"...What do wizard wars mean to an elf like Kreacher? He's loyal to people who are kind to him, and Mrs. Black must have been, and Regulus certainly was, so he served them willingly and parroted their beliefs. I know what you're going to say," she went on as Harry began to protest, "that Regulus changed his mind . . . but he doesn't seem to have explained that to Kreacher, does he? And I think I know why. Kreacher and Regulus's family were all safer if they kept to the old pure-blood line. Regulus was trying to protect them all."
-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
There was nothing Sirius Black wanted more than the blissful oblivion of unconsciousness. He did not think he had, in his life, ever been more exhausted than he was now—and yet, sleep would not come.
The young wizard lay flat on his back on top of the covers and stared dully at the ceiling of his bedroom. His eyes were glassy and stuck open, like a china doll's.
Sirius's body ached, his head pounded.
He felt as though his skull might split open from all the thoughts that were churning around inside of his brain. Lying down had drawn attention to his empty stomach, crying out for sustenance that would not come for several hours. He was too tired to sleep and too hungry to get up and forage for food, and anyway, Sirius was afraid of running into someone in the kitchen.
There was nothing worth eating in the cupboards, anyway. The thought of stabbing open a can of tinned beans and quickly wolfing it down in this room conjured up a picture of being besieged in an underground bunker or bomb shelter. That's what it felt like—that the quiet and dark of this room was a only a brief respite from what lurked just outside the door.
How had he gotten himself into this mess?
Sirius kept playing the events over and over again in his mind, but it was all an incoherent jumble. He was stuck on the beginning and the end—his mind unable to grasp how a night that had started so promisingly had ended here.
Twelve hours ago he had been playing Exploding Snap in this flat with Lily, waiting to hear word from James that his mission had gone as planned—a little anxious about Prongs, but otherwise content. He and Lily were talking about what they were going to do over Christmas. He was going to get Chinese takeout for them.
Twelve hours ago he was free.
Now Sirius did not know what he was—but it wasn't free. Truthfully, he'd never been in a worse position—and that included when he had been alone, fighting five Death Eaters in the middle of the night in a freezing village in Scotland.
At least there he'd been able to fucking move.
Now—between Dumbledore and his father—he was in such a tight spot he could hardly breathe.
He tried to shift over onto his side—maybe that would make it easier to fall asleep—but it was as if there were bags of lead tied to both his arms, weighing him down, and now his mind had decided to torture itself by reliving the fresh hell that had been his morning—and two of the worst conversations he had ever had.
Dumbledore and Dad, Dad and Dumbledore, he thought, a alliterative drum of misery in his head.
Sirius was torn on whether the audience with the headmaster or his father had been worse. He kept going back and forth about it, but every time he felt he had the definitive answer, he was reminded of some new miserable angle worth considering—which he did, clinically, still staring dully at the ceiling fan above his bed.
Was it worse to be told by your mentor that you were guilty of prejudice, or by your father that you were useless?
What Dad said hurt more.
The realization, when it came, was another sharp blow—the sharpest of all. A wave of anger and nausea stirred in his stomach—too tired to manifest as anything but a feeble glare at the ceiling fan.
His father had no right to make him feel anything.
Dumbledore was a great man, worthy of respect and admiration, and when he had said those words to Sirius he had felt more shame than the young wizard had thought possible.
But Dumbledore hadn't wounded him like Orion had.
'Human sacrifice' had been putting what Dumbledore had done to him too mildly, as far as Sirius was concerned. He had thrown him to the lions—no, Sirius thought, jeeringly—he had thrown him into the pit of vipers that was his family.
Of them, Orion Black was the King Cobra.
God, he'd been stupid. How could he have ever thought that man would help him—that bringing him out on the fire escape had been a good idea? There wasn't a single moment Sirius had been in control of any of it.
If he had been less cocky, he would have remembered exactly who it was he was dealing with.
In one conversation Sirius's father had managed to achieve what should have been impossible. He had effortlessly exercised his enormous gift for manipulation and mastery on his elder son, while simultaneously making him feel like an insect, unworthy of notice. Orion had lead his firstborn around in circles by the nose, so that by the time his son had even realized there was danger the wily serpent had his body completely wrapped around its prey in a constrictive, python-like grip.
Unable to move, inexorably trapped—and Mr. Black had made his meaning very clear: he had no intention of releasing him. In fact, the more Sirius struggled, the tighter he would squeeze.
Sirius lifted a hand to his neck and massaged it—as if he could actually feel the invisible collar and leash.
He had always known that his father was not a man to cross—but it was not until this moment that he had realized how terrifying he truly was when angered.
There had been a time when he would have welcomed that anger—in the difficult years leading up to him running away, Sirius had seen his father distance himself, withdraw from family life—and from him, his son. Orion spent more and more time locked away in his study, left the disciplining of the disgraceful blood traitor to his wife, as if he didn't think it was even worth trying anymore. It had hurt Sirius, he could admit that now—at least Walburga had seemed to care what he did.
Well—in the end he'd been wrong about that, he thought, bleakly. It turned out Orion cared quite a fucking bit, and his father caring was somehow, incredibly, a lot worse than the alternative.
