Bellatrix was fuming. Pacing up and down the parlour of Lestrange Manor, her tall figure threw long shadows on the stone floor.
Regulus sat at the end of the long, rectangle table in the center of the dimly lit room, his hands folded in his lap. Fingers tightly intertwined, all he had to hold onto was himself. Even though she hadn't hurt him yet, he knew it was only a question of time.
"And the humiliation! If the Dark Lord finds out that my cousin, the cousin I explicitly vouched for, has been accused of treachery, our family's name will suffer the consequences!" Her hands cut through the air, underlining her rant with wild gestures. Bellatrix wasn't looking at Regulus as she spoke more to herself than to the boy or Rodolphus, who stood next to the fireplace, arms crossed, listening patiently, his deep-set eyes flickering back and forth between the boy and his wife.
With the rise of the night, the last traces of dusk had vanished, and the clouds that, only hours earlier, had showered the landscape in snow flurries, had thinned out. Still, the house seemed even darker than the crescent-moon lighted garden. The candles on the wall did little more than to enhance the darkness and leave red drops of wax on the dirty floor. When Regulus thought about it, he realized that he couldn't remember a time when this house had spread an aura of welcoming. But it must have been beautiful once, judged by the cobwebby chandelier and the rich decorum hidden under decade-old dust. Time seemed to have washed all color out of the house, leaving nothing but tapestries crumbling off stone walls and dark, dusty shadows in the many corners.
In comparison with the Potters' house, in which a muggle system of electricity was installed - invisible electric energy that, like muggle magic, came out of the walls and brought the lamps to life with the flick of a switch, as Sirius had said - the rejection of any muggle technology left pureblood households with traditional options like magical candles, torches and gas lamps, which, though lighted magically, still required daily maintenance. The Lestranges favored candles, what resulted in an enormous consumption of candles in this household. At Hogwarts, the candles in the Great Hall were constantly being looked after by an army of house elves, but the Lestranges had only Pixie, an elderly female elf. Regulus couldn't remember a time when Pixie, who was suffering from severe depression since she was unable to cope with the never-ending load of work entirely on her own, hadn't had clipped ears or worn bandages to cover ironed fingers, evidence of self inflicted punishments for her 'laziness'. Kreacher had suffered too, especially when their parents had thrown big parties at Grimmauld Place, but after Walburga's illness and death, Kreacher had got at least a handful hours of sleep every other night, when Orion drank himself into oblivion.
There were still traces of the most recent Death Eater meeting in the room, extra chairs cramped around the table, the ground glittering green from floo powder that lay scattered all around the fireplace instead of being neatly stored in the vase on the mantelpiece. Compared to this place, Grimmauld Place was downright welcoming and tidy. However, not Bellatrix nor her husband seemed to care, and certainly not the other Death Eaters.
"Maybe we should solve this problem without creating too much attention," Rodolphus mused. "Handle this as a family matter, if you know what I mean."
"And keep it as such too. I can already imagine what Rolfe would say, that obnoxious gannet! Or Lucius Malfoy, the slime bag, would gladly polish his own name with the downfall of mine!"
"You must not forget Narcissa."
Bellatrix scoffed. "Sweet, spineless little Cissy! You can't be serious, Lestrange. I know my sister. She would be the first to retreat with her tail tucked firmly between her legs; you know how she never takes responsibility for anything! So who's left to blame -" She turned to Regulus, glared at him, "tell me, who will the Dark Lord blame for this mess?"
Regulus swallowed, lowered his gaze. Years of experience had taught him that, in situations like this, it was best to say nothing and make himself as small as possible.
"The boy's fifteen," Rodolphus said.
"Old enough to know better! His parents taught him better, he should know not to allow suspicions like these to come up. It's not like it's only this Snape boy or the Crouch brat but Mulciber and Rosier's kid as well. All of them, doubting his allegiance; for months I get those letters! And you, Regulus, you say you found no way to convince them of your loyalties?"
