powerful piece of magic he had and the importance of destroying it properly? Anyone more trustworthy?"

"Who else could I trust?" My heart was pounding against my ribcage and my ears were rushing with the wet, dripping echoes of the cave and the voices and the heartbeat. "If I had anyone else, do you think-?" It was an ugly place; it was an ugly thing I'd done, and I didn't want to go back there. My tongue seemed to be swelling in my mouth. "Do you think I—"

Sirius cut me off. "Why'd you change your mind?"

"Change-"

"Stop wanting to be a Death Eater."

"Oh. Well, I--does that mean you believe me?" The echoes subsided.

"Yeah, do you actually believe him?" Potter's intrusive stare shifted to Sirius.

My first impulse was to punch Potter in the back of the head, since he had offered it to me so graciously, but I doubted it would really help my case.

Sirius still seemed hesitant, after all, so I had to try to look as innocent and Muggle-loving as possible. It was easy enough, since I now just felt weak and tired.

"Reg, why'd you leave the Death Eaters?" he repeated.

I rubbed my grimy palms on my jeans. "This has been a long time coming, actually. Believe it or not. I never--Sirius, I didn't join because I wanted to kill every Mudblood and Muggle I saw."

"But you have," Potter said. "You have killed them, haven't you?"

My lip curled involuntarily, but I forced myself to quell the barrage of insults and lies that would've come so easily. I mustered my strength. "Yes. I have. I have killed people. I take responsibility for that."

Potter literally spat on the floor in front of him, and Sirius's face lost all trace of an expression. He could very well have been dead himself. "I don't know why we're listening to this, Padfoot," Potter said, again turning to Sirius. "We should just take him to the Aurors now."

I stood up, but my legs felt shaky. "No," Sirius said. He was looking at me. "Regulus, sit down. Prongs, we're not turning him in-at least not until we're done here."

"Fine," Potter said, "but he's a murderer. He's a hateful little piece-of-shit killer. Don't forget that."

"You sure got my number, Potter," I said, my voice louder than I had anticipated. Potter neither replied nor acknowledged me in any way, so I suppose it wasn't loud enough. "I didn't join because I wanted to be a killer," I continued, trying to keep the bile from swelling up my throat. "I joined because I'm a Black, and I believed in the Black family. I know I was stupid. I was sixteen. I thought I was really clever and cool for joining, I thought I could help protect what little pure blood there is left from complete assimilation. I know you don't care, but it's a real concern for some of us, and no we're not all psychotic megalomaniacs-I knew we needed to hold on to our history, to our traditions, or we'd all just end up Muggles doing card tricks. I still believe that, Sirius. I know you're not going to like that, but I'm not going to lie just to tell you what you want to hear.

"But I don't want to be a slave to a dictator, either. The Dark Lord doesn't believe what I believe in; I knew that for sure when I found out about the Horcrux. He wants to live forever, he wants to rule over the whole wizarding world forever, and he doesn't care how he gets that. Not that anyone who wanted that would. It's not even that he doesn't care who he has to kill, who he has to enslave. He doesn't even care about remaining a human being."

"How can you care about humanity when you've killed people?" Potter snapped.

"I care," I said, and the glass in front of me shook. "I was ready to die to stop him. I didn't back out, Potter, I just didn't happen to snuff it as originally planned, and I'm sorry if that inconveniences you."

"That's if I believe that fairy tale you told us."

"Luckily I don't hold much stock in your opinion." The glass continued to shake, and the water to splash.

"I believe him."

"You do?" Potter and I said together, both turning to Sirius. The spell broke and the glass tried to find its footing on the coffee table.

"Well, yeah," Sirius said, shifting on the couch. His brow was knitted and his fingers were pulling at frayed threads on the cushions.

"Why?" Potter demanded. I leaned back and let relief wash over me like a hot shower-which would have been nice about then.

Sirius shook his head and kept staring at the couch cushions.

"Well, supposing he is telling the truth," Potter said, "he still murdered innocent people. He still deserves Azkaban, if not worse."

"Look," I said, focusing on Sirius and trying to pretend Potter wasn't there. "I came here because I didn't know where else to go. That's it. I'm at your mercy. I'm just tired of it."

"You should turn yourself in. Maybe you'll get a lighter sentence," Potter said, though he clearly would have preferred it if I got the Kiss.

"Regulus, I really don't know what you expect us to do," Sirius said, rubbing at his brow and looking very old.

I tried to muster some kind of wry smile, but I felt like I was going to choke on my Adam's apple. "I don't know, I really don't, I just-" I shrugged. "I thought maybe you could help. I realized when--when I thought I was dying, that I'm really not ready. That no one is," I said quietly.

The room grew silent. I stared down at my scraped and muddy hands, my eyelids falling with each breath I took.

"Well, I know what we'll do," Sirius said, suddenly breaking the silence. "We'll go to Dumbledore. He'll figure it out."

I looked up. For a second I was confused: I thought he must've found a solution, he looked so pleased with himself. But then I processed what he'd said. "No way. I thought of that, but he has 'obligations' to the Ministry and anyway, I'm not exactly one of you Gryffindor golden boys he's willing to bend over backwards for."

"Well," said Sirius, his face set in a determined smile, like he wasn't even willing to consider that there might be a list of "cons" to his plan. "If two of those so-called Gryffindor golden boys come with you..." He looked pointedly at Potter.

"Oh, no. No." Potter shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest.

"I don't need him." I had to say it, even though I knew Sirius wasn't paying the slightest.

"Prongs, please. If it's just me, Dumbledore would just think I only believe him cos he's my brother. If you come..."

"He'll know I'm only there because of you," Potter said. "Sorry, Padfoot, but your brother can burn in Hell for all I care."

"The feeling is mutual, I assure you."

"Shut up, shut up, both of you! No one--no one is going to burn in Hell, okay? Don't you think that means I've forgiven you," Sirius said, whirling on me. "I just maybe don't think you ought to die quite yet."

This was really the best reaction I could have hoped for. Better than I expected, really.

"I'll go to Dumbledore," Potter announced suddenly, pushing his glasses up his nose, "on the condition that if Dumbledore says we hand him over to the Aurors, we will."

My fist felt a magnetic pull to the back of Potter's head again. "I don't need you," I said through gritted teeth.

"I think that's fair," Sirius said.

"Well, I don't." I opened my mouth enough to raise my voice this time. "If I wanted Dumbledore to decide my fate, I would've gone to him in the first place."

"Look, I'm tired of sitting around arguing about this. We're going. Now." Sirius stood up, and to prove his point, summoned his coat.

"But-"

"I reckon we'll figure the rest out as we go," he said blithely. "Now let's."

"I can't Apparate."

"Failed the test, did you?" Potter grinned.

I did not dignify this with a response.

"Right, well, hold on to my arm, then," Sirius said.

"Please try not to splinch me." I took hold of Sirius's sleeve tentatively.

"Don't worry, I'm great at Apparating," he said, and before I could bring up the absolute debacle his first test had been we were standing on the high road in Hogsmeade.

Chapter Text

I nearly fell over sideways, but Sirius grabbed my arm and pulled me back to a standing position. "All limbs in place?"

"I suppose," I said, counting my fingers and wiggling my toes in my boots. "Everything appears to be in order, anyway."

"Great." Sirius glanced around conspiratorily, as if he were about to tell me a very secret thing. "Look, Reg," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder and lowering his chin. "I'm glad you... Well, you know."

"Yeah, I--well, yeah." I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked down at my shoes.

"Right." Sirius removed his hand quickly and as if on cue James Potter appeared a few meters away.

"I had to piss," he said by way of excuse for his tardiness.

"Yeah, well, let's get going," Sirius said, shoving me between the shoulder-blades.

The walk to Hogwarts was longer than I remembered from my school days. And it was a cold, windy, late autumn night, and all I was wearing was the overshirt that old fisherman had given me, which was too big for me, and fluttered against the inside of my wrists and the back of my neck, making me feel small and helpless, like the scrawny little eleven-year-old bastard with sharp elbows and chicken knees shivering that I was the first time I saw those sprawling lawns and that giant castle. I had a kind of childish hope, looking up at the towers and ramparts that looked ready to swallow me whole, that I would be safe there, that buried deep within the winding Hogwarts corridors, up and down staircases, no one would be able to find me.

But I was a grown man now, or so they told me, and I couldn't hide anymore.

I was staring at the castle's foundations when I realized Sirius was talking to me. "-All right, so when we get in, you tell Dumbledore what you told us--he'll at least know what a Horcrux is, and what to do about it. And then--Prongs--and then we'll keep quiet and won't say what we think about it-" Potter snorted derisively. "And then Dumbledore will say what to do and then... We'll do it, I suppose."

"Maybe," I said darkly.

"And how are you going to stop us? Wandless Wonder?"

"Are you seven years old?"

"May be, but at least I'm not a murderer-"

"Both of you, shut it!" We had reached the giant front doors, which now swung open to admit us.

"That can't be safe, they just open right up to Death Eaters-"

"Prongs!"

"Sorry, sorry." He certainly didn't sound it.

It was late enough now that we didn't encounter any students out and about, so it was noticeable when, on the staircase leading to the floor where Dumbledore's office was, we heard a group of voices about to turn the corner.

"I'd be surprised if he weren't dead yet."

"No, You-Know-Who isn't particularly known for his leniency."

Chuckles.

"I personally think the posters were a waste of parchment."

Sirius, Potter, and I all stopped walking and Sirius's eyes flashed in the torchlight as he turned to me.

"Look at the Black family, now, though. One son a blood traitor and the other a wanted criminal… and according to what I've heard, a coward at that. He should hope the Aurors finish him off before You-Know-Who can." I admit that I felt a little like throwing up at this point, but it was probably just the remaining effects of the poison. It wasn't until Sirius grabbed my arm and dragged me to the side, behind a huge suit of armor, that I realized I had been standing motionless in the middle of the corridor. We had just barely disappeared behind the suit of armor when the group of Ministry men turned the corner and started down the staircase.

I could feel my heart buzzing like a hummingbird's, and in the shadowy recess I saw torchlight glint off Potter's glasses. Again I had the sensation of my Adam's apple rising up in my throat and threatening to shut off my windpipe, but Potter didn't move, didn't make a noise, and soon the men passed and the sound of their footsteps and voices faded away.

We stood there still for minutes longer until finally Sirius let out a sigh. "Okay. That was close. Wish we had your cloak, huh Prongs?" He grinned, stepping out into the light.

"Yeah," said Potter, his eyes staring far away over Sirius's shoulder.

But really I didn't care at all what Potter was staring at. "Seriously? Me? They want to kill me? I'm not that important, really, I'm like a Death Eater intern. I mean, I've actually had to get coffee for important meetings before, I mean-"

"Reg, shut it," Sirius said. "Don't worry about that. We're getting help and besides, nothing's gonna happen to you when you're with us." He flipped his hair over his shoulder cavalierly.

"Just cos we're back at Hogwarts doesn't mean we're twelve and all our problems can be solved by our Heads of House and a round of butterbeer," I said, but Sirius was, once again, paying me no attention. In fact, he was already at the top of the staircase. I hurried to catch up, muttering about how I'd like to try solving this problem with a bottle of firewhiskey. Potter, who was a few steps in front of me, snorted, but I was unable to tell whether it was in the spirit of humor or derision.

When we caught up with Sirius, he was already arguing with Dumbledore's gargoyle about whether or not we were to be let in.

"No, I don't know the password, but I have important business, and-you know, this is matter of life and death, but I wouldn't expect you to understand that, you lifeless hunk of rock, and-"

The gargoyle moved aside suddenly, and I had reason to doubt it was the result of Sirius's powers of persuasion. "You know, you catch more flies with honey, Mr. Black."

"Professor!" Sirius didn't miss a beat. "We need help, can we come in please?"

Dumbledore clearly did not share Sirius's sense of urgency. His gaze had landed on me, but his beard, covering most of his face, made it impossible for me to read his expression. "Mr. Potter. The younger Mr. Black." He nodded at us. I forced my head to dip briefly and tried to avoid his gaze.

"Can we talk to you, please, Professor?" Sirius said, and this time Dumbledore acknowledged him. "Yes, I think you'd better," he said. "I assume you avoided the Ministry party on your way?"

"Yeah."

"Well, let's not continue loitering in the corridors if we remain concerned about the younger Mr. Black's welfare," Dumbledore said blandly. I thought it was safe to assume that he was not particularly concerned about my welfare, but I let Potter usher me through the doorway and up the dark, narrow staircase. I could barely see the little door at the top landing over the shoulders of Dumbledore and Sirius, but the glimpses I caught of it were ominous, like it might decide to open onto the gallows rather than Dumbledore's office. My footsteps kept faltering and Potter kept--accidentally, I was sure--jostling me from behind.

When I finally stepped through the door, I was greeted with loud squawking and wings flapping in my face and briefly I thought I was back on the Muggle bus and this really was Hell, until the red blur in front of me settled on a bookcase above our heads, and I recognized Dumbledore's pet phoenix.

"Take a seat, boys," Dumbledore said, banishing most of the many chairs grouped around his desk, presumably left over from his previous meeting with the Ministry men, with one smooth motion of his arm.

I sat down slowly, reluctantly, and Sirius took the seat beside me and scooted forward with his chair.

"Well, you're not really boys anymore." Dumbledore smiled hollowly, looking down at his desk and running his fingers over a stack of parchment. "You're adults. Responsible for your own actions."

"I wasn't an adult," I said quickly. Dumbledore looked up at me quizzically, his hand still hovering over those papers. "I mean, when I joined the Death Eaters. Which, okay, I admit, but I was sixteen; I was stupid." I felt my cheeks growing hot.

"Look, Professor, Regulus has something to say to you," Sirius said before Dumbledore could reply. Damage control, probably. "He came to us this evening and well, Reg, tell him."

I shuddered involuntarily, and Dumbledore's bushy white eyebrows moved up and down in a wave over his glasses. God, why did I let them bring me here, he wasn't going to believe a word I said. It would be humiliating to even try, but what else could I do?

I talked, perhaps foolishly, doing my best to sit up straight and look Dumbledore in the face, though it felt like torture when I was kept continually conscious of how I must have looked to him. The Dark Mark continued to burn on my forearm.

When I was done, for a moment Dumbledore just stared at me coolly over his glasses. I could feel the tips of my ears burning, and apparently, Sirius couldn't take the awkward silence any more than I could: "So, can you help us? I mean, I know he still did... bad things, but this has to count for something, right?"

Dumbledore didn't reply to Sirius, but instead asked, "You're sure this locket is a Horcrux?"

"Of course I'm sure," I said. "I wouldn't have risked my life if I weren't."

"All right, then. We'll have to destroy it. Are you willing to go back to your parents' house?"

"I told Kreacher to destroy it. He has to have done it."

"Regulus, I don't doubt that Kreacher tried and undoubtedly still is trying to destroy it, but a Horcrux is not an easy thing to get rid of. If it were, Lord Voldemort certainly would not have bothered making one."

"How do you destroy it, then?" Potter, who had been sitting in a far chair, sulking with his arms over his chest, suddenly piped up.

"Mr. Potter, in order to determine that, I would request that you young men retrieve the locket and bring it back here. Regulus, will you go?"

I shook my head. "I don't know--I can't think about facing them. They won't understand, they'll think I'm--well, sorry, Sirius, but they'll think I'm another you."

Sirius shrugged. "And what's wrong with that?"

"I can't do that to them," I said, directing my gaze pointedly at Dumbledore.

"And besides, won't Voldemort will be looking for him at his house? How can he go back there safely?" I was almost certain I was delirious when I heard those words come out of James Potter's mouth.

"We can use your invisibility cloak," Sirius said enthusiastically.

"That wouldn't work and you know it. How would we get in the door? Kreacher's not about to open it for nobody."

"Kreacher would open the door for you."

"Right, but if as soon as I step inside I'm surrounded by Death Eaters-"

"Well, okay then how do we get the Death Eaters out?" Sirius was sounding worryingly excited.

"Well, you have Death Eater friends, couldn't you-"

"Oh no, I'm not approaching any kind of Death Eater."

"Well, if you're not willing to take any risks-"

"Excuse me, did you drink about a liter of poison and get dragged into a lake full of zombies-"

"Gentlemen," Dumbledore said, and though he hadn't raised his tone, his voice rolled through the room like thunder. We shut up. "I hate to interrupt, but in about two minutes, at least one member of the Ministry party I had the pleasure of hosting will be returning to collect this bowler." He indicated a hat hanging inconspicuously on the rack by the door. "It is my suggestion that by that time, you be well away from here. While I regret that I will not be privy to the specifics of your plan, I trust you will come up with something clever enough to do credit to your names." A brief smile appeared between his mustache and beard. "And when that plan comes to fruition, bring the Horcrux back here, and we'll take care of this unpleasant business."

"Right, but Professor...Will you help him?" Sirius asked, giving me a side-long glance.

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow but I was sure he knew what Sirius meant.

"If we do this...and we destroy the Horcrux and all that--well, Regulus is still going to be in trouble with the Ministry, not to mention Voldemort."

Dumbledore nodded. "I understand, but right now there is not much that can be done. In fact, I'd say our best course of action right now would be to make a hasty exit."

"But Professor-"

"I trust you boys know enough hidden alcoves, nooks and crannies to avoid detection and stay out of trouble."

"But-"

"Let's go." I grabbed Sirius's arm. "We're not accomplishing anything here."

"Fine," Sirius said, pulling away. "We'll work it out."

"Right, yeah." All I was thinking about was getting out. Sirius seemed unconcerned about the returning Ministry official, but then, he wasn't the one who was going to end up in Azkaban over it.

"We should go out first," Potter said, nudging Sirius. "Check to see the coast is clear."

"Right."

And they started down the staircase. I shot a look back at Dumbledore before I closed the door behind me. I couldn't believe it, but the old fool was actually smiling.

Potter and Sirius were so anxious to leave now that I had to jog to catch up with them. I was still taking the steps two at a time when Potter pushed aside the gargoyle, and Sirius jumped out into the corridor and shouted, "Run!" with his wand waving in the air. Before I'd even processed what was happening I was running, and in my peripheral vision I could see the fireworks display of spell afterglows on the walls and statues. I was out of range now, my hands were shaking, and my breath was short-the fog was in my eyes, but the colors were dulling. What about Sirius and Potter?

I didn't stop to think about that for long. Marble statues and suits of armor rushed by in gray blurs. I turned corners, rushed up staircases, the carpet changed from dark red to inky blue and I realized I must be near the Ravenclaw common rooms. This was not exactly close to any exit, but it wasn't a bad part of the castle to be lost in, either.

I turned the corner, skidding on the sides of my boots, and almost ran directly into a somewhat disheveled girl wearing Ravenclaw colors.

"Regulus!"

"Sandra! Sandra Stoddard."

"Sarah. Stafford," she said, cocking her eyebrow.

"Right, Sarah. Listen-"

"What are you doing here?" Her chin nodded down and back up. "And why are you dressed like that?"

"This? Oh. I was--listen, Sandra-"

"Sarah."

"SARAH, anyway, it's not important, I-"

"We dated for three months, honestly."

"Right, I know, I just--I hit my head, right?"

"You what?"

"Sarah, stop wasting time, this is life and death we're talking about!" I grabbed her shoulders and she flinched. "I need your help."

"My help? What's happening? Did you say why you were here?"

"There's no time for that, can you take me to your common room?"

She hesitated. "Regulus, I'm a prefect, I can't just let anyone into the common room."

"You're a prefect?" I glanced at her untucked blouse and mussed hair. "Out patrolling for curfew violators, I presume?"

"Well, yes," she said, adjusting her skirt and shifting her gaze away from mine.

"Then how do you explain this?" I yanked down her collar dramatically and exposed an ugly purple hickey.

"No!" She pulled away, covering her neck with her hands. "Please, don't tell anyone, Professor Sinistra already told me if I got another detention she'd suspend my prefect-ship."

I grinned and tapped the side of my nose.

"Oh, fine," she said. "I don't know what you want in our common room, though. Morgana Eppinet is out of school already, you know." She shot me a narrow glare as we turned toward the common room.

"Sarah, that was ages ago. I don't care about Morgana Eppinet."

"Uh-huh."

"Who gave you this, anyway?" I asked, putting my arm around her shoulder to pull at her collar.

"No one." She slapped my hand away.

"Not that good, was he? You know, they just don't have the same quality of man around here anymore."

"You know, your ego would be much less intolerable if you did anything to back it up."

"Now Sarah, don't say things you'll regret."

"Seven celibate sisters."

"Now see, that's the kind of thing I'm talking about."

"That's the password, moron," she said. Her words may have been harsh, but I could tell she was warming to me.

The statue of Bertram the Befuddled moved aside leisurely, but Sarah didn't wait for it to open completely before squeezing through and pulling me in after her.

"In some sort of rush?" I asked as she led me through the dark hallway leading to the common room.

"You were the one talking about life and death," she said irritably. I didn't remember her being this moody when we went out. She was right, though, one would think I would have felt more panic, akin to what I'd been feeling before I'd run into her, but a certain eerie calm had come over me. It was because I had a plan now. She was going to get me out of this, and as for Sirius and Potter? Well, good luck.

"Listen, Sarah," I said, pulling her aside before she entered the common room. "I'd really like to talk to you privately. Will the common room be empty?"

"Probably not," she said, looking off to the side. "It's a Friday night, after all."

"Is it?"

"Yes--what is with you, you don't even know what day it is?"

"I know," I said, pressing my hand against the cold stone wall by her ear. "I owe you an explanation, and if we can go to your room, where I can talk to you alone, I'll give you one."

"Okay, Regulus," she said. Her back was flattened completely against the wall and she was staring self-consciously at her shoes.

"Oi." I stepped back and held out my hand to her. "Don't look so down."

She looked up at me, and then down at my hand, and then up at me again with a bemused expression on her face.

"Okay, I've had a rough couple of days," I said apologetically, wiping some of the most egregious dirt smears off on my trousers. "It all has to do with the life and death situation."

She bit her lip to stifle a laugh and stuck out her hand. "You're such an idiot." I took her hand and she navigated us quickly through the densely populated common room. Luckily, most of the inhabitants were too occupied with their own activities to notice us, and Sarah cut a direct and rapid path to the Ravenclaw girls' dormitories, which, as I remembered, had no protective measures in place to keep ne'er-do-well boys out.

"Okay, now start talking." Sarah closed the door behind her, locking it in the same motion.

"That's sexy," I said, sitting down at the foot of her bed. "I feel like I'm being interrogated."

She flicked her reddish brown hair out of her face and crossed her arms over those really quite luscious breasts. When we dated, I was a seventh year and she was a fifth year. Those lovely little handfuls had not fully developed.

"Okay, I'll talk," I said, my eyes finally leaving her chest area to scan the room. It was messy, but it didn't take me long to locate her old Comet propped in a corner, with a bra hanging haphazardly on the bristles. She was a Chaser. I used to play against her.

I wasn't really listening to the words that were coming out of my mouth-they must have sounded plausible, because she kept alternately nodding and making little gasping noises (again, very sexy), and for all I know I was telling her the truth-I was too occupied trying to refine the kinks in my escape plan. I knew I had to get out of there, preferably soon, though I was safer here than I would have been out, exposed in the corridors, and the fact that I'd located an available broom, an open window, and a girl whose wand couldn't be that hard to wrest away from her were great comforts.

I only noticed that words had stopped coming out of my mouth when Sarah sat down on the bed beside me and rested her hand on my thigh. "Oh, Regulus, is that all true?"

"Every word."

"God, you must be exhausted."

And well, now that she mentioned it.

"I'm so glad you found me. Have you ever been to the prefects' bathroom? We can get you cleaned up-" She started to stand up.

I grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. "No, no. I mean, I'd really rather just stay here. You were right, I'm exhausted."

"Well, okay," she said, her peachy lips drawn into a pout. "But...can I at least just do some quick scouring charms? Sorry, but-"

"Yeah, sure, have a blast."

"Okay, take off your shirt."

I leaned back on my wrists and grinned. "Only if you take off yours."

She rolled her eyes. "Very smooth. Very nice effort. I see you haven't lost any of that famous charm."

"Oh, but I've been through so much."

"Come on." She got up on her knees and pulled the collar of my shirt down.

"You're incorrigible!" Really, I didn't have time for this, but well, it had been a while. Horcruxes had been consuming my life for weeks, and to be honest spending most of your time thinking about splitting your immortal soul by means of remorseless murder doesn't really put you in the mood. Not to mention that the only female Death Eater I know is my cousin—and she's terrifyingly more masculine than I am.

I shrugged my overshirt the rest of the way off and pulled my undershirt up over my head. When my vision was again cleared, Sarah was unbuttoning her blouse. Her wand was sticking helplessly out of her waistband and perhaps if I were not a teenage boy, I would have taken it then, but soon my attention was distracted and my resolve decimated when she shed her blouse and unhooked the enticing front-clasp on her lacy black bra.

I did, at least, take note, while I was kicking off my trousers and she was unfastening her skirt, that she placed her wand on the bedside table. And I remembered where it was, too, when, after we were done (and thank god it was after), some girl started pounding on the door.

"Sarah! Sarah, are you in there? Listen, Professor Sinistra wants the Prefects to meet in her office. She says it's urgent!"

"Oh, I have to go." She jumped out of bed and began searching for her clothing on the floor. While she was turned around I grabbed her wand and shoved it under the mattress.

"Sarah!"

"Just a minute, Mona!"

I pulled on my clothing quickly, and while she was still buttoning her blouse, I retrieved her wand and stuffed it in my waistband. This was not the best place for a wand, especially someone else's new and unpredictable wand, but these were dire circumstances.

