Warnings: Some bad language, wordiness, implications of slash, and a vaguely crackish premise.
Word Count: ~8900 (complete)
Pairings: Slight Severus/Regulus
Summary: Harry never gets a chance to cast his patronus that night when the dementors come to Little Whinging. A dead man does it for him. Regulus Black has spent almost sixteen years hunting Horcruxes, but now he's ready to face the Light—as well as his brother, and the friend he left behind. Implications of SS/RB.
Disclaimer: I don't hold the copyrights, I didn't create them, and I make no profit from this.
Notes: This has been sitting on my hard drive in bits and pieces for years now, and I've come to terms with the fact that it'll likely never be finished. However, what there is works as an open-ended one-shot (Did I just entirely upend the main plot points of OotP? Why yes, yes I did), so I'm throwing it up here. Should anyone care to continue it, just drop me a PM. I'm open to adoption and all that.
(One or two lines borrowed directly from OotP; you'll know them when you see them.)
(Raise the Dead Reprise)
Severus Snape has many regrets in his life, many things he wishes he could undo and choices he longs to have the chance to correct, but after Lily, after joining the Dark Lord to begin with, there is one thing that he regrets most. It still comes to him in dreams at times, a ghost long dead with bright grey eyes and delicate features, touching his arm with careful fingers after a meeting with the Dark Lord one day.
"Severus," Regulus Black had said. "Severus, may I speak with you?"
But Severus was cruel then, careless with other's hearts because his own had been broken, and he had shaken off that thin, pale, trembling hand. "Leave me be, Black," he had snapped, awareness of the younger boy's feelings for him rising with a vicious kind of glee. "This pathetic crush of yours turns my stomach. Do not presume to think—"
The boy's face—and he really had been a boy, barely eighteen years old, the Dark Lord's researcher more than anything, Inner Circle only because of his family name—had gone very pale, but he'd reached for Severus again nevertheless. "No," he had said, and it is only now, with the passage of time and years and tragedy, that Severus can pick out the desperation that had filled his voice. "No, Severus, it's not about that. It's—you were friends with a Muggleborn girl, Lily—"
But that had destroyed the conversation, and Severus whirled on the younger Black, wand drawn and at his throat before another word could fall from his mouth. "Shut your mouth, Black," he had hissed, and hexed him on principle. He'd left the boy gasping and bleeding, face gone ashen in the dark, and never looked back.
To this day, Severus wonders if he was the last person to see Regulus Black alive.
He tips his head, letting it fall against the back of his armchair, and closes his eyes. It's a warm night, but little warmth ever reaches the dungeons, and there's a fire in the hearth. It keeps his quarters livable, and he enjoys the flickering light, but right now it can provide no solace. Not with his dreams of the past riding him as they are.
Muggleborn, Regulus had said, and Severus has obsessed over this for years now. Muggleborn, not the expected—all but required—Mudblood. Had any of the others heard him, it would have been grounds for punishment, so why had Regulus—delicate, quiet, bookish Regulus, more Ravenclaw than Slytherin except where the pursuit of magical knowledge was concerned—said that?
He had disappeared shortly after, entirely vanished no matter how the Dark Lord growled and hissed and called him, until finally he was written off as a victim of the Order and dismissed. But even now Severus wonders at the steel in Regulus's eyes when they'd met his that dark night, the terrified conviction in them. Had he really fallen to the Order, or had he done the unthinkable and abandoned the Dark Lord? There is little doubt of his death—his mother had confirmed it, hardly grieved and far closer to infuriated. But had Regulus chosen death at his own hand to escape Voldemort? Could Severus have changed his mind, found an alternative for him, had he only listened that night?
There is no reason for his preoccupation with the boy, but Severus has kept it in the back of his mind for years now, regardless. It tastes a fair bit like murder, even if it was not his hand that held the wand or wielded the knife. Lack of care, he supposes. A moment of needless cruelty to a boy who had never done anything to harm him, had never supported his brother and had even tried to halt the elder Black's maliciousness, albeit fruitlessly. A boy who had looked at him with bright, admiring eyes despite Severus never giving him so much as a thoughtful word. Only mockery and ridicule for his ever-so-obvious adoration.
Severus has killed before, by his own hand, but that…
The death of Regulus Black, whether he is to blame or not, does not rest easily with him, and never has.
His Dark Mark twinges, just enough to recall its presence, and Severus closes his eyes to the warmth and light of the fire. There is an Order meeting in a little over an hour, another gathering in that overwrought mausoleum the Blacks call their ancestral home, and Severus dreads it in a vague, inevitable sort of way.
He will go, however.
Of course he will.
Atonement is, perhaps, a Sisyphean feat, but he has dedicated his life to it. Not simply for Lily, or her brat of a son, but for others that he failed to save as well.
If Regulus Black's wide, entreating grey eyes linger in his mind more than most, well.
He is the only Legilimens in the room, thankfully.
The dementors are there, gliding shadows in the darkness, leeching everything bright and light from the air. Harry raises his wand even as he stumbles backwards, ears ringing with shrill and manic laughter, reaches for a happy thought—something, anything, school starting, the Firebolt, going to live with Sirius—and opens his mouth.
And then a soft voice in the gloom murmurs, "Expecto Patronum."