A hollow laugh bubbled out of him as he imagined his next conversation with Dumbledore. Would the old man ask him for an update on how his mission was going? Only two hours into it and all he had managed to do was get himself blackmailed by his own father.
Sirius squeezed his eyes shut—the pounding in his head had gotten worse.
That he was an illegal Animagus was probably the worst secret his father could hold over him—and Sirius had a sickening feeling that he was very aware of the potency of his newfound power. Orion must've known that his son's friends were implicated as well, that he would not go to Dumbledore and admit what he had done now for fear of what might happen to James, Peter and Remus.
No, he would tell no one. He would act the part of Dumbledore's liaison, a role that he now had absolutely no business doing—as he had tried to warn him.
He was in far too deep now to back out.
"Exactly what I tell you to, I expect…"
What had Orion really meant by that? The memory of how he had said those words filled Sirius with sickly dread. Surely his father didn't expect him to violate his most sacred, most deeply held principles—he must've known his rebellious older son would risk Azkaban before betraying the Order, giving up the fight against Voldemort—so what was it he was after, truly?
Was this just punishment, meant to be inflicted over a long period for maximum effect, or was it exactly what it appeared to be—a domineering, slighted father who had never gotten over his wayward heir escaping his grasp and was now determined to force him back into his proper role, never let him forget his place again?
Or was this all her?
His mother, Walburga Black. She was proving—against all odds—the most enigmatic figure in this.
Her face when she had dressed the cut on his cheek kept swimming up in his mind, unbidden—unwanted.
She was not behaving as he expected—needed her to. She had not yet screamed at him or called him filth. She had been careful, by her standards Walburga was practically gentle. Sure, she had loudly remarked that she thought he was living in an animal pen—but his mother had also apologized for upsetting him, had taken care of his injuries, had put him to bed.
The feeling of her hand on his face made his gut twist. His father had been dead right when he said he was afraid—Sirius was terrified of her, and not because of what she would try to make him do. He had no illusions about Walburga's complete lack of scruples in getting what she wanted.
It was how she could make him feel that he was afraid of.
The worst thing of all was that not even James could help him, here—James, a hundred miles away with Lily in their cozy cottage, who had by now undoubtedly gotten the message he had passed to him through Remus telling him to stay away. James had not deserved that, but Sirius could not bring himself to let go of the resentment he felt towards his best friend. James was the person he had learned to lean on, had been relying on for understanding now, and James had failed him.
Is that what he did…really?
Try as he might to block out this voice of reason, he could not prevent it from running roughshod over the narrative he had concocted in his head: a thrilling tale, the story of a brave young man, tragically misunderstood by one and all, held captive in enemy territory by a pair of impeccably-dressed despotic warlords. In the end even Sirius didn't buy it—wallowing over how hard done-by he was satisfied in the short-term, but he wasn't that self-deluded. It had been easier to think of himself as deeply wronged than to face the truth: James was right. With a wife and a child on the way, his friend was right to prioritize keeping them both safe over his best mate's feelings—however mixed-up said feelings might be. James had more far important things to worry about than being Sirius Black's walking security blanket.
Anyway, this was Sirius's fight, wasn't it? The fight he'd walked away from three years earlier, that he thought he'd won. Turned out that had been nothing more than a cease-fire, and his father had just broken it with what felt like a cannon-ball to the face. The war was back on, and James had no business getting tangled up in it—with them. They were relentless in pursuit of what they wanted, and if they really wanted him...and James tried to get in the way...well, he couldn't let that happen. He would do everything in his power to keep Orion and Walburga as far away from his stupidly noble best friend as possible.
That realization made the burden infinitely heavier, though—for there had been nothing in life that he had faced in the eight years of their friendship James hadn't been at his side for.
And without James, who was there left to turn to?
The sound of an unassuming knock drew him from this dismal prospect. There was the squeak of a knob turned—and a quiet voice spoke through the crack in the door.
"…Are you awake?"
Sirius did not look up.
"Yeah," he said, quietly.
A creak, the padding of shuffling footsteps, a door shut again. Labored breathing, as though the simple act of walking into the other room took every ounce of strength the person had.
"You've—had an owl."
"Put it on the bedside table," Sirius said, his voice devoid of emotion. He made no effort to sit up. He found he did not much care about the letter. Whomever it was from, whatever it said—it could not be good news. There was no such thing as 'good news' today.
He heard Regulus drag his feet slowly across the carpet, and Sirius's younger brother set the letter and something rather heavier than parchment down on the small table next to the bed.
"Did I get a package?" he asked, detachedly.
"No, that's—something—from Father." Regulus said the last word in his smallest voice. "For you."
Sirius made a private vow to burn whatever it was—then he remembered.
"Tell him I'll look at it later." A pause—Regulus was still standing over the bed. "Anything else?"
"Mother said you have to drink more of your potion."
"Leave it on the—"
"—She said I wasn't to come back until I've made sure you've taken it."
He said this with as little emotion as his brother.
"Fine." He stretched out a hand. "Give it here, then."
A small vial was pushed into his hand. Sirius uncorked it and, still lying flat on his back, lifted it up and dribbled the restorative potion into his mouth, sloppily. He nearly choked—it really was foul. When he'd emptied the bottle he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and dropped it unceremoniously on the carpet. The older brother heard the soft swish of robes as Regulus bent over and picked it up.
