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renascentia: into the fire

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Though days might turn to weeks, to months, to a rapid-hurtling year, for all the changes Regulus Black had experienced back in London, it seemed just as many had stayed the same in same in the quiet French village of Belétang. The sweltering mid-afternoon sun was not dimmed by Dementor fogs; no panicked flyers littered the streets; and the milling people he had shared his days with for a decade and a half still looked far more curious than anxious about the plight across the Channel, if their lax appearances were anything to judge by.

In his chest, familiarity twinged with a gentle sort of tightness, and as the Black brothers strode away from the nearest designated apparation point, Regulus raked his eyes along the cobblestone paths, the shops, and just beyond the grassy park further down, he pictured the nearest patch of cottages where he had spent the majority of his adult life. Bundling inside of him was something between anticipation and dread, tingling with the knowledge that he was unlikely to go unnoticed for long. Such a strange experience it had been, to be known and unknown at the same time, to be seen by all at arm’s length but considered no one of particular interest, beyond the fact that, upon his arrival, his French had still been a noticeable cry from native fluency.

They were nearly to the apothecary where Regulus presumed Julien to be - and although Sirius had already been made aware of the nature of their visit, he did not want to start that conversation with his brother present, lest Sirius or Julien start slipping isolated information into conversation.

With a soft huff, Regulus eyed the quaint little book and antique shop and thought of Emile - a grousy old man who had helped pull him to his feet with that job (demeaning as it might have felt), and who was undoubtedly grumpy about being left without word or warning. Rude though it was, perhaps he could avoid that conversation entirely if he focused on Julien and the basilisk venom waiting for him at the apothecary. With a centering shift, Regulus turned forward again.

“You do know where you're going, right?” Sirius asked him, in quiet English rather than apparently even trying in French.

Leveling a look back at his brother, Regulus responded with a little huff to his tone, “I lived here for fifteen years. Of course I do.”

"It does seem your sort of place," Sirius replied. He'd stopped walking, and was now eyeing up the buildings with curiosity. "Looks traditional. Small, but you're small, so you wouldn't notice that. Quiet, but you like that - most of the time."

Rolling his eyes, Regulus adjusted the bag slung over his shoulder. “I'm really not that ‘small,’” he countered, though his annoyance was mild. “But overall, it suited well, yes.”

Before Sirius could quip anything back, the abrupt call of a familiar voice - a familiar little girl, to be specific - grabbed Regulus's attention: “Mssr Rian!

From across the path, a blonde and lilac flash was scampering out of the sweet shop, forming quickly into the daughter of one of his friends in the village - little Genevieve, though her brother and parents were yet to be seen. “You’re back!” she continued, and though the French language had been buzzing in the background side they had disembarked from the train, it was then that Regulus's mind seemed to shift back into its familiar patterns. Now only a few paces away, the girl was pulling something out of her pocket. “I finished a whole year at Beauxbatons - and I didn’t get to show you my wand before you had to go! It’s so pretty and has runes carved in it. Do Maman and Jean know you’re here? Or Mssr Julien?

Suspecting that she would chatter forth if he waited for a lulling moment, he cut in as she was thrusting the wand into his hand. (It was quite pretty - white in colouring, most likely aspen, assuming the wood wasn’t dyed.) “Not yet,” he responded as he, too, slipped into French. “I’m about to go see Mssr Julien just now. Is your Papa not here?

He’s in Switzerland hunting down something for Mssr Julien. He’ll be gone for whole week,” she continued, “Are you staying?

Regulus shook his head, handing her wand back. “We return tomorrow.

Genevieve huffed. “He’ll be mad he was gone,” she said, though she seemed to recover from the thought quickly, locking now onto Sirius, as if just noticing he was standing there too. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.

Regulus hesitated for a moment. The name Sirius had chosen for himself during the train ride was a bit on the nose, but he supposed his own had been, as well. “This is my brother, Leo.

Her skepticism faded to a smile, the words once again tumbling out all at once. “Hi! It’s good to meet you, Mssr Leo. Are you taking a vacation? Do you live in England?

Sirius, unfortunately, frowned in response. Perhaps he’d been trying to follow the conversation,  but the young girl spoke swiftly. After a moment, he looked to Regulus with a pained expression. "I caught about half of that," he admitted.  He hadn't had much of a problem up until now, but it had been all travel and minimal conversational to this point. He managed to respond with a clunky, if technically accurate, "Thank you. I have not been to France since I was small. Just a small -" he made a face, perhaps trying to remember the word. "- break?"

Paris, right? When you were small,” the little girl said with a look of curiosity on her face, “I remember Mssr Rian mentioned Paris. Do you not remember French very well?

He hasn’t had much opportunity to practice,” Regulus cut in before Sirius could answer, “We must be on our way, but pass along my visit to your Maman, and perhaps we can find a moment for you to tell your tales of Beauxbatons. Neither of us have ever seen it,” he added, tipping his head towards Sirius.

The little girl nodded, and in another flash, they were two, once again. Regulus could see the apothecary just a few shops down, and he let out a sigh. “You can wander the shops. I should only be a moment.”

"Assuming you don't run into any more errant children in the meantime," Sirius replied, obvious amusement colouring his voice. Nevertheless, he clearly wanted to go explore and have a look around for himself and this was ample opportunity, providing he didn’t get into too much trouble.

“The probability is low,” Regulus admitted. Her little brother Jean was most likely in the same shop she had been in, and Regulus had no need for sweets at the moment.

Upon entering the apothecary, its smell washed forth like a wave of nostalgia - different than the one in Diagon Alley, though it was difficult to pin down how - and when Julien looked over from inside the cabinet he was re-stocking, Regulus lifted a hand in greeting.

Hello, stranger,” Julien remarked, shutting the cabinet down with a soft thud. “Not sure if you noticed, but it’s been a year. I was starting to wonder if England had swallowed you up.” There was dry jest in his tone, though Regulus thought there might be a little twinge of something more serious in there, as well.

It has been quite a year - and a year of relative quiet,” Regulus answered, and although he would not say he had been exceedingly quiet on the whole, he certainly had been in the correspondence sense, which was truth enough.

You completely dropped off,” Julien persisted, eyeing Regulus with an arched brow even as he slipped behind the counter. “What were you doing that was so urgent?

For a moment, Regulus hesitated- and then- “Family business,” he settled uncomfortably.

Really?” Julien brow arched higher, though he sounded more baffled than upset. “You could have just said, ‘Julien, it’s family business, I’ll come back when I’m able, or when I need a regulated substance.’

It sounds bad when you say it like that.

You’re lucky I don’t hold a grudge.” Suddenly, Julien disappeared under the counter, his voice muffling a little. “I had to talk Gerard down when you ran off. He’s going to be so annoyed he wasn’t here.

Gen said something similar,” Regulus said, shaking his head.

You saw them already?” Julien peeked up just briefly before ducking down again.

She was at the sweet shop a moment ago,” Regulus clarified as Julien rose again, this time with a brown pouch he placed on the counter. “I expect Emilie and Jean are out there in the shops, too, though I did not see them.

Julien shook his head, holding out the pouch. “Consider this an early birthday gift, in combination with what would have been last year’s if you weren’t so difficult to get ahold of.

Regulus lifted a shoulder, feeling a little sheepish at the silence, though he wasn’t sure if the feeling had made it to his face. “I supposed I got a bit carried away.

No kidding. It took you long enough to poke your head up.

Crinkling his nose, Regulus let out a little huff. “It has been...complicated…

Without warning, and without any attempt at discretion, Sirius walked in.

"I think I've walked literally from one side to of this place to the next! It’s that small." Sirius announced, looking back outward again then back in.. Upon noticing that Regulus was not alone, he winced and switched languages again. "Sorry, I think you were done."

Rolling his eyes, Regulus picked up the pouch, remarking dryly in English: “It cannot have been more than five minutes.”

Who is that?” Julien asked, brow lifting again as he leaned against the counter.

My brother,” Regulus answered, switching back to French in turn.

Julien made some sort of surprised, snorting sound. “You have a brother?

"Yes, it is a cruel trick of-," Sirius promptly swore, which was at least something he knew how to get right. "I've forgotten the word for fate, if I ever knew it. And it was closer to ten."

Julien sniggered, and Regulus shook his head, peeking in the pouch for a visual confirmation before stuffing it in his pocket. “Cruel, indeed.”

Part of the ‘family business’ you were mentioning?” Julien asked lightly as he strode back over to the cabinet he had been stocking a moment before.

Something like that.” Crinkling his face just slightly, Regulus let out another little huff, finding it was more difficult to decide where to draw the line in truth and fiction when both were present. Creating that fiction for himself had not been so difficult when first he came - and it was a fiction he had relayed to Sirius on the train ride, which his brother mostly seemed to be sticking to - but somehow, the situation only felt more complicated, now.

It sounded so dramatic and questionable when you left.” (Privately, Regulus thought that both of those descriptions could probably be applied to the state of his family situation, but he said nothing as Julien continued, this time facing Sirius.) “What’s your name, then?

“Leo,” Sirius replied, in a distracted tone. He looked at Regulus with clear amusement. “Did he just call you dramatic?”

Flattening his mouth, Regulus responded in a lofty tone, "My choice of phrasing upon departure, technically.” (Of course, 'dramatique’ would be the word his brother would notice - there were times when language overlap was a burden.) “I prefer 'vague.’”

“It's almost like you know him,” Sirius grinned at Julien, but thankfully did not elaborate onwards. “Should I go do another circle around the place while you finish up?”

“That should not be necessary,” Regulus responded with a headtip towards Sirius, then looked back to Julien. “My brother and I are going to go settle in. We can catch up later.

Julien granted a nod, and as they exchanged their goodbyes, dug back into the cabinet to resume restocking.

Sirius was already outside when Regulus stepped back onto the cobblestone path, and with a gesture toward the park and its glittering pond, he spoke again: “Just past the park is a small neighborhood; that is our destination.”

"Was that your friend?" Sirius asked, once they had begun along the path. "From the letter?"

Regulus nodded, eyeing the pond as they approached - then veered to the side, towards the cottages ahead. “Yes. Julien.”

Sirius nodded, accepting it without posing a further question to identity. “You get what you needed?”

Reaching in his pocket, Regulus briefly pulled out the dark brown pouch, held it for a few seconds, then put it in his pocket again. "Simple enough.”

"You still have interesting taste in friends," Sirius replied, though there was no particular malice to the words for once. "Step up on the personal grooming, if older than I’d thought."

“I consider them to be interesting, yes,” Regulus said wryly, shaking his head, and though the insult to Severus was obvious, it was casual enough to almost be considered something of an improvement, however far from civil it might be. (Severus had room for improvement on that front, too.) At least his brother wasn't looking for criticisms to lay upon Julien - something Regulus might have expected, when he was younger. In that sense, at least, he could relax somewhat.

"It's not what I imagined," Sirius admitted, a small crease of a frown forming as he fell into step.

Lifting an eyebrow, Regulus glanced over. “What did you expect?”

"Not...this," Sirius said, with a huff. "Somewhere you wouldn't have to deal with people, or be paid any mind to.."

“People are not all terrible,” Regulus said, lifting his shoulder in a half-shrug, “It depends on the people, I suppose.”

Sirius gave him a look, then snorted. "It's like I don't know you at all."

“Did you think I hated everyone?” Regulus asked, though even as the question passed his lips, he wasn’t sure if he necessarily wanted a direct answer.

"Not everyone," Sirius said, after a beat. "Just...most people. They seem to get on your nerves, or cause you nerves."

Not so terrible an assumption - better than Regulus had expected, in light of his adolescent history as a Death Eater - and something in his stride relaxed just a little bit more. “Accurate enough,” he said, tipping his head to the side and glancing over at his brother. “Though I would adjust slightly to specify I feel neutral about most people; I reserve my hatred and irritation for those who have properly earned it.”

"Depends," Sirius added, "Sometimes, you don’t even hate people when they’ve more than earned it."

With a prickle of discomfort, Regulus thumbed the strap of his bag, keeping his eyes forward this time. “It does depend, yes.”

For a moment, it looked as if Sirius might breach the subject.

The moment passed.

"Luckily for you, I can hate people enough for two people.” He said. “Maybe even three. It's a natural talent."

At that, the barest hint of a smile pulled at the corner of Regulus’s mouth, and he felt no small amount of relief that Sirius had permitted the accusation to pass unspoken. More than likely, it was Bellatrix that his brother was referring to, and Regulus still did not know how to speak about her in a manner that made sense. “That is terribly lucky,” he said, and the lift of his mouth tugged a little more. “I try to hate specific people enough to make up for the ones who are being pardoned, but the numbers do not always match quite right. How fortunate that your well of ire has capacity to spare.”

"I'm just a deeply generous person," Sirius said, likely fully aware that the unspoken question was there and being passed over. "I like to spread my irritation around, not get too bound up in a single person." Though he did raise a finger, "Though exceptions have to be made, for people so utterly and completely worth all the bloody hatred in the world that they require more attention in the area."

“Of course,” Regulus said with a nod, “It’s important to have a functioning tier system when dealing with such things.”

Sirius smiled, and shook his head. "You realise if anyone were listening into this, we both sound like we need our heads examined, right? Trying to assign a functional system to emotions and feelings like they make sense."

“We are not trying to assign a system,” Regulus corrected, looking over with an arched brow, “I would argue that we have implemented it quite thoroughly.”

"Would it not come out skewed?" Sirius asked, taking a few faster steps even though he didn't know where they were going well enough to be trying to take a lead. "There's plenty of people we both despise. Or at least, dislike. I'd argue the list is even growing."

“There are also quite a few that we both do like - a list that is also growing. By this logic, it may well balance. Or at least approximate a balance,” Regulus countered. “In the end, I suppose it depends upon what you are balancing against. Are we balancing those we like against those we dislike, or just those I dislike against those you dislike? The pool in these two instance is going to be different, and will undoubtedly affect the skew in question.”

"We have to like people now?" Sirius said, feigning distaste at the concept. "I didn't know that had to be part of it. I thought we were just going with levels of hate."

Regulus sniggered, shaking his head. “My apologies for bringing such a thing into this matter of hatred and its designated categorisations. If we are speaking in terms of hatred alone, I do not think our synchronised anger is any more problematic than our synchronised neutrality, so long as the supplementary ire compensates for the pardons.”

Sirius scoffed in a comedically loud way, "Have you ever known me to be neutral about a person?"

“You should work on that. You’re upsetting my equilibrium,” Regulus responded, his tone jestingly cross.

Sirius gave his shoulder a shove as they wandered. "Your wide-spread neutrality is making me think you were adopted."

“I was not adopted,” Regulus argued, his tone a little more sincerely cross.

"I wasn't serious," Sirius said, making a face at his own accidental pun.

“Out of the goodness of my heart, I am not going to make that pun worse,” Regulus quipped, a little more lightly this time as he watched his brother’s souring expression. When again he looked forward, he locked his gaze on the cottage ahead - his long-time home, here in France, and as modest as it had ever been. Perhaps it was not the sort of place he had ever imagined he might live, growing up - even before Sirius had given up his heirdom, there were more than enough sizable properties Regulus had assumed he might someday move into - but he felt a bit fond of the little house, all the same.

 With a subtle gesture forward, he added, “And with that, we have arrived.”

The place was smaller than Sirius had expected. On some logical level, he knew that Regulus would only have had only what he had on him and that someone would have noticed if he'd gone to Gringotts, and as such, he'd have had to make his way in a limited fund capacity. It'd been something he'd planned to do himself before their uncle had rendered the issue moot. Somehow, when he thought of Regulus, he still couldn't disentangle him from the religiously upkept ancestral junk and photographs that he clung to.

It was modest, but it was comfortable. It was warmer than he expected, in tone as well as in temperature. The money had obviously gone on the seating and books, neither of which surprised Sirius an iota, but it didn't look particularly personal unless you were looking for touches of Regulus himself. The very specific way he organised himself, the usual colour scheme, some trinkets - which meant that even without legacy, he was unable to kick the junk-hoarding tendencies.  

This was Regulus without the weight of the House on him.

This is what home looked like for him without the crushing need to keep up appearances, to reproduce, to maintain the status quo. A quiet, comfortable existence where he made friends with the shopkeepers, where he could be friendly enough with the local kids to know about their families and where he could scope out the best spot to sit and read in a village untouched by the war.

 Sirius felt a sudden pang of guilt. He knew that he had nothing to do with Regulus's choice to come back; he'd done that off his own back and obviously, Sirius was proud of that fact. Still, the idea of being wrenched from a life that seemed to suit him so well left an unpleasant churning in Sirius' gut at the thought of it. As much as he didn't want him to leave again, if this was what made him happy, it would be an act of profound selfishness to throw a fit over it.

(He never claimed he wasn’t selfish.)

But with that in mind, Sirius wandered around a little, mostly just looking at things, grazing them and trying to discern something of their meaning. That Regulus the person existed beyond the concept of legacy should have been reassuring, and it was; it was just also confusing and conflicting because he hadn't been there to see that transition happen. It was possible it was a transition that would never have happened if he had stuck around, but it didn't make it feel any easier.

He tried to snap down the thought. He'd been in better spirits, off on an adventure, being able to give Regulus a little bit of trouble but only enough that he looked a bit cross in that hilarious way he always had rather than actually angry. He didn't want to slip into melancholy here, no matter how off-footed he felt.

"It's..." Sirius struggled to find the right word. "Comfortable."

Shifting slightly on his feet, Regulus glanced over briefly to assess his face for mockery before setting his bag on the desk pushed flush against the far wall. “It is.”

Again, Sirius was ready to repeat himself; to say this wasn't what he'd imagined or expected. That born into their house, with its wealth and its privilege, he would choose comfort over ostentatious display. Appearances had always been everything.

But the thought didn't leave, because again, he realised that this too could simply be a part of the legacy. Number Twelve was large, yes, but large for a purpose: it held a ridiculous amount of objects, dangerous mostly, but all linked to family members long past or gifts. It held so many pictures that it was a wonder he could remember who half of them were. It had, at one point, been a brimming family home. Phineas and his wife had six children in that house, and somehow the house had seemed more alive when they'd had Ginny, Ron, Harry, Fred, George, and Hermione making using of it. It had felt noisy, just the right side of crowded then. It was a display, yes, but it wasn't completely for the sake of being a display.

The more he thought of it, the more he thought of their Aunt Druella and her home. That was ostentatious to the extreme. You could probably see that place lit up from space at the holidays. Famous artwork, commissioned portraits, high ceilings, renovations that seemed to go on forever. They'd never had any of that. There was a reverence to it, from their mother especially, but it occurred to him that their parents had never liked large displays. They made use of the house in their respective corners. He wondered if they had lived in a different house, if his Uncle had ended up getting married properly and having children and ended up in that house instead of them, if it would have been more like this. An emphasis on need, well-crafted and comfortable but hardly a display. Something less suffocating than a thousand year old tree bearing down and choking you with the pressure, reminders at every wall, table and pictures of the demands of being the last to hold your name and the expectation that you absolutely must not be the last overall.

"I like it better," Sirius announced aloud, after the long pause. "You can tell you live here."

For a moment, Regulus hesitated awkwardly, then settled into one of the cushioned chairs, olive green in colour and nestled between a window and a bookcase lining the outer wall. “I’m surprised you would consider that a point in its favour,” he said with a wry lift to his tone, though there was a brush of awkwardness to his shift.

Sirius scowled at that. "What's that meant to mean?"

“There’s no need to look so offended. You’ve called me boring enough times that it is reasonable assumption that you would find this boring too,” Regulus pointed out, lifting his brow.

"It is boring. I'd lose my mind - whatever may be left of it - in a place like this." That wasn't the point at all. It reflected him, simply as he was. Someone who spends too much time studying, looking at books, wanting soft furnishings and not to intrude upon the world too much. There was even venom, a controlled substance ready for smuggling, to show his (often hidden) adventurous side. It didn't remind Sirius of anything but him; perhaps their father, but he couldn't imagine his father having an adventurous bone in his body. "But it's your home, not mine."

“That is fair,” Regulus granted, “Hopefully you will not lose the remainder of your mind before we return to London.”

"After Azkaban - or worse, a non-stop Grimmauld Place for a year, I have every confidence my mind will survive a little quiet." A little, not too much.

Besides, Sirius didn't want to lose the chance to look at the big secret that was his brother’s private existence here. There were other secrets weighing on him, but for now, he wanted to experience the trust placed upon him fully and enjoy it.  He had things they had to talk about, and he supposed that in the context of life outside of the insular society that was pureblood elitists, this was a Regulus that existed. Until now, he hadn't been sure a version of him would exist outside of those constraints. The Death Eaters, sure, perhaps even the society, but his surname? It asked more questions than it answered.

He tried to think of a way to put it. "It was always just you here?"

For a beat, Regulus took on a thoughtful expression, then nodded. “Just me.”

Taking a deep breath before the plunge, Sirius placed his hands on his knees and sat down with the exhale. It needed to be talked about, he reminded himself. He liked that Regulus got on with the Order swots; he liked that he'd formed his own friendships and had a level of comfort with them that Sirius had not expected; but it was threatened by encroachment of a personal boundary on the brink of being crossed that Regulus (self-confessed to be terrible at knowing the difference between a thing and a capital T Thing) did not realise was even happening. "I know it's been a long day," Sirius started, "but there's a difficult talk I didn't want to have at the house. It can wait, if you want it to, but not before we go back."

Regulus paused the start of his reach towards a book, instead resting the hand on the arm of his chair and turning his attention to Sirius with a subtly furrowed brow. “I suppose now is as good a time as any - but what difficult talk did you have in mind?”

"The one about Emmeline Vance," Sirius let that sit for a beat before he continued. This could so easily be a sticky and badly done conversation, and he'd like whoever was to blame for it falling on him to give this talk to meet a painful end. "I think you need to set down some better boundaries, before she gets hurt."

Regulus furrowed his brow a little bit more, shifting his weight in the chair. “What do you mean?”

Shifting uncomfortably, Sirius tried to buy himself a moment to think about how to phrase it without it being completely humiliating.

Then he gave up, because the direct approach was going to be better when you couldn't really save face at all. "She likes you,” he said, feeling the sudden need to go to class for how teenage it all felt. "But I know how you feel about her blood, even if I wish you could wake up and smell the bullshit about it. You need to find a way to tell her that's just not something you're okay with and try not to insult her in the process if you want to keep her friendship."

Sighing heavily, Regulus propped an elbow and secured his face in it. “I changed my mind. I don’t want to talk about this.”

"Me either," Sirius said, rocking forward a little in another fidget. Truer words had never been spoken, but he pressed on regardless. "It's going to be worse if you let her keep flirting, and with it being in the house, let alone the Order, the quicker it's addressed, the better. Otherwise, she's just humiliating herself."

For an uncomfortable moment, Regulus simply frowned into his hand, singling out a spot on the floor to stare at. “We are friends, and we talk. I don’t know what is humiliating about that.”

"If that was all it was, I wouldn't be having the most awkward conversation right now," Sirius huffed. He could see the telltale signs of both avoidance and a threatening shut down, but still felt completely ill equipped to stop it. So he took a run at it full steam in the hopes of getting it out and out of the way. "If you just want a mate, tell her that. Or that you're just not that into girls, if it's true. Look, crushes fade, but if you don't tell her and something more develops, it's going to be worse."

Regulus closed his eyes, face still planted in his hand and mouth pressed in a silent line. As much as Sirius joked Regulus was the baby, pretending to still believe in objects disappearing when you shut your eyes at thirty was a little much.

"Unless you do like her, and the problem is not with her crush, but with you thinking she's tainted."

“I’m developing a headache,” Regulus said tightly, pushing himself up from the chair, and with a mutter, started to stride past his brother’s seat: “Must be that long day you were talking about. I’m going to lie down.”

Sirius huffed a sigh, but figured forcing it out was going to do more harm the good. He'd said his piece. It was up to Regulus to do something about it. "If you decide you actually do want to talk about it instead of having a headache, you know where I am."

Regulus paused with a half-twist, though his hand found his face once again in a sobered press. “I don’t know what there is to talk about, or what you want me to say.”

For all of the awkwardness of it, one thing was becoming increasingly clear. He was disturbed at the thought of it, or perhaps upset. Maybe he feared saying something would wreck the tenuous friendship and his place in the Order, but Sirius didn't believe Vance'd be that petty about it. "If you don't like her, letting her know quickly is the best chance of preserving what you have. I saw you together; you're comfortable not only in presence, but physically. It's something worth preserving. But if I'm reading that wrong and you do feel something friend related, and the reason you're upset is her bloodline, you might try talking to one of the few people you know who's had to combat similar thoughts before and knows it's not easy. I'm not here to give you shit about it, but I don't want anyone to get hurt."

Folding his arms across his chest with another uncomfortable shift, Regulus shook his head. “I know,” he responded with a touch of ambiguity.

"It's the best time for you to think about it. There's no one else here to hear any of it. No chance of being overheard while you try and figure out what you truly think." Sirius gestured to the room, quiet besides themselves. "Ask stupid or shitty questions. Decide what you want, even if what you want is things to remain as they are. That's what I want."

Again, Regulus paused, then shifted towards the bedroom door. “I just - need a moment,” he muttered, finishing the beeline to his room with his head ducked, and this time, did not take pause before slipping inside.

Sirius huffed a sigh. He supposed it could have gone worse, he didn't actually just jump out of the window and head for the hills, but it didn't exactly go well either.

He could wait it out, Sirius reminded himself. They had time.

With the door clicked shut behind him, Regulus had pressed his back against it, hands rubbing the stress away, but no pressure to the temple was proving effective in blotting out his brother’s line of questioning. The prospect of Emmeline having feelings of the friend variety - and the way his own mood lept pleasantly in his chest when she was present - were trails his mind preferred not to tread. He did not like where those trails were likely to end.

Regulus could not say exactly how many minutes had passed since he slipped into the room, instead counting the passage of time by positions as he slid to the floor, sat on the bed, and folded his arms moodily on the back of the chair by the window - and in his mind, he turned over the idea of turning over the idea. On some level, he knew Sirius was right: that pain and embarrassment could easily escalate, and the question of purism was not one that went away when you closed your eyes… at least not out in Society, where eyes were never closed to blood.

He liked Emmeline - he liked Emmeline quite a lot more than felt appropriate for his situation, if he was honest, but he did not much like being honest about such things. Guilt gnawed at his insides for enjoying the growing closeness, and guilt gnawed at him for feeling guilty when his surroundings became rooted less and less in the purist expectations of his childhood, caught in some endless loop, and however simple ‘deciding what he wanted’ might sound, Regulus did not how to grasp either emotion, much less stop them.

Sirius spoke of ‘deciding,’ yet it pressed like a thick fog, intangible ideas that slipped through his fingers, even as he tried to hold them up for consideration. He did not know what he wanted from Emmeline, just that he loved talking to her more than anyone, that she was bright and lovely, sharp and witty; he knew he liked the way she found his eyes right away when he walked in, the muted playfulness and the way she loved Grimmauld Place for the ancient tell of family history that it was; it was a quiet sort of affection, and one he found that he did not want to sabotage, be it from action or inaction. He felt comfortable, felt the threads of trust weaving, but it was a new feeling, a new situation, and he did not know what he wanted or how he felt.  Relationships could spiral away at the slightest shift, could withdraw from rejections (no matter how carefully phrased), and the thought of upsetting the present balance struck a gutting dread, however reasonable his brother’s argument might be. (And if Sirius was right about Emmeline’s feelings on the matter, it truly was quite reasonable, from a damage control perspective…He was not sure that he would ever grow accustomed to using ‘Sirius’ and ‘reasonable’ in the same sentence, but it was as it was.)

Night had long since spread its blanket of darkness over the village by the time Regulus stirred himself to leave his room again, uncertainty still lodged in his throat as he scanned the living area and spotted Sirius by the bookshelf, peering at the titles but not seeming to tug any from the shelves for more than a few seconds at a time.

"I wasn't sure I'd see you ‘til morning," Sirius said, not turning around and instead placing a book down to look at the first few pages of the next one.

“Most of the books are out here,” Regulus said. It was not entirely true - there were plenty of books in his room too - but it seemed a better excuse than most.

Sirius looked around, seemingly just because he wanted to be seen giving an eye roll, as he immediately looked away again. "You still look like you want to make a break for it," Sirius observed. "I'm guessing thinking about it didn't help."

“Not in any significant way, no.” Regulus shook his head.
“This is why I don’t think about things. Since I don't think getting a few drinks in you would help, and would probably make you sick, I don't know what to suggest.” Sirius replaced the book again. “Other than just being honest.”

“Being honest sounds like it ought to be simple enough,” Regulus began with a huff, crossing over to the bookshelf to scan the titles himself, in search of some tangible distraction for when the mood became unbearably uncomfortable again, as he suspected it would. “I suppose it would be easier if I was, myself, more clear on an answer.”

“At the risk of sounding like a teenager,” Sirius said, “Do you like her?”

Regulus sighed heavily. “That does make it sound like an adolescent concern,” he said, rubbing at his face, and upon eyeing the shelf, plucked a text on advanced protective wards. (A duplicate at Grimmauld Place, but good for review in light of the chaos mounting at home. He paused an awkward moment longer before retreating to the chair with his book. They had talked about it at St. Mungo’s, he and his brother - and as much as it stung to have Barty flicker into his thoughts again, the feeling was no altogether dissimiliar. Attraction - desire for proximity - a kickstart to the chest, comfort, and a distinction from others- “By your potion-addled definition, I suppose I do.”

