Regulus knew something was wrong as soon as they got on the Hogwarts Express for the Christmas holidays.
Sirius never sat with him.
He had been allowed to sit with Sirius twice. The first on the way to his first year, when Sirius had showed him off (and how Regulus had loved that, no matter how much he'd complained!). The second had been last year at Christmas. Regulus had a raging cold, and he hadn't felt like sitting with Narcissa, as she looked horrified to be in the company of someone with a runny nose. He'd sought Sirius out, and Sirius had invited him in cordially enough, and his friends had included him in a game of Tarot poker. The other three times Regulus had been on board, he and Sirius had gone very far away from one another.
There had never been a time when he'd been sitting in a compartment and looked up to find Sirius standing at the door, grinning. He pulled an apple out of the pocket of his cloak and tossed it to Regulus.
"Have any room for a blood traitor in here?"
Regulus caught the apple and frowned. "Why?"
"I can't sit with my brother without a reason? It's Christmas time."
"Where are your friends?"
"Fine. I'll go somewhere else."
"I didn't say that. Come in."
Sirius came in and flopped casually down in the seat across from Regulus. "So where are your friends? Is Narcissa going to barge in here? Or Snivelly?"
"Severus stays at school during holidays," Regulus said, annoyed. Everything Sirius did to Severus Snape ended up back on Regulus eventually, but Sirius never seemed to care about that. "And Narcissa was leaving from Hogsmeade. Bellatrix came up and met her up at the school to go shopping, or whatever it is they do."
"What about in your year? Who are your friends?"
Regulus opened his book and started to read.
"Come on, Reg! Toss me a bone or something!"
Regulus sighed and closed the book, keeping his finger in it. "John Drake is staying at school as well. Andrew Boardman lives in Hogsmeade. Barty Crouch's father came and got him at school early. He wanted him to hang his face out for some Ministry function, I think. Barty wasn't very happy about it. The others are somewhere. I don't know where. I do have friends."
"I didn't say you didn't. What about girls? Are you breaking any hearts this year?"
"Why are you here?"
"I'll leave if you don't want me here."
"I didn't say that. Are your friends joining us?"
Sirius mumbled something that Regulus didn't quite catch, then opened the little holiday suitcase he was carrying. He pulled out a chess board. "What say? Shall we have a game?"
Regulus decided that he wasn't going to get any answers--it didn't especially matter, at any rate--and put aside his book. They played two games as the train made its slow way back to London, and Sirius managed to talk about everything but the reason why he was here with Regulus instead of laughing it up with his Gryffindor friends as he usually did. At one point, he looked up sharply, and Regulus followed his eyes to the door, where James Potter had his hand on the doorknob. The pair of them looked at each other for a long time, then James went on down the corridor and Sirius turned back to the game without offering any explanation.
The train pulled up to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at five-thirty, and the sky was quite dark outside. Regulus had got a glimpse of the lights on the Muggle streets, and was looking forward to Mum's tree in the parlor. Sirius grabbed both of their bags and headed out onto the platform. Regulus had to run to keep up with him.
The air on the platform was cold, and their breath puffed out to mix with the steam from the train. Sirius had put their bags down by the time Regulus caught up with him, and his fists were planted on his hips, his eyes scanning the students coming out of the train. "Stay here with the bags, Reg," he said, cocking his head to one side. "I'm coming back."
Regulus sat on his suitcase, but as it turned out, Sirius didn't have far to go. A couple--parents--came through the barrier. The woman was very thin and had light brown hair; the man wore a threadbare overcoat. Sirius came to a stop near them and drew back. They waved to him cheerfully and he raised a tentative hand in return, then a boy came from the train and Sirius backed up a few more steps.
Regulus frowned. The boy was one of Sirius's friends, the ones he went off with over all the holidays as much as he stayed with them at school. The other two flanked him.
"Lupin..." Sirius said, pulling a package from his cloak. "I--"
Lupin turned away. The fat one--Peter something, Regulus thought--turned along with him. James Potter remained looking at Sirius as the family (and Peter) bundled off. He came over and took the package. "I'll give it to him," he said.
"It's too soon, Sirius. I'll talk to them over holidays. I'll talk to you, too."
