True to his word, Harry sort of threw a mini-party on August 31. Barbara dressed Phoebe in a onesie that read "I Get My Attitude From Aunt Andy," a gift from Andromeda, of course. He invited Ron and Hermione, and Regulus and Holly. Regulus brought Kreacher along with him. Sirius didn't seem to approve of this, but it would be a social faux pas to turn away an uninvited guest, even one of the house-elf variety, and Harry figured Regulus knew that.
They decided not to eat at the table, and instead of cooking, they ordered Chinese food. Harry wasn't surprised that Regulus was an expert with the chopsticks. After all, he seemed to be one of those people who was good at everything. Hermione had eaten Chinese before, she said, and didn't have trouble with them. Sirius, Holly, and Ron, purebloods as they were, found themselves completely out of the loop; Sirius picked up chopsticks quickly, but Holly and Ron didn't.
Harry hadn't really eaten Chinese too much before; when he got takeout with Sirius before Barbara and Regulus entered the picture, they tended to prefer pizza or Italian, and the few times they had eaten Chinese, they'd stuck with forks. But Harry tried to pick it up, and he liked how Hermione showed him how to use the chopsticks, because it involved a lot of touching of their hands.
Regulus was wearing slacks, a white button-down and his favorite green-and-silver tie; his hair was gelled, and he smelled of Clive Christian No.1. Holly's medium-length brown hair was in a French braid and she was wearing her "The REAL Boss" T-shirt and very tight jeans. Ron couldn't stop staring, even when Harry elbowed him.
"Honestly, Sirius," said Regulus, poking at the sofa. "You have the entire Black family fortune to yourself. Did you really need to get half your furniture at a secondhand store?"
"It's called being frugal, Reg, and it's not a crime," Sirius said loftily.
"You should hear him complain about the phone bill," Harry put in, grinning, and imitated Sirius being a cheapskate. "The phone bill was astronomically high this month! Unless one of us starts crapping money, you'd better stop talking on it so much!"
"Very funny," said Sirius, but he actually was laughing. It hadn't seemed so funny at the time when Sirius took the phone out of Harry's room back at the flat, but they could laugh about it now.
Harry, Ron and Hermione were seated on the floor around the coffee table, Harry sandwiched between the two of them, as usual. Holly was sitting on one end of the couch, Sirius on the other, with Barbara and Regulus in between. Kreacher crawled into Regulus's lap like a child, bringing him some applesauce, which Regulus had probably been eating since he was a year old.
"Anyway, I've been meaning to ask you, Holly," said Regulus. "What have you decided about being store manager for Store #9?"
Harry and Sirius exchanged glances. So technically, Regulus had been "interviewing" his store manager that night.
"Actually, I'd rather do something else," she said. "I mean, I'd still like to work for Reggie's Pizza Empire, but not as a store manager."
"What, then?" said Regulus, raising one eyebrow. "Operations manager, maybe?"
"No," Holly replied. "I'd like to be considered for Head of Advertising."
"Well…sure!" Regulus smiled and took a spoonful of applesauce. "I'd like that a lot. Right now, I'm pretty much Head of Advertising, and with everything else going on, appointing you to that job would take one less responsibility off my plate."
"I'm sure I can come up with some great ideas to market to the Wizarding community," Holly said brightly.
Harry, Ron and Hermione sighed collectively. They didn't want to be talking business all night. But Harry couldn't help but notice the rather polite, even apathetic interactions between Holly and Regulus. It was as if they were casual acquaintances, not two people in a romantic relationship. What if it really did have something to do with the night Regulus spent with Holly? But that didn't make sense. Regulus had enjoyed it. Shouldn't they be closer than ever?
Regulus had actually seemed stretched thin lately, so Harry asked him what was going on with the Pepe family.
"Bad business, Harry," Regulus answered, his expression darkening. "Very bad business. It used to be about simply destroying me financially, but now I'm starting to think Papa Pepe actually wants me dead."
"Oh, no, Master Regulus!" Kreacher croaked, grabbing onto Regulus's shirt. Regulus took one of Kreacher's hands in his own.
"What good will that do?" said Ron. "What's he supposed to do after you're dead, take over the business or something?"
"I suppose he's hoping the business will collapse in my absence, and he can return to being the most popular pizzeria in the British Isles," Regulus said with a shrug.
"That won't happen," Holly said firmly. "I won't let the flame die out."
"Master Regulus will stay with Kreacher," bleated the old house-elf, clinging tightly to Regulus. By now he was looking a little traumatized, just thinking about Regulus dying for real. "Master Regulus will behead Kreacher when he gets too old to carry a tea-tray and mount his head on the wall!"
"I won't do that!" Regulus almost shouted.
