Chapter 23

Half-Truths

Lucius Malfoy stared at the empty slot. A fine layer of dust had gathered there where a leather-bound book had once stood, flecking silver and grey in the dim candlelight.

He bit the tip of his thumb as he paced back and forth before the row of bookcases. The wax now melted dangerously low on the candlesticks, the flickering flame cast oblong shadows across the marble floor. How long? How long?

A loud pop! echoed in the room and a little elf appeared by Lucius's side, his knobby fingers twisting in the tattered pillowcase hanging loosely from his shoulders.

"Well?" Lucius demanded.

"The item Master described isn't in the Estate," the elf knelt clumsily before Lucius, looking up at him cautiously. "Master, we tried—"

"Not. Hard. Enough," he snarled, and the elf shrank lower onto the ground. "It's here! It's somewhere in this house, it has to be—"

"Lucius."

Lucius stopped. The threatening curl of his lip slipped, and he swallowed thickly. "I did not hear you come in, dear."

Narcissa arched an eyebrow, her nightgown gliding soundlessly across the marble, and stopped before Lucius. "So," Narcissa appraised the frightened House-Elf. "He did not find it." She looked up Lucius again, her face hardened. "You know what this means."

Lucius paled. "Narcissa…"

Narcissa stared back wordlessly. Lucius closed his eyes, the fight deflating from his body.

"He will be angry," Lucius whispered, his eyes darting back and forth across Narcissa's face. "He will be so angry, Narcissa. You do not know his fury, you've never seen….the things he can do, he is not called the Dark Lord without reason…"

"He will be angrier if he finds you've been keeping this from him," said Narcissa sharply. "If you tell him now, on your own, you may have mercy."

Lucius wilted under her stare.

"I…I shall call on him in the morning—"

"You will call on him now," said Narcissa firmly. She turned away from Lucius to begin her own pacing. "He will see it as loyalty—to call at such an hour, as if you contacted him immediately. There will be trust. You must call him now!"

Lucius cursed. Slender fingers pulled back the white sleeve on his left arm as he stared at the pale skin underneath. The Mark was all but disappeared, receded into his skin until summoned. Lucius spread his fingers and held them hovering above his forearm.

It began as a small thrum, a vague sensation of something until the burning began. He hissed through his teeth. The Mark seared his flesh as it resurfaced, twisting and coiling in fresh black ink as a skull yawned, and the spindly shape of a serpent unfurled from its mandible.

The crack that followed was unmistakable.

The elf was still cowering where Lucius had lost his patience. Narcissa stepped forward and ordered, "Bring our guest straight here."

The little elf bobbed his head in a fervent curtsy, then disappeared.

"You should g…" Lucius started to suggest, but the look Narcissa gave him made the rest of his words die on his lips.

No word was spoken after that. Narcissa wrung her hands as she stared into the fireplace, her eyes flickering amber. Lucius leaned closer, his expression soft as he parted his lips, as if to say something. He froze when the door opened.

The elf bowed quickly before jumping aside. A cloaked figure swept into the room, and the air, as if sensing who had arrived, seemed to have gotten colder.

"Leave us," Narcissa said to the elf, and he promptly Disapparated.

Two pale, thin hands drew forward from the cloak and reached up, lowering the hood. Cruel, black eyes met theirs.

"This," Voldemort said coldly, "had better be important."

"O-of course, my lord," Lucius bowed, his eyes fixed on the floor. "I know not to call you unless absolutely necessary."

Lucius waited, silence stretching between them.

"Well?" Voldemort hissed.

Lucius exchanged glances with Narcissa, who pressed her lips in a thin line. Lucius swallowed thickly, and said in a hushed voice, "It…it is about the diary, my lord."

The air shifted suddenly—the Malfoys could feel it. Voldemort sauntered closely to where Lucius stood, his face without expression or concern.

"What of it?" Voldemort replied, his voice barely above a whisper. "Look at me."

Lucius's hands trembled just slightly as he lifted his eyes to meet Voldemort's. They were narrowed, blank, watching him calmly. Lucius knew...Voldemort would try to enter his mind and read his thoughts, to catch if he was lying…Lucius inhaled sharply, gazing at Voldemort directly in the eye, and said, "The diary is missing, my lord."

The library was silent. Voldemort stared at him, then replied, "The diary…is missing."

"My lord."

Narcissa looked between the two men nervously. Voldemort's lip curled and his hand reached for his wand slowly, almost carelessly.

"When."

"Just now, my lord. We called as soon as we—"

"Now, let's not play games." Voldemort's high, cruel voice echoed loudly in the library as began to circle around Lucius, "you noticed it now, that I can obviously see. When did my possession go missing?"

Lucius's throat bobbed as he said quite faintly, "I…I would have to say more than a month at least, my lord."

Narcissa shrieked when Voldemort's wand slashed the air and Lucius convulsed, collapsing to the ground. Voldemort's mouth twisted into a snarl, baring his teeth as he jerked his wand away. Instantly Lucius's body went limp.

"You have failed me, in the deepest way," said Voldemort. He raised his wand higher.

"My lord, please!"

"Narcissa, no!"

Narcissa rushed forward. "Lucius took the Vow to protect your possession to the best of his ability, and he still lives," Narcissa said quickly, ignoring Lucius. "The Vow has not been broken—he has done his best. H…have mercy, my lord. The name Malfoy remains true to you."

Voldemort paused, looking at Narcissa in the faintest surprise, as if he had only just noticed she was in the room. Narcissa willed her body to remain rigid under the Dark Lord's penetrating stare.

"So it would seem."

Lucius picked himself up from the floor, pushing back his hair and keeping his eyes trained carefully to the floor. Voldemort replaced the hood back onto his head and turned to leave.

"I want to know the names of every single person to enter this house since the day that diary entered this library. Every single wretched vermin."