"You can bring that back and show her—tell her I finished it."
Sirius waited for the inevitable sound of his younger brother shuffling out of the room to do just that, but it did not come. Instead he felt the bed dip from someone—a slight person—slowly sitting down next to him—and the distinct crinkling of a paper bag.
Sirius lifted his head.
Regulus was sitting on the bed next to him, looking as tired and weary as his elder brother felt, a mirror image of his downcast mood—and holding in his hand the largest almond croissant Sirius had ever seen.
"You look like you need this," Reg said, quietly.
Very slowly—it took a lot of effort—Sirius sat up in bed. He reached out, fingers trembling, and took the pastry out of Regulus's outstretched hand—stared down at it as a shipwrecked sailor might look at a barrel of fresh water.
"Oh, thank God."
The first bite gave him the same feeling as chocolate after a Dementor attack—sweet marzipan filling, one of the greatest flavors he knew, surrounded by flaky layers of what probably amounted to baked butter—and a warmth spread in his chest that had nothing to do with the sugar. The second bite was slightly too large, but the bitter taste of the potion was starting to recede, and Sirius felt that if he choked and died now, something in life would've been worthwhile.
"I told you—" He sprayed crumbs on his brother and swallowed. "Wasn't it—the best brioche you've ever had?"
"It was very good," Regulus smiled, watching his brother wolf it down with gusto. "But the ones we ate in Liège were better."
Sirius, still chewing, shook his head.
"No—that was Belgium. This shop's run by a French woman. They invented them, they do them best." He snatched the crinkly bag from Regulus's hands, pulled out what was left. "Were you saving this?"
He did not wait for Regulus to answer him before biting into the macaroon. His brother tried and failed to give him a severe look.
"I was—" He couldn't help but smile as Sirius emptied the rest of the bag into his mouth. "We're having roast beef for supper, you know."
It was Sirius's favorite, but he refused to return the timid smile. Refreshed by the sustenance and the possibility of news, he pulled his legs up and crossed them, Indian-style, on the bed.
"So—" He leaned forward and shot a dark look at the door. "What's the, er—mood on the ground, as it were?"
"Mother has Kreacher tidying your flat." Sirius groaned loudly. "He says he found rat droppings in the corner. Have you ever cleaned this place?"
"What about the Lord of the Manor?" Sirius asked, ignoring the mild rebuke from Regulus. "Is he still skulking about?"
"Father returned to Grimmauld Place—" Regulus must've seen the hopeful look on his brother's face. "—He says he'll be back for supper."
Sirius leaned back on the headboard of the bed and stared, moodily, into the fireplace.
"Great. Gives us plenty of time to plan how we're going to poison his food."
He felt his little brother's pointed gaze on his face and kept staring into the fireplace. It would have felt far more satisfying brooding if it were actually lit—he felt like an idiot staring at the empty grate.
"Father's got something on you, hasn't he?" the younger boy asked, quietly. His brother let out a loud guffaw.
"What do you think?" Sirius asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "You think I would have let him dress me down, completely humiliate me like that if he didn't?" When his brother did not reply he continued, angrily, "A word of advice, Regulus—if you should ever make the supreme mistake of pissing that man off, do not give him three years to think on it."
"What happened?" Regulus asked, anxiously.
"What didn't happen? The high point of the audience was when I thought he was going to throw me off the balcony," Sirius growled with frustration. "For our father, revenge is apparently akin to a fine vintage of port—time elapsed does not mellow the bouquet."
"I did warn you—"
"You told me he was upset, you didn't tell me he was an enraged manticore!" Sirius exclaimed, indignantly, waving his arms about. "I've never seen him like that—I really thought he might pitch me over. It was as if—"
"—You took away his firstborn child?" Regulus finished for him, quietly. Sirius dropped his arms back on the comforter with a soft thump.
"'The child upon whom he bestowed his very name' is how he put it, actually. Much more elegant." He gave his little brother a chagrined look. "I admit it—you were right. I guess I didn't quietly slip into the night."
The two of them sat in silence—but the quiet between them was a comfortable one. Regulus pulled his feet up on the bed as well, leaned back on the headboard next to his brother, hugging his knees.
"What did she say when I walked out?" Sirius asked, after a while, anxious for a change of subject—even if he knew he wouldn't like the answer to this question.
"She…" Regulus hesitated. "She asked what he thought he was doing."
Sirius picked a croissant flake off the upholstery and let out an exhausted little laugh.
"And how did he reply?"
"Erm…" His younger brother looked mildly embarrassed to admit it. "He said he was finally—taking a firm hand with you, like Mother always wanted him to." Regulus's mouth twitched at the expression on his brother's face, and he continued, boldly, "I thought she might kiss him when he said that."
"You just made the worst thing I've ever heard even more revolting." His younger brother was laughing now. He picked up a pillow and hit Regulus on the shoulder. "It is not funny, runt."
"It is, a little—" Regulus smothered a grin. "'May I—please have my wand back—Father?'" he imitated, in a low, simpering voice. Sirius glared hotly at him. "How did he even get it from you in the first place?"
"I dropped it in shock when he told me he hadn't cut me out of his will." Regulus's smile drooped. The two brothers stared at each other, both clearly uneasy at this new information.