Then came the moment I had not particularly been looking forward to. "Where's my wand?" she said, turning around and spotting the empty place on the bedside table. I shrugged. "I wonder what could be so urgent, at this hour. I hope nothing's-" She stopped in the middle of her sentence, making a quiet little gasping noise. "This is about iyou/i, isn't it?"

"Stupefy." She fell and hit the ground bodily--really noisily, in fact, she might have hit her head on the dresser on the way down.

"Sarah!" This Mona now sounded panicked.

I retrieved Sarah's broom from the corner and forced her window open. I heard Mona say, "Alohomora!" and jumped.

For a moment, before I'd gotten my bearings on the broom, I was free-falling from the tallest tower at Hogwarts. It was dark, and I couldn't see anything under or above me, but to my left the stones of the tower rushed by faster than I could count them.

Momentarily, I thought maybe her broom was broken; I thought I was going to plummet to my death, and well, fuck, wasn't this all just a big waste of time?

But just as I was wishing I'd spent more time doing things like Sarah Stafford and less slaving for/plotting against the Dark Lord (honestly, if I'd just become a niffler herder like I wanted to when I was little, I wouldn't be in any of this trouble), I stopped falling. My body hit the length of the broom, and luckily, I'd been squeezing the shit out of that broom with my legs, so my genitalia didn't take the same beating my torso did.

"Hi." The sudden intrusion of a small voice into the middle of my private moment passionately kissing the handle of the broom and praising God on High snapped me back to reality. I spun around to encounter the faint glow of a lamp and a little face peering out of an open window. "Are you the one they're looking for?" The boy couldn't have been more than a first-year, and his eyelids were hanging heavily over big pale irises.

"Looking for?"

"The prefects came to count us and make sure we were in bed. I don't think we're supposed to know, but I heard them in the hall talking about a Death Eater in the castle. Did you hurt Sarah?"

I frowned and shifted my grip on the broom, unsure of how to respond.

"She's really nice; I don't think you should have."

"Are you going to snitch on me?"

He bit his little lip. "What if I count to fifty and then tell?"

"Can you make it one hundred?"

He shook his head.

"Fine, fine, I'll take what I can get," I said, and turned to leave. "Hey."

"Uh-huh?" When I looked over my shoulder at him he had a fist stuck in his eye sleepily.

"I'm not a Death Eater."

"Okay." He yawned. "I'm counting now."

Without any further ado, I leaned down over Sarah's Comet.

Chapter Text

I couldn't help but noticing with appropriate dismay that Sarah's Comet was nowhere near as fast as my old Silver Arrow. My level of dismay surely would have risen to inappropriate levels given more travel time, but all I had to do was get off school grounds and Apparate. Where to, I hadn't really considered.

It hadn't occurred to me until mere moments before that I wouldn't very well be able to Apparate into Sirius's sitting room, and well, Apparating onto the street in front of his building didn't seem like an especially appealing idea, especially not if word got out that Sirius and Potter had been with me. For a second, a kind of self-destructive, psychotic idea gripped my mind that I could just Apparate to Grimmauld Place and grab the locket now in the midst of the confusion.

And well? I don't think I'd made a concrete decision when I blinked and found myself on my two feet in the middle of a familiar, drizzly street. It was quiet, and I could hear someone talking on the telephone out an open window a few doors over. I tiptoed up the stairs outside Number 12 and peered around me, off as far as I could see over the fog and cobblestones. I didn't hear anything other than water dripping and a slight female voice prattling on. I was already reaching for the doorknob when I felt the sharp tip of a wand press into the soft, vulnerable skin on the side of my neck.

I sucked in my breath and the drip-dripping from the gutter to the cobblestones became the heartbeat and the voices, and the fog twisted and reached. But then the pressure from the wand eased up and an unpleasant, cracking voice said, "Oh, it's you."

That didn't sound like the statement of a man about to murder me, so I opened my eyes and stepped back.

"Snape?"

"Your keen powers of observation serve you well." He withdrew his wand and tucked it away in his robes. "Though I can't say I really understand where you're going with your fashion choices these days."

"Rich, coming from you." I stiffened all the muscles in my body and kept my hand by my hip, close to Sarah's wand. Despite the fact that Snape did not appear to have immediate plans for killing/torturing me, his presence set me on edge. If he had been set the task of skulking around my doorway in case I came home, it didn't make sense that he wouldn't know he was supposed to do very painful things to me on sight. "What are you doing here?"

"I fear your puny head might explode if I attempted to explain to you the intricacies of the situation, but rest assured I'm not here to impede your progress."

I was far from "assured". "Are you here alone?"

"Yes. For now. Though I can't say how long, and if you continue dilly-dallying out here, you might not avoid a cozy little family reunion with Bellatrix and Malfoy."

"There aren't others inside? Of course, how would I know if you were lying and there was an ambush waiting right inside the door?"

"How about this: if you don't go in now, I'll kill you myself."

While I could have called his bluff on what I was sure was an empty threat, I wasn't anxious to spend anymore time conversing with Snape, and if anything he said hit home, it was that if I kept hanging around I might encounter Bellatrix. I announced myself to the door and it swung open to reveal Kreacher standing, looking slightly lost, by the base of the stairs. God knows how long he'd been standing there.

"Master Regulus, you've returned!" Kreacher squealed in delight, jumping forward to take Sarah's broom and deposit it in the umbrella stand. "Master and Mistress Black have been so worried, they have, Mistress cries all day, she thinks young Master is dead, but won't she be happy now that young Master has come home." Kreacher's small, wrinkled face was split in half by a giant, toothless smile, and his big, insect eyes shown with such innocent joy that I just couldn't tell him I wasn't staying.

"Where are Mum and Dad?" I asked instead.

"Master and Mistress have gone to the hospital. Master is ill, Master is even more ill than when young Master disappeared-"

"Right." I mentally smacked myself upside the head. "Listen, Kreacher, remember that locket I told you to destroy?"

His smile evaporated. He grabbed his big, hairy ears and yanked them down, shaking his head in shame. "Oh, Master Regulus, Kreacher tried to destroy it, he did. He tried all the magic he has, he even put it in the fireplace, but nothing worked, and the wicked locket remains."

"But you still have it?"

He nodded, breathing in heavy rasps.

"And you didn't tell anyone about it?"

He shook his head.

"Not even Mum and Dad?"

He shook his head again, still twisting at his ears.

"Good, very good, Kreacher."

He looked up at me, easing up on his ears.

"I don't need you to destroy it anymore, but I do need you to bring it to me."

"Yes, right away!" He scampered away, and I remained standing awkwardly in the entrance. Now that I was home I wanted nothing more than a warm shower and a good meal... and my cozy bed and my familiar, respectable clothing--but Snape's presence right outside the door was a constant specter in my mind, and his warning about Bellatrix even more so. I was unclear what was happening with him and unwilling to commit any of my precious mental activity to trying to puzzle it out, but I didn't trust him. I wasn't too dumb to figure out that if he weren't killing me now his allegiance was questionable at best, and if he were working for Dumbledore, he was almost certainly the one who fitted me up with the Ministry.

But before I could give much thought to that, Kreacher returned, practically prancing.

"Thank you, Kreacher," I said, taking the locket from his spindly, outstretched hands. "You've done very well."

"Oh, thank you, Master Regulus." He bounced, before dipping low into a servile bow. "Kreacher is only happy to serve."

"And now I have another favor to ask of you."

"Anything young Master wishes." Kreacher straightened and stared up at me eagerly.

"I have to leave again, and I need you not to tell Mum and Dad that I was here. Keep it a secret, okay?"

"Yes, but-" Kreacher began twisting his ears again. "Of course, but, Master and Mistress are so upset, thinking young Master is dead, and he is the only son they have..."

"I know it hurts them to think something bad's happened to me, but it's safer for them if they don't know anything about what I'm doing. I can't explain it, but you have to trust me. Do you trust me, Kreacher?"

"Yes!" Kreacher yelped, as though I'd just trod on his foot.

"Good. When this is all over, I'll come back and everything will go back to normal, I promise. But until then you can't say anything to anyone. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Master, of course Kreacher understands." He looked as though he'd been struck.

"Look, this hurts me as much as it does you... and them. But--well, I have to go, or I'm in trouble, and then we'll really have something to be sad about." I grabbed Sarah's broom and was out the door before Kreacher could make me feel any worse.

I didn't see Snape on my way out, but I wasn't especially concerned about him at that point. I wouldn't be able to tell you if there'd been a three-ring circus organized in the round-about when I came back outside. It was all I could do to swing my leg over Sarah's broom and kick off from the ground without running directly into any nearby buildings.

I wished Kreacher hadn't said so much about my parents--my sick dad, my grief-stricken mum. He was right, I was the only son they had left, and it wasn't like Sirius was coming back, and whatever deficiencies I had--I was it, I was their last hope. Wasn't it really selfish of me after all to have done this?

It was really too much for me to consider, so I shifted my thoughts to some well-worn fantasies of me and Narcissa in the South Seas. Narcissa was just about to remove her coconut bra because it was chafing her and I was ready with suntan oil to protect her beautiful, porcelain complexion when Sirius's window jumped up out of nowhere and nearly struck me in the face. I managed to slide to a stop just in time and the only part of my body that collided with the ambushing window was my shoulder, which alerted the flat's occupant to my presence.

Sirius's face appeared in the window and he stared at me with disbelief for several seconds before wrenching the window open. "Reg. We thought for sure you split."

"Look what I got," I said by way of reply, hooking my thumb around the locket's chain and pulling it away from my chest to show him.

"That really it?" He peered out the window with wide eyes. "It doesn't look so scary."

"Well it certainly is. Let me in and I'll even let you touch it."

"Enticing," he said, stepping away from the window to let me climb in. It took me several tries to work out how to get both me and the broom inside and drop neither of us to our deaths. Sirius, instead of attempting to help me, just stood off to the side sniggering, though I didn't see what was so funny.

When I finally managed to fall in, pulling the broom after me and landing painfully on my tailbone, Sirius took the broom out of my hands and went to lean it in the corner, leaving me to pick myself up and nurse my wounds.

"Let's take a look, yeah?" he said, rolling up his sleeves as he walked back towards me.

"Yeah, great." I raised the chain over my head and cast it down on the carpet between us. "I don't want to wear it anymore, I don't even want to look at it anymore. You have a go at it."

Sirius knelt down and picked it up gingerly, using only his thumb and forefinger. He dropped it in the palm of his other hand and moved it up and down, as though weighing it. "So, a piece of Voldemort's soul is in there?" he asked, his voice quiet.

"Yeah," I said. "You can even kinda feel it. Doesn't it feel too heavy?"

"Yeah." He looked up at me. "This is eerie."

"I know," I said, walking to the couch and flopping down. "What do we do with it now?"

"We can't go back to Dumbledore until morning. At least."

"Thank god, I'm exhausted." And to emphasize my point, I propped my feet up on the armrest and threw my arm over my eyes.

"Don't you even want to know how we got away and why James and I aren't right with you on the Ministry's most wanted list now?"

"Sure, I could use a good bedtime story," I said, stifling a yawn.

"Well, prepare yourself, because it's riveting-" And that's about as far as he got before I was out.

When I was a little boy, I played outside a lot. Sirius, too. In the garden there were a lot of bugs, and sometimes garter snakes, squirrels, and even neighborhood cats. Sometimes I pulled the antennae off the bugs, or their legs, or I pulled them in half and sometimes the halves would even flop around on the ground before all the life left. Sirius, too. If you hack a snake's head off with a hoe or a knife, its body keeps twitching and writhing for minutes, even though it's already dead.

When I woke up my mouth was dry all the way down my throat.

I was surprised, when I sat up, that not only was it morning and Sirius hadn't shaken me awake to shout at me for not listening to his highly fascinating tales of adventure, but I didn't have anything written on my face in Magic Marker and my pubic hair wasn't multi-colored. True, one of my eyebrows did turn up missing, but overall I was impressed by his maturity.

Because birds were chirping cheerfully outside the window and not being violently stricken from the sky, I knew that Sirius was still asleep. I would've liked to return to that state of consciousness myself, but my body had far more pressing concerns. So, either shower or breakfast it was, and because I couldn't find anything edible in Sirius's kitchen, I settled for a cup of orange juice, which was the best I could conjure this early in the morning and with someone else's wand.

I took the orange juice in the washroom and drank it under the shower's spray, which I had turned up as scalding as it would go. Though I was convinced that no amount of scrubbing would ever make me clean again, it was the least I could do to try.

When I emerged from the bathroom fifteen minutes later, towel around my waist and skin pink as a newborn baby, Sirius was in the kitchen flipping pancakes.

"Are you cooking?" I asked, rubbing at my eye with my fist.

"I'm the one who should be scandalized," he said, glancing down at my towel and raising an eyebrow. "Is it too much to ask that you put on some clothing? Trousers, at least?"

"I considered that, but I did just shower," I said, gesturing at the pile of clothes that old fisherman had given me, which were on the living room floor. I was sure they were not only generating some kind of mutant odor all their own, but close to achieving sentience.

"I'll loan you some," he said, "as soon as I'm done with these pancakes."

"Fair enough," I said, sitting down at the kitchen table, knees together so as to avoid offending his delicate sensibilities. "I hope you're planning on feeding me." And if he weren't I would take the food by force.

"I suppose I could spare a few pancakes," he said.

"Then will we go to Dumbledore? Not that I'm looking forward to it."

"Dumbledore will contact us when it's safe to come. I notified him this morning that you'd retrieved the Horcrux."

"You sound very official."

He snorted, tossing a pancake in the air.

"So, what do I do until Dumbledore 'contacts' us?" I asked, trying unsuccessfully to distract my stomach.

He shrugged. "Practice your knitting? You're supposed to stay here, and I'm not supposed to let you out of my sight. I'm also supposed to be inquiring after Sarah Stafford's wand and broomstick. I mean, really." He cast what I supposed was supposed to be a chastising look over his shoulder at me, but I could tell he was trying not to laugh.

I didn't like the sound of those instructions, either way. Was I a prisoner already? I would have pushed the point if Sirius had not handed me a plate full of pancakes right then.

When I lifted my nose from the plastic, my plate was clean and so was Sirius's, and he was gone.

I stood up, holding up my towel with one fist and wandered into the sitting room. I thought about trying out the television, now that I kept company with Muggle-lovers and all, but it proved far more complicated that even the call buttons, and I was distracted from my efforts by the noise of Sirius clearing his throat. I stopped pressing my palm against the screen and trying to will it on long enough to look up at him, at which point he threw an armful of clothing in my face.

"You can keep the pants, but I want the rest back," he said while I dropped the towel and began sorting out the clothes.

"Gryffindor Quidditch?" I asked, holding up his old jersey. "Oh, honestly, you did this on purpose."

He shrugged, retrieving a small black box from the coffee table. As I pulled on the trousers, he pointed the box at the television and it came to life with a whir.

"Oi!" I jumped back, my fingers frozen on the zip. "How did you-"

He pointed it again and the image on the screen changed from a nice lady lady holding a tube of toothpaste to a group of men running around a field kicking a ball around.

"So... do Muggles have magic kind of like house-elves do?" I asked, puling my zip up and staring, mystified at the screen.

Sirius laughed. "No, you moron."

"Well, then-"

"Listen, I'm not your Muggle Studies teacher," he said, and added under his breath, "I don't quite understand it myself." He glanced at me. "But it's not magic," he said with finality and a curt nod. "Now put on the damn shirt, honestly."

"Say, do they have Quidditch on this thing?" I asked curiously after I pulled the shirt on.

"No," Sirius said, "but that's what I asked, too."

"So, what do we do all day? You're not really planning on staying here, are you?"

Sirius frowned. "Well, it doesn't sound particularly appealing... But Dumbledore said to, and I reckon he's right. Voldemort and the Ministry both know you're alive now, or have a good idea about it."

"Yeah, of course, Dumbledore is always right, isn't he? It couldn't be that it's more convenient for him to keep us here? You know, he could tell anyone where we are-"

"Yeah, and who would he want to tell? He knew the Ministry man would come back for his hat and he warned us-"

"Yeah, so I could bring him the locket."

"You think he couldn't have got the locket himself?"

"Yeah, he would have had a real easy time getting in Grimmauld Place."

"You think he's scared of a few Death Eaters? You think he couldn't make Kreacher open the door for him, bring him the locket?"

I inflated my chest to ready myself for my next argument and was surprised to find I didn't have anything to say.

"If you want to know what I think, he's giving you an opportunity to redeem yourself--and to prove you're not some loose cannon we can't trust. When you disappeared last night, I thought for sure..." Sirius shook his head, his mouth morphing into a hard line.

"Yeah well, I came back didn't I?"

He blew a stray strand of hair out of his face and looked away, shrugging. I opened my mouth to press the point, but thought better of it and sat down next to him.

We spent the rest of the day on the couch drinking, while Sirius flipped through the channels trying to impress me with the wide variety of Muggle television programs.

James Potter stopped by early in the evening, at which point we were already moderately to severely intoxicated. He said some disparaging things about the impossibility of dealing with drunk Blacks, and I offered to defend our honor by cursing him, but Sirius advised me that I probably shouldn't do that, since Potter was a quick draw all the time, and no offense, but I was probably incapable of aiming correctly. I was forced to agree, but only because I found myself unable of making the case to the contrary without slurring my words to the point of incomprehensibility.

Potter rolled his eyes insolently. "Well, I'm glad you two are bonding and all, but Dumbledore sent me with a message: He expects you in time for tea tomorrow. Can you remember that? Should I write it on your foreheads?"

Sirius assured him that we would attend ("I'll set an alarm") while I snickered to myself about the idea of bonding.

"So, where's the Horcrux? Can I see it?"

"It's--a... It's--a... Regulus, where is it?"

"How should I know, I gave it to you."

"Oh! It's on my night stand."

"I'll get it."

"What do you want with it, you'll probably break it," I said.

"Well, isn't that what we want to do?"

We dissolved into laughter again, and when Potter walked back in, he was looking decidedly too grim for the occasion.

"That's eerie, mate," he said, his gaze meeting neither of ours. "I really don't like that thing."

"Well, you're not supposed to like it."

"Good point, Reg."

"Thanks."

Potter rolled his eyes again.

"Oi, Prongs, you want a beer?"

"Well, while this look like an absolute riot, I told Lily I'd be home in twenty minutes. Oh, and I almost forgot." Potter reached into his pocket and pulled out some silvery fabric. "To get your brother into the castle," he said, tossing it at Sirius.

"Thanks, mate."

"What is it?"

"Invisibility cloak." Sirius held it up for me to see, his hands disappearing behind it.

"Whoa." I reached out to touch it.

"Yeah, I know right? Hey, be careful, this is James's most prized possession."

"It's brilliant," I said, throwing the cloak over my head. Potter grimaced.

"All right, well, I'll see you," he said, and headed back out the door.

"Bye, Prongs. Okay, okay, you'll get to play with it enough tomorrow." Sirius yanked it off me and folded it up neatly.

"Touchy." I pried open another beer, which was probably a bad decision.

Chapter Text

I woke up the next morning hanging off the side of a bed, staring down at a dustbin.

I shifted my gaze away from the unappealing contents of the dustbin (discarded tissues, banana peels, fingernail clippings), and buried my face in the sheets. They smelled like some kind of mix between pizza and aftershave, and were slightly damp besides that.

"Oh, bollocks." I raised my head tentatively and propped myself up on my elbows. I was then able to verify that the dampness of the sheets was indeed my fault, as the darker red patch on the sheets was confined to a small are that appeared to have been situated directly under my face.

I turned my head to the hitherto unexplored other half of the bed. "Well, bollocks again." As predicted, Sirius was lying there, with both pillows under his head, and a similar dark spot under his mouth. He was asleep and his leg was twitching.

We had something to do today, I thought. Something... important. I scanned for a clock and located one on the table by Sirius's head. The hour was conveniently obscured by the corner of his pillow. I leaned over to push the pillow down, and while I was hovering over him, reading the time (half past noon), his eyes snapped open. I jumped back.

"What are you doing?"

"Oh, just preparing to murder you in your sleep," I said. "I was looking at the time, moron. We have to be at Hogwarts for tea."

"Oh. Why are you in my bed?" He sat up and stretched, his back arching.

"Don't ask me, I just woke up here."

"Well, get out." He was standing up, pulling trousers on over his golden snitch boxers. "And listen, Reg, I know James said tea, but sitting around here is making me nervous--staying in one place, anywhere, when there's people after you..." He pulled aside the curtains and peered out the window, as if he expected Aurors or Death Eaters or perhaps a combination of the two to be bearing down on us from the sky.

"So, you wanna go now?"

"The sooner the better." He sighed, pushing his hair out of his eyes and continued to stair out the window.

I cleared my throat and drew my knees up to my chest. "Yeah, you're probably right. I just can't help feeling like I don't wanna rush out to meet the judge."

"Didn't you already do that when you went with James and me?"

"No, then--then he didn't say if he'd help or not. He just told us to bring back the locket, so what if I hand him this thing on a silver platter and then he says he won't help. Well, I'm sure he wouldn't say 'won't', he'd say 'can't', which would be a lie."

"Dumbledore wouldn't do that."

"Not to you, maybe."

"It doesn't matter who you are, he wouldn't just manipulate anyone like that."

"You don't think so? Look, I'm not saying the man's evil, I'm saying he's looking out for his, and it's enough taking care of people he trusts. He's not going to have any sympathy for Death Eaters who got cold feet past the point at which they're useful to him. I don't blame him. For all he knows, I could be dangerous. I understand it's in his and everyone else's best interests to turn me in, at least to be on the safe side. If I'm locked up, that's one more potential Death Eater out of the way, and he won't have any blood on his hands, either, but you can see, Sirius, you can see why I don't want that."

"God, Reg. Shut up." He pulled the curtains closed and stalked off into the hall.

"Yeah, well, fuck you too," I called after him, leaning forward to watch his back retreat down the hall and kicking the sheets off my legs. "It's an easy solution for you, isn't it? Pawn me off on Dumbledore, let him fucking decide it."

I heard the refrigerator door slam. "Why are you still talking? This is what we decided. This is what we're doing."

"I don't recall deciding anything." I stood up, nearly kicking over the dustbin.

"You decided to come here."

I kicked my way into the trousers I'd been wearing the day before and pulled that damn Gryffindor Quidditch shirt on. "Yeah, well," I said, still struggling with the shirt over my face. "Maybe now I'm deciding to leave." I finally got the shirt down past my chin and smoothed it down over my torso.

"You're not going anywhere," he said, and now there was a definite, cold note of menace in his voice.

"You can't bully me, okay, I'm a big boy." I was searching for Sarah's wand, now. I had no idea where I'd put it. "I'll let you take him the Horcrux, I don't care about it anymore. More fucking trouble than it's worth--hey, have you seen my wand?" I'd been on my knees, looking under the bed, and when I turned he was standing rather ominously in the doorway with two wands in his hands.

"I told you, you're not going anywhere--unless it's to Dumbledore's with me. I'm not--dammit, would you listen?--I'm not doing it to be a bully. Where would you go? You said you came here because you didn't have anywhere else. So, what's changed now? What's your plan? You go out there alone and you're going to get killed--by Death Eaters or by Aurors. And well, like I said. I don't think you ought to die just yet."

"Well." I sat back against the bed. "And what am I supposed to do?"

Sirius shrugged. He wasn't looking me in the eyes.

"That's it? Well, I don't know what I expect, I suppose it is my fault."

"Yeah, you know. It really is."

"Can I have the wand?"

"It would be really cowardly to run away now."

"First off, that doesn't really answer my question, and second, no, it would be smart to run away now. I do have a sense of self-preservation, you know. I'm not a coward, but I'm not foolish either."

He tossed the wand at me and it rolled away under the bed before I could stop it. "Let's go."

"Have you been listening to me at all?"

"I thought we decided we were going."

"You decided. You."

He looked like he wanted to hit me, but clasped his hands in front of him and bit his lips closed for a moment before replying. "You have to own up to your mistakes sooner or later. Why don't you do it now, when there are people still willing to support you?" He spoke slowly, on the verge of shouting. "Come on. I don't want to wait around here anymore."

I reached under the bed and fished out the wand. "Somehow being coerced into doing what's easiest for everyone else doesn't seem very courageous to me."

"You are going to Apparate to Hogsmeade, aren't you?" he asked. I wasn't sure why he bothered. Even if I weren't, I already had my wand.

I stared hard at my fist clenched around the base of the wand. "Yeah, I reckon I am."

"All right, well, let me put on a shirt."

*

Hogwarts from under an invisibility cloak was different. I didn't feel invisible, for one thing, but I had to stay glued to Sirius's back or be constantly run into by clueless students who were, at this hour, running about everywhere, chattering and giggling and being, in general, inordinately and inappropriately cheerful and annoying. Why weren't they in class?

A few times in the hall, girls stopped Sirius to chat it up and gush about how they hadn't seen him in forever and oh my God, what was he doing back at Hogwarts, and it's so nice to see him. One Hufflepuff sixth year who obviously didn't know him as well as she thought she did even asked "if it was true about his brother".

It was gratifying when the pleasant smile he'd been wearing melted into an ugly grimace and he told her to mind her own goddamn business and that he had important business to attend to, so excuse him, please. I contemplated tripping her as we walked away, but I supposed it probably wasn't in my best interests to cause a scene.

I saw Sarah even, on her way out of the Great Hall. She had got herself a new wand already, by the looks of it, so I didn't feel too bad about stealing her old one anymore. And she didn't seem to have suffered any brain damage, so I figured no harm, no foul, but that was about where my good news stopped.

