(This story has recently undergone a title change at the request of fanfiction dot net, but otherwise is unchanged.)
At the Sign of The Crooked Tree.
It could be any night, any perfectly ordinary night.
In an ordinary pub that could exist on any ordinary corner of London, a perfectly ordinary group of people could sit at a table just like this one, drinks in hand and heads leaned together as they hold their perfectly ordinary conversation.
Tonight, however, is anything but ordinary.
In fact, there is little about this particular group of people that is ordinary.
The Crooked Tree is a small pub, much less renowned than the Leaky Cauldron, situated on a discreet corner near the place where Diagon Alley takes a winding turn into Crowswing Way, which becomes Knockturn Alley after just a few shops.
Perhaps it is for this reason, situated on the boundary as it is, with one eye on both worlds, that The Crooked Tree, in 1979, has become a casual gathering place for those who belong to something called the Order of the Phoenix. There is often one or more of them there, when not otherwise occupied, taking drink and discussion, sometimes light-heartedly, though of late it is more common that faces are grim and sentences clipped.
Tonight, several of them sit close together in a dark corner of the half empty pub, their voices low, their smiles quick and tense. There is an aura of watchfulness about them all, and a sense of camaraderie that is obvious to any outsider who could only guess at what bonds tie together this group of disparate young people, so varied in age and appearance and attitude.
There is a glimmer of darkness in some of them that has not yet taken the others. The older girl, the twins, the young man with scarred hands – there is something in their eyes that speaks of shadow and suffering. The others still have a light in their faces that is moving in its simplicity and truth. All of them, however, have a hope that burns steadily beneath everything else, or they would not be here.
The eldest among the group are the brothers, in their late twenties, and alike yet different as only identical twins can be. One of them is thinner, the angles of his face sharper, and his hair shorter and a shade lighter than the other. He is quieter, and seems slightly faded next to his brother, whose wiry, muscled form unfurls lazily as he leans forward to shake bright golden-red hair out of his face and address the woman seated across from him.
There are only two women. They are seated opposite each other and look as different as night and day, but they incline their heads - one dark and glossy, the other rich and red – towards each other to whisper conspiratorially. They sit back after a moment, seeming to disagree about something. One of them idly regards the twin who says something to her with a grin and a roguish gleam in his eyes, while the other lifts her chin and turns to smile faintly at the thin, light haired man to her right, who lifts a hand and places it on her shoulder, comfortingly. The small blond man at the end of the table watches them all closely but says nothing.
A sudden, boisterous shout of laughter comes from the bar, and the two black haired men turn around, still laughing, hands full of drinks and faces full of mischief. The barmaid watches them walk away, a bemused expression on her face, as they return to their friends in the corner.
"Sirius, you are really the only person I know who can string together such an incoherent jumble of thoughts and still manage to charm a pretty girl." Hazel eyes beneath a unruly mess of black hair peer fondly, if inquisitively, at his friend.
"It's all in my particular brand of incoherency, Prongs. You have to charm them, not frighten them."
James grins good-naturedly. "Ah, but that's how I tell the ones who scare too easily from the good ones," he explains as he sinks into his seat next to the redhead.
She lifts an eyebrow delicately. "And how do you tell the good ones?"
"They're the ones who stick around."
She smiles slowly and he gives her a dazzled look and drops a quick kiss on the side of her throat before pushing the drinks he's brought with him at their various owners around the table.
"Ogden's finest for the lads," he begins, and the brothers take their glasses with an appreciative nod, "scotch for the Scot," and the dark-haired girl's mouth quirks sideways as she accepts her drink.
"Stout for the fainter of spirit, gin for the Moony who likes a bite, and lime and soda for the mother-to-be," his friend finishes, and the drinks skitter across the table and wind up precariously near the edges of the tabletop, leaving splatters of wet marking their paths.
There is a chorus of mumbled "Cheers," and then a period of quiet as everyone sips or stares thoughtfully into their cups. As silent moments pass there is a subtle shift in the atmosphere at the table, until one of its occupants sets their glass down a little too heavily and speaks, decisively.
"Right. Enough dancing 'round what we all want to know." The dark woman leans back in her chair and crosses one slim leg over the other. There is a distinct edge to the sideways slant of her pale green eyes as she glances from one brother to the other, expectantly.