"So it's true? You're still Father's heir?"
"Guess so." Regulus stared into the empty grate as well. Sirius didn't know what to make of the look on his younger brother's face. "You—seemed less shocked by that than I was."
"They didn't—I don't know if you've noticed—" There was a small trace of humor in Regulus's voice. "But they haven't quite gotten over you leaving."
"Yeah, I'm starting to get that impression," Sirius said, sarcastically—but his sarcasm was blunted, somewhat. "Have they been like this all the time since I left?"
"Not—exactly." Regulus ducked his head a bit. His brother stretched his arms up and rested them behind his head against the headboard.
"Lord, I should have taken you with me," he murmured, casually.
"You know I would never have gone."
They both stared at the stone fireplace now—the product of their mother's impeccable taste and even more impeccable skills with a wand. Sirius noticed, for the first time since he'd woken up this morning that there was an intricate serpentine pattern woven into the woodwork. For some reason it didn't bother him so much.
The two brothers sat, side-by-side, each lost in their thoughts. The heavy weight on Sirius's chest was still there, but it somehow it seemed a little easier to bear, now.
He felt Regulus shift on the bed next to him, just a little.
"Are you angry with me?"
Slowly, Sirius turned his head—he found that his brother was already looking up at him. Regulus's eyes were fixed intently on Sirius—he stared back into them.
They were large and brown—he was the only one in their family who did not have the 'Black eyes'—that unusual shade of gray, one of the many highly prized Black traits he, Sirius, had so frequently been told he was lucky to have been born with. Regulus had inherited the dark eyes of their McMillan grandmother, and when he had been a little boy Sirius had enjoyed teasing him for it, saying they were like a cow's.
Staring down at his little brother now, it occurred to him that that had been rather cruel. Regulus had taken it to heart—he always did, especially then.
"Of course I'm angry with you."
Ten-year-old Sirius Black folded his arms in front of his wiry chest and slouched into the heavy covers of the four-poster in the large bedroom at the top of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. He rolled out of the eye line of the much smaller eight-year-old standing at the foot of the bed. "Now go away!"
"But I said I was sorry—"
Sirius bolted upright and glowered down at his little brother, fiercely.
"All you had to do was tell them you didn't know where I was," he said glowering over the edge of the bed. "And of course you didn't—"
"I did know, though!" Regulus replied, voice shrill, and he jumped up on the foot of the bed. "And I couldn't lie to Father—"
"Why not?" his older brother sniffed, casting his younger brother a look of utmost scorn, impressive for his age. The older of the two scooted down the bed, away from Regulus. "I do it all the time. It's easy."
"But he catches you most of the time, and then he gets more angry," Regulus looked down at the silk coverlet and trace the heraldic shield pattern stitched into it with his finger. "With me he can always tell."
"So get better at it, Reggie!" Sirius said, momentarily forgetting that he was annoyed with Regulus in the wake of this exasperating and perplexing excuse. He flung one of the decorative pillows onto the floor. He had never been able to understand why the things that he found so easy were such a trial for his younger brother.
Was Reg just that thick, or did he enjoy being a tattle?
"You shouldn't have wandered into Muggle London, anyway—"
"You could have come, too, if you weren't such a—" The older boy flung himself violently on top of the bed and let out a loud sigh. He grinned at the ceiling at the memory. "—It was great, anyway."
"Mother says it's dirty and full of common people," Regulus recited, dutifully. Sirius blew a raspberry.
"Shows what she knows. It's fun and exciting—" Sirius sighed, already bored again. "And then I had to come back here."
"…What did he say?"
"No tea, no supper, no leaving my room until I tell Mother 'I'm sorry'," he listed, dully. Sirius flung a few more cushions on the floor. He thought he might stamp on them a bit to give Kreacher something to do—of course that dirty old house-elf had to catch him as he was shimmying up the drain pipe to get into his room. "Guess I'm not leaving until Hogwarts, then—"
Regulus looked up at him, nervously—screwing up his courage to do something exceedingly rare—push back on his older brother.
"I think you should just say you're sorry, Sirius."
"I don't want to and I'm not!" He screwed up his face in obstinacy. "And I thought I told you to go away."
"If you can't even lie for me, what kind of a brother are you, anyway?" Sirius said, in a sneer that was very much in imitation of their father.
The pair of wide brown eyes planted above the slightly freckled nose widened.
"So you are—angry, then?" Regulus said, in a diminished voice, like a crushed flower.
"That's what I said, didn't I?" Sirius replied, coldly—and then Reggie began to blink quickly, make whimpering noise in the back of his throat, and Sirius felt his annoyance evaporate, a vague sense of having done something wrong taking its place. Now he was ashamed of himself.
He crawled down the bed to where his brother sat, rubbing his eyes with the back of his robes. Even at eight Regulus knew that crying was not acceptable for a Black man.
"Come here," Sirius said, gruffly. Regulus blinked up at him, at the outstretched arms of the still-sullen older brother he hero-worshipped so. "I said, come here. I'm not angry, alright, runt?"
"Really?" Regulus's tears were flowing wildly, now, and he crawled into his brother's rather gruff hug.