Regulus shrank back. "I did everything Mulciber asked me to do," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. That the others had betrayed him hurt, especially Barty, but he knew that he had been stupid. He should have known that they would talk to each other and eventually inform Bellatrix of their suspicions. All his efforts - and he'd been naive enough to think that they were sufficient - had been in vain, and in the end, the only person he'd fooled had been himself. If he'd known that it would've come to this, he wouldn't have even tried.
"You did everything they asked you to? I think you're not quite aware of how serious this situation is," Bellatrix hissed. "What are you, a mindless pawn waiting for orders? A nameless face in the crowd of those expendable half-bloods that do as they're told? And they look good in comparison to you, boy! All those bootlickers; your failure, it's their win!"
"Don't forget about the traitor," Rodolphus said, referring to Sirius. "We might have let this go on for too long. When there were no significant results, we should have had the boy call his little espionage act off."
Bellatrix lifted her eyebrows high, whirled around. "Truly a genius you are, Lestrange. Pity you didn't share your wisdom earlier. Then again, hindsight is easier than foresight." She snarled. "And don't you dare put this on me." She pointed her finger at him. "I know who you mean when you say 'we'."
Her husband tugged at his robe's collar. "All I'm saying is that we might have underestimated Sirius. His parents did so as well, after all."
Bellatrix snarled at the mention of Sirius' name. "I never underestimated that rotten piece of scum! It was you who said 'Let him be, let the boy prove himself', even when Mulciber first reported of Snape's suspicions! I should never have listened to you."
She stood close to him now, pinned him with her heavy-lidded eyes, thin lips turned downward. "And when it comes to Walburga and Orion - it is my family that you are talking about, Rodolphus. My aunt and uncle. So don't you dare."
Despite being equally as tall as his wife, Rodolphus seemed to shrink next to her, to become thin under his expensive clothes and fade in color until he was nothing but emerald embroideries and shiny buttons on a high-collared robe. He shut up, flaky lips pressed together. She scoffed disdainfully and turned away.
"What is done is done," she said tonelessly. "It is time to finish this, Regulus."
Regulus tensed up as a chill went through him. "Finish… what?"
She stared at him, and her gaze, like fire, suddenly burned right through his skin and skull. He felt her magic tug at his memories, poke at his mind. Legilimency. When he'd first read about it a few months ago, he had already known what it was - Voldemort's eyes burning right through him. Grabbing his chair's armrests firmly, he recoiled inwardly, called all his thoughts and feelings behind the wall he'd built over the last months, left her only a few lies to tear to shreds, a defensive technique he'd read about in one of his father's books that he had taken with him when he had last visited Grimmauld Place.
She was more skilled than he had expected. A flash of a recent memory slipped through the wide-meshed holes in his defensive wall. And then snippets of another, and another. He fixed the leaking point but it was already too late. Bellatrix luxuriously spread his memories out in front of him.
Sirius' hand on his forehead, warm and gentle; concern in his eyes. 'Don't hurt yourself to get back at me. Please.' The glass of water on the night stand untouched.
Then being constrained across his brother's lap, anger radiating off Sirius' body, fury collecting in a hand raised as high as it would go and raining down on Regulus bare backside, the slapping sound of skin hitting skin mingling with desperate sobbing coming from a throat sore from crying and begging.
Then Regulus' voice, breaking Sirius in two. 'You were him.' And the expression in Sirius' eyes, like he was falling deep -
Regulus was on the floor, wheezing, having forced her out of his head with all energy he could muster, bundled and focused on a single powerful thrust.
She came closer, stopped mere inches from him. Her wild locks hid half of her face, her eyes were blazing like stars burning amid a jungle of black.
"Well well, what have we got here… Thinks he's your daddy, doesn't he? Babying fickle little Reggie." A shrill laugh.
Regulus fought the urge to throw up. He shook his head, too fast and the room became blurry.
