The knuckles on the hand clutching the basin had gone white; the other was shaking so badly the goblet was increasingly difficult to hold; his heart sounded so loud to his own ears that it nearly drowned out Kreacher's piteous whimpering.

He closed his eyes and tried to quell the nausea that had risen in his stomach.

He was not designed for this, for acts of bravery.

(He'd never been a Gryffindor.)

Almost against his will, he thought of his mother; how would she react to the disappearance of her youngest only four months after the death of her husband? And Narcissa – Narcissa, he knew, would grieve – Narcissa valued family as he did, above all else, above the Dark Lord. But what of Bellatrix? Surely she had guessed – surely she had sensed his wavering loyalty – surely she knew the task bestowed upon him was one he was destined to fail?

Even more unbidden were thoughts of Andromeda and of Sirius. It was, he thought, unfair that they could never know about the one thing that might redeem him in their eyes. He knew, in all likelihood, they -- or at least Sirius – would chalk his death up to cowardice, never thinking that perhaps he had done something worthwhile, something that would make them proud…

(Little naïve Regulus who'd so adored the Dark Lord bit off more than he could chew, got cold feet and got himself killed.)

He wondered what they'd think if they knew what he was about to do. He wondered what they'd think if they knew what it was that had shoved him toward such a sudden revelation – what they'd think if they knew it was his fierce loyalty to family members who had no loyalty to the family, his reluctance to… what had the phrase been?... prune the family tree.

Regulus shook his head sharply and opened his eyes. There was no sense dwelling on it. The longer he took, the more likely he was to back out, and this --- this he would do. He had to.

(Was destroying a bit of the Dark Lord's soul enough to repair some of the damage done to his own?)

"…let Kreacher do it, Master Regulus, Kreacher has done it before, Kreacher does not mind, Kreacher will drink the potion while Master Regulus switches the lockets—"

He forced his gaze to leave the ominous green glow of the basin below him and focus on the house-elf who was wringing his hands so nervously.

"No," he said firmly, and then, at Kreacher's abrupt silence, amended, "Last time nearly killed you. You can't be expected to go through that again."

"Kreacher is most eager – most willing – to endure pain to serve the noble and most ancient house of Black, Kreacher –"

"No, Kreacher. You have my orders."

At once Kreacher fell silent, still twisting and turning his hands madly, and Regulus noticed for the first time that the elf seemed on the brink of tears.

Something squirmed uncomfortably in his stomach; it was with an odd feeling of embarrassment and loneliness that he realized the most unconditional affection he'd ever received came not from his parents or his brother, but from their servant.

It was cruel that Kreacher had to be the one to help him to his death.

As he dipped the goblet into the potion, his eyes found the murky black lake that surrounded the island. He could see – or perhaps he imagined he could see – the cold, pale bodies Kreacher had described, floating beneath the surface, innocent and harmless until their waters were provoked. A chill shot down his spine like lightning; it would not be long, now, until one more body was added to the pool.

(It sickened him that even in death he would continue to serve Lord Voldemort.)

At his side, Kreacher was closer to crying than ever before, and with sudden conviction Regulus realized it was now or never.

"Here goes, then. Thanks for all your help, Kreacher."

Kreacher answered with a sob.

Regulus ignored him; there was something coursing through his veins now that might have been bravery or might have been terror, might have been gold or might have been silver -- he forced a grin, one rarely worn due to its unwanted resemblance to his brother's, and raised the goblet in a toast. "To vindication."

He drank.

--