"Yes—only you better stop crying, Regulus," he said, smiling. "You know Mother doesn't approve of tears."
"Or embracing," Regulus said, rather guiltily, into Sirius's shirtfront. "I'll sneak you up something to eat later, I promise."
He pulled away from his brother, those large brown eyes more cow-like than ever—but full of conviction. He smirked and tousled Reg's hair.
"That'd be alright, except you'll get in trouble, too."
Ten years later, those eyes—Gran's eyes, so much warmer than his or their parents—looked exactly the same to his brother. And in that moment, like the clear ringing of a bell—the answer to the question his mind could not stop circling back around to.
Regulus had gotten him into this. He was the reason for all of it—the simple act of his brother coming to Sirius for help—reaching out desperately across the great divide—had been the door through which their parents had reentered his life and, in their characteristic brisk, oppressive style, upended everything in the space of half a day.
Regulus—the second-born son. The spare.
He looked down at his younger brother, still staring up at him—his face impassive, controlled—not close to tears at all, watchful. He was waiting for an answer to his question. Sirius studied Regulus, really examined his brother for the first time since he had opened the door and found him, half-dead, lying bleeding on the grimy mat at the front of the flat.
This was a Regulus Black hardened by seven years in Slytherin, by a year and a half as a Death Eater—his gaunt face still so painfully young, no longer the innocent child for whom displeasing his parents had been the greatest cause for fear possible. He looked as though he had not slept well in weeks—and considering he'd stolen dark magic from the most evil wizard who had ever lived and nearly died in the attempt, that shouldn't have come as a shock to Sirius. But it was shocking. He had never thought he'd see Regulus like this.
He'd never thought about his brother as much as he ought to have.
He hadn't been thinking of Regulus this morning, as he replayed the events that had lead him here—had spent no time considering how he would have felt if Regulus's body had not been moving when he had found it, and that would have made all the difference. If Regulus had died, his mother would not be fifteen feet away from him now, redecorating the Muggle flat he'd been renting for over a year in green silk and damask.
But if Regulus had died—Regulus would be dead.
"Of course I'm not angry with you." Regulus's face betrayed no emotions—he found himself envying his younger brother his fleeting displays of ironclad Black self-possession. It was something he, Sirius, had never gotten the knack of. "I told you I was proud of you for what you've done, and I meant it."
"I know, but I meant about—"
"It's not your fault our father is threatening me, Regulus," Sirius said, with a touch of impatience. "It's my own for being a bloody idiot—and as for our mother…" He caught the look of reproach and tempered himself. "Who can even begin to explain why that woman acts the way she does?"
Regulus did not attempt to answer a question that was, of course, purely rhetorical.
"I know you were only trying to protect them," Sirius continued, softly. "Rather like trying to protect a pair of chimaeras, in my opinion, but I gather that you don't really know the difference—"
His brother leaned over and wrapped his arms around Sirius, and the words died in his throat.
It was a very awkward, stiff embrace—like one from someone who had fallen out of the practice of it, or has never been properly taught in the first place. Either description could have fit Regulus. Sirius was so taken off-guard by it that for a moment he froze, unsure of what to do. He patted his brother weakly on the back.
"Careful," he said, with a little humor. "You don't want to get—caught in such an undignified state."
The younger boy shifted slightly and—even more surprising—squeezed harder.
"Come on, Reg, get—" He made a half-hearted attempt to push him off, but his younger brother rather stubbornly clung on. Sirius looked down at his chest bemusedly. "Alright, if you want to take the risk of being called a sentimental fool again, on—on your head be it."
He tried to think of the last time Regulus had hugged him. It had been largely frowned upon in their family, like most things that made human life worth living—though of course they'd had governesses who broken the rule and kissed and hugged them (out of their mother's sight—if she wasn't going to do that to her sons, nobody else would be allowed to). Regulus was such a good child that even though he'd welcomed such displays of affection from his older brother, he almost never initiated them.
And here he was, at eighteen, doing something that, if it was not acceptable as a child, was certainly not now. Well, if Regulus needed it, Sirius supposed it couldn't hurt. He ignored the burning in his own chest.
"Lily told me that she actually caught Mum—hugging Dad in here last night," he said, after a while. "And that she was—crying, of all things. She must be going mad—"
"I believe it," Regulus said, very quietly. "She cried for three days when you left."
The burning sensation seemed to have left Sirius's chest and risen—he could feel it in his throat, ears, cheeks—eyes.
"Now why—" He heard his own voice catch and knew what was about to happen, but it made him no less eager to stop it. "Why did you have to—to go and tell me…a thing like that?"
His shoulders began to shake.
"No, it is not bloody alright—" He said, and if he could tell what was about to happen, how much more obvious must it have been for Regulus? "It's the least alright thing in the—"
"—I don't mind, really," his younger brother murmured, quietly.
"But I—" he protested, in a strangled voice. "I do…"
It was too late, though—hot tears were flowing down his face, unabated, and Regulus hugged him tighter, made it easier for his older brother to sob into his shoulder, release what he had been holding back so desperately in the other room—too proud to let his parents see, not strong enough to hide now. Three years of unexamined feelings, hurt and guilt had risen up from his stomach and he was now fighting with every ounce of strength he had not vomit them over his little brother.