The longer-haired twin shares a look – they don't need words, really – with his brother before responding, watching her face closely as he does. "And just what might that be then, Marlene?"
"Don't dissemble with me, Gideon." She knocks back another sip of her scotch before eying him and continuing, "I've known you far too long not to know when you know what I want."
Their eyes meet, and neither looks away until the other brother shakes his head at them both, a half-smile flitting across his lips. "And it's certain we've known you too long, McKinnon, if you expect us to make sense of that sentiment."
She doesn't blink. "Aiden Faraday."
Sirius joins, nodding in support. "The Prophet's sure not going to tell us, the Ministry doesn't want us to know, but Moody dropped enough badly veiled hints at today's meeting – "
"That we can't help but wonder if Crouch's amendments are going to start blurring the lines of distinction between our side and the other," James completes the thought without missing a beat.
"Fabian?" The red-haired woman turns a bright green gaze on the lighter brother. "Has Auror Faraday been using the Cruciatus Curse on suspected Death Eaters?"
He sighs without looking at her, and rubs his eyes tiredly. "Saw it myself."
They don't agree. It is "Whatever it takes" or "What's to keep us from becoming them" or "But if it's them or us…". Sentences go unfinished, everyone knows what they mean. They move on before long, returning to their friendly banter. They are allowed to disagree; their diversity is what makes their Order effective.
After awhile, Marlene stands, stretching languorously and tossing wisps of untamed black hair out of her face. She glances at one of the twins, deep in conversation with the others at his end of the table, a half-smile all but hidden on her face in the pub's dim light.
"Fancy a fag, Prewett?"
They both look up, abruptly. She quirks an eyebrow at Fabian.
"What?" he asks, almost tersely, with a slight tilt of his head that lends him an air of uncertainty.
She holds up a package of cigarettes. "I'm going out back for a smoke. D'you want one?"
"Oh. Oh, no, not at the moment, thanks."
She goes alone. Remus tries to say something about being safe, but she brushes him off, she can take care of herself (somehow, she makes him feel silly for even mentioning it – these are dangerous times, he is sure he's right to bring it up, but something about her sharp gaze and wild dark hair and rough voice always makes him feel young and clumsy, so he shuts up), and she strolls out unattended.
The heady scent of burning cloves and tobacco fills the air as Marlene inhales deeply, savouring the smoke.
A single lantern sways in the wintery breeze, making the shadows in the dim alleyway swing wildly, and Marlene takes another long drag as she watches a moth fluttering around the halo it casts, drawn into the light.
There is a sudden clatter that disturbs the icy quiet of the alleyway, and a hoarse male voice swears abruptly from the darkness just beyond the light as a trash bin rolls across the cobblestones into the area lit well enough for Marlene to see.
Her eyes are sharply alert in her narrow face, and a hand goes immediately to the pocket of her clinging, striped trousers, but otherwise she doesn't move as she squints into the shadows.
"It's painfully obvious you're there," she drawls impatiently after a long moment.
There is a shuffling noise, and then a young man appears, stepping forward into the shifting light. His dark hair falls elegantly into his face, his grey eyes are set above an aristocratic nose and determined jawline, and a long-fingered hand holds his wand out before him, trained on the woman who still leans casually against the stones of the pub's back wall.
She recognizes him immediately. The Black features are unmistakable, and this boy is like a slighter, more severe and angular replica of the man who sits inside at her table.
She doesn't move except to flick ash in what could be his general direction as he stops just inside the ring of light, watching her, clutching his wand.
"Going to kill me, Mr Black?" She smiles slowly, lazily. If she's even slightly worried (and she must know he belongs to the Death Eaters, he knows she spends time with his brother), he can't tell.
He takes several deep breaths, drawing the cold air into his lungs, not sure how to take this sharply lovely woman and her cool disinterest in him.
"No. I – no."
There is another pause, and she props one trim arm on a hip and looks him up and down.
"Your brother's inside."
"I know." He starts to move forward again, then hesitates. He's very hesitant, tonight. "Do you suppose…that is…" He stops again, looks at her searchingly before going on, "do you think he'd talk with me?"
There is a lift of her eyebrow, appraisingly. "Maybe if you put that wand away first."
For a long moment, he doesn't move, unsure, apprehensive. Then finally, slowly, he nods, and slides the wand into his robes. He holds out both hands, empty, in a gesture of supplication.