From the look on Sirius's face, Harry could tell that however Sirius disliked Kreacher, he was still above beheading him and mounting his head on the wall.
"W-Why?" Kreacher had tears in his eyes now. "Is Kreacher not a good elf? Does Master Regulus not love Kreacher?"
"Of course I love you, Kreacher," said Regulus adamantly, and Harry wondered how much patience, exactly, one person could possibly possess. "But it's inhumane to behead someone while he's still alive and mount his head on a wall. You know that, don't you?"
"No! Kreacher wants to join his ancestors on the wall!"
"What if you just got beheaded after you had already died of natural causes?" Regulus offered. "Isn't that a good compromise?"
"Hmm…maybe," Kreacher said tremulously. "What would Mistress Walburga say?"
"She would probably say that I, as Head of the House of Black, know best," said Regulus, lifting his hand to show the Head of House signet ring. "Now, please, your death-day isn't coming anytime soon. Would you like some applesauce?"
"Yes, please." Kreacher reached out for the saucer and ate some of the applesauce he made all by himself, even though Harry thought Barbara's was better. After they were all done eating, they opened their fortune cookies, and read their fortunes off to each other, even though some of them were less of fortunes and more of the sort of thing you'd see on a motivational poster, perhaps one with a cat on it.
"The majority of the word 'can't' is 'can,'" Sirius read.
"Where fear hurts you, conquer it and defeat it," said Harry.
"You are broad-minded and socially active." Hermione seemed pleased with hers.
"You will be selected for a promotion because of your accomplishments," read Holly, one eyebrow raised. "Well, that's oddly specific."
"Mine says, 'Hone your competitive instincts,'" Regulus told her.
"Money will come to you when you are doing the right thing!" Barbara seemed shocked. "But…but I don't have a job…"
"Wow," said Ron. "You think yours was fitting, Holly—I got one that said, 'Warning: Do Not Eat Your Fortune.'"
"What about you, Kreacher?" Regulus asked kindly, handing a cookie to his house-elf.
"'Nothing in this world is accomplished without passion,'" read Kreacher, and then they all ate the cookies.
They spent some of the evening watching TV, and Harry lamented how he would never get to watch a Quidditch game on TV. They looked for Love and Lust, which was always something entertaining, and that show seemed to always be on. Right now, they were showing a scene with two main characters kissing by the ocean.
"Oh, Brad," said the female, Lisa. "You have no idea how badly I've wanted you."
"Let's go further," Brad said back. "Further than we've ever gone before…"
"What is this?" Regulus asked, looking disgusted.
"Smarmy soap operas," Hermione told him, and she and Harry laughed. Brad and Lisa were scantily clothed in bathing suits, and they rolled all around as they kissed in the sand. Regulus said he couldn't watch it anymore, because it was so stupid. Harry and Hermione tried to tell him that was the point, but he went into the kitchen anyway, Sirius following him with the empty food boxes. The rest of them watched the show for awhile until Harry headed to the kitchen to get more drinks. But he paused at the doorway as he saw Sirius and Regulus talking. Sirius was sitting on the table, drinking grape juice, and Regulus was in a chair with a glass of Perrier water.
"I think you should join the Pizza Mafia, Reg," Sirius was telling him.
"That's illegal, Sirius," Regulus said back. "Besides, I couldn't…It would be too much like being a Death Eater again."
Harry covered his mouth to muffle a gasp. Regulus almost never talked about his Death Eater days. Sirius was quite silent, sipping his grape juice thoughtfully. Both of them looked troubled.
"I suppose you shouldn't do it, then," he said finally. "But that's all mustard under the bun now, Reg, you know that. None of us care one bit."
"Well, it's pretty annoying not to be able to show my left forearm to anyone." Regulus sighed and rubbed the area.
"It doesn't…hurt or anything, does it?" said Sirius, looking sideways at him.
"Not anymore," Regulus replied. "But it hurts whenever the Dark Lord wants to summon you, see. It hurt a whole lot when I was working my first two years in Chicago, until he went away, and I had to just tell everyone I got a dumb tattoo one night while I was drunk."
"Well, you weren't drunk, at least," said Sirius with a half-smile.
"Yeah…" Regulus gave another long sigh. "Imagine what Holly thought, though."
"Hey, Holly knows you were a Death Eater," said Sirius calmly. "I mean, our family's reputation isn't exactly the greatest, is it?"
"No," Regulus agreed, and set his chin in his hands. "But like I said, I really miss what Holly and I used to have."
Harry edged even closer to the doorway now, his empty glass in hand.
"Reg," Sirius sighed, "I can't help but think you should discuss this with her, not me."
"Fat lot of good that will do me!" Regulus snapped. "What am I going to do, ask for it back?"