"We have the Horcrux," Sirius said, bursting in Dumbledore's door without even bothering to knock.

I, however, took the precaution of scanning the room before I threw the invisibility cloak off my head. Lucky for us, the room was empty, save for Dumbledore, sitting serenely at his desk and pouring tea from a lovely rose-print pot.

"Come in, boys, please. Have a seat."

I shrugged off the cloak and Dumbledore gave me a blank nod before turning his attention to Sirius, who was brandishing the locket like a weapon in his outstretched hand.

"I got it," I said, jutting my chin forward. "I went home and brought it back."

"I know." Dumbledore took the chain between his thumb and forefinger and lowered it to his desk. "We're very grateful."

"How do we destroy it?" Sirius asked eagerly.

"From what I understand, there are several effective methods. Tea?" Both Sirius and I declined. "If you see fit to leave the locket with me, I can take care of destroying it."

"Sure, get rid of it. I'm tired of the sight of the thing." I meant it, when I said it, and I made a shooing motion with my hand at it and turned away from it. But as I said it, a balloon inflated in my throat, then popped and sank down to the bottom of my stomach, where it settled uncomfortably. What had I done all this for, after all? There wasn't anything triumphant about turning traitor and running to the enemy for protection, giving up all traces of independence. I just gave him the only value I had, my own war trophy.

Well, forget it, I was alive now, not like before. I had more important things to worry about.

"As you wish," Dumbledore took a sip of his tea. "Now, I believe we have another matter to discuss. Regulus, I presume you wish to remain a free man."

"That's a safe presumption."

"Unfortunately, you're in a rather tight spot, as I'm sure you feel all too keenly."

"Right." I glanced surreptitiously at Sirius, who was gazing raptly at Dumbledore as though he had said anything vaguely useful.

"I don't have any easy answers, but I'm sure you didn't expect that. You do, however, have options."

"Do I?"

"Well, as I am not advising you as any kind of legal counselor," he said, taking a sip of tea, "I would say that yes, you have quite a few options. Some perhaps more feasible or attractive than others, but what it comes down to is that your own actions remain your own choice."

"I want to destroy the Horcrux. I want to do it myself. I found it, I nearly died for it, I think I've a right."

"Oh, certainly." Dumbledore's eyebrows raised and he set his teacup down.

"I've changed my mind."

"Yes, apparently you have."

"So, can I have it back?"

"Oh, dear, no."

"What?"

"I'm more than happy to let you do what, as you correctly assert, is your well-earned right, but I cannot in good conscience turn the Horcrux back over to you and let you walk out. Surely you understand we can take no chances with it getting lost or somehow slipping into the wrong hands." I tensed.

"Let me see it, then." I put out my hand and Dumbledore happily set it in my palm. I stood up--Sirius jerked in his chair and Dumbledore put up a palm to still him--and hung the locket on the hat rack by the door. I backed into the middle of the room and cast a quick glance back at Sirius, whose eyes looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets, and Dumbledore, whose beard was twitching with what looked like suppressed mirth.

I ignored that and stared at the locket. The slanted light through the windows illuminated dust motes floating between me and the locket. I took a breath and flexed my fingers around Sarah's wand. I thought about the flailing, headless body of a garter snake in the garden. I thought about the dust motes floating in the spotty light under the honeysuckle bushes. "Avada Kedavra!" The green jet shot out the tip of Sarah's wand thick and vibrant--it was one of my better killing curses, but before I could even discern its effects on the locket, something hit me from behind and I fell forward, hitting my eye on a chair corner on my way to the floor.

"You bastard, how dare you?" I heard him shout, and managed to twist around, still clutching my eye in time to see his fist rushing at my face.

"Get off me, you tosser, it's a bloody locket, not a Mudblood," I said to the best of my ability, spitting blood out of my mouth.

"It's an Unforgivable! How do you expect me to help you when--when." He looked up at Dumbledore as though just now remembering where he was. "Well." He sat back, allowing me to scrape myself out from underneath him. I still hadn't let go of my eye, but I could feel blood between my fingers, making them slippery.

"Unfortunately, Regulus, the killing curse will have no effect on a Horcrux, as it is the container, not the soul itself we are seeking to destroy, and the container is just as lifeless as the hat rack on which it hangs." Dumbledore wrapped his hands around the teapot and poured himself another cup. "Are you sure neither of you would like any?"

We both shook our heads, stiff-necked. "In that case, Sirius, I think you had better escort your brother to the hospital wing."

"Professor, can't we go to the library, I'd really like to--"

"Yes, I think we all would, Sirius, but you won't find anything about Horcruxes there, and I should think you'd like to attend to your brother's health." Sirius snorted. "I'll meet the both of you there in half an hour. I trust you will be rested and ready, for I predict we have a rather taxing venture in front of us."

*

I hadn't been to the hospital wing since my sixth year, when one of the Gryffindor beaters knocked me in the head with a bludger, but it remained unchanged. Dumbledore assured us that Madam Pomfrey would be expecting us, but I still half-expected her to be startled when I pulled off the invisibility cloak, or at least mutter to herself about having to treat non-students, but she didn't even glance twice when I appeared out of thin air beside Sirius, and all she said was, "The Black brothers, up to no good again, I see. Right then, Mr. Black, you should be ashamed of yourself, and Mr. Black, you go sit down on that bed and get your hand off that eye, young man." And with that she bustled off in another direction to do whatever it is she did.

"She was talking to you," I said, attempting reconciliation.

"Fuck off."

"Oh, you're charming." I climbed into bed and settled my head on the pillows.

"If Dumbledore hadn't specifically instructed me to stay here, I would be gone right now," he said, taking a seat by the bed and crossing his arms over his chest.

"It was an inanimate object!"

"That's not the point--clearly you don't get it. You know, I'm beginning to think James was right."

"About what?" I asked, stiff-lipped, taking my hand away from my eye cautiously. My fingers were covered in slick blood.

"He said once you're a Death Eater--if you even have the desire to become one--you can't understand basic moral questions or right and wrong. There's no changing that."

"Well, yet another example of Potter's already well-documented idiocy," I said, flicking my finger so a spot of blood landed on his shirt. "And I suppose you only do what's right all the time?"

"I may not be perfect, but I wouldn't ever cast an Unforgivable." He tried to rub away the blood, but just smeared it over his chest. "Especially not right in front of Dumbledore, are you completely stupid? Your freedom--hell, your life depends on his help and--"

And at this point, Madam Pomfrey returned, pulling the curtains aside and slapping her wand against her palm. "Let's take a look then, shall we?" She briefly shined a light in my eyes and then clucked to herself. "You boys can't even handle a little split brow and black eye yourselves? They're handing out diplomas like candy around here." She pointed her wand and the sticky warmth of the blood disappeared from around my eye. I reached up to touch and she slapped my hand away. "No touching. Now, I've put in a couple of stitches, and you'll need to have them out in about a week." She pointed her wand again and my hand was clean. "No telling where you'll be by then--"

"And what could you possibly mean by that?" I smiled.

"Don't interrupt your elders, and moreover, don't forget to have them out, wherever you are."

"Thanks, Dame Pomfrey. Say, I think I bit my tongue, too, you mind taking a look?" I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue.

"Now you shut your filthy mouth this instant, you rude boy," she said, but I could tell she secretly enjoyed it. "And by Merlin's beard, try and stay out of trouble. Honestly." She sighed heavily and gave us a motherly look before sweeping the curtain to the side and hurrying off again.

Sirius stood up and closed the curtain after her.

"So, do we just wait here for Dumbledore?"

"Yes."

"What a colossal waste of time."

"And what important things would you be doing, instead?"

"Oh, I don't know, perhaps destroying the goddamn Horcrux."

"Right, and how would you be going about that, genius?"

"Well, I have an idea, anyway, which is more than you've had in your entire life. Look, I first read about Horcruxes in a book from our family library--"

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Anyway, I wasn't paying particular attention at the time, but that's what made me recognize what was going on when the Dark Lord made one for himself. And I know it talked about destroying them in that book."

"So, why the fuck didn't you get it when you were at Grimmauld Place? Are you telling me we have to go back there?" Sirius looked a little green at the thought.

"Not a chance in Hell. It wouldn't be there, anyway. I took the book with me to school my seventh year, and one day me and Evan were reading it in Transfiguration. Of course, McGonagall caught us and confiscated it, and we were in detention for a full week. But it's gotta be here somewhere, and if we find it, Horcrux gone, easy as pie." I snapped my fingers to illustrate just how easy, in fact, it would be.

"And why are you just now divulging this information."

"Because I didn't want Dumbledore taking that over, too."

"You know, when I call you a moron, it's really an insult to morons everywhere."

"Well, are you going to help me look for it, or are you going to sit there spouting snappy insults all day long?"

"Oh, I'm sure Sirius will be more than willing to help. It sounds like just the type of mischief he enjoys."

I continued to be impressed by Dumbledore's sneak attacks. He had appeared soundlessly through the curtains while we were arguing. I didn't know exactly how long he'd been there, but certainly long enough to have heard my commentary on his "leadership".

"Professor! Did you find anything out?"

"Oh, goodness no. I was merely out letting Fawkes stretch his wings. I thought Mr. Black, the younger, made it clear that this was his duty to perform.

Of course, now that I'd articulated a plan he was willing to let me try it.

"Well, can I talk to Professor McGonagall without fear of being cursed and dragged to Auror headquarters?"

"Oh, I assure you Professor McGonagall will do nothing of the sort. Though I do advise you to continue to wear Mr. Potter's invisibility cloak in the corridors. For convenience's sake. I imagine it would be tiresome to engage each passing witch or wizard in a duel."

"Duly noted." (Not even a giggle.)

"And I would most appreciate it if you could keep me apprised of your progress."

"Of course," Sirius said, a little too eagerly in my opinion.

"Where's the Horcrux?" I asked before he could disappear again.

"Forgive me, Regulus, but that will remain with me until the moment of destruction is upon us." And then he was gone, before I could protest. I gritted my teeth and stared at the curtains behind where he'd been standing, but Sirius cut my brooding short by jumping up and nearly yanking my arm out of socket pulling me after him.

"Come on, let's get moving." He seemed to have forgotten my recent transgression and was excited, now that it was a Dumbledore-sanctioned activity. "Professor McGonagall loves me," he said as he speed-walked toward the exit, and I struggled to keep up while wrestling with the invisibility cloak. "So anyway, when we see her, let me do the talking. Do you think she's in class now? I'm pretty sure this is important enough to interrupt class, what do you think?"

We were out of the hospital wing now, and I was jogging after Sirius as he leapt up the stairs two at a time and continued his monolog. "I think so, but she's bound to be annoyed. But it's me, you know, and she'll probably pretend to be irritated but secretly thrilled to see me."

We were on the right corridor now. "She's about sixty, you know," I said.

"Regulus, she's a mature woman. If you can't appreciate that, it just shows your own immaturity."

"You're nutters."

"And will you focus, we have important business to attend to." And with that, he threw the door open and marched in. I waited outside.

He returned moments later with a rather concerned McGonagall. "Now, Mr. Black, a matter of life and death, you say?"

"Yeah, can we possibly go to your office? Reg can't show himself in the hallway," he added in a conspiratorial whisper.

"Your brother is here?" McGonagall looked over her shoulders.

"Yes."

"Well, ah... I suggest we make haste, in that case."

Walking, or rather slumping along several paces behind McGonagall and Sirius (who looked as though he would've liked to shine McGonagall's apple) made me feel like I was fourteen and a long lecture about respect and responsibility and a night of polishing statues with toothbrushes were in store for me.

Arriving at McGonagall's office did little to change that feeling. As soon as the door was securely closed, she said, "Okay, Regulus, show yourself."

I didn't like the sound of her tone, but I reluctantly shed the cloak. As soon as I was visible, she slapped me across the face.

"Fu--ow. What was that for?" I grabbed the side of my face in disbelief. I'd never been hit by a teacher before, no matter how much I'd deserved it.

"Frankly, I am disgusted with your conduct, Mr. Black."

"What did I--"

"I was appalled to hear what you did to Sarah Stafford. No woman deserves that kind of shoddy treatment."

"Professor, I assure you everything Sarah and I did was completely consensual."

"Oh you stupid, stupid boy. She certainly didn't consent to being stunned and having her belongings stolen. I would not be at all inclined to help you in any manner had not Professor Dumbledore explained to me the circumstances."

"So you know what we're trying to do," Sirius cut in.

"Unfortunately." McGonagall sighed, sitting down at her desk and gazing out the window.

My cheek was still smarting (she packed quite a wallop for a geriatric) and I was feeling unjustly persecuted, so I stayed standing in the door, my lip curled back, but Sirius was only too eager to plop himself down in front of her and lean on her desk like a moron. "So, we need your help," he began. "I don't know if you'll be able to recall this particular case among my brother's many and varied misdeeds--"

"You're one to talk," I said.

"Shut up, Reg."

"Yes, do." I really didn't think it was necessary for McGonagall to add that.

"Anyway, he tells me that in his seventh year you confiscated a book on Dark Magic from him."

"I certainly do remember that. You and Rosier could have gone to Azkaban for simply possessing that book, and given the path you have chosen in life, I'm not sure at all I made the correct decision, keeping it to myself."

I made a great business of studying my fingernails, eyebrows arched.

"Well Professor, as fortune has it, we need that book."

"Pardon me, Mr. Black, but didn't you hear what I just said?"

"Oh, please tell me you didn't destroy it," I said, snapping to attention.

"No, Mr. Black, I am not one to destroy property."

Sirius cut in. "See Professor, I don't know if Professor Dumbledore explained about the Horcrux, but that book discusses how to destroy them, and we need to know."

No muscle in McGonagall's hard face moved for several seconds. Finally she shook her head and looked at Sirius. "Well, I understand this is a difficult situation. I trust you'll be very careful; this is not a book I would like to see in a student's hands again."

"Of course, Professor. We'll keep it safe."

"You will keep it safe, Sirius Black. I'm giving this to you, and when you're done, I expect you to bring it directly back to me, and to me alone."

"Of course," he repeated. He was looking at her with pure adulation, as though he were imagining a rather different sort of encounter than returning a book to her.

She looked back at him with taught eyebrows, as though she were reconsidering. But nevertheless, she drew her wand from a pocket in her robes and pointed it at a drawer in her desk, which I heard slide open. From that drawer she retrieved a thick, black book encrusted with jewels, all of which were dulled from years of sitting on shelves and in drawers. The silver letters that had once comprised the title were now rubbed almost completely off, but the book still radiated ominously. It looked like it had a heartbeat.

"Be careful," she said, handing the book to Sirius.

He nodded gravely, making a pathetic attempt at concealing his puppy-like eagerness.

"Now shoo, I have class to teach. And I'll eat my hat if those kids have been turning ladybugs into buttons for the past twenty minutes."

"Certainly, and may I thank you for all your help." Sirius and McGonagall stood up at once and Sirius performed some ridiculous mating ritual that I supposed he meant to be a bow.

"Yeah. Thanks," I said stiffly as McGonagall passed me at the door.

"You, young man," she said, stopping in front of me, her thin lips turned down at the corners. "Apologize to Sarah Stafford." And with that she turned on her heel and was gone.

"Gee, all the things I've done and that's what she's mad about," I said, staring down the hall after her.

"Uh-huh." Sirius was studying the book with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. "Let's go to the library."

Chapter Text

Ten minutes later we were sitting between rows of bookcases in the far corner of the library, squished up over the book uncomfortably where we figured we were least likely to be disturbed.

"That looks really painful, I think we can--ow, get your elbow out of my ribs--anyway, surely there's a way that doesn't involve the loss of limbs."

"Well, I somehow doubt we're going to find a Basilisk around, and even if we did--Jesus Christ, you're about to snap my ankle--even if we did, I wouldn't be the one trying to convince it to bite the locket."

"Well..." Sirius trailed off and we sat in silence, scanning the page with its gaudily embellished lettering and incomprehensible Medieval English. "I think this one requires us to sacrifice a virgin."

"Do we know any?”

Sirius snorted. "Oh, oh! Look, this one requires drinking a lot of wine..."

"...And then slitting our own throats."

"What the fuck is wrong with this book?" Sirius shouted, and his voice echoed through the library.

"It's fucking Dark Magic, Sirius," I hissed. "It's not going to be nice."

"No, but who destroys a Horcrux by committing mass ritual suicide? I think this book is fucking with us. How many Horcruxes have ever even been created, and there are about fifty methods of destruction in here. I can't believe there's been an opportunity to try out even half of these."

"You’re probably right," I said. "So, why don't we try out the more harmless-sounding ones first and then move on to the nastier ones if we have to."

"Harmless? Yeah, good luck."

"Well, what about this one?" I pointed at a paragraph toward the bottom of the page. "The ‘Pessimist's Potion’ destroys all matter placed in it, and will destroy a Horcrux like anything else. Only, 'one must exercise the utmost caution, as it will destroy human flesh and bone just as easily.'"

"Well, I guess that sounds less dangerous than committing suicide."

"It doesn't say how to make it, though."

"You can ask Slughorn."

"Fuck no." I slammed the book closed. "No, no. I have had enough of talking to our old teachers. I said fuck them when I left school and--"

"Fine then, we'll fucking look it up. It's going to take a lot fucking longer this way."

Well, it might’ve gone quicker if Sirius hadn’t spent most of his time pouting instead of reading, but by midnight we'd found the Pessimist's Potion in Pyotr Petrov's Ponderous Pamphlet of Pernicious Potions.

"We need dragon's blood? Do you think even Slughorn keeps dragon's blood around?" Again Sirius was shouting.

"You'd be surprised by what bizarre things he has," I said, keeping my voice low and hoping he'd pick up on the cue. "If anyone's going to have it, it's him."

"Great. Fine. Fabulous. Let’s do it. Won't it destroy the cauldron?"

"Oh, well... Okay, here it says that it won't destroy anything coated in unicorn's blood. Apparently you have to make a kind of glaze out of it..."

"Great. Wonderful. Dragon's blood, unicorn blood. Blood, blood, blood. Yeah, sounds easy as pie. You're going to have to talk to him, you know" Sirius said, pointing an accusatory finger straight at me. "He likes you."

"Actually, if you talked to him, I bet he'd give us anything we wanted. I know he'd be delighted to stake his claim on the last member of the Black family he’s yet to so far."

"Whatever happened to 'I wanna do it myself'?"

"I do hope that ridiculous little girl voice isn't an attempt at mocking me. Anyway, I'm just strategizing. But look, most of the other stuff isn't that rare, it should be in the regular storeroom. I figure the dragon's blood is the operative ingredient here, though, but we can make this, if we can get him to let us into the private storeroom."

“Well, why should we have to get him to let us in?” The idea of having to get friendly with Slughorn seemed to have lit a fire under Sirius, finally. “Don’t tell me when you were in school you never used your storeroom privileges for, shall we say, ‘personal projects’. Of course, back then I knew the password…”

"What was it?”

"Fuck if I know... Something Slughornish, you know. Maybe... profitable acquaintanceship. Or lucrative relationship."

"Felicitous friendship?"

"Yeah. That was it."

"Same as my year. I bet he hasn't changed it yet."

"Well, shit, what are we waiting for, then?” Sirius jumped up. I could’ve used that enthusiasm when I was spending hours single handedly combing through every potions handbook in the damn library.

The password hadn't changed. Sirius and I collected ingredients silently, passing tiny glass vials and jars up and down the ladder. When we were done, we had everything for the potion--even the dragon's blood.

Sirius’s newfound excitement, however, seemed to have quickly fizzled. "It's just not the same," he said glumly on our way back to the hospital wing, where we had decided to sleep. He was looking down at our cute little Easter basket full of poisons. "Didn't even get a rush, you know? Didn’t have to hide from professors, or set a booby-trap for Filch, or dodge Peeves. Didn’t drop any jars of dangerous airborne chemicals."

"Well, don't abandon all hope," I said, checking the recipe I had copied down. "We've still got a fun-filled time ahead of us if we want to get that unicorn blood."

Sirius groaned.

"What? What now?"

"Well, I’m all for creating mischief, but… doesn't this just seem kind of... wrong?" He was staring down, absorbed in the basket.

"In what way?" I asked, my jaw clenched.

"Well, aren't unicorns like, the epitome of... innocence, or whatever." He scratched his nose. "And if you kill one, aren't you kinda supposed to like... lose your soul, or something?"

"First of all, that's an old wives' tale, and second of all, we're not going to kill one. We're just going to buy the blood from someone who has."

He muttered something under his breath, but I ignored him and pushed open the door to the hospital wing, hoping there'd be a scared little first year in the bed by the door I could spook from under the invisibility cloak. There wasn't.

In fact, all the beds were empty, which I reckon was really a good thing. I sat down on one of the beds and drew the curtains around it before I pulled off the cloak. "We'll go to Knockturn Alley tomorrow," I said, in a fairly loud stage whisper to Sirius in the next bed over.

"Do they sell unicorn blood there?"

"I know a place," I said, crawling into bed and pulling the sheets up to my chin. "Kind of black market apothecary. Went there with the Rosiers one summer--if anyone's going to have it, it's them. 'Course, I doubt Dumbledore will approve—pretty illegal stuff, you know. We'll have to be disguised."

"Well, how do you think we should go about that?" he asked. I could hear him punching his pillow to fluff it up.

"You're on board for this?" I squinted at the ceiling.

"I suppose it seems more moral than sacrificing virgins."

"Do you think the virgin in question has to have gone through puberty in order to qualify for virgin sacrifice, or can you just sacrifice like, a three-year-old?"

"I would suggest polyjuice, but that's more time than I'm willing to waste, and besides, who here are we gonna become?"

"So, what are we going to do? Paste on fake mustaches and pull our cowls down over our eyes?"

There was a moment’s pensive pause. "No, not paste," he said, and after a few seconds I could hear him quietly laughing.

*

I began to think I'd made a mistake, going along with Sirius, when the two of us were walking in the door of the Leaky Cauldron the next afternoon. My heart made a desperate attempt to escape through my ribcage when a few patrons and the bartender glanced up at the sound of the door slamming, but the patrons all looked back down at their drinks and periodicals with the same half-closed eyed and the bartender continued wiping down the bar and said, "Anything to drink, fellas?" as we approached.

I shook my head, mistrustful of the voice that might come out of my mouth, but Sirius said, "No, thank you," rather confidently and the bartender nodded. I supposed, after all, it was unlikely that anyone would recognize us; I wouldn't have recognized myself in a mirror. My hair was long and gray and half of my wrinkled face was covered in a bushy beard that I was sure I could use to store various belongings for long periods of time.

"You're sure this wears off, right?" I muttered as we exited the back door, pulling at the tip of my beard. I tried to lower my voice to sound older, as the Aging Potion didn’t seem to have any effect on internal-type things. Good for spryness, bad for appearance.

"Yeah, but we should be concerned about it lasting long enough. How long do you think it'll take?" Sirius and I looked remarkably similar as old men--our beards did much to disguise our dissimilar features, but I suppose most old bearded men look a lot alike.

"It'd be quicker if you'd pick up the pace," I said. He had insisted on acquiring a cane and was tottering alone as though his hip were about to break.

"We're old men," he said. "This is how old men walk."

"Not old men who have places to be--would you look at that?" I stopped in my tracks outside of Gringotts. Posted up on a bulletin board, amidst a smattering of other suspected Death Eaters and your rare rogue murderer, was a picture of seventeen-year-old me, smiling haughtily and holding the wildly fluttering golden snitch in my hand. "They're using my quidditch picture for my wanted poster?"

"Shut up, you idiot," Sirius hissed in my ear and pulled at my elbow.

Still in awe, and wondering to whom I could complain about this injustice, I let Sirius lead me away, but it wasn't until we were turning the corner onto Knockturn Alley that my own face with its stupid, smug cocked eyebrow--that little idiot--stopped commanding my mind's eye.

"Sirius--I mean, Martin, I mean--look, I don't know if this is such a good idea. I'm feeling kind of faint." Which was true.

"Listen, Daniel, now is no time to turn poofter on me. This was your idea, and you're going to relax and see it through and no one recognizes us."

"Easy for you to say, your quidditch picture isn't up outside of Gringotts."

"Shut up, I swear, you would make a terrible spy." He was still holding my elbow, guiding me down the street. It must have looked appropriate for two old men, because none of the increasingly sinister-looking passersby, most of whom had their cowls pulled over their eyes and suspect facial hair, I might add, gave us a second look. Once I realized that my heart started beating at a reasonable tempo once more. "Now, what store are we looking for?" Sirius asked, squinting behind his thick spectacles.

"That one." I pointed a few shops up, on the right, at a nondescript shopfront, much like all the shops around it, that was only identified by a plain sandwich board labeled "Apothecary" in front of its shadowy doorway.

"This place looks pleasant," Sirius said, eyeing the assorted dead animals hanging in the dusty window with a curled lip.

"Now it's your turn to shut up," I said and pulled my cloak's hood up. "Follow my lead." I heard him disguise his snorted laughter as a wheeze as I pushed open the doorway.

There was enough darkness in the store that even had I been there nineteen and naked no one would have seen much of my face, nor any other part of my body. I almost tripped over a bucket of frog parts that was nearly invisible in the darkness as we made our way to the counter against the back wall.

"Hello," I said stiffly, attracting the attention of the white-haired man by the register, who had been hunched over a large, yellowed book. Even in the dark, I could see his luminous eyes, one bright blue and one milky and wandering.

"Ah--can I help you?" His voice was high and sharp. I remembered him from my visit with Evan--his name was Peters.

