"Bella?"

"What, Reg?"

"Do you think I'll be a Slytherin?"

It is late August; the summer is drawing to a close and, come September, Regulus will be joining his brother and youngest cousin at Hogwarts for the first time. Though he has tried earnestly to ignore it and to hide it, he is worried.

Bellatrix, ten years his senior, stops walking and looks at him. She has cold, steely gray eyes – Sirius' eyes, he thinks, the same penetrating gray eyes that he, Andromeda and Narcissa lack. Her gaze makes him uncomfortable, and he looks away.

"Why?" she asks sharply, looking him up and down. "Why wouldn't you be?"

He shrugs. It is an anxiety he hasn't expressed to anyone before, not even kind-hearted Andromeda, and he isn't entirely sure why he's chosen to tell Bellatrix. He supposes it's because he's her favorite. He's always been her favorite.

"I don't know," he answers lamely, "but Sirius—"

"Sirius has nothing to do with it," Bella answers quickly. "Sirius is different."

Everyone says that, he thinks, everyone's been saying that for a long time, but he doesn't understand how. He doesn't understand why Sirius is a Gryffindor, and though he knows that's very, very bad, he doesn't see why.

He decides to ask. If anyone knows, he figures, it will be Bella. "How?"

Bella considers the question for a second and then shrugs. "He's just not like us," she reasons, a trace of disdain in her voice. "He's not a real Black. He's not one of us. He never was, not really."

He wonders what it takes to be a real Black, but he doesn't ask. He supposes it must have something to with being a Slytherin, not a Gryffindor.

"You are, though," she continues, this time with a hint of pride. "You're like us, like Cissy, Anne and me. You'll be a Slytherin, too."

--

It's Christmas Eve and, later into the night, Bella and Reg are seated beneath the Christmas tree. Bella has charmed a candy cane and she makes it dance, spin and twirl across the carpet. Regulus is holding a cup of hot chocolate with both hands and he watches her.

"Mum told us why Anne's not here," he says suddenly, and then amends, "the real reason, I mean."

Bella looks up and the candy cane falls flat onto the carpet. She looks angry, suddenly. Her eyes are fierce and narrowed.

"I don't want to talk about her," she snaps.

For a minute, Regulus falls quiet, taking a sip of his hot chocolate. He contemplates, and then decides to forge on, despite her warning. He supposes it's safe. Bella will usually tell him things when he asks. He's her favorite, he always has been.

"Do you miss her?"

"Of course not!" Bella snarls instantly, looking furious, although he knows the fury is not directed at him. "She's engaged to a Mudblood. A Mudblood, Regulus. She's a filthy bloodtraitor and she's a disgrace to our name. She betrayed her blood and she betrayed us. I do not miss her."

Her voice is jagged and harsh and though she isn't angry with him, he flinches. She sounds like his mother, sometimes. It reminds him of the arguments his parents have been having with Sirius lately.

"But she's your sister," he reasons simply, quietly.

"Not anymore," Bellatrix insists, bitterly. "She turned her back on the family and I want nothing to do with her. She isn't a real Black, she never was, and I hate her."

She means it, Regulus thinks, with a bit of surprise. She isn't saying it to keep face or to convince herself – she means it. She does hate Andromeda. He can't tell how long it took or how hard it was to accomplish, but she's done it. Anne is no longer Bella's sister.

He drops the subject and takes another sip of his hot chocolate.

--

"So tell me, Reg," she says brightly one summer, striding into his room and sitting next to him on his bed. "What's it like, being an only child?" She is smiling in a conspiratorial sort of way, the way he imagines girls do when they gossip, and he looks at her oddly.

"I'm not," he says blandly, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, perhaps not by definition," she says, "but with Sirius gone I don't suppose there's much of a difference."

She looks incredibly happy with this, he thinks. He isn't. He wonders if he should be.

He shrugs. "I guess."

Her smile fades and she frowns, staring at him curiously. He guesses, correctly, that she is sizing him up, and he looks away. Bella's mouth opens and she looks affronted.