"I don't know, but I'm not your sex therapist."
"Oh, it's this Muggle thing Barbara told me about, you go to a psychiatrist and tell him about your—"
"I know what it is," said Regulus. "I just find the concept obscene."
Sirius rolled his eyes.
"The two of you can go back to the way things were," he said. "Why is it such a big deal?"
"I told you. I regret it, that's why."
"But…I mean, I thought you said she was…y'know, good."
"You can enjoy something physically without enjoying it emotionally, you know!" Regulus said hotly. "I feel kind of…dirty, you know? Whenever I think about it. Like something special's been taken away."
"Don't be silly," said Sirius.
"I was certain she was the right person," Regulus continued, as if his brother hadn't spoken. "So is it just that we did the deed at the wrong time?"
"Well, to be fair, I think she was planning to seduce you all along," Sirius told him. "I mean, why else would she have asked to make out directly after you told her you wanted to remain chaste until marriage? She wasn't wearing a bra? She just happened to have condoms in the drawer in the coffee table? I mean, come on—"
"Maybe, at the time, I was too…aroused, shall we say, to care," Regulus said glumly. "I was just relieved she had them, to be honest. But now I'm thinking I wasn't ready. Like my body was, but my mind wasn't, if you know what I mean? I really should have waited until marriage…But I was so…I just couldn't help myself, I guess. I'm so ashamed…"
Regulus buried his face in his hands, and Sirius shook his shoulder.
"Hey, don't worry," he said. "Beautiful, horny women aren't easy to resist, you know. But you're not going to feel any better, I don't think, unless you stop talking to me and start talking to her. She still thinks everything's fine."
"So what am I supposed to say?" Regulus asked. "I don't want to break up with her. If I tell her I regret our night together, she'll think I don't find her attractive. And then we probably will break up."
"Don't tell her you regret it," Sirius told him. "Just tell her you weren't ready. Tell her—tell her you want to be emotionally closer before you can get so physically close. I think she can understand that. Just visit her at her flat in Hogsmeade tomorrow, and this time, don't act so rashly."
"Oh, you're a fine one to talk…"
Harry disappeared back into the living room then, because he didn't want to hear any more. He didn't even think of telling Ron and Hermione, because not only was he not supposed to overhear in the first place, but this was probably one of the most adult things he had heard in a long time, and he didn't want to discuss it with anybody.
After all the guests left, Harry sat on his bed up in his room, wondering about that conversation. All he could conclude was that he was very glad he wasn't in Regulus's shoes—and that maybe Perfect Regulus wasn't so perfect after all. Even he could make mistakes. Of course, Harry personally thought losing your virginity before you were ready was quite a smaller mistake than taking the Dark Mark and letting the Dark Lord use and abuse your beloved house-elf. So at least he was making progress.
Harry was just doing some last-minute packing for school tomorrow when he heard his door open, and there was Sirius.
"Great party, huh?" he said, flipping his hair out of his eyes, but it just fell back into place again, so he tucked it carelessly behind one ear. "Just wanted to see if you needed any help packing."
"No, thanks," said Harry. "Well…maybe. But first I wanted to ask, what was all that about Regulus regretting sleeping with Holly?"
"Oh…you heard that?" said Sirius, looking bemused. "Well, it's just Regulus being Regulus, that's all. I'm sure he'd be fine if he would just quit reading so much into it. It's bothering him a lot, because he feels guilty for giving in to her advances, but I don't think Holly ever thought much more about it."
"But why does he feel so bad about it?" Harry asked. "Holly is someone he loves and trusts…It's not like she's some random floozy he picked up at a bar."
"Yeah, but he says he feels like something special has been taken away." Sirius rolled his eyes. "Honestly, sometimes I just don't know about him. He thinks losing his virginity is some big thing, but all Holly wanted was some naughty dirty fun, and she thought he wanted it, too."
"Well, maybe you're right," Harry told him, thinking. "Only she can convince him it's not a big deal."
"Let this be a 'teaching moment' for you, then," Sirius said, crossing his arms and leaning against the door frame. "When the time comes for you, don't expect fireworks and a waterfall and a violin. Because if you do…boy, will you be disappointed."
Sirius did end up helping Harry pack, and it went a lot faster with Sirius's magic, even though Sirius didn't care whether or not Harry used magic outside of school (in fact, he and Harry worked on the Summoning Charm while they packed). Harry got ready for bed, but before he went to sleep, Barbara entered the room with Phoebe. She was wearing a nightgown and bathrobe now, and her hair was in a messy bun on top of her head.
"Say goodnight, honey," she said, kissing Phoebe's soft head and setting her in Harry's arms.
"Goodnight, Phoebe," whispered Harry, cradling the beautiful baby against his shoulder the way Sirius did. "I love you."