There's a flash of silver, a rush of light, and a gleaming shape hurtles past, scatters the two dementors and drives them away, back into the darkness. With their retreat, the summer air is warm again and light returns in an almost relieved rush—moon, stars, pale streetlamps at either end of the alley.
As they swoop away, the patronus pauses and half-turns, looking back towards the three of them, and Harry sees that it's a dog, huge and strangely familiar, almost a Grim in size and shape. It looks at them—Harry, his whimpering cousin, its summoner—for a moment, then shimmers and disperses.
Harry catches his breath in the suddenly calm air and, feeling a little foolish, lowers his wand halfway as he turns to look at the wizard who cast the spell—saved them, probably, or at least saved him from expulsion, because Harry's still not of age and already has one black mark against his name when it comes to underage magic. He's not entirely sure what the Ministry would do to him, but knowing Fudge, it wouldn't be pleasant.
"Thanks," he says, even as he grips his wand a little tighter, because Voldemort is back and even if he's been languishing here for the entire summer without word, he still knows to be cautious. But the man is wearing a long dark cloak with a deep hood, clearly not used to being out of the magical world or simply not making the effort to blend in with Muggles, and just about all Harry can see of him is the tip of his glowing wand and his dragonhide boots.
The man glances over at the insensate Dudley and then faces Harry, obviously dismissing the other boy as unimportant—Harry doesn't really blame him. "Harry Potter, I presume," he says, and the voice is low and cultured, careful in tone and diction.
"Yeah," Harry says cautiously, tightening his grip on his wand just a bit, though if Voldemort did send the dementors, he can't imagine what the bastard has to gain also sending someone to save him. "Who are you?"
"A friend," the man responds easily enough. "We have a common enemy, as well as common friends. Though perhaps you would not term them such." He reaches up with both hands, wand gone, and deliberately pulls his hood back.
Harry blinks and takes a step back in shock. "Sirius?" he demands, but even as the word leaves his mouth he realizes it's not true. Despite the similarity in their faces, this man is smaller than his godfather, more lightly built—Seeker rather than Chaser, Harry thinks, and almost smiles despite himself when he thinks what Hermione would say about him putting everything in Quidditch terms—and his shoulder-length hair is straighter and nearly blue-black in the faint light of the streetlamps. His face is more delicate, too, and while nowhere near as worn and lined as Sirius's, it also shows signs of stress and care.
But their eyes are the same, bright grey, nearly silver, with something warm behind them.
The man laughs, soft but genuine, and it reaches all the way to his eyes, erases some of the lines on his face. "Not quite," he says mirthfully, "and he'd be horrifically offended if you said that to his face. I'm his younger brother, Regulus Black."
Harry blinks again, casting his thoughts back and trying to recall any mention of Sirius's family. He can't, but surely Sirius—
"He thinks I'm dead," Regulus adds, still amused, but now there's something wistful in his tone as well. "Everyone does, I'm afraid. That's what happens when a loyal Death Eater betrays the Dark Lord." With a gesture that's nearly a flourish, he shakes back one sleeve of his shirt and shows Harry the Dark Mark on his left arm, skin red and irritated around it, snake-tongued skull pulsing darkly.
Harry sucks in a sharp breath and lifts his wand again, wracking his brain for good curses, but before he can speak one he hesitates. This man saved him, if not from death then at least from an accusation of underage magic, and they've been holding a polite conversation for at least thirty seconds without Regulus trying to kill him. It says quite a bit about Harry's life that that's a fairly good start to their relationship.
The younger Black raises a brow, but makes no other move. "I betrayed him," he says again, more deliberately, "a year before you were even born, and I nearly died for it. I would have, if not for my family's house elf, Kreacher." Fondness colors his tone, and that alone makes Harry pause, because Death Eaters are supposed to be superior and bigoted, and he knows very well how Dobby was treated by the Malfoys. Aren't all purebloods supposed to be like that?
Finally, taking a leap of faith, Harry lowers his wand and steps back. "Then why are you here?" he demands. "If everyone thinks you're dead, why come to me?"
Regulus smiles at him, just slightly and not at all like Sirius's effusive grins, as though he's done something to be proud of. Then he spins on his heel and heads for Dudley, grasping one of the other boy's shoulders and attempting to heave him to his feet. "Because you didn't really have a way out of that situation, not so far as I could see," he says as he does so. "Underage magic or a dementor's Kiss—not ideal options. I've been watching you for a while, Harry, making sure the Dark Lord stayed away and your Order guards kept on their toes." He manages to get Dudley more or less upright with a sharp groan of effort, and then adds, "Whatever bastard they had watching you earlier Disapparated without any relief showing up, so I have to assume there's a traitor in the ranks, or just some faithless fool without any idea of responsibility. It's a good thing I decided to come out of hiding when I did, I suppose."
Startled out of his stupor by the notion of guards, Harry suddenly realizes he's staring at the man, and pockets his wand, heading over to grab Dudley's other arm and take half the weight. "I'm grateful, yeah," he agrees, struggling with his cousin's bulk, regardless of the help. "But…Order? Guards?"
"Watchers, assigned by Dumbledore," Regulus explains, and together they manage to take a stumbling step forward. "Damn, but he's a bloody whale. Where's a pair of Beaters when you need them?"
Harry laughs at that, though it's breathless. "You play Quidditch?" he asks, eager for any point of connection with the wizarding world.