Regulus didn't mind, though—he could tell, as he wrapped his own arms around his brother's slim torso. Regulus might've been the only other person who understood.
"It's just been—" He sucked in a breath that turned into a hiccough. "—Such a shite day."
"I know," his brother replied, softly.
"You're having an even worse one," Sirius said, and his sob turned into a weak laugh. "Dad saying I'm 'useless' seems like a small thing compared to having flesh ripped out of your arm—"
"He didn't mean it," Regulus muttered into his shoulder.
"What, the Inferius?" He felt Regulus tremble—but not from tears, he was laughing. "Yeah, I'm sure it was just a love bite."
"He didn't, really, Sirius," Regulus's fingers curled around the fabric of the t-shirt. His brother snorted. "He's just angry."
"When I'm on my deathbed you'll still be defending him," he grumbled, half-heartedly, and he wiped his face on the back of his hand. "I don't know what's more perverse, the fact that our father is blackmailing me or the fact that you guessed he was."
"I mean, it was fairly obvious."
"Believe it or not, Reg—other peoples' fathers don't threaten to report their children to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement if they don't use the right fork at dinner."
"You're doing something illegal?" Regulus asked, passing over what his brother thought was an example of his rather acid wit. "And you let him find out?"
"I told you I was being thick!" Sirius released his brother—and Regulus let go as well, with obvious reluctance. "Let's see what the old man's given me, then."
Still on the bed, he reached over Regulus to the table where the letter that had come from him still lay, unopened. Next to it sat a fat, handsomely embossed leather-bound book. It was black, ancient, and Sirius could tell before he even picked it up that whatever its contents were, they would be intensely boring.
He picked up both the letter and book and settled back down next to Regulus, who was watching him with faint curiosity. Sirius tossed his letter onto the bed on the other side of him.
Expression cool, Sirius opened the book. A small piece of parchment, stuck in the front page, slid out. As he read the note, Sirius's scowl became more and more pronounced.
"His thirst for retribution knows no limits," he said, darkly, shoving the piece of parchment into his brother's hand. When Regulus looked down at it he found the Black family crest neatly printed at the top, in the familiar, even hand they both knew well, and the following:
I thought about what we discussed this morning, and took the liberty of retrieving this from my study for you. I give you free reign to look into it at your own leisure. As I said, it is a complicated business, and not a pressing one for me at present—but I see no reason to deny you your chance at having nothing of mine when I die.
On a somewhat related note, there's been a long-standing dispute over who has claim to some opals of your Aunt Elladora's—Belvina Burke's daughter ended up with them but nobody seems to know why, and your Aunt Druella thinks Narcissa ought to be wearing them. I'm tired of hearing about it every time they call on us—look into the matter for me, will you?
I look forward to conversing further with you on both of the above at your earliest convenience.
Your Father, affectionately,
"Over my corpse did he mean that 'affectionately'."
Regulus looked back up from the note to his brother, who was glowering at him in righteous indignation.
"What is the book he's given you?" he asked, handing the note back.
"'Thee Magicke Lawe and Inheritance Practices of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black', written down in 1619 by Alphus Black, amended and codified in 1885 by Phineas Nigellus Black'," Sirius read from the front page, revolted, and he flipped to a random page and read a few lines. "It appears our great-great grandfather had it in mind to be both incomprehensible and dull when he compiled this."
"Did Father really threaten to report you to the Ministry for something you've done?"
Sirius snapped the book shut and tossed it onto the floor of his room.
"No," he admitted grudgingly, looking back up at Regulus. "He threatened to tell our mother—which in this case is worse."
Casually, Sirius lifted his arms and stretched them above his head and out. He rested his left hand lightly on Regulus's shoulder. His younger brother did not comment on this—but he also did not raise his thin shoulder to push Sirius's hand off.
"What exactly did you do?"
"It's not 'did' as much as 'still doing'," Sirius said, evasively. "It doesn't matter—"
"If you don't trust me you can just say so," Regulus said, somewhat coldly. His brother gave him a wry smile.
"It's not a matter of trust—it's like I said to Remus, plausible deniability," Sirius grinned at him, half-heartedly—a lock of Regulus's hair had fallen into his eyes, and he blew it up with a huff. "If you don't know she can't force it out of you."
"I've gotten a lot better at lying," his little brother remarked, dryly. "I'm better at it than you are, now."
Something dark and cold flashed across his younger brother's pale face and he shivered.
"You're probably right." Sirius absently tapped his finger against Regulus's shoulder. "I'll tell you—eventually." Regulus sniffed. "I promise. You'll be impressed by it."
This didn't give his brother much comfort. He was staring, glassy-eyed, out the window of the bedroom—but Sirius did not think he was really seeing anything there. His mind was clearly elsewhere—in the cave where he and Kreacher had both nearly died, maybe, or somewhere else.
It was not a pleasant place, wherever it was.
"He's not going to find you, Regulus."
"The Dark Lord won't be fooled for long," said his younger brother, tiredly. "When he calls and I don't come, he'll suspect—and if he checks the cave, he'll know—it was me that took it."
"How can you be sure?"
"I left a note," Regulus admitted, quietly. Sirius sat up straighter and frankly goggled at his brother. "And I…signed it."
"You left him a signed letter?"