"Naughty, naughty. What would Sirius say if he knew what you did, giving him the runaround for months? Oh, he won't like it even a bit, will he?" A crackling chuckle. And then her expression changed. "And you let him do that to you, while crying your eyes out? Is this the only thing that has come out of those months of double-play, the heir of the noble house of Black getting reduced to a pathetic weakling, bawling over his brother's knee?"
Regulus wanted to die from embarrassment.
"Answer me, Regulus. Who are you, the son of your parents or some puling wimp?"
"I'm not a wimp!" And he hated her, hated that she had seen him like this - in his weakest, most private moments - and relished in his humiliation.
"You let him do that! Who is in control, Regulus, you or the traitor?"
He's not a traitor. Still, her words so powerful, aiming at his sense of honor and cleverly nudging him into a corner. The answer she wanted to hear, so easy to give.
"Me," he breathed.
Her breath was cold. "Prove it," she hissed. The corners of her mouth quirked up in sudden excitement. "Give us the traitor. It's time for him to pay."
Checkmate, and just like that, the game was over.
"No." All of his being, uniting in his answer. Never.
Her grin disappeared. She bent even closer, grabbed his face with her left hand, sharp fingernails drawing five points of blood.
"Then you will."
Regulus was writhing in pain. He couldn't think. Fire everywhere, on his skin, acid running through his veins. A wall of flames gnawing at his mind, cremating all thought and awareness as it drew closer and closer, a noose around his very essence.
He did not know how long it was until it stopped. Bellatrix moved closer, the sound of sharp heels hitting the stone floor stabbing into Regulus' temples. He felt her presence above him as she bent down, her perfume the pervasive scent of sweetish mold growing around a the rim of a glass of stale rose water.
"Are you ready to show me the respect I deserve?"
Regulus nodded, chest rising and falling with rapid breaths. He squinted his eyes, his vision was blurry and unfocused, coruscant sparks everywhere, stars falling.
She grabbed him by his hair, forced his head up. "What do you say?"
"Yes, Ma'am." His voice sounded pathetic as he pressed the words past the bile sitting in his sore throat. Resistance would only earn him pain.
"If only your mother could see you right now," Bellatrix said. Her fingers tightened around his hair. "Do you think she would be proud?"
Regulus swallowed hard, blood in his mouth where he'd bitten his tongue. "No."
But it wasn't his mother whose disappointment he feared.
Sirius, having tried so hard to spare him this experience. Regulus understood now why his brother was how he was, why he yelled so quickly and worried so much, why he kept the leash so short.
And in return, Regulus had basically spat into his face.
He knew Sirius would be disgusted if he saw him like this. Sirius, who had endured much worse torment at an even younger age - how strong his brother had been, even when they thought they'd broken him.
"Just like that brother of yours," Bellatrix hissed. "A bloody disgrace. She'd be rolling in her grave."
For the first time since her death, Regulus realized that he didn't mourn her death any longer. What his mother would think didn't matter anymore. She was gone. He thought of Sirius. If Sirius was here, what would he do? Sirius wouldn't be weak like Regulus. He'd fight back. He wouldn't give Bellatrix the satisfaction of seeing him beg for mercy, wouldn't let her triumph over him. Yes, Ma'am - something Sirius would never say, never. Tears entered Regulus' eyes. He blinked them away. If he had only been more like his brother, maybe he would be able to look at himself in the mirror.
"I doubt that," he mumbled. No, he wouldn't let her win so easily. To not bend in his will was a triumph in itself, what happened later didn't matter. Resistance as a principle, not for her but for his own sake, to remember who he was. "Her coffin is form-fitted, so she can't actually move, not to mention roll…"
A blazing heat on his left cheek cut him off.
"How dare you! Crucio!"
There it was again, the fire, and Regulus was screaming.