Regulus offers him another half-smile, crooked and quiet and entirely unlike Sirius's, though it suits his face. "Yes," he affirms. "Seeker for Slytherin from my second year on. Your father absolutely hated me. You're Gryffindor's Seeker still, yes?"
Harry falters a little—Slytherin?—though the man's House is likely to be expected, former Death Eater that he is. But then he forces his feet onwards, and nods. "Maybe this year they'll actually let us play," he says optimistically, remembering with some bemusement his and Cedric's horror at the conversion of the Quidditch pitch into a hedge maze last year. The thought aches, but for once it's a good memory of the Hufflepuff seeker, rather than an image of his death.
With a snort, Regulus guides them around the corner and towards the Dursleys' house. "Hopefully," he agrees. "I was in England last year, and I had planned to sneak in to a game to see how you did, but that damned Tournament took all the time. A disappointment, to be sure. I wasn't entirely comfortable watching my brother's godson risk his life for unclear reasons, regardless of how the other spectators felt."
Harry frowns a little, because there's a certain amount of regretful fondness in Regulus's voice when he speaks of Sirius, and it's confusing. "Why…?" He hesitates, debating whether it's his business, but curiosity wins out in the end. "Why haven't you told him you're alive?" he asks in a rush. "He got out of Azkaban two years ago already. If you were back in England last year…"
The man gives a short sigh, and pauses in the street to look over at Harry. The lines are deeper than before, and the faint regret in his voice is far deeper in his eyes. "Ah," he says softly, "but you forget, Harry. I was a Death Eater, and Sirius and I parted on poor terms. He was the wild, rebellious son who ran away to a family of blood traitors when he was sixteen, while I was the one held up as the perfect son of a Dark family, pushed into the role of Black heir. If nothing else, my brother is very single-minded when it comes to family, and I doubt that he would change his opinion of me so readily, regardless of…circumstances. Our different House loyalties hardly helped."
He looks sad, Harry realizes as they start moving again, and feels a slight pang of guilt for his earlier reticence, however brief, at hearing this man was a Slytherin. At Hogwarts, House lines are so clearly drawn, and that lasts forever. To divide a family like so sharply—well, Harry knows what he would give for actual family, and can't help but the brief thought that it's absolutely stupid for brothers to be so at odds.
But he's never looked at a Slytherin without some form of suspicion, so he's hardly one to talk, he supposes.
As though guessing his thoughts, Regulus offers him another crooked smile as they reach Number Four's mat. "Don't worry," he says, letting Dudley drop to loll against the doorframe. "I think it's about time I come out of hiding altogether. If the Order's been reformed, I have information that they'll need—desperately so if this regresses to an all-out war. Sirius will get his pound of flesh soon enough."
"Order?" Harry asks again, because he's said that before and Harry can all but here the capital letter there. It sounds important, weighty.
"The Order of the Phoenix," Regulus explains. "They spearheaded the resistance against the Dark Lord last time he rose, and from the faces I've seen, Dumbledore's recalled them. It's a secret organization, though, so I've no doubt they've been leaving the details out of their letters to you, for fear of them being intercepted."
Something icy and angry coalesces in Harry's stomach, makes it hard to breathe, but he swallows and tries to ignore it. A hand settles unexpectedly on his shoulder, and he glances up at Regulus, who's watching him with sympathetic eyes.
"I know you're frustrated," he says quietly, "but please, understand. You weren't alive last time the Dark Lord was in power, but if he manages to regain even a fraction of his former influence, the Order won't stand a chance regardless of numbers. Right now they're doing everything in absolute secrecy, trying to undercut him at every turn before he can gain a foothold. Please, Harry, there were so many people who sacrificed everything last time. They're all scared. It's making them overreact, and regardless of how cut off you've been here, they're fighting a war. There's little room for sentiment, and even less for error. If even one letter with a hint of information ended up in the Dark Lord's hands…I shudder to think."
The guilt returns, smothering the iciness and eating away at the frustration. Harry winces and looks away from the man who betrayed Voldemort regardless of the risk to himself, who went against his family and became a traitor for the Light, and is now pleading with him for patience. In the face of that, a lack of information doesn't seem quite so dire.
Regulus lets out a soft breath, something close to relief, and the grip on his shoulder tightens for a second before he lets go entirely. "I know you've been trapped in a bad situation here," he offers. "Waiting is hell. I've been waiting for sixteen years—believe me, I understand your feelings, Harry. But keep a cool head when you can. The Dark Lord will take advantage of you without mercy. It's his way, and all you can do is resist. Strength and vigilance."
Mutely, Harry nods. There's really nothing else he can do, faced with a plea like that.
Regulus takes a step back, raising a cool brow at Dudley's still-shaking form, and then sighs. "All right. I suppose if we're to do this, it will have to be the hard way. With your guard gone and dementors after you, this place isn't safe any longer."
"You're going to take me away?" Harry asks, torn between relief, excitement, and wariness. On one hand, Regulus has been nothing but helpful and polite. On the other…he was—could still be—a Death Eater.
His answer is a firm nod. "I'll swear a vow that I mean you no harm, if it eases your mind," the Black offers. "But yes, I'm taking you to the Order. As I said, I've information for them, and you need better protection than whatever is offered here. Let me deal with your aunt and uncle—" Here his lip curls faintly, and that's certainly not an expression Harry's seen Sirius make, but it's definitely a pureblood one "—while you pack your things. All right?"