"I thought I was going to die!" Regulus said, softly. "And I wanted him to know it was me who did it, found out. I wanted him to know—what I really thought he was."
At the note of grim satisfaction in his younger brother's voice, Sirius relaxed and leaned back against the headboard.
"That was pretty ballsy of you, runt," Sirius remarked, with admiration. His brother shifted around, his ears turned pink. "Almost like a Gryffindor, in fact."
"Almost like you, you mean," Regulus snorted, sliding down a little—a faint grin playing about his mouth.
"…What did the note say?"
"I'm not telling you." Regulus said, peevishly. His brother raised both eyebrows. "You'll only make fun of it."
"Must've been something really stupid, then." He poked at his younger brother's shoulder, an old trick meant to niggle at Reg. "I bet you drew the family crest at the bottom next to your name."
Regulus neither confirmed nor denied it. He suddenly seemed even more exhausted than his elder brother.
"You really don't mind that I'm staying here?"
"Merlin, no. You think I could handle them two if you weren't?" Sirius asked, honestly jerking his free thumb towards the door. "You're the only thing keeping me sane right now, Reggie. I'd have flung myself out that window otherwise."
Sirius realized, as he said the words—words meant to comfort his brother, an apology for all the ways that he was only realizing now he had so spectacularly failed Regulus—that they were true. That as much as Regulus was the reason so many of his old wounds had been painfully reopened—he was glad his brother was here, with him, now, in his dark bedroom, staring at their mother's handiwork in the wall and having this ridiculous conversation. Dumbledore had been right, at least, that this wasn't his younger brother's fault.
The thing Regulus was most guilty of was loving them all, the poor, soft idiot.
And he was glad the idiot was alive.
He looked over at said idiot to inform him of this fact, and he saw that the younger boy's eyes were closed.
"Well…at least one of us, eh?" Sirius said, watching his little brother doze with unmistakeable fondness. Regulus snored very softly. "I suppose you've earned it."
Regulus didn't answer him. Sirius rubbed his forehead with his left hand—there was still a dull ache, there—but his skull no longer felt like it was going to split open.
He suddenly remembered the letter. With his free hand (he couldn't move the other one now, it might disturb Reg—that was what he told himself, anyway), Sirius picked it up off the coverlet. When he recognized the handwriting on the outside and he tore it open, clumsily.
As Sirius's eyes slid across the page, took in the words from a person many miles away—and he felt a warmth in his chest like the sun breaking through the clouds, felt his courage rise at the comfort it instilled. There were people who had his back—in this room and elsewhere. They believed in him. His eyes grew wet again.
It would be alright, as Regulus had said.
His hand, still clutching the parchment, fell to his side on the bed. Other arm still slung around his brother's thin shoulder, he felt his hand relax, and after a minute of listening to Reg's gentle snoring, the elder of the two closed his own eyes.
That was how their mother found them a half-hour later when she came in to check why her youngest had not returned, per her instructions.
These were what her husband thought were no longer children? Walburga thought, as she approached the bed where her two sons slept, her sharp eyes taking in the full picture at once. If he could only see them now he would realize that, as usual, she knew better.
Regulus, breathing wheezy but even, had turned on his side and was using his elder brother's arm as a lopsided sort of cushion for his head. Arm pinned beneath the smaller boy, Sirius (still dressed so unfortunately) lay flat on his back, twitching every once in awhile, utterly undignified. It was amazing his loud snoring and thrashing had not woken the younger one. Regulus's face was slightly squashed against Sirius's shoulder, and the older brother did not even have the decency to roll away.
What a pair of little fools the two of them were, she thought, with exasperation. How had they even managed to fall asleep like that? They were a pile.
Clearly they couldn't be left to their own devices, that was certain.
She stooped over Regulus first, put a cool hand to his forehead—a slight fever. She looked down at her younger son—youngest of his cousins, so pale. Her eyes lingered on his face for a moment before trailing down to the arm now trapped beneath him. She pulled up his sleeve to check and recoiled from the sight of the ugly wound. Instantly Mrs. Black scolded herself for her squeamishness. She bent closer—anger very quickly overtook disgust at the sight. She found herself faintly alarmed at the strength of her emotions and tried to temper them.
No—It was a piece of flesh torn out of something of her own, Walburga reminded herself, and she had every right to be furious about it.
The witch pulled back and looked at his face again—peaceful in sleep, as peaceful as he'd been an infant. He was an easy child, even then. Her younger son had always been soft—compliant, biddable, done exactly as she told him—and she, his mother, had looked down on him for what she'd taken for a lack of spirit.
Grudgingly, she had to admit—perhaps Orion was right. Perhaps they had underestimated him. She brushed his hair out of his face, absently—and vowed to keep a closer eye on him from now on, lest he get any more dangerous ideas—like the other one. As if even in sleep he knew where his mother's thoughts tended, Regulus turned his face into Sirius's shoulder, and he snorted.
Rolling her eyes, Walburga pulled down his sleeve again and walked briskly around the bed to check on her older son.
His forehead was, by contrast, cool, almost clammy. He was shivering slightly—of course being dressed so improperly didn't help. She traced a finger over the mark on his face—already fading. In a week he would be the handsome, spitting image of his father again.