"I hope so," I said. "My, er—associate and I are looking for a very special ingredient. A very rare ingredient, which I fear we will have trouble, shall we say, locating in the front of the shop."

Peters's eyes seemed to shrink back into their sockets and he closed the book in front of him gently. "Our shop is very well-stocked."

"I've no doubt," I said swiftly. My pulse was quickening, and I was sweating despite the dank coolness of the shop. "We were directed here by a friend, whom I'm sure you're familiar with. Michele Rosier."

"Mmm." Peters nodded. I couldn't tell if this was a good or bad response, and my hand tightened around my wand.

"And what exactly is it you're looking for?" he asked, still stroking the cover of the book with one gnarled finger.

I only hesitated briefly. "Unicorn blood."

Peters inhaled sharply, as though something about the request startled him. "We carry nothing of the sort here, and I will advise you that the sale or possession of such is illegal under Subsection IV article c. of the Wizarding Code of Law. Now I must ask you to leave immediately."

I looked at Sirius, who was staring at Peters as if he were an alien with an extra eyeball. I saw Sirius go for his wand before I even remembered Peters must have one, but I ducked in time to miss Peters's curse and Sirius's Stupefy hit the old man right between the eyes.

"Jesus," Sirius breathed, still with the same expression on his strange and elderly face after Peters hit the ground.

"He knew something," I said.

"You think, you absolute git? We gotta get out of here."

"No way," I said, hopping over the counter and Peters's body.

"Reg, what--"

"I know the door's here somewhere," I said, running my hands along the back wall, which was adorned with old tapestries and predictably unpleasant images of the effects of potions. "I think it should be..." I lifted the corner of the largest tapestry and felt behind it for any discrepancy in the smooth, slightly damp texture. "Oh, here." I found a small knot in the stone and pushed it, to no discernible effect. "No..."

"We have to leave, Reg."

"Wait." I dropped down to my knees and snatched Peters's wand out of his hand. I tapped the knot with it and a door-sized section of the wall swung open.

The back of the store was even darker than the front, which was understandable, as it didn't even have a single, grimy window to let in the light. "Lumos." I entered with only a small amount of trepidation, and when I turned to call Sirius in for moral support, he was already behind me.

"How do we find it?" he asked, lighting the tip of his own wand. When the light hit his face, I noticed with some distress that his beard appeared shorter and blacker than it had several minutes ago.

"It's not organized alphabetically," I said, lighting up the nearest shelf with my wand and trying to subtly hide my face from Sirius. Huge, multi-colored eyeballs stared back at me. "Giants' eyes," I said, reading the label underneath. "I think--I think I remember... Yeah. It's organized from least to most illegal."

"So how illegal is unicorn blood?" Sirius asked, peering skeptically around him.

I turned and strode down the length of the room, holding my wand tip up to the shelves. "Pretty damn illegal," I said, reaching the back of the room. "Here it is." I bent down to a low shelf and retrieved a tray full of glass cases labeled (very helpfully), "unicorn blood".

"Thank God, let's get out of here."

"Let's," I said, opening the pack at my side and dumping the whole tray in. We dashed out, closing the door behind us, and stepped over Peters again, who was coming to slowly, fluttering his eyelashes and groaning. Sirius ignored him and jumped the counter, but I paused long enough to Stupefy him again before hurrying out the door.

Sirius wasn't tottering anymore, in fact, his cane was flying over the ground as we walked as quickly as humanly possible back down Knockturn Alley. I watched Sirius's beard blacken and shrink, his hair shorten, and his wrinkles disappear with alarm and was too horrified to confirm what I knew must be happening to my own by feeling.

By the time we turned the corner to Diagon Alley, Sirius had given up on the cane and tossed it aside, and the only thing I could think to do was pull my cowl down so far I could only see about a meter in front of my feet. I was sure we were done for, and continued to be surer and surer, watching the skin on my once claw-like and gnarled hands smooth and my knuckles shrink, liver spots vanish.

But then we reached the Leaky Cauldron, and I could see the front door, see freedom, and I pushed the cowl of my cloak back only to be greeted with the sight of Lucius Malfoy and Narcissa. I admit my first instinct upon seeing Narcissa was to straighten up and stick out my chest, but soon after that my survival instinct kicked in, and I made to turn and go the way I came before they saw me.

But then Narcissa turned and her eyes met mine. My heart stopped. Her smooth, fair, delicate brow furrowed slightly (and really adorably); she still couldn't quite recognize me through the Aging Potion, but she thought she knew me. I felt Sirius's hand tighten around my arm. Her pale blue eyes widened and her peachy lips parted--god, she was beautiful when she was shocked--and I like to think she paused before she pulled on Malfoy's sleeve and pointed at us. Sirius was now cutting off circulation to the bottom half of my arm, and I was squeezing the fingers of my other hand numb around my wand.

“Uncle Orion, is that you?” Narcissa cried. I was frozen. I felt Sirius’s hand leave my arm and when I glanced around for support, he was gone.

When I looked back the other way, Narcissa was dragging Lucius Malfoy over to me. “Uncle Orion, I’m so glad to see you’re out of the hospital!” she said, placing her lovely hand gently on my arm. I resisted the temptation to grab it and begin kissing it passionately.

“Er… yes, my dear, I er… am feeling much better.”

“Oh, how wonderful.” She withdrew her hand and her brow furrowed slightly.

“Er—“ I coughed. I tried desperately to try to think of something my dad would say, but even attempting it made me feel foul. Had I really sunk so low as to impersonate my own father? “Well, and how are you and this—“ I narrowed my eyes “—husband of yours doing, my dear?” Apparently, I had.

“Well, we were just about to do some shopping—you know, I talked to Aunt Walburga yesterday, and she still seemed quite concerned about your health, this is a really remarkable turnaround.”

“Yes, well, er… The Healers were all stunned, too.” I almost chuckled apologetically, but caught myself in time and wheezed into my sleeve. I couldn’t remember if I had ever heard my father laugh.

“Auntie was also—I hope I’m not bringing up a sore topic, but she was quite upset… and worried about Regulus. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from him…?”

“No!”

“Oh, I don’t mean to be prying, I just… Well, we’re all concerned as well, and we’ve got our eyes and ears opened.”

“You’re concerned?” I asked, perhaps too dreamily.

“Oh, yes! I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon,” she said, but I could tell by the soft, pitying curve of her eyebrows that she didn’t think anyone would ever hear from me again. That genuine concern almost made me declare my true identity and throw myself at her feet.

Lucius Malfoy’s hard expression stopped me. “Orion—“

“That’s Mr. Black, to you,” I snapped before my internal filter could stop me.

He arched an eyebrow high on his forehead. “…Mr. Black, you truly are looking exceptionally well today.” I didn’t know how he managed to get all of that out without once parting his teeth.

I coughed and put my hand to my chin. There was barely more hair there than there was when I went a few days without shaving. “Well, you know, the wonders of modern medicine,” I said, clearing my throat.

“I was just thinking you looked quite pale,” Narcissa said. “Are you sure you’re quite recovered?” She truly was an angel.

“You know, now that you mention it, I am feeling a tad peaky, perhaps it’s best if I popped over to St. Mungo’s, just to be on the safe side. Really lovely to see you, my dear.” With that, I did a 180 and made a beeline for the door. Before it slammed behind me, I heard Narcissa say softly, “Nice to see you too, Uncle Orion…”

Moments later, I was throwing the front doors of the castle open and stumbling into the entrance hall, beardless. Sirius, absolutely indistinguishable from his normal 21-year-old self was standing right inside—he’d obviously been watching out the window for me.

"Holy hell," I said, staggering to the wall, clutching my side and sliding down to the floor with my back against the wall. "I can't believe I just did that."

“What did you do?” he asked, and I could hear his footsteps advancing on me from across the hall.

“What could I do? I pretended I was our father,” I said, still panting. “I think she believed me. I don’t know about Malfoy…”

Sirius laughed so loudly it echoed in the entrance hall. "I can't believe how dumb you are," he said when he'd recovered his breath enough to speak in something more than monosyllables.

I didn't have to ask why this time; I just retreated under the cloak.

"You are so dumb, you git, really, your stupidity knows no bounds. You realize you could've gotten us killed, you realize that."

I nodded my head because I knew he couldn't see and gloat.

"And I'm not kidding here!" He stood up, and he must have looked pretty silly, shaking his finger and lecturing an empty spot on the wall.

"Er. I'm sorry," I said lamely.

"Yeah, you're fucking sorry." He pushed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and looked off into the distance. For a moment we endured the silence, and then he looked back down at me. "You know, James is going to want that cloak back."

I wanted to argue that Potter couldn't possibly need it more than I did, but I decided it was in my best interests to at least maintain the appearance of humility, so I said, "Okay."

"You must have been the worst Death Eater." He now had his hands on his hips, and he was staring at me with a deep and faintly comical frown on his face.

I figured it was probably better in his eyes to have been a bad Death Eater than a good one, so I said, "Yeah."

Awkward silence.

"Although, I personally think that given the circumstances I did the best that I could have done, and I’m pretty sure that Narcissa believed me. And we got the unicorn blood, didn’t we? And it’s not like Peters knew who we were. And I didn’t even hit on Narcissa once.”

Sirius sighed. “All right, but if I go to jail because of your stupidity, I will never forgive you."

"That sounds fair."

"Well, come on, then. We can't sit in the entrance hall forever. Besides I reckon we have work to do... And since there's no changing how dull you were born, we might as well forget about it." I think he meant this to be comforting.

Chapter Text

If I had known how long I would be waiting for this potion to brew, I might have opted for the virgin sacrifice. How I had managed to overlook the seventy-two hour simmer time, I will never understand, and there was only so long that Sirius and I could sit silently together in the dank, drippy abandoned dungeon classroom, making vaguely discontented faces at each other.

At around hour three, Sirius said he was going to go to the kitchens to see about getting us some dinner. He didn't return for over an hour, and when he did, it was with half a plate of cold steak and kidney pie. "I got caught up in a conversation," he said and declined to elaborate further.

I ate my meager meal in silence, and two hours later we attempted to conjure bedding and ended up sleeping on lumpy pillows with threadbare sheets on top of the stone workbenches.

Unless Sirius was a particularly adept actor (something which I doubted very much) judging by his snores he fell asleep quite readily. I, on the other hand, tossed and turned and tangled myself up in the sheets until hour nine, at which point I flipped onto my back, opened my eyes, and began to think seriously about my situation.

I couldn’t do this for sixty-three more hours, even if I managed to spend 2/3 of them sleeping. And what did I have to look forward to when it was done? I felt like I was staring up through water, through the same murky darkness, with twisting fog passing in front of my face like a snake with its head cut off.

I kicked my legs out of the nearly completely ineffectual sheet and took a deep breath of thin, damp dungeon air. The room seemed as though it had shrunk since I lay down and soon the walls would be pressing up against my nose and shoulders, in addition to which, the creeping feeling that I would be seeing a lot more of dungeons in my future seemed to be draining the oxygen from the air. I took another deep breath and put the back of my hand against my forehead. There were tiny beads of sticky perspiration there, despite the fact that it couldn't have been much over 60 degrees Fahrenheit and earlier I'd been complaining how cold it was.

What if--if I left now, Sirius would see this whole thing through to the end, I was sure. I didn't really need to be here--it was stupid, wasn't it, sticking around on principle, for the sake of honor, when the rest of my life was at stake?

But Sirius was right when he'd said nothing had changed since I'd come to him for help. I still had nowhere to go. And my parents... It wouldn't be fair to them if I ran, if I disappeared. But it wouldn't really be what they wanted, either, if I ended up dead or in prison. In prison, maybe even worse. My stomach turned when I thought about those wanted posters, how they must have tormented my mum and dad. How they must have been ashamed. None of this was fair to them--I wish...

I wiped my hand over my face and tried to fluff up the pillow under my legs by kicking at it violently.

And what was the use of it now? Under Dumbledore’s watchful eye, even if I stayed out of Azkaban, I'd never escape a life of hiding. I’d be lucky to be under an invisibility cloak, like a ghost for the rest of my life.

I thought again of my life mere weeks ago, when my parents tried pitching the idea of marrying Lydia Travers to me again. I'd dodged them on each previous occasion, but this time Mum gave me a spiel about how she and Dad were getting old, how times were hard, how they wanted to see me--their only son, as they were always quick to remind me--settled in life, should anything happen. How they wanted grandchildren. And the big guns: how it was my sole responsibility to carry on the Black family name. If I didn't fulfill my responsibility, the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black would end with me.

That hadn't seemed to matter much when I went off on my suicide mission, but now? The House of Black was something special--hadn't it been, when I was sixteen, the only thing I wanted to fight for? If it were truly important to me, and I knew it was... What did I do now?

I knew someone who could tell me.

I was so relieved to have found an answer (or, at least, a diversion) that I had got up, dressed, thrown the invisibility cloak over me and was out the front door and onto the lawn before I slowed down enough to think about what I was doing. I didn't have a doubt in my mind that Mum would tell me exactly what was best for the Black family--there was nothing that clouded her vision on that topic.

Getting to St. Mungo's wouldn’t be that hard. Even if Apparition might make it easier for opposing forces to track me, I still had the invisibility cloak--and Potter was a fool if he thought he was ever getting that back--but... It wouldn't be hard for anyone to guess what I was doing if all of a sudden I was Apparating outside of St. Mungo's. I couldn't have Death Eaters, or worse, Aurors, coming to accost my family in the hospital. More than they already surely had, I meant. Mum would probably tell me—and she would be right—that the best thing for the Black family after all was for me to stay as far away from it as possible.

At this realization, I finally stopped and looked up. I could see the iron gates up ahead of me, even through the thick night.

I could see the gates ahead of me, but I couldn't go forward, through them, and going back--well, there was another part of the Black family, reluctant though he may have been. After this--it was already too late for the Horcrux mess, but afterwards, I couldn't in good conscience keep involving Sirius in my problems. He was right (again), he could go to prison for helping me, but he was doing it anyway.

But I had to go back, didn't I? If Sirius would keep helping me, despite the personal risk on his part, I should at least stick around to fix what, after all, were my mistakes. Hadn’t I known all along that destroying the Horcrux was more than just fighting the Dark Lord, more than just something I hoped would weaken him? It was more than an insult, even more than taking something away from him: I had hoped it would give something back to me. Give me back something I’d lost, or maybe something I’d never even had in the first place, but something I needed. That’s why I had to do it myself; that’s why I had to stick it out now.

So, I stood up straighter, smoothed out my shirt and turned back towards the castle.

I had only been gone thirty minutes at the most, but I knew something was wrong when I saw a sliver of light flashing from under the door into our abandoned dungeon room. I didn't know why, precisely, but it made me very nervous. I stood outside the door for a moment with my heart rate increasing every second before I heard a voice. It was muffled enough by the thick door that I couldn't understand what was being said, but it was unmistakably a voice.

Without thinking much (I really needed to learn to think before I acted), I dropped down to my knees and pushed my ear up to the keyhole.

"...I knew he didn't want to come, but I thought he'd got over it. He keeps running away, and I don't know..." Sirius.

"It’s easy to understand. He’s behaving as though he’s very scared." And Dumbledore.

"I reckon he has a good reason to be. I'm worried--I know we're not wasting our time here, but... Is there any chance at all that this is going to help Reg… you know, not go to Azkaban? Maybe he's right to want to run."

There was a long pause before Dumbledore spoke up again.

"I don't know exactly what your brother told you, but I am concerned he may not have been completely forthright about the extent of his role in the Death Eaters."

"He told me he wasn't important. He said he was 'like an intern'."

"That may be something of an understatement. As I'm sure you know all too well, your family--excuse me, the Black family--is quite important in many circles, and quite openly in agreement with many of the many tenets of Lord Voldemort's ideology. I would hazard a guess that Regulus is not your only relative to be involved more directly in Voldemort's efforts, and even members of an ostensibly secret organization are not generally good at keeping secrets from people with whom they have intimate familial and social relationships. In short, Regulus knows, I am sure, quite a bit about many Death Eaters, probably many high-ranking Death Eaters at that. That alone makes him dangerous enough for Voldemort to want to keep close at hand. Furthermore, your brother is now the sole heir to the Black Family’s name, fortune, and power. Regulus is very important to Voldemort--he has the potential, if, in the future he has children, to produce the next generation of Voldemort supporters from that most illustrious House of Black. Those children will have a good chance to rise to high offices and important places. They won't be soldiers, won't be Death Eaters, but they'll be every bit as supportive of Lord Voldemort and his ideas as their father was. That is the idea. There are a few problems with this plan, the most obvious being that Blacks, as I’m sure you know, do not submit well to outside leadership.” I could almost see the smirk I am sure he wore as he said this. “You are case in point. Another flaw being that this plan’s success hinges on Regulus’s strong allegiance, and as you and I have seen, that allegiance is nonexistent. But in attempts to win his loyalty, I am sure Voldemort has been careful to form something of a personal relationship with Regulus. Up until recently, though, Regulus had been too young—still is too young, by any normal set of expectations—but these are uncertain times, and I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Black are anxious to marry him to a worthy young woman, sooner rather than later, and Voldemort will have assuredly concentrated his efforts at securing Regulus's trust and loyalty around his parents' efforts to push him into marriage. I do not think Regulus would have known enough to guess that Voldemort was making a Horcrux without being fairly well acquainted with him personally.

"Why would Voldemort trust him with that? Already. Regulus clearly wasn't... clearly isn't..."

"I have no doubt that Voldemort never directly told Regulus anything about his plans—I’m sure he never told anyone. But I imagine it would have been easy for Regulus to guess—easier for him perhaps than for anyone else. Voldemort, young as he seems to someone like me, does not have much respect for youth himself. He would have considered Regulus still too young to be a real threat; he probably would not have been as careful with him.

“But, though not as perceptive as he must believe himself to be, one thing Voldemort is is extremely paranoid. Judging by the complexity of the security on the cave Regulus described, I cannot help but think that Voldemort did not create it all single-handedly. The impossibility of complete secrecy under these circumstances leads me to believe that this Horcrux, the one that Regulus found, cannot be the only one he has made.”

There was a longer silence, and I used it to try to collect my thoughts. That effort was hugely unsuccessful, as I found it difficult to concentrate on anything but my growing physical discomfort. I felt something pushing against the inside of my chest. My lungs felt too heavy to draw breath, like they were filled with lead. Then Sirius spoke.

"I always felt like I owed him something. Reg, I mean. After I left him alone in that house. It wasn't him I meant to leave. Although, maybe I thought it was at the time. When I got a little bit older, I thought, if I could've just taken him with me... He was so young, he could've changed. And when he came to me the other day, I thought maybe I was getting a chance to get it right. I ignored my better reason, and James's advice, and I didn't even want to know about all the horrible things he'd done because I wanted that chance. But you know, he's not a kid now. We haven't even really been brothers in so long, and I know that's my fault, but I'm not even sure I know him. I don't know what he's thinking, and I don't trust him. I don't know if I'm helping him. I don't know what I need to do. I don't know what he needs to do."

"You’re doing the best to help him that anyone could have. The relationship you used to have with your brother, you may never be able to get back. But you can create another. I do trust Regulus's intentions. I believe he is sincere in wanting to change. But I worry that he does not understand, fully, the magnitude of the wrong he's done. I am not concerned with 'punishing' Regulus, but I am concerned with the importance of him fully realizing the reality of the situation. Of his bad actions and their consequences, as well as his good. I can't help him stay out of Azkaban, and I don't think it would be in his best interest for me to do so if I could. What everyone needs more than anything in a time like this is honesty. And if not trust, then faith.”

Now there was the longest pause yet, and what, if anything, they said next, I could not tell you. My head was buzzing, and I slumped down against the wall and put my face in my hands.

I was still sitting in the corner when the door opened and Dumbledore swept by majestically. I felt the wind in his wake blow against the insides of my wrists, and he didn't even pause. As he passed, I felt a violent swelling in my chest. I wanted to spit at him or kick his legs out from under him--something childish and mean-spirited. He knew I was there, I'm sure he did--I didn't even know how he knew, but he just knew everything, didn't he? That made me all the more angry, that he just knew everything and thought he knew me too. He was good at guessing was all. He didn't know what I thought or felt, least of all what I understood.

It was easier to be angry than to think about what I'd just heard, but when I looked up and saw Sirius standing in the doorway, I had a lot harder time being angry. But if I knew anything about Sirius, it was that no one could pick a fight with me easier than he did, and it was that thought that gave me the courage to stand up and pull the cloak off.

My expectations were not disappointed. As soon as the cloak was off, Sirius's face made a very ugly, alien contortion. I opened my mouth to apologize--or something--but before I could get a word out, my mouth was full of his fist. I pirouetted on the spot and felt a tooth hit the back of my mouth on its way down my throat.

He was shouting something at me that was impossible to make out with the buzzing in my ears. He must have realized he wasn't getting through to me, because soon enough he stopped talking and punched me on the side of the jaw. The punch had less force behind it this time, but I still staggered backwards until I found the stone wall against which to brace myself.

My face was tingling, but other than that I didn't feel anything but vibrations--everything was vibrating, including, I believed, my brain in my skull.

"Fight back!" Sirius yelled--the first thing I'd heard since that first punch--grabbing my shoulders and shaking them.

I looked at this livid face--even in the semi-darkness, I could see his pupils were dilated and his jaw was clenched so tight the muscle in the joint was popping out.

All I could manage to do was to shake my head weakly. He grabbed me by the throat and tightened. My neck was still bruised and raw from my recent run-in with the Inferi, and when I tried to breathe through my constricted airway his hand felt cold, wet, and brittle. I grabbed his forearm and wrested his hand away from my throat.

He seemed to take that for fighting back, because he hooked me with his free hand, and I hit the ground. I did not get up.

After a minute, his footsteps retreated a few feet away and I heard him sit down. I rolled over onto my back, and as my eyes adjusted to the shadowy corridor, my adrenaline started wearing off and I began to feel my new wounds. There was a jagged sliver where my far right incisor had been and my tongue had already been cut wide open on it. My mouth was swollen--I could feel drool escaping out the corners, but I was very grateful his second punch hadn't been harder--at least my jaw didn't feel broken. The last punch seemed to have reopened the stitches on my split brow.

At least I'd been right to count on Sirius. "I'm starting to choke on my blood, I think," I said after a while.

Sirius did not respond.

"I reckon I'll have to go see Madam Pomfrey again in the morning." Really, I am sure I did not enunciate as clearly as this, with my mouth feeling like it’d just been worked over by about four dentists at once, but I'm translating for your benefit. "She’ll be excited to see me again."

Nothing.

"You know, if I stick with you long enough, I might end up disguised well enough that I won't have to wear that invisibility cloak around. I'm already down one tooth, and for a few days my jowls will be quite impressive. If you give my nose a good working over, who’ll recognize me?"

Silence. I sighed and a bloody gurgle escaped my mouth.

"I'm trying to apologize, you know. For whatever I’ve done this time."

"Are you kidding me? You honestly don't know why I'm angry?" he snapped.

"Well, I have an idea, but at least you're talking to me now."

Silence again.

"Okay, I see that I've lost you. But for what it's worth, I didn't intentionally lie to you. It wasn't honest, I'll grant you, to say that I was like an intern. But that was in a dire situation, and I wasn't as important as Dumbledore made it out, either. I knew that the Dark Lord was maybe trying to 'groom' me or what have you, but I left, Sirius. Isn't that really more noble, when you think about it, that I left even though I knew I could've been important... and powerful. I've left myself pretty powerless lately, if you hadn't noticed."

There was quiet again for a moment, and I was beginning to think it was a lost cause when he spoke up. "Dumbledore was right about something, though. You don't understand at all how serious things are, how really evil the things you've done are. You treat everything like it's a bloody joke. I beat you up and you're joking about fucking disguises. You say you tried to kill yourself and you come to me with 'Sirius/serious' puns."

"That's the only way I've ever been able to get you to stop being angry with me. To stop you giving me the silent treatment, anyway. I wish you'd just beat me up and forget about it, but no, it's always the damn silent treatment. It's always been that way, always. Since we were little kids."

"Is that all it is, though? What does the fact that you're always running away say about your ability to actually look your problems in the face?"

"I'm not denying that I've made some bad decisions, but you can't deny I've made some good ones, too--"

"And I'm not saying you're not capable of being brave, but only when you're facing a clearly defined physical obstacle. Fuck, Regulus, what's scary to me is that you were actually willing to kill yourself before trying to get help. What if--God, what if you'd actually managed it?"

"Well, I can't think of a pun to make about that one."

"You're really making me want to hit you again. I'm not kidding, Regulus--"

"Would you say that you're... Serious? I'm sorry! I'm sorry, don't walk away. You're right. I'm a fuck up, and I know it, and I probably use humor as a defense mechanism, and I just heard everything that Dumbledore said about me and... Well, didn't I know this would happen, though? He says it's 'not in my best interest' for him to help, huh? Well, isn't that convenient?"

He turned around and walked a few steps away from me, putting his hands on the top of his head and breathing audibly through his teeth. After a long while, he said in a strained voice, "I just think it would be helpful if, you know, you would shut your stupid mouth and use the time available to start thinking about what you’re going to do."

I started to open my mouth to argue, but decided, perhaps belatedly, against pushing him any further. Instead, I followed his lead and put my hands on my head. After a few deep breaths, I found it easier to arrange my thoughts. "So, Dumbledore thinks I ought to do what exactly? ‘What everyone needs right now is honesty.’ What do you think that means?"

"I think he wants you to explain things.” Sirius sounded calmer too, now. “To confess."