Regulus felt Rodolphus drag his limp body out of the room like a puppet. On the way up to the second floor, Regulus' head repeatedly hit against the stairs. A deep, annoyed groan and he was lifted up, carelessly thrown over a bony shoulder. A heavy door opening, and then Rodolphus let Regulus' body slip off his shoulder and fall to the floor like a sack of rice.
Murmurs directly above him as through a grey acoustic veil.
"…has to learn the hard way."
"…pathetic, if it wasn't for the promise I made Orion, I would…"
Hands on Regulus' body, patting him down roughly, taking his wand.
"He'll be fine, Pixie can keep an eye on him."
"…boy will break fast. No sense of duty, no priorities… have to work on that."
The door snapped shut. He was alone.
For an eternity, he lay on the dirty stone floor, unable to sink beneath it to the oblivion he craved, caught in a hallucination in some place between awareness and unconsciousness. He saw shadows creeping through the room, beasts like shadows in glass, malicious smirks with sharp fangs flashing and then disappearing. The screeching sound of claws scratching along the walls. Whispers, everywhere. Right next to his ear or on the other side of the door, words incoherent and voices unfamiliar.
A dead cockroach lay not far from him, on its back. Regulus thought he saw its hairy little legs wriggling from time to time but whenever he managed to focus his vision, the cockroach lay motionless.
The mullioned window was closed firmly, but the curtains were open so he could let his gaze wander, watched snow-leaden clouds pass over the night sky. Regulus stretched out his arm, tried to reach the feint rectangle of silver moonlight reflected on the floor. His fingertips numb, he didn't know whether he touched it or not.
The brightest star was out there, somewhere in the north. But this winter night's blind glare was merciless, and Regulus knew he wouldn't be able to see it, not today, being so far from those islands of light. He wasn't even sure if he would still find it, having kept his eyes on other constellations for too long. Next to Orion, the Greater Dog had always seemed so small and low.
Every hug he had rejected, every smile he had ignored was gone now, irretrievably lost.
…And the birds no longer sing…
Those eyes in those dark, dusty corners, glittering in black air.
Those shadows gliding up and down the walls, closer now, confident and sleek like sharks in deep blue waters.
"Don't cry, Reggie. I'm here. It was just a dream."
"But I'm so afraid!" Regulus, shaking, fearfully pressing himself against his big brother. And then whispering, as though speaking it out loud would make it come true: "What if there are monsters in the darkness?"
"Then I'll protect you." The response was immediate and always the same. Sirius' hand was on his neck, pushing Regulus' head to rest against his chest. A gentle squeeze. "You're safe with me, okay?"
Tears in his eyes at the memory. "Okay," Regulus mouthed, alone in this dark, empty room.
Tick, tock, tick, tock. The second hand was speeding round the clock face, and the minute hand revolved almost as fast, passed the Roman numerals like a sprinter racing around the track in a stadium. Tick, tock - the sound merciless, incredibly exhausting. Sirius wanted it to stop, wanted the clock on the mantel to stop so he could only take a single breath.
The others were talking and talking. He had imagined this to be more like a secret meeting, with lights flickering and people speaking in hushed voices; but this - this was disappointing. It was mostly Moody and Dumbledore arguing with their Mom and Dad, with James lazily tipping his chair back and forth and Sirius standing, resting his elbows against the back of his chair, fingers drumming on wood. The others were sitting at the dining table, and the clock on the wall was ticking, and words followed up words.
A heated debate had erupted soon after Mr. Potter had explained the situation. In the beginning, Sirius had argued his case strongly, that they should simply go and get Regulus, using any force necessary. He knew his cousin, and he knew that Regulus might have been able to play for time in the beginning, but he was missing for six hours now, and Sirius couldn't wait any longer.
