To the Dark Lord -
I know I will be dead long before you read this, but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can. I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more.
- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
"You're going to be fine," Lily told the shivering boy on the sofa, for about the fifteenth time that hour. "Help will be coming soon."
Regulus stirred feebly. He was weak—terribly weak, and they had not been able to get much of anything out of him yet.
"Sirius…" he murmured, weakly. "He's going to be angry with me."
"Of course he's not—"
"I didn't think I was going to live," Regulus explained, apropos of nothing. "At first I told Kreacher not to…tell them—and now…"
A coughing fit cut off the end of his sentence. Lily patted him on the shoulder in what she hoped was a soothing way.
"You're safe now," she assured him—not knowing who or what 'Kreacher' was, she felt there was little she could do to offer comfort on that score. "Sirius has gone to fetch help, he'll be back soon—"
"You don't understand," Regulus said, more urgently. "I…called for him and he came, brought me—he knows where I am now—so they will—"
"Who?" she said, with a spike of alarm. "The Death Eaters—?"
"No, not them, Kreacher, and it doesn't matter what I've ordered him to say, he can bring them here—"
There was a loud banging on the front door of the flat, and the flash of anxiety in Regulus's face told her her question was about to be answered.
"You…" He coughed again. "You might as well open the door, they're going to blast their way in if you don't."
He spoke perfectly calmly, even wryly—and instantly Lily knew that it was not Death Eaters who sounded like they were about to break down the door of Sirius's flat.
She rose and swiftly crossed to the door, murmured the enchantment to unlock it, and turned the handle. Instantly the door burst open, and a middle-aged witch shoved past Lily unceremoniously, a tall, dark-haired wizard close at her heels.
The woman, dressed in an old-fashioned, high-necked dress and magnificent ermine cloak, instantly bee-lined for Regulus and knelt over him on the sofa. Her sharp eyes took in the whole picture swiftly.
"What has—the elf told us nothing, only where to find you—" She felt his forehead and turned back around to look at the man. "Orion, he's burning up."
"Mother…" Regulus murmured, and Lily saw she was squeezing his hand so tightly it was turning white.
"You—girl," Mr. Black—for he could be no one else—rounded on Lily imperiously. "What has happened to him? How did he end up here?"
"We don't know," she said, closing the door and re-locking it. "He only got here a little while ago, he wasn't quite—he's only now in his right mind again…"
"What does that mean, 'in his right mind'?" Orion Black demanded, angrily.
"He wasn't making sense at all, it was some kind of dark magic…" He glowered at her. Lily would have found it disconcerting enough to speak to him if he didn't look exactly like an older, better-dressed (handsome forest-green robes, in his haste he had forgotten his cloak) and impeccably groomed version of his elder son. "…He's just come 'round again."
Regulus's mother let go of her young son's hand at last. She stood up and turned around, at last acknowledging Lily's presence—though from her haughty once-over, it was obvious to the younger woman that she was only doing so because circumstance demanded it, and even then, with the greatest reluctance.
"Who did this to him?" Mrs. Black asked, in a voice of extremely forced calm that Lily found more frightening than if she had been yelling. The middle-aged witch seemed to have perfected the art of looking down her nose. "Who?"
"We don't know—please, help is coming soon—"
There was the sound of loud stomping in the kitchen—someone stumbling, as if they'd apparated a little short of their mark and were surprised—and then a voice called out a loud, bark-like greeting.
The expression said voice elicited from Mrs. Black told Lily that, if everything that had happened up until now had been unpleasant, it was about to get much worse.
"I'm back—Dumbledore's coming, Lily!" Sirius called. "He's coming quickly, he just had to warn—shit, sorry, I'm bleeding all over the effing floor—"
"What are you bleeding for?" she shouted, momentarily ignoring the wand now pointed in her face (difficult, when the fingers around it were gripping it so tightly.)
"I got—jumped in Hogsmeade—" She could hear him shuffling around—probably looking for the salve she had made for him, since he tended to be more reckless in Death Eater run-ins than the rest of them, often sporting minor injuries. His parents had frozen in a tableau of mingled horror and fury. "It was stupid, I was being careless, wanting to get back here so fast—has he told you anything—?"
Sirius, sporting a gigantic cut across his face and a gash on his arm, strode casually into the living room—and immediately stopped. The blood-soaked towel he had haphazardly wrapped around his forearm dropped uselessly to the floor.
Mrs. Black was the first one to move. Lily was relieved that the witch's wand was no longer pointed at her, but alarmed to see it turned on Sirius, who stared blankly at his mother, still bleeding rather badly onto the wooden floor of his flat.
"You—" she said, in a voice of low fury, and his surprise turned to steely resolve, he raised his own wand in a defensive stance, as if he expected her to attack him. "You—"
"Sirius?" Regulus called, louder and more clearly than he had spoken since he'd arrived there. "Is that…you?"
Neither mother nor son moved. The tense silence of the room was punctuated by a weak cough.
Nobody said anything for a long moment—then Mrs. Black and Sirius both slowly lowered their wands and looked down at Regulus in unison—now making yet another feeble attempt to sit up.
Sirius crossed over to the sofa, brushing past his mother and pointedly ignoring his still-shocked father, who had gone even more white-faced when he'd appeared at the door a minute earlier. Outwardly, Sirius looked even worse for the wear than Regulus did. Orion glanced from the trail of his son's blood to his wife, engrossed in the unlikely scene between her two sons unfolding before her eyes.
"Yeah, it's me—he's coming." He lowered himself down to Regulus's level, the exact spot where his mother had been a minute before. His voice was muted. "Soon. How are you feeling?"
Regulus coughed—he had gotten most of whatever was in him out when Sirius had been away. His stomach was empty, so he could only dry heave now. His brother squeezed his shoulder.
"Better. I—" Regulus squinted up at him and took in the fresh injury. "What happened to your face?"
"Never mind that now," He hissed, in a low but perfectly audible voice. "Why the hell did you call them?"
Mr. and Mrs. Black's eyes flashed with identical indignation. Lily found herself overcome with the urge to slink away into the kitchen (on the pretext of making tea? Could she get away with that?), but she forced herself to remain where she was.
"I didn't!" Regulus said, cutting off the sharp retorts on the tips of both his parents' tongues. "It was Kreacher."
"And why did you call him?" Sirius asked, exasperated, no longer trying to even half-heartedly keep the conversation from his parents. "You know he can't keep his trap shut for more than about five minutes—"
"He was with me—when I got it—the locket," he shot back, irritably. "I had to make sure he was safe—"
"You almost die and you're worried about the damn elf," said Sirius, rolling his eyes. "Reg, you can be such an idiot—"
"Do not speak to him that way," Mrs. Black said, stepping forward and brandishing her wand again—though this time it was far less threatening and more, for lack of a better word, scolding.
"I'll speak to him like I damn well please—"
"Please don't fight," Regulus called over them, forcefully—his father had stepped forward, poised to get involved, but the pleading note from his beleaguered younger son stopped him. "Please. Don't. I can't…my head hurts."
Sirius looked between his mother and father and lowered his wand again.
"How could he even get in here?" Sirius asked, moodily, crossing his arms. "I've put up wards—protective spells."
"How many times...do I have to explain elf magic to you?" Regulus asked, sarcastically, letting his head fall back on the sofa. "He's the family elf, his domain is any Black Family house, or home, and this—"
"—Technically counts," Sirius groaned, through gritted teeth. "Damn it, I hate family magic, it's so—"
"You can't mean—" Mr. Black interrupted, and Sirius turned to look at his father, who wore a look of dawning horror at the realization of where he was standing. "You can't possibly mean you live here?"
Sirius's face flushed with what Lily could have sworn was embarrassment.
"Yeah—I do," he said, defiantly, tossing his head—though his ears were still visibly burning.
When they had barged in, neither of the Black parents had appeared to show any interest or curiosity about the place their younger son had collapsed—now Mr. Black peered about the dingy flat, taking in everything—the aging orange shag carpeting, the novelty lava lamp he had bought at a thrift store as a joke several months earlier, and the pièce de résistance—an unused, dusty television set he kept as a pretense for the muggle landlady.
"Charming," Orion remarked, dryly pronouncing final sentence.
That one word was pronounced so delicately, and yet, Sirius must've known exactly what his father was thinking, for his face flushed again and he shot back, hotly,
"Look, I've been busy, so it's not exactly tidy now—"
"It doesn't appear," Orion said, silkily, running a finger over the dusty sill. "—You've ever tidied it. How long have you been living in this squalor?"
"It is not squalor!"
"It's a complete disgrace," his mother added, waspishly—Lily had a feeling that the distraction of piling onto Sirius and getting a rise out of him was the only thing keeping them from interrogating Regulus. Naturally he was taking the bait; his face was a magnificent shade of purple. "It's wretched. Is this how muggles live?"
"It's how I live! And I didn't invite you in for tea, in case you've forgotten—in fact, I didn't invite you in at all—"
"Sirius!" Lily stepped between them and shot him a stern look. "Is it really the time to be discussing this?"
Before he could answer, there was another sound from the kitchen—quieter than Sirius had been, but undoubtedly a person. Regulus groaned softly and raised his head again.
"It is I," a voice called. "Dumbledore."
Lily had never been so glad to see the Headmaster of Hogwarts in her life. He had an aura of power that demanded one sit up and take notice, and when he swept into the room in his midnight blue robes and took in the scene—Both Black parents, mid-argument with their eldest son, the younger feebly stirring on the sofa behind them—it didn't seem even they would dare keep on their present course.