"To what? To every rotten thing I've ever done in my life? Or only the rotten things after I became a Death Eater? Either way, I hope he’s got a lot of time on his hands.”

"Not to him, to me. I think I've a right to know, if I'm helping you."

"I was afraid you might say that. How about, if I'm really going to start this story, you help scrape me off the ground and get this drool problem under control first."

"Fine, you big baby, but don't think I'm going to let you get away without explaining yourself this time." Sirius walked over and stuck his hand out to me. I grabbed it and he hauled me to my feet.

Minutes later, I was sitting on top of a workbench with Sirius squinting in my face and dabbing at various spots with alcohol-soaked cotton swab. "Sorry about this," he muttered, poking at my lip at the spot directly over my missing tooth, which had cut pretty badly and was the most swollen part of my mouth. "I suppose I may have been over zealous."

Both of my hands were occupied holding ice packs up to either side of my jaw. The swelling on my mouth did seem to be going down considerably. "It's okay, I lost plenty teeth in my quidditch days," I said.

"Yeah, you're real tough." He finally put the cotton swab down and leaned back to survey his work.

"Okay, where do you want me to start?" I asked, sticking my finger in the hole in my teeth. "When I was two, I borrowed your marching soldier toy and accidentally dropped it down the dumbwaiter and never told you about it. When I was five and you were seven, and Mom punished you for breaking Grandmum's antique vase--that was actually me. And that time when you were fourteen and Mum caught you with your muggle girlfriend, I might have snitched, cos--"

"Why don't you start out with whom you killed."

"God, you think it's that simple? I don't even know. Dumbledore was right, The Dark Lord must’ve thought I was exceptionally dull, because I’m pretty sure he had me help him kill the man he murdered to make the Horcrux--kind of kills me to know Dumbledore thinks there's more. Makes sense, though--"

"You told me you read about Horcruxes in that old book."

"Well, I did. But he didn’t know that, I think he just wanted me to feel useful or something. Which, I really could’ve done without, actually, but I didn't kill the bloke--I couldn't have. The person making the Horcrux has to do it. I just helped. I didn't know what else to do. Saying no was not really an option."

"Who was it?"

"I don't know. A muggle. An old homeless man. Just the first person he found, I suppose." That old man was one I couldn't feel a terrible amount of remorse for. It could almost qualify as a mercy killing. But I still remembered the little red veins in his eyes, and how the network of wrinkles around his sockets deepened when he squinted at my face. "He was old and sick--asked the Dark Lord for change." And I remembered how his hands shook when he held out his cup, rattling with coins. "We, er... Took him to a pub and gave him some drinks. Then we went out into the country with him. He did it there."

Sirius's eyes clouded over, and I couldn't stop shifting around uncomfortably on the workbench. I was about to excuse myself to the w.c. in order to relieve the tension when he finally spoke again. "And the others?"

I sucked on my swollen lip. "The first was when I was sixteen. They have something like an initiation, I suppose you'd call it. Some, you know, Death Eater higher ups took me to this town. I didn't even know what was going to happen. They had a Mud--I mean Muggle-born family captive in one of the houses and I--well, the father, apparently, had recently been elected to some minor office in this little town and the Dark Lord wanted to make this family an example, for Muggle-borns who thought they could take positions of power. And I--I was supposed to kill the children. There were two. They told me how old they were, told me their names. I couldn't. I told them I couldn't do it; I wouldn't do it. Which was a foolish thing to have done." I thought to myself, if Bellatrix had been there, she wouldn't have let me get away with it. But I wasn't ready yet to start snitching on family members, so I kept that to myself. "But the Death Eaters there, I think, didn't quite know what to do with me; I think they thought they couldn't bully me as much as they would have liked to, because of my family. We were meant to leave the father alive, to teach him a lesson. We settled on me killing him instead. It seemed like it took me ages to work up the nerve to get the curse out." And those kids were screaming, I don't know why no one shut them up, it made me so nervous, I swear by the time I'd got it done I'd just as soon have killed them, I was so worked up. I had thought for sure someone would hear, people would come. It was such a quiet town. "I think I only managed it because I half thought we were all going to die, that night." And the kids died anyway, after I killed their father. It would've been better if I'd just done like I was supposed to. "I thought maybe after that, they'd leave me alone at least until I got out of school, but instead they made me practice. On dogs and cats at first. Then on kidnapped muggles--I never knew their names, but there were three of them." It was the right decision, on their part, to make me practice. By the time I was done, I had gotten a lot better. Being good at the Killing Curse is almost like being able to cry on command. It's just a flash of rage, and the more you practice, the easier it is to recall those moments of absolute hatred. "Then, when I was just out of school, I helped kidnap—“ and torture “--Noreen Lachance, a witch from Internal Affairs who was collecting information for a report on muggle disappearances. She didn't have anything for us, so I had to kill her." By that time, it was easy. "She was the last, until that homeless man. I don't know why, but things quieted down for a while. I was in a few scrapes, but nothing too serious. No one dead." As far as I knew.

"But you killed five people. You killed Noreen Lachance. She's been missing for over a year, people are still looking for her."

It had been almost two, actually.

Chapter Text

Sirius stood up. I listened to his footsteps retreat across the room and when the door slammed behind him, the bottom dropped out of my stomach.

What was better about any of this? What had possessed me to tell Sirius all of that? I knew he didn't want to hear, really. I'd heard him earlier--he wanted the chance to “save” me, but he couldn't do that if he thought I was irretrievably evil. He was the one who hadn't understood--didn't know the “reality of the situation”.

Dumbledore had told him that it was still possible, that we could be brothers again. But Dumbledore had also told me, in so many words, to confess, and how could he, who knew everything, not know that it would be impossible for Sirius to be my brother if he really knew what I'd done?

Dumbledore meant to do this--meant to cut everything away from me, to leave me alone so that when he threw me to the wolves there wouldn't be anyone around to care. I was sure of this.

But, hard as I tried to muster up my fury, I couldn't do much of anything except twist my fingers and want to go home.

I sat there in the dungeon, staring at the blank stone wall, barely moving--not seeing the point in it, really--until my eyes began to hurt so badly (and believe me, I was glad of the distraction) that I had to turn off the lights and lie down.

I told myself there was no point in torturing myself. If no one else was going to be on my side, at least I should be. That it was fine, I shouldn't bother with worrying about things that were already finished and done, and if I was tired, I should go to sleep. But the thing was, I wasn't tired.

I was, perhaps, thirsty.

A few minutes after I lay down, I got up again and headed for the kitchens. I had almost forgotten where the right painting was, and it took me twenty minutes wandering the corridors to find the right one, and once there, the head house-elf in charge gave me a hard time about filling to-go orders at absurd hours of the night. But I managed to convince him I was some kind of special guest of Dumbledore's, and came away with a jug of some kind of homemade wine. Not precisely the whiskey I'd been hoping for, but near enough.

Back in the dungeon, I drank in the dark. I actually drank mostly lying down, only propping myself up to take big gulps at once, some of which inevitably dribbled out of my still swollen mouth. Soon enough, though, I got enough down my throat that I drifted off completely.

When I woke up, the lights were on. I sat up and nudged the bottle of wine with my toe. It tilted easily and fell back on the stone floor with an echoing ring. "Seems a little light," I muttered to myself.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist, you're not the only alcoholic in the family."

I whipped my gaze around to the front of the room. Sirius was sitting there, cross-legged on the workbench, next to the gently bubbling cauldron.

"Before you say anything," he said, putting up a finger preemptively, "just don't. Just... don't talk to me for a while. I'm going to do this... because it needs to get done." He looked down, but I could still see his lip curl. "And I can't trust you to do it on your own."

"Sirius, look, I don't know why you're acting like this, I told you from the start I'd killed people--"

"I don't want to hear it." His face went white as milk. "I don't want to talk about this, I just want to get through the next two days and then..." He trailed off.

"Well, don't worry, I know what then. I said at the beginning of this that I was willing to take responsibility for what I've done, and I will. Whatever that ends up meaning."

"Well, good."

"So, what, are we going to sit in silence for forty-eight hours?"

He shrugged.

"Okay, well, you can not-talk if you want. That's fine. I'm going to go ask for some breakfast. Would you like any breakfast?”

"No thank you, I already ate."

"Okay then." I sighed. When I came back from breakfast, made much less grudgingly this time by the same house-elf I had befriended the night before, Sirius immediately excused himself to go to the w.c. and didn't return for several hours, though he sent in a house-elf to “keep an eye on things for him”. I was starting to get irritated with how he was choosing to handle the situation.

I had been led, over the course of the past several days, to believe that Sirius had matured significantly, but here we were and he was acting like he was twelve years old again. And I couldn't be upset about it, because however annoying he was being, him being there at all was more than I deserved and he knew it, and he was using it to act in whatever petulant manner he wanted.

And as guilty as I thought I should feel about thinking it... Nothing at all had changed since yesterday, when we were getting along more or less fine. And I didn't feel guilty then--not about what I'd done in what seemed like the very far distant past, anyway.

But I knew I couldn't pick any fights with him now, and the nagging little voice in the back of my head telling me that I should feel guilty did not encourage me to try to plead my case anymore.

The fact that the Dark Lord had more than one Horcrux, a fact which up until this time, I had managed to cast aside in my mind, now opened up a horrible vision of the future. Things were getting worse. Things were going to keep getting worse, and who was going to stop it?

I'd tried. I'd made one pathetic attempt that had only served to make things worse for everyone I had selfishly involved. And it wasn't going to make any difference. I felt like I'd jumped in front of a freight train to try and stop it hitting someone on the track ten feet behind me. Or rather, I'd tried to throw myself in front of the train and overshot it, and rolled off into a ditch on the side of the tracks from which I could watch the train hit everyone and everything I loved and had tried to protect.

That’s what I felt guilty about.

"Would you stop popping your knuckles like that? It's grating," Sirius said, shooting me a nasty look from across the room.

Oh, I had had it up to here. I curled my upper lip back and very deliberately popped both knuckles of my thumb at once.

I had barely managed to straighten out my thumb again when a jet of purple light shot across the room and hit me in the shoulder. The force toppled me backwards off the workbench, and by the time I hit the ground my legs were seizing uncontrollably.

I heard him stifle a very loud laugh and gritted my teeth, trying to keep my lower half from thrashing long enough to fish my wand out of my pocket. I finally got it and managed to flop over to a place on the floor where I had a clear shot at Sirius. Unfortunately, it was a pretty shaky shot, and after my attempt at a hex missed Sirius by a yard, he laughed in earnest and flicked his wand in my direction. My legs stopped writhing and flopped down on the ground. I could already sense the dead leg coming on, and hence, did not attempt to get up, but let the side of my face rest on the stone so I was turned away from Sirius and he couldn't see how red my face was getting.

"Oh, get up, you big baby."

"You know, I'm beginning to think you're only pretending to be outraged, so you'll have an excuse to beat me up and humiliate me without feeling bad about it. It's not funny, stop laughing. Why is it suddenly funny now, I don't understand. One moment you won't even look at me, the next you're playing practical jokes on me? You're mad. Stop fucking playing mind games with me."

He was still laughing.

"And another thing," I said, propping myself up on my elbows, so I could jab at him with my finger. "Last night you were lecturing me about not taking things seriously and now you've got me impersonating a dying fish when I'm doing my best to be very serious and reserved."

"Oh God, Reg, don't look so pathetic," Sirius said, swinging his legs over the side of the counter he was sitting on and hopping off onto the floor. "Now come on and stand up." He stuck out his hand to me.

I frowned up at him. "But I'm..."

"Come on!" He grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet, completely without my consent.

"...Going to get a leg cramp," I finished, muttering to myself while looking down at my shoes.

"Look, Reg--" I could tell he wasn't that angry anymore, because he was calling me Reg again. "I needed to not talk to you, because I needed to think. And having thought, I've realized something, and that's that nothing has really changed since yesterday--"

"Well that's what I... said." My enthusiasm died off self-consciously towards the end of my sentence.

"I'm not done yet. I realized nothing's changed, and that I knew you'd done... bad things, and that's why I needed to help you in the first place. I didn't know the extent of the... bad things, that's true." He creased his brow. "But the point is that I can't back out now just because I didn't really know what I was getting into in the first place. Er... And I realized that if you're scared enough to want to run, but you keep coming back, then that says something, too. What I mean is I believe you're sorry for what you did and that you're doing the best you can to make it right. And, what Dumbledore said about faith... I realized that I can't not care what happens to you. No matter what you’ve done. I have to believe that people can change, and I have to believe that you can change, because you’re my little brother, and because I did. But only with help. And I suppose that, despite everything, I kind of... well, love you. I suppose. And I need to help you. And if I'm willing to stick with you through all this, I reckon, that's not really going to change.”

"Well..." I said, rubbing at the back of my neck and staring at the ground.

"Come on, you tosser, you're making me feel awfully queer."

"Well, of course, I have... er, fond feelings for you, and er, all that." I bit the corner of my already tender lip.

"Say it, or I'll punch you again."

"Okay, you got me. I love you, too.” And that was true. I always had. “Do we have to hug now, or something?"

*

The next two days had their more or less tense moments. It was clear to me that Sirius was really trying, but I knew that now, more than before, it was hard for him to trust me--hard for him to be comfortable.

He kept breaking silences, as we sat over the slowly, gently boiling cauldron, to bring up episodes from our childhood.

"Do you remember that time when we 'ran away from home' and hid in the neighbors' backyard for an afternoon?"

I nodded, but then he just sighed mysteriously and looked back down at the cauldron.

Minutes later: "And that time when we got in a fight with those two Muggle boys? And then we levitated the one, and the other one was so scared he ran off screaming? Boy, I bet we'd have been in big trouble if anyone had believed them. I remember Dad even thought it was quite funny, and he doesn't laugh at anything..." I looked up in time to see a half-smile disappearing into a melancholy, far-away look on his face. "It's funny to think how long ago that seems."

I nodded again, unsure of what else to do.

It turned out I didn't need to do anything. Sirius was on a roll. "I can barely even think of... of our mother and father as people, anymore. They may as well be dead, or ghosts. That life, in that house, is like something out of my imagination, or a nightmare. It doesn't seem like I spent 16 years of my life there. It seems like it was just a dream, for one night, and when I woke up it was totally gone and there was my real life, as though it'd always been like that. It all fit so nicely, I never felt like anything had changed, it all just disappeared."

I knew what he wasn't saying: that I had disappeared with it. That’s what he was fighting against now. I let the words sit.

Sirius glanced at his watch, picked up a feather from a pile created by opening up one of our pathetically conjured pillows, and tossed it into the cauldron. The potion simmered angrily around it and the downy tips blackened and curled in on themselves, but the feather was not immediately consumed, as it should have been if the potion were ready.

"Any minute now," Sirius muttered as the feather went tail up and, like a sinking ocean liner, sank slowly into the potion.

"Yeah?" I sighed and covered my face in my hands.

"What did you do? After I left?" he asked suddenly. "That night, what did you do?"

"What did I do?" I parted my fingers so my eyes peeked out between them. "I didn't do much of anything." I was answering before I even thought about it, before my memories of the night returned fully--but I was quite familiar with them, even before the pictures and the noise came into my head. "I was 14, what could I do? I barely know, exactly, anymore." That wasn't true, not really.

"Did they ever think about coming after me?"

"I don't know, Sirius. I really don't. I stayed in my room, you know. You know how I was."

"I know."

"I wish I could tell you different." I really did. I wanted to be able to tell Sirius that our parents never hated him, that they would always welcome him back with open arms. But I didn't know what my parents did that night. I didn't hear anything--I sat in my room and stared at the wall. At the wall not yet completely covered in news clippings. When Sirius was in the house, I thought it was a laugh to sit across from him in the morning, cut out those gruesome articles, and whistle. He barely spent any time in the house the last couple of years, but I saw him sometimes in the morning and late at night, and I never wasted any opportunity to torment him. That night I sat in my room and looked at my walls and wondered how much of it was me that made him leave. And whether that was a good or a bad thing.

I remember what Sirius wasn't there for: Mum didn't stop crying for what seemed like weeks. I wandered around the house like I was invisible, but I didn't dare leave and make them think that maybe they were going to lose me, too.

I wanted to cut the heads off more than snakes, then. Sometimes I'd thought I wanted to cut the head off Sirius.

"Oh, thank God." Sirius's eyes were bright, the sudden light emanating from the cauldron making his eye sockets dark hollows. "Get Dumbledore! No, wait, I'll get Dumbledore. You stay here." He was gone before I could object, before I could even erase the memories of staring down that long empty hall at night, feeling the most murderous I ever had.

By the time I shook that old dusty feeling, the gold glow from the cauldron was gone, and so was the latest feather Sirius had tossed into it.

For some reason, I didn't feel particularly enthused. Instead, it felt like someone had put a stopper in my throat, and I was sucking air through a straw up my nose. I couldn't do much more than sit and stare; I felt unaccountably furious. It was good, I admit it, to be able to pity myself again. To be angry at someone else.

Sirius came back with Dumbledore shortly, and Dumbledore, after examining the potion in a perfunctory way, withdrew the locket from deep within the folds of his pea green robes and handed it to me without a word.

The locket seemed sicker than before--I felt sickness coursing into my fingertips.

I dropped the locket into the potion. Watching the locket touch the surface was like watching water pour into water. It was just there, and then it wasn’t. Dumbledore and Sirius stood ceremoniously, hands clasped in front of them, watching the bright gold glow. It was only a moment before the glow stopped. Dumbledore pointed at the cauldron and the potion vanished, leaving the cauldron empty and dry to the touch.

I sat down on the workbench and put my head in my hands. For the first time since this started, I felt like crying. So I did.

*

Later, I was embarrassed about having cried, of all the nervy things, but it was too late to take it back then, of course. Sirius pretended that it hadn't happened--a very charitable action on his part. After the locket was gone, Dumbledore left quietly at some point. When things calmed down, Sirius started talking about what we needed to do now.

I wanted to tell him that we couldn't do anything--I was thinking about Sirius's life, about how he probably had better things to be doing.

But I couldn't get it out. And I thought, well, it's almost over.

"We can go back to my flat first," he said. "I can't stand this bloody dungeon anymore."

That, I could agree on. And I was exhausted. I thought, maybe I could think it over after I got a few hours of sleep and maybe a few drinks.

When we walked out, the iron gates onto the Hogsmeade High Street, the sun was shining. I squinted--I'd been squinting all the way across the lawn--and felt the slippery material of the invisibility cloak shift across my shoulders.

For a moment, I thought, I shouldn't go back with him. I should just Apparate somewhere--somewhere else--leave him out of this. But I was just so tired.

The real evidence of how worn out I was is that I only managed to Apparate several blocks from Sirius's flat, and the two of us spent the better part of an hour trying to find each other again. I hadn't been able to concentrate well enough on precisely where I'd wanted to go. I was lucky, as Sirius was quick to point out, that I still had all my fingers and toes.

On the stairs, Sirius put his arm around my shoulders and helped pull me up, all the way to the fourth floor. I didn't know how he had so much energy left in him. I didn't have a thought in my head but sleep, and the way Sirius kept muttering about how things were going to be okay once I got a solid meal in me made it sound, in retrospect, like he thought there might be something wronger with me than simple exhaustion.

When he toed open the door on the fourth floor landing, things seemed normal enough, to me, but Sirius froze before he'd even completely crossed the threshold. I shifted my gaze up to his face. In profile, I could see his nostril was flared, almost as if he were sniffing the air and the rest of his face was completely still. I felt the little hairs on the nape of my neck try to rise, but even they were too exhausted. "Sirius..."

He shook his head and backed into the stairway, easing the door closed. His fingers dug deeply into my side at this point, but when the door finally shut with a soft click--in response to which he visibly winced--he quickly shifted modes and grabbed me under the arms to prop me up against the wall.

"Okay, listen, Reg," he whispered, taking his wand out of his pocket. "We've got to get out of here."

I started to shake my head.

"There's someone there--and don't ask, okay, we don't have time--and I know we don't want to run into them. So you've got to look alive... If you want to stay that way." He reached into my pocket, pulled out my wand, placed it in my open palm, and closed my fingers around it.

"Death Eaters or Ministry?" I asked through a tight jaw, attempting to force my knees to stop shaking and stand up independent of the wall.

"I think..."

I heard a door close in the nearby hall and the murmur of voices and footsteps. He didn't bother finishing his sentence before pushing me in the direction of the stairs.

It was the right thing to do. Given this initial momentum, I could just barely keep putting one foot ahead of the other fast enough to keep from falling headfirst down the stairwell. Sirius stayed behind me, though I didn't have a doubt he could've easily outstripped me if he wanted to, and every few steps I felt his hand on my side to keep me upright. I didn't hear shouting and pounding footsteps after us until we were on the second floor landing, and from that point, it was all a confusing chorus of echoes, often drowned out by my own heartbeat pounding in my ears.

When we burst through the front door, nearly putting an end to someone trying to enter (about whom I can tell you absolutely nothing, other than that I felt intense hatred towards him or her for impeding our progress) and stumbled out into the street, it had started to rain.

"Come on." Sirius grabbed my arm and pulled me down the street to the right.

"No." I tried to protest, wrapping my arm around my side. "The corner's closer to the left." But by then it was too late. We ran down the street, the rain splashing into my eyes.

"We'll go--there's an underground stop near here." Sirius nodded up ahead, and I tried harder to keep my legs moving, even though every time my foot hit the ground, my knee felt like it would crumple under the pressure.

Perhaps too winded now for anymore talking, Sirius simply yanked my arm to steer me around the corner, a burst of red light from behind us passing right over my shoulder.

Around the corner, the street opened onto a much more densely populated square. People already seemed to have heard the bangs or seen the flashing lights from the spells being fired off behind us: they were staring and shouting, pointing behind us.

Sirius stiff-armed several people who got in our way, and I shot off a feeble Stunning Spell over my shoulder while Sirius continued to drag me along behind him.

I heard someone shout to call the police. This suggestion almost certainly came from a bystander, rather than our pursuers. I knew, without having to think about it, that the people chasing us were not from the Ministry.

Someone jostled me from behind and I felt Sirius's sweat- and rain-slicked fingers slide off my wrist. Then came more blows, shunting me off to the side, and above the buzzing in my ears, I could hear the crowd screaming. When I caught the eyes of the people pushing past me, I saw them wide with terror and pinpoint pupils, glancing back over their shoulders as they ran.

My vision was beginning to blur, and sound hit my eardrums as though it were coming through a seashell held up to my ear. I squinted, trying to hold on to the world around me, and held my arm out, searching for Sirius with my fingertips.

A body fell into me from behind, and I stumbled forward. Sirius wasn't anywhere. I took another step forward, and another, and soon the only idea I could hold onto was that I needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And somehow, despite all the bangs, screams, and echoes of light that flashed past me, I kept doing it. Any other action was totally incidental. I heard, just barely, a hoarse voice scratch out of my throat, calling for Sirius, but I never thought about opening my mouth and saying anything.

Then I saw a bright white light spring up above the crowd in front of me. That was Sirius. He was so far ahead of me. The Death Eaters must've been right on my back, right around me. I could never get to him.

That's when I began to think again, and that was a mistake (or it felt like one at the time). When I stopped investing all energy and consciousness into only putting one foot in front of the other, I realized that I didn't have any energy left at all. I fell. Someone's elbow struck me between the shoulder blades, and I fell forward, trying--and failing--to grab hold of the iron railing around the underground entrance. Someone stepped on my arm hard, kicked me in the back of the head. That was okay, I wanted to thank God every time the foot kicking or stepping on me didn't hold me down and put a wand to my head. I tried to push myself up on my elbows, but I didn't even manage to raise my head up before someone kicked it again. After that I don't remember much of anything.

Chapter Text

When my eyes opened, all I could see was white. Bright white, flashing and buzzing. I blinked: once, twice. It was fluorescent light. Flickering.

I moved my head, shifting it from side to side. It felt nice, all things considered. It was on a pillow. I was warm, too, really comfortably, cozily warm. I hadn't felt this comfortable in quite some time, in fact.

I took a deep breath and tried to bring my hand up to my forehead. Only, my hand never got there. Instead, it only moved a few inches before it met with cold, metal resistance. I let my arm fall back down and closed my eyes again. I liked things better that way.

"Open your eyes, Black. I know you're awake."

I didn't recognize the voice immediately. That meant I had to sit up and face the world I was living in. I was not pleased with what I found.

"Potter."

He was sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed, but he had pushed it back almost into the corner of the room. He had his legs crossed, ankle on his opposite knee, and arms folded over his chest. He didn't say anything.

"What happened? Where's Sirius?"

"Sirius might be dead because of you," he said.

I choked. It wasn't warm anymore. It was icy. "Might what do you mean might?"

"You weren't content just killing Muggles and Muggle-borns. Your own brother, you worthless nothing--"

"Shut the fuck up and tell me what happened to Sirius, Potter." I thought the veins in my neck might burst, I was screaming so loud.

He didn't say anything. I couldn't see his eyes--the fluorescent light reflected back on his glasses--but I could see he was shaking. I could see his knuckles were turning white.

My heart rate was making me shake, too. If I didn't keep yelling, I thought I might pass out again. "Why the shit did you come here, then? If not to tell me. Might? He might be--what the fuck does that mean, Potter, you better fucking tell me."

A man in Magical Law Enforcement uniform stuck his head around the door. "Is there a problem here?"

"No." Potter didn't even look at him.

"How much longer are you going to need, James?" The man glanced at me. "I'm supposed to bring him to the Ministry as soon as he's awake."