Kicking aside the elf, who had scrambled forward to escort him out, Voldemort disappeared.

From a distance, they heard the telling crack of Disapparation. Lucius sagged against the wall. Narcissa stared out the window, her face hidden in shadow. Lucius wiped the sweat from his brow and chanced a glance at his wife. "D…darling?" When no answer came, Lucius forced himself upright and went to her, stumbling only a little. He patted her shoulder gently. "Narcissa."

Narcissa looked up at him unsteadily. "There is a plague in our home, Lucius. And it will never rest until one of us is dead."

xxx

A cold wind was blowing outside, whistling faintly beyond the window. Hermione could see little swirls of snow gliding gently against the glass. She couldn't remember the number of times she'd done this—simply sitting by the fire on a cold night, a cup in hand while listening to distant sound of the tele. Of course it was not her father's favorite drama but James's, and the home was not quite hers, but it was close enough.

In her other hand was the wand. Harry's wand—her wand. Her thumb idly brushed the side of the wood, smooth and silent. The energy was…different somehow, compared to her old wand. Harry's wand was no more skilled or better, rather that came from the one wielding it—but something was principally different when she held this wand.

Was it because she knew this was Harry's? Was it because she knew he was no longer bound to it, bound to the fate that rested with its wandbearer?

"Sickle for your thoughts?"

Hermione looked up. Sirius settled beside her on the sofa. He was holding a steaming mug with little gingerbread men adorned over it in his hand. Sirius stilled when Hermione stiffened, then shuffled a little away from her, mindful of their distance.

Hermione tried to clear her expression to something more neutral, hoping Sirius would understand she didn't mind him sitting near her. "Just appreciating the quiet," said Hermione, tucking her wand away.

"Lily called," said Sirius. "She made it home just fine."

"I'm glad," Hermione smiled. "I hope she didn't get into any trouble for staying over last night."

"I can't say," Sirius shrugged. Hermione nodded. Sirius watched her take a generous sip of tea. "You like that wand a lot, then?" Hermione looked at him in surprise, and Sirius smiled. "You've been quiet since we left Ollivander's. I can't imagine how I'd feel if mine snapped in half and needed replacing."

"It's not so bad. It was nice going to a wand shop again," said Hermione with a half-smile, but it became uncertain.

"What is it?"

Hermione peered at Sirius for a moment, as if in deep thought. "It's about the wand," she said finally. At Sirius's blank stare, Hermione sighed. "I may as well tell you. I don't see any reason you shouldn't know."

"Know what? Is something wrong with the wand?"

"No, no," Hermione said quickly, a little laugh escaping her. "Nothing like that. Quite the opposite, actually." Hermione picked her wand back up and gazed at it softly, almost with reverence. "This was Harry's wand. At least, it was supposed to be Harry's wand. But it's mine now."

Sirius furrowed his brow. "Harry? The Harry?" Hermione nodded fervently. "But why? How?"

"It just happened," Hermione shrugged. "It chose me. Me. You see what this means, don't you? I'm changing things for the good. Harry's fate has changed. He's not the chosen one anymore, destined to defeat Lord Voldemort. I've spared him that."

"All that from the wand?"

Hermione clicked her tongue impatiently, turning herself so that she faced Sirius completely. "This isn't any old wand, and it wasn't coincidence that it chose Harry in 1991. The core is exactly the same as Voldemort's, making them sort of—sort of like brothers? Harry was meant to have that wand, because he was meant to face Voldemort."

"And now you have it," Sirius concluded. "So what—that makes you the new chosen one?"

Hermione bit her lip. "I think? I can't know for certain obviously, but it would only make sense. My having this wand…it has to mean that I will be the one to face Voldemort, not Harry." Hermione sighed. "I can't say I'm surprised."

"And that prophecy we heard in the pub," Sirius's brow furrowed, as if putting pieces to a puzzle together. "D'you reckon that's got anything to do with it too?"

"It has to," said Hermione. "It's all pointing to me, isn't it? That prophecy, this wand, they were Harry's. Now they're mine."

Sirius stared into the fire, his hands wrapped tightly around the mug, and a comfortable silence passed between them. Hermione finished the last of her tea and set the cup aside. Of course this meant she would have to face Voldemort…her time of hiding in the shadows, silently killing parts of Voldemort's soul, was nearing an end…soon not even the canopy of the Potter house and the protection under Hogwarts would save her. A thrill of fear coursed through Hermione's body as she imagined Voldemort standing before her, his wand pointed at her heart, staring at her with a cold smile and shadowed, depthless eyes.

She shivered and the hairs prickled on her arms. Instinctively she folded her arms, as if shielding herself from Voldemort's gaze.

"There's a blanket in that basket by the fire, shall I get it for you?"

"No thank you," Hermione swallowed thickly. "I'll have to kill him."

Sirius looked at Hermione oddly. "Okay...but what did the blanket do to you to for it earn that death sentence?"

Hermione glared. "I'm not talking about the blanket."

"Then what?" Hermione raised an eyebrow, and Sirius blanched. "Voldemort? You're going to kill Voldemort?" Hermione nodded. Sirius snorted loudly.

"I'm serious," she scowled. "I'll have to do it. It'll have to be done."

"Hermione, the closest you've come to killing anything is the ingredients required for potions," Sirius shook his head, draining his mug and setting it on the floor. "Not to be unsupportive—by all means destroy the darkest wizard in history—but I just can't imagine you doing that. Damage, maybe, but killing someone is something else."

"Sirius, I'll have to," Hermione said sharply, feeling slightly offended, and the feeling grew as Sirius continued shaking his head. Why wouldn't he believe her? "He'll be the last one, the last piece of tainted soul left to destroy, or else it'll all have been for nothing. And with this wand, now, it definitely has to be me."

