Regulus twitched under the watchful eye of his venerated ancestor, his hands folded cautiously behind his back. It wasn't the Headmaster he feared, although he knew he should. No, it was the former headmaster, glaring down at him with a sharp look, as if the remembrance of the man in the portrait could see into his head, could know what he was doing.

The other student, standing a hand's breadth away, was the one who fixed his gaze on Dumbledore, and Regulus looked worriedly at the older boy, knowing where he had seen that venomous look before.

"I didn't do anything, Sir!" Severus objected hotly, his voice a hiss, his skin even more pallid than usual, as he gesticulated passionately with his thin fingers. "Everyone saw what they did to me! Those little red paper hearts! You know as well as anyone else that those boys are menaces to the rest of the student body! This is an outrage! I demand--"

Dumbledore looked on impassively, as Severus' features contorted themselves in livid outrage. He gestured to a heart-shaped dish on his desk. "Caramel, boys?" he offered, completely unruffled by the older boy's outburst as he reached to take one of the sweets for himself.

Regulus twitched again, his eyes wandering between the boy and the old man, desperate for the approval of both. Refusing was a slight to the headmaster. Accepting was betraying his friend.

Regulus reached for the caramel dish, taking two pieces. He handed the second to Severus, who looked at the sweet with disdain and dropped it into his pocket. Still, it had clearly given Severus a moment to regain his poise, and the older boy stared down the Headmaster as he caught his breath.

But Dumbledore wasn't going to give Severus another opportunity to fly off the handle. He directed his gaze at the younger boy, who felt as if he were wilting under his watchful eye. "Was there something you wished to speak to me about, Regulus?" he asked him thoughtfully.

"I--" Regulus began, again looking back and forth, still coldly aware of Phineas Nigellus. Getting in trouble was doubly-damning for the Black boys, for no sooner did either of them receive a detention, than the former headmaster would slip out of the portrait frame in the Hogwarts office and slip into the frame back in their own home and apprise their mother of every word that had been exchanged. Regulus had only come this time at his friend's insistence; Severus had promised he would do all the talking.

Of course, Regulus was aware that the Headmaster probably knew this. And that was why he was the one being addressed right now. He tried not to shuffle his feet. "I'm here," he said, slowly and deliberately, "because I agree with Severus."

"Oh?" asked Dumbledore, and Regulus saw how Dumbledore's look of amusement was met with even more derision from his fellow Slytherin. "So you think your own brother is a menace to the student body?"

Regulus tried for his most bitter memory of being tormented as a child, and nodded fervently. "He's not my brother anymore, Sir."

"...The rampant favouritism of it all!" the older boy snapped, his expression tight as Regulus followed him down the hall. "If our roles had been reversed, Regulus, I guarantee...guarantee that our Headmaster would still have punished us and let his precious Gryffindors off the hook. Again."

Regulus tensed. One of those 'precious Gryffindors' was, or had been, at one time, his elder brother, and it wasn't right for the older boy to insult him, repeatedly, not within Regulus' own hearing, but he had to agree. If he had tried half of the stunts Sirius had pulled, he was certain he would have been packed off and expelled from school by now.

"Severus," he said plainly, giving the older boy a cautioning look. "Just avoid them. That's what I do, and it works well enough."

"Well enough," the older boy muttered, looking down at the floor. "Well enough for you, you mean. You're not the target of all their childish pranks. You weren't attacked by man-eating love letters! I swear, Regulus, the minute I'm outside this school and don't have that mindless twit of a Headmaster to deal with, I--I'll--"

"Shh," Regulus replied, as he put a hand to the older boy's arm, comfortingly. "Just ignore them. There isn't much time left, and once you're out of school..."

Severus' expression tensed, and he turned toward the younger boy, glancing furtively down the hallway in both directions. He grabbed roughly at Regulus' shirt, tugging him forward. "Why won't you leave, too?" he demanded, tilting his own head up to leave a bittersweet kiss on Regulus' mouth. "There's nothing else for you here."

Regulus gave Severus a pointed look, pulling away from him and crossing his arms over his chest as he maintained a slight, friendly distance. This was hardly the time for indiscretions. "Don't do that here," he told the older boy quietly, although he couldn't help but cast a sidelong glance in his direction. "I have to finish school. Mother would-- how would I explain?"

Severus looked coldly at him, giving a tight shake of his head. "I'm going to finish top in my class," he answered tersely, though as they watched each other warily, his expression softened. "I can get a job doing whatever I like. You'll come with me." He said it as if it were a demand, not a request.

Regulus sighed. "You know I can't do that," he answered, pushing his hair out of his face as he took a brisk step, setting off down the hall at a faster pace than his friend. He left Severus well behind.

Regulus was beginning to hate portraits.