“Then how I see it, you've got only a couple of options,” Sirius said, mirroring the action without looking at what he was taking. “You can lie, and tell a version of the truth that is that you don't want anything more than you have for fear of ruining it or it causing friction in the war effort. She's not stupid, though. She'll probably guess your issues are with her blood. That is the perceived problem, right? Or you can try to figure out why a part of you is deciding she’ll give you muggle germs.”

“It is not a matter of muggle germs,” Regulus countered uncomfortably, though he knew it probably sounded like a lie. To his mind sprung the stunning array of photographs taken from space with their unreal splashes of colour, and however convenient it would be if it was not so, he knew well that they were muggle. The Mars exhibit had been muggle, too, but even if he knew Sirius would not disapprove of such an outing, it felt embarrassing to say, so instead he shifted. “There are just… implications, I suppose.”

"The implication that she's somehow inferior because her ancestors didn't exclusively shack up with magical people?" Sirius said, an edge slipping into his tone. "Or the implication that it'd be a relationship you wouldn't want to work out, because if it did, you'd have to deal with wanting a future that might downgrade your social status from ex-Death Eater to blood traitor?"

Stiffening, Regulus leveled a sharp look of his own. “I don't think she is inferior. If we are to talk about this, you need to stop reducing me to assumptions based on when I was a teenager.” Leaning back in his chair, he opened the book in his lap (more from annoyance than an intention to read), but the cringing feeling lingered in his chest. The accusation did not feel completely right, but it did not feel completely wrong either, and he did not know how to articulate it properly when it was likely to sound the same to his brother's ears. “This isn't some self-sabotage mission. If I simply ‘did not want it to work out,’ then I am perfectly capable of intentionally sabotaging things I want no part of. I would have done so already, and we would not be having this incredibly uncomfortable conversation.”

Sirius put both of his hands up, before shifting himself uncomfortably. "It's not the teenage assumption," he said, though he sounded more tentative than combative. "I don't think you believe she's inferior, or that it'd be some fool's errand to see what may happen. I only know what you have is a childlike terror at the idea of being branded a traitor, despite the fact that most of the old lines aren't exclusively screwing the same handful of families or they lie about it. If anything, I'd be warning her off because who in their right mind would want to risk falling in love and ending up with in-laws who think you're disgusting? Who would want to live in a place like Grimmauld Place, full of portraits ready to insult you at a moments notice?"

He shrugged hard. "But for some inexplicable reason, it doesn't bug her. Even the screeching remains of our dear mother doesn't seem to phase her. Which means if you actually like her, and for some weird reason, she continues to like you, you might get a shot at rebuilding a family that I think you truly, badly want. The only thing stopping you right now is you, and clinging to the belief that a pure bloodline and an ancient legacy are the same thing. I think you need to decide what kind of life you want, a kind you're willing to excuse or fight for depending on the choices you make and what kind of legacy you want to leave."

“I don’t know what I want,” Regulus said in strained tones, elbow propping on the arm of his chair once again, though some of the irritation had faded from his face and manner. “Or rather, the ideal situation is probably impossible, and I don't know how to feel about that… 'Toujours pur’ - as opposed to 'parfois pur’ - makes the intended legacy quite clear.” Shaking his head, Regulus crinkled his nose, just slightly. “In truth, I don't really care so much about her blood, but the thought of being the one to break a near-millennium of recorded pureblood Blacks makes me feel a little sick to the stomach, considering there isn't anyone else for it to fall to,” he said with a humorless huff, securing his chin in his hand. “Which I know you think is stupid, so you don't need to waste your breath.”

"Nah, it's not stupid. It's exactly what you're supposed to feel." Sirius hunched forward, lowering his tone as if he were about to say something untoward. "I get why being part of this huge family is important to you. Just answer me this: why is blood 'purity' important to you? Not some person centuries ago, they don't really matter because if you'd stuck to their worldview, you'd be dead, and the line would already effectively be broken. Why in your House is blood purity important?"

Pausing for a moment in silence, Regulus glanced over at Sirius, supposing that he shouldn't be that surprised his brother was not tearing into him, in light of the previous year, but no matter how much time passed, he always expected the worst from such discussions. It had seemed to come easy to Sirius, blood traitorism, throwing himself in with Potter and the other Gryffindors with seemingly immediate gusto, never stopping to waver, but he figured he oughtn't be surprised about that either. Sirius had never been much for wavering in general.

With a thoughtful expression, Regulus lifted a shoulder, more out of discomfort than uncertainty. “Because… extensive history and expectations aside, although the majority might be dead, not everyone is, and I'm tired of having to choose.” He paused for just a beat before adding, “I understand that Bellatrix is dangerous and not anything I should get my hopes up about convincing… But Cissa… I don't want to fight with you or Andromeda, but I don't want to fight with her either. Leaving the Death Eaters was bad enough.” He shook his head, mouth turning wryly. “In a way, it felt easier to leave a group I knew would immediately try to kill me than it does to even think about trying to explain something like that to Narcissa.”

"You didn't leave," Sirius corrected, quietly. "You went to what was supposed to be your death rather than try to face Mum, or Narcissa and everyone else, because you found certain death to be less horrifying than how they might react."

Regulus tensed, glancing up briefly before dropping his eyes again - and for the second time in the same conversation, his brother’s words felt true and untrue at the same time. “There were other factors,” he responded, his voice mirroring the quiet tones but sounding more like a recitation than he liked, considering it was true, too. “I could not ignore what I had discovered, and I was not going to force Kreacher to go through it again on purpose.” Something cold and awful trickled over him in streams, weighing his mouth down to a frown. In a mad sort of way, death truly had felt a less horrifying alternative - less horrifying than inflicting another disappointment on them - less horrifying than breaking his promises to never let them down. With an unsettling lurch in his chest, he added, “I was going to die anyway.”

"That you're so certain of that..." Sirios looked away, punctuating the statement with an irritated huff. "What is the point of having an ancient lineage if when push comes to shove, it doesn't protect its own? What is the point of a family at all if they demand loyalty from you, but give you none in return? I don't believe a legacy that demands compliance to a doctrine written before Hogwarts had its first graduates is worth preserving, if all it preserves is fear - of reprisal, of loss, of not measuring up, of having your identity ripped away from you for an act of compassion. That's not family, that's bloodlines, and if she's got even half an inch of sense, Narcissa should know the difference. Especially now, as one day sooner than she imagines,  she may have her own child have to make the decision you did, whether to live with the truth and face her or die."

The frown on his face deepened, but for a moment, Regulus said nothing. He didn't like the way the words resonated in his head, echoing like some hollow cavern, didn't like that feeling like he was betraying something - or someone - by admitting, even to himself, that he agreed. It felt like a trap, though he knew it wasn't; there was no one lying in wait to spring their disapproval upon him, but he could not shake off the heavy weight on his shoulders.

“I know,” Regulus settled after a moment, and though it didn't feel like enough after a spiel of such conviction, he could not find the right words to verbalise - so instead he sighed heavily, fingers drumming lightly on the open book sitting ignored in his lap.

"There is every chance that any of us won't see the war through," Sirius said hoarsely, after a beat. "If you spend the whole time trying to get everyone else's approval, you'll forget to take your happiness where you can find it and there may not be time for it. It could be you, or I, or Emme, or even Narcissa, because she would not be the first sister Bellatrix has lost her mind with over the issue of family. If you think it's better not to risk it and keep things as they are, or if you decide to say fuck it and see if you can feel strongly for someone else again, either way, just..." He swallowed audibly, not finishing the sentence. "You deserve to be happy, as much as you can for as long as you can be. Anyone says different's getting the shit kicked out of them."

The pang that struck was a more comforting one, laced with unpleasant truths but altogether reassuring on a level that superseded even the looming possibility of loss on both sides. With a subtle nod, Regulus flickered a muted smile, and however embarrassingly mushy the sentiment might be, it made him feel at ease - to hear it, and to trust it, chaotic though the war had become.

“Thank you.” (For patience, for most-likely-sincere promises of retaliation, for caring-) As his frame started to relax, Regulus sat back in his chair, curling out of the rigid lean. “And whatever it may entail, you, too, deserve happiness. I know I was a bit dreadful about that, when we were growing up…” He shook his head. “...You could have given up on me at any time - back then, and even in the past year - but at the risk of more sentimentalism, I am grateful that you did not...”

Sirius made an exaggerated noise of frustration, contrasting the smile that was threatening to break out. "You must stop thanking me for giving a damn. Just because family and blood mean two different things me doesn't mean they're always mutually exclusive, nor do I go about giving up on people on a whim. I'm a very loyal person, long as you don't stab me in the back. Or the front, for that matter. Just don't stab me at all, that seems like a good rule."

Swallowing the remaining uncertainty, Regulus nodded, steeling instead a line of confidence through his bones and straightening his posture. “Indeed.” Pressing his mouth to a wry line, he added, “Woe betide those who would betray that loyalty, yes?”

“My temper incites a lot worse than woe,” Sirius told him, plainly. “But we're both total pricks when it comes to loyalties. That sixth year didn't end in a murder is a miracle. Bella will be your biggest problem. It’s her sister; she will cause the biggest rift, as Narcissa may go with what she says regardless of what she truly thinks. Luckily, you have some experience in this area.”

“I'm mentally preparing for the possibility,” Regulus said, shaking his head. “However much I might dislike it.”

"How are you handling Lucius?" Sirius asked. "He did prey on children, but I imagine her being his wife means he has some priority for her."

“He stopped attacking me when he realised who I was at the Ministry - or at least when he started to suspect,” Regulus answered, “I do not know how much of it was shock, but for now, I am just worrying about Narcissa, Draco, and Bellatrix.”

“I doubt it will last.” Sirius shrugged, accepting that. “It depends what Bellatrix decides to do next, and who knows what that will be?  She's more cracked than ever.”

“Yes,” Regulus began with a frown. “I wish it was easier to tell what she's planning without directly interacting. Mulciber was saying she had 'dibs’ - it sounded like a taunt, but it doesn't exactly sound untrue either, even if Cissa indicated nothing of the sort.” His frown deepened as he crinkled his nose.

Sirius gave a bark of laughter. “Oh, that's very prestigious.” He made a wave motion with his hand. “It just means that anyone who's scared of her retaliation won't try and hit you with lethal curses when you're fighting. It's probably helped more than it'll hurt.”

“Prestigious wasn’t the word I was thinking,” Regulus said dryly, though the jolt of his brother's unexpected laugh did help a little with the heavy feeling. It was easier to fend off one person than a swarm, even if it was the one person among their number that he most wanted to pacify - unlikely though it was. “I suppose it's a bit reassuring, in a terrible sort of way.”

“It's probably how Ted - Tonks’s dad - has survived this long. When it comes to her family tree, Bellatrix likes to do her own pruning.” Sirius grinned. “If dad had a single rebellious bone in his body, I'd have thought that was her as well. Stage an accident not to run the risk. But she doesn’t murder purebloods for fun, just everyone else.”

“You do realise it is a bit mad to be grinning about our cousin wanting to kill us,” Regulus remarked in deadpan tones, shaking his head.

"That's an improvement, I thought I'd gone more than a bit." Sirius laughed at him unapologetically. "Besides, it could be a help more than a hindrance there too. Everyone knows she wants me and Andromeda dead; she's tried a decent amount, and I'm still here here, so's Andromeda. But you is more interesting. Bellatrix no longer cares for houses, or blood other than abstract. Her loyalties, when pushed, are not based in the bonds of blood, but in the machinations of a madman. Narcissa can't see that when it's just me and Andromeda; we made the first step, and she can justify it that way. You just legged it, and no longer wish to be part of the Death Eaters. It's a lot harder to justify that. If it helps Narcissa understand that Bellatrix truly has lost her heart and mind, and that if she was told to, she would likely kill her with little hesitation, then at least she's going into this with her eyes open. It’s your best shot at keeping her, if that’s your desire."

“It sounds good in theory,” Regulus agreed, though the subtle feeling of dread remained. “Or...I don’t think good is the right word for it, as I'd rather she not want to kill any of us, but if it could possibly sway Cissa, at least that is something.”

"If Bellatrix doesn't want to kill you, you're probably doing something wrong," Sirius reasoned, with a huff. "Besides, when it comes to liking half-bloods, Bellatrix can't say shit, can she? Look at who she's thrown her life away on. At least Emmeline is human, as human as any Unspeakable is."

For a moment, Regulus took pause, then nodded. “I suppose that is true. I actually forgot about that, for a moment - about the Dark Lord’s situation, that…” Tipping his head, he added, “One might argue it's a little different when the name is in question, but it really isn't particularly fair, if so.”

"The name really shouldn't be. It's a question of asking her out, Reg, not asking if she'd like to bear your children." Sirius laughed to himself, leaning back into a much more relaxed slouch. "I realise it's the only reason our parents got married, but that's not a high recommendation."

Flustering slightly with a brush off embarrassment, Regulus sat a little straighter. “You’re the one who brought up the necessity of taking that into consideration.”

"You're so easy to wind up." Sirius looked entirely too pleased with himself. Still, something had shifted again and he looked down. "It's a concern for you. You don't seem to like people all that often, so this could be it, either the name lives on or it dies with you. But I don't know if she's going to say yes to going out yet; usually you go out with someone a few times before you start asking if they want to have children, and if they'd like to, with you. You just also have to think whether you'd think even an inch less of any kid because they might have a muggle someone on their family tree. You spent half your life trying desperately to live up to aristocratic expectations in case ours thought less of you, you're still struggling with it; you wouldn't want another child to go through that. If I thought for an instant I'd make Harry feel like that, I wouldn't have said I'd take care of him."

“I know that.” Some of the previous tension crept back in as Regulus thumbed a page of his book, and a little defensively, he added, “I’m not planning to sweep in and propose, and I'm not trying to ruin anyone's life, hypothetical or not.”

"I don't think you'll ruin anyone's life on purpose. She's a big girl, you can sort out your own relationship. You've been doing fine so far, enough that there is a disgusting amount of flirting going on. Besides that, you've got your first vigilante meeting coming up, that should be enough drama for now. Destroy Voldemort, sort out whatever's left of the family, and potentially have a romantic entanglement," Sirius ticked them off on his fingers. "You really have filled up your social calendar for the year. You don't have time to get yourself killed, dibs or no dibs."

Regulus thought ‘disgusting’ was overstating it - he and Emmeline were really only talking - but he bit back the objection, knowing it would only make Sirius more delighted if he tried to defend the interactions further. “It’s a bit exhausting, really. Surely Bella will understand if I am not up for adding yet another thing to the calendar.”

"Speaking of calendar events," Sirius asked. "What do you want to do for your birthday?"

“I don't know,” Regulus admitted, “I don't have anything particular in mind.”

Sirius clarified, “You do want to do something for it?”

“It has been awhile since I've done anything in particular, but I'm not opposed to the idea,” Regulus responded. “We were always at Iago for my birthday, but suffice to say that fell off some time ago.”

Sirius raised his eyebrows, the beginnings of a smile indicating absolutely nothing good crossed his features. "So why don't you do that? You're not hiding from any of them anymore. I haven't been since after Uncle Alphard died."

Regulus looked over, prepared to tell Sirius that it was not just a little bit, but in fact completely mad to waltz into the summertime Porth Iago gathering. It could perhaps be considered a taunt - but it wasn't without merit in regards to opportunity, having everyone gathered.

He wanted to say it was a bad idea, because it probably was, but instead the corner of his mouth pulled up and he tipped his head. “How nostalgic.”

"It's your right to be there as much as it's anyone's,"  Sirius said, as his smile grew. "It's always fun to make a bit of a statement. Dunno if it’s the statement you want to make, but it would. Besides, can't see Voldemort taking the summer off to go catch a tan. Bella neither. It’s probably as close to a safe territory as anywhere."

Regulus smiled a little in return. “That would be quite the image. I imagine they would find it confusing, to show up as if everything is normal, but there can be some value in stubbornly presenting something as acceptable until it is accepted as such.”

"You are definitely stubborn," Sirius agreed. "It'll give you time to get your shit together and decide how you're doing about Emme, assuming you're not desperate to hash it out."

“Not desperate to do so, no,” Regulus responded wryly, shaking his head.

"Then we ought to go," Sirius said, decisively. "Just for a few days. You can cause your first society scandal, then possibly go back to London in time to commit to a second. I can even attempt to behave, in the name of getting a complexion that doesn't make me like the dead walking. Or worse, Snape."

“My first society scandal. How gripping.” Shaking his head with a brush of amusement, Regulus added in a loftier tone, “That settles it, then. If we die from our misestimation, at least we will die making a point.”

"I'm not allowed to die yet, I've missed every birthday Harry's had - I was neck deep in an Order job for his first - but damned if I'm missing this one as well." Sirius huffed, some of his amusement draining from him. "We can use it to either commiserate or celebrate his OWLs. I don't think they give extra credit for having to do it all with a psychotic mass murderer in your head, while a sadistic beaurocrat uses curses on you."

“I don't think they do, no.” Again, Regulus shook his head. “His birthday is shortly after mine, isn't it? If I'm recalling correctly from last year.”

"The 31st," Sirius clarified. "Born as the seventh month dies was a very poetic way of putting it."

“Poetic, indeed.” A twinge of curiosity coloured his voice as he added, “Is that from the prophecy?”

"What I remember of it," Sirius said, before frowning to himself. "It may have been paraphrased, but I doubt it. I've heard enough of James's poetry to know that it should be burned as a crime against literature. But I remember the parts about the criteria. Birthdate, parents, scar."

Regulus tipped his chin thoughtfully. Restricted though it had been this far, once again he wondered at the details and how they might related to the horcruxes. “I would like to hear it, if that is possible.”

"Neville gave it to Dumbledore," Sirius shrugged by way of an answer. "I'm not sure if Harry is required to activate it now it isn't in Ministry possession or not, but there's little harm in asking. Neville might be a special case. Regardless, I'd like a word with the headmaster myself, so I'm sure you'll have time to ask. I think it's time Mum's room got vacated."

“Ah, yes, Buckbeak,” Regulus began, tucking away the thought of prophecy in his mind. (With luck, Dumbledore would be obliging - and with more luck, it would be worth the listen.) “He will probably like being out in the world again. If we felt stifled in the house, I imagine he has grown tired of a single room.”

"With everyone involved either disgraced or in prison, it should be safe," Sirius agreed. "I wouldn't mind knowing what he wanted Harry for today either, but I imagine I'll hear that from him before I see Dumbledore. Maybe he decided to take him along on interviews, see if he can figure out how not to hire a Death Eater if Harry's right there. Get it out of the way before term starts."

With a subtle snigger, Regulus nodded. “Perhaps so.”

Chapter Text

There had been no time to gather a meeting of the Ravenclaw rebellion in the absence of the Blacks, but that didn't mean Emmeline had not been busy. Once the headmaster had retrieved Harry for their secret mission, she had gotten to work. Unwilling to focus on the funeral on Saturday morning, she did what she always did when grief became difficult and threw herself into a puzzle. Thankfully, they had an exceptionally large one in Voldemort and Harry, so there was plenty to do.

Every now and then she saw a ghost of movement, but she assumed it to be the house-elf who was clearly avoiding her. Having run out of room in the study, she had moved the boards down into the dining room. She had marked each topic, and under each of the topics, she had done the best to shorthand her own evidence and that which she knew from others. The first few pages were half complete, written in neat text and set up so she could look at all of them with relative ease.

Tom Riddle
B. 12/26 (Hog. reg.)
M. Gaunt (witch, desc. Of Slytherin) & T. Riddle (muggle)
Raised in muggle orphanage (torn down)
P. of C. Dumbledore (‘37)
Slytherin (H. Slughorn) (‘37-’45) P. HB.
Opened CoS (6/43) Diary?
Riddle murders (8/43)

Known Death Eaters
B. Lestrange
R. & R. Lestrange
A. Dolohov
L. Mulciber
S. Avery
B. Crouch
W. Macnair
D. Travers
C. Yaxley
T. Rowle
(tbc. overleaf)

Objects of Importance
Grindelwald Ring
5th Year Diary
Philosopher's Stone

Dark Creatures

Locations of Interest
Riddle Estate
Gaunt 'House' (ring)
Orphanage (Ldn, 12/26, unusual deaths/accidents, unless A.D. remembers? Check for living memory.)
Slytherin Cmn Rm? (H.S.)

S.T. claims no memory
A.D. S.S. overheard?
N.L. still able to touch
'Marked' = Scar
Power Known Not to YKW
H.P. (Occls, Pars, Protection Charm, Wand)

Ongoing Surveillance
L.P. fam
N.F. fam

M. Gaunt
H.P. lack of connection
N.L. ability to touch
Dark Creature Recruitment
Possible 2nd Break out

As she had thought to place something under it that spoke of the murders, she found that listing those names brought more of an ache to her chest than she was currently able to bear. It could wait. For now, Emmeline knew she had to focus on the future. There would be time to mourn the losses later, assuming she lived long enough not to be one of them.

The walk from the train platform back to Grimmauld Place was not a terribly long one, and though they were still shouldering their few-day luggage, when Sirius suggested they walk it, Regulus did not argue the point. It was a muggy evening in London, a little too warm to be wholly comfortable, despite the setting sun, but cooler still than Belétang had been a few hours before. (In the village’s defense, London has likely been hotter a few hours before, too, but he was no less grateful for the hint of a breeze.)

Returning home meant returning to reality - back to questions he did not have answers to, and to a war that seemed to grow in complexity, the further he delved into it. Nothing seemed to fit into its proper little box anymore, congesting and piling at the neck like an ill-fit shape, or jutting out, or falling loosely within to jangle about without a wall to anchor against. Those questions would need answers, however elusive those answers might be.

Thoughtfully, Regulus stared ahead, watching the sidewalk stretching out in front of them as they strolled leisurely along; but beside him, Sirius wasn’t as lost in thought. If anything, he was buzzing with energy.

“There’ll likely be a meeting this week,” he said, breaking the silence out of nowhere. “Ready to be on the other side of the door?”

Jostled from his thoughts, Regulus glanced over at his brother and nodded. “I am. I must admit I’ve been curious.”

"It's not been that exciting," Sirius said, with a snort. "Mostly listening to Snape go on and on. Hope Remus is back for it; he's gone undercover with some ferals."

“I, too, hope Remus will have returned,” Regulus began, and though it was not a question of which feral group was being referred to, he did wonder if much success was being made - and if he wasn't successful, what might happen with a group of wild and uncooperative werewolves. Shaking his head, he added, “But however much you might dislike Snape, it's still more valuable than nothing.”


“It's better than coming from Harry,” Sirius relented sourly. “I'd say I look forward to the school term meetings more, but that seems cruel to him. Did you plan on going up there again? The school?”

Regulus maintained his thoughtful expression. The previous attempt had been a disaster, and he had at least a small amount of venom at hand, but there were several more horcruxes to go, and he was not sure to what degree he could rely on the Gryffindor sword to be any more at hand for his own purposes than the chamber below the school. However much he wanted to retrieve it (and to see the basilisk for himself, curiosity that it was in its less aggressive state), he could admit it was probably wiser to leave it to the students if it could not be managed by the beginning of the next term.

“I don't know yet,” he admitted after a moment.

Sirius snorted, “There's a sentence that can applied to your life in general at the moment.”

A wry smile flickered at the corner of Regulus's mouth, and he shook his head. “Too true. I've found a bit of flexibility is needed in planning, lest things go awry. It seems to happen frequently, should I get too attached to a particular intention.”

“Life would be very boring if you knew everything.” Sirius smirked back, readjusting the bag he carried. “And the Ravenclaw rebellion would have nothing to do, let alone for its newest addition. Should I be expecting to lose you for a while to another pile of books and the research of mysterious things?”

“Yes,” Regulus responded without hesitation, dipping his chin in a small nod. “The chances are very high that you will. I am quite curious what information the Order has been working off of and how it compares to my own.”

"More in date, and more Ministry input." Sirius shrugged. "They hoard almost as much as you, so I think we've got a lot of the old evidence work stashed here and about. Someone might need to ask for Frank and Alice's, but given the name, I'm nominating someone else to do that. Frank's mother has always been hard as nails; dunno what she thinks of her grandson getting involved with all this again."

“I would not think she's particularly thrilled about it, if she knows. She was not one for any sort of vigilantism, from either side - nor was Great Aunt Callidora, for that matter,” Regulus remarked, lifting his brow, struck with a tinge of curiosity at the associate thought. “Speaking of, I wonder if she is still alive. The tree said so, but I assume no one has been updating it lately.”

"McGonagall said it was just me, but I don't think she's counting anyone that extended. I want to say it was Andromeda's father that kicked it last, but it might have been Cass. Either way, someone had to add them three years ago, so it's probably accurate to then." Sirius pondered aloud. "Arthur Weasley may know. His mother was, at least at one point, her younger sister. The other one was...what, Crouch?"

Regulus nodded, feeling a little twinge in his chest that he carefully kept from his face. “Great Aunt Charis, yes.” He and Barty had been second years when she passed, as he recalled. Barty had known her better, seeing as it was his immediate grandmother, and seemed to like her quite a lot - but Aunt Charis and Barty's father had quarreled often, from Barty’s report, which had always been a point in her favour. “I will try to remember to ask, should the opportunity arise.”

"Maybe Arthur's mother's still alive," Sirius considered, but there was irritation leaking into his tone. "That's the problem with taking a wand to the family tree as often as the tapestry: You start realising it's inaccurate. Arthur had a brother - two, maybe.” To that, Regulus lifted his brow with a mild brush of surprise, even as Sirius continued, “I don't think most of the younger kids are old enough to remember Molly's enough to comment on them. The twins and the one being a prick would have been toddlers."

“I have to admit a measure of curiosity about the older marks - and what exactly it is that they did,” Regulus said with a frown, “No one ever talked about them, of course, and there are only a few that could be figured it from context, like the Weasleys.”

"Besides me, Andromeda, and I'm guessing Uncle Alphard got it in the neck from Mum when she realised what he'd done," Sirius sighed to himself, slowing a little. "I think that's just Arthur's mum that’s recent, and the one between Aunt Cass and Dorea. Never understood why Dorea got a free pass after Henry, but I guess her husband made the right noises. Suppose she also had a boy, seems to be the main currency. There's probably still a bunch of junk belonging to half of them in different houses, at least if ours is anything to go by. A scorch mark only takes out a name, it can't fully remove a presence or their history."

“Probably,” Regulus assented thoughtfully, thinking back to the cluttered, dusty attic he and Sirius had climbed up to years and years ago - too young to care about looking for disowned ancestors, that much was certain, but perhaps there was some merit to the thought, whether in their own childhood home or the slew of other properties sitting vacant. It had always been a terrifying thought - complete erasure from the family's history - and as a child, that erasure had felt jarringly real and horrifyingly complete; but he had not thrown out his brother's photos. Perhaps sentiment had burdened others along the branches of the tree - or even apathy…

"There you go, first date planned," Sirius said, laughing to himself without much care for Regulus’s distant thoughts.

“You are unbearable,” Regulus muttered with a snap of attention, shaking his head.

Sirius, as expected, was entirely pleased by that. "I've seen more of Emmeline Vance's back end sticking out of various things in that house over the last year than I've seen her face. I'm a little afraid if you let her near that attic, she'll never leave."

Fighting a smile into some slanted form, Regulus shook his head again. It was charming, her persistent curiosity about the house when so many others - essentially everyone else in it - soured. “That's probably true,” he granted lightly.

“Assuming she hasn’t managed to find it on her own,” Sirius said. “I’m still finding things I didn’t know were there. Dunno what she’d manage to dredge up from the deeps.”

“She has not mentioned it,” Regulus said - and privately, he suspected she would have, given her ongoing quest for his nonexistent ‘embarrassing childhood photographs’ - then added, “though I cannot speak for the past few days, seeing as they have been unsupervised.”

"Untempered curiosity, the curse of Ravenclaw," Sirius said, before bobbing his head in their direction. "Looks like the house hasn't reduced itself to ashes because someone else was living there by themselves for a bit."

“That's fortunate,” Regulus remarked as they neared the front door, and though Emmeline was not the destructive sort herself, he had to admit there was some part of him that would not have been entirely surprised if the house had some spell on it that might've pitched a fit in such circumstances, however unwise it seemed to say as much aloud.

“I figured we’d be okay if it hadn’t exploded at me,” Sirius reasoned. “If anyone was going to try and curse it, it’d probably be against traitors, or people who weren’t human like Remus. I don’t think he had any problems with the house.”

“Not as far as I am aware, either.” Just the ongoing objections of their mother’s portrait, though it went without saying - and when at last they had stepped inside shortly after, they were met with still silence, even from her.

Sirius shrugged in response; he was obviously not going to complain about not getting yelled at by the portrait of their mother.

Slowly, the door from the dining room opened and Emmeline’s head bobbed into view. “I see you made it back in one piece,” she said, looking them over. “Congratulations.”

A smile crept up the corners of Regulus's mouth, and he nodded. “A similar sentiment could be said for yourself. How was Grimmauld Place?”