"You don't miss him, do you?"

She says it like it's a criminal offense. He's beginning to think it might be.

"No, not really," he says, shrugging. He isn't sure whether it's a lie or not. "It's just…"

"Just what?" she prompts. With Bellatrix there are never any half-spoken thoughts.

"…weird, I guess," he says, shrugging again. "You know, that he's not around. Sulking or yelling or something."

Bella waits, urging him on with her silence, and those gray eyes are watching him. It feels rather like she's looking not at him but through him, into the deepest workings of his mind, trying to sort out what he's thinking, feeling, being.

He wishes she'd stop that. He also wishes she'd tell him, if she managed to figure it out, because he can't.

"It's just that he was nice to me, sometimes," he concedes, desperate to fill the silence. "Not all the time, not even most of the time, but… well. Sometimes."

Bella adopts a serious, straight-faced expression. "Forget about him," she says. It isn't a suggestion – it is a command.

Regulus studies his hands. He realizes he doesn't want to be talking to Bella about this – he wishes Andromeda was still around. She'd understand better, he thinks. She'd understand why even if Sirius is a Gryffindor, a disgrace and a bloodtraitor, it felt wrong that he wasn't at home.

But then, he thinks, Andromeda isn't around, Cissy won't want to hear it and Bella is the only one he has to talk to. He's always been her favorite, anyway.

"I can't," he mumbles, mostly to himself, but Bella hears and she stands up, facing him.

"Forget him," she repeats, leaning down to stare him in the eye. "He isn't your brother anymore. He's a runaway and a humiliation and a waste of breath. He isn't one of us, he never was." She straightens up and runs a hand through her hair. "It's just you, me, and Cissy, now."

She turns and walks from the room and he follows her, because she was right, it was just the three of them, now, and who else would he follow, anyway?

--

"You're sure I'm right for this?" he asks her, hesitantly, as she pulls him between trees to the middle of God knows where.

"Of course," she answers, glancing back to give him a smile. "You are just what He's looking for. Young, talented… pureblooded."

There are lots of young, talented purebloods without tattoos to match Bella's, he thinks. He thinks maybe he wants to remain one of them, but he banishes the thought. Thoughts can be traitorous. Thoughts can be deadly.

"Is Cissy one?" he asks after a minute.

"No," Bella answers, mildly irritated with the answer. "Lucius is, though. Narcissa is too… weak to be on the frontlines. Not like us." Then she smiles. "You were always my favorite, anyway."

Regulus decides not to debate this remark. Bellatrix has never taken no for an answer, and he is certain she won't change her policy now. He is glad she isn't looking at him; she's busy, staring forward, finding their way for them, and she can't dig into his mind with those eyes of hers. She doesn't seem to doubt him. She doesn't seem to feel his apprehension, nor does she have any idea how frequently his mind is jumping to Sirius and the lecture Sirius had given him a month ago at Hogwarts. He is glad she can't hear the way Sirius' voice keeps playing in his mind, telling him he's a prick and a dumb arse and an idiot but he can't become a Death Eater, he just can't, because even if he's a prick and a dumb arse and an idiot, he isn't heartless and he isn't evil.

"Come," Bella says, and Regulus notices she's already put on her mask. "It'll be the best decision you ever make."

As she shoves him into the centre of the ring of Death Eaters, all hooded and masked, he desperately hopes she's wrong.

--

There is a six year old writhing on the floor in front of him.

Bellatrix, the caster of the Cruciatus, is wearing her uniform plain white mask, but he is certain she's grinning beneath it. In the corner of the room, the boy's mother, the reason for the interrogation, is screaming, crying, pleading for them to stop, insisting she doesn't have what they want but that she'll do anything they ask. Bella is ignoring her, laughing. Eventually, Bella makes the same demand she has all night, and when it is again not met, a flash of green streaks from her wand and hits the boy, who falls still.

The woman is in hysterics, struggling against the spells restraining her. Bella, still laughing, flicks her wand and the woman, too, falls still and silent.