Professor Dumbledore looked neither surprised nor upset to find the entire Black Family there, and she could see behind his twinkling blue eyes the stirring of a plan.
"Professor!" she stepped forward and took his cloak. "Thank God you're here—"
"I apologize for taking as long as I did," Dumbledore said, mildly, murmuring thanks to her. "What happened isn't yet known—but I had to check."
"Professor Dumbledore…" Sirius protested, weakly—who after nodding politely at his parents had strode over to Regulus and bent down at his bedside. The younger brother blinked up at him blearily. "I didn't—"
"Give me a minute, Sirius."
For all their personal dislike of the headmaster, Mr. and Mrs. Black were no fools, and they did not protest when Dumbledore gently looked their son over—though they both wore expressions of deep distrust.
"How long has he been like this?" he asked, softly, looking up at the elder.
"Since he got here—he was worse before," Sirius sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "He kept throwing up, I thought he was—it seemed like he was poisoned—but then I saw the wounds on his arm—"
Dumbledore instantly turned around and carefully lifted Regulus's sleeve, where Lily had clumsily tried to bind a wound that was oozing green through the bandages.
"Merlin's beard," Orion swore. "What in Salazar's name did that?"
Dumbledore leaned very closely—he raised his wand and waved it over the wound, which flashed a more healthy shade of pink—and then turned and looked around at Mr. Black.
"That wound is from an Inferius," he said, calmly. "It appears your son has been attacked—by more than one. But it's something else, too."
"Inferi?" Orion repeated, disgusted.
Walburga and Orion gasped, horrified, and Sirius turned white again—Lily grabbed him by the arm to keep him from diving down on the floor next to Regulus as well.
"The locket…you have to…destroy it…" Regulus muttered, insistently. Dumbledore looked back at Sirius.
"He's been going on about a locket, too—it's the only thing he seems to care about, only he didn't come with one—"
"Kreacher?" Dumbledore repeated, mildly, and Sirius shook his head in warning, but it was too late, for Regulus had already raised his head and called, loudly and clearly—
Almost immediately there was a loud CRACK, and a creature—small, dark and with a pointed snout, a house-elf—appeared out of nowhere. Upon seeing Regulus weakly moving his head and hand, the elf promptly burst into noisy tears.
"Master Regulus—alive! Alive!" he cried, crawling up onto the couch and attaching himself to Regulus's legs like a limpet. "It's a miracle. Kreacher cannot believe Master Regulus—"
"Will you get off?" Sirius demanded, and the elf turned and gave him a haughty, fierce glare that looked, hysterically enough, like it was in imitation of Mrs. Black. "You're hurting him!"
Kreacher surprise at seeing who addressed him turned very quickly to unmistakable dislike.
"Kreacher does not take orders from nasty blood traitor runaways," the elf announced, clinging harder to Regulus.
Sirius turned to Mrs. Black, of all people, entreatingly.
"Will—you—" He flapped his arms in the direction of Kreacher, as if he was miming swatting away a large and rather onerous insect. "—Tell him to get off!"
Mr. Black stepped forward to take charge of the situation.
"Kreacher," he said, imperiously. "You will remove yourself from the young master at once—"
But Kreacher burst into tears again, and could either not hear his master's orders or was pointedly ignoring them in favor of fawning over Regulus, who, wincing, patted him weakly on his head.
Sirius rolled his eyes.
"Oh, come on—you know he only listens to her." He looked again at his mother, staring fixedly at the elf and her younger son with distaste. "Make him get off Reg—please."
The politeness—the first he had shown her in a long time—seemed to snap Walburga out of it, and she straightened, and said, in a crisp voice that soared above the wailing:
"Kreacher—you will unhand young Master Regulus, and you will cease that infernal racket and sit calmly, lest you bring shame to your ancestors and this family. At once."
Instantly the elf stopped crying, sprung from the couch and bowed at his mistress's feet in supplication.
"Thank you," said Sirius, sarcastically. The elf shot him another nasty leer that he returned.
"Sirius…" Lily said, staring at the glowering creature clinging to Mrs. Black's skirts, transfixed. "Who…is that?"
"Kreacher. He's our—" Sirius stopped and corrected himself. "He's…the Black Family house-elf."
"You never told me your family had a—"
"—There's a lot of things I never told you," Sirius said, testily. "And I hope after this evening you can understand why!"
His mother shot him a hostile look, but another hacking fit from her younger son drew her attention away again.
"Kreacher…" Regulus exerted a considerable amount of his waning strength sitting up, Lily thought he looked like he was close to fainting again. She did not think it prudent to point out to Sirius that his fighting with their parents seemed to be sapping his brother of strength, but it was obvious to her (and she was sure, Dumbledore) that was the case. "Fetch…fetch the locket."
The elf stared up at him, eyes widening fearfully. He shook his head.
"I know what I said," he grabbed his side and slid down the cushion. Dumbledore quickly leaned forward to compensate. "But…things have changed…"
"Elf—what have you done?" Orion asked, roughly twisting Kreacher around, but the elf slipped out of his grip. He could not seem to stop looking at Regulus, as if the very fact of his existence was, in this moment, a miracle.
Perhaps he knew something they didn't, Lily thought, looking down at Regulus. He looked so young, so fragile, deathly pale—nearly broken.
How close had he been to death tonight?
"Master made Kreacher swear never to tell—"
"Bring it now," Regulus ordered, sharply—sounding more like his mother than Lily would've thought possible. The elf gave him another fearful look, then with a loud CRACK disapparated.
Dumbledore readjusted Regulus back on the sofa seat carefully and, still crouched on the floor next to him, considered the younger Black brother. The rest of his immediate family—and Lily—hovered above him, but it was the serene Headmaster of Hogwarts that he had eyes for, now.
"What did you order Kreacher not to say?" Dumbledore asked, quietly.
"Where…where we were," he replied, shivering. "What happened."
"He was with you?"
The mere memory of wherever they had been sent a shudder through the boy, but he nodded.
"—Was it only your mother, father and brother you ordered him not to speak to of this?" Dumbledore asked, after a moment, very gently.
Lily didn't understand the question…nor did Sirius, if his expression was anything to go on, but Regulus seemed to get what he was driving at—he looked up, first at Mrs. Black, then his father—finally resting his tired eyes on his brother, who had started to shake.
Dumbledore nodded in understanding and stood up.
"I don't understand, Dumbledore—" Sirius said, voice unsteady. "What would Kreacher know he couldn't tell…us?"
"I believe we'll find out soon enough."
"And will he be—" Sirius swallowed, hard. "Is he…?"
"Regulus's injuries are very serious—if he had not made it here and been tended by you and Lily as quickly as he was…" He trailed off. "But in the short-term, he will be fine. He has been through some kind of ordeal tonight…"
Dumbledore stared at Sirius, apparently only now registering the gash on his face and the arm wound that was still dripping onto the shag carpet.
"…And apparently he is not the only one who has," Dumbledore said, frowning. "You didn't have these wounds an hour ago. What happened to you?"
Sirius stiffened—Lily noticed he was looking very hard at Dumbledore, a little too hard—almost as if he was trying to block out the two pairs of sharp eyes boring into the side of his head.
"There was a—situation," he said, unhelpfully, picking up the towel he had dropped earlier and furtively wrapping it around his arm again.
"What sort of a situation?" Dumbledore asked, patiently, eyes twinkling knowingly behind the spectacles—though his voice was as bland as ever.
"It was…it's not—"
"When he came in he said he'd been jumped in Hogsmeade," Lily answered for him. Sirius turned on her, annoyed. "Oh, honestly, Sirius—they heard you say as much when you came in, and anyway, it's pretty obvious."
"Death Eaters did this?" Dumbledore asked, calmly.
"Must've been," Sirius shrugged, giving up the pretense of pretending—but he still wasn't looking at Mr. and Mrs. Black, whose disapproval had very quickly turned to alarm. "I wasn't being careful, I wanted to get back here so fast—"
"Oh—four or five, I think." He touched the side of his face gingerly. "Last one gave me this, but I got him back in the end. Stunner right to the head."
"You bested five Death Eaters?" Dumbledore asked, as a clarifying question—which Lily thought rather odd of him, until she noticed the sideways glance he gave the parents, and how they reacted to his next carefully phrased sentence. "Single-handedly, after a surprise attack in the middle of the night?"
"Well, when you put it like that it makes me sound like a ruddy hero," Sirius said, cracking his first smile of the night. "But I didn't walk away without a scratch."
"No wonder Lord Voldemort is so desperate to recruit you to his ranks, Sirius," Dumbledore remarked, not without humor. "When you make such light work of his best soldiers."
Mrs. Black made a movement and her son jerked his head, on reflex, in her direction—she had gripped her husband's forearm, almost as if to steady herself, and Orion pulled her a little closer to him in a gesture that—by the standards of a proud, traditional couple—could have almost been called tender.
Sirius bit his lip and turned back to Dumbledore, slowly.
"That's not true," he said, weakly.
They all looked down at Regulus—lying down by staring up at his brother, eyes fixed on Sirius's.
"If he wanted me so badly," Sirius said, contemptuously. "You'd think he'd bother to send someone to recruit me."
"Oh—that was your brother's job, I'd imagine," Dumbledore said, mildly, and Sirius and his parents both turned a deathly shade of pale. "Wasn't it, Regulus?"