"Oath first," Harry says, but something in his chest eases at that. The Order means Dumbledore, and Dumbledore will be able to provide both news and safety.
Agreeably, Regulus draws his wand from under his cloak and flicks it, sending golden light spiraling around them. "On my magic, on my soul," he says formally. "Harry Potter, I swear to you that I mean you no harm, and will do all in my power to keep you from the Dark Lord's clutches as long as I draw breath."
The light flares green, then red, and then returns to gold before fading away entirely, and Regulus offers Harry another faint, crooked smile and reaches for the doorbell with his free hand. "Brace yourself," he murmurs wryly, and Harry has to smother an entirely inappropriate grin as Petunia's shadow reaches the door.
"Diddy! About time too, I was getting quite—quite—Diddy, what's the matter?"
But before Petunia can either panic or shift her focus—and the blame—to Harry, Regulus steps forward, wand still pointedly in hand, and says, even as Vernon appears in the hall, "Forgive the intrusion, ma'am, but your son was almost attacked by a Dark creature. Put him to bed, feed him chocolate, and he'll be fine in a few hours. Harry, go."
Gladly, Harry ducks past his gaping aunt and stuttering uncle and hurries up the stairs, his uncle's blustering fading behind him. Regulus is a fully trained wizard who seems to be fairly levelheaded, so surely he can take care of himself, regardless of Vernon's bulk. The Dursleys will likely accuse and threaten, but against a real wizard rather than an underage one depending on them for food and shelter, they're entirely helpless.
And, indeed, by the time Harry's shoving the last of his things into his trunk, Regulus appears at the door of his room, unscathed but clearly displeased. He steps inside with a mutter of, "If ever there were Muggles to prove the Dark Lord right…" but it fades as he raises a brow at the chaos of Harry's trunk.
"Er," Harry says, freezing sheepishly.
But Regulus simply snorts, that crooked smile twitching his lips again. "You pack like my brother," he says with an amused shake of his head, raising his wand. "One moment." A swish and a sharp flick, and everything inside the trunk flies up and then drops down again, perfectly folded and organized. Several stray socks even crawl out from under the bed, fold themselves neatly, and tuck themselves away.
"Brilliant," Harry says, because he's actually able to close the trunk now without sitting on it. "Thanks."
"No problem." Regulus shrinks the trunk and Hedwig's cage—cleaned with another quick charm—down and hands both to Harry, who pockets them. Then, with a slow, deep breath, the younger Black brother takes a step back and nods, as though to himself. "All right," he breathes, closing his eyes for a moment. "All right."
For the first time, Harry thinks about what Regulus is doing here, a former Death Eater revealing himself for the first time in sixteen years, facing a brother whom he parted with as enemies, protecting the son of a man who by his own admission disliked him in school, simply because Harry is said brother's godson. His face is calm and his expression is firm, but his eyes are alight with conflicting emotions.
Regardless, he draws up his hood and offers Harry his elbow. "Grab hold," he directs. "I've an idea of where Order headquarters is, and I'll have to Side-Along Apparate you. Ever done it before?" At Harry's headshake, he winces a bit. "Ah. It'll be unpleasant, but it's the fastest way to get there. Hold tightly, and don't let go. Leaving you Splinched would be most awkward to explain to my brother."
Harry grips the proffered arm firmly, and half a second later the world is sucked away as they vanish from Privet Drive.
Regulus has never been a brave man. He knows it, accepts it—Sirius is the Gryffindor in the family, not him, and he has never wanted to exchange rolls with his brother. Slytherin was good for him, as a House. He loves magic in all its forms, loves rituals and spells and potions, and in pursuit of them he is Slytherin to his core, far more than Ravenclaw, willing to immerse himself in the Dark as well as the Light, and all shades between. It was the main reason for his admiration of the Dark Lord, as a boy—Voldemort had not feared the old ways of magic, regardless of how the wizarding world had turned away from them.
Regulus had followed him for that alone, for the depth and breadth of knowledge the man held, and had been horrified when he realized to what levels Voldemort would sink. The Dark Lord had not cared for the magic itself, or the consequences, only the power.
But now, as his boots touch down on the street outside his family home, he wishes for even a fraction of Sirius's courage, Slytherin or not. This is without a doubt the most reckless thing he's ever done. Even betraying the Dark Lord was more carefully thought out, and though Regulus never planned to stay in hiding forever, he cannot believe he has seized this chance so blindly. Madness, truly. He's been hunting Horcruxes alone far too long for any sort of sanity.
Carefully, he releases Harry, who looks alarmingly green, and then hands over his wand. "Here," he murmurs. "It might be best for you to keep this for me. Is yours handy?"
With a confused glance at him, James Potter's son pulls his own wand out of his pocket, just as an invisible door opens and sends a gaggle of figures spilling into the street, Regulus's brother in the lead.
"Harry!" Sirius cries, and Regulus steps back, taking a good look at his last immediate family member for the first time in over sixteen years. He's aged, though he no longer looks quite as awful as those escaped convict pictures made him appear, and his hair is just as long and wild as ever. He grabs Harry by the shoulders, whirling around to put himself between Harry and Regulus, even as the others—a Weasley man with long hair in a ponytail, an aged Remus Lupin, and Emmeline Vance—surround him, wands drawn.