Sirius shook his head again, not meeting her eyes. Hermione's ire rose. "What do you want from me, Sirius? I have to be realistic here. No one else has a clue of what to do about Voldemort. I came here to this time to end things once and for all, it—it's my responsibility to see it to the end!"

"No," said Sirius. "That's where you're wrong. Your responsibility in this time is to destroy the horcruxes. That was your mission. Nobody enlisted you to defeat Voldemort himself, Hermione. That is not your responsibility."

"There is no other way; I can see that I have to—"

"You're not listening! You don't have to do anything—not about him, just those evil blasted soul pieces scattered across the world—"

"Sirius—"

"No! Don't expect me to sit here idly while you talk about killing Voldemort, as if it's something so easy and palatable. It's not. And I don't understand how you've just…just accepted this as your duty. Calling it fate."

"I never said it was easy. I don't want to do this, any of this. But I know it has to be me. I'm not going to run away from this."

"Okay. Okay, you're killing Voldemort. What will you do?" Sirius crossed his arms expectantly.

Hermione glowered. "I'll duel him."

"How? Using what spells?"

"I don't know, it depends on the situation!" Hermione said shrilly. "I can't predict the future, I've no idea how it'll go!"

"But you know enough that you'll duel him. Do you think you two will be alone? Be given some dark lord-muggleborn privacy? What if his followers are there?"

"Then I'll fight them too."

"What if there's fifty? A hundred? And all their wands are trained on your head."

"Then—then I'll Apparate out of there."

"But now you can't defeat Voldemort. So you'll presumably grab his arm and take him with you, right? He'd love an escort."

"Oh please—"

"Now it's just you and Voldemort. You barely get a spell in before he's taken your wand. Now he's bound you in ropes—silken, probably, because he may be a murderer but he's got class—and breaks that precious destiny-wand right before your eyes. And then the torture begins."

Hermione was silent, breathing hard through her nose and glaring at Sirius with hate-filled eyes. His face was impassive, and continued relentlessly.

"He'll torture you for hours. It won't be a swift death. He'll know you destroyed his horcruxes. He'll want you to taste his wrath. You'll be mad before he kills you."

"Bravo," said Hermione, her voice trembling. "No, really, that was excellent. That was an experience. Your confidence in me—inspiring. I'll remember that on my next trip when I kill another horcrux."

Sirius looked just as furious. "I hope you do. I hope you understand what you're getting yourself into."

"Why are you so angry?" Hermione asked, incredulous. "Why're you taking this so personally?"

Sirius stared at her in a way that made Hermione glance away, her heart thudding. "Each time you hunt and destroy a horcrux, it becomes more dangerous. The risk is higher. Three weeks ago we all nearly died trying to get the locket. If you face Voldemort, someone who will fight back, it's—" He closed his eyes. "Great witches and wizards have died at Voldemort's hand. I don't want you to be one of them too."

Hermione looked at him softly, feeling at a loss for words. "I won't be." Sirius shrugged. "I don't know what else to say."

Sirius shrugged again, picking at the thread of his sweater. "You don't have to say anything." He would not meet her eyes, a distant look about him. "You will do what you need to no matter what I say. It's who you are."

"You would too," Hermione said quietly. "If our roles were reversed, and you had to make this decision, you would too. You're just as stubborn as me."

A tight smile tugged at Sirius's lips. "Bloody hell. You're right."

Hermione smiled with him, yet neither quite reached their eyes.

"What're you going to do about James?"

The question came without warning, startling her. "What about James?"

"It's been a hellish few weeks," Sirius said frankly. "We were…recovering, and James took care of us without pressing on what happened. Surely you don't mean to keep him completely in the dark?"

"Have you told him anything?" Hermione asked, her voice turning sharp, though she did not mean for it.

Sirius stared back impassively.

"No. Of course not."

She released a breath she'd been holding in slowly. "Good," she muttered. "Good."

She felt his gaze on her as her mind went frantically from scenario to scenario. It was a question she had been avoiding for quite a while, one Lily had even prodded about. She knew it would be wrong of her to keep what happened from James…yet the thought of telling any more, of reliving any more, was a thought unbearable.

"I'm not saying you have to tell your whole life story," said Sirius, raising an eyebrow. "But you have to give something. It's wrong to withhold this from him."

"And what about Remus and Peter?" Hermione looked up at him, her eyes shining with turmoil. "Do you see the problem? It keeps going. The list is growing longer; another person condemned with my burden."

"Did you honestly believe you'd be able to keep this to yourself?" Sirius asked, incredulous. "Merlin, Hermione, I'm not saying you tell them you're a bloody time-traveler, just what happened in the cave! We can't avoid it, too much has changed since that day. They already know you're trying to defeat Voldemort, do they not? I don't like lying to my friends more than I am already."

Hermione looked away guiltily, feeling suddenly ill. "If they know how we're doing it, I put them in a position where it could be tortured out of them. You'll be targeted for having this knowledge. Don't you see how much safer it is if nobody else knew we were destroying horcruxes? Gods, I haven't even approached Dumbledore! Nor will I ever, if I can help it."

"Then you planned poorly the moment you came to this age," said Sirius quietly, looking grim. "We were put in danger the moment you decided to befriend us."

Hermione's eyes widened in horror. "Not that you did anything wrong in having friends," he reassured quickly, leaning a bit closer as if it could calm her down. "You're only human. If you weren't, you'd be part of the Death Eaters, I'd reckon."

"No," Hermione said sharply. "They are just as human as us. Never forget that. They are only human too. They will live and die just as the rest of us. It's one of the things that comfort me," Hermione admitted, looking distantly at the crackling fire. "Even Voldemort is human."

They were quiet for a while, until Sirius said, "Have you decided, then?"