Mr. and Mrs. Black, Sirius, Dumbledore and Lily all watched Regulus reluctantly nod.
"Reg…" Sirius lowered himself to the floor next to his little brother. "You little idiot, why didn't you say anything?"
"I…knew…" Regulus let out another rattling cough. "I know there wasn't any point…"
Dumbledore turned and, to Lily's surprise, addressed Orion.
"I'm sure it doesn't surprise you that your son understood his brother far better."
Mr. and Mrs. Black were at first shocked at being addressed so by Albus Dumbledore. Sirius, still kneeling at his Regulus's bedside, gritted his teeth. Lily saw the tension in his jaw as he fought the urge to turn back towards them. She watched husband and wife share a furtive look of mutual understanding—they were so good at masking their emotions she could only wonder at what they were thinking.
After a moment, Orion Black broke eye contact with his wife and nodded, stiffly, in Dumbledore's direction.
"Naturally," he said, a tinge of irony. "The boy isn't famous for his subtlety, after all."
Sirius let out a little "huff" noise and his younger brother laughed, wheezily—which turned into another rattling cough.
"Take it easy, moron," Sirius muttered, with obvious affection.
"Don't be rude to your brother," Mrs. Black scolded him, without much conviction.
Sirius rolled his eyes, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"It was a joke—"
There was yet another loud CRACK—Lily hoped Sirius had thought to place a silencing charm around the flat, it must've sounded as though a gun was going off—and Kreacher the house-elf appeared at Regulus's feet, clutching something heavy, gold and square protectively to his chest.
"Kreacher has brought the locket, Master—" he said, bowing his head down so low it touched the filthy sofa cushion.
Dumbledore leaned forward, and elf scrambled back, hugging the object tightly, as if it were a talisman that could ward off the kindly bearded wizard peering at him. Dumbledore turned to the young master, who was looking at him with a fresh determination.
"Give it to him, Kreacher." But the elf looked unconvinced, even at the direct order.
"Master said Kreacher must destroy the locket—"
"He will know how to!" Regulus snapped, losing his patience, and Kreacher flinched. "Now…hand…it over."
Fixing Dumbledore a look of intense distrust, the elf very slowly opened his arms and held out the locket. Lily noticed that when Dumbledore reached out to take it, he had to use a little bit of force to pull it from Kreacher's hands.
Indeed, it was a locket—large and old-fashioned, with a handsome metal chain—and yet as soon as Dumbledore pried it from the elf's grip and Lily got a good look at it, she felt an irrational urge to step away.
There's something not right, she thought.
If Dumbledore felt a similar desire, he did not show it. He silently stared at it for a minute, examined it from every angle—and Lily watched his eyes widen in a look of genuine surprise—something she had rarely, if ever, seen on his face—and then clear understanding. When he tore his eyes away from it at last she thought she saw a gleam of triumph.
"Regulus," he said, calmly, looking down at the still shivering boy on the sofa. "Am I right in assuming you know what this is?"
He bit his lip and, shaking, nodded.
"And you knew—" Dumbledore hesitated. "—Before you went to retrieve it tonight?"
"Does anyone but you or Kreacher know where you were?" he asked, with a gentleness Lily had never seen from him.
"Kreacher tried to do as Master Regulus asked!" the elf burst out, miserably. "Kreacher did everything to destroy the locket, he used all his magic, he failed Master Regulus—"
"You…did your best, Kreacher," Regulus reassured him, wearily. "And it…hardly matters now."
"What do you mean, Regulus?" Sirius asked, urgently—his face, if possible, going even whiter. "What doesn't it matter?"
"I only gave it to him…because…I thought…"
He glanced up at his parents, both watching him intently, and Regulus flushed red and fell silent again. Sirius looked around at Dumbledore—who, as usual, understood better than any of them.
"When you set out to get this—" Dumbledore said, quietly, holding up the locket. "—You did not believe you would survive the attempt."
Regulus blinked up at him, studiously avoided his parents and brother's gazes, and nodded once. His father swore audibly under his breath.
Sirius sprung to his feet and snatched the locket from Dumbledore's hand.
"What the hell were you thinking, Reg?" He said, shaking it in front of his brother's face. "Whatever it is, it wasn't worth nearly dying to get it—!"
"If you knew…what it…was, you'd understand—"
"If it was so important, why didn't you come to me for help, then?"
There was a long, painful silence following this question which answered it better than words could. Regulus blinked back something that looked suspiciously like tears. Sirius practically growled in frustration and turned away from his brother and back towards Dumbledore.
"What is it, really?" he asked Dumbledore, roughly. His former professor took the rather rude demand with his characteristic placidity, and fixed his ex-student with a serene smile.
"You might start with 'who did it belong to'," he said, calmly. "Do you know?"
Sirius scowled at him.
"Of course not—how the hell am I supposed to—"
"Give it to your father, Sirius—" A ghost of smile played about the wily wizard's mouth. "I'm sure he'll be able to tell you at once."
Perplexed, Sirius turned around and looked at his father—equally surprised, but Sirius did not hand it over, and so it fell to Dumbledore to gently remove it from the elder son's hand and give the locket to the father.
"What do you think, Orion—" Dumbledore asked, as the younger man studied the surface of the locket as a careful appraiser would. "Is it the genuine article?"
"Merlin…" Mr. Black's mouth fell open. "It is."
"Is what?" his elder son asked, impatiently.
As soon as the words left his mouth, Walburga's eyes narrowed with interest; She leaned over her husband's arm to examine it more closely.
"How can you tell?" Sirius asked, staring at the object his father was handling with considerable more care than he had shown.
Orion raised an eyebrow at him and snorted.
"Didn't we teach you anything? It has Slytherin's mark."
Sirius leaned over and peered at the serpentine carving of an 'S' in inlaid emeralds on the front of the locket.
"How does that prove it was Slytherin's?" Sirius asked, incredulously. "Half the objects in your house have bloody serpents on them that look like that—"
"Don't be a fool, Sirius Orion—his magical mark," his mother said, sharply. "His signature."
His parents exchanged a knowing look of annoyance. Sirius looked over at Lily for support—she gave a helpless little shrug.
"My family has a bit of a thing about Slytherin lore, Lily, in case you couldn't guess," he remarked, with only the mildest annoyance in his voice—his parents collectively huffed behind him, and Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "I stopped paying attention to the finer details around age twelve."
Lily bit back a smile of her own.
"I do remember you mentioning everyone in your family being in Slytherin when we met," she said, and the two exchanged a knowing look—thinking of an eleven-year old James miming a sword.
In this room, amidst all of the chaos and uncertainty—that day seemed several lifetimes ago.
"I didn't know…it was Slytherin's…" Regulus said, weakly, watching his father study the object with awe bordering on reverence, while his brother eyed it with distaste.
"I wouldn't expect you to," Dumbledore said, carefully taking the object back from Orion. "Admittedly, its provenance is the least interesting thing about it."
"The least interesting thing—"
"Salazar Slytherin was only the locket's original owner," Dumbledore cut Sirius off. "A family heirloom, passed down through generations—and until your brother stole it from him a few hours ago, held most recently by Slytherin's only living descendent."
"You can't mean—" Orion stepped forward, his wife still gripping his arm tightly. "That…the Dark Lord is—"
"You stole this from Voldemort, Regulus?" Sirius asked, shocked.
His little brother shuddered at the memory and nodded, weakly, closing his eyes—as if that could block the recollection. Lily grabbed another blanket off the moldering arm chair and bent over him, covering Regulus with it.
"Presumably the place where this was concealed is also where your brother was attacked by the inferi," Dumbledore informed him, calmly. "Among other things."
"How did you know where to find it, Regulus?" Dumbledore asked, turning back to the boy.
"I…didn't…Kreacher showed me."
"And how did Kreacher know?" he said, patiently, not in the least surprised or perturbed by the answer that had the rest of the boy's family staring at each other in astonishment.
"He…took Kreacher there. To the cave…"
The elf rocked back and forth on the floor, whimpering quietly—clearly taking his mistress's orders to be quiet to heart.
"I see." He glanced down at the elf, sharing in his master's horrific memories of that place—a cave, apparently. "Lord Voldemort asked for your assistance in concealing the locket, is that it?"
Regulus choked back another cough and nodded.
"He…wanted a house-elf…to test…"
"—The protective measures he put in place around it?"
"Professor Dumbledore, I don't understand," Lily said, smoothing Regulus's blanket and standing up. Kreacher was still quietly crying on the floor, she looked at him with a mixture of pity and horror, then up at leader of the Order again. "Why would Voldemort want an elf of all things?"
"Because he holds such creatures in contempt," Dumbledore answered, smoothly. "He would not have expected Kreacher to survive whatever he did to him, let alone return to his master to tell the tale."
"But he did," Mrs. Black said, her sharp eyes falling on Kreacher again for the first time since she had ordered him to get off the young master. "Kreacher—what did you see in this cave with the Dark Lord? What have you been concealing from your master and mistress?"
The elf leapt to his feet and jerked his head from his mistress to Regulus, who managed to pull himself onto his elbows and was watching the elf with real concern.
"Kreacher wants to—but Kreacher cannot—he is…" Kreacher flung himself into sofa leg and began ramming it with his head.
"Mother!" Regulus cried, over the din, as Lily stepped away in horror. "It's not his fault—I ordered him to say nothing, make him stop!"
"Kreacher must not—he CANNOT—!"
Seeing Regulus's expression, Mrs. Black's eyes flashed.