“Opinionated,” Emmeline said, with a bob that may indicate she was shrugging out of sight or perhaps found the comment amusing. “But she’s an old girl and that’s hardly unusual in elderly relatives, portrait or otherwise. I’m afraid I haven’t seen your house-elf-”

“- that’s a relief-” Sirius muttered under his breath, and Regulus shoot him a sharp (if brief) look.

“- so I can’t inquire as to him, but Buckbeak, Harry, and I were fine,” Emmeline finished. “There’s some news, but perhaps you ought to come in here. I have a feeling it will induce something of a loud reaction, and this is never the hallway for loud noises.”

“News, you say?” Lifting his brow, Regulus followed her through the door, followed in turn by Sirius.

"It appears that a new Defense professor has been hired," Emmeline said, clearing off a variety of parchment that was currently occupying the table.

"It's not another Death Eater, is it?" Sirius said as he shut the door behind them, clearly half-joking.

"I suppose that depends upon your definition," Emmeline said, in a way that could be described as shifty. "I'm never entirely sure how to categorise him."

Curiosity broadened Regulus's expression slightly, glancing first at his brother then back to Emmeline. There were not very many people who Regulus would consider to be questionable as far as Death Eater categorisation went, but- “Is it Severus?” he asked carefully, unlikely though it seemed.

"No," Sirius said, firmly. "He already teaches Potions. He can't do both, and run Order and Death Eater tasks. I know he has no life, but that's nuts."

"Potions is an easier slot to fill," Emmeline said. "So yes, while I haven't seen him personally, it appears Dumbledore has finally granted his request."

“The Defense position doesn't have a particularly great record, no,” Regulus commented, shaking his head. “Who was hired to teach Potions, then? Has it been determined yet?”

"I don't think it's been announced yet," Emmeline replied. "Perhaps they want an air of surprise this year."

"It'll be a surprise if anyone learns anything this year," Sirius grumbled. "At a time when learning Defense is going to be vital, he puts Snape in charge of it?"

“It might not be that bad,” Regulus countered mildly, though he laced his tone more firmly as he added, “Certainly more productive than last year, from the sound of it. Even Barty - setting aside that Unforgivables fiasco - made a competent, if ironic, Defense teacher, according to what the kids reported. Snape might manage a decent curriculum a well.”

“Because he can’t teach,” Sirius said. “He’s not much better as a Potions professor, but at least he knows the material. He picks and chooses who is ‘worth it,’ and to hell with anyone else, which is why purist half-bloods piss me off. Besides, knowing the Dark Arts doesn’t automatically make you good at defending against them, let alone teaching a bunch of teenagers who are about to be let loose on an active war zone.”

“If there was a better option available, can you think of a reason Dumbledore would not hire that person instead?” Regulus countered, raising his brow. “We received poor and inconsistent Defense education too, but we survived the previous iteration of this war. Should they need gaps filled in, we can at least do so for Harry and his friends.”

"I ended up in a cell for twelve years, and you joined the Death Eaters," Sirius deadpanned. "We're not role models, we're barely more than worst case scenario. Isn't the kids making those mistakes because they don't know any better than we did half the problem?"

“I did not join because of an educational skill deficit, nor is that the reason you ended up in Azkaban,” Regulus responded in a deadpan, pointed tone of his own, and for a moment, Emmeline’s presence was seemingly forgotten. “Those mistakes were rooted in separate issues.”

"They were stupid mistakes, that's a deficit of something," Sirius groused. "At least they were paid for mistakes. Snape abandons Harry's lessons, leaving him vulnerable, and in return, he gets the job he wanted in the first place. If he decides to pull the same shit in Defense, I'm cursing him into next week."

"You can't," Emmeline said, from where she'd gone back to her parchment. "The Time chamber lost their time turners in the fight. No one is going forward or backwards."

Sirius scowled at her.

Sparing a glance to Emmeline (who appeared unmoved by the scowl), Regulus tipped his head with a tilt of the mouth. “In addition to this undeniably practical point, he will presumably be held more accountable for official Defense classes than he was for secret Occlumency lessons, however important they might have been. Try to bear it.”

"Do I have a choice?" Sirius ran a hand across his face, and then sighed heavily. "I'm going to go write to Harry, since I'll have to find an owl."

Regulus nodded his acknowledgement, watching until his brother crossed the door frame before shaking his head. Shifting his attention back to Emmeline again, he felt a small prickle of awkwardness niggling at the back of his mind, his brother's intrusive questions glaring a little too brightly behind his eyes. With a pointed mental push, Regulus shoved the thought down- he could worry about it at another time- “That could have gone worse,” Regulus remarked with a tip of the head.

"Better than I expected," Emmeline agreed, looking at the door and the amazingly still silent hallway. "Was your mysterious trip fruitful?"

“It was,” Regulus answered vaguely, his eyes dropping to the notes before her on the table. “Are you working on anything of particular interest?”

"Cataloguing," Emmeline said, tapping one of the pieces of parchment. "While there is an element of discretion with certain tasks, you also don't want the right hand not knowing what the left is doing so much it slaps into it. So that's the current mission splits, surveillance, research, undercover work, you know. Then topics of interest, or potential sites of interest in regards to You-Know-Who, given that he chose to hide something in his maternal home, then the diary at Hogwarts. It's possible there are other significant places we ought to be looking - not the orphanage, demolished, but perhaps some of the staff could shed light on the overall picture."

Curiosity sparked visibly in his expression, and with a subtle gesture towards the papers, he asked, “May I?”

“You don’t have to ask,” Emmeline replied. “Membership perks.”

His mouth curled up into a smile as he picked up the parchment, eyes flicking over the neatly organised categories and the lists, not too unlike his own (if more straight-forward). There was no mention of the horcruxes themselves, though the items had clearly been identified as items of interest. He had wondered what all they knew; from the start, he had gathered that the Order was progressing along the correct track in many ways, but it seemed Dumbledore was not being any more forthright with his information than Regulus had been.

Eyes lifting to Emmeline's, he thought once again that if it was Emmeline alone, it might not be so terrible to probe her insights. He knew little about the orphanage in question, and the same applied to the finer details of the prophecy… Deep in his gut, he could feel a recoiling hesitation, but she had been an asset in hunting the ring - he could not have found it so simply without her guiding him right to it - and she was nothing if not discreet…

“I appreciate a well-documented compilation of information,” he said, carefully setting it back on the table. A brief pause, and then: “I have my own, as well. I've been itching to compare them for some time.”

"You, the informational connoisseur, wanting to explore my own? I'm flattered." Emmeline grinned, filing through a couple of the pieces. "I think I've managed to narrow down some sort of timeline. You can see there that the Chamber of Secrets was opened in June of '43 with a single fatality, then the Riddle murders two months later. After that, he seems to become silent aside from academic accomplishments. My guess the is that something significant happened in the summer of '43 that sparked, but what, I can't say."

“I see,” Regulus murmured thoughtfully, tucking the information away in his mind as the details threaded into his own mental timeline. So little of the Dark Lord’s life had been accessible, shrouded in untapped mysteries and harrowing discoveries, but the Order did seem to have greater access to such things - ironic though it felt, considering how carefully the Dark Lord hid that information from the followers who gave their lives to and for him. Regulus had to wonder just how early the Dark Lord has planned his horcruxes; could the Riddle murders have preceded, or did they occur in isolation?

Steeling his resolve, Regulus stared hard at the parchment as she stacked each page neatly. “I am presently unclear on the timeline of it, but there is something I have been meaning to consult with you about, if you are willing to lend your discretion.”

"I can lend it," Emmeline said, stopping her busying for a moment. "I'll go so far as to freely give it, if you like."

Expression falling a little more solemn, Regulus nodded, then tipped his head toward the door. His mind drifted to the husk of a locket still tucked away upstairs. He had not put much mind to how he might initiate such a conversation because he had not actively intended to have it in the first place, but perhaps something tangible might give focus…

His mind reeled softly inside his skull, but the way his thoughts pulled to a point helped a little with the lingering awkwardness hovering over him since he's had spoken to Sirius. Impossible though it felt, trying to understand the way fondness crept and swelled and grew to something more unwieldy than he had initially expected, this, at least, was something he could anchor himself against.

“I must pop up to the top landing, but I will meet you in the library in a few minutes, if you have a moment right now?” It was as much a question as a statement as he lifted his gaze to meet hers.

Emmeline gave a soft laugh. "I think I can clear some time in my exceptionally busy schedule to join you for a bit of an enigmatic library visit."

Regulus granted a small smile but spared no time in trekking up to the top landing where he dropped his bag and rifled through another, pulling out the cracked and damaged remains of Salazar Slytherin’s iconic locket - the vessel for a fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul. After securing it in his pocket, Regulus padded down the stairs once again, this time veering off to the library where he found Emmeline already waiting, situated primly in a chair.

With a soft, steadying huff, he sat in the matching, overstuffed chair just adjacent to her own - paused - then began, “It’s about the ring we found.”

"The one I've been impatiently dying to know what it is that you felt warranted Dumbledore alone?" Emmeline clarified. "Yes, I remember it."

Some of the tension tightening around his neck loosened just slightly as he cracked a tiny smile, stiff though his posture remained. “It's quite sensitive, as far as information goes. However well-meaning a person may be, one cannot always control the maintenance of a secret once it starts to spread, nor does it retain much weight,” he started, then shook his head. Fighting to keep the uncertainty behind a mask of neutrality, he continued, “Perhaps it is unnecessary to repeat, but I must emphasise my desire to protect this particular secret for the time being, and judging by Dumbledore's continued reticence on the matter, it seems he is in agreement. I did not intend open the subject to anyone else, but… I trust your discretion, and I recognise value in your analysis.”

Emmeline preened undeniably.

Fending off a small rush of embarrassment, Regulus spoke again, providing little room for response, “Shortly before… leaving, I discovered something I was not supposed to know. Something I don't believe the other Death Eaters are aware of, at least not most of them... Granted, they might know now; I suppose I don't have much perspective on the current state of things… but the point of it remains that I was not meant to find out at the time. He intended to use Kreacher, then kill him to keep it quiet.” His mouth tightened, and with it, so did his voice. “In pursuit of immortality, he appears to be attempting a number of methods, one of which was use of the philosopher’s stone when Harry was a first year, but he was attempting other methods during the first war, too.”

Regulus reached into his pocket and pulled out the broken locket and held it out to her, watching her eyes as they fell to inspect it. “Horcruxes, they're called. Extremely dark magic, with murder as a key ingredient. This is the one I found back then, but Gaunt’s ring was another. I originally assumed there was only one, but…” He shook his head, this time pressing his lips to a thin line.

Emmeline frowned deeply, as she sat forward to examine the locked with interest. “Why would murderous jewelry be the key to immortality?”

“The jewelry itself isn't murderous,” Regulus clarified, pausing for a beat to arrange his thoughts before continuing: “To my understanding, murder causes one’s soul to...fracture.” Anxious pressure constricted around his temples as an unwelcome flash of too-still bodies and flicking flames rose in his mind, and it was with a tense straightening of his posture that he shoved it down again. “The fragment can then be bound to an object, which becomes a horcrux. As long as that horcrux remains intact, one cannot fully die, held instead to life by a thread. I had assumed the locket was the only one…” He turned it over in his hand, the thick golden chain shifting off his fingers, and a frown pulled down at the edges of his mouth as he stared down at the encrusted emeralds and the winding S, damaged though the surface might be. “...And I destroyed it a long time ago, so when the Dark Lord successfully returned… well, I suspected that had been a hasty and optimistic assumption. The ring was my first confirmation of another, but I believe the diary was a horcrux too, though it manifested differently from the locket - and the ring was different from both of them…”

There was a moment of studious silence to the revelation, where perhaps Emmeline was unsure of what to say or do to that. “To separate a soul once is a terrible thing, but mendable. To then shove it in a piece of jewelry - or a diary - is reckless and dangerous. To then go on to do it multiple times, perhaps even as a teenager, is unthinkable.” Her eyes flicked to Regulus himself. “Yet I suppose I have to think it. I must admit, I’m formulating more questions than I can reasonably ask. I don’t suppose you’ll mind if I make a list, will you? A private one, obviously.”

Regulus paused for a beat, then tipped his head down in a small nod. “Private and as vaguely worded as you can manage while still sparking memory as needed.” His head rang softly - it was difficult to feel 'mendable’ when he thought about his own brush with murder, but the thought of confiding as much to Emmeline made his insides twist, so instead he sat back in his chair with a quiet huff.

"I'll just do what we used to," Emmeline said, moving to sit back. "Have you had the chance to see the infamous map, yet?"

“The one Harry has?” he clarified, thinking back to the extensive map of Hogwarts the boy had unfolded - one that Sirius and his friends had apparently used back in school, though he did not much like to think about it.

"That would be the one." Emmeline nodded, a small smile forming. "It's locked parchment, and changes what it has on it if you're not using the correct passcodes to bypass it. It's a little crude - that particular one likes to insult you - but you can lock it to say anything you like, nothing at all or something different depending on who it's responding to. We used to use a similar method back in the day."

“Interesting.” Thoughtfully, Regulus nodded. “I've used variations on disillusionment but have not used that particular spell. It sounds secure.”

"I think they just wanted to be clever about it. It must run in the family. I only heard about it after we'd left school, and after they'd lost the damn thing," Emmeline huffed, despite still looking a little amused. "But it did become very helpful in terms of hiding in plain sight. I'll show you it once I've managed to get it all down."

His mouth slanted up, just slightly. “Perhaps we can consolidate our notes at that time.”

"I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours," Emmeline offered.

Quietly, Sirius's voice came from the doorway. "Er....I can come back later."

Face flushing hot, Regulus clasped the locket tight in his hand and stuffed it back in his pocket. “You really ought to knock,” he began a little moodily, shooting Sirius a withering look. It was the burn of embarrassment at what his brother was undoubtedly assuming, more so than true anger, that sent his posture rigid again, but it was annoying nonetheless. “I suppose our note-taking discussion can wait,” he specified further, and in some clumsy attempt to distract, added, “You've sent the letter to Harry?”

"Note-taking, riiight," Sirius said, elongating the word beyond all need. "I have the letter, but I need to go to the post office because not even the responsible adults in this house own an owl."

“Then go to the post office and mail it,” Regulus said, his tone a little more short than was entirely necessary. As he shifted in his chair, no amount of curiosity could turn his eyes over to Emmeline, and the tentative control he'd had over the mental onslaught of awkwardness was rapidly crumbling.

Sirius pointed to the door, giving him a shirty look. "That's what I'm doing!"

“Actually, you’re speaking to me,” Regulus began, willfully ignoring the intent of his brother’s remark, before evening his tone to something a little more neutral as he continued, “Did you need something?”

"For someone to notice if I don't come back would be nice." Sirius glanced around the library. "I know it'd probably take a day or two, given you're with your one true love, but even you have to run out of reading material eventually."

“Ha,” Regulus huffed dryly, and with a tiny grump, added, “Your upcoming absence is noted.” (And anticipated, though he bit his tongue to keep from saying as much).

"I should go clean up the dining room," Emmeline said. She stood up, giving a small smile in Regulus's direction. "Just in case your house-elf decides to be fastidious. Study tomorrow?"

"I'm going over to the Burrow tomorrow to see Harry," Sirius said.

Emmeline turned to him. "Do you have a particular interest in digging through some ancient magical volumes and making some notes?"


"And do you imagine Harry does?" Emmeline pressed.

Sirius snorted. "Doubt it."

"Then it's excellent timing all around," Emmeline replied. "Particularly as you're not invited."

Regulus's mouth flicked subtly as he first glanced to Sirius, then nodded to Emmeline. “A well-suited plan.”

"I know I'm devastated not to be invited to fall asleep at the table," Sirius replied, with obvious sarcasm. With the statement, he withdrew, and the sounds of feet on the stairs could be heard.

"The words ‘diligent research’ are a powerful anti-Gryffindor weapon," Emmeline said. “Usually.”

Coming from Regulus, claims of notes and research had been ineffective, instead sparking another embarrassing remark of disbelief in place of the desired deterrence, but he could not truly complain at the final result, even if it had required Emmeline’s word to fend Sirius off. Pressing his mouth to a line, he merely nodded.

Embarrassment still lingered and knotted in his chest, but Regulus tugged a small smile onto his face to smother the feeling. “Quite right,” he said in agreement, rising to his feet as his thoughts drifted upward to his room, in hopes that a dash of solitude would re-center him once again. It was annoying, how awkward it all suddenly felt, but he could not very well gripe at Sirius about it without opening himself to more teasing, and Emmeline, at least, was giving no indication of concern. Whether the conversation had heightened his sensitivity or whether she was politely ignoring it, he could not say, but at least her unbothered expression provided a bridge to cross back over to normalcy. And cross it, he would. “We shall resume tomorrow, then.”

For as long as she could remember, Narcissa had experienced a complicated relationship with sandy shores of the Welsh coast that her family (and so many others) had called Summer Home for generations. The sun beat hard without care for her delicate, porcelain skin, and sand inexplicably managed to track inside despite the employ of various spells to ward it off, but she loved the way the sun glittered along the surface of the sea (and the pale blonde hair of her husband and child), loved the sound of waves as she hosted tea with her dearest friends, and for all its invasiveness, the sand did feel lovely between her toes in quieter moments. Tradition persisted in its familiarity, and though tragedy had struck fresh - the first in quite some years - Porth Iago called.

They would need to start readying themselves now, though it would only be herself and Draco, this year. There was no way she was bringing Bella and the Lestranges brothers along, as things were - nor were they likely to object to the exclusion, in truth.

Draco was in the library when she found him, scribbling away at his parchment with a certain diligence. There was a book of curses open on the table, though she could not be certain if it was his own curiosity or encouragement from her elder sister that had her son studying curses during his summer holiday when he ought to be relaxing and having a fun time of it with his friends. He was a child - not yet a man - and it still froze her blood to ice, that Bella had pulled Draco into a world he oughtn't be touching, giving him responsibilities he was not ready for.

“What are you working on, darling?” she asked as she approached the table.

"I'm just studying, Mother," Draco replied. He barely glanced up from the book upon her question, before returning to his notes.

“Is it something for your Aunt Bella?” she asked, taking care with the casual lilt in her voice.

"It's something she helped with," Draco noted, before he turned to look at her. "Not that I was incapable of looking into it myself, she only offered."

“Of course, dear,” she said, though she could not help a small wave of distress - not in doubt of her son’s capabilities, though he was certain to assume as much, but rather the onset of something too unsettlingly familiar about that edge of determination that overtook Draco when her elder sister became involved - not unlike the edge that had taken their littlest cousin. Alive though Regulus apparently was, his involvement with the Death Eaters had hardly landed him in a safe position: Not for himself, and not for the rest of them.

“Is it related to the task you were given?” There was a certain steel that lined her tone, feeling as anxious as she did protective, though she did not want her son to see her quiver. She knew little of the details, beyond the danger her son was hurtled into when he took the Dark Lord’s Mark, and it worried her, how quiet he had been been on those details.

"You're not supposed to ask about it," Draco said, quietly. There was both worry and pride in the tone, perhaps a desire to tell her but an anxiety about what would happen if he did.

In truth, Narcissa was not entirely certain she really wanted to know any more than she was supposed to know; his task would be dangerous, no doubt, and every detail provided just made her fears more vivid, splashing across her mind in horrific shades… but ignorance had done nothing to help Regulus. She had stared straight into her cousin’s eyes, seen him fidget with his arm and deaden his expressions, and she had told herself it was for a greater Cause, that they would protect him, that he must have known what he was doing - but he was a child who could not have known it, a child who was paying for a floundering family, and Draco would pay tenfold. He would pay for Lucius’s mistakes, for Regulus’s, for every mistake their family had made and those mistakes that may still come.

Unfairness stung sharp in her eyes; stubbornly, she blinked it away. “I don’t wish to trouble you further,” she said, moving close enough to smooth his hair - an unnecessary gesture, given that even the closest inspection would not have found a hair out of place, but rather a gesture reaching for comfort. Lucius wanted to harden him, to make him stronger and harsher in preparation for the difficult times ahead, but sixteen was not yet an adult; and no matter how tall he grew, she just wanted to grasp him and hold him and never let him go. She had nearly lost Draco to Durmstrang, a break in their Hogwarts legacy - she did not want to lose him more permanently to the Death Eaters, where there was quite a bit more than legacy on the line. “Your Aunt Bella is supporting you in your task, and I trust that,” she continued, though it was not exactly the full truth of it, “But there is only so much she can do while the Ministry still hunts her. Should you require anything, you need only ask.”

Draco reached for his mother’s hand. "I can handle this, Mother. You have nothing to worry about."

Clasping his hand in her own, Narcissa nodded, forcing a smile even as her insides burned against the thought that her child should have to say such a thing at all. “I know,” she began, her voice more iron-steady than she felt, “I’m very proud of you. Just remember to be careful; and do try to enjoy the summer, as much as you can.” Squeezing his hand, she added with a little spark of memory: “We’ll be leaving for Iago, tomorrow.”

Draco appeared to hesitate. "I don't know how long I'll stay. I may need to return for some things." He pulled his hand back, and then reached for another book. "Are we going alone?"

Narcissa fought to keep her face neutral, even as a fresh stab of dread struck. “Your friends will be there, as always; but as far as family is concerned, yes, it is only us this year. Your aunt and uncles cannot risk the open exposure, even among friends.” Hardening her frame, she could not bring herself to mention Lucius, though the panging flicker in her eyes were mirrored in Draco’s.

Draco steeled himself visibly, pushing the book open as if it had in some way offended him. "Then I need to get as much as I can done before we leave."

“The elf will pack your things, but make certain to check your luggage before we go, to ensure nothing is forgotten,” she said briskly, once again eying the book her son had in front of him with only a mild flicker of frown.

Prepared was better than unprepared, however much she might dislike it.

Chapter Text

Emmeline startled hard when the kitchen door opened.

Around four o'clock that morning, she had given up on her elusive sleep in favour of productivity. For once, this was not because of horrible dreams, but rather the buzzing noise of questions unanswered and uncategorised in her mind. Getting them out and organised into some sort of manner was the only way forward. She had wrapped herself in her housecoat and slipped down into the kitchen with hot coffee, parchment, ink, and her wand and let the questions come.

They were jumble at first. A horcrux was not something she was familiar with, which while terrifying, was also a point of interest. She'd gone through most of the Restricted Section during her Hogwarts years and found little. So how had Riddle known of it? A word like that would stick out, even without its meaning. It sounded a bit like the kind of insult written in the girls’ loos. Of course, that was the location of the Chamber when it had been opened. She thought of the diary and the memory inside it again. The more she thought of it, the more she thought the name – Lord Voldemort – reeked of adolescent ego, so perhaps she ought not to have been surprised by the idea of a teenager taking it on themselves. She was a little disappointed it was a prefect. She'd wanted to murder plenty of people while she served as one and had shown considerably better restraint.

Then came the questions of receptacles for a soul . Could it be anything? Riddle had chosen family heirlooms and a diary, so it was likely that the other objects linked to him. But what would he consider dear? His original wand, perhaps? They needed more information on his movements after Hogwarts. Then came the question of number – three, of course, but also seven, thirteen, how many times had he murdered? Countless. Of course, then it becomes about how is one destroyed, if he has already one it? Does You-Know-Who know if it's destroyed? What about the so-called manifestations? Were they defense mechanisms? Would each one have one? Could it be key to identifying the needle in the haystack? But one defended cursed object was often like another, so perhaps less helpful than she thought. As far as immortality links, perhaps this too was a pattern – Slytherin was a legacy, legacy held a type of immortality through family lines. The diary too, an immortalised snapshot of himself. The ring was Gaunt's, but it was Grindelwald's symbol; she wasn't sure how he played in yet. Two items were a line, not a pattern.

Then came Regulus's own involvement. What would involve the use and destruction of a house-elf? Why, then, was Kreacher alive? How had he found all of this? When? There was also the matter of his own feelings towards the Death Eaters themselves, an issue she found him slipping in and out of in what she suspected was a lowering of guard. He used ‘them’ and ‘we’ interchangeably at times; in the same conversation, he referred to You-Know-Who with the same quiet and reverent title; he had never shown an inclination towards judging bloodlines in front of her, but he'd never indicated otherwise either.

Ready to speak about it, Emmeline deflated when she realised it was Sirius. She hoped he hadn't noticed.

“Fuck you very much as well, then,” Sirius grumbled at her.

Either he'd noticed, or this was just a usual case of insomnia and not being a morning person. Alone in these moments, it was easy to remember these random factoids in quiet moments, things she’d had forgotten or put out of her mind when she’d thought the worst: that Sirius could and would fall asleep anywhere. All enthusiasm and then a crash into sleep, almost as if it was unexpected. It had been a strange thing to think of, these different versions of him – the one that must have belonged here at one point, the unmovable object who doesn't deem much worth his time, the over-enthusiastic teenager, vigilante, godfather, prisoner, whatever he was to himself.

She'd thought perhaps a small trip would do them both some good. They could not come with her to the funeral, and both knew it. Sturgis had, and he'd endured enough of the gossip that it had made her angrier. If Sirius had gone, it'd have been a disaster. They were too close to all of it, and she imagined after such a long time, a little time experiencing his own freedom would be something Sirius would enjoy. Regulus had been dealing with his own thoughts, perhaps about his place in the world, given his inability to commit to us or them. A little time away was good for the soul. It had certainly seemed it when they got in, bickering but not in any way offended by it.

It struck her that when it had come to Sirius, she had always known him as part of a set. Even now, seeing him by himself was jarring. He and James had lived out of each others’ pockets for most of their youth, and often beyond. He and Remus had lived together, sat together. When laid up for research, he never did it by himself; he always sat and talked to Lily or Remus, usually disrupting the whole thing ‘til he was banished for doing so. She wondered if perhaps, despite his insistence of utter disgust at having to be in his childhood home, it was one of the reasons he hadn't left. Loyalty was important to him, and he tended to latch onto people if they managed to get to know him enough to know his bark's worse than his bite.

A similarity between siblings, she supposed. The desire to be part of something more than oneself, to give life, heart, and loyalty to it. Acceptance and belonging. While she had never gone out of her way to get those things, she liked that she felt she had them. But then, as ornate, complex, and interesting as the house could be, Emmeline was no fool: she knew, between James, between stories, between the lines of interactions and the house itself, that this hadn't been a good place to grow up in. Where she assumed it was latching on to the relationship in deficit of James at first, perhaps James had just been latched onto in deficit of family. She saw a similar thing with Regulus, with his near perfect memory of the mundane details of family, the desire to preserve the house, the excitement and pride he still had. She only really saw Sirius speak about Harry that way now, except for that meeting. He'd spoken of Regulus that way then.

The chair screeched loudly as he sat down in it, hot coffee almost spilling over the table. “What?”

“Just thinking,” Emmeline said.

“It's too early for thinking,” Sirius declared, taking a long drink of what had to be scalding hot coffee.

For all the similarities, she could appreciate the differences. Regulus had a better morning demeanor, and mostly seemed to go to bed at a reasonable hour. She wondered if Sirius attempted it, would he be in a better mood in the morning, but since she was neither his mother (she doubted she had the lung capacity to attempt such an impression), nor was he likely to take the suggestion well, she kept it to herself.

“When are you going to see Harry?” she asked.

“Soon,” Sirius said.

“Couldn't wait?” Emmeline suggested.

“Patience has never been my strong suit,” Sirius said, running his hands over his face and then giving a shake that reminded her so much of his animagus form that she felt profoundly stupid she'd never figured that out all over again.

(Perhaps also a little hurt Lily had never said anything, but it was difficult to be miffed with the dead; it's not as if they could debate you about it.)

“What are you doing?” Sirius said, breaking her out of her thoughts again.

Emmeline picked up the parchment as the writing changed. “Arithmancy,” she said. “Feel up to giving me a hand?”

Sirius had given her a look of abject disgust, picked his mug off the table and stomped back up the stairs. She didn’t feel offended. It was the kind of friendship they’d always had. He just wasn’t feeling himself in the mornings. She supposed if the thought of seeing his godson wasn't enough to make him a morning person, nothing would.

By the mid-morning, Emmeline deemed it time enough that she could reasonably go and knock on Regulus's bedroom door. She did her best not to laugh at the notice. She'd seen it before, of course, but it always tickled her because it required a level of manner she doubted Sirius had ever possessed, and she didn't think parents paid much attention to such signs. She tried to imagine Regulus as a child keeping little replicated forms for express permission and perhaps telling people they would have to be signed.

A funny image, temporarily banishing all thoughts of fluster or dread at the upcoming conversation.

She knocked purposefully three times, and tried to settle back into herself. She had the note, folded over and still ineffectively grouped, despite her best efforts. She had the questions; all she needed now was the answers.

Following a brief pause, the door opened to reveal Regulus, readied for the day, despite lingering on the top landing. With a tip of the head (and the smallest beat of pause), he greeted, “Good morning.”

"Is that what the light coming in from the windows is about?" Emmeline said, leaning back to look out one of the landing ones. "Am I interrupting?"

Regulus shook his head. “I was just reading. Has Sirius gone on to see Harry?”

Emmeline nodded. "Seemed to want an early start." She waved the folded parchment. "So is now a good time to discuss it?"