Hermione gazed at him, and her heart began to sink. "I don't want to, Sirius," she whispered, her voice troubled. "I really wish I did not have to."

xxx

Snow caked against the window sill in a ceaseless dance against the wind, and Regulus stared back down at his Potions essay irritably. Spots of ink blotched the margins where Regulus had carelessly spilled ink, lost in thought. Twice already he had to use the siphoning charm after knocking over the little ink pot.

He'd been straining himself to concentrate and try to get the last of his Christmas work done before term resumed, but every few minutes Regulus's ears would perk at the softest rustle, the shallowest sound in the wind, thinking them to be the sound of wings at the window or footsteps at the door. The latter was more often true.

Potter's scribbled note was now a tidy pile of ash in Regulus's fireplace, and he glanced at it with disdain. He'd been foolish to owl Regulus. It was luck that Regulus had intercepted the owl before his mother or any of the elves could get their hands on it, and immediately cast in the fire once he read the note.

What could Potter be thinking? Surely Sirius had warned him against sending owls, especially what had happened the last time an owl came for him. Surely Sirius did not want a repeat of the night he left their home.

The note did carry worry, though, and Regulus was anxious…he'd been waiting for days for an opportune moment to leave, to stop by and see Sirius…was he still asleep? Would the cursed potion stay within Sirius for the rest of his natural life? Regulus began asking Kreacher every morning how his health was, and to his relief Kreacher reported improvement by the day, though Regulus knew weakness still resided in him. Yet elfin magic was vastly different than wizard magic, and it was uncertain how Sirius would recover in comparison…

"Shall Kreacher add more wood to the fire?" Kreacher asked, suddenly appearing in the room.

Regulus looked away from the fireplace irritably. "It's fine. Sweep the ashes from the fireplace at dinner. I'll sleep easier knowing that rubble is gone forever."

"As Master wishes," Kreacher bowed deeply. His head still lowered, Kreacher continued, "Kreacher thought it prudent to inform Master Regulus that his friend from school is walking to the manor as we speak."

Regulus's elbow slipped off the desk. Jerking to the window, Regulus hissed through his teeth. "I can't see—who is it, Kreacher! Blast it all," Regulus threw open the door and bound for the stairs.

He could hear the tinkling of the old record player in the drawing room and his father's dry, wheezy cough through the walls, and knew he would be able to sneak to down the hall to the front door without detection. If it was Potter he'd strangle the idiot—but Regulus felt it could not be him, and as he cracked the door open his fears were abated.

"Damn you, Scabior, I told you I can't come out!" Regulus said harshly and allowed Scabior to rush through.

"Sod it," Scabior snapped, shivering. "Haven't heard from you for weeks, you can't blame me for checking on you! 'Specially after what happened this time last year with Sirius—"

"It's not like that," Regulus gritted his teeth. "It's not like last year at all." He noticed Scabior continued to shiver, who shrugged.

"Frostier than a snowman's bottom today?" Scabior said cheerfully, cupping his gloved hands together and blowing on them. "Look, I know your mum don't care for me much, but she can't be mad for too long. Besides, you've been stuck here for weeks."

"With good reason," Regulus scowled. "She wasn't happy you never responded to her letter asking where I was. Thanks again for covering for me," Regulus added, his glare fading briefly. "Father is still unwell, and it's improper for me to leave while he's in such a condition." Regulus muttered under his breath, "Not that I haven't tried."

Scabior nodded. "To see your brother." At Regulus's glare, Scabior added, "What? 'S the last thing you told me."

Regulus opened his mouth to respond, but stilled when he heard a noise come from the drawing room. They stood frozen in the hallway, neither daring to breathe. Only when he heard his father speaking faintly to his mother did Regulus relax. "We shouldn't talk about this here," Regulus glanced above Scabior's shoulder and motioned past him. "Follow me."

With as much stealth as two teenaged boys could muster, they trekked past the hall and to the staircase noiselessly. Regulus cast a wary glance at the drawing room. The record player was off, letting them hear the extent of Regulus's parents' voices.

"She doesn't sound too happy," Scabior muttered under his breath. Walburga's stern voice was unmistakable.

Regulus turned away. "Keep going."

They reached his bedroom and Regulus shut the door behind him quietly. Scabior wandered to the bed and collapsed down, the act coming as naturally to him as if he'd done it a hundred times before, and kicked off his boots to sit cross-legged. Regulus sat beside him, leaning against the wall wearily.

Scabior glanced at Kreacher, who was sweeping ashes from the fireplace, and nodded. "Wotcher."

Kreacher glanced at Scabior and did a small bow by custom, though he did not look happy to do so.

Scabior snorted. "Still doesn't like me."

"To be fair, he hardly likes anyone," Regulus couldn't help but smile. "He only seems to tolerate me better than the rest of my family—or humanity, for that matter."

"That's because it's you," Scabior scoffed, yawning wide. "What's not to like?"

Regulus fell silent. Scabior cleared his throat. "So, what's going on with your dad? He sick?"

Regulus shrugged half-heartedly. "Honestly? I haven't a damn clue. He's been ill and healers have come and gone without much answers."

"Reckon he's getting old," said Scabior.

"Old and senile. He called me 'Sirius' the other day. Why that old cod would care about him is beyond me."

Scabior looked at Regulus hesitantly. "Wasn't—wasn't he the one who…you know…branded him?"

Regulus looked away angrily. "I try not to think about that day. Not so soon after its anniversary."

Scabior looked at Regulus with a mixture of frustration and helplessness. "Reg, you keep staying here, you're bloody miserable. You've got to leave this shit house, damn propriety!"

"You think I haven't tried? It's not so easy, living here with this family is not easy. These last few weeks have been…"

He trailed, lost in thought. Scabior observed him wordlessly, and for a while the only sound that came was Kreacher's sweeping. "You know…you never did explain what happened the night you disappeared. Or why you were with Sirius. Frankly I'd like to know what I covered you for."

Regulus looked slowly to Scabior. "You never mentioned you taught Granger the fiendfyre counter curse."