"Not long." Potter stood up and walked to the door without once looking like he had relaxed any of his muscles. He and the uniformed man had a brief, whispered conversation, and when the man left, Potter closed the door behind him.

"Look," he said, as he turned back to me and crossed to the bed. "Sirius isn't the one they want. They want you, and they'll kill him if they don't get you."

"Well, what the fuck do you want me to do? I'm handcuffed to a hospital bed," I said, rattling the handcuffs against the railing for emphasis.

"Yes, not only have you put Sirius's life at risk, you're probably going to send me to Azkaban." He reached into his pocket and pulled out two little bottles of viscous, muddy liquid.

"Okay, before we get into things like why you carry around vials of Polyjuice Potion, can you please explain to me what happened? I'll do whatever it takes to help Sirius, but I need to know what's going on."

Potter kept turning the bottles over in his hands. "Sirius sent out a Patronus messenger to the Order when the Death Eaters started blasting the crowd around the two of you. When we showed up with Aurors, they were gone, along with Sirius. We haven't been able to contact him and assume he's been captured. The only reason we don't assume he's dead is because they would rather kill you, given the choice. We found you passed out under the invisibility cloak. Which has since been confiscated." He shot me another venomous look.

"Okay," I said. "So, how are we going to switch places?"

"Do you know where he might be?" Potter asked.

"I have an idea."

"I can deal with those." He nodded at the handcuffs and fished a set of keys out of his breast pocket. "Nicked these from the guard. He's going to be furious, but I always knew learning how to pick pockets would come in handy one day. Of course, Alohomora wouldn't work on them." Briefly, Potter sounded like the arrogant troublemaker I'd known in school. "Now." He reached up and plucked a hair from my head. "You've got an hour before this wears off, if they don't figure it out at the Ministry before then, so you'd better exercise whatever wits you have to get as far away as possible quickly."

I nodded.

Potter pulled the cork out of one bottle and dropped my hair in. As the liquid began to turn a rusty reddish color, I thought of a potentially damaging complication. "I'm sick, though. I could barely walk before. I don't know what's wrong with me."

Potter failed to suppress a groan. "Well, lucky for you, you're in a goddamn hospital," he said, pulling one of his own hairs and dropped it in the second bottle. "Stress exhaustion and dehydration.” He snorted, and I reddened a little. It had felt serious at the time. “You’re fine, now. Here." He glanced up briefly as he thrust the bottle at me.

I downed the contents, wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, and stifled a shudder. I tried not to think about what Essence of Potter tasted like--it was something I was perfectly happy not knowing. "You can trust me," I said, feelings of guilt finally overshadowing those of contempt. Not that I minded getting Potter in trouble, but hadn’t I disrupted Sirius’s life enough? I knew I was going to get him back--I had to, I just had to--but when I did, what kind of life was he going to have to go back to?

I felt my limbs shorten, saw my skin turn paler, and the room began to blur around me.

"I never would have trusted you, but Sirius does. And you’re the only hope he’s got." Potter handed me his glasses, and I watched his nose break cleanly and his face morph into mine. It made me want to reach over and stick my fingers down his throat. I did not want to look at myself and hear Potter's words come out of my mouth. I did not want to have to think about being Potter.

He let me out of the handcuffs, and we switched clothes in silence. The last thing he did before he climbed into the hospital bed and locked himself in was give me his wand.

"You've got to save him." This was one of the only things Potter could have said that actually seemed appropriate in my voice.

I could only nod. I knew what he was saying, and I knew he was right. I had to save Sirius, even though I would almost necessarily die doing it. If I died for him, I thought, well, that was as close as I could get to making things right.

*

When I left the room, the guard looked at me expectantly. "Well?"

"Well." I coughed nervously and fiddled with my collar. "I'm done, so." Even though I knew very well I was standing outside of the room, on my way out, I still felt as though I were sending myself to prison when I said that. Before I could move from that thought to its immediate successor, that the fate I was indeed walking into was worse (and possibly force myself to vomit all over the man in front of me in the process), I stepped around him and made a beeline for the lift.

That was an awful idea. I couldn't stay still in the lift for the life of me, and despite knowing quite well that one dose of Polyjuice Potion lasted precisely one hour--no more, no less--and that there was no way in which the effects might be stripped away on the way from the lift to the front door, I could not help but feel my--James's--face constantly, particularly running my finger up and down the bridge of his nose to make sure my familiar broken bump did not return.

When the doors of the lift finally slid open, I stuck my head out first and scanned the hallway for, oh, I don't know, suspicious activity.

Seeing nothing but a Mediwitch pushing someone in a wheelchair halfway down the hall, I jumped out and tried to restrict my gait to a brisk walk as I made for the exit. For reasons beyond my understanding, James Potter was a rather well-liked man in the community at large, and the last thing I wanted was to run into one of his acquaintances.

For once, I managed to evade the natural conclusion of Murphy's Law and exited into Muggle London without incident. Once on the street, I stuck my hand in James's pocket and closed my fist around his wand (I felt as strange doing it as I do saying it). I knew what I was doing. When I told Potter I had an idea where Sirius was, well, what I meant was that I knew to an almost perfect degree of certainty. Because it, like everything else, was my fault. But why should I waste time beating myself up when, in a few short minutes, I was sure the Death Eaters would be doing a much better job of it?

It had only been two-and-a-half hours, about, since I passed out by the underground. If I knew Death Eaters, and I'd like to think that I did, this crowd in particular, that would not be enough time for them to get organized, for bootlickers like Lucius Malfoy to get the proper permissions, to contact the proper people. The nouveau riche bastard was really a petty bureaucrat at heart, he never took initiative if there might be consequences. And I knew this was his business, the exact type of thing he'd love to do, and I'd given him his golden opportunity, that day back in the Leaky Cauldron. He'd known who we were. Much as I hated that fucking son-of-a-bitch, he wasn't dumb. No, that was me.

I searched Potter’s pockets unsuccessfully for cigarettes as I walked down the street and wished I had time to stop and grab a drink.

There was another good thing about Lucius Malfoy, and that was that, panderer that he was, he liked to surround himself with people who would pander to him. And fucking nouveau riche snotty as he was, he liked to surround himself with similarly snotty people, people who wouldn't be breaking those gaudy chandeliers and tracking mud on the Oriental rugs. In other words, Lucius Malfoy didn't surround himself with trigger-happy psycho pricks like Mulciber or Greyback. Hell, he didn't even like to have Bellatrix come around if he could avoid it.

What I knew about Lucius Malfoy, all of this, told me two things: first, that no one there was going to kill Sirius until they had notarized forms in triplicate straight from the Dark Lord himself, and second, that of the Death Eaters with whom we--I used to be on of them--typically kept company, Snape was one of the ones most likely to be there, at Malfoy Manor, with Sirius, now.

Normally, this idea would far from excite me. But I knew what Snape was doing outside my house that night. It was my best chance, if I could get to him. That was no short order, though. Malfoy Manor was no Grimmauld Place, but it was close, and getting closer all the time. I had some insider advantages, but we would have to see how far it would get me.

I wasn't looking forward to seeing my old friends again, but it was better than that hanging in limbo bullshit. At least, here I was in the partial sunshine, walking down the street of my own volition, full of plans and intrigues. Thank god I was doing something.

I ducked around a corner into an alleyway, took Potter's wand out, and Apparated.

*

I was better at it this time. I landed on my feet on the gritty banks of a little green pond. I had spent a lot of time by this pond, once, at a party when Narcissa and Lucius were engaged. I remembered it so well because I spent the entire evening hating my life and wishing Malfoy would die, until the end, when I was leaving, and Narcissa came to me and kissed me on the cheek. Told me she was glad I came. Told me the whole family was proud of me. This was right after Sirius left, when I became the only son. The heir. She told me she wanted me to come around and visit her, out there, at Malfoy Manor, when she got married. God, she knew how much I loved her. This was going to be hard.

Another thing I knew about that pond, that had made it quite convenient, was that it was not technically on the Malfoy grounds. The beautiful lawns backed up to a wooded area, and where the woods began, the Malfoy jurisdiction ended. When Narcissa came to visit Mum, she often complained about it. She wanted that pond, thought it would be lovely to clear away the undergrowth, put a gazebo on the banks for summer picnics. The people who owned the property, however--who didn't even live there, Narcissa said--wouldn't sell. And they were Muggles, yet another indignity to be suffered.

I crouched behind a tree near the banks of the pond and tried to devise a battle plan. On the plus side, I knew exactly where Sirius was, and, in a perfect world, how to get there. Those were about the only "pros" I could think of.

The "cons" list would never stop, once I let it start, so I decided to focus on the positive.

I peered out from behind the tree and gave myself a little slap on the face. The back lawn in the dusky light was, by all appearances, empty, except for one preening white peacock (whom, by the way, I did not trust). The house itself was a Quidditch pitch-and-a-half or so away, velvety looking as the sun's last rays reflected off of it.

I waited for a few minutes to see if anyone would come around the border, but no one did. I knew that Malfoy had to have at least one low-level crony on border patrol, so this did not comfort me much. I reckoned if someone did come around, it would be some young, bottom-of-the-totem-pole type person who resented begin made to do it, and whom it would be easy for me to sneak up on and Stun. I should know. I used to be that disgruntled incompetent.

Not seeing anyone made me worry that they had implemented some more effective security measures in the past weeks. But I had just resolved to focus on the positive, so I tried not to think about that.

I stepped out from behind the three and moved forward cautiously, sticking my arm out in front of me. That wasn't the cleverest idea: if there were some dangerous kind of forcefield, having it burn my arm off was not the best outcome I could've hoped for.

That got me thinking, though, and luckily before I took too many steps forward. With Sirius captive there, they would be absolute fools not have increased security. And, as I've said, much as I would've liked to think so, Lucius Malfoy was not a fool.

I stepped back and bit on the inside of my mouth. I had an idea, but if there were anything I'd learned about my ideas over the past few days, it was that they tended to end in ways that were unpleasant and uncomfortable for me. This idea, in particular, seemed ill-advised, but if it worked, it would certainly get the ball rolling.

I bent down and stuck my fingers in the dirt. The soil by the pond was gritty and rockier than in other areas, and soon enough, I found a sizable pebble among the dirt.

Straightening up, I tossed the pebble in my palm a few times. Well, here goes nothing. I wound back and threw the pebble as hard as I could in the direct of the house.

For once, my hypothesis was proven correct. Almost immediately I wished it hadn't been. The pebble traveled only about six feet before it stopped midair and fall straight to the ground. For a split second, the vertical plane of air where the pebble hit flashed a translucent red. Witnessing that, the only thought that came readily to my head was, "Oh, fuck." Then instinct kicked in, and I ran as fast as I could to the far end of the little copse.

I hadn't thought too much in advance, but I knew they would have to come out now. I found the biggest tree I could close to the edge of the lawn and crouched behind it, trying to make myself look as small as possible.

The advantage that I had counted on was that I would see every movement anyone coming from the direction of the house made on the way to the pond, but as soon as I saw the huge back doors swing open, my eyes seemed to malfunction. My vision blurred and tunneled. For a moment, I believed they hadn’t treated me correctly, that I was going to pas out again.

Then I tried to rub my eyes and realized I was still wearing James Potter's glasses.

It must have been an hour, then. I pulled the glasses off my face and threw them in the dirt. By then, when I got my focus back, the two figures who had come to investigate were halfway across the lawn.

I crouched lower behind the tree trunk and withdrew my head until I was peering around the trunk by pressing my nose against the bark and looking down it.

I could hear the two arguing from across the lawn before I could even come close to identifying their faces (I might have needed those glasses, after all).

"I don't see anything, it was probably just a damn rabbit," the smaller one said, gesturing broadly with his arms. It was hard to see clearly in the darkening twilight, but I thought I caught bit of curly red hair flash in the small remaining sunlight.

The larger one, who was moving much more slowly and deliberately than the other, did not appear to answer, but he didn't need to. I could fill in his eye-roll and grunt for myself.

Those weren't just any junior-level Death Eaters, those were my junior-level Death Eaters. My old Hogwarts roommates, Evan Rosier and Rabastan Lestrange.

Chapter Text

Almost despite myself, I was happy to see Evan and Rabastan. I knew, logically, I shouldn't have been: I had decided against contacting them earlier because I was sure they would not see things my way. But still, we were friends, and at the very least, I liked my chances better with them than with most others. I could predict how they would act.

"I don't see anything," Evan, the smaller redhead, said when the two of them reached the edge of the lawn.

Rabastan's voice was lower and harder to hear, but I could guess what his response would be: yeah, they didn't see anything, not even a rabbit's body.

Evan already knew that, of course. I knew he was just in one of his petulant moods, I could tell just by his tone of voice. He was annoyed that he'd been set this chore and deliberately acting as though it were unimportant. But really, I was more worried about him than about Rabastan. Rabastan was level-headed, calm, and diligent. He was calculating and self-serving, but he never acted rashly. Evan, on the other hand, was given to bouts of manic fanaticism. There was no telling what he would do, though we had been best friends once upon a time, and I knew that he cared for me as deeply as he could care for anyone.

The two of them stood there facing each other, presumably bickering over what to do next.

I knew what they'd do.

They had to investigate. And to do that, they'd have to take down the shield.

Rabastan would be hesitant to lower their defenses, and rightly so, but he'd know they had to find a body, even if it were just a rabbit. He needed to find an explanation.

Evan would be loath to go back to the house to ask for backup. He hated to be servile, and the idea of Malfoy calling him a coward would incense him. It would Rabastan, too, when Evan mentioned it as a possibility. After that, they would both agree it was probably a rabbit and let the shield down, just till they found the body. I just had to wait.

But they kept standing there, long after they should have decided, and then began walking down the edge of the lawn, towards me.

I pulled my head entirely behind the trunk and braced myself.

The closer they got, the clearer their voices became.

"It's not him, Evan. You heard. The Aurors came before they could find him. He's probably in Azkaban by now."

"Well, if any Aurors were here, we'd know it."

"So, in your mind, the only two candidates for having set that alarm off are Aurors and Regulus."

I bit my lip hard upon hearing my name.

"No. It could also have been a rabbit. Other than that, yes. Do you have any other ideas?"

"I don't know, Evan, there's thousands of wizards in England. Take your pick."

"Okay. I took my pick. My pick is that there are not that many people out there who know how to get here, who would come out here on their own, and who have some vested interest in Sirius Black's welfare."

"I doubt that Reg has a vested interest in anyone's welfare but his own."

"Well, something's changed. You realized that when he went missing, didn't you?" He paused for a moment, and when he continued, his voice was quieter, so I could barely hear it: "I knew it months ago."

Rabastan was quick to counter, briskly, "Our little boy, growing up."

They both laughed sharply, and for a moment I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something.

"Too bad. I liked that kid," Rabastan said.

The sudden introduction of the past tense into the conversation immediately freed me of my desire to talk back.

"If he were here right now," Evan said, "I would recommend he seriously reconsider what he's thinking of doing right now." I could hear his feet crunching grass now. He was close.

Dammit, he really did know I was there, and he was fucking talking to me.

"Yeah, but he's not here," Rabastan said, and I knew he was trying to convince himself as well as Evan. "Even if he weren't under arrest right now, which he is, the Regulus I know would never do anything this phenomenally stupid. Not unless Quidditch or a girl was involved."

"Okay, fine. Let's just check it out and get it over with."

I didn't hear them say or do anything else until their shoes were crunching twigs dangerously close to me.

I held my breath and tried to shift silently around the trunk. This was really-I mean, what the shit was I thinking, I didn't have a goddamn plan. They were gonna kill me.

Their footsteps diverged and went in opposite directions, one heading back towards the pond and the other further back into the copse.

I gathered up all my courage and peeked around the trunk. Rabastan was about ten feet from me, with his back turned. Or maybe he was farther away and just seemed that close because I had forgotten how fucking huge he was. He could probably crush me between two fingers.

I had two options, now, I reckoned. Not knowing where Evan was, exactly, I could make a break for the house and hoped they stayed preoccupied out back long enough they wouldn't see me. Or, I could curse Rabastan now and deal with Evan when he heard the commotion.

While neither option sounded particularly appealing, one sounded slightly less like suicide than the other.

I pointed my wand and watched Rabastan crumple to the ground with what seemed like a near-deafening crash.

My first instinct was to rush to clean it up, like anytime I made something go "crash" at home. Sweep it under a rug, bury it under a throw pillow, and hope no one noticed.

I knew that was a bad instinct, but it was my first, and it made me hesitate for half-a-second. By the time I got my bearings and tried to prepare for Evan to come running, he was already there.

"Expelliarmus!"

He was quicker than I was.

I could've killed myself for him. As my fingers reached futilely after James's escaping wand (my third in nearly so many days), I thought about how if I had just managed to beat him to the draw, I could've out-dueled him.

He caught the wand neatly in his hand and smiled broadly at me. "I knew it was you," he said. "Even when you're trying to be someone you're not, you're predictable."

"I liked Rabastan's assessment better," I said, trying to muster a jocular tone. I am afraid it did not quite come off.

Evan didn't respond immediately, but he kept smiling at me.

"Well, what are you going to do?" I asked.

"I'm going to go back." Evan nudged Rabastan with his toe. "To the house, I mean. And you're coming with me. I just want to know why you left, Reg."

"Look." My eyes darted back and forth, searching for anything that could help me, if my words couldn't. Nothing, not even a big tree branch. Well, it would have to be the words, then. "You have a family, Evan. Wouldn't you try to help them?" I knew I was really desperate then, appealing to Evan's humanity.

He laughed. "I thought you didn't have a brother. You used to say that all the time. And that doesn't answer the question."

"If I answer your question, you'll just Stun me."

"God, you know me too well."

"Isn't that enough reason not to have me killed?"

"Me? Me have you killed? Oh, you've got that one wrong. I didn't do this. I didn't try to back out. I didn't come here like an idiot. This isn't my fault; I prefer you alive. But you're making it impossible."

"Just tell them. Let Sirius go, and they can kill me all they want. Just let Sirius go."

"You're not really in a position to bargain." Evan's grin never left his face. "But I'll do you one better: you leave now, and I'll pretend it was just a rabbit. I'll convince Rabastan I Stunned him by accident. I'll even find a damn rabbit and kill it myself. Just go, get out of the country, something. I'll even give you your wand back."

I hesitated a moment, taking a step towards him with my hands out in front of me. "Okay. I'll go."

"Oh, come on, Reg, I don't trust you!" He almost hopped on the spot. "You just said you'd die for him a second ago."

"Well then, why'd you ask, Evan?" I took another step forward.

He leveled his wand at me. "Take another step and you're dead. I asked because I thought there might be a chance you were still the same person I was friends with all those years. But you're not. And I'm really sorry for that, Reg, because you know I hate to hurt you."

"Then don't, then, Evan, I-"

I just saw a flash of red light.

*

"Ennervate."

My eyes began to flutter open, but I screwed them shut again before they could achieve focus.

I really ought to stop making a habit of this kind of thing. I had been knocked out so many times recently, I would not have ruled out the possibility of brain damage.

No one ever wanted to just let me keep my eyes closed and play dead, though.

I felt a fist close in my hair and pull me up by my roots. That sure enough opened my eyes.

"Glad to see you're still with us, Mr. Black." Lucius Malfoy said this in his customary sneering manner, barely parting his lips and looking down his nose as though I were a cockroach on his floor. While I am sure he would've looked at me the same way if I were standing at my full height, it was slightly less obvious and infuriating since I was on my knees. Maybe I should have been more infuriated by the fact that I was on my knees and someone was holding me up by my hair. All I knew was that it was all I could do to keep from spitting and cursing at Malfoy-at myself-by pretending he didn't exist and scanning the room with my eyes for potential allies.

He was talking again, though. "Your stupidity would be truly inconceivable, if it weren't so predictable."

The person holding me by the hair was, I quickly surmised, was Macnair, Malfoy's go-to thug.

Evan sat on a settee in the far corner of the sumptuous sitting room with his legs crossed and his face blankly inscrutable as he looked back at me. Rabastan was next to him, staring pointedly at the floor, the veins in his neck popping. I couldn't tell if he were nervous or angry. Nott sat next to him, swirling what looked like scotch in a lowball glass.

Other than Malfoy, these were the only people in the room. I was glad to see Narcissa was absent, and even more pleased that Bellatrix was as well, but frankly outraged that Snape was. What the hell did he think he was doing, what was the point of it to have a goddamn spy if he weren't even going to be there to help people on our side-our side, wow, I hadn't really thought of it that way, and-

Macnair slammed my face against the coffee table in front of me.

"Pay attention, Regulus, you're not in Charms lessons," Lucius said, his tightened voice slithering out of his mouth like air out of a balloon.

Frankly, I was just glad my nose couldn't be any more broken than it already was, because I could feel thick, hot blood spilling out over my lips. Christ, Sirius was right, I was probably about to die and take him with me, and there I was worrying about my nose-

"As I was saying, foolish as your decisions have been, and hurtful as this sudden and quite pointless betrayal is, and as strongly as we all feel you deserve severe punishment, out of respect for your parents, and respect for the grief they have already suffered at the hands of your brother, we have decided to be mer-ci-ful." He pronounced each syllable as though it tasted like battery acid.

My eyes began roving again, hoping perhaps there was someone I had missed in the room. Dumbledore, perhaps.

"When you die, you will not suffer excessively. My wife asked especially for this mercy, that she might honestly tell your mother you died quickly. Relatively painlessly. You may notice that Bellatrix is not here." His flat lips curled tightly against his face, and everyone laughed, the echoes tense and brief. "We will have to stretch the truth when we tell her you died bravely."

My mouth fell open involuntarily. I forced it closed again with a snap.

I knew my mother would not think I'd died bravely, if she knew what I'd done. If my mother had been in that room, right then, I wondered whether she would agree I ought to die for what I'd done. Not acting against the Dark Lord, but running to Sirius. Risking my life for him now. I could hear her voice, Mum's, saying, "If your life is worth that little, then its loss will be no tragedy."

She'd said that to Sirius once, right before he left.

Maybe our lives are all worth so little. Maybe it didn't matter, then, that I had failed.

The room went still for a moment, and all I heard was the little splashes of my blood dripping off my chin and onto the floor. It sounded like the water lapping on the rocks in that subterranean cave, and I could see the dark water stirring, and the luminous basin in front of me.

No. No.

This was not over.

I didn't want to die, and Mum didn't want me to die, and if she knew, if she could only understand. Someday she would, and she would never have to hear how bravely I'd died from the lips of Lucius Malfoy, because I wasn't going to.

I pushed against Macnair's grip to straighten my back. "I don't want your mercy, Malfoy," I said, my voice thick through the blood.

Macnair tightened his grip on my hair and pulled my head back so I was looking at the ceiling and my neck was exposed. I laughed as brashly as I could muster.

Once again I was completely without designs, but I would be damned if I let Malfoy have the satisfaction of seeing me scared.

I really was sounding more and more like Sirius with every passing minute. That was such a Gryffindor thing, that stubborn pride, the charging ahead blind.

I had, perhaps accidentally, stumbled into useful Slytherin tactics, as well: Malfoy didn't like my reaction.

I heard him clear his throat. A rattling sound. A concerned sound.

The blood began to roll back up my nose and I grinned up at Macnair's heavy, mustached face. He stank. He sweated a lot. A bead of sweat collected on the end of his nose.

I didn't see Malfoy make any gesture, but he must have, because without warning Macnair grabbed me by the neck and tossed me across the floor, as if I weighed the same as a house cat. With my arms pinned behind my back, I couldn't stop myself sliding across the marble (what did I tell you about nouveau riche?), and the back of my head smacked against the wall with a resounding crack.

That was fine. I'd had worse from Sirius, and recently, too.

I struggled to raise myself into a sitting position on the wall and also to regenerate my smile, which I knew was driving Malfoy mad. This was good. I had done something that worked. I was in a better position now, if only marginally. At least I wasn't still being manhandled by Macnair, and Malfoy seemed to think I might have something up my sleeve.

The rest of the room was just beginning to descend into tense silence when a panel in the wall near me shifted, and Severus Snape followed a cool, damp wall of air into the room.

Chapter Text

My grin was sincere this time. I think it might have been the only time in his life someone wanted to smile when Severus Snape walked into the room.

Certainly, I had never wanted to see him before, but I did now, and I knew where he'd been--that aperture in the wall opened onto a staircase leading to the Malfoy's dungeon cellar, and he must've been down there with Sirius.

"Severus." Malfoy looked over and once again his chin rose and his mouth unpuckered. "How is our other prisoner doing?" He cast a narrow-eyed look down his nose at me, and my smile from froze and withered.

Snape followed Malfoy's glance, but his expression didn't flicker for a second. "He's conscious," he said, sticking his jaw forward.

"An improvement." I could see from across the room Malfoy desperately trying to keep his voice from sliding out of its dignified register and into a high cackle. The corners of his lips twitched gleefully. If he were a dog, he would have been wagging his tail.

I saw Evan and Rabastan exchanging arch looks on the sofa.

"I suppose there won't be need to keep him conscious much longer. I would never break a promise to my wife, but she did not mention Sirius in her request that Regulus not suffer overmuch."

"Oh, so you found a loophole, and you call that keeping your promise?" I was not planning the words that kept tumbling out of my mouth, but I felt like I had to keep talking, to keep Malfoy distracted. "You want to kill us, you want to torture Sirius, go ahead. You think you won't regret it, that there won't be consequences? You think I rushed into this headlong, all by myself? You think all the time I spent at Hogwarts, with Dumbledore, that no one knows what I'm doing, why I'm here?" I gave Snape a side-eyed glance, but he was stone-walling straight ahead.