"Cease punishing yourself, elf!" she ordered, imperiously, and at once he stopped, and was left panting on the floor.
"T-thank you…" Regulus fell back on the pillows, weakly. "He's…he's been through enough."
"He's been through enough?" Sirius snorted. "Have you looked at yourself recently?"
"Don't bully your brother—and anyway, he's not the one bleeding on the revolting carpet, is he?" his mother said, tartly, which caused her son to turn on her, incredulous.
"I'm perfectly fine, compared to him—" Sirius said, though Lily noticed he had started to sway just slightly in the past few minutes of excitement. "He's the one whose been reckless for once, and you're still—"
"There is no need for either Regulus or Kreacher to speak more of this tonight," Dumbledore interrupted, calmly, cutting off an argument Lily guessed could've gone on for hours if it was squashed now. "They have been through an ordeal the rest of us can only imagine."
"But what for—?" Orion asked, for once forgetting his customary disdain. "What kind of magic is concealed in that locket?"
"Please don't…" They all looked at Regulus again, who shook his head furiously. "I don't want them to…"
Dumbledore kneeled next to him, and spoke in a low, kind voice.
"You've been very brave, Regulus," he said, voice brimming with admiration. "But you must realize your parents and—" He glanced up at the grim-faced Sirius. "—Brother already know too much."
"Even still—" He chewed his lip nervously and looked into the penetrating gaze of the man who had been his headmaster until only very recently. "If he finds out they know…"
Dumbledore's blue eyes remained fixed on Regulus's—dark and clouded with pain—for a long moment. He closed them and sighed.
"Very well." Dumbledore turned towards Mr. and Mrs. Black—eying him with suspicion after the cryptic exchange. "Your son has shown incredible courage this night—well beyond his years. You ought to be very proud of him. Though he does not wish for you to know the whole—it is sufficient to say Regulus has done more single-handedly to defeat Lord Voldemort than any other living person."
Orion and his wife did not quite know how to take such bald praise from a man they personally disliked as much as Dumbledore. He settled for a stiff nod, and Mrs. Black merely stared up at him, eyes glittering in the half-light of her older son's dingy flat.
"Orion," said Mrs. Black, tilting her face towards her husband, almost as if by sheer force of will she could make them the only two other people in the room. "We'll have to take him back to Grimmauld Place."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Dumbledore informed her, calmly. Mr. Black visibly bristled.
"Who are you to tell us what we can't do with our own son?" he said, haughtily. Out of his eye-line, Sirius rubbed his temples wearily. Dumbledore—the same height as Orion Black, and not a man easily intimidated—smiled at the rather forbidding glower the Black Patriarch was giving him.
"I'm only interested in his safety," he said, serenely.
"And I suppose you think I'm not?"
"Merlin, Father, that's not what he's saying!" Sirius snapped, impatiently. "Don't you understand? Whatever it is Reg has done, there's no coming back from it. He already almost died tonight, were you hoping to only postpone it to breakfast time?"
Orion fixed his elder son with a look of supreme irritation.
"What an idiotic question," he said, tersely.
"We can't be sure Voldemort even knows the locket is missing," Dumbledore added, more calmly. "I doubt that he does—but there is a risk, if Regulus is summoned in this state, he may suspect what your son has done."
What would happen then did not need to be said, and yet they all exchanged a tense, knowing look.
"But Grimmauld Place—"
"Is the first place they'll look," Sirius interjected, grimly. "No one would ever think he'd be here," he said to his father—in a serious, calm voice, trying to reason with him. "It's the…perfect hiding spot."
"At least for the night," Dumbledore added, quick to reassure them that their time in this wholly unsuitable place would, happily, be brief. Mr. Black considered his elder son for a long moment.
"There's—wisdom in that, I suppose," Mr. Black conceded, stiffly.
"You'll naturally wish to stay with him?"
They looked at him with identical expressions—as if there was any other option. Sirius's mouth thinned but he said nothing.
"Good. I think it better you all remain in one place until we know more."
"What about Regulus…you know…" Sirius shifted nervously from side-to-side. "Is he still…?"
Dumbledore bent over him again, this time pulling out two bottles from the inner pockets of is robe.
"This—" He held up the smaller one. "Will help with the poison. The other is a sleeping draught to help him rest."
"And otherwise he'll be…?"
"Fine and safe for the time being," Dumbledore turned towards Sirius, his eyes twinkling again. "For the present, Sirius—I am actually more concerned about you."
"Me?" Sirius repeated, confused.
All eyes turned to Sirius—Dumbledore, who was the only person in the room who had taken the bizarre events of the night in his stride, Regulus, still barely able to sit up on the couch, Kreacher, sitting at his mistress's feet and fixing the runaway heir with a look of decided disapproval, Mr. and Mrs. Black, staring at their eldest son with identical sharp scrutiny—and finally, Lily.
"Sirius!" she cried. "Your arm."
The towel he had haphazardly wrapped around his injured arm was now completely soaked with blood—which showed no sign of abating. It fell off again, and the wound—which had turned a nasty shade of toxic green—oozed onto the carpet.
"Shit," he swore under his breath. "I guess it's—a bit worse than I thought."
"A bit?" Lily repeated, a note of hysteria in her voice. "Sirius, you look like you're about to faint!"
"I am not going to—"
"Professor Dumbledore—" Lily turned to her former headmaster, entreatingly. "He really ought to go to St. Mungo's."
"You do need to have this looked at," Dumbledore said, gravely, examining the wound on his arm and face with a trained eye. "I can't be sure about the exact cause of these injuries, but…I wonder…"
He turned, abruptly, to Sirius's mother, whose eyes were darting between the ugly gash on his face to the arm wound with the shrewd understanding of an appraiser.
"Mrs. Black—I believe you have some expertise in curses and their effects." She blinked up at him haughtily, as if the mere fact of his daring to address her (however politely) was insolence in and of itself. "Perhaps you could examine Sirius."
At this suggestion, her elder son looked like he'd swallowed poison. Mrs. Black, however, only stared at Sirius for a long moment—bedraggled and exhausted, in his torn t-shirt still dripping blood on the carpet—and nodded curtly.
Her slightly aristocratic air managed to infuse those two words with something equal maternal and menacing. Sirius gulped.
Mrs. Black took a step towards him, and he immediately backed up straight into Lily.
"What are you doing—?" She hissed in his ear, elbowing Sirius in the ribs.
"Saving myself, what do you think?" he muttered back, and his injured arm brushed up against Lily's. He gasped in pain. "Shit."
"Come here," his mother ordered, taking out her wand. Her son eyed it warily and made no move, half-hiding behind Lily, still biting back a cry at the pain in his arm. "I said, come here."
"What are you going to do?" he asked, suspiciously.
"What do you imagine I'm going to do?" she asked, dryly, arching one eyebrow.
"Do you want an honest answer to that question, or—"
"Stop arguing with your mother," Mr. Black interrupted, supremely irritated. "And do as she says, for once. No one here finds your stubbornness amusing in the least."
Sirius shot him a childish scowl—Lily thought he seemed on the verge of sticking out his tongue. Dumbledore looked as though he was trying rather hard not to laugh.
Mrs. Black tapped her hand against the side of her arm and scowled. Clearly whatever patience she might've had was fast dwindling.
"Sirius Orion, if I have to ask you again—"
"Fine, fine." He raised up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'm coming, Merlin."
He took a few cautious steps towards his mother, still eying her and her wand with deep suspicion. She watched his approach with something like disgruntled annoyance. When he was still a few feet shy Mrs. Black hand's shot out and grabbed him by his good arm and dragged him towards her.
"Ow," he exclaimed, trying to twist out of her grip, which only tightened. "Let go."
She ignored him, instead peering down at the open wound on his arm, which now was bubbling ominously. Her husband stepped behind her and examined the wound over her shoulder as well. Sirius stared helplessly at Lily, who offered him a comforting and sympathetic smile.
"What do you think, Walburga?" Orion said to her, quietly. "Looks like an Invectus curse to me."
"It is," she agreed, in a definitive sort of voice. Regulus had propped himself up on the pillows again, with great effort, and was trying to sneak a look as well.
"Ah," Dumbledore nodded, knowingly. "The Invectus curse, of course. Happily, that wound looks worse than it is. What about the one on his face?"
She let go of her son's right arm and abruptly grabbed his chin, yanking Sirius's face towards her so she could examine the ugly cut on his left cheek. There was a familiar intimacy to the gesture—Sirius's face had reflexively turned with her, but after a second he pushed against her, trying to slip out of her grip—with little success.
"Keep still," she ordered, in a quiet but deadly voice. He stopped moving and she put her face so close to his that he had no choice but to look at his mother. Lily did not think she had ever seen him more uncomfortable. The family resemblance between them was especially pronounced with their faces so close together—though he looked most like his father, she, too, had the same distinctive gray eyes, which were now intensely examining the cut on his cheek.
She was beautiful, Lily thought, in a severe, intimidating sort of way. She could not imagine growing up with Mrs. Black as your mother, and after seeing them together, even briefly, Lily felt like she explained more about Sirius than he would probably care to admit.
After a long moment of silent scrutiny, Mrs. Black's eyes widened in recognition. She released his chin—Sirius reached up and rubbed the spot, ruefully, and she stepped back next to her husband and gave him a significant look.
"What is it, Mother?" Regulus said, unable to keep the concern out of his voice as he struggled to sit up all the way. At his feet the House Elf made a valiant effort to force him back down, and he gently swatted at Kreacher. "What's wrong with him?"