“It is,” Regulus responded with a little nod, hesitated briefly with a glance back toward his desk (or perhaps the bag hanging over the side of the chair), paused a beat longer, then moved back a step. “The study might be more comfortable for conversation. I must gather a few potentially relevant points of interest, but it will only take a moment.” He left the door open as he turned back into the room, specifically moving to the bag hanging on the chair.

"The study sounds fine," Emmeline said, though in truth, she was only half listening. It was a bit of a rare insight to actually see the room in question. It wasn't quite as blatant as she'd imagined, but she saw snakes and yet another family crest. (She was starting to wonder if they stamped it on them at birth, given that the crest seemed to be everywhere.) She huffed a laugh to herself, noting with a sense of envy that everything seemed quite orderly and well kept. While meticulous with others' belongings, she had to admit, her own were only sort of ordered and more often shoved somewhere in the general vicinity of the right area. "Don't rush on my account. I imagine Sirius will need time for the at least ten different arguments he's about to have with Molly regarding Harry and potentially himself."

Lifting the bag, he turned a small smile back to her before walking over toward the wardrobe. “A fair point.”

Emmeline returned it, even if he wasn't exactly paying her attention, in favour of props. She doubted much anything else about this discussion would instigate smiling, so she would take what she could get. “Do you need help?”

“I have it under control,” he remarked, opening the wardrobe and lingering for a moment as he leaned in to grab something, though it was difficult to tell what. When he turned around again, it was with a nod, and he crossed the door again to where he stood. “To the study, then.”

Emmeline’s curiosity burned to the point of wanting to come back and ask, but she knew better than to do so. Employment of patience often yielded better results, and she had more pressing concerns.


“Is there a situation where you ever admit to not having it under control, out of interest?” she teased, as they trickled down towards the study.

Again, his mouth flickered, slightly. “Out loud? No, not really.”

As they reached the study and yet more questions arose, Emmeline wondered if there was some sort of cap on them and how much she was going to be able to get away with here. “Whenever you're comfortable,” she said.

Closing the door behind them, he crossed the room to settle in a chair cushioned in dark green, worn but seemingly mended at some point, given that the lining was no longer torn. With his bag situated neatly on the side table, he looked up at her with his elbow propping on the arm of the chair. “What questions have you formed since yesterday?”

Turning back to her parchment, Emmeline looked over it, and the words revealed themselves. She was still finding herself unsure of a starting point. “There's a few of a technical nature about the horcrux itself, a few about the specific objects and potential patterns, and a few focused upon you.”

Subtly, Regulus’s mouth pursed, then he lowered his chin in a small nod. “Let's start with the technical questions.”

“The fracture in the soul,” Emmeline launched in. “As I understand it, this is not a neat and tidy business. Does the spell involved include some sort of containment or a regulation size? And if it doesn't, are there significantly different chunks in each object, and would the size matter in terms of impact, defenses, or function?”

“There are only two texts in the entirety of my experience that so much as mention the word, and only one of which describes the process, but it does not specify fractured size, regulations for containment options, nor the implications of how it might manifest.” Regulus frowned and shook his head, just slightly. “However, I speculate that inconsistencies in those fractures might affect how… sentient the fragment is, perhaps, though curses placed upon them could just as easily affect the end result.” Again, he reached into the bag and pulled out the locket, this time extending it towards her. “They were both well protected, that much is certain, just in very different ways. I think protections placed upon them are a larger factor in their defenses than the soul itself; but again, it is more a matter of my speculation.”

“The diary had a full blown manifestation. I know it's said you pour your soul into your writing, but this would be a very literal take on it,” Emmeline replied, knowing this was going to end up being frustrating. “The others had no such thing? Or did you mean sentience in another way?”

His expression soured a little more. “The ring did not display any sentient behavior. In the case of the locket, it did not display anything to the extent of what was reported for the diary, but it fought back, so to say, more so than the ring's straightforward curse.” Again, he huffed. “However, both of them made a horrible screaming sound when they were destroyed, for what that is worth.”

Privately, Emmeline thought that he wouldn't have enough humanity left to scream. But was that not the point? He had, murder by murder, extracted and stowed away his own humanity. The coffee in her stomach felt uncomfortable to the point she wished she'd thought to bring a glass of water, but discomfort was outweighed by curiosity. "Fought back?"

“The Dark Lord seems to like his head games,” Regulus said, his tone sharpening with distaste, “but in the case of the locket itself, it was nothing more than that.”

"Then it was aware not only of you, but knew you?" Emmeline clarified, as concern began to fill her. "Because You-Know-Who knows you, or because it did?"

“I am not sure how exactly it functioned. It was not based on anything I had openly expressed, certainly not to the Dark Lord, given that we did not have direct personal conversations. Yet with skills in legilimency considered, that does not preclude the possibility that he knew, regardless.” Regulus tensed, jaw setting. “However, in regard to the horcrux, specifically, I suspect it is more a matter of the horcrux itself being able to somehow read and project, given that it is meant to protect the soul fragment from any assailant, not just those the Dark Lord has previously access to.”

Emmeline thought about it for a moment. "Like a boggart?"

“In that respect, it is similar, yes,” Regulus responded, leaning back uncomfortably. “I am certain it did not involve an actual boggart, but it had similar access to one’s thoughts. Even so, that does not appear to be a default state for any horcrux, because the ring to not present as such, meaning it either depends on the quality of that soul fragment, or it involved additional spellwork I am yet unfamiliar with.”

"Then if it was just a defense mechanism; do you think he's in any way aware of them once they're separated?" Emmeline asked; they were three down, how many more would there be? Seven? Thirteen? Twenty-one?

“I honestly don't know.” He frowned. “If he is aware, that could be problematic for eliminating them without risking replacement… I destroyed the locket a decade and a half ago, before he fell the first time, and the ring more recently, but I cannot tell if the lack of reaction to either is truly a lack of reaction or just a hidden reaction, given that I cannot observe directly… and it was never open information in the first place.”

"Because it's generally unknown among Death Eaters?" Emmeline clarified, carefully.

“To my knowledge. I was still quite new, so I cannot say whether the information was kept from me specifically or from everyone, but I do not believe it was common knowledge,” he specified, crinkling his nose. “Either way, once I realised what it was, I had no intention of letting on.”

"I can see why," Emmeline admitted, pressing her increasingly knotted shoulders against the back of the chair in hope of some relief. "What about the criteria for receptacles?"

“They seem to be objects of significance. At first, when I only knew about the locket, I wondered if it was related to the Founders’ relics. The other two confirmed items, however, have been personal, so the other Founders’ objects would not strictly fit the current pattern. With that being said, it is still possible that he would consider non-personal items if they were still items of significance, and I merely have not come across one; but there is simply no solid evidence either way.” He hesitated for a beat, face straining subtly before adding, “I have further suspicions, but… the implications are troubling. It's unsettling, having so little in the way of facts to anchor against.”

"Perhaps the Founders are of personal significance," Emmeline replied. She had meant more the physical requirements, but she had questions about the specific as well and would happily divert for the moment. "Orphaned at a young age, with a single familial tie to a Founder, it wouldn't be hard to see it becoming that. It becomes a second home for many, particularly if things at home are a little...complicated. Being without magic for a few months would point to Hogwarts itself having personal significance as a magical home, wouldn't it? Is that along the lines of your suspicions?"

“Yes… it is entirely possible that the representation of Hogwarts is in itself significant,” Regulus said thoughtfully, followed by a slight beat of hesitation and a steelier shift in his posture. “I have other suspicions… but they remain uncertain, and due to their nature, I must reemphasize the necessity of keeping this information contained to ourselves. You do not seem the sort to become a rogue - if well- meaning - element, but I hope you will pardon the reminder.”

"I'm a little offended you think I can't be a little roguish," Emmeline said, giving him a bit of a deadpan look. However, given the extensive precautions, she also knew it had to be something good. Or more likely, very bad but something she would definitely want to know. "But between us, it remains. I did say so."

“It is not rogue behaviour in general that I doubt - after all, you brought those books from your department - but rather in matters of trust, I am relying on the assumption that you will not act on my suspicions outside of these conversations. I don't feel particularly comfortable relying on trust, all things considered,” he responded a little more firmly, but he seemed to accept her reassurance as it was, because he continued without much pause: “But to the point...Although the texts imply nothing of the sort, I have wondered for some time, whether horcruxes must be inanimate objects, or whether a living being can be used as a host.” Regulus shook his head with a furrowing brow and a tensing tone. “Perhaps it is a bit of a leap… but with Harry connecting so strangely with the Dark Lord’s snake…”

Caught between the desire to laugh at the most bawdy humour of the statement and the desire to be respectful of the tone, Emmeline remained silent while she rumbled the thought around. Two souls in a single, living body was madness, wasn't it? It sounded like something from her own department, an experiment gone wrong. She could see why he wanted the discretion - not only could it be dismissed, it also really ought not to be. But it didn't make a lot of sense. "Then why continually attempt to kill him?" she replied. "Surely, he can't just paste the part back on and try again, and doing it too many times, there's only so much you can take from a structure before it destabilises." Unless...."Or is that your idea? That it has become so unstable it rips and occurs without his knowledge or consent and it's nothing but a freak accident?"

“That is my theory, yes,” Regulus said with a frown. “He shares characteristics with the Dark Lord that he oughtn't, experiences legilimency in a way he oughtn't… Hosting a piece makes more sense than I want it to, and as much as I have wanted to think otherwise, it is unfortunately easier to believe in a mistake than it is to explain Harry.”

"I'd say he knows now," Emmeline said, thinking back to what seemed a lifetime ago but in reality, had been only weeks. The idea of one soul battling another inside a teenager was a horrible thought, but certainly lined up with the experience. Not to mention the use in the resurrection. That brought another awful thought - how do you kill off one piece of a soul without killing Harry? "If that's the case, it certainly makes Harry's boggart a little ironic. He actually does need a soul extracted.”

Emmeline began to break the information down aloud. “You said the snake as well, didn't you, so that is a total of five - a locket from an ancestor, the ring from either considered family or he liked Grindelwald's ideology enough to want to use the ring, the diary - which was, I imagine, the first one which may account for its potency. Then Harry, by accident and the snake that bit Arthur - which lines up with his parselmouth heritage." Arrogant, perhaps believing that ring did not need to be placed in anyone's care because no one would ever look into his background deeply enough. "That's five, though if he was trying to hit seven, it's possible that there are three others but equally possible he was aiming for thirteen. The likelihood being that these are things in the possession of supporting families - you had the locket, Malfoy the diary, the ring was perhaps shameful due to it's links to his own origins so perhaps location is also a factor. Either way, I think we can assume one was made during his school days which gives an excellent lead, because if he lived in the muggle world and this is information that someone like you who reads as if their life depends upon it has only found scarce mention, how exactly did he know what to do?"

“I don't know,” Regulus admitted with a huff. “I couldn't even find anything in the restricted section at school, and I spent more time there than studying for my NEWTs for quite some time.”

"I don't suppose you decided to check the professors’ personal collections," Emmeline said, knowing as she did that he probably would have led with that. "That leaves hearing about it from someone. Or a former someone: an excellent place to start when looking at how life can be anchored in the face of death may be speaking to a ghost."

“I did not trust the ghosts enough to ask them… and truthfully, I did not exactly know what I was looking for or trying to ask, at the time.” He shook his head. “But it’s an interesting thought.”

"I'm not accusing you of sloppy work. I'm just problem-solving, I can't turn my brain off. You know this." The idea of being seventeen and figuring all of this out in isolation probably hadn't helped either, but Emmeline wasn't about to pull on that line of question just yet. "Besides which, I have to say, the Baron doesn't seem the chatty sort."

Regulus nodded, a little less tensely. “He was not particularly chatty, no. At least not in my personal experiences.”

"Helena either, if truth be told," Emmeline had to admit. "I support your idea, even if I wish I didn't. The idea of a destablilised soul meaning he is currently running out of ways to anchor himself would indicate the need for a new method to prolong his life, such as philosopher's stone. It also explains Harry's wand twinning his own, along with the other scattered similarities. Finding others for experimental removal may be a better way of figuring out how to do it. I don't suppose preservation has been a priority?"

“As much as I might have preferred to preserve the locket, I did prioritise its destruction, first and foremost…” Regulus admitted, though there was a measure of disappointment in his eyes as they flicked briefly back to the remains of Slytherin’s locket. “Such a straightforward solution is not a luxury we have, if a piece really did get lodged into Harry, so further investigation of potential methods for removal - perhaps whether there is a means to transfer from a person to an object? - does bear merit. I strongly suspect there won’t be any material about horcruxes themselves, but perhaps even something similar enough to adapt…”

"It may be that Harry himself may be the key to dislodging it," Emmeline suggested. "He's sentient, as much as any teenage boy is. He has a soul of his own, and perhaps, given the right conditions, may be able to expel it as he did with the mental link in the Department of Mysteries." Emmeline held up a finger with a slight smile. "In terms of research for it, you do remember I have access to some of the best forbidden literature as an occupation, yes? Now the Aurors have cleared off, it'll likely return to business as usual - which means everyone minding their own."

At that, a small smile flickered on Regulus’s lips. “I did remember that, yes. I would go as far as to say I was counting on it.”

“You're going to get me in trouble one of these days, I can see it coming.” Emmeline had to laugh at it; of course that was why her. “I might be able to arrange something if you can behave yourself and not wander off.”

“I am very well-behaved,” came the lofty response as he met her eyes, manner relaxing a little further, “and would go as far as to say I have a knack for avoiding capture, though I will respectfully refrain from testing such limits in those circumstances.”

“Capture is not my concern,” Emmeline replied, though being noticed enough that he got in trouble would be less than ideal. “Magic has a mind of its own down there. I've lost entire days. I need you to trust me that I know it better than you do, and if I say no, to listen and not debate it. We can debate it later if you want, but it's very important.”

For a lingering moment, Regulus wrinkled his nose, eyed her, then nodded. "I recognise that you are granting strict secrecy to my concerns and have expressed willingness to respect my judgment regarding the maintenance of it, so I will grant the same in the exploratory sense."

“Have you considered changing your family motto?” Emmeline asked, with a laugh. “Something along the lines of the ability to stretch one word into fifty may suit more. “

Regulus opened his mouth slightly, then closed it to a line with a subtle studying sort of expression. After a moment of hesitation, he tipped his head in a subtle - if slightly awkward - acknowledgement as reached into his bag and pulled out two books: one that looked to be about quidditch, and another one about chess.

Emmeline frowned on reflex; perhaps the joke hadn’t landed quite as well as she'd hoped. She knew family, or she ought to say Family with the gravitas in which it was referred to, meant a great deal to him, and perhaps ought not to be joked about with him. She tucked the thought by; they were not on their third category yet, and it could wait.

She eyed the books instead. "I regret to inform you that I've never much liked chess."

The tension in his face started to loosen again as he flipped the book open. “That's just as well,” he began, turning another chunk of pages over, revealing content that appeared to have very little to do with chess at all, and after reaching his intended focal point, held it out to her. “These are the two books that I was mentioning, with information about horcruxes. I thought you might be interested in a look at the source material itself.”

A thought cut through Emmeline's confusion. "You bought them?"

“Not exactly,” he said with a wry, sloping smile. “They're technically Bella's. I'm… indefinitely borrowing them.”

A laugh startled Emmeline out of her thoughts. Of course, she would have done the same. "So juvenile delinquency does run in the family!" she declared, delighted. "I assume she doesn't know."

“I don't believe he she does, no.” His face lightened a little more as he shook his head. “She permitted me entry to their library, but she did not stay while I browsed. The book I told her I was borrowing was a potions text, and I mentioned I was looking around for supplemental tomes to ‘support my inadequate NEWT level education,’” he added dryly, “I don't know if she noticed that additional books were missing, but the horcruxes are such a small part of the books’ subject matter that it should not be too obvious as to why they were chosen.”

Which dovetailed nicely into her questions about his own involvement. "How did you know what to look for, exactly?" Emmeline questioned. "You were young, unprivy to a lot of things, I imagine, and other people doubtlessly hid things for him. What was different?"

“The Dark Lord requested a house-elf, so I offered Kreacher's assistance, not realising what it was for.” A twinge of guilt crept into his tone as his mouth tilted down in a small frown, but he paused only for a fleeting second before continuing, “As it turned out, that task was hiding the locket, and the steps one must do to place it in that spot or retrieve it again are specifically designed to result in death. That is presumably why he chose an elf,” he said with a touch of anger, “but because I had told Kreacher to return safely upon completing his task, he was able to use that loophole to escape… Upon his return, I questioned him and found the object he described to be suspicious.” With a steadying huff, he shook his head. “In regard to what to look for, truthfully, I was just blindly grasping at anything that made contextual sense and was secret enough that he would go to such an extent by to hide it.”

"I don't want you to take this the wrong way," Emmeline said, carefully. She knew this was about to reach a point where offense could easily be taken. "House-elves are not difficult to procure, and I believe many families go through them quickly. Why was it important that he not die?"

“Kreacher has been in this house longer than I have been alive, and he is family too. Treating him like something expendable without a thought-” Regulus bristled slightly, though the frustration in his expression seemed more distant, rather than directed at her. “He did not ask to be involved. It was my fault he had to go through that, and letting him die for it was not an acceptable option.”

So more of many things in conjunction with one another, then. It was personal, it was familial, guilt, loyalty, expendability - it was nothing if not a complicated issue, and clearly not one he'd had much of a chance to work through properly yet. That would make things harder.

"May I ask what you think of him?" Emmeline asked. "You-Know-Who."

“I'm orchestrating the systematic destruction of his soul; is it really that ambiguous?” he asked wryly, lifting his brow.

"Unfortunately, yes." Emmeline said, letting herself be blunt. "I don't believe for a moment you're insincere, nor am I unappreciative of the difficulties you've had to go through to get to this point. But..."

Taking a deep breath, she plunged onwards. "There is going to come a time, likely soon, where you're going to end up discussing this with law enforcement. Perhaps when it's over, but regardless, this talk will have to happen for you to live your life without threat of imprisonment. But while you hardly sound like Mulciber, bandying slurs and declaring superiorities, you do slip up. You say 'we'. You use the honorific title. You do...understatedly portray yourself as a pureblood supremacist which does not help you, regardless of it it’s true." She smiled sadly, but she hoped she was conveying the sincerity of the concern through it. "It's understandable, and something we did speak about in your admittance to the Order, but I think you may have some things you need to work out. While this is important - and it is incredibly so - getting through this, hopefully intact, is also of concern, and there are potential issues regardless of what happens."

Stiffening against the arm of his chair, Regulus pressed fingers and thumb to his temple with a frown ambiguously caught somewhere between anxiety and frustration, and altogether uncomfortable. “Hm.”

"I don't believe it's because you believe you are a Death Eater," Emmeline continued quietly, unsure of how to help ease through a difficult moment as this. "If I were to make an educated guess, it's the people involved and this unwavering sense of loyalty that you have. You say ‘we’ because they were your friends. You care about what happens to them. Having that loyalty pull you in two different directions is not an easy thing, and I don't envy you for it. I'm not going to yell at you, as perhaps I would have I didn't know you, because I know you're still trying to figure it all out for yourself, and as such, I don't want you to feel as if you need to be overly censored with me. I respect who you are enough to be patient with who you were, and to wait to see who you're becoming for myself." Unexpectedly, she smiled widely. "That was very dramatic, but with you, most things are, so it's par for the course. I suppose I'm trying to say it's alright to stumble among friends, but that you will want to try and settle yourself a little more before the Aurors decide to ask questions, and I wasn’t sure you knew you had any stumbles at all.."

His eyes flicked briefly to meet hers before dropping again with a heavy, tense sigh. “Sirius recently brought up something along those lines,” he near-muttered, studying the floor with undue interest. For a moment, his lips parted, as if to start again, but instead they thinned to a line as he pressed a circle to his temple.

Emmeline didn't find herself surprised by that. Sirius had been there when it came up. If it came up without Regulus’s presence, then people would watch at the meetings and draw conclusions. There was no point in making things worse if they could help it.

At the same time, it hurt to watch him clearly struggling with it. "It will just take time," she said, in what she hoped was a reassuring way. "When I first asked if you'd like to come with me, it was because I didn't know you. I had voted against ever taking the risk. It didn't seem worth it. But...I was letting my cynicism and grief cloud my judgement. Sturgis went to Azkaban not long after, and I wasn't sure if he would come back. Fabian, Gideon, Benjy, Dorcas, Lily, and Marlene are gone. Alice and Frank...It is very difficult to take an unnecessary risk with the little you have left."

She found that with the fresh losses, she had to blink back a far more intense emotional display than she had been intending to give. After a deep breath, she continued, "But it is not unnecessary, is it? It's so easy to become consumed by the fight that the humanity of it is lost. There are sadists, and people who truly believe in the murder of others, and true believers, but while I believe in consequences for actions, I have come to appreciate that many of these decisions were made by angry, lost, or frightened teenagers the same way our own choices were made. I appreciate the value in remorse, and taking action to rectify the past. I was expecting arrogance, intelligence, entitlement. I was not expecting kindness, humour, debate, nor compassion. I was not expecting friendship, nor camaraderie in purpose, or to feel steadied in my role here in a way I didn't know I missed until it was gone."

And she accused him of not being able to be concise, but she supposed in for a knut, in for a galleon. "You, like myself, like most of us, are still a work in progress. I’m trying to remember to be kind when I ought to be. It just happens that what you're working on is very visible at the moment. The others may put you through the ringer, they may call out your words and ask for justification for them, but it's only because they don't yet know what I do. Have patience, decide what you believe, and be willing to dig your heels in, and if someone oversteps a line, tell them. Or try not to look smug if Sirius ends up punching them."

Regulus hesitated for a beat longer before lifting his gaze again, granting a thin smile, though something behind his eyes still seemed to be reeling. “Your concerns and reassurances are noted,” he said, though the corners of his mouth were starting to flicker down again. “Yet there is clearly some agreed upon criteria, and I just can’t seem to grasp what it is anyone on this side of the war wants from me.”

"I'm not sure if it's something I can easily explain," admitted Emmeline. She thought for a moment before pressing onwards. "But again, I think it is just something that takes some time. You run on your emotional centre. If you don't feel something, I think it's harder for you to understand it. The agreed upon criteria for the Order, you meet, for you want to stop the destructive wave that is You-Know-Who. But your experiences differ in a way most don't. You have seen and experienced the suffering from the point of view of yourself, and of the life you grew up with. Other perspectives are bound not to have the same emotional impact, much as most people here don't connect to the cost in the old families because they have no real emotional experience of it or dismiss it as having been invited upon them. It's a different driving force to destroy the Death Eaters, but different isn't bad. It won't please everyone, but pleasing everyone is not a requirement. You can only do what you feel is right. The rest is up to the rest of the Order and myself, to figure out what you want from us."

“That has not come across as a priority, at least not for most individuals involved,” he said wryly, but when he caught her eyes again, his own held something intense and seemingly positive behind them. “But I…” He faltered, then started again: “Your belief in my intentions has been...very meaningful.” For a moment, Regulus wore an almost pained expression, though it might have been a dismissed thought weighing on his furrowed brow. “Truthfully, I expected to feel all of this.”

"You're not alone. They're just afraid. The last few months of the war were hell, all because trust was put in the wrong person. No one wants to go through that again," Emmeline reasoned, though she supposed she couldn't put it past a few people to be dicks for the sake of being dicks. It happened in every group.

“The war was hell for me too,” he said pointedly with a subtle grimace, “but as you postulated, I suppose most people are unlikely to care much about that, helpful or not. I understand distrust - I’m admittedly not a bastion of trust myself - but I cannot say it isn’t frustrating at times.”

"I'm not saying it wasn't," Emmeline insisted. "I know it was an awful experience for you, and so does everyone else. Don't put words in their mouths until they speak them - I saw understanding and compassion as well as judgement. The difference is it happened to them. Of course, it feels more personal. We lost half of our number in four months, some to death, some along with their husbands, wives, their children and some, something worse. One single trust misplaced, and twelve Order members and half their families lost their lives. Not all at once, where it may have been easier to accept, but every week, wondering who you would lose next. Can you also accept how devastating it would be to watch week by week as the people you care about are picked off and you cannot stop it because you don't know how it's happening?"

“Of course I can accept it was devastating. I’m not that callous. I’m just saying-” Abruptly, the thought seemed to catch in his throat, and he shook his head and rubbed a hand over a sharp, draining expression, punctuated with a drawn sigh.

“That you want it accepted that you've gone through devastating things too?” Emmeline asked. “That this isn't easy for you? You have it. It's just everyone, including you, trying to figure out trust again in light of all of that. It helps that you have a lot of people that do trust you already, but I'm a bit unsure what the rest of us can do to have it reciprocated. Well, not I. I feel trusted, and I hope you feel that reciprocated.”

Regulus paused, then nodded slowly. “I do.”

“Then patience and listening,” Emmeline said, simply. “That is all that's wanted. You don't have to agree - if anyone managed to get all of us to agree on something that wasn't the need to destroy You-Know-Who, I'd suspect something untoward was going on. Just be willing to listen, and ready to debate. We've certainly had enough practice that I think you'll be fine there.”

“I am exceptionally well-versed at patience and listening,” he began as his gaze locked with hers, “and in light of the past year, I will admit that the opportunity to engage in debate has increased dramatically.”

“You'll feel more comfortable after the meeting,” Emmeline promised. “The twins will be a bigger stir than you, trust me. In terms of official statements, it may be worth discussing it with Snape. He's gone through much of it before.”

“I would like to - though I’ve barely seen him,” Regulus admitted with a little frown.

“Neither have I, but it's not so unusual. I know he has more commitments during the holidays, and I don't think any of us actually know him socially enough to ask him to come without Dumbledore requesting it.” Emmeline frowned. She still wasn't sure what his problem had been at the last one. “I suppose it makes things easier. You're suffering for your attachments on both sides being at odds.”

“It certainly makes things more ironic,” he huffed wryly, “given that he is the only person I was already friends with; but everything is already tangled, as it is, so what is one more complicating factor?”

“I imagine there's a few things interrupting that,” Emmeline replied. “It is one thing to pull Harry out of the fire, it's another that he feels enough familiarity with you to owl you personally. Even Remus gets quite a few Lupins, as if he's not quite sure what to call him now he's not his professor. That's without touching Sirius or the lack of noticeable animosity between you lately.”

Rubbing at his temple, Regulus lightly squeezed his eyes and nodded. “I have found those two issues to be particularly problematic, yes.”

"They're not easily resolved issues," Emmeline admitted. "Or rather, the problem being that you are resolving some and he's clearly unwilling or unable to do it. I don't think I can help there. However, I am glad what I can do has been meaningful. In a horribly inappropriate way, it's almost fun. Always love a good mystery, as long as it's solved in a satisfying way at the end."

“I admit to a similar draw to mysteries. Nosiness strikes again,” Regulus said with a tone that had begun to lighten at the edges.

Emmeline snorted, despite herself. "You're just dying to know what that prophecy says, aren't you?"

His mouth quirked, a little lopsided as his frame relaxed into the chair. “Dying is an understatement.”

Emmeline considered her options. The prophecy was it stood was now within Hogwarts, but the school was empty for the holidays. It might be the perfect place for a little privacy. "Have you ever been inside any of the other common rooms?" she asked, in a sudden shift of subject.

Regulus lifted his brow, followed by a small headshake. “No. Why? Are we still talking about the prophecy?”

"Sort of," Emmeline said, a plan already beginning to formulate. "As I understand it, Dumbledore doesn't want it getting out what it says, and Hogwarts would be the safest place for its study. Assuming he approves of such study, I was thinking that asking Filius - Professor Flitwick - if we could use the tower for a study meet, since the entering mechanism is a little more tricky than the other common rooms."

Interest immediately lit his face, and he nodded, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. “I think that seems like a very reasonable plan.”

"Alright, good. Now, about Harry," Emmeline said. "Did you mention that to Dumbledore?"

“Not yet,” Regulus admitted as his expression crinkled, “With everything happening in the past few months, we have not actually spoken in detail about the horcruxes since destroying the ring. Truthfully, I was hoping something would arise to contest the theory, upon gaining more Order-related information, but unfortunately that information has done more to support it than it has to debunk it. I intended to ask about the opportunity to listen to the prophecy, in the case that it might provide some additional insight. I suppose that is as fitting a time as any to propose the theory, undesirable though it might be.”

"Dumbledore likes to play it all very close to the chest," Emmeline said, wondering if the man didn't have his own suspicions. "Regardless of what he says of the prophecy, I think you should say something. If nothing else, he may be able to point in the direction of ways to disprove it if it's not true."

Though Regulus pressed his lips to a line, he nodded his head shortly after and let out a sigh. “Perhaps so.”

Accepting that, Emmeline nodded. There wasn't much else to do: either it was a correct theory or it wasn't, and time would tell. "Until then, it's worth looking at other potential places one may be. It might be a good time to go antiquing."

“I do enjoy antiquing,” he said with a little smirk.

The obvious signs of Ministry security at the Weasley home were a surprise, but not a wholly unwelcome one. Where the new Minister stood on Harry and Dumbledore was still fuzzy at best, but Sirius wouldn't deny that seeing some protection was probably a good sign. Or it was a terrible one, because they were trying to keep an eye on them and see what they were going to do next. From what he'd heard about Scrimgeour, this wouldn't surprise him.

It didn't matter much, since they were rubbish.

