"Master has been getting his clothes pressed very often," Kreacher observed as he slipped into Regulus' room with a stack of freshly cleaned laundry. His bulging eyes looked up inquisitively at the teenage. "Is there something master is not telling to Kreacher?"
Regulus quirked an eyebrow. "Come on now Kreacher. I've got to have some secrets." He sighed. "Not that anybody but you would ever ask."
"Kreacher is thinking… forgives me, master," he bowed. "Has master met a lady?"
Without even looking at himself, Regulus knew his ears had turned pink. "Well maybe."
The house elf's hands clasped. "So good to hear! Kreacher was so worried, as mistress is, that the family line might perish, fall into disgrace…"
"Kreacher!" Regulus interrupted, blush growing deeper. He took a shirt off the pile and tugged it on. "Even if I have met somebody I'm not that old yet." He carefully matched up the buttons. "Not that I have met someone. Hypothetically speaking."
Kreacher looked at him suspiciously and while he was busy getting ready, Regulus started noticing small effects appearing, ones that hadn't been in his room before – a set of mother of pearl cufflinks, a bottle of expensive cologne that, though pricey, his father never used, a silk necktie of deep emerald green. He worried a little that he was so easily being read; though he felt a strong pull towards her, he knew that Petunia was the kind of girl his mother would never tolerate and that he would catch more hell than his brother if his family found out. Luckily, he thought with some measure of bitterness, they would probably never notice unless he dragged her up the steps of Grimmauld Place and tried to introduce her at dinner. Only Kreacher noticed; only Kreacher ever did.
He readied himself as usual but, at the last moment, splashed on some of the cologne, letting Kreacher think what he might. It had an earthy, woodsy scent and as he breathed it in, Regulus flattered himself that it might go well with the light florals that always seemed to waft around Petunia. Satisfied that he was ready, he slipped out of the house and into the crowded London streets.
Petunia was in the park, right where her letter had said she would be. He approached her slowly at first – the letter had been terse and, quite unlike her, written in an unsteady hand. She'd informed him that they needed to talk and it didn't take much to figure out that something was wrong. As he drew close, however, her face brightened and he breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps whatever news she had wasn't quite so dreadful.
"Hi Petunia," he grinned.
She smiled her greeting and gave him a little wave. "Is there somewhere we could talk in private?"
"My type of place or yours?" He asked, hoping for the latter – he knew how mesmerizing Diagon Alley was to her, but he hated having to look over his shoulder, constantly hoping that nobody dangerous had seen them.
"Mine, I think," she said and he felt a rush of relief.
They found a tea shop and she ordered them a pot and a plate of pastries. When the food came, she only picked at it, however.
"Is something wrong?" He asked over his cup of tea. "Your letter made it seem like something was wrong," he finished lamely, wishing his words had a touch more sophistication to them.
"I left home," she said finally, after picking a scone apart into crumbs. "I suppose you heard from Snape?" Her eyes shown with nervousness and he felt taken aback.
"Snape? No. I don't know him that well." He sipped his tea. "Why would he be telling me anything?"
Her shouldered eased. "He was there for our… argument." She stirred sugar into her own tea. "Thought he might have… well, it's not important." She shook her head, making her blond hair fall about her face. "I've quarreled with my family and I've… I've left home. For good this time."
He felt a rush of concern; his brother had left home too but he couldn't imagine any similarity in their circumstances beyond that and he felt sympathy for Petunia, being all on her own.
"But where will you go? What will you do!"
She shrugged. "I'm old enough to get a job. Suppose I'll do that. Never really fancied college anyway and I definitely don't have the money for it now."
"You should live in London!" He blurted out, the idea presenting itself and escaping his lips before he could stop it.
She looked at him with interest. As she didn't immediately reject his idea, he pressed on.
"Well… well, you seem to enjoy it here so much. And I'll bet there's lot of places you could find a job. And if you were in London, well, we could see each other more often," he finished in a mumble.
He suddenly found the inside of his teacup extremely engrossing; it wasn't until Petunia laughed a little that that he lifted his eyes to gauge her reaction. At first he was afraid she was laughing at the idea, but her expression was all enthusiasm and cheerfulness.
"That's actually not a bad idea, Reggie. If I were in London…" Her gaze drifted out into the streets. "I'll definitely think about it."
"But you'll be alright in the meanwhile?" He asked urgently. He felt almost silly – she was several years older than he was and, he couldn't help feeling, loads more mature. If she couldn't take care of herself, there was precious little he could do to help. He was too afraid to even let his family know about her and he was under the age of majority to boot. What on earth could he do? But he dearly wished he could aid in some way.