Scabior looked taken aback. His mouth opened and closed, until settling on a simple, "What?"

"Fiendfyre. She can put it out." He stared at Scabior for a moment. "That day at Hogsmeade, when you got Granger out of the Shrieking Shack—she was the one to put out the fire, wasn't she? I always assumed it'd been you, but…"

"It was her," Scabior agreed. "I taught her the counter curse the day before."

"Why?"

Scabior shrugged. "Boredom. Curiosity. She helped with my essays and kicked Mulciber's ass once without laying a finger on him. Color me intrigued."

"And that convinced you to passed down your family legacy to her?" said Regulus, looking at Scabior with disbelief. "A muggleborn—a Gryffindor? Your family will kill you if they find out, you know."

Scabior narrowed his eyes. "My reasons are my own. What's it matter if she's muggleborn or a Gryffindor? You seem to like her enough for the both of us."

Regulus colored. "I don't fancy her, if that's what you're saying," he retorted hotly.

"Whatever. And I'm not completely daft; I did it so she'd never be able to teach someone the counter curse. You can safely untwist your knickers."

Regulus's glared at Scabior, but it faded as realization dawned on him. "Wait…seriously? A blood seal?" Scabior nodded. "Granger agreed to that?"

"Practically forced me into it," Scabior looked at Regulus rather smugly. "Even came up with the idea before I could get a word in."

Regulus paused at this. Why would Hermione suggest to use such a binding and archaic form of magic—and with Scabior, a boy whom she hardly had to have known at the time? He did not need to guess why she needed to learn the counter curse, knowing now that it was her method of destroying the horcruxes. How long had she been planning this? Was this why she'd chosen to get close to Scabior? Regulus admitted the pair never made much sense to him—not that the tentative alliance between himself and Hermione made any sense either. He never truly considered Hermione Granger a friend, more a curiosity and a means to an end—but that was before Sirius left, before Regulus bore the mark of a Death Eater…before he helped destroy the soul fragment of the same man whom he'd sworn his allegiance to.

"Look I get it," Scabior's voice snapped Regulus from his thoughts. "You don't want to talk and I'm putting you in trouble just being here. Just wanted to see how you were doing, is all." He started to get up.

"What are you talking about? Stop," Scabior had only shifted a few inches before Regulus's hand wrapped around his arm. Scabior stilled. "I'm sorry, alright? I haven't got a clue what I'm doing either so don't—don't leave just yet."

Scabior settled back on the bed, waiting.

"I don't even know where to begin," Regulus muttered, looking more miserable than Scabior had seen him in months. "But—but I feel if I don't say anything at all, I will burst in front of You-Know-Who himself and be killed on the spot." He pounded on the mattress in frustration. "These secrets! They're eating me alive like a blasted flobberworm! I hate them!"

Scabior looked alarmed. "Mate, you better tell me everything right the fuck now. You and I both know you're shit at this alone." After a second's hesitation, Scabior placed his hand over Regulus's. "You've kept this to yourself for too long. You can tell me."

And so, with some exclusions, Regulus did just that.

He spoke uninterrupted for nearly fifteen minutes. Scabior sat back, his eyes wide and jaw slackened. "Fucking. Hell."

Regulus smiled. But before he could get another word in he winced painfully, a gasp escaping him.

"What? What is it?" asked Scabior, alarmed. Regulus clutched at his forearm, and shoved back his sleeve.

The Mark was burning deep into Regulus's skin.

xxx

Several miles away at that very moment, Hermione leveled her gaze at the room full of marauders.

When she sat before James, Remus, and Peter, telling them the rehearsed tale she'd gone over with Sirius—finding artifacts that would weaken Voldemort if destroyed, and then regaling an abridged version of the events of the cave—Sirius sat beside her, a silent presence; a warmth she needed only to glance at and he would inch very slightly closer, but only just. He was mindful of their space, of the way she tensed if anyone came too close—she had explained to him again out of guilt why she did not want to be touched, at least not yet—not while the Inferi still came to her in her dreams, their cold, clammy embrace rapidly suffocating her—but he had eased her worry, and just as simply kept a mindful distance.

And now, in the wake of telling Peter, James, and Remus the half-truth she was willing to tell, he was doing it again.

Peter and Remus were first to start. Throughout Hermione's tale they were perplexed and shocked, and when she finally finished the loud words had begun.

James was marginally quieter, absorbing Hermione's words pensively, and darting glances at Sirius as if to confirm. Hermione did not miss the little nods Sirius always gave back, as if to say yes, bloody hell, but yes.

"This is madness," Peter kept shaking his head, his voice bordering hysterical, "you—you—that's dangerous—and Sirius—hurt—you can't keep—keep—keep—"

Remus rested his hand on Peter's shoulder, and took over. "I agree," he said solemnly at Hermione, whose eyes were trained on her knees. Sirius kept glancing worriedly at Hermione. "This is too dangerous. Like it or not you're just schoolkids—why not tell Dumbledore? He could take over and leave you out of it. This isn't your responsibility…and Hermione…." His tone went soft, understanding. "Look what they did to your parents. Do you—"

"Thank you for your input," Hermione said suddenly, though her tone remained even and exceedingly polite. "I've told them they don't need to involve themselves with my problems, but if they volunteer I can't stop them. Clearly I've tried. My work is my own, and I'm sorry, but it has to be done. You will not," Hermione's eyes flashed warningly at Remus, "tell Dumbledore. I won't have it. Now, I'm tired. I'll see you at dinner, if you stay that long."

Hermione stood quickly and left the room. Her feet bound up the stairs, and with each successive step her composure decayed, until she had closed the door to her room and pressed her back against it.

Sirius's eyes followed Hermione as she left, his mouth pressed in a grim line.

Remus was dismayed. "What was…that?" He glanced at James. "Was it something I said?"