"I know. I'm going with the Lupins. Dad's busy. So, I... you know. I have to go."
"I will talk to you."
Sirius nodded and came back to where Regulus was sitting.
Regulus picked up the bags. "Fighting with them. I guessed as much. Why else would you sit with me?"
"It's not fighting," Sirius said quietly. "Come on. Give me one of those bags. I don't care which."
Regulus handed him one of the bags and they walked through the barrier together. Mum had sent a Muggle car for them--the beastly thing went out only for runs back and forth to the station, and Regulus supposed she'd get rid of it when he came of age and could Apparate. It took them through the Christmas-decorated streets, to the dismal neighborhood at Grimmauld Place. Regulus wished that someone would do something about the place--it was hardly a proper place to have an old home. It had once been a fine neighborhood, but now it had been overtaken by rubbish. The car took them to a car park two streets away from home and parked itself under a winter-bare tree. Sirius and Regulus got out. The enchantment, finished with its business, ended and the car shut itself off. They trudged on back toward home.
Kreacher let them in when they got there and scurried upstairs with their bags. Mum and Dad had dinner spread out in the dining room, and Regulus finally felt at home. Mum had got Kreacher to make all of his favorite things. Sirius took his seat and looked hopefully at a closed tureen. "Potato?" he asked.
"Onion," Mum said. "I had assumed you'd be off with Those Boys."
Regulus saw the way Sirius's jaw clenched, and decided to stave off the argument. "It's the holidays," he said. "Sirius wanted to be with us. He spent the whole time on the train with me."
"Showed their true colors, did they?" Mum asked shrewdly, piling potatoes onto Sirius's plate. "Won't have you anymore?"
"Alya," Dad said, "tell the boys about that funny reporter you met. Skeeter, wasn't it?"
"Why do you assume it's about them?" Sirius asked. "Maybe it's my fault."
"Skeeter?" Regulus said enthusiastically. "What a funny name!"
Dad nodded. "Yes, odd woman. Slytherin, of course; we had to have her over when she asked. She--"
"Honestly," Mum said, "those boys have never been anything but trouble. Blood traitors. They hate everything we are. Whatever has happened--"
"What was she asking about?"
"Why she wanted to know--"
"Right, Mum, because it could never just be about me doing something wrong. It must be them."
Dad gave up his feeble effort and stared into his soup. He continued staring at his plate through the rest of the meal. Regulus tried several times to redirect the conversation--funny stories about Professor Slughorn (which turned into a string of complaints about how Sirius's friends had impacted his marks in school, as he ought to be doing better in Potions), asking after the cousins (demands to know when Andromeda would be added back to the tree), raising some points he'd learned about the goblin wars (a full-fledged screaming match about the behavior of an ancestor), and finally the hunt for a werewolf who had been targeting little children. Mum suggested that all werewolves ought to be put down for their own good, and Sirius left the table, slamming his chair under it and running up to their room. His footsteps on the stairs echoed into the silence.
"Alya..." Dad began.
"Pass the peas, Etamin."
Regulus stayed with them through pudding, then went up to the room. Sirius was lying on his bed, his hands clasped behind his neck, breathing shallowly.
"Can't you find some room of your own?" he asked.
Regulus flopped down onto his own bed and started picking through the paperbacks on his bed stand. "Can't you?"
"I was here first."
"I had it to myself for three years that I can actually remember." He looked up. "Do you really want me to leave?"
Sirius sat up. "No. God, no."
Regulus put the book back and rolled over onto his stomach, looking over the end of his bed, across at Sirius. "Why do you always fight with Mum?"
"Because she keeps being wrong. I wouldn't have to fight with her if she'd stop being such a cow about things."
"If she changed her mind about everything, you'd change yours just so you'd have a fight to pick."
"No, I wouldn't." He considered this. "Maybe I would have before, but it just makes me tired now. You do know she's wrong, don't you, Reg? You know that Muggle-borns aren't trying to destroy the whole wizarding world, and werewolves are just people, and... you know, all that stuff that Dumbledore says. He's right. You know he's right, don't you?"