"Peace," Regulus says carefully, slowly raising his hands to waist-height and turning them palm up. "Harry has my wand. He should eat some chocolate—there were dementors near his house."
Sirius goes pale and jerks back towards his godson. "Harry?" he demands. "What happened? You're all right?"
"Fine," Harry says, watching Regulus with Lily's green eyes set in James's face. It's a fair bit eerie, and Regulus wonders how his brother is handling such a clear reminder of two of his greatest lost friends. "Er, he saved me and Dudley. Banished the dementors. He said the guard you assigned had left. I heard them Apparate."
Vance curses softly, lowering her wand slightly. "It was Mundungus tonight," she says grimly. "The rat must have scurried off somewhere, just when he was needed."
But Lupin's eyes are still on Regulus, as sharp as ever, and Regulus has no doubt that the man recognized his voice, regardless of how long it's been since he last heard it. "Who are you?" the man says suspiciously, wandpoint unwavering. "Let us see your face."
Regulus swallows, nerves writhing like rats in his stomach, but nods his agreement. Carefully, he raises his hands, slowly enough not to be a threat, and flips his hood back. His eyes are fixed solely on his brother. "Regulus Black," he says, and sees Sirius go very, very still. It's a shock to him as well, to use his own name after sixteen years of avoiding anything to do with it at all. "I have information for the Order of the Phoenix regarding the Dark Lord and how to kill him."
"You're a Death Eater," Lupin says, but his voice is flat and shaking ever so slightly. "And you're supposed to be dead."
"Was a Death Eater," Regulus corrects, resisting the temptation to roll his eyes. Obviously, if he has information for the Order, he's hardly a loyal follower of the Dark Lord. "And at the risk of sounding trite, rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated. I've been in hiding, looking for a way to destroy the Dark Lord. Permanently, this time."
In half an instant, Sirius has whirled around and seized him by the collar of his robes. Regulus doesn't even try to resist as the bigger man yanks him closer, right up until they're face to face. His eyes are wild, the Black madness burning but contained within their depths. "How are you wearing my brother's face?" he snarls, sounding just like his Animagus form. "How the hell are you wearing his face, you fucking bastard?! Reggie is dead!"
"Don't call me that," Regulus snaps back, a little brother's entirely automatic reaction to a truly hated nickname. "I told you, I actually managed to get a name that belonged to two other halfway decent Blacks, so you're not allowed to butcher it, Siri!"
There's a long, frozen moment of silence, and then Sirius laughs. He throws his head back and laughs, even as he wraps his arms around Regulus's shoulders and drags him forward into a rib-cracking hug. "Reggie!"
Giving in with bad grace, Regulus rolls his eyes and allows the nickname, just this once. But he wraps his arms around Sirius in return and leans forward, burying his face in his older brother's shoulder. It's entirely familiar, even though the last time Sirius actually hugged him was when Regulus was nine. "Siri," he mutters, and wills himself not to cry, because whether he's forgiven or not, Sirius is his brother. That has to mean something.
Then Sirius pulls back, hauls off, and punches him hard across the jaw. Regulus feels his feet all but lift off the ground as blinding pain blooms in his cheek, and he lands hard on the pavement with a yelp, in a completely undignified sprawl.
And, all right, fine, that's also to be entirely expected. Damn it.
"The Death Eaters, Regulus?" Sirius demands, sounding furious, and Regulus's brain choses that moment to remind him that, as much as Sirius hates their genes, he definitely inherited their mother's temper. "I knew you were an idiot, but joining You-Know-Who? Hell, Regulus!"
That's enough to get Regulus back on his feet, regardless of the pain in his jaw, and he faces his brother squarely. "Yes, the Death Eaters," he hisses in return. "They wanted it, all of them! Mother, Father, Bella, all of her friends—they set the date, arranged everything, and what was I supposed to do?"
"Say no, it's not that hard! I—"
"You've always been the brave one, Sirius, you were the Gryffindor, not me! I've always been a coward! I was a coward then, unable to turn them down, and I was a coward when I let everyone believe I was dead and ran away rather than stay and fight! I stayed away, even when the Dark Lord fell, even when you were framed, even when you got out, even when he came back!" Regulus grabs his brother's robe blindly, more a plea for him to listen than anything. "I've spent sixteen years on the run, Sirius, making sure that when he dies it will stick, because that's all I can do!"
Silence falls, and Regulus closes his eyes, reining in his temper and stepping back. He takes a breath, and when he looks again Sirius is watching him with wide eyes, clearly stunned. He's always been the one with the temper, after all. It was always Regulus who kept a cool head, no matter what. Aware of that, Regulus offers him a crooked smile that holds no humor. "The only time I was ever brave," he says softly, "was when I went after the Dark Lord's greatest secret, fully intending to die for it. But I couldn't even do that right."
Shadows shift and part, and Albus Dumbledore steps out of the hidden number twelve Grimmauld Place, streetlights glancing over his robin's-egg-blue robes. There is a certain watchfulness to his eyes that says he knows very well what Regulus is referring to, and that he has been listening.
"Harry, my boy," he says, shifting his gaze to the youngest present. "You look tired. Perhaps it would be best if we move this conversation inside."
Regulus expects an outcry—he's a former Death Eater, after all—but apparently they all take the Headmaster at his word. Lupin, Vance, and the Weasley boy all head in without another word. Sirius looks torn for a moment, but when Dumbledore whispers something in Harry's ear and shoos them both away, he leads his godson off into nothingness.