She scrutinizes him. She remembers the younger Black boy, from school, remembers how different to his brother he was – quiet, reserved, quick to shy away from attention. She remembers quarrels in the Great Hall, the Black brothers arguing with each other in stifled voices under the curious gaze of their peers, before they stopped glancing each other's way. She also remembers his crowd, and that he never finished school, seeming to have chosen other priorities.
It hasn't escaped her notice that the one inside still avoids all mention of his name, but listens intently to any Phoenix news that could possibly bring word of him.
And she has brothers. Quite a few of them, actually. She understands family better than most, perhaps, and maybe this is why she gives him the chance he asks of her.
She exhales smoke with her sigh, then drops the stub of cigarette and saunters away, the heels of her boots clicking on the cobblestones, leaving a whiff of perfume and the curl of smoke in her wake.
Inside, she drops onto the bench next to Sirius and murmurs something into the tangle of black hair where his ear must be. (Gideon watches them.)
She stands again, and Sirius stands with her.
"Back in a moment."
She offers him a cigarette, a pretense, and leads him out the back door, a handful of curious gazes following them.
He lights up while they're still in the doorway, then turns to her.
"So what's this about, McKinnon?"
Her face is solemn, her eyes serious.
"Your brother is here."
He tenses, (like a dog with his hackles up, she muses distantly) and his wand hand goes to his side. "Where?"
She is as quick as he, though, and she sees the look that flickers across his handsome features, a mixture of hope and bitterness on that beautiful, defiant face. For a moment she wants to hold him, whisper something comforting, but she realises she has no idea what that might be, and shakes the nonsense out of her head. "None of that," she rebukes. "I made him put his away."
He gives her a look that says do you really think that takes care of it? but she only shrugs, and nods to the shadows that lie on the edge of the pool of lantern-light.
Regulus appears out of the darkness.
She watches them stare at each other for a moment before stepping away, giving them space. She lights another cigarette when she is just out of hearing, and tilts her face away, but they both have the sense that she'd be back in an instant if she so much as smelled trouble.
Regulus watches her walk off, but Sirius never takes his eyes from his brother. His gaze is full of suspicion, both hostile and questioning.
"Come to see if I'm still in one piece?" he says finally, and winces, remembering another conversation that started with these same words, and ended badly. He wonders if he should have started differently (but maybe this is a second chance).
He studies his younger brother carefully. Though Regulus was always slight, he is thinner now than ever before, more bones than anything else, and the angles of his face stand out sharply. His hair, longer than he ever wore it at school, is lank and needs washing, as do his robes, frayed about the sleeves (from who knows what kind of activity, Sirius tries not to think). There are dark smudges beneath his eyes.
His face, still handsome, is strangely faded, like parchment left too long in the elements.
In short, his brother does not look well.
But he is here.
There are few ways that could be good, and many that could be very bad.
"I just…I wanted…thought you…" Regulus trails off, seemingly at a loss.
Sirius hopes Regulus can pull himself together, because he doesn't want to have to chase him off, just yet, but neither does he want him to know that.
"I wanted to, to talk to you. Can you…talk?"
Sirius snorts. "Did you stutter like this with McKinnon?" he asks loudly. "You're lucky she didn't kill you."
"I don't doubt it," Regulus mumbles.
"I can tell when people are talking about me," a gruff female voice calls from the other end of the alley. "I have a sense for such things."
Sirius regards his cigarette fondly as he shouts back, "Later, Mac. For now let's just say I owe you one."
"You owe me things all over the place, Black, and don't you forget it."
He takes a long drag from the cigarette she gave him as he turns back to his brother.
Marlene, Regulus places the McKinnon suddenly, from a Quidditch match and a haze of smoke behind the broomshed – his brother smokes one of Marlene's cigarettes. He chokes on the resurgance of the memory that seems to belong to another lifetime, another person. He saw another McKinnon last week, much less vibrant, much less threatening when the odds were five to one.
Sirius watches his brother go pale and slightly green, and is reminded of why they haven't spoken in nearly a year.
"Why are you here, Regulus?"
The boy doesn't move, still staring down the alleyway into the dark.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you must be having second thoughts." No reaction. "But I know better."
Regulus meets his brother's eyes, but his face is taut and betrays nothing of what he's thinking.
"What could you possibly have to say to me, tonight, and here of all places?"