I thought I heard Evan giggle.

Malfoy blinked slowly. "Yes, that is precisely what we think," he said, but I didn't think he was so sure at all.

I didn't know how much longer I could fool Malfoy, but my main concern at this point was just to communicate to Snape that I knew what he was, and if he didn't want me to out him to everyone else in the room, he'd better figure out a way to help me.

Personally, I was unsure how he could. Anything he did, here, the others would see. I knew why he was ignoring me; he couldn't give anything away. But I was concerned he might be planning to let Sirius and me die. Who would know, if he did? It wasn't as though he had ever seen the value in us as human beings, and somehow I doubted, no matter whose side he was on, that his hostility was inauthentic. In short, I didn't think he would be lose much sleep over our untimely deaths.

"And you're willing to stake your family's safety on that?" I asked, turning my attention back to Malfoy, and giving the best haughty impression I could, sticking my chin in the air even as I slid sideways down the wall, unable to keep myself up with my arms tied behind my back.

Malfoy's jaw set and he tapped the end of his cane on the floor and--could you believe that man, using a cane at twenty-seven years old, a cane with a snake's head handle, no less, how gauche--he drew his wand and my train of thought screamed to a halt. My expression froze into a horrified grimace and my eyes went wide. The rest of the room disappeared around Lucius Malfoy's long, ringed fingers raising his wand in the air, until it hung poised and still in the air, like a guillotine about to drop.

"Where's your wife?" I yelled suddenly. The wand twitched in the air and the building magic was broken. "Narcissa, Malfoy, where do you think she is, your pregnant wife?"

I was just derailing, trying to buy myself time. I was fully expecting him to say, "Upstairs, resting," or something along those lines. At best, I was hoping he would go up to check on her, to be sure. At worst, I just wanted to make him angry, make him want to torture me before he killed me. What I got was something quite unexpected.

Malfoy's already pale complexion went ivory white, and he clutched the head of his cane with both hands, as if leaning on it for support. Evan and Rabastan were looking at each other almost gleefully, and I could tell they were bursting to start gossiping back and forth. Macnair's red face grew alarmingly violet, but I reckoned it was probably because everyone was speaking too quickly for him to process without overheating.

I knew then I was onto something. She was gone, she wasn't here. Where could she be? My mind raced: her mother had been dead for years, and her father had just died months ago; she was quite close with my mother and visited her often, but now, when Mum spent all her time at the--the hospital.

She'd been there.

She was at the hospital.

"St. Mungo's, is that where she is, Malfoy? Is it? Where do you think I was, then? What do you think happened to her when I told Dumbledore I was coming back here?"

Even Snape started and looked down at me, now, his black eyes glittering weirdly. Only Nott seemed unaffected by my antics. He even looked bored, with his lids sagging, still swirling his scotch around. The sound of melting ice clicking against the side of his glass was the only noise in the room.

For a brief and glorious moment.

Then the other shoe dropped.

"Crucio!"

My back arched against the wall, and I fell onto my side.

I remember my mouth hanging open soundlessly, and the feeling I was choking on my own tongue, my eyes rolling back into my skull.

I had been tortured before, but not like this. The intensity of Malfoy's pure, raw anger surged through my body, searing muscle, bone, skin, and flesh.

I didn't even realize Malfoy had pointed his wand away until I began to become cognizant of my surroundings again.

First, buzzing and rattling that took on different cadences, some that vibrated on my throat and ribcage.

People talking.

Then thuds that broke the buzzing and shook the floor and wall against my body.

Footsteps, pacing.

My eyes rolled back down, until the blurry room and moving knees came into soft focus.

Then I could even separate one of the rattling noises, the one that penetrated my insides, as belonging to me, being my voice.

My voice making sick animal sounds.

Bleating.

My tongue dropped to the bottom of my mouth and my jaw fell open.

Quiet.

Without moving my head, and trying to keep my lids close and narrow, my eyes shifted up.

"She's at the hospital, dammit, and where was he?" Malfoy, pacing furiously up and down the room, the end of his cane cracking hard against the floor, paused and thrust his wand in my direction.

I winced, but he never sent another curse. He wasn't even looking at me, he was yelling at Macnair, his back to me.

"Where was he? Is he lying?" he screamed again, this time looking at Evan and Rabastan.

"We don't know, Malfoy," Rabastan said. His voice was slow and even, but taut. I knew if he'd been talking to me, back in Hogwarts, using that tone, he would've had me by the lapels, demanding to know why I'd missed Quidditch practice again. I knew he was dying for the day when he could grab Malfoy by the lapels, too. "Why don't you ask him?"

I immediately closed my eyes the rest of the way and tried to look unconscious.

I am sure I did a quite convincing impression.

Malfoy's footsteps and cane clacking against the ground advanced on me fast.

I was determined to keep my eyes closed, to stay limp. This was a feat hard to accomplish, indeed, when Malfoy dropped to his knees, hoisted me up against the wall, and shook me like a rag doll. Letting my head thrash back and forth and knock on the wall without even a twitch, even a whimper, required one of the most intense exertions of willpower I had ever performed. Turning off one's most visceral instincts was hard, harder than making stupid choices like going to the cave, like coming here.

"Where is she? What did you do with her?" Malfoy's screams were desperate; he was begging me now.

And all I'd had to do was make up one weak lie--not even a lie; just ask a question.

I reveled in his pain, in his desperation. If I could have, I would have smiled, laughed. If I could have, I would have told him Narcissa was dead.

He would have killed me then. Nothing would have stopped him. It might have been worth it, but he would've killed Sirius, too.

"He was at the hospital." He threw me back against the wall one final time.

"Lucius."

Snape's voice was smooth and hard. Commanding. "He's unconscious, and if you keep knocking his head on the wall, he won't remember anything about Narcissa, even when he comes to."

I felt Lucius's fists tighten around my collar. He was furious, I was sure, at Snape's impertinence.

"He was likely bluffing, just to upset you," Snape said.

"And if he wasn't?" Malfoy dropped me, and I heard his cane slam on the ground again.

"I think it would be wise to send Rosier and Lestrange to check St. Mungo's."

"I fully intend to go myself," Malfoy said, his high-handed tone suggesting he thought he was teaching Snape his place. I could have crowed. "Walden, Edmund, come with me. Severus, take him downstairs, with his brother. I want to deal with this personally."

This was so perfectly ideal, I wanted to jump up and kiss Snape right on his greasy gob. Another sentiment I doubted anyone else had ever or would ever share.

"Certainly."

"If we're not back in twenty minutes, kill Sirius. Leave Regulus alive."

I heard a commotion of footsteps now, and hurried, hushed voices. Then Snape muttered something, and my body lifted off the ground.

Trying not to struggle, again, was difficult. My hair stood up all down my arms and on the back of my neck as my body rose slowly up in the air, until I was floating vertically, my toes dragging the ground.

I didn't need to guess at what was happening next. I heard Snape's footsteps, felt the air rearrange itself around me, and knew we were moving. Left, then down. The air cooled and dampened and the noise from above faded as we descended, and finally, I heard a heavy door close behind us.

I opened my eyes.

Snape muttered something else, and I fell in an unceremonious heap on the floor.

"Fuck." I didn't bother to turn around to face him. This was humiliating enough as it was.

"It was obvious you were conscious. You kept twitching," Snape said. "If Malfoy were not so blind with rage, he never would have been fooled. And thanks to your little ruse, you now have twenty minutes to get out of here before I get the most distinct pleasure of killing your brother. All I can tell you is that the house-elf's name is Moey. Now, you're on your own."

His footsteps retreated and the door closed with a wet slurp against the stone floor.

I got to my knees, trying to orient myself in the dim and cavernous cellar. I'd been down here, recently even. In the cave, with the poison.

The slick puddles on the floor still looked the color of blood, and I wanted to cover my ears, to block out the screams.

"Sirius," I called. Why hadn't he said anything, yet? Snape said he was conscious, maybe I couldn't hear his voice over the noise in my head. "Sirius, where are you? Sirius!"

As my eyes adjusted to the faint light, I noticed movement in the corner.

"Sirius!"

I thought I heard a groan.

I staggered to my feet. "Sirius." I stumbled into the dark, dank corner following the low, groaning noises.

The shape in the corner grew more defined. I saw a leg jutting crookedly from a body, a head shaking slowly, rhythmically. I started to run.

"Sirius! Christ." I nearly tripped over my own feet and fell down on my knees by his side. "Oh my God, oh shit."

His face looked like tenderized meat, I might not have known it was him, if it didn't have to be. I knew my own face couldn't have been pretty: my nose felt like a balloon, and my lower lids were squinted from the swelling. But nothing like this.

"Oh Christ, Sirius, oh, Christ. Can you talk? Come on, you have to get up, we have to go."

His eyes were open, as much as they could be, but I couldn't tell if they were focusing on me. I didn't have to look twice at that twisted leg to know it was broken. Who had done this? Who here?

Then I knew.

I rocked back on my heels and stifled a cry.

They did this to him because he wouldn't tell them where I was.

"Oh God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, this is all my fault, if I had listened to you all those years ago."

I saw his head shook at intervals. He was shaking his head no. I knew any other time, he would've agreed with me. I knew he agreed. I rocked back and forth.

"Sirius, we only have twenty minutes. Less now. We've got to get out of here. Can you move at all?"

One of his arms rose weakly, and he formed his fist into a thumbs up.

"Oh, Christ." I laughed, a weak little noise that morphed on the end into a sob.

"Look, we can get out. We're going to get out, but I need your help. You've got--my hands--my hands are tied behind my back. I need you--can you untie them?" My fingers strained for the rope around my wrists.

He, moving stiffly, lurching, and like those things rising out of the water, sat up straighter on the wall.

I turned around and backed up as close to him as I could, trying to make it easy. I had seen his hands: they looked okay, not swollen. His arms weren't broken.

I shuddered and disguised a gasp by pretending I was clearing my throat.

They'd gone for his face like that, so pointedly, so he'd never look like himself, like a Black, again.

Well, at least I'd be the good-looking brother, for once.

Fuck me, don't start. Now was not the time, like Sirius said, I had to shut the fuck and start thinking.

His fingers fumbled a few times over the rope.

"I don't know..." His voice was raspy, wheezing, thicker than mine. I was just overjoyed to hear he could talk at all.

"We only have twenty minutes," I said again.

"Till what." I felt the rope slide and pick up some slack.

I just shook my head. "We've just got to get out of here by then."

"How." He yanked on a bit of rope and I felt it burn across my wrist. I tried not to pull away.

"I don't know, all I know is the house-elf's name. Snape thinks it might help--"

He didn't even react to the mention of Snape in a helping capacity.

"--But I don't know... Oh." I nearly jumped with excitement. "It's Kreacher's goddamn sister. I nearly forgot. She was a wedding present. But she's just a baby, she can't--"

Sirius gave one last tug and the rope fell off my wrists.

I spun around.

"Can you get up?" I stuck out my hand. "I can help."

"What." His arms fell limply back at his sides.

"Well, you've got to get up, so we can go--"

"The house-elf."

"Oh. Well, she can't Apparate yet. Or, if she can, just barely. She certainly couldn't take us with her. I don't even know if she'll take orders from me, but Mum was her mistress until the wedding. So, it's the best chance we've got." I stood up. "Moey," I called.

I thought I heard, in the distance, a little pop, but I didn't see anything.

"Moey," I repeated, stepping forward.

Now I knew I heard a little, high-pitched whimper. That was her, I was sure, that whimper meant something was keeping her from getting here. She was probably poking herself in the eye over it.

"Moey, it's okay, where are you?" I said, trying to keep my voice low. I didn't know if they could hear us upstairs. That was the last thing I needed.

"At the door," she squeaked. "Moey can't--"

"Sh," I hissed, and made for the door at a sprint.

"Moey can't come in," she said in a tiny whisper through the metal grate in the door. Actually, I just heard it through the grate. I couldn't even see the top of her head. "Moey has orders, Sir, orders from Master not come in the cellar."

"That's okay, Moey, you know how to Apparate now?"

"Oh, yes, Moey knows." I could hear the pride swell up in her voice.

"That's great, that's just great. You remember me, don't you? Regulus?"

"Oh, yes, you are Mistress Walburga's son, Mistress Walburga is so kind, and Moey's brother speaks so highly of his Young Master--"

"Yes, she's very kind. Moey, listen. I know you can't come in, but my brother is hurt very, very badly, and I need help. I need you to unlock this door." I prayed that Malfoy had not thought to give Moey instructions on the contingency he'd ever have family locked in the cellar. So many people forgot how powerful house-elves could be.

"Yes, Sir, Moey can do that."

Just as I was inwardly high-fiving myself, I realized: if she did this, Malfoy would find out. I didn't want to think about how he would punish her.

"Moey--"

I heard the lock click open.

I hadn't even given her an order. She had done it because she was kind, because she wanted to help.

Oh, goddammit, we were taking her with us, weren't we?

Chapter Text

"Is this really the most mobile you can be?" I muttered.

Sirius was slumped over my shoulders, leaning on me with all his weight. "Only one of your legs is broken."

"Mmhmf." He grunted at me, and I rolled my eyes and paused our sojourn across the room to pull on his arm and try to redistribute his weight across my shoulders.

He shifted himself to support more of his weight on his one good leg, and in the process pressed his cheek against my collar and neck. When he pulled away again, I felt strings of viscous blood stick to my skin and extend between us.

I decided to stop complaining.

I took a deep breath, straightened my back, and continued forward.

It was a little embarrassing how exhausted I was by the time we got to the door. It had been that long since I'd played Quidditch, had it? I used to be athletic.

Moey was standing just opposite the door, hopping in place.

I held a finger up to my lips and she grimaced.

"When we get upstairs, stay in the stairwell," I whispered. "Keep hold of Sirius, and if anyone comes in the stairwell--anyone who's not me, I mean--try to Apparate with him."

"Moey hasn't ever taken anyone with her, Sir," she mumbled, staring down at the floor.

"That's okay. I hope you won't have to, now. But you've got to try, if it comes to it."

She nodded.

"Okay." Three-quarters of the way up the stairs, I knelt down and propped Sirius up against the wall. I wasn't sure what they'd done to him, exactly. I knew the flesh injuries weren't the extent of it. It didn't explain why he seemed to keep fading in and out of intelligence.

But I couldn't worry about that now. I had to get us out of here. The Healers would fix what was wrong with Sirius, I was sure of it. They were goddamn Healers after all.

"Okay." I turned to Moey. "I'm going in. You stay here. Apparate if you have to, but otherwise just stay here."

She nodded in the affirmative, still scowling to herself.

"Thanks," I said. "I'll be back."

And, hoping more than I'd ever hoped that I wasn't lying, I took the rest of the stairs two at a time until I reached the top.

I hesitated there, wobbling on one foot as I abruptly arrested my momentum.

We may have had ten minutes at this point, which was no comfortable timeframe, but to rush in unarmed, not knowing the lay of the land ahead seemed foolish.

No more foolish than anything else I'd done that day, that was true enough, but I was turning over a new leaf.

I pressed my ear up against the false wall.

"...Quite impressed, really. Bagman's performance was really stellar-"

They were talking about Quidditch.

I didn't know whether to laugh, or--

Well, the alternatives were too depressing to consider.

Rabastan continued, "I still would've preferred to see more dynamic Bludger work from Kinsey, but he hits hard when he does hit--"

"Do you want a scotch?" Evan's voice interrupted loudly. I doubted he understood the first thing Rabastan was on about.

Rabastan sighed. "Well, all right."

The heels of Evan's boots clicked across the floor and faded away on his way to the pantry.

I hadn't heard Snape's voice at all, but I was sure he was there. It wasn't surprising he wasn't making small talk with Evan and Rabastan. We never got on with him at school.

Nevertheless, this must have been my best opportunity, to come in when one of them was gone. The clock was ticking. I probably wouldn't get another chance.

I crouched down and slid the false wall open a crack.

I was sure the noise was audible.

A little creak.

But Rabastan was all the way across the room, and Snape, who was, I saw, actually quite near, sitting in an armchair with the Prophet blocking his upper body from view, didn't flinch a bit.

I tried to evaluate my stealth options.

Snape was only a few feet away, but I doubted his dedication as a double-agent would stretch to allowing me to steal his wand.

The hallway leading to the kitchen was just another few feet to the left of Snape. Evan would be coming back that way, and--

I slid the false wall open gingerly, wincing every time it creaked, but Rabastan still seemed oblivious, sitting on the far end of the sofa and studying what I could only assume was the Prophet's sports section. I doubted Snape would've wanted that to begin with.

At about a foot-and-a-half, I decided the false wall was as open as I was willing to risk and started to shimmy out, keeping my eyes on Rabastan and my ears pricked for the sound of Evan's footsteps.

I emerged like a caterpillar, scooting along with my body pressed against the floor, and when my toes finally exited, I hooked them around the lip of the wall and pulled it close as possible, grinding my jaw every time the wood groaned.

Fortunately for me, the slick marble floor was easy to slide across, and Snape and Rabastan both kept crinkling their newspapers and clearing their throats. Given all this, I managed to bear-crawl across the floor to the kitchen hallway quite easily, taking cover behind various pieces of furniture along the way.

I could've got out of the house from here and been gone.

I could see the kitchen windows from where I was crouched, and the copse of trees on the border of the property, a little gray-green smudge on the horizon.

I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood--but that wasn't so surprising when I remembered the lower half of my face must have been covered in crusted blood, anyway. Mine and Sirius's.

Sirius wasn't in any condition to do what I had just done, and he certainly couldn't run for it with me, even if he managed the first part.

I jolted out of my own head when I heard Evan's footsteps coming across the kitchen.

I cast about the unlit hallway for any likely hiding places. There weren't any. It was a straight shot from the kitchen to the sitting room.

I sprinted the length of the hall and pressed myself flat on the wall just the other side of the doorframe.

Just as I sucked in and held a deep breath, pulling my stomach in as far as I could, Evan came around the corner with two tumblers rather indecently full of scotch in his hands.

I grabbed his right arm and smashed the glass against his face.

We both tumbled backwards into the kitchen, and his back hit the ground with a loud smack, a shard of glass slicing his cheek from eye to lip. The scotch had all spilled directly on his face, and his eyes were screwed shut, his lips sputtering. I was grateful the other scotch glass had slipped out of his hand in the fall, skidding across the kitchen and covering the floor with a thin puddle, because he still had the wherewithal to snake around with his free arm and start punching me in the back of the head.

That was annoying, and would certainly have been more effective if he could have smashed the other glass against my head, but as it was, I had him effectively pinned, and I was bigger than he was.

My free hand seized him under his jaw, lifted his head up and slammed it back down against the ground.

This dazed him, but he was still conscious, and I knew Rabastan had to have heard all this commotion.

I pressed my forearm down on his neck and slapped desperately at his pockets, trying to find--I heard a loud crack under him.

Oh.

Dammit, I should've known. His wand was in his back pocket.

I pushed him over and pulled the two broken halves of his wand out from under him.

"Goddammit, Evan," I muttered, trying to thread the severed strand of unicorn hair back into the other half of the wand.

He--of all the things he could do, he smiled at me. "Sorry, Reg." He reached up and touched my face.

"Not as sorry as you're about to be." I jumped up, grabbing him around the neck and holding him up in front of me like a shield, facing the hallway door.

I wrapped my free fist around the two broken halves of the wand, making them appear one, and stuck the tip in Evan's eye just in time for Rabastan to come crashing into the room (followed, at a much more leisurely pace, by Snape).

"Don't come any closer," I yelled, jabbing the wand harder into Evan's eye socket.

"Or what?" Rabastan, looking not so much concerned as irritated, with the muscles in his jaw popping out, took a step towards us.

"Or I'll kill him."

Evan laughed, the sound coming out choked and wet.

My eyes shifted to Snape.

Rabastan was saying something, but I didn't hear a word. I watched Snape's face for signs of recognition. I should have known better by this point. One thing I could say for the man was that he played his cards close.

But just as I was beginning to feel my windpipe close off with panic, I saw his sleeve shift, and the tip of his wand poked out at the end, pointed at Rabastan's back.

My gaze immediately snapped back to Rabastan's face, and I tightened my grip on Evan's neck, so his chin was forced upwards and he couldn't turn his head in Snape's direction.

"You're not going to kill Evan," Rabastan said, taking a step forward.

I took one back, and my spine hit the edge of the kitchen counter.

"Watch it," Evan hissed, spit flicking through tightly clenched teeth. I could feel his flesh growing hotter under my grip, and what I could see of his face was already turning from red to purple.

Rabastan took another step.

The splintered ends of Evan's wand dug into the flesh of my palm, and I could feel magic pooling in the base and shooting little sparks forward, only to spill out the cracks and tingle and burn in my hand.

There was no chance I could wield these broken pieces effectively. I would just end up cursing myself.

My eyes darted desperately back to Snape.

He still hadn't moved.

Evan began thrashing more violently and digging his fingernails into my arm.

Back to Rabastan, who was taking another step and raising his wand-arm--I pulled back harder against Evan's neck and his feet lifted off the floor.

Just as Evan's struggling slowed and his fingers began to lose their hold, Rabastan's heel came down on the floor.

In the puddle of scotch.

His heel slipped, sliding forward too quickly for him to recover. His arms flew behind him, trying to regain balance, but before he ever hit the ground, I saw Snape's arm move with surprising speed. His wand flashed in the air.

"Stupefy!"

Rabastan lay still on the floor, and Evan's head fell limply back against my chest.

Chapter Text

For a moment, I didn't move, not even to let Evan, who was getting pretty heavy, down. I just stared at Snape, who stared back at me, wand still hanging midair.

"Well, go on," he said, finally, his voice clipped and harsh.

I shifted my grip on Evan and lowered him down to prop him against the cabinets.

"Faster!" Snape's lip was curled all the way up, baring his teeth. I was sure he would've liked very much to deal with me much as he had done with Rabastan.

"Okay, I'm leaving," I said, pocketing the broken halves of Evan's wand and making for the door back to the sitting room.

"No, you're not." He seized my arm as I passed him and jerked me backwards. "This is not going to look like my fault. I cannot make any mistakes. What is at stake is worth more than your life and the life of your degenerate brother put together, do you understand me?" He pulled me close, breathing his rank breath in my face.

"Okay," I said through gritted teeth, turning my head away.

"You're not getting out of here on my watch. You're going to have to go through Malfoy."

"What about--"

"Lestrange and Rosier will be easy enough to deal with. You cursed Lestrange, as far as they will know, and they'll agree to any story I feed them that keeps them out of trouble. You cursed Lestrange and choked Rosier, and I Stunned you. Malfoy will never know any of it happened."

"What about—"

"Rosier spilled something in the kitchen, slipped in the puddle, and sliced his face when he fell on the broken glass. What you're going to do is go back to the cellar, and wait for Malfoy to come down. If you can't fight your way out from there, then you don't deserve to live." He gave my arm another jerk and pushed me away.

"What about a wand? I need Rabastan's wand." I turned back toward him.

"You can't have a wand." His eyes widened. "Where would you have gotten a wand when you never left that cellar? This is not my problem. It's yours."

I didn't bother to say anything, even to acknowledge I understood: I thought I heard the front door open.

By the time it shuddered closed and angry voices began to echo down the halls, I was already bounding down the stairwell.

"Moey!" I grabbed her shoulder, panting and trying to think what on earth I had to say to her. "Go--just go down a little further, and--" I glanced at Sirius.

I had been trying not to.

It was dark in the stairway, but I could see his eyelids, mostly closed, fluttering over blank whites. His mouth was hanging open - as open as it could be – and it was clear he had no idea I was there.

"Move him."

I couldn't do anymore.

I flew back up the stairs and pushed myself flat against the back of the false wall.

"--Visiting Walburga. She was horrified, of course. I tried to convince her to go to Grimmauld Place, but she wouldn't hear of it--Walburga is barely leaving St. Mungo's these days." Malfoy's voice grew louder as he crossed the room. "That poor woman, with these horrible children, you think she'd be glad of us to rid her of them quietly and without scandal."

I jumped back from the wall, every muscle in my body winding tight like a freshly tuned piano.

And the door opened.

And Malfoy's wand was an inch from my nose.

And I was totally unprepared.

So was he.

His head was turned back to the sitting room, shouting something at Nott, who was healing the gash on Evan's face with one hand, still holding his lowball glass with the other.

Nott's flat, bland expression didn't move. He raised his arm, the hand with the lowball glass, and extended a finger towards Malfoy.

Towards me.

I felt my eyes widen, and I saw every perfect blond strand of hair that fell over his shoulder as his head began to turn.

I didn't have time to think.

So I just swung.

My fist connected with the corner of his jaw just as his eyes met mine and his pupils contracted.

He stumbled back.

His wand slipped between his fingers.

I grabbed for it, but he hadn't fallen yet, he was only reeling.

I closed my fist around the wand, pressed his head down with my other hand, and kneed him as hard as I could in the face.

He fell in front of me, and a jet of purple light shot out at me from behind him as he sank to the ground.

I ducked.

The hair over my ear sizzled.

I shot the first spell I could think of back, crouched down at knee level, and my free hand scrabbled desperately for the hidden door to pull it closed.

I could rattle off a few curses, dive for the kitchen hallway, and be gone out the back.

I could beat them--no way Macnair could catch me.

The carved wood at the top of the nearest armchair splintered and blew off just as I fell behind it.

Malfoy lay on the ground beside me, his eyes closed, blood pouring out of his nose.

Someone must have hit him with a curse--there were several flying near him, even now--but it hadn't been me.