Then Regulus is alone with the only man Voldemort has ever feared.
"Headmaster," he says politely, inclining his head.
Dumbledore surveys him over the tops of his half-moon glasses for a long moment, and then to Regulus's surprise he smiles, slow and warm. "My boy," he murmurs. "You have been gone from home for a long time. I had feared the worst."
Regulus chokes on a laugh. "That was my hope," he says, even as the headmaster's words sink into his bones. "That everyone would believe that. I…" He glances towards the space where Grimmauld Place is supposed to be, and swallows harshly.
"Yes," he admits at length. "It has been…a very long time."
Sixteen long, lonely years, and perhaps that's the reason he took the chance tonight, seized on it so quickly. He's been alone in his wanderings for so very much of them, and it's taken its toll on him. His brother, friends, and family thought him dead, but he had known they were still alive and merely out of reach.
"I must say," he murmurs, "I had thought I would be drugged up to my ears with Veritaserum by this time. What if I were a spy?"
Dumbledore merely beams at him. "I have had some experience with spies myself," he says cheerfully. "And somehow, Mister Black, I do not think you are one. You have never had the temperament." His eyes twinkle brightly, and even now it brings a slight smile to Regulus's face. "Always too distracted by a good book, I think."
Regulus gives in, because that's entirely true, and he chuckles, offering his wrists to the Headmaster. "Chains?" he asks graciously. "Or have you advanced to handcuffs in my time away?"
Shaking his head fondly, Dumbledore leans forward and murmurs in Regulus's ear, "The headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place."
Regulus is still a Slytherin at heart, and it makes something in him secretly gleeful to have been right about the Order's location. He swallows a triumphant grin, even as the house appears out of nothingness and the door swings open for them. He doesn't have fond memories of this place, but that's all right, because it's no longer his childhood home. Headquarters of the resistance suits it much better, he thinks, following Dumbledore up the steps.
The interior has fallen into disrepair, but he ignores it, looking around to see his brother lurking at the corner, obviously trying for casual and failing beautifully, the poor Gryffindor.
"Siri," he says with a roll of his eyes. "Why are you skulking in the shadows?"
"Making sure you didn't get lost," Sirius retorts, but he meets Regulus's eyes almost eagerly. "Big brothers have to look out for the little brothers, don't they?"
"Little brothers can look after themselves just fine by the time they're thirty," Regulus answers sharply, swallowing the equal parts of amusement and annoyance that rise. "Especially after almost two decades on the run."
At that, Sirius brightens. "Hey, we're both wanted criminals! Something in common at last!"
"Sorry to break your heart, Siri, but I'm legally dead, not internationally wanted."
"Something in common besides your pigheadedness, you mean?" Lupin puts in from the doorway. "Or your looks. Or your recklessness. Or—"
"I take offense at that," Regulus cuts in. "I don't think I've ever been reckless in my life." Beyond tonight, of course, but he's hardly about to make a Gryffindor's point for them.
Dumbledore chuckles, but urges the three of them on regardless. "In the kitchen would be best for this discussion, I think. We wouldn't want to wake anything, after all, and there is a meeting in progress. Regulus, I believe your news is urgent?"
Reminded of his task, Regulus nods. "Yes. It…it should be the first thing," he agrees, meeting the Headmaster's sharp blue gaze. There's understanding there. Dumbledore must know about the Horcruxes as well. Whether the rest of the Order does is debatable, but this is his unspoken permission to tell them.
"Harry is upstairs with Ron and Hermione," Sirius offers, leading the way towards the kitchen. "Looked happy enough to see them, at any rate, and Lupin packed him off with some of Honeyduke's finest." Sharp eyes catch Regulus's and hold. "You said there were dementors?"
Regulus dips his head. "Two of them, before I drove them off. Harry was going to try, but I figured with the opinion the Ministry has of him right now, it was better not to risk any underage magic flying around. 'Reasonable Restrictions' are only as reasonable as the governing body, after all."
"Very wise," Dumbledore says serenely, ushering them through the door. "Ah, good, we're all here, I see."
But Regulus isn't paying attention any longer, eyes fixed on the tall, dark-haired man at the other end of the table. Severus Snape looks far older and more tired than he should, even with sixteen years between them, but right now he's ghostly pale. As silence falls over the room, he rises slowly to his feet, dark eyes catching Regulus's and holding. Respite himself, Regulus is reminded of that disastrous last meeting, his final attempt to shunt the responsibility of what he had learned onto someone else. Severus had shoved him away, hexed him, and only then had Regulus realized that whatever action was taken next, it had to be his alone.
He's grateful for it, most of the time.
"Severus," he says evenly, because it is not a surprise to see him here, not after learning of his post at Hogwarts. He was always Lily's friend, as well, and Harry is very much Lily's son, despite his appearance.
Severus inclines his head, though his eyes never waver. "Regulus," he answers, and his voice is the same as Regulus remembers, soft and cultured and deep. "You look very well for a dead man."
That's as much an expression of stunned disbelief as anyone will ever wring from Severus Snape, Regulus wagers wryly, and he gives the other former Death Eater a crooked half-smile. "Never quite as dead as I was made out to be, I'm afraid," he says. "Though there were several close calls over the years, I'll admit."