"It's the Cycticero curse," she said, in a low, tense voice—outwardly very calm, but her eyes flashed with something akin to…concern.
Sirius turned a sickly shade of green and looked between his parents—his father's expression had blackened, he kept fiddling with his watch, and his mother was gripping her wand tightly again, any hint at what she was thinking veiled behind her natural hauteur. Lily turned to Dumbledore, who was now examining Sirius with fresh worry.
"The Cycticero curse?" Lily asked him, fidgeting nervously. "I've never heard of it—what does it do?"
"A particularly nasty spell—and slow acting," he answered her, gravely. "It has the appearance of a common garden variety magical burn, but it gradually acts on the mind. That wound is far more of a cause for concern than the one on his arm."
"What'll happen to me?" Sirius asked, putting up a valiant effort at sounding casual and failing miserably.
"Brain inflammation, fever and hallucinations," his mother answered, smoothly. Regulus bolted upright.
"Hallucinations?" he repeated, before letting out another string of coughs. "How long before—"
"I think that bit might've started already," Sirius said, actually laughing. The frown lines between his father's eyes grew even more pronounced.
"What do you…mean?"
"Well, that's the only thing that could explain how I'm seeing them in my flat right now, you see—"
"It is not a laughing matter," his mother snapped, annoyed, and he stopped laughing—though a hint of a smile still tugged at his lips, much to her obvious annoyance.
"Your mother is right—you'll need to have that treated tonight," Dumbledore agreed, seriously. "Mrs. Black, I assume you have the materials you need to do so?"
"Naturally—back at the house," she said, smoothly, and the smile fell off her son's face instantly. "I'll send the elf for it."
"Now wait—wait just a minute," Sirius protested, loudly. Everyone in the room turned around and looked at him—and though he usually enjoyed attention, five sets of human eyes (and one disgruntled house-elf's), the scrutiny of an entire room of people—half of whom had had authority over him over the course of his life—gave him pause.
"Is there a problem?" Dumbledore asked, calmly.
"Well, um…" His mother glowered at him over Dumbledore's shoulder, as if daring him to answer 'yes.' "Not exactly, I just…it doesn't seem…it's nothing…"
"You having hallucinations and brain fever is nothing?" Lily asked, crossing her arms in front of her and tilting her head thoughtfully. Sirius shot her a dirty look.
"Don't be so stubborn, Sirius," Regulus said, nestling back into the sofa cushion. "Mother will take good care of you."
Sirius opened his mouth to argue, then looked down at his brother—lying prone on his back, still shivering under the blankets, staring at him with a look that could almost be described as pleading. The two brothers locked eyes, had a silent conversation (Regulus mouthed something at him that looked suspiciously like 'be nice')—and Sirius looked up again at his mother, whose glittering eyes were still fixed on his injured cheek.
"Fine," he sighed. Dumbledore clapped his hands together.
"Excellent," he said, clearly delighted—as though the energy in the room was not still thick with tension. "Well, Sirius—I leave you in your mother's very capable hands. There's still much to do—I must go." He addressed the parents. "I'll return in a few hours with more information, and we can decide what to do about a cover story for Regulus—to account for his absence."
Orion nodded, but Walburga had already turned to Kreacher to give him her marching orders.
"Kreacher—go back to the house and fetch everything in the top drawer of the ivory cabinet in sitting room. And essence of dittany—all my potions ingredients. Quickly."
Kreacher shot young Master Sirius a malevolent look, as if to indicate that as far as he was concerned, his mistress's older son was undeserving of such attention. Sirius pulled a face at him, but the elf turned his head back towards Mrs. Black, bowed and vanished with another loud CRACK.
Dumbledore had knelt on the floor next to Regulus again.
"You'll want to drink these," he said, quietly, pointing towards the two bottles of potion he had placed there a few minutes earlier. "And get some rest."
"—Will be destroyed—I promise you. Right now you are more pressing," he told him, gently.
Regulus was fading, but his eyes flitted up to his parents, who were speaking to each other in hushed voices, and to Sirius—whispering to Lily, leaning on her, barely able to stand.
Dumbledore saw where he was looking and smiled.
"Don't worry," he said, patting Regulus on the arm. "They'll be safe here. I give you my word."
Regulus nodded, stiffly—in a manner near-identical to his father, but the gesture somehow came across as rather comical from a scrawny 18-year-old, and he took the two bottles off the sideboard obediently. The headmaster stood up, the abundant energy that sprang from who knew where obvious.
"Lily, I was wondering if I—might have a word."
His eyes twinkled in Sirius's direction (who was leaning against the couch, clearly unenthused at the prospect of being left alone with his immediate family), and he turned and walked into the kitchen, the young Mrs. Potter close at his heels. As soon at they entered the dimly lit kitchenette, Dumbledore shut the door behind them.
He held up a hand to silence her.
"I'm going to meet James. I sent him out on mission tonight. I've heard word from him, he's safe—" Lily let out a sigh of relief. "Tired, I think—but in high spirits. He doesn't yet know what happened tonight, but of course you can tell him the whole."
Lily nodded slowly, then looked back around at the shut door.
"Professor Dumbledore…" she said, turning back around. "What did happen tonight?"
"A great deal—not all of which I'm yet at liberty to divulge," he said, enigmatically.
"But I don't understand, what is that locket—"
"Was this your first time meeting Sirius's parents, Lily?" Dumbledore interrupted her, abruptly. She blinked—taken aback by the question, she momentarily forgot all about Slytherin's locket.
"What did you think of them?"
She considered the question for a long moment.
"They seem very proud," she said, finally, twisting a lock of her dark red hair around her finger.
"A diplomatic answer," Dumbledore said, amused. "They are—immensely. In fact it's by all accounts the defining characteristic of the clan." He paused for a moment. "Were you surprised by them, knowing what you do of your friend?"
"No," she replied, immediately—an answer Lily only realized after she'd blurted it out. She hadn't been surprised in the slightest—though she had never stopped to really consider Sirius's parents, so she hadn't thought she had any expectations that could be met. "He never talks about them."
"The Blacks are among the oldest and wealthiest wizard families in Britain. Our history is dotted with their exploits—though, as a muggle-born witch, I would have been surprised if you were familiar. They have a reputation for magical talent, good-looks and a…" Dumbledore considered his next words carefully. "…penchant for less than savory magic."
"You mean they're dark wizards?"
"Some have been, undoubtedly." Dumbledore sighed. "Sirius is the eldest Black son of four generations of the family—his father, Orion, who you've just met, is the heir apparent and acting head. Orion and his wife, Walburga, are second cousins, making both their sons double Blacks—from the family's perspective the only thing more desirable than being a Black of the regular stripe.
"Sirius was, I am told, a long anticipated child. As heir to his father, he was raised with the expectation that after seven years in Slytherin, he would grow up and marry a witch of equally impeccable pure-blood ancestry, continuing the grand dynasty—you see that the Blacks name all their children after constellations, that gives you an idea of how they see themselves. Can you imagine where things went awry?"
She had not been expecting this speech—she could only marvel that Dumbledore knew all this, never mind that Sirius hadn't told her any of it—nor did she understand his smile, now. She shook her head and Dumbledore smiled, as if at a private joke.
"Sirius met your future husband on the Hogwarts Express." Lily's almond-shaped eyes widened, and she smiled as well. "James convinced him at once that they would have a much more, er, amusing time if they were in the same house—Gryffindor was his preference—and Sirius agreed, making him the first Black in many generations to be sorted thusly." Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "I don't think Horace Slughorn has quite recovered from the loss, though I daresay James was right."
"I think he would agree," Lily said, grinning. "Why are you telling me all this, professor?"
"It is a—delicate matter." Dumbledore frowned, thoughtfully. "Regulus Black's defection is surprising, but he sought out the help of his brother in good faith, clearly. He wants the protection of his family—but his parents are less easy to predict. The extended clan is dotted with Death Eaters and collaborators—and I'm sure Sirius will not hesitate to tell you that up until now his parents have been sympathetic to Voldemort's cause, if not outright supportive."
"'Up until now'?"
Dumbledore smiled with a kind of grim triumph.
"I think the attempted murder of not one, but two Black sons in the course of a single evening may have cooled them on the prospect." He stroked his beard. "I doubt it occurred to them that members of their family—even blood traitors like Sirius—could be casualties of this war. This could be a turning point for them—and an opportunity."
"You think Mr. and Mrs. Black will join our side?" Lily asked, skeptically. He shook his head.
"I think it more likely—I convince them it's in their best interest not to alert Lord Voldemort's followers of what they know of either of their sons' actions." He looked thoughtful. "It will be hard. As I'm sure you can tell, they don't trust me—in fact, they harbor a particular personal dislike."
"They blame my influence for Sirius running away from home," he said, blandly. "In part, at least—James, I'm afraid, bears the brunt of their resentment, which is why I would prefer he keep away for the present—and why I need your help."
"I'll do whatever you ask," she said, sitting up straighter. Dumbledore smiled and nodded, approvingly. "We both will."
"This will be difficult for Sirius. I will need his help in gaining their cooperation, but it may require—a kind of appeasement on his part which I think will be very difficult for him. The feelings between them, as I'm sure you can tell, are…complicated. He is, as a consequence, not always…objective."