Phoebe was less than a week old, but Harry still felt her relax in his arms. She made a little sighing noise, and he rocked her for a little before giving her back to Barbara. Her eyes were shut, and her little fists were involuntarily clenched, the way newborns' fists often were.
Sirius and Barbara both bade Harry goodnight as well, and left the room. But just as Harry had taken his glasses off and was settling into sleep, he sensed something stirring in the corner. It was dark in his room, but not the kind of dark where you can't see anything. It was a small figure, about the height of an average toddler.
"Who's there?" Harry hissed in the darkness, clapping his hands twice. The lights in his room turned back on.
It was what Harry recognized as a house-elf, but he didn't look like Kreacher. Maybe he would look like Kreacher when he got older, Harry thought, except his nose was long like a pencil instead of snout-like, and his eyes were a bright green, almost like Harry's, except they were huge. There was no white hair coming out of his bat ears, and instead of wearing a clean white smock made of fine silk, with a family crest, all this elf was wearing was a tattered pillowcase, with rips in it for the arm and leg holes.
"Dobby," said the elf. "Dobby the house-elf, sir."
"Were you hiding in my room all this time?" Harry asked him, making sure to keep his voice down.
"For thirty minutes, sir." Dobby, on the other hand, wasn't bothering to keep his voice down at all. "Dobby has come to warn Harry Potter."
"Warn me about what?" Harry rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed, then put his glasses back on. "I mean, I'm kind of trying to sleep here."
Dobby looked disappointed.
"Sorry," Harry added quickly. "I just have a big day tomorrow. I'm going back to school."
"No, no!" said Dobby, shaking his head so that his ears flapped. "Harry Potter must not go back to school."
"What are you talking about?" Harry said. "Of course I'm going back."
"Is Harry Potter not happy here?"
"Well, sure, I'm happy here," Harry whispered. "But I'm happy at Hogwarts, too. And I don't think I can take another dinner with the parents of a newborn."
"Dobby remembers when his young Master was a newborn," said the elf. "Difficult baby, he was—"
Suddenly, Dobby ran over to the side of Harry's bed and started banging his head against it, letting out yelps of pain.
"Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!" he said each time his head slammed into the wall.
"Stop, Dobby!" Harry said. "You're going to wake my family up! What are you doing?"
"Dobby spoke bad words about his Master," said Dobby by way of explanation. "So Dobby had to punish himself for it, sir."
Harry thought of Kreacher, and couldn't think of a time when Regulus had made him punish himself. True, he remembered Kreacher shattering a plate in his face, but that was to punish himself for allowing Sirius to father a half-blood child. Nobody had asked him to do it. Besides, Kreacher actually wanted to be decapitated and mounted on a wall, which didn't say much for his sanity.
"I understand elves feel they have to do that," said Harry sympathetically. "But don't worry. It wasn't an insult what you just said, it was probably just a fact. Anyway, like I said, I have to go back to Hogwarts. What d'you want me to do, drop out?"
"For months there has been a plot, sir," Dobby explained. "To make terrible things happen at the school. Harry Potter must not risk his life…"
"Who wants to make terrible things happen?"
Dobby edged over to the wall again.
"Okay, never mind!" said Harry. "Fine. Does it…does it have anything to do with…You-Know-Who?"
Dobby shook his head, but his eyes got wider, like he wanted to say something more. Harry didn't know what he was trying to say, though.
"I don't know who else besides him would be able to cause much of a fuss at Hogwarts," said Harry confidently. "Dobby, I'm going to go back to Hogwarts no matter what. And I need to go to bed."
"Give Dobby your word you will not go back to Hogwarts!"
"No!" Harry insisted. "Do I have to get my godfather?"
"Dobby will be back," said Dobby, and with a crack like a whip, he was gone. Harry clapped his hands twice and took off his glasses, falling back into bed again. Terrible things at Hogwarts? And if Voldemort wasn't planning them…who was? If Dumbledore was the only wizard Voldemort had ever feared, shouldn't a regular mortal Dark wizard fear him even more? Harry thought he was going to stay up all night worrying, but then he heard a familiar voice, a familiar song, drifting over from the nursery.
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be
It was Sirius, and Harry knew his godfather was singing Phoebe to sleep. Even now, he could picture Sirius sitting in their big blue rocking chair, holding her close to his heart and letting his clear, fine voice echo around the room, quite sure Harry could hear it, too.
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
There will be an answer
Let it be
Harry reached for the stuffed stag toy sitting on the pillow next to him, the one his father had given him eleven years ago. The song was as relaxing and soothing as always, just waiting to lure him into sleep, and as Sirius's real-life voice blended with faint memories of James's, Harry sank into sleep, ready for school the next day.