With a sense of annoyance growing at every word spoken, at every hesitation to get going, Sirius became more and more impatient. Time flowed fast, the continuous ticking of the clock picked at Sirius' nerves like needles on skin. Time, a threat now, limited, sand in an hourglass threatening to drown him and his brother. They had used to float easy on this river of time, through sunny days, but that river that only yesterday had seemed endless and safe had taken a turn and before they had known it, Sirius and Regulus had fallen down a waterfall, Regulus' fingers being ripped from Sirius desperate grip, and they were thrown around violently, panting for air, fighting not to drown in this brutal swell time had become.
"We cannot simply go there, break in and take the lad," Moody said. "I know that's not what you want to hear, but the evidence we have won't be enough for a search warrant." There was something intimidating and simultaneously fascinating about the auror. Moody dominated the discussion with a natural authority, like a weathered tree, the only one still standing on a rough ledge; roots clawing to every groove, it had battled wind and torrent waters but stood as proudly as a warrior.
"This is a clear case of kidnapping, and we have a witness," Mr. Potter argued.
"So what? I believe you, Fleamont, but what will the Council see? A troublesome runaway staying at his cousin's after a fight with his brother? A difficult family situation, the older brother guardian, parents dead - the most they would do is offer family counseling," Moody shot back. "Secondly, I think you're forgetting who we're dealing with here. The Lestrange's ties to the Ministry are, regrettably, stronger than ever, with Rodolphus cousin to the Minister of Magic. Old families are powerful families, and more often than not sympathizers of that Riddle figure. Most importantly, the old Crouch would never allow this case to get too much attention, not with his own son involved." Moody snipped with his fingers. "And just like that, the case goes in the bin."
Mr. Potter sighed. He realized that, with Crouch as the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Moody had a point. He looked at his wife. She put her hand on his.
"Then we are simply going to have to go about this in a different way," Mrs. Potter decided.
Dumbledore raised his bushy eyebrows high. He held an uncanny resemblance to an old Snowy Owl, movements silent and thoughtful but his ice blue gaze sharp and observant. "And what do you suggest?"
"If the Ministry won't be of any help, we're going to have to take matters into our own hands. I don't care how it's done, but get that boy home, and fast!" Mrs. Potter said. Sirius gave her a thankful look.
"I hope you don't mind my question," Dumbledore said, a firmness in his half-smile - firmer than a full smile or a white line of thin lips would have been, "but how exactly do we know that young Mr. Black is in danger? He showed no resistance leaving his friend's house, so how can we be sure that leaving with his cousin wasn't his original intention?"
"Barty left the room under a pretext, then informed Bellatrix while Regulus waited in his room," Mr. Potter explained. "Her appearance must have surprised him."
"This doesn't automatically create a dangerous situation."
"I know my brother, and I know Bellatrix," Sirius interjected forcefully, angry now with the headmaster's continued skepticism. "She threatened him before. She's going to hurt him, I know it! Especially after he…" He searched for words, "…switched sides. She's going to blame him for not living up to our dead parents' wishes!"
Dumbledore looked at him over his half-moon shaped spectacles. "I know you want to believe the best when it comes to your brother, but considering the last months, most of his actions have been of questionable loyalty to you, have they not?"
Sirius was taken aback by that. Reg had made mistakes, yes, but he had never truly been disloyal. "What do you mean, Professor?"
"I am simply suggesting that there might be things your brother hid from you, aspects of his personality perhaps, or affiliations." The old man's voice was as smooth as ever, but through his half-moon spectacles he was studying Sirius like a hawk. "In the Great Hall, he frequently sat with certain members of his house who are very open about their affiliations, he was also very involved in Slytherin's activities, hence I wouldn't be too surprised if he also upheld contact with Bellatrix. She is his cousin, we must not forget that."