"And just what were you doing for sixteen years?" Snape asks silkily, eyes narrowing. "Beyond hiding from everyone, it would seem."
Regulus smiles again, but this time it's tight and grim. "Hunting."
"Hunting?" This time it's the Weasley boy who asks, but the others around the table—many faces, many strangers—seem intent on the answer as well. "Hunting what?"
"Horcruxes," Regulus answers lightly, and Dumbledore closes his eyes as if in pain. No one else, even Severus, seems to know what he means, though, if their confusion is anything to go by.
"What are you talking about?" Sirius demands.
Dumbledore steps forward, putting a hand on Regulus's shoulder and steering him gently to a seat. "Horcruxes," he says softly, drawing everyone's attention, "are a very old, very Dark magic—a way for a wizard or witch to seemingly gain immortality. Murder fractures the soul, and when a murder is committed in cold blood, that fracture can be deepened until a portion of the soul breaks off entirely. A Horcrux is made when that piece of soul is bound to an object and denied its natural ability to die."
"Merlin," Lupin breathes, face ghastly white. He looks around the room, and when it appears he's the only one with the stomach to ask, murmurs, "And…You-Know-Who made one of these?"
"Seven," Regulus corrects grimly, watching the Headmaster take the seat at the head of the table. "He let something slip once, about immortality and souls. I was his researcher for Dark rituals and curses, so it made me recall something I'd read. When I went looking, I realized what he was doing, and…rather lost my taste for everything. Then the Dark Lord came to me and asked to borrow Kreacher, to test something. I couldn't say no, but Kreacher almost died, and when I questioned him about what he had been through, the pieces came together. The Dark Lord had hidden a Horcrux, and used Kreacher to try out his defenses."
Even now the injustice, the impotent anger makes Regulus clench his fists and look down. "I…took it upon myself to retrieve the thing. Kreacher brought me to the cave where it was hidden, but in the process of recovering it, I triggered the safeguards. There were Inferi." He swallows, because he hates the thought of that forsaken cave, the despair and hopeless fury he'd felt as he was overwhelmed. "I ordered Kreacher to take the Horcrux and leave, but he disobeyed me. He managed to retrieve the locket and then get to me before the Inferi dragged me under, and saved my life."
There's silence all around, but Regulus can't bring himself to look at anyone. "I let everyone think I was dead so that I didn't have to return to the Dark Lord while I was working on destroying the thing, but when I started thinking things through, I realized that the Dark Lord wouldn't have made just one Horcrux, not when he wished so desperately to be immortal. Not when there were far more magically meaningful numbers than one. So I stayed hidden and kept looking, following any lead I came across." Another breath, and he finally looks up, meets his brother's eyes across the table. "I've found three so far and replaced them all with fakes, including the first one, and I've an idea what the others are. But they were all too well guarded to get to when I was supposedly dead."
Dumbledore steeples his fingers and closes his eyes, somewhere between mournful and resigned. "I had hoped that I was wrong," he murmurs. "I had hoped for that very much." Then he opens his eyes again to look at Regulus. "One has been destroyed already, by my counting. A diary imbued with Voldemort's soul, ruined by basilisk venom by Harry in his second year. Which have you found?"
Something tight and aching in Regulus's shoulders eases. That's four, four found out of seven. They're over halfway to done, and if Regulus's guess is correct, the last two will be the hardest to…deal with. "The Gaunt Family ring," he says, clearing his throat. "I spent a good three years tracking Voldemort's movements before he rose to power. Tom Marvolo Riddle—that was his name in school, as far as I could find. There are no wizarding families with that last name, but Merope Gaunt loved a Muggle man named Riddle, and from there the trail was fairly clear. He had hidden it in the Gaunt house, but the wards were easily circumvented. Then…Slytherin's locket, the first one I found. And Helga Hufflepuff's cup, because Voldemort would not lower himself to bind his soul to common objects. Given his obsession with Hogwarts, I assume that each of the Founders besides Gryffindor has had a relic…repurposed."
Lupin shudders a little, but the Weasley boy looks thoughtful. "I could swear that Hufflepuff's cup was in Gringotts," he says, raising an eyebrow. "Even the goblins were fairly excited to have a Founders relic in the vaults."
Regulus gives him a grin that is more teeth than anything else. "Ah, yes," he murmurs. "Dear cousin Bellatrix was the one honored with finding a hiding place for the cup. However, she kept it in the Black family vault for a week before deciding it would be better protected in her personal vault, even though all of her family were either loyal or disowned and barred from the family fortune."
"And they were, too, all except for the traitor playing dead," Sirius laughs, grinning back. "I suppose if we were to check the withdrawal records, there'd be transaction a few months after your death?"
"Many months," Regulus corrects wryly. "As good as I am at research, Sirius, finding Hufflepuff's cup was a stroke of luck more than anything else. I…happened to overhear the Dark Lord's request while making sure he thought me dead."
Sirius's eyes narrow faintly, obviously wondering how, but in the name of keeping a few secrets for himself, Regulus forges on. "To keep the Dark Lord from suspecting anything, I haven't destroyed the Horcruxes I've found yet. I'm unsure whether he feels the soul pieces disappearing or not. So I simply replaced them with duplicates and hid the originals under the Fidelius Charm. There will be at least one more made from a Founder's object, though, and I have reason to believe it will be hidden in Hogwarts itself."