"I was getting a bit of a sense of that," she admitted, twisting her wedding ring around her finger. "He told me he was disowned by his parents, but it doesn't seem like—"
"—They are entirely indifferent to him?" Dumbledore finished for her, delicately. Lily nodded, hesitantly. "You are an astute observer of human behavior, as always. Even with his dangerously modern ideas about blood purity, Sirius remains clever, charming, good-looking, magically powerful—and their son." He looked amused. "Such things are hard to ignore when right in front of one—and Regulus nearly dying puts things in perspective. I would be surprised if tonight's events did not…soften their stance on their eldest's behavior somewhat."
"It makes sense—though I doubt Sirius will see it that way," she agreed. "What do you need from James and I?"
"I'll need your help convincing him to—restrain himself."
"You mean be nice and polite and not argue with them every five minutes?" Dumbledore nodded and she groaned. "Oh, that'll be fun."
"A lack of hostility might be a more realistic prospect to start." He looked down his spectacles at her. "I have faith in the two of you to impart to Sirius the wisdom of it."
"That'll take a minor miracle."
"Sometimes the most difficult missions are the most unexpected," Dumbledore said, sagely.
The door burst open and Sirius stumbled in, shutting it hastily behind him.
"You're still here—thank Merlin!"
"He's about to go see James," Lily informed him, and Sirius went white.
"What's wrong with—what's happened to him?"
"He's fine—a mission for the Order that was a complete success," Dumbledore informed him "I was about to ask Lily if she had a message to pass on, actually."
"Only—that I love him and will see him soon." She turned to her friend, clearly woozy from his injuries. "Do you have anything to tell him?"
"Nothing different from that—and he'd only mock me for going soft if I said it."
"So the message is from both of us, professor," Lily laughed.
"Dumbledore—" Sirius stepped away from Lily toward the kitchen counter, where Dumbledore was casually examining the electric stove with mild curiosity. "I…"
The Headmaster fixed his young charge with one of his trademark looks.
"…Are you sure I can't come with you?" he finished weakly. Dumbledore chuckled.
"You're not in a state to go anywhere. Get some rest, Sirius," he ordered, gently. "You'll need your strength."
"If she poisons me," Sirius said, fixing his and Lily's leader with a dark look. "I'm holding you personally responsible, you know that, right?"
"I think that very unlikely—but I accept responsibility happily." He beamed at them both. "I will send word if anything changes."
Then he held up his wand—performed his usual brand of mysterious non-verbal magic—and vanished.
He and Lily stared at the empty spot where Dumbledore had been for a moment.
"I hate it when he does that."
Sirius turned and walked over to the kitchen table, sitting down across from her.
"Leaves after only giving us half the information." He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
"How are you feeling?" she leaned forward in her own seat, concerned.
"Fine! I'm just tired. My head feels…perfectly fine," he finished, without much conviction. Lily decided it was best not to argue with him.
"Still—it's better not to take the risk, isn't it?" she said, reasonably.
"What were you and Dumbledore getting all cosy about?"
"He was—telling me a bit. About your family." Sirius crossed his arms and shot her a knowing look. "She is not going to poison you."
"That's all you know."
"Sirius Orion Black!" a an imperious voice called through the door of the kitchen. "Where have you wandered off to?"
He hunched his shoulders and didn't get up from the table, instead scowling at Lily across the grubby table. There was an abandoned takeout food box sitting in front of him, which he poked at, moodily.
"You realize it's a not a big flat, right?" Lily asked, suppressing a laugh.
"I don't have to make things easy for her."
"Mrs. Black—we're in here!" Lily called out; Sirius fixed her with an accusatory look and hunched down even further. A second later the formidable woman herself appeared in the kitchen door, an old-fashioned case in her hands—it looked a bit like a sewing kit, though Lily guessed it was full of potion ingredients—and the house-elf at her heels, holding a number of large bottles and vials of things that looked very ominous.
"So this is where you've been hiding," she said, sweeping the room with a single contemptuous look.
"I have not been hiding," he said, sitting up straight, trying to muster some dignity.
"Get up," she ordered, snappily, walking briskly over to him. "I have to see to those wounds."
He looked up at her and gave her a defiant glare—Lily had the impression that he would refuse any direct order on principle. Mrs. Black merely narrowed her eyes, lifted her wand and vanished the chair out from under him. He let out a yelp of shock, scrambled to grip the edge of the table and missed, falling hard on his bum on the dirty linoleum floor.
"Ow!" he cried, rubbing his backside ruefully and looking up at. "What was that for?"
"You need to take the potion now and your willfulness is tiresome," she informed him, eyes flashing dangerously. "Next time it will be the floor."
Slowly he got up from the floor—still glaring heartily at her—and dusted himself off, pointedly not looking at Lily.
"Now—" She looked around the room again, sniffing distastefully at the electric stove that had fascinated Dumbledore so. "I assume there is a lavatory in this hovel—or do you relieve yourself off the side of the building like a savage?"
"Yes, there's a loo," he said, dully, leading her out of the kitchen. Lily knew it wasn't funny, not really—but she wished, in that moment, that Remus was there to share with her the expression of pure and abject mortification on Sirius's face.
As they walked into the tiny lavatory, Sirius was keenly aware of the mold on the shower curtain and the cracked mirror above the sink. Everything was long overdue to be cleaned—of course he was rarely here, with so many late night missions for the Order, but the last thing on earth he wanted to do was give an excuse to the woman behind him. That would be to admit that her opinion mattered (which it didn't, it was none of her business if he slept under a cardboard box in Covent Garden as far as he was concerned).
His mother's sharp eyes took in everything with a single withering glance, then rested on the toilet, which Sirius had hastily put down the seat of in a poor attempt to improve the dismal appearance of the place.
"Sit," she ordered, and summoned a small stool out of thin air for herself.
Sirius slowly lowered himself onto the toilet and watched his mother bustle about the tiny room, making surprisingly economic use of the space to set up her potions and vials of mysterious and vaguely sinister liquids. Occasionally she muttered things to the elf, who handed her ingredients and bottles, shooting him malevolent looks when his mistress's back was turned.
"Now," she said, turning to him, at last. "Hold out your arm."
"Does he have to be here?" Sirius asked, with just a trace of petulance. She rolled her eyes.
"Kreacher—wait outside," Mrs. Black said, patting him absently on the head in a rare display of affection. "I'll call for you if I need you."
"Yes, Mistress. Kreacher will be waiting," he paused to get in a good glare. "Right outside if he is needed."
The elf gave one of his patented low bows and shuffled out of the room. He left the door slightly ajar and peered through the crack at them. Sirius raised his wand irritably and slammed it in the elf's face.
"Do you feel better, now?" his mother asked, dryly. "Arm."
Looking very grumpy, Sirius held it out to her. Mrs. Black took his arm gently but firmly in her left hand—he tensed and then, after a moment, relaxed again.
"Yes, immensely—ow!" Without warning she dumped a large dollop of green salve on his wound. "That hurts like—!"
"—Why do you care if he's here?" she said, yanking his arm straighter so she could more easily spread the goo around with her wand. Sirius let out a little 'tch' sound in the back of his throat. "He's only a servant."
"Well, you try having him glower at you every five seconds," he shot back, trying without success to tug his arm out of her vice-like grip. "He's always hated me, and I can't say our time apart seems to have improved him much."
"Why should it matter what he thinks?" she said, with a touch of impatience. "Why should you care? He's beneath your notice."
"That's easy for you to say," he snorted, trying to roll up his torn t-shirt sleeve, in a fruitless attempt to save it from being stained by whatever she'd put on his arm. "He worships the ground you walk on."
"You and your brother are completely hopeless," she informed him, face bent very low over his wound—it was bubbling oddly, emitting strange popping noises, which if her expression was anything to go by was apparently normal. "He treats the elf like a pet, and you argue with it at every turn as if it were an equal."
"Well, we can't all be as ace at managing the help as you, Mother," he replied, sourly, and then immediately flushed scarlet.
The word had slipped out almost by accident—but it was the first time he'd called her 'mother' in nearly three years, and her eyes glittered in recognition.
"Your trouble," she told him, quietly, squeezing his arm a fraction tighter. "Is that you let him see it bothers you. You can't show weakness to a servant, they'll—"
"—I thought you couldn't show weakness to anyone?"
Briefly—very briefly—her mask slipped, and Walburga Black was surprised by the question, betraying a flicker of something that was not contempt or irritation. Just as quickly she recovered herself and shrugged, airily.
"It's better, on the whole, not to," she said, cooly, and steered his arm to the sink, where she laid it on the ceramic edge of the counter so that the wound didn't touch anything. "Let it rest there for a moment while I mix up the next part."
She turned away from him, and they sat in heavy silence while she mixed up another salve for the wound. Sirius was uncomfortably reminded of very early childhood—his mother was a prodigious potioneer, and he had been fascinated by the puffs of colorful smoke rising in the air, the hisses and pops that came from the cauldron, and so when he was very well-behaved (which was seldom) he had been allowed to watch her work—quietly, of course, so she didn't lose her concentration.
If he managed to get through the entire exercise without irritating Mother, he'd been allowed to peer into the cauldron and see the finished product. She promised she would tutor him in it after he went to school.
But of course, then he did go to school—and after the high drama of his sorting, Sirius had never asked her about it again.
Anyway, he'd never had the patience for potions.
She was focusing singularly on her work now, so for the first time in over three years he could study her without her noticing. His mother was still very beautiful, in the style of all women in their family—arched brows, dark hair, straight nose and full lips—but the years since his graceless exit had aged her. He could see gray at her temples where there had never been, crows' feet around her eyes. Most of all she looked tired and careworn. His entire life she had been to him more a force of nature than a woman, and to see these little signs that she, too, was human, unsettled Sirius.