"She didn't want to do this," Sirius said quietly, sighing as he glanced up at the ceiling. "It's been a difficult few weeks for her. Especially her."

"From what I just heard she's not the only one," said Remus, his voice soft but the trace of annoyance was unmistakable. "Sirius. This is madness. You don't really believe that this is—this is right, do you? Collecting objects that can weaken You-Know-Who if destroyed—I cannot honestly believe such items exist."

"Dark magic," said James. His voice was hushed, still. He had not spoken throughout Hermione's tale, but seemed to have finally found his voice. James looked at Sirius, as if trying to pry the truth from his eyes. "Old magic. All but forgotten. Only the very old, ancient families would have the faintest idea of such magic."

"Yes," said Sirius, his eyes trained carefully on James's knowing look. "The darkest magic."

James fell silent, looking visibly disturbed.

Peter spoke up hesitantly. "H-how did she even find out about these things? How does she know where they are?"

Sirius shook his head.

"She's putting herself and others in danger by pursuing this," Remus said angrily, clearly unwilling to let it go. Sirius glared at Remus.

"You haven't a clue what that girl has done for the wizarding world," said Sirius calmly, his grey eyes turning cold. "It took a lot of courage just telling you three this much, and you're throwing it back in her face! Unbelievable."

"That's not fair," said James. "We're worried. And you two—plus your brother—nearly died. I think we've got a right to care for your safety. This isn't a prank or a spat with a Slytherin; you're meddling in something you'll be murdered for."

"We're already in a war," said Sirius, and he stood abruptly. "Next year you'll be fighting it. We're old enough to know what's right. This is right."

Sirius looked at the three of them sitting on the sofa, all wearing identical looks of disbelief. As if repulsed, Sirius left the room and bound for the stairs.

He paused before Hermione's bedroom. Pursing his lips, he knocked twice.

The door swung open and Hermione's surprised face greeted him. "Sirius?"

Several emotions flitted across Sirius's face, his mouth parting with words stuck in his throat; she assumed he came to console her or vent with her, to presumably discuss what had just transpired.

But instead, all Sirius said was, "D'you want to get a motorcycle with me?"

xxx

They dressed quickly. Hermione couldn't believe she'd be witnessing this—the motorcycle! The very one she'd heard about ages ago, the one Hagrid told stories of, when he brought baby Harry to his aunt and uncle's doorstep. Hermione had never given it more thought than that, but as she pulled on her gloves and jammed a woolen hat on her head, she was brimming with excitement.

To some level Hermione knew he only invited her to make her feel better; hatched this plan in the spur-of-the-moment. Not that she minded, considering how their conversation with James, Peter, and Remus had went a half hour earlier.

Nevermind the illogicality behind their day trip—how does one even go about purchasing a motorcycle?—but for the first time in a while Hermione did not worry about the finer details. This was Sirius's day, and he was welcome to work it all out himself.

Pocketing her wand, Hermione marched to Sirius's bedroom and knocked twice. When no answer came, she knocked again, harder. "Sirius? Are you ready?"

The door opened suddenly and the blood drained from Hermione's face. "So you're not ready."

"I can't—put this—sweater on—could you help me?" Sirius wrestled with a large winter green sweater that was halfway on his shoulders, leaving the bottom half of his torso bare.

"Er…yes. Of course." Hermione grabbed the sweater off his head and straightened it, holding it out before her. Squinting, she muttered, "Are you sure it's not charmed?"

"Charmed? Why the hell would I need a charmed sweater?" Sirius groused, crossing his arms over his bare chest.

Hermione cleared her throat. "I've no idea, but if you would observe…" Hermione stuck her hand through the sweater, making to extend it through the neck, but it shrunk smaller and smaller as Hermione fought to put her hand through.

Sirius's gaze darkened. "James." He snatched the sweater from Hermione and stalked back inside his room. Hermione dared only to take a step in. "He gave this last Christmas—I see now why he wanted me to wear it in front of him. A prank sweater."

"Be grateful it doesn't shrink while your head is actually through it," said Hermione loftily. Sirius gave a sour look as he shoved on a black sweater instead and dressed quickly.

"Let's go," Sirius ushered her to the door and closed it behind him. They stood in the hallway for a moment as Sirius put on his gloves, his fingers flexing through the fabric. Hermione looked away again, not knowing why she had to, but didn't really want to question the instinct.

James was sitting with textbook on his lap when they came downstairs. He looked up, his eyes flickering to their changed clothing. "Going somewhere?"

"Yeah, we're gonna poke about a few shops for a bit. Did they leave?" Sirius glanced where Remus and Peter had sat.

James nodded. "They'll be back for dinner, though."

"You want to come with us?" Sirius asked, glancing at Hermione as if in question. Hermione shrugged. "It's for the bike."

James's eyes sparked with excitement. "Did you pick one out already?"

Sirius pressed his lips together, as if unsure. "Eh…I'm going with the second idea."

Just as quickly the excitement in James's eyes dimmed, and Hermione became greatly curious at what the second idea could possibly be when James returned to his book with disinterest. "I think I'll skip, then. You two have fun."

Sirius shrugged. "Suit yourself. The fireplace, Hermione."

"Oh," said, Hermione, surprised, and went to take a handful of Floo powder off the mantle. "Where're we going? I could Apparate us there if you like?"

"Nah, it's better to go this way. You'll see. Diagon Alley, if you please."

Nodding, Hermione cast the powder into the fire and was transported to a large dusty grate. Before her was the Leaky Cauldron's brick entrance, though it was sealed at the moment. She heard the sound of a distantly roaring fire and quickly Hermione stepped out of the grate, just barely missing a clash with Sirius's body. They dusted themselves off quickly and Sirius took out his wand, heading for the brick wall.

"But that's to muggle London," Hermione protested. Sirius flashed wry smile.

