For the Word Limit Competition, Round 3. 1500+/-100 words. Prompt: "Go all the way."

Also for the Regulus Black Competition.

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No Going Back

"Right here, Master Regulus," Kreacher murmurs, gesturing to a patch of dark, damp stone that – to Regulus, at least – looks exactly like every other patch of dark, damp stone in this cave.

He trusts Kreacher. He doesn't doubt the elf. Still, he hesitates.

He hesitates because he recognizes that, at this point, he can still go back. He can still say, No, I don't want to do this. Because he doesn't want to.

Regulus isn't stupid. He knows where this endeavor is going to end. He knows that, if he goes through with this, one way or another, it will be the last thing he ever does.

He knows that.

And so, for just a moment, Regulus allows himself to imagine going home. He allows himself to envision turning around right now, and not looking back. He pictures retrieving the note to his mother from the kitchen counter, sparing her the pain of ever having to read it. He imagines burning it, along with the note to the Dark Lord currently in his pocket. He imagines pretending this almost-betrayal never happened.

He'd go home and act like everything was perfectly normal. He'd put up the charade and pretend nothing had changed, but everything would have. Nothing can be the same after this. But he'd pretend – for his mother, for his Lord, for his life. He'd pretend like he believed in every word the Dark Lord said. He'd pretend he agreed with his mother's pureblood supremacy rants. He'd pretend to be the same perfect son he'd always been – but he wouldn't be.

Everything would be different. Only, really, nothing would be. He would be what was different. He would be the thing that had changed.

He imagines himself going home. He imagines, sometime in the not-too-distant future, the Mark on his arm burning with that sensation that used to send a thrill of excitement through his veins, and recently only sends tendrils of dread instead.

He imagines kneeling at the hem of the Dark Lord's robe, knowing the lengths he'd gone to for immortality. He imagines pretending to worship, pretending to believe the same way he used to when he was eighteen and fresh out of Hogwarts when he thought he knew everything but he didn't really know anything at all about how the world worked.

He imagines going on raids with the rest of them, tormenting and torturing Muggles simply for being Muggles. He imagines the continuing, repetitive pain of knowing his curse was the one to take someone's life. He knows that pain already. He doesn't want to feel that way anymore.

He imagines nothing in his life changing. He'd stay on this same course, nothing to move him to another. He imagines nothing ever changing. He'd live the same charade, day in and day out, until one day, he'd die. Because nothing will change. With the Dark Lord immortal, his power will only grow, with no foreseeable end. And if he misses this chance to get out, he can't see himself ever finding another one.

He sees the pride in his mother's eyes and the disappointment in his brother's.

I just wanted everyone to be happy with me, he thinks. I just wanted to make her proud.

But Regulus is done acting for everybody else. He's done being who everyone else wants him to be, and he's done trying to be perfect for everybody – because it isn't possible. It isn't possible to be everyone's ideal of perfect all at once. And Regulus would know, because he's tried. He tried so hard to be what everyone needed him to be, but he understands now that he is only human. He can't be everything they need him to be all at once – there isn't enough of him for that. He is imperfect and flawed and messy and all of that – but that is what it means to be human. He is human.

And, for the first time in his life, Regulus is okay with that. He's okay with being limited and flawed and broken, because he's done living for everyone else. He's done trying to make everyone else proud. Regulus just wants to be someone he can be proud of. He wants to make decisions that he believes in, simply because he believes in them. He wants to choose things that he isn't going to think back on and regret because it made this person happy and this person upset. He wants to choose things that he doesn't have to regret, no matter what. No regrets.

Regulus isn't kidding himself. He knows that he isn't Sirius – he isn't brave or strong or any of that. He's a Slytherin, and, if he's honest with himself, a bit of a coward. He knows how to twist words so well that he can make anything out of a single sentence, and he's one heck of a Seeker, but he's not brave. He's not a risk taker except on a broom – his self-preservation instincts are too strong for that. He's used to hedging his bets and weighing out all the options and picking the one that's least likely to lead to detrimental effects for him – and the one that will make everybody proud. And when those conflict, well, Regulus has always had stronger self-preservation instincts than anything else.

Sure, he's taken a hit now and again for people's impressions of him – because sometimes reputation has to be more important than anything else, because if his reputation is dirt he can't get anywhere at all.

But this isn't about reputation. Not tonight; not at all. If he goes through with it, reputation will mean nothing because he'll be gone, and if he doesn't, no one will know.

And this isn't about making people proud. His mother won't know until afterward, when she finds his very censored, very carefully worded note. Everyone else won't ever know at all.

So it's not about reputation. It's not about making people proud. This is about Regulus. This is about self-preservation versus being someone that he's proud of. It's about which one matters more to him – the one thing he's always clung to or the thing that he just realized matters.

And some part of Regulus knows that this outer cavern is his last real chance to turn back. This is one of the last moments he has to decide that he doesn't want to do this.

And, abruptly, Regulus realizes what it is that's holding him back, what it is that's got his feet encased in sticking spells.

He doesn't want to die.

He's not ready to die.

Regulus is only just barely eighteen years old. He shouldn't be making decisions about life and death – about his death, about the Dark Lord's. But he doesn't have much of a choice, anymore. The decision rests securely on his shoulders.

And somehow, in this moment, it doesn't matter that he's not ready to die. It doesn't matter that he's only eighteen. It only matters that the Dark Lord cannot reign forever, and Regulus knows how to take him down – and he might be the only one.

He steps forward, pricking his finger with his wand as he does. He pokes the rock gently where Kreacher is standing and watches it melt away.

He hesitates for only a moment in the archway. I can still go back, he thinks. But he steps forward again. He follows Kreacher along the cave wall. Once more, he hesitates, but he pulls up the invisible chain despite it. He climbs into the tiny boat, Kreacher at his side.

It's when he stands on the island in the middle of a lake of Inferi that he hesitates the longest. It's a cruel way to die, and, if he believes Kreacher – and he does – this potion is going to make him live his worst nightmares. It isn't going to be easy, and it isn't going to be pretty.

He really, really doesn't want to do this. He desperately wants to turn around and climb back in that boat and go home, but he can't take it any more. He can't take pretending to believe in something that he stopped believing in too long ago.

But he's come this far. He's come this far, and he doesn't see that there's much point in turning back. I'm here. There's nothing for it but to go all the way.