"I'll be fine," she reassured him. "But I don't want to dwell on it too much. Would you care for a walk in the park?"
Being near her, on a rare sunny day amid the full summer beauty of Kensington, Regulus felt heady and distracted. He made it back home feeling as though he were floating, barely remembering what had passed between them save that it was golden and lovely. She made him feel as if he were the only boy in the world, something he'd never felt with Sirius or the Slytherins – more handsome, more clever, more talented, more shrewd – always surrounding him.
Undoing his tie and loosening his collar, he settled on to his bed to do some of his summer reading. But there was a pop at his side and suddenly long, bony fingers were digging into his arm.
"Krecher?" He sat up, nearly upsetting the elf onto the floor. "Don't startle me like that! "
Kreacher's expression was furious and Regulus' heart sank.
"Did not think…" the elf growled. "Thought you had better sense than your brother, young Master, to go disgracing the family!"
"You followed me," Regulus hissed, his feeling changing from dread to rage. His anger dimmed momentarily, however, when the house elf's eyes grew softer.
"Only wanted to be sure young master was alright." Then his eyes bulged again. "Did not think you would fall pretty to a Muggle!" He moaned. "Worse than mudblood even! Have you lost all sense of dignity, of shame, of..."
"Shut up!" He seethed, trying to keep his voice low. "Have you said anything to anybody about this? Tell me the truth." The elf's lips pressed together in an impossibly thin line and he shook his head once. "Well don't, alright?" Regulus begged, and then drew himself up straight. "And that's an order!"
Kreacher's brow furrowed at him and for a second Regulus thought the little elf might actually disobey. But he could not, even if he had wanted to. And it was clear that he did.
"Yes master," he croaked.
"Please don't Kreacher." Regulus' voice dropped to a softer, more pleading tone. "I know she's as far from being pureblooded as it gets but she's not… she treats me like I'm important. Like you do."
"Master is important, very important."
"Only because Sirius is such a screw-up," he sighed. "And if he ever decided to stop being such a stupid Gryff, I'm sure mother would be happy to push me right back to the side again." He scoffed. "The only time mother speaks well of me is when she's trying to make Sirius feel shabby by comparison, not that he even cares."
Kreacher touched his arm. "Master. Many young masters like you… such a feeling comes and it goes master. Must think of larger matters."
"Not this," he said, assured with all the impertinence of youth. "I love her."
The house elf gave him a skeptical glare, but did not say anything. He hung up the tie and neatened the dresser before turning to him one last time.
"Will keep my silence, young master. Even to mistress and old master."
"Thank you Kreacher," he whispered, giving the elf a small smile.
Kreacher only frowned in response and popped away, leaving Regulus to his disoriented thoughts.
"So today's the day we go to that kooky wizard shopping center?" Tabby flopped out of the guest bed and stretched.
"Diagon Alley! You're going to love it!" Sirius laughed.
"I dunno," she yawned and stumbled into the bathroom to smear some toothpaste on a brush. "The way you've been talking about it, I'm not sure anything could live up to that," she said through a mouthful of minty foam.
"Maybe not, but it is pretty cool." Sirius leaned against the doorway. "Not as cool as my motorbike, but cool all the same," he grinned.
Tabitha smirked back at him and, mouth still brimming with toothpaste, gave him a sudden kiss that caused him to sputter and laugh. Spitting out the foam, he playfully wrestled her into the shower and turned the water on, causing her to shriek. With a tug, he landed in the tub and Tabby burst out of the room and down the stairs.
"What's all that racket?" James, sitting down at the table with Lorna, looked up from his breakfast as a damp Tabitha ran into the room, followed on her heels by a dripping wet Sirius.
"Nothing!" Tabby laughed, rounding the table to try and shake Sirius off. Sirius slid in an attempt the change directions but ended up slipping and falling. Tabitha bounded over him into another room and Sirius picked himself up and quickly gave chase. Seconds later a resounding crash caused James and Lorna to wince for a moment, but then they started to laugh themselves.
"They are so crazy," Lorna gasped. "And so alike."
"I know, right?" James shook his head.
"So tell me again, what Diagon Alley is like," said Lorna. She was beginning to understand, with each description and repetition, the longing and jealousy Petunia had felt at the prospect of her sister being a part of such a world and her being forever alienated from it.
"They're got every kind of shop you can imagine – ones for robes and potions and cauldrons and books, all on magic of course. There are cafes and an ice cream shop which serves the oddest flavors, a stop we'll definitely be making at some point during the day. A Quidditch supply shop, a personal favorite of mine. There's a Goblin bank that's opulent and absolutely enormous. Wizards and witches all over the place too."