He ducked them in two minutes flat, and while it probably wouldn't have caused any issue to just say he was there, some old habits died hard. The rise of irritation at needing to knock didn't help either; he hadn't exactly been making social calls in a long time, but despite what people often said, he had some manners. Not a lot, but some.

There was a lot of noise from inside the place, and he recognised the smushed up face of Ron and Ginny trying to fit against the same window. The door opened to reveal Harry, who was in the process of being told that they were supposed to use passcodes mockingly. Despite the obvious humour, it was moments like this that reminded him the war was back in full swing, and his own still slight giddiness was misplaced. He had to get his head back on straight.

“We haven't set anything up yet,” Sirius said, looking Harry over. He seemed in better spirits. The results must've gone decently. “But there's not animagi about, so I think I've got a good tell. Alright, Harry?”

Harry nodded, and Sirius spotted a familiar cat on the side. Hermione must've come as well. No wonder he seemed happier if they were both here. “Everything go okay?”

“Yes,” Sirius said, with a nod. It'd only been a couple of days, but it had felt so removed from the sudden chill that seemed to permeate the air everywhere he went. Even for English weather, it was out of place. He suppressed a thought about dementor breeding in favour petting the cat.

Molly came into the kitchen, and startled suddenly. “Sirius!”

Sirius looked down at himself, and as if it was were a conclusion to come to, “I think so.”

Molly clearly wasn't listening. “When did you get here?”

“Just now.” Sirius shrugged. “Got back last night, but didn't want to disturb you that late.”

“I didn't hear the patrol,” Molly replied.

“Went around them,” Sirius said, “They're rubbish.”

Harry snorted. Clearly, he'd had the same thought. Sirius caught his eye, and winked, causing a full-blown smile.

“They're stretched very thin these days,” Molly said, the crinkle in her face conveying a great deal of concern. “But obviously, they want to keep an eye on Harry.”

From the looks of it, Harry was about as thrilled about that as Sirius was. Nevermind all that. He'd already decided he wanted to go up to the coast, where it was probably a little warmer, a little sparser, and a little less dangerous. It wouldn't hurt to get Buckbeak out as well. It was all going to be a bit of a balancing act. They could easily duck between here and Grimmauld Place without being seen, and there was always Tonks if they ran into trouble.

“It's because the battle at the Department of Mysteries was leaked to the press,” Hermione said, head appearing around the corner. He was surprised to see her a bit beaten up. Maybe they'd been playing Quidditch out the back. The broom closet had been lying open when he'd arrived. Crookshanks hopped off the side to go and join her.

Sirius frowned. “What kind of leak?”

“That there's Ministry property missing,” Hermione replied. She looked extremely shifty saying it, which probably meant this was something between them that he didn't know. Or it was something she didn't want to say in front of Molly.

Filing it away to ask later, Sirius changed the subject. “Any sign of your OWL results?”

Hermione nodded, but she looked a little disappointed. Ron was rolling his eyes at her. “She got one E, and she's annoyed about it.”

A little reminded of the fact he'd had a similar reaction with his own, Sirius decided not to comment on it. “How'd you fare?”

“I only failed History of Magic and Divination,” Harry said, though he also seemed a little deflated about it. Considering Harry was the subject of a prophecy and was undergoing a mental battle with Voldemort, he thought only two wasn't too bad at all. Harry must've picked up on the look he was giving him, though. “Snape won't take anyone who got below an O, and – I need the NEWT to apply for the Auror programme.”

Something clicked in Sirius's head, and he had to give it to Dumbledore, he was clever. “Snape's not taking Potions this year.”

There was a collective 'what' going around the room, with only Molly seeming unaffected by the news.

“Is he leaving?” Ron asked, clearly hopeful at the prospect. Sirius almost didn't want to tell them. It probably would have made an excellent early birthday present for Harry.

“No such luck,” he said, catching Molly's glare with a pronounced shrug. “He's doing Defense.”

“No!” Harry exclaimed, much more dramatically than he would have expected. Sirius tried to bite back a laugh at it. “I went with Dumbledore to meet the new Defense professor.”

“Slughorn teaches Potions, dear.” Molly piped up from her baking. “Not Defense.”

“Slughorn?” Sirius had to admit being blindsided by that one. He'd nothing much against him, a bit doddering, but he'd known him from childhood. He'd gone to school with his grandfather and his siblings; he'd been Head of House for his parents and great aunts, even Andromeda had been fond of him. The biggest tell he supposed was still Lily. Suddenly, he knew why Harry was uniquely qualified to go with Dumbledore – Slughorn had liked Lily, and Harry was definitely Lily's son. “That's what Dumbledore wanted.”

Harry nodded.

“You might like him,” Sirius shrugged. He'd definitely like him more then Snape. “Your mother did.”

“He said he liked her,” Harry said. Definitely why Dumbledore wanted him along. “Did you?”

“He's alright,” Sirius said, because middle of the road was a good way to put it with him. “Slughorn's always been about influence, likes to know he has people he can call on if he runs into trouble, so he goes out of his way to be nice about it. All a bit fake for me, though he always had a decent sense of humour. Never seemed too upset if he ended up pulling a few stunts in his classes.”

“He likes his favourites,” Molly agreed, from the table.

“He does,” Sirius agreed.

“Maybe you'd like to show Sirius your results, Harry,” Hermione said, in a pointed manner. “They're upstairs in Fred and George's room.”

Harry looked fit to ask her what she was talking about, but seemed to catch on quickly enough that she was giving him an out to speak in private. “Oh, er, yeah.”

Subtle as a blasting curse to the chest. Sometimes, Harry was so painfully like his father that it was a little difficult to breathe. “Lead on, then.”

Hermione called after them. “Don't touch the scopes!”

The house was the epitome of higgledy-piggledy, so he guessed it made sense that there was no rhyme or reason to where everyone ended up situated. The orange room was at the top of the house, with more Chudley Cannons merchandise than you could probably have bought at one of their games.

Harry'd barely shut the door before he seemed ready to overflow. “Dumbledore's going to give me lessons.”

“Good,” Sirius replied. Dumbledore should have been doing it last year, instead of relying on Snape. This was the kind of mess you got into, relying on that prick.

“It's just I-” Harry stopped himself, and obviously became a little uncomfortable. “It's starting to seem real, this idea that I have to do it for him to die.”

A frightening idea even if he wasn't a fifteen-year-old kid. Almost sixteen. Damn, but he was getting so tall now. He seemed to grow every time Sirius looked away. “It'll be alright,” he promised, willing it to be true. “You've got a lot of help, and you have time. “

“While people are getting hurt,” Harry said, frustrated.

“Which is Voldemort's fault, not yours.” Sirius put his foot down about that. He couldn't carry the weight of what was going to happen next. “Go back to school. Learn everything you can. Trust the rest of us to do our parts. Besides, don't you have your own group to lead?”

Harry shifted about a bit. “There's no point now that Umbridge is gone, is there?”

Sirius smirked. “You've got Snape for Defense, and you want to get into the Aurors. You'll need all the practice you can get.”

Harry looked appropriately horrified at the idea. “I might not get the marks.”

“How'd you do on Defense?” Sirius asked.

“I got an O,” Harry said, bashfully.

Sirius had to laugh at him. “That'll be good enough for the Ministry. Half of them are useless anyway.”

“I know,” Harry said. “And I know it's weird, seeing that it was Death Eater that put the thought in my head, but ever since Moody – Crouch – said it, I just can't get it out of my head.”

“That's good.” Sirius had to smile at that. “The Ministry could use more of that. It could use more good people in general.”

Harry seemed happy enough with that.

“How's your weekend been?” Sirius asked, with a shift in the subject.

“We've been playing Quidditch,” Harry said. “Hermione's terrible, but Ron and Ginny are good.”

“Get over his nerves, did he?” Sirius asked.

“You heard about that?” Harry asked.

“It was a very long two weeks,” Sirius said, shudderingly remembering being confined to the hospital room. People tended to talk about anything and everything, but the same walls had begun to get to him easily. Suddenly, he felt the desire to be outside again, but he pushed it down. “You want to stay here for a bit, or come back to HQ?”

There was almost a guilt in Harry's voice when he spoke, as if wanting to be with your friends was something awful. “Er, just if you don't mind, I'd like to stay for a bit longer.”

Despite the desire to see more of him, Sirius related to it. He wasn't about to turn into his own parents and forbid him to be with his friends. “Nah, it's fine,” Sirius said. “It's Regulus's birthday next week, so we're thinking of going up to the beach. Well, probably not the old place, but somewhere near it. He can go up there if he wants; he's gotten sentimental in his old age. I just thought it might be fun to go up and stay in one of the cottages by the sea.”

“It sounds fun,” Harry said.

Sirius realised his mistake almost at once. “I'm saying I'd like you to come up with me. I was thinking it might be safer for Buckbeak to stretch his wings up there, and there's some good stuff down at the harbour.”

“Really?” Harry asked.

“If you're up for it,” Sirius said. “It's a weird old place, where my Great Aunt used to live. She was batty, but harmless. More cats than sense. Still, a bit of sea air sounds pretty good. It might be a bit warmer up there. Go up for Reg's, stay 'til yours.”

Harry, however, still looked hesitant. Sirius wasn't sure if it was because he didn't feel welcome, or if he was worried about his friends not being around on his birthday. That was an easy fix. “Ron and Hermione can come up as well, if Molly's alright with it. Iago – bit of a hot spot for the pureblood snobbery – that's right up the road, so it's a safer place than most at the minute. Remus should be back by then, too.”

“Is Regulus going to be okay with it?” Harry said. “It is his birthday.”

Sirius waved it off. “Of course he will. He loves having family birthdays, and I think he's missed them.”

Harry was quiet for a moment, but smiled. “What about the Ministry?” he asked.

Sirius made a disparaging noise. “They're not invited.”

Chapter Text

A different sort of tension had settled in Regulus’s bones in the days following his horcrux-revealing conversation with Emmeline, mind reeling taut and swift as they fell back into routine. Sirius had returned in a reasonable amount of time, though without Harry, against Regulus’s expectations; instead, Sirius mentioned that Harry would still be coming along with them to Iago, which was even less expected, though not in itself unwelcome. Hermione and Ron had been invited, too, to which Regulus had raised a questioning eyebrow - a muggleborn and a Weasley roaming the purist-occupied shores of Porth Iago alongside Harry Potter seemed like a comically terrible idea - but his brother had assured that they would be staying at the harbour, for the most part, and Regulus could not argue against the fact that letting Harry have his friends around for the birthday trip was the more thoughtful thing to do.

(Perhaps more rebelliously to the point, if they were going to cause a scandalous ruckus, one could argue there was no need to do it half-way when they could go all-out.)

With some level of uncertainty, he had invited Emmeline to come along, to which she had teasingly reminded that she had work and could not very well lounge about on the beach for several weeks. The sting might have shown a bit on his face because she went on to insist she would not miss his birthday, regardless, though the back-and-forth jolting occurring in his chest made it harder to determine if that jolting was showing up in his expression or if she would have said the same, regardless of his own internal state, with all its masking.

Since returning from France, Regulus felt as though he was treading lightly with each step, tiptoeing across a floor of glass shards, yet nothing had actually changed in the past week. Emmeline did not seem to be acting differently in any discernible way, but if he let himself think about it, every word ended up filtered through his brother’s assessment of the situation, and Regulus could not even say for sure if Sirius was right. Perhaps she did not even feel any special way about him, and Sirius had assumed drama into the situation; or perhaps she did, and there was something more to the teasing and the smiles and their shared extensions of trust, but any time Regulus let himself think about it, he felt his stomach drop out, like missing the last step on a staircase on a far too regular basis.

The horcruxes filled his mind with a much-needed distraction, yet even as he distanced his thoughts, the proximity remained - and in that proximity, he nonetheless found himself wondering, if only for a fleeting moment, if he had spoken more than he ought to, or if the Order could truly care for his plight past the tolerance of his presence when the tolls on his own friends and family were often viewed as ‘deserved,’ from the sound of it. They could not truly understand him, nor could he say much to help them understand when the nightmares that gutted him were similar to the nightmares that haunted his new allies - but from the perpetrating side of the event. In the calm of solitude, he knew he could not ask them to feel sorry for him because of his guilt, nor could they possibly comprehend the way he had felt sick from the pressure around him at the time - but unfair though it was, he wished that he could ask it, that he could explain that experience, that he had lost people he still ached to see again. His own experience was as out of reach for them as their experience was to him, and even as the war drummed up within the Order again, he knew he had missed the worst of the final stretch, last time.

Emmeline had claimed there were at least a few who sympathised, and they had permitted his joining in light of his efforts and contributions - the truth of which was a greater comfort than he could possibly verbalise aloud - but for those who were implied to maintain their negative feelings (Auror Alastor Moody among them, if he had to guess), it was not a personality conflict that would come back to bite him. Regulus could not even recall referring to the Death Eaters as ‘us’ or ‘we,’ except perhaps in the context of the past - an appropriate reference, given that he was, at the time - but he could not guarantee that he had never slipped. For all his dedication to his horcrux-destroying cause, somehow the perceptions had gone askew, and he did not know how to combat it when both she and Sirius had expressed such similar concerns. Did they intend for him to cut out everyone in his family except for Sirius and Andromeda and Tonks? Most likely, they did want just that, but following that trail of thought only made him more frustrated and did little in the way of convincing him that he ought to do so. Did they want him to candidly chatter about a newfound love for muggles? He admitted that it had not been so terrible to open himself to the idea of investigating them in some contexts, and he did not harbour negative feelings towards the group of them, but he felt his insides constrict at the mere thought of freely going about chattering about muggles. (About anything, really, but especially muggles.) The reaction was hard to pin down, fuzzy as it was, and he could not say for sure whether it was the feeling of invisible eyes upon him, or merely the knowledge that opening that door invited people to talk to him extensively about it, pinning him to a wall for examination. He did not know what to say at the best of times - could not pull apart the finer details, even when he was quiet and still and alone.

Uncomfortable though it was, he knew Emmeline was right about the Aurors. Dumbledore might be on his side, but especially if the Death Eaters sought to drag him down, he oughtn’t give the Aurors any reason to think it safer to listen to Death Eater accusations than Dumbledore’s reassurances. After the previous year and the newness of the current Minister, nothing was a guarantee. Sirius was free - but Sirius was innocent.

It was high time that he spoke with Dumbledore about his case and about the horcruxes, alike, and his mind had been buzzing with Emmeline’s plan to examine the prophecy in the safety of Hogwarts itself. (And inconsequential though it was, he had to admit a further measure of curiosity about the Ravenclaw Tower, however fond he might be of his own schoolage common room.)

Though Regulus could not wrangle the headmaster for a chat prior to their departure, he supposed there was nothing stopping him from trying again from Iago. There were goals to accomplish - relationships to mend, dissent to foster, messages to send - but his social calendar was unlikely to be full, even with Sirius and the kids along for the ride, allowing time to arrange something preliminary, at the least.

Limited time, but time, nonetheless.

The drawing room was quiet as Regulus plucked a book from the shelf, flipping through it to decide if it was worth bringing along to Iago, despite all the books that resided permanently in the summer home. He was already packed for their departure the following morning, but he had intended to brush up on occlumency knowledge again, and a holiday seemed as good a time as any for more reading. Turning his glance slightly, he could see Kreacher tending affectionately to the tapestry of their family tree, and Regulus flicked a small smile on his face, however looming it all felt on some days. How long it had been, since last there had been any semblance of a family gathering...

As if noticing the shift in attention, Kreacher turned to look back. “Does Master Regulus require anything of Kreacher?”

“No,” Regulus responded, shaking his head. “I was just thinking that it will be nice it will be to visit Iago again, after so long,” he said. It was not entirely reasonable to assume it would be nice when the ordeal could easily wind up devastating - or dangerous - with such close proximity to the hotbed of purist summer culture, but it was a rare opportunity to arrange interaction in an environment he was not tied to, and though it was probably foolish, he could not help the trickle of nostalgia. “Did...Mum take you at all, in the last few years?” (Before she passed - it was implied, but the shared flicker of upset between man and elf required no explicit mention.)

“Mistress did not travel, after Master Regulus left,” Kreacher said a little miserably, but Regulus cut back in before Kreacher could dwell more on the thought.

“You did well, caring for her,” he said reassuringly, “as you always do. I expect it has been a long time since you have been to the summer home, too. Perhaps as long as it has been for me.” Catching a familiar form passing outside the doorway (fresh from work, no doubt), he paused the thought and shifted to a more calling tone as he said instead, “Welcome back.”

Regulus noticed Kreacher making a little face when Emmeline paused in the doorway to stick her head in, but when Kreacher went back to tending the tapestry without further disturbance, Regulus said nothing of it.

"I wasn't sure if you'd be taking an early night," Emmeline said. before giving the room a quick glance. "I'm never as quiet as I think I'm being."

“You were quiet enough. I just noticed the movement,” he assured, turning his frame toward the door.

Emmeline nodded, accepting that. She hesitated upon coming into the room. "Did you spend the day packing, or did you go out?" she asked.

“For the most part, I was already packed. Merely a few last minute considerations,” he said, though ‘last minute’ took a very different meaning for him compared to his brother, who interpreting it (or rather exuded it) rather more literally.

"It's getting messy out there," Emmeline said, deciding eventually to come into the drawing room with a heavy sigh. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

“I don’t know that ‘sure’ is the right word for it, all things considered,” he said dryly with a small lift of his mouth. “It’s a bit unpredictable at the moment, but I’m considering my contingencies.”

"You will keep your wits about you," Emmeline said. It sounded a little more like a statement than a request, despite the tone. "Diagon Alley had a visit of the masked variety this afternoon, and there's been an uptick in creatures attacks. They're becoming bolder, now hiding is no longer an option."

“Hm.” It was a quiet, huff of a sound, and Regulus shook his head. “Was it an attack or a threat?”

"I'm not sure what it was," Emmeline frowned, and crossed her arms. "Ollivander got dragged out of his shop, and they haven't been able to find him. But given wands are a valuable resource, especially those not traceable to a specific person, perhaps it was a restocking issue."

“Perhaps so,” Regulus responded thoughtfully, thinking for a moment back to his own wand - or rather, wands. He had purchased a second as a teenager, having reasoned among friends that it would help, should their primary wands ever be tested by a reverse spell to move backwards through previous castings. It had felt quite safe and clever in the moment, though looking back, it would not have spared him for an instant if their Death Eater wands were compromised, considering Ollivander had an exceptionally alarming accuracy in reciting the owner of any wand he ever sold - or at least such was the rumour, and the old mand had performed well enough on that day. If the Aurors had gotten hold of his wand and simply asked for an ID from Ollivander, he would have been as good as caught, regardless of which wand it was. He could have claimed it was stolen, but that may not have been excuse enough, given the climate.

Shaking off the thought, Regulus let loose another soft huff. “He’s a valuable resource, you are quite right about that. Furthermore, abducting him makes him unavailable to others, whether it is acquiring new wands, or even identifying owners, should any fall into law enforcement’s hands. Dragging him out in broad daylight…” Regulus crinkled his nose. “...No subtlety at all.”

"Yes, it sounds rather dramatic," Emmeline mused, before biting her lip. "Perhaps it was someone you're related to."

Regulus made a little snuffing sound. “Perhaps. Bellatrix does have a bit of a flair about her, though I doubt she would be keen to share the details of her victories, these days, and it doesn’t seem like her style.”

"It's less likely to be an abduction pure and simple if Bellatrix Lestrange is involved," Emmeline said, though she didn't loosen any of the tension. "Though I've always wondered. Do those masks come pre-designed, or are they something people design themselves?"

Crinkled his nose, Regulus’s mind flashed briefly with a bone-white mask, fitted against his face like an outward skull. “They’re initially plain. Generally, people design for themselves.”

Emmeline stared at him in silence for a moment. "So there's Death Eater arts and crafts."

“Well, it sounds silly when you put it that way,” Regulus responded dryly.

"Because it is silly," Emmeline insisted. "I now have to deal with the image of several people on wanted posters gathering around the crafts table with designs and deciding who gets a dragon, because not everyone can have a dragon, just because they're cool looking."

He rolled his eyes, but for all the irreverence of it, felt his mood lighten slightly. “To be able to deny it would be more dignified, but that was more or less the spirit of it.” His mouth tugged a bit humourlessly as he shook his head with a sigh.

“I'm almost jealous,” Emmeline teased. “We don't have an arts and crafts meetup. I suppose if I ask what you chose, it would be uncomfortable?”

Without warning, Regulus felt his heart hammer against his chest, as if yanked repeatedly by some invisible string, and he fought the urge to look upward towards his room. In the past year, he had forgotten about his mask, hidden as it was, though that was another piece of incriminating evidence he ought to eliminate.

“It would be, yes. A bit,” he answered, meeting her eyes - she appeared subtly playful, despite the subject matter - but the memory of the mask’s defining feature made him a little sick to his stomach. Forcibly lightening his tone to match, he added, “It was nothing as dramatic as a dragon, I’m afraid. Missed opportunities.”

“I suppose with that lot, snakes would be a more popular choice anyway,” Emmeline nodded, without pressing the issue. “Besides, if I looked like some of them, I'd wear a mask too. You have nothing to worry about there.”

Though it was probably rude to some of his former comrades, he granted a small huff of amusement, a little more pleased than uncertain, however judgemental the tapestry felt from across the room at the obvious compliment.

“You are too kind,” Regulus said with his eyes catching her face, ash and embers extinguishing in favour of a warm, if small, smile. By that criteria, he privately thought she would not need a mask either, though he could not wrangle the remark past his lips. Instead, he added, “I would not go as far as to say I miss the mask, but I must admit it is very annoying to be on this side of it.”

“We're more prone to glamours,” Emmeline replied. “Or polyjuice, but that was when we had Lily. Having your master potioneer playing both sides is difficult. When we can't use plausible deniability, we still glamour. I have heard from a reliable source you do much the same, but that blonde doesn't suit you.”

Mouth still slanted, Regulus shook his head. “I’m not surprised that you have. Perhaps I possess the wrong complexion for it.”

"Does being recognised bother you?" Emmeline asked.

“When others might want to kill or arrest me, then yes, it bothers me quite a lot,” he quipped, “but generally speaking, no.”

Emmeline snorted. "Those are reasonable exceptions. I just wasn't sure if, when, or if, we decide to go and do something, it's something I should consider."

He shook his head again, mouth tugging up a little at the fluster. “No need to worry yourself about it. Unless the outing is illegal - which I suppose is not out of the realm of possibility - disguise should be unnecessary.”

"Nothing illegal as yet," Emmeline shook her head. "But you are awful to buy for."

“Your presence is gift enough,” he reassured, though it sounded a little more embarrassing out loud than it had within his head. Without missing a beat, he added, “Which is to say you needn't worry too much about it, should a decision prove troublesome.”

"You want me to show up at a birthday for a friend without a gift?" Emmeline gave him a look of abject horror. "That is not the way I was raised. I will find you something thoughtful that you like, and that's going to be the end of it."

“Your manners are impeccable,” he remarked with a little tilt of amusement.

"You're not so bad yourself," Emmeline replied, with a smile. "I'll just have to be creative. Not all of us did arts and crafts as part of our illegal experiences."

“I will make a point to judge your creativity fairly, bearing in mind your lack of experience in illegal arts and crafts,” came the teasing jest, for all the matter-of-factness in his tone.

"You're ridiculous." Emmeline rolled her eyes. "Go back to picking out even more books to lug up to Wales. I'm going to go find my comfy slippers."

“These particular books aren't there,” he argued with a lofty tone, though the hint of a smile maintained even as she was moving toward the door again. When Regulus shifted his posture and caught a glance of the other side of the room, it looked for a moment like Kreacher might be scowling at the back of Emmeline's head, though it was hard to say with the way the elf was turning back to the tapestry. Their family tree did not look as though it needed more care than usual, but it was not something he would argue - after all, that was not to say it didn't need care at all.

Brushing it off (a scowl was still an improvement over the mutters of the previous year), Regulus returned quite contentedly to the bookcase, as suggested.

Back when first discussing Harry's experiences with a pensieve, Regulus had noted the private nature of wandering around someone else's memories. Sirius had brushed him off at the time, but the sight of Porth Iago was almost enough to change his mind. There was an uncomfortable feeling that pulled at him, made him shy away from staring at the houses, the businesses, and the coastline of the small wizarding holiday settlement where he'd spent most of his childhood summers. It felt as if he was disturbing something. Did it count if the memory you felt as if you were intruding upon was your own?

It seemed ridiculous to feel shy in the face of it. Sirius wasn't shy in face of anything. He'd been accused of having no shame more than once, no respect for boundaries more times than he could count, and he faced everything head on. Yet there was something here that he didn't like at all. It wasn't Grimmauld Place, but something had shifted in his perception of the place in the time since it'd become HQ. It had shifted even more now that there just always seemed to be someone around, people popping in not just to see him, but occasionally Regulus – would wonders never cease – and Emmeline, as their temporary house guest. Now, there was Harry, and no doubt after he got back, Remus was well. There was something about the full house that made the ghosts easier to quieten, and the contrast in the people – a half-blood, a blood traitor, an ex-Death Eater, Harry (who had his own category), and a werewolf couldn't be further from the house’s intended usage. It would have driven his mother to fury, and even now, Sirius took some small satisfaction in that.

Still, the smaller holiday home – more of a cottage, really – brought with it a feeling of dread Sirius hadn't banked on. He hadn't seen this place since he was sixteen, and though it didn't look in as bad a shape as Grimmauld Place, it was obvious it'd been at least a few years since it'd been used. Narcissa would use the Malfoy home, wouldn't she? The garden was overgrown, but nothing was smashed up. The wards likely held.

Unbidden, the thought that it was a hell of a jump from the upstairs front window, and that it was surprising Sirius hadn't broken something when he'd decided to jump out of it. He gave himself a sharp mental reminder that this wasn't for him. He wasn't dragging himself into a pureblood elist cesspit for fun, nor was he eager to relive the last moments he'd spent on the tapestry two decades later. This was for Regulus, and it would probably make him stupidly happy to have another birthday here after a long time without one. He really was ridiculously sentimental about the stupidest things.

It's not as if Sirius himself could talk; this had been his idea. Though things had improved to a shocking degree between his brother and himself, there was always room for things to fracture. The last big argument, and the subsequent dancing about it, had shown Regulus didn't really feel as if he was a priority for anyone. He always came behind someone. Sirius wanted to give him this one, sentimental moment in a place he supposed they'd been happy once or twice as children to show he did put him first sometimes. Not always, because he had a godson, and kids always came first, but as much as he could. This was where it'd all gotten fucked up for the final time before he'd left, right before Regulus's birthday. He owed him one. If nothing else, he'd learned there wasn't always time to make it up to someone later before they weren't there at all.

Still, it felt no less spooky to open the door and be confronted by the same hallway that never seemed to get enough light. It'd feel less spooky on the beach, or in the town, or in the harbour. Or maybe it wouldn't. The family ghosts felt stronger here. It had been just their parents and Regulus in the house, save for special occasions. Summers like this, sometimes more than one generation or more than one branch would all stay in the place together. People who'd married into their own families and different names didn't usually, but there were still things here that reminded him more of them than names on a tapestry ever would. The last time he'd seen his uncle on the pebble beach only twenty minutes walk from here; the large comfortable chairs which always seemed to incite some kind of chair war between the academics over who managed to get the really good ones for their reading time and who'd be relegated to going elsewhere; he wouldn't have been surprised to see cat toys or old perfume bottles that most definitely did not belong to their mother. Family condensed into a living, breathing presence and bric-a-brac. It wasn't nostalgia, not exactly. He couldn't definitively say he missed them; he refused to romanticise the memory of them as Regulus tended to do.

There remained a feeling of the absence of something. Merlin knew what.

At least there was no shrieking portrait here. It could almost be mistaken for peaceful. Sirius really hoped Regulus knew what the hell he was doing. Maybe he could put all of the strange feelings down to the fact it was stupidly early in morning, and he was too damn old to be functioning on that little sleep.

“I always get surprised when nothing attacks me when I go through the door,” Sirius admitted, once they'd safely gotten into the hallway

He'd lit up the lamps to get a bit more light in there and tried to remember there was going to have to be a birthday party type thing in a few days, so it wouldn't stay as obnoxiously quiet as it seemed. Regulus was an introvert, and at his heart, a snob. Being around a cultural centre and plenty of nooks and crannies to situate himself with a book would probably be the easiest way to make him happy until then. He imagined ambushing Narcissa was high on his to do list as well. As for Sirius, he needed to brush up on spellwork, might actually get to play about with that since there was room here (dependent upon twisting Regulus’s arm to join him), and if he had time, get some sun. He refused to end up with a Snape-like palor for the rest of his life.

“The doors don’t seem to hold the same grudges that some among the living do,” Regulus remarked as Kreacher offered to take his bag, though his eyes were still tracing the walls.

"Plenty of time to piss off the living yet," Sirius commented. It wasn't that he was out to make trouble, but trouble did have a tendency to find him regardless. "What level of 'this feels weird' are you at?"

“Using what scale?” Regulus asked as he picked up a framed photograph of their Aunt Lucretia and Uncle Ignatius, examining it for only a few seconds before putting it down again.

Sirius shot him a look of disdain. "You're obnoxious in the mornings."

