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The Fall of the House of Black

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When Voldemort came for the infant Harry Potter, his parents were away attending a funeral. Sirius Black, who was not the family’s Secret Keeper, had been appointed babysitter. He had sworn to his best friend that he would guard his godson with his life, and he meant every word.

“Stand aside, Sirius Black,” said the Dark Lord.

“No,” growled Sirius, with his back to the cradle and his wand in his hand.

Tom Riddle had once been a charming man, persuasive, silver-tongued. “You are a pureblood of impeccable family,” said the Dark Lord. “There is no need for you to die here. Stand aside, silly boy.”

“Never,” said Sirius, loyal to the very end.

In another life, Lily Evans Potter stood on these very floorboards and defied a wizard who scorned every fiber of her being. She was told to step aside—like a puppy or plaything, a prize for a loyal servant who had pleaded for her life—and she refused. She died for love, for a future she would never live to see.

In this room, there was only Sirius Black, blood traitor, a wizard in whom Voldemort saw willful ignorance, betrayal, an unblemished pedigree, wasted potential. He was told to step aside—the Dark Lord believed that blood would out, that he could be won, a prize for a loyal servant who had pleaded for his life—and he refused. He died for love, for honor, for true friends who became his family when his flesh and blood disowned him.

In a time of war, there are always men and women willing to die for love. There are few who look death in the eye, take the balance of their lives, and make the choice. There are few who are given the choice at all.

The story of the Boy Who Lived does not begin on the night he did not die. His story begins decades earlier, in the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.

When Sirius Black was sorted into Gryffindor, he wrote his parents with the same cocksure defiance common to boys the world over, which he never grew out of all his life. Walburga Black wept. Her husband consoled her, saying, “There are well-bred purebloods in Gryffindor, too, dearest,” and “You had a great-uncle who was a Ravenclaw, didn’t you?” and “He’ll come ‘round, make friends with the right sort, just give him a few years.”

Sirius wrote his Uncle Alphard, who was more forgiving than his much-older sister, and had some odd notions about magical creatures besides. Alphard thought it all rather droll, and replied, “At least you’re not a Squib. I don’t think your mother would have survived the disgrace.” A few years later, when Sirius showed no signs of reform, Alphard would caution, more soberly, “Don’t forget to think of your future. You’re almost a man, now, and there is only so far I can protect you.”

Sirius wrote to his baby brother, who would spend two impressionable years in an uneasy house without the shield of a brash older sibling who loved him and loved to flout their parents’ rules, in about equal measure. “Mother and Father are still awfully upset,” Regulus wrote back. “Please come home for Christmas.”

The morning after the Sorting Feast, Andromeda Black crossed the Great Hall to the Gryffindor table, dragging a handsome, broad-shouldered Hufflepuff prefect by the hand. “This is my boyfriend, Ted,” she said to Sirius, her chin lifted in steely defiance.

“I’m Sirius,” he replied with a grin, and extended his hand. To his favorite cousin, Sirius said, “Hufflepuff and Muggleborn, Mother told us. You might have me beat for worst Black cousin of our generation.”

Eyeing the messy-haired boy next to him, Andromeda said, “You’ve gone Gryffindor and befriended a blood traitor, too. I might have to marry Ted to even the score.” More soberly, she added, “Don’t do anything stupid, cousin. This is not a competition.”

Ted Tonks wrapped an arm around Andromeda’s waist. “I wouldn’t mind if it were.”

James Potter glanced at Ted, then at the beautiful red-haired Muggleborn girl at the other end of the table, and didn’t say a word.

In his brother’s absence, Regulus deflected attention in other ways. A quiet boy, he spent long afternoons hiding in the family library, reading all the books his heart desired without the supervision of his tutors. He read Hogwarts: A History and imagined that, like one of his disowned great-uncles, he might be a Ravenclaw—but then he thought about his mother’s angry tears and his father’s somber convictions, and hoped that he wouldn’t disappoint them.

Two years later, Regulus Black was sorted into Slytherin with the mantle of his parents’ hopes and dreams on his narrow shoulders, and befriended another quiet, smart, and secretly terrified boy in his house. He sat next to Severus Snape at mealtimes, stared across the Great Hall at his brother’s laughing face, his many admirers, and only sometimes wondered what it might be like to trade one outcast for another. He saw the way his brother and the Potter boy protected their own bookish and frightened friend (a werewolf, if Hogwarts gossip was to be believed). In a kinder world, he imagined, a world without Dark Lords and blood allegiances, they might have found it in their hearts to take in a few more strays.

Sirius looked at the green on Severus Snape’s robes, his cruel and inventive curses, the aegis of his pureblood protectors—so like his own twisted family—and could not see a life built on poverty and desperation, a keenly honed instinct to survive. Here was a boy, born to a Noble and Most Ancient House, who never knew what it was to go hungry; the poorest of his friends was middle-class, really, Remus’s family struggling only under the weight of his unusual and exorbitant medical expenses. Here was a boy who saw tenacity as selfishness, saw the sharp tongue and poor decisions of a scared child as irrevocable moral failure, and chose never to extend his hand. Here was a boy who looked at the brother who idolized him, saw the company he kept and the choices he made, and turned his back. With nothing but his overstuffed Hogwarts trunk and a purse of Uncle Alphard’s gold, Sirius left Grimmauld Place for good, without a word of farewell to Regulus, who had pleaded quietly with him not to go. (But to the end of his days, Sirius Black would never forgive the hook-nosed boy who led his wide-eyed baby brother down the dark path their parents had meant for them both.)