"This will never do!" his grandfather shouted at him from the gilt frame, and Regulus glared at him with all his strength. "I'm going to be defrocked, disbarred, drummed out of the Order of Merlin, all because one of my grandsons was a runaway, and the other was--was--" He looked as if he very much wanted to lean out of the picture frame, glaring at Regulus with a suspicious gaze.

Regulus tugged at the cuff of his shirt, pulling it up and turning out of the portrait's sight. "Put a sock in it," he told the old man.

"Alphard was right, leaving the money to your no-good brother!" the portrait continued. "I didn't know why, but now--now that it's come to this--"

Regulus couldn't stand it anymore. He stood up on the desk and picked his grandfather up, turning the frame so that the old man faced the wall. "I told you to put a--"

"Ah, privacy, at last, I see?" asked a soft, amused voice, as the door clicked shut behind the newcomer. Regulus turned, nearly losing his balance on the edge of the desk as he wobbled, then hopped down onto the floor, and the older boy was in his arms, and they were both feverishly tugging at garments, their mouths fumbling to find each other's lips.

Regulus remembered that he had something he needed to explain. "Severus," he murmured quietly, half-into the other boy's mouth, and he tried to back away.

Severus followed, pushing him back roughly against the desk, kissing him more hungrily as he reached to encircle Regulus' wrists, and the younger boy's cuff came undone in Severus' hand, leaving the newly-etched mark exposed in dark contrast on Regulus' skin.

And then Severus stood back, his eyes widening at the sight. "Is that--" he started quietly, his skin paling, and Regulus could tell that he was trying not to tremble.

Regulus gripped his own wrist with his hand. "That's what I wanted to tell you," he said, covering the mark that was now slowly fading, as if it were something shameful that he had to hide. "Cissy's in. And Bella," he tried, hesitantly, hoping his cousin's names would add the proper weight to his decision.

Severus reached for Regulus' hand, turning it so that he could see the now-faint etching of the mark on his wrist. "You know what it means, Regulus," he said, his tone sharp but tentative. "People like me--"

"No," Regulus assured the other boy, stepping toward him. "No, that's not how it works," he promised. "You--you're more like us than--than Sirius ever was," he assured Severus. He still was unsure of the words; calling the man who led them the Dark Lord sounded too sinister. "He would accept you. He would. If you were loyal."

Severus' expression was tight. "I'm a half-blood," he pointed out with disdain, and Regulus could tell that the disdain was for Severus himself, and not the cause he had joined. "No one would accept--"

Regulus put his hands on Severus' shoulders, firmly, reassuringly. "I do," he reminded him gravely, and he smiled at the older boy. "If the House of Black accepts you, they all will," he promised, with the most definitive air he could muster, as if he really could speak for all of his family. He was the heir now, after all. Time to act the part. "I accept you. They'll accept you. He'll accept you, Severus. If you want to join. If you want to do something about everything that's been wrong for so long."

Severus snorted, and Regulus knew from the look on his face that he wasn't convinced their new leader would have him. Then the older boy sighed, and lifted up those thin, bony fingers of his, the ones that were always stained here and there with ink, and pressed his thumb to Regulus' cheek.

"It's about time," Severus murmured, before leaning in to kiss him again. "I'll think on it," he promised.

"Do," Regulus urged.

"I CAN'T!" Regulus shouted at the portrait of his grandfather. The old man, relegated to the picture frame, was the only one he could tell, the only one who wouldn't betray him.

"What did I tell you?" his grandfather snorted derisively. "You're not even cut out to be a shame to the family, are you?"

Regulus hurled a book at the portrait. "I can't do this!" he cried, his face flushing as he growled at the old man's fading brushstrokes.

The book glanced harmlessly off, but the old man's expression soured.

"Do you know what he'll make me do?" he demanded of the portrait. "The killing--the screaming--the--they can all tell; they can tell when my Killing Curses don't work. They know I'm not fit for it. Or they will. And--and--and He wants me with him all the time. His right-hand man, he says, but he'll--the minute I slip, he'll--"

"Enough," a voice snapped angrily from the doorway, and Regulus jumped, his face blanching. He had been caught; he swallowed tightly as he turned, and he could feel his stomach churning until it ached.

Severus watched his friend with tired eyes, his face even more gaunt than it had been just a few short years ago. He glanced around the room cautiously. "Your father's spells are all still in place?" he asked quietly, raising an eyebrow at Regulus as he awaited a response.

Regulus shuddered, nodding at Severus as he shut his eyes, defeated, and he wrapped his arms around himself, tightly. He wavered where he stood.

And Severus caught him, wrapping one thin arm around him, and stood up on his tiptoes to kiss Regulus' forehead. "You look tremendously well," he said, in a biting tone. "And I suppose I am to believe I just interrupted a friendly conversation? Or were you practicing for a play?"

Regulus gave the older man a plaintive look as he collapsed against him, swallowing again. He knew--no, he hoped he could trust him, of all people. No one knew anything for certain, not anymore.