“You’re grumpy in the mornings,” Regulus countered and shot him a sideways glance, lifting an eyebrow.

Something everyone who'd ever met him knew at this point, but Sirius also imagined anyone who'd spent enough time around Regulus knew he could be an obnoxious, pedantic brat given half the opportunity. "Wonder who the last one up here was," he said, instead of giving him a response. He nodded towards the photo. "Maybe them."

“Possibly. The house is actually in better shape than I expected it to be,” Regulus admitted as he peeked his head into the living room.

"Most people were still kicking about until four, five years ago," Sirius reasoned, looking about a little more. "It was never anyone's home; people come and go as they please. When was the last time you were here?"

“‘78,” he responded, looking for a moment as if he was going to add something to the statement but let the thought trail off.

“Weren't you busy being a Death Eater that summer?” Sirius asked.

“I was,” Regulus admitted uncomfortably with a crinkled nose, “comparatively speaking. As were quite a few other people holidaying here, Bella included.”

A fresh wave of anger rolled through Sirius at the thought of it, at Bellatrix, at their parents, at anyone to stop a bunch of holidaying kids from throwing their lives away. Some were always meant to be lost causes, it wouldn't have mattered what anyone said, but that wasn't true here. It just showed how proud they were of having another Death Eater in the family. He had no idea how to articulate any of it to Regulus without losing his temper, and while he blamed him a little, most of his anger was still directed at the people who should have stepped in and stopped him. Fifteen-year-olds do stupid things. He knew that better than most. Regulus didn't deserve it slung at him, especially at this particular moment.

“What'd you do for the grand occasion of your birth that year?” Sirius said, hoping nothing Death Eater related.

Regulus started to walk into the parlour, paused, and leaned back against the wall, just next to the doorframe. “On the day itself, there was a standard gathering, but with a grander air. It was my seventeenth, after all.”

Watching him go from place to place, looking and refamiliarising himself with it stung more than Sirius thought it would. It was no secret Regulus missed them, probably all of them in different ways, and because of that, it probably didn't feel strange to him. It probably felt almost like something good. Sirius would never understand that.

“You get the watch?” he asked.

Regulus nodded soberly. “It was a very eventful summer, to say the least. In both good ways and bad,” he said, mouth thinning to a line.

It didn't sound that eventful. “How eventful?”

Shaking his head, Regulus straightened off of the wall again and slipped into the parlour properly this time. “I just mean that it was a meaningful birthday year, especially in respect to Dad’s watch, and a very stressful summer.” He glanced back. “I can't imagine you really need too much elaboration on the latter.”

“Just wondering if you'd suddenly started having eventful parties. I can't think of a single one.” Sirius shrugged off the implication. He'd missed another moment his brother had found important. “I don't think there's anything going to bite you in the parlour. I'll do a boggart sweep in a minute.”

“I'm loosely defining ‘eventful,’” Regulus admitted with a nod, eying the room for a paused moment. “To address your earlier question, this does feel a bit strange, yes.”

"You've never been loose a day in your life," Sirius snorted. It did feel as if you could open any door, and still find someone long dead sitting within it. Maybe that explained some of his unsteadiness; the expectation was still there. "Nothing will have changed. I don't think anything's changed in this place in the last century."

“I don't know about that. I think this photograph might have been on the table by the far bookcase,” Regulus said with slight wave of the hand over the nearest table, which was - as expected - covered with frames and knickknacks, though a tiny smile had started to rise.

Sirius glared at him. "Oh, no. The blasphemy." He glanced down at the photograph. "Maybe they moved it because his nephews got outed as Order members."

“Perhaps - yet if that's the worst that happened, he got off lucky,” Regulus remarked with a thoughtful tip of the head, looking at the photograph of Ignatius and Lucretia again, though he did not pick it up. “At least the photograph is still here.”

"Or Grandfather tried to trash it, and Cass just kept putting it back." Sirius shrugged. Another thing about the shared space was you got to see that regardless of age, siblings still tended to act like brats around each other. Looking at Regulus, he could surmise this was a family tradition they were still upholding.

“Valid point,” Regulus granted, “That is very much a possibility.”

It had seemed out of place to actually consider most of them (with the exception of their Aunt Cassiopeia, who had always been deemed a few dates short of a fruitcake) never spoke ill of each other where they could hear it. Still, in retrospect, he could remember enough bratty comments to realise that they were definitely bickering. It was odd, because there was really only a handful of people in the world left that would know why it was not only plausible but funny that their grandfather and his sister would have a passive-aggressive argument by moving about holiday home furniture without ever really saying a word to each other.

Still, it was difficult to tell if the hesitation was brought on by bad memories, good memories, being nostalgic, or being upset. Regulus was not the easiest person to read. "We don't have to stay here if you don't want to," Sirius offered.

“I want to,” Regulus responded without hesitation, eying the soft-stuffed chairs situated between a bookcase and a longer table. “It's complicated, but I doubt this house is going to be the most complicated issue to address here.” He shot a sideways glance back to Sirius.

"I don't think anyone's going to argue with you if you want to nick the good chairs," Sirius said, in a loud whisper. He was really hoping sooner rather than later, it would sink in that he didn't have to seek permission to do things in his own home.

“I know,” Regulus said, shaking his head with a wry smile, “Competition has lessened significantly.”

A thought struck with Sirius. They didn't come back up here in '79. Or, if they had, it'd been their mother and maybe her parents and/or his father's parents alone. The first year without their father might also have been the first without Regulus. "You didn't come back here," he said, quietly. "After Dad."

Regulus shook his head, releasing a heavy sigh. “I didn't, no.”

"That feels weird," Sirius shrugged. "I don't know why. I sure as hell haven't been here since ‘77."

“It feels weird to me too,” Regulus admitted. “The year I left, I considered coming here briefly during the offseason, when no one was likely to be around, but I didn't end up staying in Britain long enough.”

Curious, Sirius asked. "Where did you end up going?"

“Before France?” Regulus clarified, though he did not pause before continuing, “I property-hopped for a little while - mostly the house where Great Aunt Lycoris used to live because no one had been there in a long time… but I did not stay still for long and warded heavily, considering it would be a logical place if anyone started looking.”

"Smart," Sirius said, trying to push past the flare up of irritation that tended to flare up every time he realised he wasn't considered a safe bet. Even if he knew logically, it was probably true. "There's a stupid amount of places."

“There are. I kept expecting someone to jump out and murder me, no matter how many wards I put up,” Regulus responded, still milling around. “Part of me didn't want to leave, but in truth, it was a bit of a relief at the time, getting that distance.”

"The push and pull." Sirius shrugged. He couldn't argue that. No matter what, it always came down to a seventeen-year-old, literally days out of Hogwarts, running scared. If the choice was to throw himself into becoming the kind of monster that others became by slaughtering over and over, and getting away from it all, it didn't seem like the easier option. In very few circumstances did Sirius advocate running, but he'd done it once. He didn't begrudge it. "I understand it. I don't think anyone is about to jump out and murder you here, but you never know. I wouldn’t be concerned. They've wanted me dead longer, and I'm still here."

“Stubbornly so,” Regulus said with a little quirk of the mouth. “Your ongoing ability to provoke and avoid the typical consequences is really quite commendable.”

"I'd put part of it down to the dibs." Sirius liked to think skill was also a part of it, since it meant getting past McGonagall as well, but he couldn't deny it helped. "Even if someone isn't afraid to draw the ire of Bellatrix, a decent amount really don't like spilling pure blood, and they hold back. Unless you're expecting Bella to bolt out of the bathroom cupboard or something, I think you're fine."

“That would be deeply unsettling, to say the least,” Regulus said, pressing his mouth into a half-smile. “I want to be prepared for the possibility that it might go poorly, but given the circumstances, I don't expect the experience to be terribly dangerous, either. Most of the people present this summer are likely to be family and friends, rather than Death Eaters themselves, and I don't think Cissa herself will angle to put me in harm's way.”

"Narcissa should have other things on her mind," Sirius agreed. The fact her son had followed in his father's footsteps being one of the bigger problems she was about to be facing. "But you'd better talk to her before we cross paths. I don't think she'll be in the mood to after."

“I intend to,” Regulus said with a nod. “It's a delicate argument, and I want to approach it with care. You do tend to escalate each other - which applies to interactions with all of them, really.”

"I don't think any amount of care will stop the escalation," Sirius said. It was true - if Regulus's own presence wasn't enough to make waves, his own would. Harry's definitely would. However, Regulus would like to play happy families, and if he was obstinate enough to try, Sirius wasn't about to hold him back when it was just Narcissa. "But I can be civil if you can pull off a miracle. I just don't usually choose to be."

“I know civility can be difficult in those situations - and not just for you... Perhaps it will all blow up spectacularly in my face, but I cannot bring myself to let it lie without trying.” A little smile grew on Regulus’s mouth, subtle at the corners. “I appreciate the hypothetical effort on your part.”

Civility was not the problem. The problem was the innate ability to turn the wrong tone on a single word, or even a look at the wrong moment into a perceived slight, so you could screw up and derail any attempt almost immediately. It was a lesson that wouldn't be learned through talking about it. The possibility that Narcissa had managed to be taken in enough that she rejected him out of irritation was unlikely if she hadn't done it right off the bat, but he wasn't going to discount whatever Bellatrix decided to say to her little sister. Narcissa was the compromise, and Regulus knew it. Sirius would never accept Bellatrix as family ever again; she was too far gone, and everyone who thought otherwise was kidding themselves. She made her choices, and clearly doesn't regret them. They could only respond in kind.

"I don't want you to appreciate the effort," Sirius said, his expression pinched. "It's all difficult, and I sure as hell wouldn't make the offer for anyone else. I wouldn't come here for anyone else, not anymore. But I'm not about to let you try this without back up, and I owe you a half-decent birthday or two, and this place used to make you happy. If only for your sake, I want this to work." Setting one sister against another wasn't going to be an easy task, and that was (whether he realised it or not) what Regulus was about to do. But Narcissa, regardless of anything else, had clout. Getting her to budge even an inch would have a shockwave, and anything that disrupted the pureblood and Death Eater status quo would only help. "I'm not about to let me running my mouth fuck it up."

“I intend to make this attempt count,” Regulus said, watching Sirius's face with an earnest expression - then in a lilting, prodding tone, he added, “but if you insist, will try not to visibly appreciate your support, even a little bit.”

"Uh-huh," Sirius deadpanned. "You're going to struggle to explain us even being on speaking terms. Throwing actual emotion in there is going to make her want to check for the imperius."

“It’s possible she is at least halfway there already,” Regulus admitted, shifting slightly on his feet. “You did come up last time, albeit briefly, but she did not get stuck on that part of the conversation as much as I might have expected, which is hopeful. I just have to find the right balance…” With a sideways glance, he added, “Ignoring your existence entirely is not a solution that I am interested in, as it turns out.”

"You haven't successfully ignored my existence for more than a few months without faking your own death," Sirius pointed out. Even at school, there was Quidditch, there was the sniping, there were prefects versus them, and then when school was over, they still ended up running into each other. A lot more awkwardly, as vigilante and Death Eater, but his point stood. "It's nothing new. It's just the script got thrown out somewhere around Christmas. Maybe before, I dunno."

“Christmas is about right,” Regulus agreed with a nod, “We weren’t speaking in November, as I recall, but December sorted itself out. Quite a lot has changed, even since then. Communicating that context without admitting I didn’t say anything to her for a year is going to be a bit of a trick.”

"Somehow, me asking you not to is probably not going to go down well," Sirius admitted. "It's going to depend what you're going to leave out of your explanation of why you let everyone think you were dead in the first place, isn't it?"

“It will depend quite a lot on that, yes,” Regulus said with a nod. “All of this will come down to a matter of presentation: things that are essential to the argument, and things that are probably better left unspecified. Fortunately ‘they presumably would have killed me if I stayed after defecting’ is a pretty solid argument, given your average defected Death Eaters’ track record on the matter.”

"The defecting part is what I meant," Sirius clarified. "From previous perspective, you got mouthy - which everyone assumed was you drunk, which amuses me no end - and disappeared without any indication why either happened. You defected, but not to anything, and as far as anyone's concerned, for no reason at all."

“Yes, well… The decision to defect won’t be particularly compelling if the motivation remains unclear, I recognise that much. I’ve indicated some of my concerns...but I don’t know the degree to which they have had an effect in either direction. There wasn’t much time to explain in detail,” he said, slanting his mouth down a little. “But I want her, at least, to understand.”

“There's time now,” Sirius said. “But to understand is going to take some doing. Or it won't, and she's already scared enough to want an acceptable reason to be angry at the Death Eaters.”

“I do think she’s scared,” Regulus began with a frown. “It might be a matter of whether she is the right kind of scared to leave, rather than stay.”

“Depends what she's scared of,” Sirius shrugged. He didn't think she was afraid of Bellatrix, Andromeda wasn't, and he wasn't, he didn't even think Regulus was afraid of her in the conventional sense. Regulus wouldn't have gone to the Department of Mysteries if it was that kind of fear. What she represented, maybe. Whoever she was before. “Everyone's the kind of scared to leave in the right circumstances.”

“I suppose that is what I mean,” Regulus said, a thoughtful expression settling in his face. “That being ‘scared enough’ is not in itself enough, at least not for a change of any real substance. I imagine she is scared for Lucius and Draco - it's just a matter of determining the cost of that safety, contingent on the decision made.”

Sirius made a noise of frustration. This was why he hated it. It all came down to trying to scare each other into doing what they wanted. That wasn't family, that was just trying to control everything. He hated resorting to the same tactics. He ran a hand over his face, "You're discounting Bellatrix."

“Trust me, I haven't forgotten Bellatrix. That's part of the 'cost’ I'm referring to,” he said with a sigh, shaking his head as his arms folded loosely across his chest. “I don't want to give an ultimatum, but I recognise that Bella will turn it into one...and as her sister, is a very relevant factor.”

"You don't have to give an ultimatum. Bellatrix will do it for you." Sirius shook his head, but things were changing faster than he expected them to. "Malfoy's going to be a bigger problem than I thought. He couldn't have kept his nose clean; he had to go and maim a bunch of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. I don't know why I'm surprised. He had no problems setting up an eleven-year-old. I don't know what Narcissa is going to do without a way out of that - and damn it, I don't know if he should have a way out of it; he isn't sorry about any of it!"

Regulus frowned, brow furrowing. “I don't know either, honestly. With the Dark Lord gone, it sounds as though Lucius retracted in turn, but the lack of remorse is...a problem,” he said with a twinge of aggravation. “Especially while the Dark Lord remains active… but I know Cissa won't see it that way, nor would Draco - and that's not even addressing law enforcement's inevitable opinion on the matter.” Grimacing, he added, “Every string tugged will tug another, and I wish there was a way to truly isolate the issue... but I recognise that is not an option. A mess is unavoidable, I suppose.”

"Malfoy blagged the imperius last time. Once, with enough gold to grease palms, people will accept it, but twice? He can't even claim it's all Voldemort. He was torturing people at the World Cup." Tonks had told him a little about it, Harry and the Weasleys more. It was a stupid thing to do. "I'll give you the kid; he's got time to grow the hell up. Lucius was an adult back then, and he keeps making the wrong choices. Whether he believes it or he just thinks Voldemort won't go down again, it's still the wrong choice. It's something you were willing to give your life to help stop, and without that knowledge, I don't know if you'll get your point across with Narcissa."

Regulus nodded, the frown still etched on his face. “I cannot explain everything, but I know I must explain at least that much. I put forth my stance on the Dark Lord last time, though it was first and foremost a refusal to return and rejoin, rather than anything extensive enough to address the circumstances of my departure. I don't know how to convince her to accept the likelihood of Lucius and Bella's situations ending badly, but I don't specifically plan to start with that, at least.”

"It's not what you plan that worries me," Sirius said. "It's that she decides it's futile to try and stop things now that they've gone so far, or that Voldemort will not win this war. Bellatrix won't accept that. She'll die first. She'll sacrifice everything and everyone first. Narcissa may think she's safe, but she's not, and she won't see it coming."

“I know,” Regulus said with a sigh. “I understand her situation thoroughly, and that I can't force her to view it as I do - and though she might not believe me, I'm not going to ignore the Bella concern either, even if it's just to plant the idea that aligning with Bella and the Dark Lord is not inherently more safe. I can handle taking to Narcissa, so try to relax.”

Sirius blinked a couple of times. "Did. Did you just tell me to relax?"

Following a light eyeroll, Regulus looked at Sirius again and responded, “I did. I have it under control for the moment, and you're making me feel more anxious.”

Sirius put his hands over his face and said a muffled, "This is what happens when I get up stupidly early to come to the land that vowels forgot."

“You can go back to bed if you need to,” Regulus said, a little smile quirking on his lips. “It's early enough.”

"Can't," Sirius said, with a huff. He had to go see a man about a hippogriff, not to mention sorting out an actual present. "I got stuff to do. I'll do a quick boggart sweep, then head out."

“I will see you later, then,” Regulus responded with a nod, “In the meantime, I shall busy myself with settling in and determining how I want to initiate the conversation with Cissa.”

"You could walk up to her say hello like a normal person," Sirius said, taking one last look around the parlour.

“Goodbye, Sirius,” Regulus said dryly.

Chapter Text

Lunchtime had come and gone when at last Regulus ventured out of the summer cottage. The sun rose high above as he was met with a rush of warm, salty air that thickened the anxiety swelling in his chest and hung about him like the brush of a spectre. It was noticeable, the way the cold and foggy descent of the dementors avoided this particular magical area, but hardly surprising, given the alignment of its summer occupants. Though he took note of the changes in the shops lining the street - some aged, some gone, some sprung up in place of the old - it was the faces he passed which burned into the back of his mind, and with them the echo of their dawning realisation.

There was a measure of ambiguity involved when attempting to tell apart those who had been informed of his involvement with the Department of Mysteries fiasco from those who had not. Persephone Greengrass (or whatever her surname might be now, given that she was undoubtedly married after so many years) looked shocked, then visibly uncomfortable as she slipped back into the shop she had just stepped out of, as if pretending to forget something inside. He had half a mind to follow her through the door and say hello, but reason led him to think of better of it. Pushing too hard too soon for resolution did little to help in situations such as this, and she was not among those who triggered the urge to taunt. If she knew - and he guessed that she did - she was more than likely an information bystander. The greater question was, perhaps, who these various bystanders were getting that information from - who else besides Bella had been spared capture that night.

Approaching a cafe, Regulus saw one of the Urquharts (the one that was close to Narcissa’s age, as he recalled - Kenneth?) at a cafe. The man stared with a glaze of puzzlement that made it hard to tell if he perceived Regulus as a ‘traitor’ who was out of place, recognised Regulus but had not realised he was alive, or if he was merely surprised to see an unfamiliar face in an area that made outsiders feel exceptionally unwelcome, thus did not host very many of them.

Inside the cafe, the mood was quiet and unobtrusive, and perhaps a less rife with stares, though the difference might be attributed to the indifferent mask of the cafe attendant more so than anything. When Regulus returned to the patio with a cup of tea a few minutes later, there was a woman in the chair next to Urquhart, blocked in part by a large-rimmed hat, and it was only when she shot a furtive (if not entirely subtle) look over that he recognised her as one of his yearmates: Seraphina Travers (Urquhart?). She appeared considerably more aware of the situation, if the discomfort - rather than surprise - was telling in itself. Her brother’s Azkaban escape earlier that year might have dragged the war back to her doorstep, even if he was doomed to be carted right back again after the Department of Mysteries break in. Regulus doubted it was because or Urquhart. Curious though it was that the man was not more bothered, the Urquharts had never been quite so involved, and it stood to reason that Sera would be invested in her brother’s situation.

Truthfully, no one was acting as bothered as he’d built up in his mind, and while “unbothered” was usually a positive tell, in this case, it only felt more unsettling.

Regulus raised his eyebrows when she flicked another glance, but she did not look again after that, instead hunching slightly in the opposite direction. It was frustrating - surprisingly so - considering they had been friends of some sort. Perhaps it was naive, but he’d expected some sort of reaction, even if it was a negative one, after all the stress and planning he had put into his upcoming debates with the summer crowd of Porth Iago.

When several minutes brought nothing more than the plaited blonde line down her back and an unreasonably large hat, he lost interest in favour of watching the passers-by, mentally naming the ones he recognised and wondering at the ones he did not. So many of the holidayers were the same as they had always been, though the patterns of interaction (or rather, lack thereof) were markedly different from those he had come to expect in childhood. Wryly, Regulus thought that he had discovered this effective social repellent years too late: no one could seem to hold eye contact for more than a second, and not a single word had been offered. The thought rang with more frustrating disappointment than amusement, despite the irony. He could not claim to have wholly expected otherwise, knowing that - with the exception of Severus - all of his closest friends were imprisoned or dead (or worse than dead) now, and even if they weren’t, he doubted their Death Eater statuses would incline them towards positivity, even if they were here. In Mulciber’s case, it certainly had not, and seeing him again, even once, would feel too soon. Avery had been a more unfortunate situation - one that Regulus had almost thought would smooth over, being a barrister and the son of another - but he was dragged off in the end, too, by Scrimgeour’s Ministry, just as Lucius had been. Undoubtedly, the Order would assert that any Death Eater in prison was something to celebrate, and logically, he knew he ought to feel the same, but the two losses felt markedly different, and there was no room for admitting as much.

Unwelcome thoughts pricked at the edges of his mind, and as Regulus started his second cup of tea, he dismissed the depressing state of his people-watching in favour of settling into a book. The walls of text, at least, were something to secure against, an anchor of familiarity, however niggling the the unspoken tensions reeling around. The afternoon seemed to laze forward, from then on. Sera and Urquhart had wandered off at some point between starting the book and looking up again at least an hour later, and though the cafe was under no threat of overflow, the book, too, was soon set aside for a more active - if still relaxed - stroll past the shops, towards the rockier area where he and Sirius had found a tunnel system as children. Regulus had scarcely fit, the last time he’d crawled inside, armed with a furious sort of nostalgia and a perhaps misplaced blame on a set of books that were certainly ruined by now, assuming they were still at the end of the pocket spaces within.

Engaging in his first and only instance of book neglect had not brought Sirius back home, and it all felt a bit absurd, looking back. Even so, Iago was thick with memories, bitter and sweet and contradictory as they stretched back as far as he could remember. Pick up quidditch games, quiet evenings on the beach, and a snowball fight in July; Sirius running away in the night, dark magic lessons with Bella, and his first casting of the Killing Curse on some unassuming beetle. Vague and unbidden, he was struck with the question of whether the curse had to have a living target, or if he could have practiced on some nondescript rock somewhere, were he able to manufacture a sufficient mimicry of intent. A moot point, he supposed, and one that made him feel a bit like retching, but he shook the thought off, back to the clouded haze where the rest of his summer memories lived.

The sky was dimming to an inky smear of purple when Regulus finally wandered to the beach: a stretch of sand embraced by two snug, grass-glazed walls of rocky earth. The brackish scent was stronger here, the soft roll of waves more prominent, and as his eyes brushed over Porth Iago’s darkening water - a deep grey, flecked with golden reflections - it took a moment too long to notice the way his breath caught uncomfortably, the way his chest thudded strangely, or the strange hint of a buzz thrumming in his head. Familiar and unsettling, a steady beat of thoughts tapped against his skull. He heard the hollow sound of waves and breathed in the salty, fishy smell of the outer cave as he pressed a bloodied arm to its stone-wall entrance. He took in the poorly lit water surrounding the locket - and the Thames with its flickering streaks of streetlight, dotting the spaces around a swath of dead bodies. Stiffening against the thoughts, he staggered back a few steps, shifting into an abrupt turn back the way he came.

It was frustration that he grasped at in some attempt to fight the intrusive memories and the rebellion of his physical faculties. In that rebellion was the betrayal of a familiar spot that was supposed to be calming, soothing, comforting. (Breathing in, and out-) For a fleeting moment, Regulus had quite seriously considered kicking the sand like a tantruming three-year-old, resisting only by the skin of the more adult restraints framing his mind, and it felt wrong. The reactions felt wrong (They weren’t supposed to ignore him), this aversion felt wrong (why couldn’t his mind just calm down and cooperate?), and though he had walked into the day knowing he could not fix it by sundown, with sundown upon him, it simply felt like some intangible smoke beyond his control.

He could not convince them if they did not engage with him - and engaging them himself ran the risk of putting them on the defensive, which was harder to spin back to his points -

Cissa. He needed to talk to Narcissa. (But not today.)

By the time he was stepping back into their summer home some twenty minutes later, his palms had dried, his chest had ceased its pounding, his head had cleared (at least somewhat), but his mood was no less sobered. In his mind, it was not their expressions that lingered, but rather the backs of their heads.

"You're not dead, then," Sirius called from upstairs, perhaps making up for the lack of being able to shout from various rooms at home, where the risk of awakening their mother’s portrait was constant. He then popped into view. "Brilliant. I thought this was going to get very awkward, very quickly."

“Not dead, no,” Regulus said, shaking his head as he shut the door behind himself. “There was a clear reaction of discomfort, but I do not think I have ever been so thoroughly ignored in my life, and it was...surreal? Frustrating?”

"That's not fair," Sirius leaned over the railing. "You probably have, and because you were ignoring them so much, you just didn't notice."

Shooting his brother a look, Regulus rolled his eyes. “That is different.” To his brother’s point, it probably wasn’t that different, considering Regulus had done a fair amount of ignoring in his own experiences, but the parties in question had always been a mix quite unlike the present sides. These were meant to be social peers, disagreements aside, and it was jarring to see the backs of old friends turning in contrast to the more explosive reactions of his cousins. Bella’s scream had been unsettling, but she had reacted...

Shaking his head, Regulus considered the possibility that his mind was still a bit frazzled if Bella screaming at him somehow felt like a more genuine response, but he did not know how to pick apart that particular feeling. “I suppose I expected more of a reaction.” He recalled, then, the hushed silences that had followed Sirius’s vanishing act, that awful summer of 1976 - an entire subculture smothering the problem that no one was talking about, at least not when the Blacks were in the room - and he let out a huff, walking toward the parlour. “People are frustrating.”

"I reckon I see your problem." Sirius smiled, brittle and bright. He punctuated himself by pointing the end of his wand at his brother. "You think how Bellatrix, or Mum, or anyone from the more mental side of the house is normal, that that's what people are going to do. It's not. Most people aren't that crazy, they'll just try to pretend you don't exist in case someone yells at them for engaging someone who is not supposed to exist to them anymore."

Pausing, Regulus looked back at him, opening his mouth to comment but closing it to a thin line, just a beat later. ‘Someone who is not supposed to exist to you anymore’ was the way of it, and it was at least as agonising as he had feared it would be - yet it was strange, the part of him that must have expected something different, for that dropping feeling in his stomach to be so disappointed.

“It’s still frustrating.”

"What, you want them to yell at you?" Sirius asked. "Call you names, sling accusations, tell you off, repeat the same five interactions that haven't been updated in the last thousand years?"

“No,” Regulus said with a frown. “That would be frustrating too.”

"I can yell at you if it'll make you feel better," Sirius offered. "You haven't pissed me off lately, but I'm sure I can find something.”

“It won’t make me feel better,” Regulus responded flatly, then shook his head, tone lifting again. “I realise this isn’t supposed to easy, or there wouldn’t be anything to fix. It just felt...strange. Some of these people were friends of a sort - well, ‘friendly’ is probably more accurate - but the point is that it didn’t even matter, and I suppose part of me thought it would.”

In a completely situationally inappropriate way, Sirius smiled and shook his head. "If someone shut their eyes, most of them… I don't think they'd know me and you were related," he said. "Except every now and then, you just like to give me a good shock by doing or saying something I would, or have, done. You do want them to yell, because you want to yell back. Or your version, which probably has quiet, logical discussion more than actual yelling. But you do want them to, don't you? Because you want them to get it. It's not enough for you to just be here, you want - what, them to listen because they liked you?"

“Not because they liked me, though I was hoping that would assist with the initial approach,” Regulus said, crinkling his nose a little. “I specifically want them to listen because I’m right, but that is the gist of it.”

Sirius gave a sharp laugh. "If being right were enough, I'd have managed it twenty years ago, and you saw how that went."

“But it’s…” (different, Regulus felt it should be different - he was not as offensive as his brother had been - ) “...You have to admit you were a bit more derogatory about the whole issue.”

"Eventually," Sirius agreed with a slight bob. "Not at first. I wouldn't expect you to remember, you were still flying high from being hailed as the hero over being sorted into the same house as everyone else. Everyone wanted to talk to you and congratulate you, so we barely saw each other for a while. But back then, I was still trying to figure it all out and had a lot of questions that made people yell. Don't blame me if they didn't like it when I started to yell back. You just care what they think of you more than I did."

Regulus felt a bristling sting creep up in little pricks, and for a beat longer, he watched his brother’s face with a subtle furrow, trying to decide if the words were a jab towards him as well. Sirius’s tone lacked the normal bitterness that came with discussing that particular period of their lives, but in matters of their ever-common differences (in experiences, in opinions, in preferences), it was always a question of when those differences were a problem.

(As children, it had always been a problem - Sirius had always been the problem, and Regulus hated the part of him that still cringed, even a little, at how petrifying it had all felt. He hadn’t wanted them to crowd around and fawn: He just didn’t want them to be angry with him.)