Sirius had difficulties following Dumbledore's chain of arguments. He himself had, more than once, had this discussion with Regulus about keeping away from Avery, Mulciber, and the likes of those people, but he'd also understood that it was difficult being an outsider in Slytherin. He knew he'd been rather lenient with his brother, and in hindsight, he certainly regretted not having been stricter when it came to Avery, Mulciber and Snape, but he'd also never took a closer look at Regulus' friendship with Evan Rosier and Barty Crouch. He had wanted to evade this never-ending argument, hadn't wanted to fight with his brother or see him unhappy and lonely, and thus had been inconsistent and almost negligent. Sirius wondered whether things would be different today, and Reg would be safe now, firmly asleep in his bed just like he should be, if he had only put Regulus' safety first and his need for harmony second.
He looked at Dumbledore. The old man didn't elaborate, but Sirius had a hunch there was more to Dumbledore's questioning Regulus' loyalty than the boy's habit of sitting with his house mates in the Great Hall.
James scoffed. "He can be a bit of a moron, true, but even Regulus knows Bellatrix Lestrange is a maniac. He wouldn't have done that."
"James, that is enough now," Mrs. Potter interrupted her son, eyebrows drawn together so they were set in an almost continuous line just above the golden rim of her glasses. "I've about had it with you constantly picking on that boy!"
James seemed surprised. "But Mum, he's not even here!"
"That's not an excuse, James Fleamont Potter, and you know that! You don't talk about other people like that, no matter whether they are present or not!"
James rolled his eyes in an attempt to dismiss the embarrassment, still, he blushed deeply at his mother's admonishing words in front of the headmaster and Moody, no less. James, just like Sirius, aspired to become an auror after graduating from Hogwarts, and with the hope of one day being allowed to work under Moody - the greatest auror of our time, as James had called him on several occasions - being told off by his mum in the man's presence was about as bad as it could be.
"No need to chew my ears off, Jeez."
Sirius wasn't sure whether to grin or feel sorry for him. He knew Mrs. Potter had a valid point, and he didn't like anyone insulting Reg, but sometimes, he wished he could simply phrase things the way James did without having to tiptoe around his little brother's precious feelings or having to set a good example.
"Don't think those eye-rolls or that tone escape my attention, James!"
Knowing how argumentative James could be, Sirius quickly changed the topic. "So you're going to leave us alone with this, Professor?"
This direct question took Dumbledore off guard. "Certainly, I will do anything in my power to help you, however, this situation is quite complicated…"
"Can't the Order intervene?"
Dumbledore looked surprised. "What exact order are you referring to?"
"The Order of the Phoenix," Sirius responded straightforwardly, refraining from rolling his eyes. That the adults still treated them as though they were stupid annoyed him more and more.
"How have you gained knowledge about this?" Moody inquired, backbone straightening, voice loud, and suddenly Sirius could see how the man could cause criminals to shake in their boots at the mere sound of his name.
Still, unlike those people, Sirius had more important things to worry about, so he didn't care that this would probably get them in trouble. "We overheard Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall talk."
Dumbledore smiled slightly at that, visibly relieved. "We should be more careful about where to discuss sensitive information then."
"Aye, the walls have ears these days," Moody said with a sniff, then cast a suspicious look around the room.
Mrs. Potter still looked cross, but she didn't comment on this, despite looking as though she wanted to.
Everyone was silent for a few moments, the only sound Moody tapping his prosthetic foot against a table leg.
"Alright," he said suddenly. "Gonna call Prewett. He's gotta be at the office still, working, or at least he better be. He'll be able to locate the lad, as he's still under the trace and I can't see Bellatrix Lestrange travelling the muggle way, so she will have used side-along apparition." He got to his feet.
Fabian Prewett took his time responding and Moody already prepared to floo over to the Auror Headquarters himself, when the freckled face of a young man with a remarkably big nose appeared in the flames. Moody didn't waste any time, he briefly ordered the younger auror to look through the files of underage wizards and check Regulus' file for any information about his whereabouts.
"But Alastor, you should know that this is a violation of the Data Protection Act of 1967 without the previous authorization of -"
"Aren't you the clever-clogs, Fabian! Just do as you're told."