Three years taken from her.
She had not stopped marveling at Orion's mastery—naturally, she would get to the bottom of how he'd done it—but for now it was enough to indulge in her triumph. How in Salazar Slytherin's name had she allowed her husband to convince her not to apparate to the West Country and drag him back then, by his hair if necessary?
No matter. Like her grandfather always said—the stars had different plans for Sirius. She sat down on the bed and watched her firstborn sleep. She was already turning options over in her mind. A good marriage did seem the most expedient way to get him fully under control—a wife and children would keep him at home, not gallivanting about the country getting into trouble—and duels.
One thing was certain: she would not make the same mistake twice—she would not let him go again.
It was then she noticed the open letter lying on the bed next to her eldest. Unable to resist, Mrs. Black shot him a look—still dead to world—and then picked it up and smoothed it out. The handwriting was unmistakably girlish—her suspicion sufficiently roused, she narrowed her eyes and stared down at the page.
How dare you? I am not just angry—I am livid. Remus came by this morning and passed on your message (he maintains he relayed it with utmost accuracy—how could you do that to poor Moony?) and my husband has been moping about the house ever since as though someone has died. I wish I were exaggerating. He won't shut up about you and how you hate him now. Is this what 5th and 6th year were like for you before I relented? I am almost sorry, Black.
If this is your idea of revenge I must tell you it is working. Potter made me listen to his seven point plan for how to win back your favor for a full hour. When I reminded him he is married to me and not you, he got very angry and shut himself up in the attic. Moony is trying to get him out of there right now.
We got Professor Dumbledore's far less cruel message, as well—however will we manage to keep all this a secret from Wormy? That's the part I'm least looking forward to. You know I detest lying—I'll be relying on you to come up with excuses, but I'll hate making them all the same. Of course I'll do it, this is too important. Does your new charge have a nickname we can use in mixed company? I hope he's feeling better.
James has managed to make me feel some guilt over you, as well (as if his wasn't bad enough!) He says I have to apologize to you for the things I said. I must admit, darling, when we became friends I never thought we'd be rowing about your mother. I swear I did not lie to you about what I saw—but James has made me see I don't know everything.
Please don't be mad at him, you know there are no secrets between us—he told me all about that night you showed up at his parents' after you ran away. He said it was the worst he's ever seen you, before or since. I never even suspected at school, you were always so brash about it all. You really shouldn't keep things hidden away like that. I really am certain she cares for you—there, I'm done! It's the last I'll say about it—for now.
You left your cloak and those robes here. They truly are beautiful—their original owner has exquisite taste (he's also even better looking than you, I'm sorry to say). I had a thought: my mother taught me to sew—I could pull out the stitching and put red and gold in instead. Or would you prefer I sew on lion patches? I thought you might want to make them your own.
Please, please come and have dinner with us as soon as you are able to get away. We have something very important we want to ask you, and I fear my husband will take to walking about the village square naked like St. Francis if you do not come.
Lots of love,
PS. I think the baby is very upset its father and future godfather are fighting, because since writing the above I have been over the toilet for an hour. Oh—have I said too much? We love you!
She stared down at the letter for a very long time—the words from this near-stranger sinking slowly into her mind like a pebble dropped to the bottom of the sea, words of people and events about which she knew nothing—and words of herself.
She looked back up at Sirius, and realized, with a jolt, that there were tear-marks around his eyes.
Walburga placed the letter back on the bed, exactly where she had found it—right next to his hand, now clenched in his sleep—always ready for a fight, she thought, wryly, stroking his cheek. He mumbled something unintelligible and leaned into her hand.
She disliked being caught off-guard—and that girl had done so, with her suggestions and inferences about things of which she knew nothing. Utter presumption, of course, but still—Walburga would take what she had gleaned from the letter and ponder its meaning later. Some of it might have value for her schemes.
The witch rose, back straight, and glided elegantly over to the closet. Mrs. Black opened it and looked at the robes hanging there, critically, then pulled out a handsome set with dark gray detailing and neatly laid them out on the only chair in the room.
The message would, she could only assume, be clear.
"The young masters can sleep a bit longer, Kreacher," she informed the house-elf, waiting for her dutifully outside the door to the bedroom. "Wake them up for supper in twenty minutes, and don't let Sirius dawdle. I expect the goblin-wrought silver on the table, as there's nothing suitable here for us to eat off of."
The elf bowed and followed his mistress into the living room, where a magnificent walnut dining table—completely at odds with the rest of the 'decor' in the room—had already been set out for dinner. Walburga looked around the room, exerted every effort to suppress how much it revolted her.
Could they really have Christmas dinner in this place?
She supposed she didn't have much of a choice. And anyway—there were still a few weeks left—plenty of time for her to work her magic and make it suitable for her family.
They were, after all, Blacks.
The adventures of the Black Family are TO BE CONTINUED in
Thank you all for reading! I have enjoyed your comments and hope to see you in the sequel—a lot more adventures and intrigues for the Blacks as they embark upon the strange new world of witness protection, Dumbledore style. Will Regulus ever get to leave Sirius's apartment? Will Orion follow through on his threat to tell his wife about their son's illegal activities? And how awkward is Christmas dinner going to be? All these questions and more will be answered in Black Mask.