Loosening some of the rigidness that had stiffened his stance, Regulus slanted his mouth downward. “I just want caring what they think to assist with changing what they think. The alternative doesn’t seem to be very effective in bringing that particular change.”

"Nah, you want them to care about you.” At that, Regulus made a face, though Sirius did not seem to pay it any mind as he continued, “This was your world, and since you legged it, you never saw any of the fallout from wising up. You walked away, but you've never had it taken away when you wanted it. That's all this is. This could end up just being a really uncomfortable summer and not working at all." Sirius shrugged. He didn't sound particularly bothered by it, stating it in matter of fact tones. "But this is a world of polite people following a set of pre-written conversational rules that you've always been better at, and most are sheep. It only takes one person to show an inclination towards so-called normal behaviour with you and most will just follow suit. They don't know what you are yet. I don't think you do either, but I don't think it matters. Sticking it out is terrible, and we don't have to do it, but it's important to you, and it's Narcissa's world, so I think you want to try. Just keep reminding yourself that although a person can be smart, people on the whole are stupid, and it takes time for the truth to get through those thick skulls. Those who still don't listen probably know the truth already, but if Voldemort wins, they don't want to be on his bad side, so they'll ignore it no matter what you do or say because they're shit scared of Voldemort and not scared of you."

Regulus pressed his lips to a line, tipping his head as the words settled and tucked away - then subtly, there was a wry, strained flick at the corner of his mouth, despite the uncomfortable twist in his chest. “They underestimate my deep capacity for vindictive behaviour, but I suppose he can be a bit frightening too.” Shaking his head (and with it, attempted to shake off the mess of nerves that clawed up), Regulus let out a stubborn huff. “All the same, you’re right. I do want to try anyway.”

"Of course you do," Sirius replied, slouching into his lean. "You can't blame them not knowing you're a petty, obstinate, vengeful brat. It's your own fault for being well-mannered in public. Being tiny doesn't help, but mostly the manners. Just dig your heels in, and I'm sure someone will start a fight sooner rather than later. I'm looking forward to it."

Regulus leveled a prickly look. “ I sense that you were trying to be encouraging, but you don’t have to phrase it so insultingly.”

"A little insulting is good for you." Sirius waved him off. "My biggest complaint about you was that I thought you were a soft, rule-abiding, fragile goody-two-shoes. But you're not fragile at all, are you? You only follow the rules you want to, and your shoes got traded in for a decent pair years ago. Being soft-hearted isn't the shameful thing I used to think it was. My point is that if you still surprise me, they have no idea. The only reason they think you'll shy away if they look away enough is that they're still seeing things you were, or they thought you were. Once they figure out you're not what they're expecting, and you're digging your heels in, I don't know what'll happen, but I'm looking forward to the front row seat."

With an appraising look, Regulus nodded, and the cold clenching in his chest retracted and warmed to something reassuring, however questionable the delivery might remain. “That’s a bit better,” he said as his mouth quirked up wryly, trying to shroud some of the sentiment threatening to creep onto his face. “Hopefully the entertainment value will not disappoint.”

"It won't," Sirius said, with some confidence. "Besides, there's only person you truly care for the opinion of here, and as long as she wants you here, I doubt anyone will argue with her. Narcissa might look like an overgrown porcelain doll, but she's got claws beneath those lace gloves, and she's not afraid of pulling them out. It's almost admirable."

“That does sum it up well,” Regulus agreed, and though he had not dragged himself up to her doorstep that day, Sirius was right about that much, without a doubt: Her opinion was the one that mattered. The purist community as a whole was secondary, and if there was one thing he could expected from their conversation to come, it was that she was not going to ignore him.

“I don't know why you always seem surprised when I know what I'm on about.” Sirius huffed a laugh at him. “It's not about pleasing them, or making them comfortable, so it's not going to feel comfortable. You need to decide what parts of this life you want to keep - fight for those and damn the rest. It'll all look different when Voldemort's dead, and it's up to you if you feel like being gracious about it when it's over.”

‘What to keep’ was ever the question, both emotionally and logistically, when it felt so large and specific at the same time. Focusing on Narcissa and Draco was simple enough. Undermining a tightly threaded aspect of the present purist culture was quite a larger issue. Though the culture was a lower priority than Narcissa, if she was in the culture and did not want to leave, it was no less connected…

“Identifying what’s most important is not so much a problem as all of the related pieces that get tangled up in it, but the war does not stop to care about our clarity in such matters, so we can only work with the situations available to us - or change them, should it be possible.” He shook his head with a huff. “Protect what I want to keep, change what I don’t like, and don’t die. How hard can it be?”

“Was that you attempting to sound flippant?” Sirius asked.

“I wasn’t attempting to ‘sound’ flippant. I was being flippant,” Regulus countered with a wry sniff.

“It needs work.”

Undoubtedly, his brother was just being difficult, and yet: “There is nothing wrong with my flippancy,” Regulus responded, his tone curt but light.

“You're so easy to wind up.” Sirius grinned. “Better than you used to be, though. You didn't insist you weren't small.”

Regulus rolled his eyes, biting back the sudden urge to object on that very point, if only for being reminded. Instead, he said, “You are insufferable.”

"You want to argue it, don't you?" SIrius said, with obvious glee. "Are you taller than Narcissa now?"

“I am,” Regulus responded stubbornly, though he had taken no specific measures. They were more eye to eye than in the past, which was well enough for the purposes of his defense.

"Congratulations on the extra inch," Sirius said. "I'll save my round of applause for your birthday. You're not planning on asking her to that, right?"

Regulus leveled a scowl, then let the subject drop. “I would like to see her, but I'm not going to invite her anywhere around the rest of you - for everyone's sake.”

"Before or after, then?" Sirius asked. “Because you look like someone just kicked you repeatedly in the shins, and you’re determined to get revenge.”

“Before, perhaps in the morning. Hopefully it will be a more productive interaction,” Regulus responded, and added in a dry, if not entirely humourless, tone: “Though I would not blame the entirety of my annoyance on them, right now.”

"Even after all this time, I annoy you that much?" Sirius placed a hand on his chest in false sincerity. "I'm touched."

Feeding into his brother's mockery had a history of maintaining it, but however annoying Sirius’s open enjoyment tended to be, Regulus found it more amusing than aggravating, in that moment, and less insulting, to exchange barbs than it once had been, when everything felt a little too serious behind the masks of humour. Shaking his head, Regulus released a put upon sigh. “Even after all this time. At this point, I begin to think I may never stop finding you unbearably irritating.”

"I already got you a birthday present; you don't have to butter me up." Sirius smiled, wide and bright.

“Can these things be banked for later? 'Remember that time…’” A flicker of amusement lifted the corner of his mouth.

"Who keeps a running tally of whether someone has been nice to them?" Sirius scoffed, before he stilled. "If someone would be that much of a weirdo, it would be probably be you, but reassure me otherwise. Give me hope for some sanity in the family."

“I don’t keep formal tallies, no,” Regulus responded, “I just have excellent memory.”

"You're not making an internal list of everyone who chose not to talk to you today?" Sirius pressed.

“Chances are high that I’m going to remember such a category, possibly in the form of a list,” he granted, and with a pointed lilt, added, “but I can say with confidence that I will not be tallying anything, so my point stands.”

"Oh, no, tallying would make it silly," Sirius deadpanned.

“There is nothing wrong with developing an ongoing internal context,” Regulus remarked stubbornly, “How else am I going to determine who gets my graciousness and who does not in your scenario in which I survive this war and the Dark Lord is wiped from existence?”

Sirius glanced downward, perhaps about to say something before he just shrugged at him. After a beat, he added, "Does your mind ever take a break?"

“I do sleep,” Regulus responded, and though it might not count fully when the coaxing of potions was a common requirement with the stressors of the present reeling all day and the stressors of the past reeling all night, he left the point as it was. “But during conscious waking hours, not typically, when there is always something to mull over.”

“Do you dream?” Sirius asked.

'Not if I can help it’ was the response that rose first in Regulus's mind, when dreams so often turned to nightmares, but he hesitated in pushing the thought past his lips. Instead, he shrugged. “Not usually.”

“Then it’s good even your brain gets some relaxation,” Sirius said. “Otherwise, I’d worry about you and that just gets awkward and mawkish fast.”

“You needn't worry. I have my self-imposed relaxation under control,” Regulus said, quirking his mouth slightly. “No additional awkwardness necessary.”

"Good," Sirius decided. "If you went and lost your mind, I'd have to put up with an I Told You So."

“Who thinks I'm going to have a mental breakdown?” Regulus asked with a little crinkle of his nose.

"People who remember the highly strung teenager you used to be?" Sirius held his hands up in a pacifying gesture. "People who tally up the people on the tree who've had a mental breakdown and realise your odds aren't good? It being the reaction of most people who have to talk to Bellatrix?"

Regulus made a little ‘hmph’ sound. If anything, it was a mental breakdown that turned him from the Death Eaters towards defection, but that didn’t seem to be the sort of breakdown being implied. “Well, I’m not going to.”

Sirius made a 'pffft!' noise in response. "I know that! You're too much of a control freak to have a break down."

It was not exactly a compliment, but it was close enough, for their purposes. Accepting the objection, Regulus nodded curtly. In truth, Regulus did not feel as though he had control over much of anything, at present, but it was a small comfort to play at it, if only in the hope that the play might rub off on reality.

“Hopefully this nebulous ‘people’ group will figure that out eventually,” Regulus said dryly, and with a shift towards the doorway, he added, “but for now, I will be in the parlour if you need me.”

Without ceremony, Regulus slipped inside the room and pulled out the book he had been reading early. Perhaps the day had not been as productive as it could have been with more aggressive tactics (nor as disastrous as it could have been), but at least it had not been a waste on the entertainment front.

The 22nd of July, 1996. Another birthday had fallen upon Regulus, this time in the form of an overly warm Monday morning. Sirius was still (presumably) asleep when Regulus left the house, but the seabirds were risen and ready to squawk as they swooped over the distant beachfront, sunrise glittering warmly on the sliver of water that could be seen from the village.

The Malfoys’ summer home was nearby - smaller than the manor in Wiltshire, but it was white and gleaming and nonetheless more sizable than most. Neatly manicured blooms were out in full splendor, fanning along a brick wall barrier like colourful, splayed fingers. Reaching the iron gate, Regulus peered inside, and as he was steeling himself to move forward, the sudden movement of the front door opening froze him in place for a beat, followed by a smooth retraction back to the other side of the wall. Almost immediately, he heard a voice - a boy’s voice, Draco’s voice, as he recalled, followed by Narcissa’s - and tempting though it was to stroll up anyway, especially for the chance to see his cousin on this particular day, the reality of it starting to settle.

Assuming Draco remembered their previous interaction, association with the girls lavatory (regardless of its level of usage) or Harry Potter were neither likely to be helpful in making his initial case to Narcissa - so it was with only a flicker of reluctance that he stepped back further and apparated to the owl post before he could change his mind (or before discovery changed the circumstances for him).

The letter he scribbled out for Narcissa was a brief one, pointing out his presence (something she may well be aware of by now, if Iago gossip was not sleeping on the job) and welcoming her to another meeting, whether it was in the security of his own summer residence or elsewhere, should she prefer it. There was risk involved, and nothing to guarantee she would not formulate some terrible trap if she had soured to him in any significant way since last they had spoken, but in his gut, he felt she wouldn’t.

Upon handing his addressed letter to the man tending and facilitating the owls, Regulus firmly specified that the letter oughtn’t be sent until the 23rd. The last thing he needed was Narcissa wandering up to the gathering later that day, where she was unlikely to mesh well. Confrontation was likely to escalate beyond what he could contain, in such a circumstance, and blending his worlds could wait.

The remainder of the morning and the start of the afternoon seemed to drag, once he returned to the house. It was all a bit mundane as far as birthday activities went, but Kreacher fussed in a manner that felt quite nostalgic with meals and cake and reminiscing, and Regulus would never argue with the merits of a relaxing opportunity to read in peace, especially with weeks ahead that were plenty open to more ‘exciting’ dramatics. Rattling the cage was simple, once a modicum of effort was applied.

Regulus was tucked in the parlour with a book when he heard the heard the tells of someone being welcomed inside. The experience was different from those one might expect at home, where his mother’s portrait still reigned - quieter, more subdued. Iago had it's open disapproving concerns, but based on the tone of the muffled voices, he expected it was probably Emmeline rather than a Death Eater come calling.

A voice came more clearly from the hallway. “...stuck in a book, so nothing different from usual.” Sirius, then, as he looked around the door. “You want to do these cards and presents now, or are you going to pretend you're an adult and wait 'til after dinner?”

Marking a place in his book and setting it aside, Regulus looked up at Sirius with raised eyebrows. “I am an adult,” he said, pointed but light, “Though I'm surprised your argument isn’t that ‘adults can do whatever they want.’ Look at you, acknowledging conventions.”

“How can I defy convention if I don’t know what they are?” Sirius scowled at him, but couldn’t hold onto it. “Besides, we have polite company.”

“I’m polite company?” Emmeline’s voice sounded amused. “I’ve seen too much to be considered that. But you are making me impolite by being tall, so I can’t actually see - Happy birthday!”

“Thank you,” Regulus responded with a smile as she appeared from around his brother. “In matters of politeness, I think we can take perspective into consideration here. Compared to Sirius, you still qualify as polite.”

"I did think about a tackle, but it seemed rude to tackle a sibling on someone's birthday," Emmeline smiled back, giving a little wave.

Sirius gave the whole thing a massive eye roll, "Give me a shout when you're ready, and ignore any odd noises."

Regulus quirked an eyebrow. “Odd noises?”

"You want to wait," Sirius reminded him, with a smirk. "So wait."

“Technically, I didn’t specify a preference for waiting,” Regulus countered, “but I am nonetheless capable of it, suspicious though the circumstances now sound.”

"You want to wait to open presents?" Emmeline added, skeptically. "Are you very sure you're not secretly evil?"

“I am. Sure, that is,” Regulus responded, playing along with the tone despite the charged terminology. “It’s not a matter of wanting to wait, but rather a matter of precision in language. Capability and preference are two very different things,” he added in objection, crossing his arms loosely as he turned his attention to Emmeline, “My brother’s assumptions are faulty and purposefully incendiary, and you should not take them for truth.”

"I was aware of that already," Emmeline smirked, shedding her coat. "It's a lot warmer up here, isn't it?"

“I thought the conversation could benefit from a reminder,” Regulus responded, quirking his mouth in return. “You’re right about the heat, though.” It was especially noticeable, compared to areas where the dementors were gathering in lieu of doing their jobs of guarding Azkaban. He waved off the return of that thought.

“Can you two resume your manners after deciding a simple 'yes’ or 'no’ on what we're doing?” Sirius complained.

Regulus eyed him. Though it was a bit childish to want to open them immediately (and played right into their banter to do so), he had to admit- “I am curious. I suppose it would not hurt anything to mix up the order a bit.”

"I'm dying to get it out of my room anyway," Sirius said, taking off at a run.

Emmeline stretched her head towards the stairs before lowering her voice. "Would you mind if I gave you yours now? I'd much rather do it in private."

“Private is fine with me,” Regulus responded, thinking it was probably less embarrassing without Sirius, anyway.

Turning to her bag, Emmeline began to rummage through it until she pulled out what looked like an owl letter. She did another check for there to be a sign of Sirius reappearing before putting her hand out with it. It simply looked like an address with a timestamp. "It's not strictly legal - well, to be quite honest, it's not legal at all. I'm divulging classified information, but I know you like that, and I did promise to be creative." There was a loud stomp upstairs, and she rolled her eyes. "Whether you choose to use it or not is up to you. I won't be offended, but either way, discretion is key. Understand?"

The flicker of curiosity immediately rocketed as he accepted the parchment, though there was nothing in its brief contents that indicated what it was for. Illegal might be concerning for some, but he had to admit the call of classified information was far too strong to reject the offer, regardless of what it was. He trusted she would not direct him towards anything too terribly dangerous in itself without warning, rebelliously shared or not.

“Understood,” Regulus said, tucking it in his pocket as a smile lifted his expression. “Thank you. The curiosity is a bit unbearable; I saw there was no date indicated, just a time… Does this apply to any day?”

Emmeline tried, and obviously failed, not to smirk. "In a manner of speaking. It's a time loop. It's under my jurisdiction to shut down anomalies like this, but given how stretched the Ministry is, I can't get the proper equipment until Friday. Until then, anyone who passes through this street will live approximately six hours before time resets itself, and they'll find themselves back on the street six hours earlier, regardless of anything they do within those six hours." She looked quite pleased with herself. "Muggles aren't aware of it, of course, but we are if we're caught in it. Some people chase them down, because they get a few days - or hours - where there are few consequences to their actions, but the Ministry frowns on it, so we keep them under wraps. You lose all but six hours of the time from walking through it, but it is a small price to pay a unique experience that few ever have."

“Fascinating…” he said thoughtfully, his mind starting its inevitable reel. Time loops were not a subject he had a great deal of knowledge about, but he did know - even without the explanation - that they were a rarity to stumble upon. “Does one retain a memory of what occurs in the time loop, despite the consequences themselves being retracted?”

Emmeline nodded, visibly pleased. "As long as you've passed through into the loop itself, memories are retained. Otherwise, no. There might be some feeling of something having happened before, but it passes. Think of it like writing a letter and vanishing the text and beginning again. You still know what was written, but the exact wording will fade over time to just have the gist of it. There is some danger involved, but mostly just if you’re going in to shut it down and can’t do it in the time period, you can get stuck. This looks straightforward, or I wouldn’t offer the opportunity."

“I figured an elaborate plot to murder me would not make for a great birthday present, nor a particularly creative one in the given climate. With that in mind, I had already ruled out excessive danger as a possibility,” Regulus said with amusement tugging at his expression. “Even with the potential for minor dangers, it sounds intriguing. Full marks.”

"I imagine you've already had death threats for your birthday, so no, it would not be very original," Emmeline agreed. "I'm going in at that time on Friday, so please do let me know if you're planning on using it so I can make sure to let you know when it's ending. It can be disorienting to lose time that way."

Regulus tipped his head in a small nod. “I absolutely intend to investigate, yes. Should I still inform you on the day itself?”

Emmeline gave her head a shake, as there was another bang upstairs. "No, that's alright. I'm sure I can track you down." She indicated the floor above. "You didn't request a hippogriff for your birthday, did you?"

“No,” Regulus said, eyeing the ceiling, “but whatever it is, it seems be too be giving Sirius a difficult time, assuming it isn't Sirius and Kreacher having it out.”

“That’s certainly possible,” Emmeline looked perplexed for a moment. "Or he's doing it because he wants to make a fuss."

“I will likewise grant you that possibility,” Regulus said with an amused huff. “Stomping about to heighten the dramatic suspense.”

"As I've said many times before, the dramatics do seem hereditary," Emmeline agreed. "Are you enjoying your holiday?"

“I am,” he responded, letting the comment on ‘dramatics’ slide as he quirked a slanted smile. “Mostly relaxing, but I intend to meet with Narcissa sometime soon, which may or may not be relaxing, depending upon her reception.”

Emmeline ducked her head. "I think that'll depend upon what you say to her and what you're willing to accept."

“It will. That’s part of the potential problem,” Regulus admitted, “but it is a conversation I have been mulling over for a year now, so it’s high time for it to happen.”

"Then I hope common sense can prevail." Emmeline smiled, a little tightly.

He offered a little smile in return. “That is my hope, as well.”

"You must talk to that bloody house elf," Sirius grumbled. He appeared in the doorway with a stack of post, a couple of badly balanced boxes, and what looked like a large sheet over a cage. The tell-tale squawk gave away its occupant, much to Sirius's apparent bemusement. He set the postcards - by the looks of it - on the table and managed to dislodge himself of the boxes without the toppling in a surprising twist.

Another squawk. "Fine, announce yourself then!" He huffed, eyes glancing at Regulus. "Happy birthday."

Regulus sniggered softly at the disarray, shaking his head. A smile rose warmly to his eyes as he carefully dislodged the shrouded cage from his brother’s overloaded arms, propping it on a side table. Pulling off the sheet revealed a relatively small but nonetheless stunning owl, long and thin with inky black feathers. The spread of black was splotched with bronze patches that trailed up to a heart-shaped face - bronze, too, with a bright, eclipse-like lining. He felt a nostalgic pang, thinking of his childhood owl, Canopus, with his white face and a mess of golden brown speckles. Canopus had been bigger, at least in the end, but he could not say for certain how old this one was.

The thought-interrupting squawk was a bit deafening, but despite a slight jolt, Regulus’s smile grew, returning to the present once again.

“Hello to you, too,” he said, shaking his head as he stood up straight again and turned back to Sirius. “Thank you, Sirius. It’s a bit loud but undoubtedly lovely. Male or female?”

"Male, far as I know." Sirius let his mood slip back into something more positive, and he smiled genuinely. "He's a barn owl; it's just a genetic quirk that makes him that colour. Bit mouthy, but he's rare, and he's smart, so I think he's up your alley."

“He sounds to be,” Regulus granted with a nod, looking back to the bird again. “I like the colouring.”

Emmeline crouched by the cage, tapping it lightly with her finger. "I think he just wants attention. You must get on splendidly."

Sirius responded by sticking his tongue under his bottom lip and flipping her off. "The blue box is Tonks - which your elf was trying to throw in the bin, just so you know."

“I don’t think he trusts her very much,” Regulus said unnecessarily as he plucked it off of the pile. Peeking inside, Regulus saw a tiny book, and after pulling it out for closer inspection, noted the title with a quirk at the corner of his lips. The subject seemed appropriate, though he could not decide if it was more amusing because she was an upholder of the law, as an Auror, or if it was more amusing because she seemed the type to flout rules without a great deal of concern for it.

“Ridiculous Magical Laws that Still Exist,” he said, flipping it so they could see the cover. “Kreacher needn’t be upset about that. It’s a rule book.”

"Tonks wouldn't know a rule if she tripped over it," Sirius scoffed.

"Perhaps it's aspirational," Emmeline replied, still obviously preoccupied with the small owl. "There is an inordinate amount of law-breaking in your family, and that's without including you, as to my knowledge, you’ve never been arrested."

“No, I’ve never been arrested; but with the odds against me, this should be quite useful,” Regulus began thumbing open the book to skim the listed laws. “For example, what if the Ministry were to swoop down upon me, and I was - crossing a stream while holding a moke on a Sunday or something unforgivable like that,” he said, tracing one of the lines on the page. “Caught in the act without even knowing it.”

"What a rebel," Emmeline deadpanned.

"Beats what you were arrested for," Sirius shrugged in her general. "Don't read the whole thing now. I know you have a problem with books, but no one reads at a party."

“I'm just saying that it could be very important someday. It's illegal to ride a dragon while intoxicated, but it's also illegal to ride an intoxicated dragon. I wonder if they prosecute you differently based on whether you were aware of your dragon mount’s level of inebriation,” he mused, ignoring Sirius’s remark entirely. “And this one is strangely specific. The Ministry lifts oughtn't be used for the sort of inappropriate behavior one might expect to be illegal, but also takes care to mention smuggling magical creatures in suitcases?”

Sirius scowled at the book. "I'm going to end up hiding that thing."

“You cannot have it,” Regulus said, sticking it in his pocket and setting the box down on the table next to his owl, which made another squawking sound, but quieter this time. “I need to decide on a name.”

"He's pretty," Emmeline agreed, turning her own attention to the owl. "Almost like burnt copper or rusted iron."

"Like a tawny got sunburnt," Sirius put forth.

Emmeline bobbed her head, clearly preoccupied. Her eyes flicked to Regulus. "What about Mars? He's certainly the right colour for it."

“He does. Our Great Aunt Cassiopeia had a cat named Mars,” Regulus commented, watching as the owl stared back at him with a turning head. “Several, actually, all black. Every time one would pass, she would get another black cat and name him Mars.” Glancing over to Sirius, he added, “Do you have any owl treats?”

"Yes," Sirius slipped into his pocket, pulling out a couple of random treats. "She was doing the same thing as the rest of the family. Every time someone dies, get a new baby and give it the same name. She just did it with cats instead of babies."

“I suppose so, though Grandfather made it sounds like she only did so with that one. Perhaps she just liked the name more than the others?” Regulus said with a shrug, accepting the treats and pinching one between his fingers as the others went into his pocket. He opened the cage to present it to the owl, which eyed its snack for only a moment before deeming the offer acceptable.

"He's a snob," Sirius said. "You'll get on great."

"I'm not sure you have a leg to stand on," Emmeline replied, with a smirk. "We're none of us what you'd call ‘working class.’"

"Anyway." Sirius glared at her. "We haven't had a Mars, so I dunno where she got the name from."

Mouth flickering a little at the blatant redirection of conversation, Regulus shook his head but allowed the point to drop.

“Neither do I,” Regulus said as he tentatively patted the owl’s head, relaxing a little when it didn’t nip him. “Stars and galaxies are typical, but not planets,”

Sirius sat down, leaning forward on one of the chairs with a thoughtful expression. "There might be one in the graveyard. We don't exactly have a full family tree, do we?"

“There are a lot of examples to consider in the last millennium, but you’re right, nonetheless. Even just among the disowned, there are names we can’t account for,” Regulus agreed in thoughtful tones of his own: an anxiety he’d felt when imagining the prospect of disownment, even if there weren’t many people left to forget him, at the point, had it happened...

"You better do Harry's." Sirius indicated another box on the table. "Leave that shit for when you're back in London and can go snooping for yourself."

Regulus lifted his brow, a little surprised that Harry would get him something, regardless of his upcoming presence at the outskirts of Iago; but it seemed rude to exclaim as much aloud. Instead, Regulus shut the cage again and pulled over the last box. When he opened it, a charmed toy Seeker (with the tiniest little snitch) zoomed out from captivity, and although it went too quickly to spot the logos, the colours were all too familiar.

“It looks like the Magpies’ colours,” Regulus observed aloud, a little smile on his face as it circled around Emmeline’s head. Quidditch - seeking in particular - was well established as common ground, but it was a bit impressive if the kid had remembered… or perhaps Sirius had reminded him?

Emmeline made a noise of irritation, moving as it to swat it before relocating herself. "He's thoughtful," she declared, even if she seemed less than thrilled about having to move from the owl.

"A damn sight more than I was at that age," Sirius agreed. "He's surprisingly awkward. He asked if it was alright to get something, as if anyone in their right mind would turn down a present on their birthday."

Emmeline pointed to Sirius. "What about the poisoned chocolates?"

Sirius bobbed his head, "Forgot about those. Mad-Eye blew a gasket, but I still think it was Snape. He seems like the type that'd want to ruin a perfectly good birthday celebration."

"Or people who are dumb enough to eat chocograms when there's a war on," Emmeline replied, resettling on the arm of one of the larger chairs. "Perhaps this is what your house-elf worried about."

“Most likely,” Regulus agreed, ushering the little Seeker back into its box. Tipping his head, he added in an admitting tone, “Kreacher tends to trust people about as much as he likes them, which is to say not very much, for most.”

"Oh, good," Emmeline deadpanned. "It's not just me."

"No, Kreacher would happily give me poison chocolates if he could," Sirius snorted.

Mind flicking back to the offending gift itself, Regulus followed up: “Though I can’t recall hearing anything about poison chocolates. Has someone received them, as of late?”

Sirius waved his hand. "No one got them recently, we got a box of them when I was nineteen, I was drunk, which was all Dorcas' fault, and then I ate one, had a little St. Mungo's trip for my trouble. No big deal, other than feeling a bit stupid and heaving my guts up for a while."

The remark surprised Regulus more than it should have, perhaps. He and Sirius had been out of touch for years, but even if they hadn’t been, it was around the time Regulus had left - perhaps even after, depending on the time of year.

“He’s not going to give anyone poisoned chocolates,” Regulus said firmly, “but I’m glad it was not anything more serious.”

"Remind him of that when Hermione runs about trying to make friends with him," Sirius said, darkly.

“He’s not going to do anything to her,” Regulus repeated, shooting a sideways glance. “I spoke to him some time ago, and he is making an effort to be less unpleasant to our various guests.”

"I've barely seen him," Emmeline admitted.

"Lucky you," Sirius sniffed before looking at the lack of remaining packages. "What'd you get him?" he asked, swiveling his head towards his brother.

"Something that is not for public viewing," Emmeline replied, crossing her arms.

Sirius's eyebrows shot up, making it obvious that discretion due to her occupation was not on his mind. He looked between them and shrugged. "Alright, yep, don't need to see."

The look on his brother’s face - accompanied as it was by the flicking glance - made Regulus profoundly uncomfortable, in light of recent conversation. Somehow, the brush off almost made it more embarrassing.

“A sharing of information,” Regulus clarified, smothering the awkward feeling as he dipped down a bit to look at the owl again. Resisting the urge to clear his throat, he straightened again. “I do like secrets. While we are still on the subject of gift-giving, I thank you both for the thoughts and gifts extended. Harry, too, and Tonks, though I assume you will see them first.”

"You can thank Harry yourself when he comes up. I dunno when I'll see Tonks," Sirius said, looking a bit shifty. "She needs to get over this thing. Or under it, if that's her thing."