Severus slowly wrapped his arms around him, nodding silently. "I've just come from speaking to Dumbledore," he informed Regulus quietly.

Regulus looked up helplessly at his friend. "What?" he asked, his voice faltering and nearly failing him, as the word came out in a hoarse whisper.

"I spoke to him, Regulus," Severus replied. "After--after everything I've done, he said he would get me out. I'm leaving, Regulus," he said, his tone defiant, his expression grim. "I've had enough of this. Are you with me?"

Now, Regulus' voice escaped him for certain. "With--" he finally managed.

Severus held him more tightly, pressing his lips to the younger man's cheek. "Are you with me?" he repeated, more desperately. "Say you'll leave with me, now."

As always, it was a demand, not a request.

"I can't," Regulus answered hesitantly, and Severus backed away from him suddenly, with a look of anger on his face. It took the older man a long moment to compost himself again.

"Why can't you?" Severus demanded. "Regulus, Sirius is working for his Order. If I tell him you need a way out, too, he'll get you out. He'll get us both out."

"What does Sirius have to do with anything?" Regulus asked hotly, tensing at his brother's name. "I thought you hated Sirius!"

"Well, yes, perhaps I do, but I don't see why that should matter when our lives are at stake," Severus pointed out. "Albus Dumbledore is a sentimental fool. If you tell him you want to reconcile with your brother, of course he'll help you."

"He isn't my brother," Regulus managed bitterly.

Severus paused for a long moment, giving the younger man a searching look as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Regulus," he said quietly, and this time it was no longer a demand, but a plea. "Regulus, please. I don't know if I can ask this again. Are you with me or not?"

Regulus put his hand to his eyes, and then shook his head tightly. "I can't," he replied quietly. "Not now. He'll kill me. They'll all kill me."

Severus gave him a tight look, and started for the door. "Have it your way, then," he agreed tersely.

They hadn't spoken in months. They saw each other frequently enough, in crowded rooms where others like them met to conspire. And if any of their companions noticed that the two young men who had so often been at each other's side were now found, more often than not, across the room, intently focusing on things that were not each other.

It was one night in mid-February, as one of these meetings drew to a close. Which night, Regulus couldn't have been certain. Days and nights blended into each other now, and he marked time by counting the days he was still alive, and no more. Their meetings had become more secret, the places selected with more care, the invitation more tightly guarded as one name and then another fell out of favor with the Dark Lord. Still, no one said a word against Regulus, and he was certain that was thanks more to his cousins' intervention than his own ability, no matter how close their leader kept him. And Severus--why, Severus performed so valiantly that Regulus sometimes wondered if their last meeting had been a dream. He couldn't believe that the other man could be working for the enemy.

He wondered if what he was about to do was worth the risk. He wondered, even, if someone had put Severus up to that revelation; if it had been a test of his loyalty, not a confession, not a plea in the name of whatever little they had left between them.

He caught Severus' eye from across the room, and the other man deliberately looked away, giving the nearest wall-fixture a sharp, intense look.

So he waited. He waited until their small group began to file out, and then he carefully let his hand brush against the other man's cloak.

Now, Severus turned the sharp gaze on him, and Regulus started at the look of hatred he saw for the briefest moment in the other man's eyes. Severus slipped his hand into his pocket, and left it there, as his expression turned to a questioning one.

Regulus looked away. And he hoped.

"I had to burn your Valentine," Severus informed him, as he caught up, hours later, on the narrow, darkened street, stepping perfectly into pace with Regulus as if they still walked like this every day, like they had in school. "And while I can't say I don't appreciate the gesture, I will have to ask that you not do that again."

Regulus didn't even look at him. "You read it first?" he queried. Of course he had read it, if he had known where to meet him.

Severus glanced over at him, silently, and then nodded. "You can't do this, Regulus," he informed him tersely. "Not now."

Regulus halted. "You did," he pointed out, his voice faltering. "You asked me to, Severus--"

Severus stopped, too, and turned toward him, a wounded look on his face, his narrow features crumpling as he considered the younger man. "That was months ago, Regulus,' he pointed out. "You could have, then. You can't, now."

"I can," Regulus insisted hotly. "I know where he keeps one of them, Severus. I can get it. You can tell--"

Severus put a hand to Regulus' mouth. His fingertips were icy. "I can't, Regulus," he answered. "Don't tell me anymore." He gave Regulus a tight look, as he lifted his fingers slightly, then ran them across the younger man's lips. "If anyone thinks I knew anything about it, I'd have to kill you," he pointed out quietly. "There's too much resting on my head right now. I can't know."

Regulus reached for Severus' cold hand with both of his, pressing his lips softly to it before letting it go. "I won't say anymore," he promised. "I'll get it, and I'll destroy it, and then, once that's done, you can tell them I'm coming. Yes?" he asked, stepping back from the other man as he gave him a searching look.

Severus watched him for a long moment before nodding back. "Yes," he agreed.