The red-head grinned. "And what shall I tell the Crouch if he gets wind of this?"
"You can tell him he can kiss my arse." Moody sounded dead-serious.
Prewett laughed. "Alright, now I'm actually hoping he finds out."
"Get working," Moody responded gruffly. Ending the connection, the green flames vanished.
Mr. Potter eyed the man, the shadow of an amused smile hiding in the corners of his mouth. "And what if he really says that?"
Moody grunted. "Then I'll make sure he gets a raise. Finding someone who can still follow orders isn't easy nowadays."
Sirius looked at Dumbledore, realizing that the man had not yet answered his question. "Professor? What about the Order?"
Dumbledore exchanged a look with Moody. "This seems like an issue of a too personal nature for the Order," he said slowly.
"Great," Sirius huffed. He felt incredibly angry all of a sudden. "So no one feels responsible, this is brilliant. What's even the point in having that order then?"
James looked confused. "But isn't the Order supposed to fight against Dark Wizards? Isn't that the reason it was founded in the first place?"
"It is," Dumbledore nodded. "But in times like these, and with situations as delicate as young Regulus', any overreaction from our side could trigger catastrophic consequences. As long as there is no absolute clarity that the boy's life is indeed in danger -"
"So he's gotta be on the brink of dying until you decide it's worth it?" Sirius' voice had risen in volume and he had to force himself to maintain an appearance of being calm and reasonable, even though he was seething, inwardly.
"Sirius," Dumbledore said, his tone incredibly intense, "imagine what the outcome of this could be. Should the Order get into an open fight with the Lestranges, on their property no less, this will mean the outbreak of the war we're feeling already, seething under the surface."
"What if it was your family?" Sirius asked bitterly. "What if it was your brother? Your child?"
Dumbledore was silent. There was some compassion in his gaze, but even more rigidity.
"Fine. Then I'll go alone." Sirius met James' eyes. James blinked, and as if he'd suddenly got an idea, his eyes widening in excitement. Sirius instantly knew what his best friend was thinking. "You got the cloak, right?"
James nodded. A grin began to form on his face.
"No one is going alone," Mr. Potter said firmly.
"No, I'm going with him," James said, eyes still locked with Sirius'. "We can do this."
Mr. Potter almost jumped to his feet. "Nonsense! The two of you alone against that madwoman and who knows who else, I'm not going to allow that!" He was leaning forward, hands on the table balled to tight fists.
"Fleamont," Mrs. Potter tried, but James was faster.
"Dad, listen. We can do this, we'll use the cloak," James said. "No one will see us. We'll sneak in, sneak out, easy-peasy."
"Easy-peasy, nothing about this is easy-peasy, boy!"
"Your father's Invisibility Cloak you mean, lad?" Moody asked, his interest woken. "The two of you will fit under it?"
"Yes," Sirius said quickly. They did fit under it, and when Sirius was in his dog form, they would have the additional asset of his hearing and smell. He looked at James again. James wore a wide grin now, leaning back in his chair, arms comfortably crossed behind his head. Sirius smiled back, hesitantly. "There's -"
Mr. Potter cut him off. "Under no circumstances, and I repeat, under no circumstances, will the two of you go there alone!"
"Not alone, certainly not," Moody said. "But with the cloak, we can avoid direct confrontation. And should it come to a fight, aurors who, as chance would have it, might just have been around, are by law required to intervene." He chuckled. "This might actually work."
"It will work," Sirius said. He looked at Mr. Potter now, suddenly recognizing the fear underlying Mr. Potter's harsh statement. "Dad, please," he said softly, "remember in how much trouble we got using that cloak? And what you know is only the tip of the iceberg. I promise you, we know what we're doing. They won't be able to catch us."
He could see the emotions war on Mr. Potter's face.
"I think it's probably the safest option," Mrs. Potter said gently, placing her hand on her husband's shoulder. "If anyone can get to Regulus without being seen, it's our boys."