Regulus feels nauseous, suddenly. For a second he thinks he will be sick, or perhaps faint. Guilt is a sensation he's become all too familiar with, but never before has it been this acute, never before has it been so sickening, nauseating, dizzying that he wishes Bella had turned her wand on him, instead, and spared the woman and her little boy.

It is the first time he's seen a child die.

Bella taps his arm to shake him from his reverie. "Come on, Reg," she says. She looks at him, but her eyes do not intimidate him the way they used to. Gray is nowhere near as intimidating as red.

Besides, she can't read him like she used to, or she would have turned her wand on him.

"The tip must have been wrong," she says, mistaking their failure for the reason behind his silence. "She'd have told me if she'd known. Mothers will do anything for their children."

She says it as though it's a bad thing, a foolish thing. He wonders how his mother would have acted, in that situation, if it had been Sirius.

--

He's already bleeding by the time Bellatrix arrives. The two Death Eaters looming over him haven't spoken, he isn't sure who they are, but they've been throwing curses and hexes at him and he is on the ground spitting out blood when Bella stalks into the room.

She hasn't bothered with a mask or her Death Eater robes. She looks furious – indescribably furious. Her breathing is ragged with anger, her lip is curled and her eyes are narrowed.

She looks murderous.

The other two back off. Their wands remain pointed at him but they give her a wide berth. She takes two steps closer and he heaves himself to his feet. They look at each other, silently, and he meets her irate gaze with a calm one. For once her eyes remind him not of Sirius, but of something wild, insane and inhuman.

She slaps him. "You treacherous, disloyal, contemptuous little whelp!" she cries suddenly, and a second later he is on the ground, convulsing under the power of her Cruciatus

He is aware, dimly, that she is shrieking at him the entire time, about betrayal and bloodtraitors and disappointments, but it is only after she stops the curse and he lies on the ground, panting, that he is able to appreciate the true force behind her words. She hates him, now, as he thought she would, and suddenly he realizes it is with even more intensity than she hates Sirius or Andromeda. Regulus' betrayal, unlike Andromeda and Sirius', is a complete shock. It gets under her skin and boils her blood in a way theirs couldn't.

He thinks it must be because he was her favorite. He'd always been her favorite.

"Did you think we would not find you?" she is shrieking still as he struggles to his feet again. He makes it to his knees and she slashes her wand downward through the air, giving him a gash spanning his ribcage. "Did you think you would get away?"

"Not really," he admits, flashing a bloody smirk.

The anger contorts her face and he realizes, not for the first time, that she is completely mad. She's lost whatever semblance of sanity she had, and he finds himself wondering if she ever had any in the first place.

"You insolent brat," she spits, her voice and wand trembling, her rage making it difficult for her to find words as cruel as her intentions. "Do you realize what you've done? You can't back out on us!" She grabs a fistful of his robes and pulls him to his feet. She shoves him back against a wall and digs the tip of her wand into his Adam's apple so hard he nearly gags. "You're just like your brother," she hisses, "and my pathetic sister – a turncoat, a bloodtraitor, a disgrace and a waste."

"That," he says, after a second's consideration, partially because he is overcome with a desire to infuriate her and partially because it is the truth, "is probably the most flattering thing you've ever said to me."

He's on the floor again, a second later, curled up in agony, and when she stops the spell this time he doesn't bother to stand, only shoves himself onto his hands and knees.

She crouches down next to him, her wand at his temple and her mouth by his ear. "You were supposed to be one of us," she snarls, sounding all at once enraged and betrayed. There is harshness in her voice he's never heard before and it shows just how badly she wants to hurt him.

He looks over at her and decides to do what he knows will incense her. He grins at her. There is blood in his teeth, on his lips, down his side and his frame quakes occasionally in the aftermath of her Unforgivable, but he grins nonetheless. It is an infuriating grin that reminds her far too much of Sirius and of Andromeda. He will still be wearing the grin thirty seconds later, when she will finally snap and send a Killing Curse his way.

But for the moment, he simply grins at her. "I never really was, anyway. Not really."

--