It made something he did not want to reckon with stir in a spot right above his left rib cage.
Sensing she was being watched, his mother looked up, and hers and Sirius's eyes locked. He started at being caught staring, and he flushed and hurriedly looked way, glaring at a large water stain on the wall instead.
There was another long minute of silence while she waited for the salve to set in her cauldron; Sirius didn't dare risk looking at her again. He preferred the two of them not speaking, however awkward it was, and hoped that for the rest of these interminable minutes in close proximity she would stick to barking instructions at him.
"How did your brother know about this place?" she asked quietly, breaking the silence as she lifted his arm off the edge of the sink again. Sirius was too taken aback at the question to protest being manhandled again; this time he didn't even squirm.
"You mean—how did he know where I live?" She nodded, curtly—pouring something red and acrid-smelling over his arm. He shrugged. "No idea. I suppose some of his Death Eater pals told him—maybe they've been tailing me."
She caught his eye again and gave him a penetrating, hawkish look that instantly got his back up.
"It's the truth!" Sirius insisted—he recognized accusation from her. "It's not as if Regulus and I have been…meeting behind your back in secret, or something. I'm no corrupting influence, if that's what you're worried about."
"When was the last time you spoke to him?"
"Christmas last year!" he snapped, so annoyed he forgot to lie. "I ran into him at the Leaky Cauldron—I think he was drunk, he yelled a lot of rubbish at me about what a terrible son I was and how I'd ruined yours and Dad's lives, then stormed out again. That was the last time I spoke to him, and believe me, he did not seem wildly inspired by my example at the time."
She pulled his arm taut with unnecessary force and waved her wand. His skin started to knit itself together.
"Regulus Arcturus has always looked to you as an example," Mrs. Black said, waspishly, and her son burst out laughing.
"Please—it's you and dad he practically worships!" he said, unable to keep a sneer from his voice. "He never listens to me."
"Your brother nearly died tonight after an act of supreme and reckless foolishness," his mother said, frown lines growing especially pronounced. "And ended up on your doorstep. You expect me to believe you had nothing to do with it?"
"Has it occurred to you that maybe Regulus wised up on his own?" Sirius asked, eyes rolling toward the ceiling. "That he's actually capable of having an original thought?"
She sniffed, loudly; the look of extreme skepticism on Mrs. Black's face suggested that she did not, in fact, think that was very likely. Sirius shook his head in disbelief and looked up at the ceiling.
"I can't believe you," he snorted. "You're actually trying to blame me for this. If it's anyone's fault, it's yours and your husband's."
"What in Salazar's name—" she spat, yanking him by the chin and forcing him to look at her. "—Do you mean by that?"
Sirius glared at her, defiantly.
"Well, why do you think he joined up with them in the first place?" he said, recklessly—she released his chin in surprise and he pressed on. "He'd do anything for your approval, even join the bloody Death Eaters. I bet he thought he was making you proud, the idiot."
She stared at him, aghast at being spoken to so—clearly she had forgotten in their three years apart—and then her eyes narrowed into catlike slits.
"You're in no position to be criticizing anyone in this family," she hissed, with controlled fury—she had a volcanic temper, and this was the dangerous part, when it was bubbling just below the surface. He glowered, steeling himself for battle. "After what you did, after you abandoned your responsibilities, after you—"
"I know, I know—!" he cut her off, coldly. "I'm an awful son and a total disgrace—you don't need to repeat yourself, believe me, I remember everything you said to me last time with amazing clarity, I could probably recite it on command from memory if I had to. Don't bother pretending it matters on my account, I'm very aware that you wish you'd never given birth to me."
He yanked his arm out of her grasp and scooted the three inches away from her the space afforded.
To Sirius's immense surprise, his mother did not shout anything back to him—his histrionic outburst froze her in place, and she simply stared at him—first in shock, and then…curiously… something else. Her gray eyes widened, and almost at once Mrs. Black's anger evaporated, leaving in its wake an odd, closed look of understanding.
"You shouldn't overexcite yourself," she said, calmly, pulling his arm back towards her gently.
He gaped at her, more shocked than he would have been if she had cursed him.
"You've been through a great deal tonight," Walburga continued, lightly, looking over his arm. "I should not have provoked you. I'm—sorry."
The words were said very quickly, very awkwardly—but that did not make their impact any less momentous. Sirius had never heard her apologize to anyone, let alone to him. He had also never had an argument with his mother that had not ended in a door getting slammed or her screeching at him, and so the cool and in-control woman now looking him over could just as well have been a stranger.
"W-what did you just say?" he sputtered. His mouth felt dry and he was light-headed, she was completely placid and calm and—not herself in the slightest. Perhaps the hallucinations had started.
"You heard me perfectly well," Mrs. Black said, softly, touching the corner of his arm with her finger.
It tingled at the touch of her cold finger—but it no longer hurt.
"I thought—" He forced himself to look away from her and towards his arm, desperately groping for some change of subject. "I thought that the curse wound on my face was the one that's going to kill me."
"I'll see to it in a moment," she said, calmly. "If I didn't treat this straight away you would be left with a scar."
"Who cares if I have a scar?" Sirius blurted out. His mother looked up from where she was inspecting the half-healed section of skin with a 'are-you-stupid?' look.
"I do," she snapped, raising one perfectly arched eyebrow. "Do you want an ugly mark all down your arm? What would people think?"
"That I'm a very dangerous, cool bloke," Sirius said, grinning, in an impertinent tone clearly designed to annoy her. "Some girls think they're sexy, I've been told."
"Do not use that vulgar word," she ordered, and he scrunched his nose in her direction petulantly.
"Is that the sort of thing…" She released his arm (apparently it passed muster upon inspection, he flexed it a few times experimentally and was amazed at the improvement—it practically felt normal!) and turned towards her box of potions ingredients to start preparing her next antidote "… that girl likes?"
He frowned, puzzled.
"The girl out in the sitting room," his mother snapped, as if he was deliberately acting obtuse. "The red-headed one."
"Lily, you mean?" he asked, at a complete loss—until he saw the shift in Mrs. Black's expression. "What does she have to…Oh—oh. I see what you're driving at."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," his mother said, placidly turning back to her cauldron. Sirius let out a slightly hysterical laugh.
"She's not my—you didn't think…" She had thought. "She's wearing a wedding ring!"
"Is she?" Mrs. Black asked, casually, holding a string of unicorn hair up to the dim light. "I didn't notice."
"Like hell you didn't," Sirius said, peering at her profile shrewdly. Unlike him, his mother was a master at masking what was really going through her head—he couldn't guess at what she was thinking. "She's my friend James's wife. You didn't really think I'd up and gotten hitched, did you?"
"The things you're capable of have long since ceased to shock me," his mother replied, with long-suffering dignity. He made a derisive sound in the back of his throat.
"Well, you needn't worry about that. I'm not ever getting married."
His mother's eyes flashed with displeasure and he flinched. Mrs. Black noticed, and when she turned back to the cauldron to light the fire under it, her expression was distinctly pleased.
"That's a very childish attitude," she remarked, idly. He stretched out his legs and put his now healed arm behind his head, leaning back and looking at the ceiling in a carefree sort of way. The toilet, alas, made the action less elegant than it usually was.
"It's the truth—why would I want to?" he said, cavalierly. "What a complete bore."
"Don't be absurd," she snapped, the bright blue flame that came out of her wand flaring up dangerous hot. "Of course you'll get married and have children. What else would you do?"
"Why are we even talking about this?" he said, sitting up straight again. Walburga didn't reply, and the shutters went up behind her eyes again, leaving her son more perplexed than ever.
He studied her for a moment, and realized with a jolt that beneath her studied haughtiness she was actually ill at ease.
This night had been among the most surreal in his life—but for the first time since he had walked into the living room to find his mother and father hovering over Reggie, it occurred to Sirius that it was just as surreal for them. In their wildest dreams they had not imagined being stuck in their runaway blood traitor son's London flat on Albus Dumbledore's orders, anymore than he had imagined his mother dressing wounds he had sustained fighting the sons of the people she regularly socialized with.
There was no set protocol for any of this.
All that was left for them, then, was to rehash ancient disputes—things that shouldn't, that couldn't matter anymore, for what else could they do? It was the only script the two of them knew. Sirius had never rehearsed this moment, had gone about his life from the moment he'd fled Grimmauld Place with the certainty that he would never have to speak to either of them again.
It was easier, cleaner, to think of them just as they were that night—just as it had been easier when Reg was another faceless Death Eater, not his scrawny teenage brother collapsed on the sofa, shivering from a fever.
Now…now he didn't know what to think. It didn't help that she still smelled of camellias and rosewater, still wore the same pearls, still made him feel like a bleeding eight-year-old with a single withering glance.
He had never considered what facing her would be like—and if he had, he was sure he would not have conjured this scene of her stooping to mix him up a potion in his dirty loo.
"Look," Sirius sighed, heavily, the awkwardness too unbearable for even him. "I know it's not…forget about me. Let's just—stick to talking about…safe things."
She looked up, fleetingly, then back down at the boomslang skin she was dicing with her wand.
"Fine," she agreed, cooly.
"So, where's dad gotten to?" he asked, fidgeting slightly in his seat. He wished she wasn't blocking the only exit.
"He's looking after Regulus," she said, evenly. "Let me see your face."