Regulus could never turn his back. His first brother, the one he loved best, was no longer speaking to him, so he found others to fill the hole in his life. He looked at James Potter, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew, and decided that family was not born, but made. (They were purebloods, all of those Gryffindor boys. How ironic, thought Regulus, as he stole a spoonful of Severus’s pudding.) He watched Severus call Lily Evans “Mudblood” by the lake, watched him forge something resembling power out of the ruins of his heart. He watched Severus prove himself to the Dark Lord with batches of Restricted potions, perfectly brewed. They took the Mark on the same night—Regulus, by virtue of his pedigree, required no testing at all. He went home to Grimmauld Place that weekend, to parents who loved him, and basked in their quiet pride.

“One of our sons, at least, will make something of himself,” said his father.

“We have one son,” said his mother, her face impassive, the Black family tapestry unfurled on the wall behind her.

Regulus glanced at the burn mark in the space next to his own name, and swallowed down his grief with a smile on his face. He went to Sirius’s bedroom and set his bag down on the stripped and sterile mattress where his brother once held him close under the covers during a thunderstorm. A stack of books spilled out: texts on dark magic that Severus had loaned him, with his friend’s spidery notes in the margins, supplemented by rarer volumes from his parents’ library, books they kept under layers of wards, now given to him from his father’s own hand, an inheritance.

He found a small, framed photograph wedged between the bed and the wall. He remembered posing for it in itchy, child-sized dress robes, a ten-year-old Sirius fidgeting with his collar and attempting to tickle his brother at the exact moment the flash bulb went off. Their parents, standing tall behind them, clad in velvet and lace and the weighty dignity of an ancient name, showing off their sons. A formal portrait. A family.

He read about blood magic into the wee hours of the morning, and fell asleep in his school uniform in his brother’s bed.

Regulus woke to the sound of curtains being drawn open, a house-elf setting a basin of water and a washcloth on the nightstand. He rubbed his gritty eyes and examined the straight razor the elf brought him, one of his father’s spares. His reflection looked more like his brother’s than either of his parents’.

“Young master must return to school,” said Kreacher, pressing murtlap-infused bandages into his hands. The elf helped him wrap one around his forearm in silence. Regulus did not thank him.

Regulus rose from the bed and gathered his books into his bulging schoolbag. He slid the remaining bandages into the front pocket, and then, after a moment’s hesitation, the family portrait as well. He looked around the room, now devoid of its Gryffindor Quidditch banner and messy armoire full of stylish robes and Zonko’s products—all the things that had made it Sirius’s room. Regulus stepped into the fireplace, and walked into the Slytherin common room, where Severus was waiting for him.

Here was a boy, sixteen years old, choosing the sort of man he wanted to become.

 James Potter became an Auror at nineteen. He imagined that in a different world—one with no Dark Lord, where his brave and blindingly bright Muggleborn fiancée had not joined the Auror Service straight out of Hogwarts, where a subset of her new colleagues did not whisper about her in the halls of a fading Ministry—he might have played professional Quidditch. (He might still have quit too early in his career, to raise his son and nephew as devotedly as his parents raised him.)

In this world, James Potter Flooed to work with the woman he loved, and threw his pure blood and heirloom engagement ring in front of her like a shield. He attended meetings with Lucius Malfoy and Rodolphus Lestrange, and fed information back to the Order of the Phoenix when he could. Dumbledore trusted Severus Snape, he knew, but there were certain circles that only a pureblood of impeccable lineage could breach.

Unlike his best friend, Sirius Black, it was decided, did not have the temperament to follow orders. He did, however, pledge his wand to Albus Dumbledore, to the resistance, for as long as the war would require.

“Your brother is out there, isn’t he,” Dumbledore said to him one night, after an Order meeting.

Sirius looked out at the room, his heart filling with pride and love for the family he had chosen. James stood over an oversized map of London covered in pushpins, his new bride leaning over his shoulder. Remus, still wan from a recent full moon, was taking careful notes. Peter stood behind him, nibbling on a peanut butter sandwich. “My brothers are right here,” said Sirius.

Regulus was shocked into witless silence the first time Peter Pettigrew appeared at a meeting of Death Eaters. Pettigrew had been one of his brother’s hangers-on, one of his best friends, for as long as Regulus could remember. He saw Pettigrew kneel and beg for protection, and though he had himself bent the knee in that same patch of grass, he felt revulsion coiling in his gut like a snake. Gryffindors are supposed to be brave, he thought. Gryffindors are righteous and arrogant and loyal, like Sirius, who would never betray his friends. And then, despairingly, Sirius should have chosen his friends more wisely.