I made myself as small as possible behind the chair, but I could feel weaker spells and hexes, like the kid behind you kicking your seat in class, thumping against the other side of the cushion.

This wasn't going to hold long.

I fired the first spells I could think of in the general direction of the sitting room to hold them off and give me time to make a flying leap for the kitchen hallway.

I just managed it, landing flat on my face and tumbling a few more feet down the hall before skidding to a stop.

Some spell hit me on the shoulder just as I tried to roll over, forcing me back down, and my entire left arm began to go numb.

With my right arm pinned against the ground, I managed to fire a Stinging Hex, which hit my assailant's foot and quite helpfully swept his--it was Macnair, that incompetent oaf--legs out from under him.

Then, a sudden stillness.

I flipped over onto my back and tried to fill my lungs, which felt deflated, back up with air.

At my lowest period over the last few months, I had stumbled into some Muggle cinema around midnight, to get out of the rain, and maybe take a nap. I didn't fall asleep, though, I watched some film, and at the end, I remember the hero lying on his back on the ground, with two pistols in his hands, shooting the multitudinous villains as they rounded the corner.

At first, I felt like that guy (if he'd only had one arm), lying completely still with my wand raised, pointed at the door, waiting.

But no one came around the corner at all.

I realized that things like that only work if the villains in question are mindless lemmings. Which was probably why Macnair had been so easy to dispatch, but the rest of these people--these were all people I knew quite well, and who knew me, mind you--were not such hopeless buffoons.

The curses started coming around the corner. Most of them struck the wall behind me, scorching the wallpaper and gouging great chunks out of the wood - Narcissa was going to have a heart attack--but some hit the ground around my legs.

Hoping to avoid meeting the same fat as one of the floorboards, splintered straight up the middle by a smoking orange jet of light, I scrambled to push myself back.

The spells nevertheless kept coming closer to making their marks, and I saw Macnair beginning to stir on the floor.

"Stupefy! Stupefy!" I screamed, hitting Macnair several times on his broad back before he fell.

Finally, my back hit the door frame.

I flung my good arm across my body and pulled myself up by the doorknob.

Once on my feet, the curses became less of a threat. Pressed against the wall the spells could not reach, I had a little time to gather my thoughts.

The back door was right there, only a few feet away. I could lock the kitchen door behind me to hold them off.

I had a wand now, I could be back in London in the time it took me to run to that copse of trees, and the pond where Narcissa told me she was proud of me.

I could be out of the country in a matter of hours, never have to see or think about this place, these people again.

My wand hand shook and my throat went dry.

It just wasn't there anymore. I couldn't even feel it: the will to save myself.

I didn't want it. Now, no more than I had in the cave. And that scared me.

But there was only one thing to do: I made my soundless way back down the hall to the sitting room.

Evan, Rabastan, Nott, and Snape were arguing around the corner.

Snape--he was the one I was scared of again. This might fall into the realm of "his problem," now, with Malfoy knocked out, and he was more competent than Malfoy, Macnair, Evan, and Rabastan combined. Nott, I didn't know about. Nott could be a surprising person.

But they were all strong wizards. That, I did know.

I had had a chance, working with Snape, but he was too clever to be someone you didn't trust. He was not joking when he said my and Sirius's lives were worth less than whatever it was he was doing here.

So, if Snape was cleverer, and all of them together were ten times more powerful than I was, then what did I have?

Purer blood than any of them, for one thing. Maybe I ought to just tell them they were doing the Cause wrong.

I almost laughed at that.

But.

But I did have something.

That uniquely un-Slytherin ability to act rashly, foolishly, recklessly, thoughtlessly, with no regard for my own--

I didn't even get to finish my thought before I heard the pounding of my footsteps on the floor, the screeching of my rubber soles skidding around the corner, the hoarse sound of my own voice screaming curses, to the tune of shattering glass, a cacophony of voices like yammering starlings, crows, vultures.

I don't remember seeing.

Only brief visuals: pupils contracting to pinpricks from yards away, sleeves falling down over forearms as wands arced through the air.

No feelings, either. I wouldn't have noticed if a pack of wolves had been ripping out my innards. I was hollow inside, or lifeless, I might have been made of the same marble as the floor.

But the sounds give me a narrative.

Squealing, screeching, screaming, shattering, yammering, whistling, crashing, gasping.

Silence.

Chapter Text

When I again became cognizant of my motor functions, I was on the other side of the room, behind the sofa Rabastan had been sitting on before. My back was pressed against that of the sofa, and I was trembling all over.

Every inch of me was drenched in sweat. I could feel my toes squishing in my wet socks. The knuckles of my wand-hand, still clenched around Malfoy's wand, were bloodless and numb. My breath came in gasps.

I think it was the silence that shook me awake. I didn't hear anything but my own panting, and the rapid clicking of the tip of Malfoy's wand against the floor as it shook in my fist.

And then, suddenly, a sharp little whine.

I stopped shaking and held my breath. I concentrated on nothing but hearing, listening. A thousand other little noises hit my eardrums.

A moth's body hit the globe of a lamp, a dog barked from far away. Clocks ticked, a breeze rattled the windows, my own heart thudded pathetically in my chest.

The whine was clear and sharp as cut glass. I almost thought I recognized it.

I sorted through my scrambled mind.

Images peeled off other images and sounds in beating static rushes.

And finally there I was, in Malfoy Manor, pressed between the sofa and the wall, with God knows what tableau behind me, and Moey's voice keening from the cellar stairway.

I turned and crouched, my fingers hooking over the back of the sofa, fingertips running over the carved wood, and hoisted myself up, first peeking over the back with one eye.

It looked like the group of them had all just simultaneously lay down for a nap.

Malfoy was still crumpled in a pile near the stairway, with Macnair by the kitchen hallway, his boots pointed up and his chest flopped over at an angle to the floor. Rabastan was nearest to them, his upper half draped over the seat of an armchair, one leg bent back under him and one stretched out in front. My eyes traveled from him across the room to where Evan lay, flat on his back, cornered between the sideboard and a bookcase--he would have been taking cover, unarmed as he was. I could only see his legs (sad, wasn't it, that I could recognize him even from the shine on his shoes and the smart crease in his trousers), and I was confident as I could be that I had never been on that side of the room. Snape was only a few feet away from him, on his side, with his back to me. Whether he was faking or not, I didn't know; I was just glad we didn't have to interact anymore.

The room was otherwise largely undisturbed. A side table was overturned, a vase was shattered on the floor, the tulips that had once sat in it spilled across a shallow pool of water. And of course, the top was blown off one armchair and the kitchen hallway looked as though it had been thrown in a wood-chipper and hastily pasted back together. But other than that, even Narcissa wouldn't have been too scandalized. And well, even if she still needed to swoon, the fainting couch was yet in tact.

I sighed and raised my head the rest of the way up, throwing my arm across the back of the sofa.

My fingers met with skin.

Met with a body.

My throat constricted and my fingers retracted, curling back into a fist.

I'd forgotten about someone.

I'd forgotten about Nott.

I fell back down and pushed myself away from the sofa.

For a long second, I didn't blink, my heart didn't even beat. There were more sounds, words, unweaving themselves from the static.

And I knew what had happened.

But.

But maybe.

I jumped to my feet and jutted my head over the sofa.

Nott's flat, dirt-colored eyes stared back up at me, glassy and dim. One of his arms was folded back under him, one hung off the cushion.

My hand hovered by my ear before I thrust it down, and with trembling fingertips, felt the side of his throat for a pulse.

I didn't find one.

I reached down with my other hand and felt on each side of his neck. Up and down, from his ears to his collarbone.

Oh, God.

There wasn't a mark on him.

I shook my head, but even as I did the memories were becoming realer. I could hear my own voice saying the words.

But there wasn't time for this now. I pulled my hands away and turned back toward the plaintive whine coming from the stairwell.

"It's okay, Moey," I called, running across the room and jumping down the steps. "I'm okay, we're gonna be okay." But even as I said this, I was noticing injuries I hadn't felt minutes ago. One spell had burned a hole straight through my--James's--over-shirt and scorched the flesh of my shoulder. My other arm, my dead arm, was mobile again (clearly), but still tingling from blade to fingertip. And even my run across the room had been hampered by a limp.

Moey was crying. She shook her head, and hid her tiny face in her long hands, but the tears flooded through her fingers and splashed on the floor.

I knelt down on the stair by Sirius and put my hands on his shoulders. "Sirius, can you hear me?" I asked, tilting my head, peering up into his face.

His mouth twitched, and his eyelids stopped fluttering momentarily, but he didn't say anything, didn't move his head.

I remembered the feeling of touching Nott's still, cooling (he couldn't have got cold so quickly, could he, it must have just been me) flesh and grabbed Sirius's hands, rubbing them between my own.

They were warm, pliable, I felt the blood pumping through his fingers.

I let out a shuddering breath and stood up.

"Okay, let's go." I looked down at Moey and put my hand on top of her head.

She kept crying.

"It's okay, you're going to be fine. But when we go upstairs, I want you to close your eyes, and just hold onto my leg, okay? I'll lead you, but don't open your eyes until I tell you."

She nodded and took her hands away from her face.

I did a little spellwork, and stuck Malfoy's wand in my pocket before hoisting a featherweight Sirius up across my shoulder.

When we stepped out the door, we were greeted by the middle of the night. Hanging lamps lit the Malfoys' drive.

Narcissa was still expected home. She could be back any minute.

I told Moey to keep walking as quick as she could and increased my own pace to an unsteady jog, my gait lurching with my limp. I couldn't let her open her eyes until we were off the property, out of sight of the gates.

She could probably feel it, though. The pull. All house-elves felt it.

She kept stumbling and whimpering, but I didn't dare slow down. I just kept mumbling streams of encouragement between sharp intakes of air.

The drive was a mile long.

By the time we reached the gates, I was panting hard and shaking.

They must be coming to.

They must be coming.

Pain shot through my leg from knee to hip with every step, and Sirius's body rubbed against the burn on my shoulder, setting my whole arm on fire. My nose, which had once felt numb, was starting to regain feeling, the feeling of a chisel blade lodged halfway up the bridge.

I was disoriented, coming to the road.

I didn't know which way to go, which way there was a town.

I couldn't risk trying to Apparate, with an unfamiliar wand and three of us to bring along. Even a little splinch, with Sirius like he was now--it didn't bear thinking about.

But we couldn't just stand here.

I picked a direction and dragged us down the road.

Once we'd gone almost the length of the Malfoys' drive over again, I grew tired of stubbing my toes against stray rocks, paused, and knelt down.

"Moey, will you pull the wand out of my back pocket and hand it to me?"

She stumbling around to my back, still making whimpering sounds.

"Moey is not seeing a wand," she said miserably.

"What?" I felt Sirius's body weight sinking down into my shoulders, getting heavier. The spell hadn't lasted very long; it must have been the damn wand. "Moey-- shit--" I bent over and struggled to maneuver him gently to the ground.

When the back of his head touched the road, I jumped up and stuck my hands in my back pockets.

"Fuck!"

I went to my hip pockets and turned them out, my breast pocket, my waistband.

"Moey!" I spun on her. "Have you seen it? Where is it?"

She trembled and took a step back from me. "I is not-"

"Shit. Fuck! Well, look for it, dammit!"

She nodded, halfway looking glad to have been given an order. I fell to the ground on my hands and knees, and started running my palms over the pavement, trying to peel my eyes wide, as though it would help me see in the dark.

"Fuck! Shit." The damn thing could've fallen out any time since I put it in my pocket, since we left the house.

I got back to my feet and looked down at Sirius lying there, and Moey crawling around, her long fingers probing, and down the road, back towards the Malfoys'.

I could still see--barely--the faint twinkle of lights on their gates.

I couldn't.

They would find us, if I went back. And what were the chances I'd ever be able to find it? In the dark, basically a damn Muggle.

"Shit. Goddammit." I punched the air.

"Fuck. Fuck! That's-" mine, Sarah's, James's, Evan's, and now Malfoy's. "That's five wands already. What, God, you want me to be a fucking Muggle? Well, thanks, thanks so goddamn much you great bastard," I shouted at the sky.

"Moey is not thinking the wand is here," her small voice said. "Moey is not feeling it."

I kept looking at the sky for a minute and didn't respond to her. It was a clear night, with only a sliver of a moon. I could see Sirius--his star--low in the east, bright as ever. Leo had been out of the sky for months, now, though, and as a child I always had trouble finding Alpha Leonis--Regulus--my star, anyway.

"I know. It's okay. Shit." I put my hands on my head and took a deep breath.

We had to go, magic or not. They'd be coming. And they had their wands, and wits, about them.

I turned around, finally, knelt down by Sirius and wrapped my arms around his ribcage, trying to hoist him up over my shoulder.

"Fuck." As deadweight, Sirius felt like about 30 stone.

I managed to kind of drape him over my back, but I couldn't hold onto his broken leg, and struggling to stand up, I knew my own gimpy leg wouldn't carry us efficiently for long. I was unsteady even kneeling, all my weight on my right knee.

I looked up, down the road in the other direction. Away from the Malfoys'.

There were two little glimmers of light up ahead, twinkling like the lights hanging on the Malfoys' gate.

I didn't remember seeing them before.

I squinted hard, and the lights sharpened.

They seemed like they were getting bigger.

Coming closer.

And quickly.

"Oh, shit. Shit, fuck. Moey, we've got to go." I nearly toppled over trying to stand up, and cried out when I stepped hard on my bad leg, staggering to keep myself upright. "This way," I grunted, taking a step towards the side of the road.

Moey scampered ahead and disappeared, all but her long ears, into the tall grass.

The lights were coming so fast now, and I could hear a low rumble, shaking the ground, growing louder as the lights came closer.

I almost froze looking at them, my mind running, my heart rate accelerating.

I was so busy trying to think what kind of spell this was--what kind of power--it didn't even occur to me that it wasn't, not at all, until I was nearly blinded, and finally recognized the harsh squeal of brakes and the smell of burning rubber.

Chapter Text

I tried to move too quickly with Sirius and fell forward, tumbling into the grass.

The squealing stopped abruptly, and I heard a door slam and feet jump out onto the pavement.

Pushing myself up onto my elbows, I saw the yellow glow of the headlights shining on the waving grass.

Sirius lay beside me, one arm still thrown across my back, his face buried in the ground.

Shit shit shit shit fuck.

I scrambled to my knees, wincing, grabbed Sirius's shoulders, and flipped him over.

Christ shit. I hooked my finger in his slack mouth and cleared out the little clumps of grass and mud.

"Hello?" An alien voice called from behind us.

I started and jumped to my feet, my bad knee buckling under me. I tried to shield Sirius from view with my body, and my own eyes from the headlights' glare with my forearm.

"Is everything okay?" A man's body, silhouetted by the headlights, took a tentative step forward, towards us.

"Yes," I yelped instinctively.

The man paused, his hand frozen in a half wave.

"I mean--" This man was a Muggle, plainly. My instinct was not to trust him, but right then, a Muggle may have been the best help I could've hoped for in the given situation. "I mean. No."

I stepped aside, revealing Sirius's body lying on the ground. "My brother's hurt. He's unconscious, I--" I reached behind me and felt Moey's hand lock with mine.

"And our little sister--" I knelt down, pulled off my over shirt, and wrapped it tightly around her, making sure it covered her from ears to toes, her tiny nose only barely poking out. "She's not well. And it's so cold."

I was noticing the temperature for the first time myself, recognizing some of our shaking and trembling for shivering. It was December, after all.

The man shifted, and I could see his head turn back towards his car.

"We were attacked," I said quickly, "back that way." I pointed down the road toward Malfoy Manor. "They stole our car, and beat my brother unconscious, and broke my nose, and--I'm scared they'll come back. We need help."

He didn't say anything.

"Honey?" I heard a woman's voice from the car.

"It's all right," he called back to her. "Just stay in the car."

"Please," I whispered, squeezing Moey's shoulder and feeling at my side for Sirius.

He groaned and shifted slightly.

The man took another step forward, and said, in a soft voice, "Could you come up here for a minute?"

I nodded and took my hand off Moey.

She whimpered, but stayed put. I didn't want him looking at her, not yet.

I limped up to the road, and the man's face became clear. He must have been in his early 30s. Glasses, prickly mustache, ears that poked out from his shaggy hair.

"Wow, you do look bad," he said, his eyebrows arcing sympathetically as he scanned my face.

I could not believe a man whose mustache barely covered his lip had just said that to me. I wanted to roll my eyes. No kidding, jackass, but at least I can wipe the blood off my face. There's nothing that could be done about those ears.

"Please, we need help, I can't carry him, and I don't even know where the next town is."

"Well. There's a town a bit up the road." Henry jutted his thumb over his shoulder. "Back the way we came. It has a hospital, and--" He looked down at Moey, and over at Sirius. "Er, I suppose we might be able to take you back there. Given, you have the little girl and everything." He adjusted his glasses.

I took a deep breath. I was either going to start yelling at him or run out of lies, or both. "Look. We need to get to London." I straightened my back and heard two loud pops. "My brother needs to see a specialist--his specialist in London."

Henry frowned. "Er, it looks like he really needs to go to an accident and emergency."

"No." I wanted to grab him by the lapels and shake him. "He has a blood disorder. That's why--that's why, look, he's unconscious even though he hasn't lost that much blood. He doesn't produce blood like a normal person. God, I knew it was a mistake to try and travel just the three of us, but you just have to help us. I don't know what to do. If he doesn't see his specialist, he'll die."

Henry took a step back. "I think maybe—okay, there's a house back up off the road." He pointed in the direction of the Malfoys'. "We can go up there and ask to use their phone to call 999."

That shocked me better than a slap across the face. "We can't do that," I said. I gave on this git voluntarily doing anything vaguely helpful. Now I was thinking strategically. I stepped forward on the road. Henry's glance flickered back towards his car. His wife and son peered out the window. The little boy's pale face was bland and expressionless. His wife had her hand poised on the windowsill. I think she was wondering whether she ought to lock the doors.

"We can take you to the hospital back in town. They'll be able to help."

"Okay." We needed to be in that car.

Henry helped me picked Sirius up. When I knelt down, getting back up again was hard. My knee felt shot full of holes. Henry put his hand out to me when I stumbled.

It was tricky arranging Sirius in the small back space of Henry's hatchback. He had to push aside his spare tire, while I held Sirius up. We used an oily rag to cushion his head, which we nestled between the corner of the backseat and the tire.

I had noticed something I don't think Henry had. When he pulled up the edge of the tire to push it aside, I saw it. The black glint, easy to miss in the ambient darkness. The dim, fuzzy interior light on the car's ceiling just barely made it shine. I pulled Sirius's legs over it until Henry looked away, and while I arranged his lower body to take pressure off his broken leg, I pulled the tire iron out from under him and stuck it in my waistband. It was hard to hide it with the over shirt gone; James's shirt was too tight on me and the tire iron's bulbous end made a noticeable lump above my hip. When I looked up, the little boy was staring at me over the back of the seat. His dead little eyes were sagging, and he didn't seem to have any eyelashes.

"Okay, so you and your sister can sit in the back, all right?" Henry put his hand on my shoulder. I tore myself away from the boy's empty stare, and Henry and I closed the hatchback.

In the backseat, I put Moey by the window wrapped tight in the over shirt, and I sat in the middle. I was getting real nervous about now. We were starting off, and I had to do something soon. But there were three of them, two of them perfectly healthy adults, and one of them a terrifying and potentially Satanic child. I sized him up as he sat next to me. He was probably about nine and skinny. I could get one hand wrapped most of the way around his neck. Judging from the way his mother kept glancing in the backseat, her eyes narrow and her mouth pressed thin and down-turned, she was suspicious I might try to do just that.

Well, she wouldn't have been too far off.

I wrapped my hand around the tire iron and slipped it out of my waistband. Pinpricks ran over my whole body, and my mouth started producing too much saliva.

I grabbed the kid by his arm, and he couldn't even finish the yelp he started before I had him in my lap with the L-shaped end of the tire iron hooked around his neck.

Henry slammed on the brakes and his wife screamed, and I had to shout over her, "Don't stop the car. Turn it around. I'm sorry, I mean--jeez, it's just, you have to take us to London. And if you do, and my brother's okay, then you'll be okay, too." The little boy kept whining and crying. I started to pull the tire iron harder into his neck, but instead I pressed my opposite arm over his body and my hand over his mouth. He tried to bite me, but his jaws were so small, I could hold them closed with my fingers.

"Don't do this; don't hurt him!" the wife cried. "Henry, turn the fucking car around!"

He did. I could see his arms shaking on the steering wheel. The kid kept squirming, and his mum kept yelling at him to stop. Her eyes took up her whole face and vibrated wildly. She never took them off us.

It was cold and getting colder outside, and I was only wearing that thin cotton undershirt, but I was sweating; I could feel the drops running down from my underarms and wetting the shirt.

"Don't slow down and don't stop before I tell you. And if I think you're trying to signal other drivers, or you're driving out of the way, or anything else, I'll snap your sprog's neck in a heartbeat. I've killed people before, and I can do it again. I don't really have anything to lose. If he dies, I mean, if my brother dies, I will too. So I don't mind taking a couple other people out with us."

The wife mumbled some things and she kept telling the kid to be still and be brave and how much she loved him. Then she yelled at Henry to drive faster.

"No, don't drive any faster," I said, tightening my grip around the kid's mouth. "Don't draw any attention to us. I'm really warning you."

"No, don't drive any faster," the wife said.

"Look, lady, you need to turn around."

She hesitated, so I yanked up on the tire iron and the kid squeaked. She faced front right away. "And just don't talk, okay? I know you're scared and all, but this is going to be over soon. You could've just agreed to take me to London when I asked nicely, you know. I mean, really, I tell you he's got a blood disorder and you just—what? And then you tell me to go up to that house?" I shook my head. "You have no idea what you were suggesting." I even laughed.

I just kept talking, whenever I could think of anything to say. When I stopped, the whole car was silent and I wanted to squirm in my seat. Every mile felt like a hundred. The kid's tears rolled over my fingers on their way down his face.

I kind of jiggled him with my good knee, like I thought that might calm him down. I was beginning to feel like a psychopath, and what's worse, I was beginning to realize that once we got to London, I still had no idea how to get to St. Mungo's.

As it turned out, I still had another hour to devise a new plan. Unfortunately, I spent most of that time desperately needing to urinate and thinking that every time Henry scratched his nose or coughed that he was trying to send a distress signal to other motorists. That and, when everyone went silent, listening attentively for the sound of Sirius's breathing. I sent Moey back there to make sure he was doing okay, I mean, to make sure he was still alive. Sometimes he moaned or muttered something garbled. Each time he did, I pulled the tire iron tighter around the kid's neck and didn't notice until I felt him, like Evan had, struggling for breath against my chest.

From the front seat, the kid's mum kept up a constant mumbled chorus of "please don't hurt him" and "God, please save my baby" until I reminded her to be quiet. I don't think Henry had said a word since I pulled out the tire iron.

They reminded me of the family I'd met my first night as a Death Eater. My arms were going numb from holding the kid so long.

By the time we came into the London outskirts, Moey was saying Sirius's breathing was slowing. I didn't dare look in the back. When Henry asked me where we were going, I just said to keep driving.

"You said we had to take you to London!" the mum said, twisting in her seat. It was the first time she had sounded angry.

"Don't look back here! It's soon, we're almost there. We have to go to my brother's specialist. I just don't know, really, how to drive there."

"Excuse me? You don't know how to drive there?"

"Just keep driving until I tell you to stop."

The mum was slow turning around. Her eyes were narrow and critical. "Well, maybe you know what neighborhood it's in?" she asked, her voice calm and polite. "At the moment, we're driving toward central London on the M4. Perhaps it's a neighborhood in that area? Around Piccadilly or Mayfair?"

I hesitated. I ought to know where St. Mungo's was. I'd been there enough recently, with my dad being sick and all. But Apparating, I don't think I'd ever even passed a corner coming or going. I don't think I'd ever noticed a single street sign.

"Er, it's not either of those," I said. But if I didn't know where St. Mungo's was, I did know something. I knew where the Ministry of Magic was. "Whitehall. It's in Whitehall," I said. I knew what going there meant. I knew the choice I was making. It was the only way. I hoped Sirius wouldn't forget about me--if he survived. If he didn't, well, even I could admit I belonged in Azkaban for that.

The mum pointed out when we turned on the street, and Henry drove slowly down it, so I could squint out the windows looking for a familiar call box. I knew as soon as we got out of the car, and I surrendered the kid to them, they would find the nearest policeman with no delay, or else try to run me over. Either way, I wanted us dropped off as near that call box as possible.

The pavement was near empty, and the only other cars were parked. The hazy glow of the streetlights seemed magnified and bright beyond their power. Wind began to blow frosty powder along the pavement and against the car's windscreen. I thought I saw every facet of the tiny snowflakes caught in the streetlight.

In the back, Moey said that Sirius had stopped shivering.

I spotted the call box soon after that. I got out of the car, still holding the kid by the neck, and watched Henry open the hatchback and unload Sirius. I had him, helped pathetically by Moey, carry Sirius right up the call box and prop him up inside. Then, with Henry standing near the car, small and shaking, I let the kid go. I didn't watch him sprint to the car, but I heard him cry out and stumble on the slippery pavement, and then, finally, I heard the tires squeal and the car drive away, leaving the smell of burning rubber behind it. As if by magic, no one was around to see.

I took Moey's hand and stepped into the call box with her. I had to pick up Sirius and press his cool body against the side so we could all fit. I couldn't feel his breath on my neck anymore.

I dialed the numbers, and just before the earth swallowed us up, I got a last look at the now dull and starless sky.