"And the last two?" Severus asks slowly, dark eyes narrowed in thought. "You have accounted for five. What of the others?"
Regulus spares half a glance for Dumbledore, sees the grief in his face, and knows that the Headmaster, too, realizes what the seventh Horcrux is. "The sixth is likely the snake, Nagini," he offers. "Close at hand, unlikely to betray him. The seventh…will need special preparations to destroy, and that is all I will say."
Silence stretches again, tense and considering, and then Dumbledore straightens in his seat and nods to the younger Black. "Thank you, Regulus," he says graciously. "I believe, with this and the preparations the Order has been making, this war will be over soon enough. And for yourself? Have you plans?"
Silently, Regulus shakes his head. He's spoken more today than he has in years, and his voice is already growing hoarse. His piece is said already, regardless.
Dumbledore smiles, eyes bright above his glasses, and though he looks old, he does not look older; it is a good distinction to make, and a sign that he truly thinks they have hope in this. "Then perhaps you will indulge an old man's whims? There is an opening for a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts. Should it remain unfilled, I believe the Ministry will assign a candidate, but I would like to offer it to you. Under an alias, of course, but if I remember correctly it was always your best subject."
Sirius snorts. "Because he knew all the Dark Arts," he points out, but it's said more or less cheerfully. "And Reggie's always been best in the family at deconstructing and countering spells. Made Mother ever so proud, even if he couldn't hold a candle to Bella in a duel."
Regulus shoots his brother a withering look before switching his attention to Dumbledore. "And I will have freedom to seek out the unknown Horcrux," he acknowledges, already thinking of just what he can get away with teaching—many of the counters to Dark curses he knows are also borderline Dark, if one looks closely enough at them. This is…well, it's undoubtedly not an opportunity he'd been expecting to get, but…
Interesting, certainly. Regulus's life has been harrowing, boring, deadly, and frantic by turns for the last sixteen years. Interesting would, perhaps, be a nice change.
His eyes settle on his smirking brother, and he smiles, swift and wicked. "Headmaster," he asks ever so innocently, "may I bring my dog?"
The smugness gives way to shock, then wariness, and finally resolves into horror. Regulus laughs, and decides coming back was worth it for that expression alone.
Regulus is nearly asleep when his bedroom door creaks open. After so many years on the run, he's generally twitchy in the dark, but tonight the familiar surroundings are enough to put him at ease. He doesn't move as soft steps cross the room, or as a weight settles and dips the mattress.
"Reggie?" Sirius asks softly.
Regulus favors him with a vague grunt in answer. "'M gonna hex you for calling me that," he mutters indistinctly, not even bothering to lift his head from the pillow.
Sirius doesn't answer, and Regulus gives in with a sigh, turning his head just enough to look up at his brother through one half-closed eye. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Siri, you haven't come into my room like this since I was seven."
If anything, that makes the lines of Sirius's face even tighter, and he looks away. Regulus lets him have his silence, closing his eyes stubbornly. Therefore, it's a complete surprise when a careful hand ghosts over his hair, smoothing it back in easy, gentle movements.
"Siri?" Regulus questions again, starting to get worried now. Sirius has never done this, at least that he can think of.
There's a long, long pause, and then Sirius says quietly, "You betrayed Voldemort."
Raising an eyebrow, Regulus glances up at his brother, though he doesn't move away from the hand. "I did," he agrees. "I thought we had established this already."
Sirius just shakes his head. "You betrayed him," he repeats. "You learned his secret, and then you used it against him. You sacrificed everything for the sake of killing him." He leans forward, drops his forehead to rest against Regulus's with a soft chuckle. "I'm proud of you, Regulus. It was very Gryffindor of you."
"No, it wasn't," Regulus mutters, resisting the urge to drag the blanket right over his head. "It was well-thought-out and planned entirely in advance. Not Gryffindor-like at all." But there's a warm little knot right underneath his breastbone that he can't ignore, and he smiles back at Sirius. It seems he'll never outgrow that desire for his brother's attention on him, for his praise and kind words. With a sleepy sigh, he lets his eyes close again, and breathes out a near-silent, "Thank you, Sirius."
"You're welcome, little brother," Sirius murmurs back, and that's all Regulus remembers until morning.
For once, he doesn't dream at all.
Severus watches the doorway until the elder Black leaves, and then he slips inside like a ghost, like a thief in the night, which he supposes he more or less is—here to steal a bit of peace of mind, rather than any earthly trinket.
Regulus is asleep, and smiling, and Severus looks down at his pale and peaceful face and breathes out his first full breath in what feels like a very long time.
Hunting Horcruxes, evading the Dark Lord, playing dead for almost sixteen years—this is not the delicate and timid boy who gripped Severus's arm and pulled him to a halt that dark and windy night. But he's still Regulus Black, that much is clear: cautious and thoughtful and very fond of books and theory, adoring of a brother who was never quite one of the family. Nonsensically taken with a grim, greasy, uncompromising man two years his senior, if that last, long glance at Severus was any way to judge.
But he's alive, and suddenly before him Severus sees a thousand possibilities that yesterday—this morning, this afternoon, even mere hours ago—were nothing but vague regrets.
"This time," Severus murmurs, though Regulus does not even stir, "this time, I will hear you out."
Perhaps it will be too little and far too late, but Severus can only hope—wish, trust, dream—that it will be enough.