"You might even get to see some of our school chums," Sirius said, breathing heavily as he reentered with Tabitha right behind him. "Wouldn't it be a laugh if we ran into Lily?"
"Hilarious," James rolled his eyes.
"Lily?" Lorna asked.
"Girl he's been stuck on, Lily Evans," Sirius explained as he poured himself a cup of tea. "For years. Turned him down flat every chance she got and had a run at him too, but he still kept trying. Never thought I'd meet anybody who could get her out of his head."
Lorna's grip on her fork tightened just a little. "She doesn't like you?" She finally managed to say to James while poking at the sausage on her plate.
"Thinks I'm bigheaded." He smirked. "No idea where she'd get an idea like that."
"And he likes to hex Snivellus," Sirius added. "Greasy friend of hers, way into the dark arts, and a bad piece of work if I ever saw one. But she sticks up for him for some reason and gives James grief over every harmless little prank."
"Harmless?" Tabitha's eyebrow quirked. "I don't think anything the two of you get up to could ever be called harmless."
"Well, maybe not entirely harmless," James admitted. "Still, he gives as good as he gets."
"Been telling James for ages to give up on her." He tousled Lorna's hair. "And now it turns out the grass really was greener."
Lorna couldn't help smiling at that and managed to dig into her food again, spearing a mushroom with her fork. "If she's rejected you so much, why did you still keep after her?"
"Careful mate," Sirius winked. "Might not want to give a wrong answer here."
"She's pretty and clever and… well, other than pretty and clever, what else is there?" He shrugged. "And she plays hard to get."
"In other words, James like to give himself grief," Sirius said through a mouthful of toast. "Ignoring lovely girls just throwing themselves at his feet trying to get the one who doesn't."
"Hey Siri, think you could shut up about James' love life for a moment and let me know if we've got time for a ride before we head off to Diagon Alley?" Tabby broke in.
"Don't see why not," he shrugged, gulped down the rest of his tea, and went to grab his jacket. "Can we trust you two?"
"Just get out of here," James laughed, jerking his head towards the door.
When they'd gone, Lorna set her fork down.
"So what is it that you see in me?"
"What?" James froze halfway through a bite of tomato.
"All those things you saw in Lily… I'm not very clever. And I didn't play hard to get, exactly." She looked up. "Is it just that you think I'm pretty? Is that all?"
James finished chewing and set his own fork down.
"First off, I wouldn't say you aren't clever or bright. I mean, you fixed Sirius' bike when none of us could."
She scoffed. "I kicked it and got lucky," she said, omitting her surreptitious sliding of gears back into place.
"You're inquisitive. You have a beautiful laugh." She looked at him skeptically and he chuckled. "I'm sounding rather generic, aren't I?"
"I don't know what it is really. There's just… there's something about your eyes. Like you want to have an adventure but you're holding back just a little. And if you'd let yourself go, you could do just about anything."
For a frightening moment, Lorna wondered if he knew, but told herself over and over that was impossible.
"And that's what you've been doing, haven't you? Even if you do spend quite a bit of time in that library, you've gone riding winged horses, gone for a turn on Siri's bike, explored all over the place with us, swum with squids… and haven't you enjoyed it?"
She nodded quickly.
"It's like your opening up right in front of me. I held out my hand and pulled you forward for that first step and now – who knows?"
Lorna laughed. "You make spending a summer in a German mansion sound very exciting."
"Tell me you aren't excited and I'll take it all back," James promised. Her smile broadened and his did the same. "Now let's clean up before those two get back. I can't wait to show you more of our world. You said you never been to a place like Diagon? Not even with your cousin?"
"We weren't really close," Lorna said, wincing just a little at the lie. "I knew she was a witch and pieces here and there from chatting at reunions, but not a whole lot else. And I've never been anywhere as magical as the place you're describing."
"Shame," James sighed, letting the charmed sink scrub the dishes itself. "I'd have liked to have known what wizards in America were like. I hear they're even crazier than me and Sirius."
"Well, I wouldn't call you crazy," Lorna protested. "High spirited, maybe."
"A lovely euphemism," he said in a teasing tone.
"And I hope you're having fun with me. Even if I'm not that Lily girl," she said, silently finding it ironic that she should be held up just as Petunia had.
"Loads of fun." He wiped his hands on a dishrag. "And Lorna? Don't think too much about Lily." He came over, set a hand on her shoulder and leaned it, brushing his lips against hers while she stood frozen. "Because whatever Sirius might have you believe, I don't."