He turned towards her and she reached out for his chin—this time pulling it towards her more gently.
"Father playing nursemaid?" Sirius snorted. "Wonders will never cease—ouch."
She'd put her wand up to his face and muttered a spell over it—Sirius felt his face heat up, and out of the corner of the mirror saw it glow and spark, repelling whatever Mrs. Black had tried to do it.
"Hm," she murmured. "Stubborn."
"Me or the curse?"
"Both," he replied, promptly. "Happily, the curse doesn't talk back."
"How do you even know about it, anyway?" he asked, with trepidation. "The cyst…"
"Oh, I've come across it once or twice," she said, vaguely. He shot her a sideways look.
"Ever cast it on someone?" he asked, in a would-be casual voice.
"If I had, I wouldn't be likely to tell you, would I?" she said, which was frankly more disconcerting than a flat denial would've been. "It's a favorite of the Rosiers."
"Explains a lot about Aunt Druella, frankly."
"Don't be rude," she chastened him. Still holding his face, she took out a stopper with the other hand and dipped it into the cauldron. "Drink this."
He considered telling her he was fairly certain it had been Evan Rosier who had cast it on him, and that she had just all but confirmed the suspicion, but decided it was better not to draw attention to that particular aspect of their current situation.
"What is it?" he said, eying the potion warily—her grip on his chin had, naturally, tightened the moment he showed an inclination to slip out of it.
"It's to stop your mind from being addled," she said, crossly.
"A bit late for that, isn't it?" She poked him with her wand. "Alright, alright—I'll drink it."
He took one gulp and grimaced.
"That's foul," he choked. "Merlin, that's even worse than the Animagus potion—"
"How on earth would you know that?" she said, sharply.
Cursing his own idiocy, he fixed his face—in as much as he could move it at all, between her holding him and the painful gash on his cheek—into an expression of cherubic innocence.
"Erm…there's no reason," he said, staring into her hawklike eyes and hoping he didn't look too much like a rabbit. "I don't, I mean."
He took another gulp of potion—it was even worse the second time around—keenly aware that his mother was still eyeing him with deep suspicion.
"So—" He cast his mind around for something to deflect from his dabbling in highly illegal magical activities, then remembered the nonverbal exchanged he'd witnessed between his parents. "—That locket."
She was still very close to his face, muttering some kind of odd healing spell over it, so he could see the involuntary twitch in her jaw.
"What about it?" she said, running one finger along the right side of his cheek. He shivered.
"Do you know what it is?" Sirius asked, giving her a probing look which she returned.
"I have a…suspicion," she answered, finally. "Which I suspect you share."
He nodded, slowly—so she had known.
"Do you think Dad—" She pushed his head back and dripped a few drops of some acidic substance over the gash, which sizzled at the touch. "—knows as well?"
"That's neither here nor there," his mother said, evasively. "It's late. Your brother will be asleep by now—and you should be as well."
"'Should be'," he snorted—but as soon as she'd said the words he felt the creep of exhaustion in his bones and he had to stifle a yawn. "Says who?"
He looked over in the mirror again—and was surprised to see that the gash, while not gone, was already fading. He touched it experimentally—the wound had sealed itself, and though it was callused, it no longer stung.
"Says any witch or wizard with sense," his mother said, snappily. "It's the middle of the night and you've been cursed."
"But I'm fine now! Anyway, are you going to sleep?" She ignored the question, instead putting her bottles back in the kit with brisk efficiency. She didn't seem tired in the slightest, though the night's events had certainly aged her. "Look, I'll just stay up and watch Reg with you, and when Dumbledore gets back—"
With a loud CRACK the elf appeared on the sink; Sirius jumped back in surprise, hitting his head on the edge of the cupboard. He swore loudly and glared at Kreacher.
"Can you warn me before you summon him?" he complained, massaging the back of his head.
"Mistress called Kreacher?" said the elf, in a sibilant, fawning voice.
"Yes," she said, imperiously. "Go into the bedroom and light a fire for Master Sirius, he's going to sleep."
"There isn't a fireplace in there for him to light, Mother," Sirius said, annoyed but not surprised at her attempts to railroad him. "And anyway, I told you I'm fine and I'm not going to bed."
"No fireplace?" Her eyes narrowed. "How on earth do you heat the place?"
"I don't, usually." She scoffed. "Muggles use electric heating, I don't generally bother. I like things a bit cooler than you do, not everyone likes living in a bloody furnace."
She ignored him and turned back to the elf.
"Fetch him a—glass of water, then." Mrs. Black gave a surreptitious gesture to the elf, then looked back over at her son, who had now stood up and was trying out his sea legs. Sirius was still swaying slightly, though it was clear it was from exhaustion rather than injuries. Kreacher's eyes gleamed in the young master's direction, then he bowed and scuttled out of the room.
"Let's go check on Regulus, then—"
"Wait a moment."
Walburga sidestepped and blocked his path to the door, deftly. Kreacher reappeared, carrying an old-fashioned silver tankard filled to the brim of what appeared to be water. His mistress bent over and took it from the elf, then held it out to her son.
"Have something to drink, first," she said, in a flat voice. Sirius looked down at it, instantly suspicious. "You must be thirsty."
"I can get my own water, thanks—"
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, not budging from her spot, still holding out the heavy tankard, practically wielding it like a weapon. Sirius stared at the tankard for a moment before looking directly in her eyes.
"…What is it, really?" he asked, crossing his arms. Mrs. Black didn't even blink at the implied accusation.
"What did you hear me order the elf to get?" his mother asked, patiently.
"And have you ever known my servants to disobey a direct order?"
"No," he answered, reluctantly.
"So then, what do you suppose it is?"
"Water, of course," he said, through gritted teeth. His mother's cocked her head in a slightly condescending manner she knew he had always hated.
"And are you afraid of drinking a glass of water, now?" she asked, sarcastically.
"Of course I'm not afraid—" Sirius snatched the tankard out of her hand and took a large gulp. Instantly his knees buckled and he had to grab the towel rack to keep from sliding to the ground. His mother watched him half flop over with her characteristic impassivity; the elf had caught the goblet in midair with magic, evidently expecting that this would happen.
"Kreacher, help him up," she ordered the elf, who shuffled over to Sirius and pulled him to his feet using a combination of magic and rough force. He and Mrs. Black managed to push the elder son out of the tiny lavatory and into the hallway; he toppled against the wall and had to be pulled upright again by his mother.
"You—lied to me!" he muttered, furiously. He could already feeling his eyelids drooping, and his attempt to push her hand off his shoulder failed, his limbs felt like jelly.
"No I didn't—it was water."
"Yeah, water…laced with dreamless…sleeping draught."
"If you weren't so stubborn I wouldn't have to resort to such tricks, would I?" she pointed out, dryly and without an ounce of apparent guilt. "Now, where is the bedroom?"
He jerked his head towards a door across the hallway, and she and the house elf practically dragged him inside.
He was fading fast, but even with consciousness dimming Sirius was glad that there was not much to be embarrassed about in the bedroom—bare walls and a bed that was blessedly made when he flopped unceremoniously face-first onto it.
"You can't sleep like that, Sirius—" The voice was familiar, deeply familiar—and exasperated, he'd heard some variation on that phrase a hundred times, who was speaking to him—? "Turn over this instant, you silly boy."
Oh, right—her. He mumbled something extremely rude into the covers. Thankfully she only caught the gist of what had been said before he felt himself being forcibly turned over onto his back.
He blinked up at the ceiling—and then his mother's face swum into view. Sirius felt a dip in the bed—had she actually sat down next to him?
"Drink the rest of your potion, now," Walburga said, firmly, holding the goblet up to his lips.
"I don't—" She tipped it back into his mouth and he swallowed on reflex. He had the dim realization that if he wasn't already half-drugged he probably would have spat it out on principle—only he really wanted to sleep, and her forcing him gave him an excuse, even if it was mildly humiliating. Well—he supposed worse things had happened to him. Of course Reg had gotten out of this with more dignity—he would have bet galleons his little brother just drank the damn sleeping draught when he was told to.
The pressure on the bed lifted, and her face disappeared. There was the sound of something in the corner, and the drafty room was at once warm. He had a sneaking suspicion she had just vanished part of his wall and created a fireplace out of nothing, which would have been very funny if he didn't have a seven hundred quid deposit on this dump, and wasn't the manager going to be surprised when he found the extra chimney sticking out of the roof tomorrow?
Her face reappeared.
"I can tell you're still fighting it," she said, and maybe it was the sleepiness, but he was sure there was a hint of amusement in her voice. "Why must you always be like this?"
"I would say I already have," she told him, softly, watching him fight a losing battle with his own eyelids. He felt a sensation around his feet—Kreacher must've taken off his sneakers, because she was still gazing at him, and he could feel her small, strong hand resting on his good arm. "At least this time."
"Thanks for…y'know…fixing me up," he murmured, sleepily. She didn't say anything for a long moment, and her face swam in and out of sight. For some reason he wished he could see her.
"You're welcome," Mrs. Black said, quietly, at last.
"G'night…" He shifted his head a little on the pillow that had been tucked underneath his head. "…Mother."
A gentle voice replied, hardly above a whisper. He couldn't quite make out what it said, but it warmed him, recalled some distant childhood feeling of security he had not known in many years.
As he drifted off, Sirius's last conscious thought was that it felt as though a piece of his sweat-drenched hair, stubbornly stuck to his forehead all evening, had been carefully pushed out of the way.