He knew, with a cold certainty, that Sirius—his rash, stupidly brave big brother who every day put his body between innocents and wizards in hoods and masks, wizards like Regulus himself—was in mortal danger. Regulus went to his Lord, whose trust he had cemented with pureblood manners and years of unassuming service, and asked a favor. He bent his knee, and begged for protection.

In a different world where the Dark Lord had never risen, Regulus might have been sorted Ravenclaw. He might have learned the value of integrity, of complex truths, of critical thinking and asking the difficult questions that no wizard could truly answer. In this world, at the height of the war, Regulus knew the meaning of loyalty, of family, of protecting those he loved. He saw a choice that made all his past choices pale in comparison. He weighed the brother he had found against the brother of his blood—not knowing that Severus, too, had turned traitor—and chose Sirius.

Regulus was not his brother, patron saint of lost causes, charging headlong into battle. He was cunning, he was determined, and he would stand with his family against the whole world, even against the Dark Lord himself. He went home, to the library at Grimmauld Place that had been his first refuge. Horcrux, he’d heard Voldemort whisper, once, when he had asked to borrow the Black family house-elf. He got to work.

Regulus Arcturus Black died in a cave by the sea. His parents died of grief. Voldemort never knew himself betrayed. He gave the elder Black brother a choice, because the Dark Lord rewarded loyalty.

Sirius Black died standing up in front of his best friend’s son, his wand in his hand. In his last moments, he thought it a fine way to go.

Thus ended the House Black, both sons choosing death with clear eyes, choosing loyalty, choosing love.

When Harry Potter finds the Mirror of Erised his first year at Hogwarts, he sees his family arrayed before him: himself and Dudley in Quidditch robes, his parents, and his uncles Remus and Sirius, both alive and healthy. When he faces Voldemort for the first time, in front of that very mirror, Sirius’s love rears its head and burns Professor Quirrell to a crisp.

When Harry faces the Dark Lord again, in a Muggle graveyard, he sees the echo of his godfather spill forth from Voldemort’s wand. Sirius looks impossibly young, a proud smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “On my mark, Prongslet,” he says.

When Harry charges into the Ministry of Magic to save his Uncle Remus, when Remus falls backwards through the Veil, Harry thinks he hears an echo of Sirius’s voice, a whisper of “Moony!” in the darkness. But he’s screaming as his father holds him back, as the last Marauder’s tears fall into his hair, so if Remus replies, he doesn’t hear it. They bury an empty casket next to Sirius’s, in the Potter family plot.

The next year, Harry accompanies Dumbledore to a cave by the sea. In the aftermath of battle, of death, he finds a locket and a letter. The initials “R. A. B.” seem familiar to him, but not until he moves into Grimmauld Place with his parents, Dudley, the Weasleys, and the rest of the refugees does he put the pieces together. It pains him to know that Sirius died believing his little brother a true Death Eater, that the two never reconciled. He likes to think that perhaps beyond the Veil, they’ve had a chance to talk.

Barely a year after that, Harry walks into the forest, Resurrection Stone in hand, and prepares to lay down his life for the world he loves. He sees Sirius and Remus, reunited in death.

“Uncle Remus,” he whispers.

“Oh, Harry,” says Remus, “I’m so proud of you. Sirius, look at him.”

“Uncle Sirius,” Harry says, and stops.

“Harry.” Sirius reaches out, thinks better of it, and drops his hand. “You’re all grown up,” he says, smiling with all of his teeth.

“Thank you,” Harry chokes out, “for saving my life.”

“I wish I could have been there, after.”

“They told me all your stories,” says Harry. “We’ve been living in your old house, since Uncle Remus left it to us.” And then, because Grimmauld Place sparks a memory, and because Harry—in every version of this story—values justice, values family, he asks, “Have you talked to your brother yet? You know, over there?”

“I have,” says Sirius, and another dark-haired young man coalesces in the evening fog.

Regulus Black looks barely older than Harry is now. “You’re Potter and Evans’s son. The one Sirius died for.”

“I am,” says Harry, “and I’m going to defeat Voldemort.”

“Good.” Regulus has had years in the afterlife—though time is immaterial there, Harry knows—but he still looks tired. “He killed my brother, despite my best efforts. I’d say he deserves it.”

Sirius wraps a hand around Regulus’s forearm, where Harry knows his Dark Mark would be. “Give him hell, Harry. We’ll be with you the whole time.”

Harry thinks of the graveyard. “I know. I love you.” He holds out the Stone. “I’ll see you all again soon.”

“Not too soon, I hope,” says Remus.

Harry opens his hand. The Stone falls onto the forest floor. Remus, Sirius, and Regulus fade into the mist.

With the weight of his uncles’ love like a warm cloak on his shoulders, the Boy Who Lived walks back towards Hogwarts Castle to die.

He lives. Again.

He grows up. He moves out of Grimmauld Place, out of Godric’s Hollow, and rents a messy flat in London with his friends. He marries into the Weasley clan. He has children of his own.

He names his sons James Sirius and Remus Regulus—after the men who raised him, and the ones who died to bring him to this place.