"And so it is we go," he replied easily, and started to tap the bricks.

Hermione scrunched her nose as the loud bar music blared in her ears. The dim lighting of the Leaky Cauldron always bothered her, and her eyes had to adjust to the change while Sirius maneuvered them to the exit.

"Do you even know where you're going?" Hermione asked irritably, rubbing her eyes as they made yet another turn down an alley.

"Not the foggiest," said Sirius cheerfully, but he cleared his throat at Hermione's dark stare. "Yeah, I've got an idea. It's not—not conventional, but I'm hoping I'll come across it…took me ages trying to find a good muggle paper with these types of shops in their listing…"

Hermione's curiosity—and dismay—only increased further as they veered away from the busy parts of town. They now walked on a desolate street, this part of London looking weary and weather-worn, and the sidewalks less polished. Sirius's pace grew faster and Hermione tried to keep up with him. They were getting closer.

Sirius gave a low grunt and slowed a bit, grimacing. Hermione touched his arm worriedly. "Are you alright?"

"Fine," said Sirius. The frown did not go away. "Just walked a bit too fast there."

"You're still healing," Hermione murmured. Sirius shrugged, and reluctantly Hermione let it drop.

After several more minutes of walking in silence, Sirius came to a stop.

"There it is," Sirius pointed with a relieved smile. "Oh, it's a beauty."

Hermione glanced at Sirius, deadpanned. "It's a junk shop."

"It's a bargain!" a man came out of a large garage, his arms spread open in greeting. "Are you the lad I spoke with over the phone a few days ago asking for parts?"

"That's me," Sirius smiled serenely, holding out his hand. The man shook it vigorously.

"Excellent, excellent. Well have a look around, don't just stand there! We've got handles, exhaust pipes, brakes, gear shifts, even some vintage pieces stashed in the back if I remember…."

"You have the Norton models I asked after?" Sirius asked, not looking away from a sign that was propped up next to the garage.

"Y…yes, but they're quite a bit older…young man like yourself would probably prefer our newer additions—"

"Let's have a look the Nortons, then," Sirius looked up, smiling kindly. The man's grin shrank a few molars, but he inclined his head graciously and gestured them to follow. Hermione exchanged a wary glance with Sirius, who seemed infuriatingly unfazed.

He brought them to a smaller garage. The pavement was riddled with cracks and fissures, and against a crumbling wall were several motorcycles—at least, they once were motorcycles. What stood before them now were the bare skeletal remains of a possible, plausible machine. Nearly all of them did not have tires—they didn't have much of anything, frankly—but Sirius seemed to take this in stride and was beaming at the paltry collection.

"Brilliant," Sirius looked elatedly at Hermione, grinning so earnestly that Hermione fought the urge to laugh. "Gods, how will I get through all of these before dark?"

"I wonder how we'll manage," Hermione said vaguely, thinking of James again. She needed to start crediting his wisdom…

"I have customers to attend to now. If you need anything just shout for Calimocho and I'll be back, quick as lightning!" Sirius and Hermione nodded, and the man—Calimocho, apparently—left the small garage. Sirius glanced at Hermione, biting his lower lip.

"Would you mind helping me?"

"Of course!" Hermione rolled up her coat sleeves as far as they would go, wringing out her fingers. "Just tell me what you need."

Sirius's eyes lighted, and she could feel his eagerness as if it were a tangible energy, and all she'd need to do was stretch her fingers and twine them through it.

"Well," he patted his hands on the front of his jeans, trying to gather his thoughts. He glanced about the bikes. "Well, we're looking for something sturdy. It doesn't so much matter how little parts are on it or how old they are. If they're not rusted, if they seem like they can handle themselves, they're good enough."

"Okay," Hermione nodded, looking at the row of bikes in a new light. "Sounds simple enough."

Sirius nodded. "Right. Sadly we won't be able to gather everything we need today, but it's a start."

"I was just wondering, why are you building the motorcycle on your own?" asked Hermione, unable to hide her curiosity any longer. "You were looking through those magazines before, I remember. Weren't any of those good?"

A secretive smile crept on Sirius's face. "Oh, they were," he replied slyly. "But there are benefits in building some things on your own rather than purchase what's in stock. For instance," Sirius gestured at the bikes. "This'll be a hell of a lot cheaper."

"Right," Hermione shook her head, smiling. "Let's get to it, then."

For the next hour they sorted through the motorcycles bits. It was marginally more difficult as they could not use magic, especially since the shop owner kept popping in to check on them, but it did not bother Hermione all that much. She could tell Sirius was struggling however; he was badly out of breath and kept stopping to lean against the wall, ducking his head. Hermione could tell he wasn't fully healed yet, but Sirius seemed incapable of giving his body any more rest. If he felt poorly, he never said a word of complaint.

She wiped the beads of sweat on her forehead away with the back of her sleeve and hauled another bike piece away from the row against the wall, grunting with the effort. Stepping back, she inspected it with a frown and compared it to the discarded pieces.

"Anything yet?" Sirius called. Hermione said nothing as she stared down at the bike. She felt the air shift around her and Sirius was now by her side, peering down at the bike with her.

"Blimey," was all he said.

"That's what I was thinking too," Hermione nodded.

Sirius let out a huff. "I found two potential ones but compared to this…"

Hermione looked over to where Sirius had been working and saw the two he'd picked out.

"Those two aren't bad," she said hesitantly.

Sirius glanced at her. Quietly, he replied, "Which do you like best?"

Hermione glanced up at him and bit her lip, looking at the bikes seriously. She then looked at him, smiling hopefully.

Something in Sirius's eyes softened. "My new motorcycle."

xxx

James stared at them blankly. They were out of breath and covered with dirt, sharing identical broad grins.

"Dad will most definitely kick your arse if you ever bring this stuff into the house."