Regulus kept his mouth shut. He'd tried to argue points with Sirius before, and it just ended up with him being shouted at. Never mind that Andromeda had been dragged into some sort of mud that had forced her to marry at eighteen, her whole life pulled off course because the way they did things in the Muggle world had ended up with her having a baby and being poor and living with her Muggle mother-in-law. Never mind that Muggle-borns in the Wizengamot were trying to force through laws that would make traditional culture disappear. Never mind that protected magical spaces were shrinking every year as the Muggle world encroached on them. Sirius didn't care about any of that, because for him it was all about the exceptions--Lily Evans, maybe, or that Vance girl, or his half-blood friends, and if you disagreed with him, he took it to mean that you were just hateful and nasty and not compassionate. So Regulus didn't engage him on this. "Couldn't you just be nice and not fight for Christmas?" he asked. "You know... just to keep the peace?"
Sirius looked down. "I'm sorry, Reg. It bothers you, doesn't it?"
Sirius got down from his bed and walked to the window, pulling the curtain aside and looking out onto Grimmauld Place. "It's so ugly," he muttered. "Why is it so ugly?"
Regulus debated pointing out that it wasn't the family that had made a wreck of Grimmauld Place, but opted not to. He said nothing.
"I did something bad, Reg," Sirius said. "I did something really bad."
"I can't tell you. I've done a little too much telling."
"Is this about that Whomping Willow thing?" Regulus rolled his eyes.
Sirius turned, his face white. "What?"
"Severus was going on and on about how he'd got you to tell him how to get past the branches. If that tree hit him, it serves him right--why would you know, and why would he listen? I mean--"
"The tree didn't hit him," Sirius said. "Can we talk about something else? You never did tell me if you have a girl."
"Sirius, I'm thirteen. Mum would implode or something if I had a girlfriend already."
But eventually, they warmed to the subject, and Regulus found himself confessing fondness for a certain brunette in Ravenclaw, and laughing about love notes he'd got from a bespectacled Slytherin girl the year behind him. Sirius tried to pass on what he considered wisdom, but it hadn't escaped Regulus's notice that Sirius's girlfriends rarely lasted more than a week at a time. They laughed until the early hours of the morning, and Regulus fell asleep feeling lighthearted and happy.
His dream began happily enough. He and Sirius and the cousins were having a picnic at Hogwarts, and there was going to be a dance later. Narcissa had flowers in her hair, and Andromeda was barefoot. Bellatrix was playing the lute and singing. She had a fine voice. Regulus just enjoyed it for awhile, playing two-man Quidditch with his brother.
The storm clouds moved in suddenly, blacking the sky. Thunder crashed and something shattered. Regulus was falling.
"...always do this! Why can't you just..."
"They got inside your head! You--"
"It wasn't them! It was me! I--"
The rain started to fall, and Regulus was cold, shivering as he fell. Beneath him, the cousins were screaming. Andromeda was rushing around, her arms outstretched to catch him. Bellatrix was cursing the clouds. Regulus plummeted downward, and then Sirius swooped out of the sky and grabbed him around the shoulders, catching him and shaking him and...
He opened his eyes.
Sirius was sitting on the edge of his bed. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he was wearing his heavy cloak. There was a bag beside him.
"I'm going, Reg," he said. "I have to. I have to make it right and I can't come back here. I can't listen to her anymore. I can't..."
Regulus sat up, rubbing his eyes blearily. "Sirius, what do you mean? Going where?"
"I don't know. James's. I'll to James's place. Don't tell her. Or do, if she notices I'm gone."
"But aren't they angry with you?"
"James won't turn me out. I hope." Sirius raised his hand and ran it down Regulus's arm, then grabbed hold of him and hugged him tight. "Come with me, Reg. Don't stay here. Don't let her in your head anymore. Come with me, please."
"Don't go. Stay here. It'll be over in the morning. You'll feel all right again. We could stay up and talk. About anything you want. You'll feel better in the morning."
"I don't want to feel better. I want to get out of here before she gets inside. Come with me."
Regulus shook his head, and clung to Sirius as hard as he could. "Stay."
But he didn't.
Some part of Regulus wanted to scream, to wake the household, to get Kreacher or Mum to drag Sirius back.
It wouldn't have mattered.
He was already gone.