Mr. Potter's eyes met Sirius', and Sirius knew that restless look, the feeling behind it constricting his own throat when he thought of his little brother. And it was not simply the worry about Regulus that had Mr. Potter on the edge, but an added worry now, a fear for his two sons. Sirius wished he could say that he was sorry. "Dad, I promise," he mouthed.
Those brown eyes, looking at him for an eternity, it seemed. And eventually, with a pain entering them, a short nod from a father putting all his faith in his sons. Sirius never admired the man more than in this moment.
The fireplace roared. Prewett stepped through, a triumphant smile on his lips as he held up a ministry file. "Got him!"
As soon as they had the location, things suddenly went fast. Mrs. Potter outdid herself coming up with all kinds of safety measures and fallback options. Mr. Potter insisted that they take one of the magically linked mirrors with them so they would be able to call for back-up while Mrs. Potter and Dumbledore created a one-way portkey back to safety out of a chess piece, a wooden knight. As soon as they had found Regulus, they were supposed to activate it, and in no less than ten seconds, the portkey would transport them safely to the hospital wing at Hogwarts. They had at first considered side-along apparition with Blinky, as house elves weren't usually affected by man-made apparition wards, but as the Lestranges had a house-elf themselves, Mrs. and Mr. Potter concluded that, should Blinky get injured in a fight, the risk would be too high. Blinky wasn't a natural fighter, and she got frightened very easily. In addition to that, Moody noted that the house was likely surrounded by additional wards created by house-elves, and those could turn dangerously hostile when an unfamiliar elf's magic interfered with them.
With a few flicks of his wand, Moody created a three-dimensional architectural floor plan of Lestrange Manor. Like on an operation table, they considered every part of the house carefully, and Mrs. Potter thought of every detail in order to come up with a plan that would work like a clean and confident cut in the right place with a swift extraction of the target following. Regulus' time was running, but they had only one chance to get him out of there without risking more than what was already on the stake.
Ancient wards prevented them from apparating directly inside the house, so the closest they would get without setting the wards off was by apparating to the outer edge of the property. Dumbledore, Moody, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Potter would get into position just behind the hedges that enclosed the property so they could, in case something went wrong, intervene quickly. There were several entrances, the front door, a back door, and the entrance for the house elves that led directly to the storage rooms and kitchen in the basement. There were four fireplaces with a connection to the floo network, one in the basement, two on the first floor and one upstairs in the study. In Mrs. Potter's opinion, the best way would be to enter through the back door, as the way through the basement was the most likely to be blocked.
For the first time, Sirius was thankful to be familiar with the house, despite the fact that he had hated going there and his parents had often left him behind at Grimmauld Place when they went to visit family friends and relatives. In hindsight, the few times his parents had dragged him along were an asset now, and his knowledge might just determine the outcome of this operation. He knew that they would have to be careful around the stairs, as they were relatively narrow, and with the portraits in the hallways, he knew how to scare away Pixie. And first and foremost: He knew Bellatrix. If their parents had only known that by forcing Sirius to learn about their world, they had provided him with a way to defeat it - he almost wanted to see their enraged faces, it was poetic.
It was 1:30am when they were finally ready.
"Take care." Mrs. Potter's voice was trembling now, for the first time in the evening, some of that nervousness she had kept sealed away seeped through. She gave them each a tight hug. "You know what to do. Stick to the plan. Get that boy out of there, safely." She forced a smile, her eyes watering now. "I'm so proud of you, boys."
Mr. Potter clapped them on the shoulder, wordlessly. He seemed anxious too, but did his best not to let it show too much.
Then, with a pop, they apparated just outside the wards of Lestrange Manor.
Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed. Especially to all the guest reviewers whom I can't thank individually - claire k, Ariana, Cam, Lunaabee,itstheurgetofall, and all the others - thank so so much for checking this story so loyally for updates... I know I'm an incredibly slow writer.