"What do you think?" said Hermione. Sirius snorted next to her and she grinned even wider until her cheeks started to hurt.

"You're both mad. I want the first ride when it's done."

"Sorry mate," Sirius shook his head, slinging his arm around Hermione's shoulders. "That's reserved for her. Since she came with me, she's got first priority."

James made a face. "I need to Floo Peter and Remus. They need to see this."

xxx

The holidays were nearing an end and Charlus and Dorea were still not back. Hermione began asking James several times a day whether they had owled or mentioned when they would come home, but James pressed his lips and shook his head each time.

Hermione could tell he was even more worried than she was. Why had they disappeared so suddenly, without explanation? It was unlike them…it had to be something of great importance for them to be away for so long…

"My hand's cramping again, shit," Sirius muttered next to her. Hermione glanced at him and saw him clenching his hand, putting down the socket wrench he'd been using just moments ago.

"I told you not to overwork it," Hermione scowled. "You've been at this for hours and hours each day. There's no hurry."

"I can't focus on anything else until it's done," Sirius said grimly. "I'm sorry, I can't help it."

Hermione sighed. "Get those wrappings from the kit and tie it around your hand. I'll finish the rest of this part and then we're taking a break."

Sirius nodded gratefully and stood. Hermione slipped off the stool she'd been sitting on and took Sirius's place, kneeling on the pavement and picking up the wrench. It was easy enough to follow, and both Sirius and Hermione were relatively new to building mechanical parts, so for the last few days they'd thrown themselves into building the bike from the ground up. Hermione liked the challenge and welcomed the distraction—she ignored Sirius's protests that she didn't need to help him, saying she had nothing else to do anyway. Gritting her teeth, Hermione began her work.

"I never thought how useful a garage would be until now," Sirius noted idly as he plopped himself onto the stool. "Feels a bit weird doing this in the backyard."

"Be grateful we're not doing it in front of the house anymore," Hermione grunted as she yanked down on the wrench until it turned no more. "The stares we got, you'd think we were building some sort of weapon!"

"Right?" Sirius's lip curled distastefully. "Our folk need to get out more, honestly."

"They do. Okay so the enchantments now, right?"

"Right," Sirius jumped to his feet and took out his wand. Hermione held out her hand.

"I can do it, don't worry," Hermione gave a look. Sirius blinked.

"It's alright, Hermione. I feel bad as it is for making you do my work."

"Sirius."

Sirius grimaced, then put his wand away. "Fine." Hermione smiled triumphantly and raised her wand. "Three times, remember."

"I remember," Hermione reassured, then focused back on the motorcycle. She pointed her wand steadily. "Potestas. Potestas. Potestas."

Three golden threads swirled from the tip of Hermione's wand and slithered around the motorcycle. The light spread, glittering gold until it encompassed the bike entirely. It blazed for a moment, then disappeared.

Hermione put away her wand, looking proud. "See? I am perfectly capable—"

They both froze. A loud noise was coming from inside the house.

Hermione looked to Sirius. "The Potters?" Sirius suggested. Without wasting any time, they bolted inside the house.

The foyer was empty, as were the rooms on the first floor. Puzzled, they followed the sound as it came and went, until the sound was clearer and distinctively familiar…they went back into the parlor and paused, waiting.

"Here!"

Hermione jolted. "The fireplace. It came from the fireplace," Hermione and Sirius rushed towards it. A head was bobbing in the flames frantically.

"Regulus!" Sirius exclaimed. "What're you—"

"He knows!" Regulus shouted, glancing behind him as if someone were watching him. "He knows! He called a meeting—he knows! You're not safe, don't do anything more—he—" His head disappeared briefly. Hermione's heart thudded wildly, and glanced at Sirius. Fear rippled through her and she felt like any minute she would vomit.

Regulus's head appeared again. "Let me through," he said urgently. "Unseal it so I can get through, I can get away for a few minutes—"

"I-I don't know how!" said Sirius, looking at the fireplace frustratedly. "Hermione do you—?"

Hermione shook her head helplessly. Regulus began shouting again.

"Let me through! My side's open, I just need to get in—"

"I can go to you," Sirius realized. "Our side is one-way, so we can go but you can't come in. If your fireplace is open I can get to you."

Regulus's head disappeared suddenly. Sirius grabbed a fistful of Floo powder off the mantle and stepped to the grate. Hermione caught his arm.

"Sirius, no! You can't go there, it's not safe!"

"I have to. Didn't you hear what he said? I have to know—I'll just be a minute."

"He's gone, Sirius! He didn't say if it was okay or not, for all you know this could be a trap. Just wait. You're not thinking clearly."

Sirius was already shaking his head hard. "I'm sorry." Throwing the powder in the fireplace, Sirius shouted, "Number Twelve Grimmauld Place!"

Sirius spun around in the fireplace until he landed hard, his knees giving way. Coughing, Sirius stumbled to his feet and stepped out of the grating. It was only too familiar to him—he was in the Black library.

"Ahem."

Sirius stiffened. Turning slowly, Sirius felt the blood drain from his face.

"Mother."

XXX

Hello! I realize it's been ages, and I'm sorry. Hopefully this update makes it a little better. I suppose this obliterates my hopes of completing this fanfic by January, so now I'll just say it'll be finished whenever it can be finished, though not very much is left if that's any consolation.

I don't have much to comment on for this chapter just yet. I hope you liked it! It was rewritten about four times and heavily edited, so that's partly why it takes so long getting these chapters out.

In the last chapter I crossed the 1k review mark, which is incredible! You guys are just amazing, thank you for your enthusiasm and support as always!

A massive thanks to hinatas for being such an incredible beta. Her quick wit, good eye, and relentless encouragement make this fic what it is today.

As always, thank you for reading and giving this fic a chance! Please let me know what you thought, I read and respond to each one!

Until chapter 24 xx