Regulus would say I don't want them to know where you live, but then his brother might figure where he stands, and know too much. He knows Sirius has always thought of him as weak, but it is taking all his strength (and there is a good deal more of it than Sirius might suspect) to keep this conversation in check.
He cannot betray too much, or he won't get the chance he needs.
He shivers slightly, but his voice is harsh and his fists clench unconsciously when he responds. "Don't underestimate me, Sirius. Especially not now."
Sirius' eyes narrow. "Is that a threat, little brother?"
Regulus stifles a groan. "No. No...not...fuck."
Sirius watches him, and Regulus knows he is smoking McKinnon's cigarette with his right hand to leave his left hand, his wand hand, free and close to his pocketed wand.
He hasn't drawn it, yet, though.
His brother can appreciate that.
"What if you knew something…" Regulus seems to be having trouble finishing his sentences.
"Give me one reason why I should believe anything you have to say. Better yet, give me one reason why I should even be listening to you."
"Because if you aren't here to listen, then you should be trying to take me out."
It is true.
They both know it.
"And why should I believe you?"
There is a long pause.
"I can't give you a reason for that."
He's taller, Sirius realises suddenly, and it takes a breath out of him, because his brother is just a boy (still growing) and shouldn't have to deal with these things. Should be preoccupied with girls and Quidditch tryouts and Charms homework, not facing such very real enemies and staring down his brother who hasn't been around to see him grow in a dark alleyway in the middle of the night.
He realises something seemed off because Regulus now stands eye to eye with him.
"What do you think you're fighting against, Sirius?"
Sirius' eyes narrow slightly, appraisingly. It is, after all, given who and where they are, a strange question.
"You of all people should have a good idea of exactly what I'm fighting, Regulus."
"That's my point."
His brother jerks his chin just enough for the movement to toss dark hair out of his eyes, and Regulus recognises the gesture of impatience.
"No, listen," he says quickly. "I know you think it's all about blood rights and wizarding supremacy, but –"
"He's evil," Sirius cuts him off. "Voldemort is just evil, and that's what this fight is about. You can talk about blood and laws and recognition all you want, but when it comes down to it, he's not out to make things better for anyone but himself."
"I know. I bleeding know that, don't you see?"
The outburst startles them both.
"It's about Death, Sirius."
"What, you didn't expect killing to be a part of what you got involved in?" There is scorn in his voice.
"No, listen to me. There is something the Dark Lord wants, and it has nothing to do with any of us, not really, though it doesn't matter who he has to use to get what he wants."
Sirius looks at him, waits. Smokes. Says nothing. At least he's listening.
"Immortality." Regulus watches his brother exhale, probably less coolly than he meant to.
"What?" The word is sharp, too incredulous to really be counted a question.
"An enemy who cannot die – " He doesn't finish the sentence. He doesn't need to.
Sirius shakes his head abruptly, as if he could simply sweep such impossible thoughts out of his hair and go on. "It's not possible." He could almost wonder, but he won't let himself, and so he makes this statement sound firm and resolved.
Regulus bows his head tiredly and says nothing for a long time, and Sirius begins to wonder exactly how far in over his head his brother has gotten.
"What's this got to do with you?"
Regulus glances up to eye Sirius warily.
There are things he cannot say, or curses will follow him. There are things he cannot say, or people will know.
There are things he simply cannot say.
He shrugs, just a slight lift of the shoulders, but there is something desperate in the movement, and Sirius has to say something.
Regulus jerks a little bit, his movement half-formed and unsure of itself, but Sirius would swear he had started to turn away.
"Regulus – "
"There is nowhere to go." Regulus' voice is firm for the first time in the conversation. He has made up his mind about something, Sirius knows by the look in his eye, but cannot say about what.
"There is always somewhere to go."
Regulus closes his eyes, looking worn and tired, and shakes his head. He used to think they disagreed because they held to different ideals, but he has lost hold of his ideals now, and faces only reality.
There is nowhere for him to go. There are only things to do.
I can't seem write these brothers happily, as much as I enjoy writing them.
All the same, I hope you liked reading this. Please do let me know what you think.
If you liked Marlene, try my story "Delicate", which features a slightly different version of her.
If you liked Sirius and Reg, try "Escape: Severing", as they both show up in that as well. Their relationship in that story is consistant with this one, though it takes place some years earlier.
And thanks for reading.
(Review review review!)