"It's not always that easy," Emmeline said, quietly. "Crushes can be difficult. Even if you go through the heart-wrenching fright of not knowing if you're liked back, there can be so many obstacles that can see unsurmountable."

Although they were discussing Tonks by name, Emmeline's words struck a little too familiar, though he could not tell if that was a double meaning behind them or if Sirius had made him paranoid. For an uncomfortably quiet beat, he tried to coax some response past his lips, but reassurances felt too pointed and final (and in truth too presumptuous), while dismissals would not be true, even if he could force them out.

Instead, Regulus gathered his owl and the small boxed Seeker toy, glancing towards the stairs. “If you will excuse me for a moment, I'm going to take the owl to my room, but I expect that our meal and the cake are ready by now,” he said, sparing a brief glance to both of them. “I will meet you in the kitchen.”

"Subtle," Sirius deadpanned.

"I'm sorry, but I have no idea how you're supposed to breach the idea of a werewolf in the family," Emmeline said, slipping onto a chair unceremoniously.

Sirius glanced at her. "What werewolf?"

"Remus," Emmeline replied. "How many werewolves do you know?"

"Just that one!" Sirius said. "Who's marrying Remus?"

"No one said anything about marriage," Emmeline clarified. "Tonks, Remus, crush, as you put it, getting under him."

Sirius blinked. "As in my Remus."

"I've yet to see a ‘property of’ stamped on him," Emmeline replied, "but yes, Remus Lupin. Is it really so difficult to imagine? Is he that hideous?"

"No, I just don't know if he likes people, he's worse than him." Sirius indicated his brother’s retreating form, before giving himself a great shake. "I'm going to address that later, possibly while not sober and definitely with cake."

Despite the awkwardness of earlier in the day, there was no doubt that Porth Iago was a port in the storm for the war weary. For most, the war had only just started, but it had raged for a year in reality, probably even longer, and it was a year too long for it. This was not the sort of place Emmeline ever saw herself; she wasn't unwelcome precisely, but not welcome either, when it came to spaces like this where class, blood, and allegiance all melded uneasily together. Her parents would never have come here. They were - had been - proud people, and the idea of being looked down upon was not appropriate behaviour at any point, let alone on a holiday.

Still, she couldn't deny it was a beautiful area. It had the qualities of a seaside, a village, and modern signs all wrapped up together. The sea air permeated, even this far from it. Though they could see the cliffs, the sea itself was not in view and it was a clear night, shone over by the waxing crescent. A good night for potion making, for those so inclined.

Emmeline was inclined towards her meander with Regulus. She had found him sitting outside and suggested stretching their legs. It was for him she had come, after all. As much as she would consider Sirius and herself to be friends, perhaps even good friends after being in and out of each other's pockets this much, he was private about his family events (in so much as he could be with a hopelessly dramatic family), and it was unlikely he'd have asked. Still, Regulus had asked and had even looked a little put out when she'd indicated that she may be unable to come. An indicator it was a truly desired presence, rather than politeness forcing itself upon him.

After a day of cake, presents, and some truly terrible singing, taking a walk alongside a friend in a warm seaside village felt as far from London and from the Death Eaters as you could get. An amusing thought, since almost everyone at Iago was related to one in some way or another. Perhaps that was why it felt untouched; a safe space by design. It should make her angry. If no one else felt safe, why ought they? But tonight, she didn't want to break the illusion that the war didn't exist and this was nothing more than two people taking a wander.

"I feel badly for suggesting you come away from this for a few days for your present," Emmeline said, though there was nothing stopping him returning here for it. She was simply curious what he would choose to do with ephemeral time. "Though I suppose it would still be here if you chose to remain here longer afterwards.."

“Porth Iago won't go anywhere, but your gift is a rarity. You needn’t feel bad,” Regulus responded with a smile. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

"It's my second in as many months," Emmeline admitted. She had lost two days back in June, stuck in Dumfries. Not exactly a cultural hub. "Magic appears to get more erratic, the more it is misused on a wider scale." She cast him a look of amusement. "Or people simply get extra dumb and desperate during wars."

“Perhaps both,” Regulus said, mouth quirking up a bit more. “I suspect there is some relation.”

"Everyone has messed about with magic a little and had it backfire," Emmeline reasoned. Even she'd had some bad reactions from time to time, but privately, and none where she would willingly admit to it. "But wartime brings stupidity and terrible life choices. The desire to alter one of those choices can lead to playing about with time."

“I can't argue with that,” Regulus agreed as he tipped his head. “I've at least wondered at the same, though it's hard to say what else would have changed - for good or for ill - had it all gone differently. I suppose that is the trouble.”

"Not to mention the side effects." Emmeline gave a little shudder. "Imagine what you'd have to live through again to catch up with yourself. Not to mention how difficult pinpointing a time period is - you can try for eighty hours and end up with eight hundred years. You'd be doomed to live ‘til you were eight hundred with your body degenerating. It isn't worth it."

“It doesn’t sound to be worth it, no” Regulus concurred, scrunching his face a little. “I suppose I will make do with things as they are.”

"You seem to be enjoying yourself," Emmeline smiled, before glancing around. He did seem to be more at ease here, but maybe it was just happy childhood memories. "Have you liked your birthday thus far?"

“It has been a wonderful day, yes.” Regulus granted a little smile in return. “No complaints so far.”

"Is that so unusual?" Emmeline asked.

“I wouldn't call it unusual. I just wouldn't call it a guarantee, either,” he said with a slightly slanted mouth. “But more to the point, I thank you for setting aside the time to visit. It has made the day that much better.”

"Because spending the day with you is such a difficult thing to do." Emmeline rolled her eyes, despite the little pleased feeling that wormed its way into her stomach. "The cake in particular, how I have suffered."

“A veritable burden, I know,” Regulus responded with a little grin.

"It would be easy to forget what's going on in the rest of the magical world here," Emmeline mused, ducking her head. "I imagine that's the point. Still, some sea legs are good for you. You look better."

“I’ve always liked it here,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s a bit strange, the way something can feel the same, yet feel different at the same time. Not surprising, given all the change, but strange, nonetheless. Sirius and I used to run around the area all the time when we were kids, and it’s just...ironic that I know his presence would be considered a highly offensive change when it’s a return to a previous state of things. That previous state is just a bit further back for most people’s taste.”

"It's quite funny to imagine you purposefully running about,” Emmeline teased. “But I guess you have some ragamuffin tendencies buried in your childhood consciousness."

"'Ragamuffin' might be overstating it," Regulus said with a tiny smile, shaking his head.

“Children running about a little village sounds very ragamuffin to me,” Emmeline said, managing only barely to keep a straight face.

In all truth, Emmeline had never given much thought to what the children did here, and it was easy to demonise the upper echelons of the Death Eaters and the stalwarts of the purist community versus the rest of the logical and freethinking magical world as separate and similar entities. It wasn't as simple as that. They'd all been children at one time or another, and still had the terrible choices ahead of them. It was a rare glimpse into the state of these beginnings, and sadly humanising. Regardless of choice to join up, it did force looking at them as people instead of an amorphous blob of prejudice and hate. "It seems that the only acceptable change is a change for the negative, with no wiggle room for individuality. It's the kind of absolutist thinking and short-sightedness that we should all be much too old for."

"I would not go as far as to say it's all negative, but expectations are quite strict - and in many cases, undesirable." Casually, he slipped his hands into his pockets, eyeing the cliffline off towards the shore, peeking around an upcoming hill. "A bit of flexibility would go a long way."

“Has there been a positive change I'm unaware of?” Emmeline asked. Admittedly not her wheelhouse at all, but she doubted it.

“There isn't much change in general, but it depends on the scale of action and time frame. Joining a certain misguided cause is a change for the worse, while joining a wide-scale charity, for example, is a change for the better. More neutral changes and consistencies lie somewhere in between,” he responded a bit distantly towards the cliffs, then glanced over at her with a small smile to add with a thoughtful lilt, “It isn’t all bad, all the time, but I understand your point, nonetheless. The problem is more than one isolated rejection or another, and the scale is quite skewed…

“But enough about them.” Regulus shook his head with a little huff. “Did you go on holidays much as a child?” A beat of pause. “If you don't mind me asking.”

Personally, Emmeline was inclined to believe he wanted to change the subject because he couldn't think of a real, non-negatively impacted change, but she supposed she could be indulgent. It was his birthday, after all. "Does it count as a holiday if it's visiting family?"

“I would count that, yes,” Regulus responded with a little nod.

"Then a couple." Emmeline nodded, trying not to feel a little wistful towards the idea. "From what I've seen, we're considerably more spread out than your own family. Most frequently, we'd go up to Nana Henley on the Isle of Wight - she wasn’t from there, but retired there. Occasionally, we'd go to Germany. My paternal grandmother, before she passed, lived in Hannover, and her sister still lives in Munich. The funeral must be the first time I've seen her in years. It was mostly visiting them, going to old market places and these massive gardens with huge fountains and hedges. I think I enjoyed it more when I got older and understood the cultural significance of a lot of it." She snorted to herself, straining to contain a giggle of the image. "While my mother was quite enamoured with going around all these little stalls and attending tea at the tea houses, I have never heard her squawk so loudly than her realisation that it's culturally acceptable to sunbathe nude there."

Regulus made an amused, huffing sort of sound and crinkled his nose. “A reasonable thing to squawk about. It sounds lovely, though. I've never been to Germany.”

Emmeline snickered to herself. "I've gone more places as an adult, but not back to Germany. It was having a bit of turbulent time with the muggles, and I thought I'd left all of that behind me."

“That’s fair enough. We have enough turbulence here, as it is,” Regulus agreed wryly.

"You wouldn't think it tonight," Emmeline said, softly. She gestured around them. It was quiet, warm, and had a stillness you can rarely attain in a busy metropolis. "Although as I recall, you are the not the biggest fan of wide, water expanses. Is it bothering you?"

“For the most part, no,” he said in a more sobered tone, shaking his head. He hesitated for a beat longer before adding, “Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

"You do know you can say if it does, and we can meander in another direction?" Emmeline prompted. She had no desire for him to get caught up in a traumatic feeling on her account.

“I know,” he said with some finality, though the tone remained a little uncomfortable . “I’m familiar with the area, and we are meandering in a fine direction.”

"I always have my wand at the ready if there's trouble," Emmeline said, though her sort of trouble might be of the people taking exception to the presence of an outsider. "But everyone has things to carry with them, so don't martyr yourself if you don't feel like feeling those demons at any particular moment. I don't want to make you truly uncomfortable."

“You aren’t making me uncomfortable,” he said, letting out a soft breath. “It’s an inconvenience, to be sure, but I’m managing it.”

Remembering their earlier conversations on the idea of going to see the Northern Lights, Emmeline decided he was likely underplaying it a little. Still, there were ways of working around this particular fear. "Then there is hope for camping?"

To that, Regulus granted a smile, small but warm. “There is hope for camping - as long you don't expect me to sleep on the ground or anything like that. The muggle way sounded awful.”

Emmeline flinched as she thought back to the crowded tent and the sudden, very apparent realisation that a single knocked over light could have started a fire. Talk about being young and experimental.

"No muggle camping," Emmeline confirmed before giving him a look of distaste. "Too many insects."

Regulus nodded, the little smile still flickering on his face. “I can imagine. At least we remain in agreement on that matter.”

"I can get a handle on Death Eaters and dark creatures.” Emmeline shook her head with a smile. "But ants crawling up my legs, and I run about screaming and flapping about. I don't want you to think less of me, having seen that."

His expression brightened a little as he met her eyes. “The mental image is amusement enough. Amusement aside, I would not think less of you, even in such indignities. A person can only remain so collected in invasive ant-crawling circumstances.”

Emmeline bumped him with her shoulder, in a way that would hopefully be construed as playful and not an attempt to make him stumble. "Is there such a thing that would make you think less of me?" she asked.

Regulus lifted his brow with a sideways glance. “Not that I have discovered, thus far,” he responded with a little lift in his tone, gently bumping back against her shoulder. “High praise, I hope you know. My standards for these things can be quite strict.”

Emmeline tried hard to look cross at the judgement, but she was entirely too pleased to do so. “Be careful,” she warned. Those are some high stakes to live up to. “It'll go to my head, and I won't fit through the door.”

“You should have nothing to worry about,” Regulus countered with a flickering smile. “The door is actually quite lenient, in that respect.”

“Do you have a lot of egotistical people staying there, then?” Emmeline teased. “It does seem a little large for four people.”

“I was going to remark on Sirius in the fashion that brothers should, but honestly, it allowed James Potter through the door one time, and I think that is support enough to my argument,” Regulus quipped back, a little dryly. “The house felt quite full that day, but not in the good way. You, on the other hand, have not been intrusive in the least.”

“That's because James was a very chaotic person, and the company of a chaotic person causes considerably more ruckus than I do,” Emmeline replied, though her heart panged in a surprising way for the chaos. James had calmed more when Harry was born, but they were always itching to cause a little hell. It made her think of Marlene, and she felt on the verge of making herself sad again. She cleared her throat. “However, unless they've grabbed your kitchen trays, charmed the stairs, and decided to slide down them while screaming uproariously, you don't have the record on being disturbed by them.”

“I’m confident that I could come up with something comparable,” Regulus responded, but when he glanced over at her again, he hesitated for a bit before shifting the subject again.

“I was thinking about the loop,” he began. “Have you ever used that sort of thing for fun, knowing that it would reset? Does the department have a way of knowing if you do?”

Oh ho, he was catching on now. “I will, since I'm working on it,” Emmeline admitted reluctantly, as she'd have liked to see what he'd do without knowing she would know. “Others won't. They get déjà vu if you have the same conversation, but no. That's why people chase them down, except not knowing when it'll be shut down, they can get stuck with the consequences of a day they didn't mean to be the real one. I have a leg up in that department.”

“That would certainly be a problem,” Regulus agreed. “I know you are aware of my awareness and thus my likelihood of attempting it, but your explanation sounds as though they are monitored by individuals rather than groups. Because of this, I was curious specifically about whether you had ever used one for sport, personally.”

"Everything in the department is monitored on an individual basis, we're not aurors," Emmeline admitted, though she thought it had more to do with them not having to deal with it if an individual then ended up dead on the job. "You can dip in and out, or change departments, but no, no one has ever stumbled upon me messing around." She gave him a cheeky wink. "And I have most definitely messed around."

He flicked a little grin. “That is lucky. Any particularly fun adventures?”

Emmeline quirked a grin at him. "Maybe."

“Any you can share?” he asked, sidling up closer as they walked to add in a (perhaps exaggerated) whisper, “I won't tell, of course.”

"I did a few things, some more ridiculous than others," Emmeline admitted, as she tried to hide the blush that began to creep on her. "I suppose I treated it mostly like having a day off at first, went to museums, a few shows, read a lot of books, but then..." Emmeline huffed a laugh. "I gate-crashed a few events, shoved the guy who keeps taking my lift spot in the mornings, ate ice-cream ‘til I was sick, attempted to learn to surf - which do not attempt, it's not worth it - asked out someone I liked but didn't really feel ready for the impact on the relationship if it went wrong. I have yet to work up the courage to go into the love room, but I'll see how I get on. Oh! I learned to juggle."

Lifting his brow, Regulus huffed a little laugh, letting the amusement settle for a moment before he spoke. “What an extensive list. I didn’t know you could juggle, nor that there was such a thing as a ‘love room.’ Another area in the Department of Mysteries, I assume, though I’m now imagining something like Madam Puddifoot’s, but with more piles of research scattered about. What about the man on the lift? Did he subconsciously adjust his poor manners in the future?”

"I'm very proud of the juggling part," Emmeline beamed. It had been a rough week, and dropping balls had been a good metaphor for the spiral, but she had enjoyed gaining the ability. "There are many mysterious departments, the name is rather a give away, but I have heard it's pink. They keep it locked, but part of my vigilante-in-training has meant learning to bypass most locks. I'm just not sure it's the sort of thing we're ever meant to know. But that's never stopped an Unspeakable yet."

She continued with a huff of laughter. "No such luck on the subconsciously teaching some manners, though. I did decide to follow him about to get an idea of his routine, so I make sure I'm there a few minutes before he is, and I take a petty sort of joy whenever he arrives just in time for me to close the doors."

As his smile morphed into a little smirk, Regulus nodded. “It is the little things, yes? A bit of pettiness has its place. All in all, it sounds like a time-loop well used. I have not decided how to spend my lost day yet,” he admitted.

"Just try not to die," Emmeline nodded. "I think it'll still reset, but I really don't think you should chance it."

“I won’t pretend like the question didn’t cross my mind,” he said wryly, shaking his head. “Not that I’m planning to go get myself killed on purpose, even impermanently, but it’s not a challenging thing to do at the moment. I will make my best effort to remain alive, just in case.”

“I don't know,” Emmeline made a big show of thinking hard. “You do have some self-destructive tendencies. I don't want to be responsible for you getting hurt.”

“If I engage in any self-destructive behaviour, it is most assuredly not your fault. I can do that all on my own, as it turns out,” Regulus responded lightly with a fleeting glance, mouth half-turned.

“So I noticed,” Emmeline said dryly. “But you are my friend, and I reserve the right to worry for you at any given moment.”

Regulus was opening his mouth to respond when a dark movement off to his left grabbed his attention and locked his gaze. Pausing in step, he watched the junction where their path split off along the retreating wall of a rocky hill, tucked up beside a sparsely wooded area. The sun had not set yet, but with the dimming shade of dusk, it was hard to tell if it was some animal scampering or a threat of any true concern. Inside his pocket, he thumbed the grip of his wand and flicked his eyes over to Emmeline’s.

With a frown, Emmeline reached for his arm and gave it a mild tug without looking away. "I think we ought to go back. It's getting late."

Shifting with the tug, Regulus nodded. The evening had fallen still, save for a subtle ocean breeze meandering along the path, but the unsettled feeling lingered, and so too did his hand on the pocketed wand. After eyeing the junction one more time, he stepped into a turn - Emmeline turning with him - and without further word, they started again for the house, quieter but closer in step.

Chapter Text

Warm, salty air beckoned Regulus awake the next day: too warm for the deep hues of a pre-dawn sky, but tempered somewhat by the breeze. Cooling charms did well to neutralise the worst of the heat, and even as he stirred to set about his morning routine, the remnants of those charms held well, more delicate than they were brisk.

By the window, his owl was napping in the open cage following a long night’s hunt - Deimos, he’d decided, one of the moons of Mars - with one eye left comically wide. A relatable way to nap, Regulus considered to himself. Though he preferred the reprieve of a deep and dreamless sleep over the anxieties of a natural rest, it seemed a rather apt image for the bird, tucked and watching, even in sleep. Most likely, owls did not experience the dread of war, but it was amusing in a depressing sort of way.

Stillness had not quite given way to morning yet when he wandered downstairs, and he had felt a rather pleasant lift in his mood to see Emmeline already flitting about. Their passing exchange did not last long; the sun was still tucked below the horizon when Emmeline left for the Ministry, leaving behind the shores of Porth Iago in exchange for the realities of everyday life in London. Even so, it had been a nice diversion to catch her before she left, however short the visit had necessarily been. For the stretch of an afternoon and evening, the village had felt suspended - a birthday celebrated in isolation of his other problems, for once - and though the chaos was certain to return with the rising sun, Regulus had felt well and truly relaxed.

Regulus was settling into his favourite parlour chair with the absurd little pocket book Tonks had gifted to him when Kreacher appeared with tea, crowned with steam and prepared with the usual amount of care. Skillfully moving the tea cup to a coaster on the side table, he smiled down at Kreacher with a word of thanks.

The elf was turning to leave when Regulus glanced down at the book in his hand, wriggled it a little, then spoke out: “Kreacher, I wanted to take a moment to offer something of a reassurance, if one could call it that.”

“What is it that Master Regulus would like to say to old Kreacher?” the elf asked in raspy tones, though he had adjusted his attention quite thoroughly.

“The gifts yesterday. Sirius informed me that you were putting great effort into my protection,” he said gently, and though Kreacher had visibly bristled at the mention of the elder Black brother, that bristle softened, if only somewhat, at the acknowledgment of what must have been genuine efforts.

“Master Regulus deserves better. Deserves the best, from those who can be trusted.” With a scowl, Kreacher shot a stray look upward towards Sirius’s room, though it was not hard to assume that the statement referred to the whole group of them. Regulus suspected he was biting back commentary about more than just their trustworthiness, but it was hard to say for sure. The ongoing effort was commendable, if that was the case.
“They were quite safe, as it turned out,” Regulus continued, holding the little book out, though he didn’t expect Kreacher to actually examine it. With an amused air of willful misrepresentation, he added, “Tonks actually bought me a collection of rules and regulations. It was surprisingly thoughtful.”

The comment did little to lighten the opinions flickering behind Kreacher’s eyes, but his tone was genuine enough when he responded, “Kreacher is glad for the safety of Master Regulus.”

Ignoring Tonks was probably better than expressing an opinion, in this case, and Regulus supposed he did not want to compel an insincere kindness when a polite restraint of distaste was reasonable enough.

Kreacher excused himself shortly after, leaving Regulus alone with his thoughts and his books for the quiet stretch of morning. Regulus had read through the majority of the book when a knock on the door eventually interrupted the current Ridiculous Law in question (regarding the illegality of entering a muggle’s home without explicit consent unless urgent need of toileting facilities was required - a loophole that would make for a horrifyingly interesting defense). Harry and the others weren’t supposed to arrive until closer to the afternoon, and as far as he knew, it was Aunt Cassiopeia’s house by the harbour that Sirius was supposed to meet them at. Narcissa was the other logical leap, though the letter he had sent to her was not meant to be sent out until today. If it was his cousin just outside the door, more than likely it was the the tell of postal workers who could not follow a simple instruction. Alternately, she might have come to visit without invitation, spurred on by a spread of information set fire by the summer warmth. He hoped it was not the latter. Marking his place and slipping the book into his pocket, Regulus strode to the front door-

-and on the doorstep stood his cousin, as primly put together as always, though she wore an earnest look on her face. Earnest, or perhaps anxious, and he could not truly blame her for it, however it might sting.

“Come in,” he said without delay, and she wasted no time stepping through the door, eyeing down the hallway as he clicked the door shut behind them.

“Happy birthday,” Narcissa said with a little strain to her tone, though her eyes held a bittersweet sincerity. “I know it was yesterday… but I was not certain if you would be here.” Reaching into her pocket, Narcissa pulled out a piece of parchment. “I received your letter this morning during breakfast. Draco is spending time with his friends, so I thought to come right away.” (‘While questions could be avoided,’ Regulus finished for her silently. He had considered it too.)

Her mention of breakfast led Regulus to wonder if it was later in the morning than he had realised - in hindsight, the sky was a bit brighter out now, and he was a little more hungry than he’d noticed - followed with an acknowledgement that perhaps the postal workers were not entirely incompetent, after all.

“Your birthday wishes are no less well received. Thank you,” he said with a tiny smile, leading her down the hallway towards the parlour. “It has been too long.”

“Far too long,” she agreed with a frown, fingers lightly brushing the ornate wooden table just outside the parlour door as they passed it by.

All at once, Regulus was struck with the urge to ignore the raging war around them, to fall back into the past - the distant past before he branded himself into the service of a monster who cared nothing for any of them. Even within the safety of these walls, there was something stiff in her stance, and when they took their seats in the two most comfortable chairs in the parlour, she had folded her hands neatly in her lap, as if this meeting was some formal call.

In a way, perhaps it was, a little bit. They were neither of them children anymore. Nearly two decades separated the last time they shared tea on a summer morning, and a frazzled exchange on the side streets of Diagon Alley hardly counted as a proper reunion, with all the baggage they were now dragging about in their wake. Regulus had written notes for himself on what to discuss, focuses to prioritise, but his throat felt dry and sticky, trapping those thoughts before they made it to his mouth.

Silence was broken by the crack of Kreacher apparating into the room with a pot of tea, and when Kreacher’s eyes settled on today’s house guest, Regulus thought the sheer relief on the elf’s face might startle the pot from his hands. In this end, an impressive grip was maintained, even as Kreacher dipped into a respectful greeting.

“Old Kreacher is honoured to welcome Miss Cissy back into this house.” For a moment, he looked as though he might continue, but following a flicking glance from Regulus, whatever commentary Kreacher had been preparing to share seem to fall away.

“Oh, your elf is still alive?” Narcissa said with an air of surprise, though it was evident she was a bit pleased by the greeting. As she straightened her back, a degree of tension in the air dissipated for the moment. “Rather old indeed, I imagine, but he seems to be managing. Good elves are so hard to come by. You are exceptionally lucky.”

“I am,” Regulus agreed, meeting Kreacher’s eyes again in a meaningful glance as he held out his tea cup for a top off. Anxiety thumped lightly against Regulus’s chest, but Kreacher had spoken no word of the unconventional company that preceded her, and Kreacher’s exposure had triggered no suspicion in Narcissa - rather, her comment seemed a more benign commentary than it did a calculated observation. Of course it would be. The Dark Lord might have given the diary horcrux to Lucius for protection, but it was unlikely Narcissa was involved, even if Lucius did know what he’d been given.

Kreacher conjured a second cup of tea, which Narcissa accepted with a sigh. “Our newest is absolutely dreadful, Regulus, and I cannot make such observations to the others lest someone agrees with me. I’m sure they’ve noticed.”

“Thank you, Kreacher,” Regulus said first before looking back to Narcissa, unable to stop himself from thinking that the familiarity in her tone was an unexpected comfort, even if it was a complaint. “What of Dobby? Is he no longer with you?” he asked, though he thought he had heard something of the sort in past months. The circumstances were unclear, nonetheless.

“I don’t want to talk about that wretched elf right now,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Frankly, I am more interested in talking about you and your presence here. I hope it is not too forward of me to say so, but I did not expect it, considering…”

‘The debacle at the Ministry’ seemed to be the unspoken consideration, but her gaze was fixed on him with the sort of keen, searching expression one might wear when combatting a puzzle. He lifted his chin, slightly. “This is my summer home, as you surely recall.”

“I did not intend to suggest it wasn’t,” Narcissa began carefully. “I was simply wondering if perhaps you had… reconsidered.”

“Reconsidered what?” he asked, gaze shifting back to her face as he took a sip of his tea.

“Coming home.”

The answer was direct as she fixed her eyes on him, as fond as they were uncertain and a familiar mirror of his own. In his head, Regulus could feel some part of him, young and small, thrashing against the tangled mess of every concern - both logical and anxious - that told him returning to the Home she was suggesting would be a terrible idea. Those acknowledgements were prominent, repeated like a mantra for a year now, but he could not help the part of him that was desperately happy to hear her ask it again.

“My intentions have not changed since last we spoke,” Regulus responded, mustering every shred of will that he had. “Neither has my desire to be part of this family. I don’t believe the two must be mutually exclusive.”

“Regulus.” Her expression tightened a little, though she held his gaze. “You know how this works.”

“I know how this worked,” he subtly adjusted, “but I’m not willing to accept that.”

“What makes you think it matters if you’re willing to accept it or not?” A tight frown was pulling down the corners of Narcissa’s mouth, her expression subtly creasing. “You cannot just disappear for seventeen years and expect the rules to bend around you. Where have you been?”

“Away from the people who would have killed me, which is why I survived seventeen years instead of being dead at seventeen,” he answered firmly, and though she winced, he added, “The Dark Lord cares nothing for us or our family. If Lucius is deemed to be unworthy of the effort, the Dark Lord will not hesitate to toss him aside. If he messes up, if sacrificing him is considered beneficial to the Dark Lord’s personal interests, you must realise that your family - our family - is dispensable.”

“What proof do you have?” she asked, chin jutting stubbornly, but there was uncertainty in her eyes as she added, “Lucius is important.”

“To you, yes, he is,” Regulus said with a frown. “I'm not trying to upset you, but I want you to understand. I worry for you and Draco, both.”

“You should be more worried for yourself,” she said, though her tone was more distressed than it was threatening. “Our Lord would not discard us for no reason.”

“You don't look like you entirely believe that,” Regulus said, setting his cup down for a moment as Narcissa’s expression pinched. “But I’m not here to coerce you; rather, I want to...explain my point of view, I suppose. I am making an effort to state things as I see them.”

“An explanation would be wonderful. Do explain why you’ve come home if you don’t intend to come home,” she said earnestly, her own teacup held delicately with two hands. “Why now? You must realise how unsafe it is to be here if you insist on associating with traitors. You ought to know better.”

Expression drawing to a frown, Regulus let the words hang for an uncomfortable moment as he filled the silence with a sip of tea. (‘Ought to know better’ - why did that phrase get slung, no matter which side he fell on?)

“I’m not doing it out of some delusion of safety, no,” he began, shaking his head and setting down his tea again. “Coming home to everyone is what I’ve wanted since I left, but it is not as if anyone here is interested in interacting with me, present company excluded. I was serious when I said I have no intention of re-joining the Death Eaters, but that isn’t intended as a rejection of you.”

Just outside the parlour, the rather prominent thump of a shutting door grabbed their attention, both glancing towards the entrance to the house. When they looked back to each other again, Regulus could see her expression had tightened further.

“Darling, whatever you have in your mind, you must realise it isn’t going to work. Bringing him here, mixing with this ilk - you are only going to make yourself a target. These things are mutually exclusive. You know how it works here, how it has always worked.” With a frown, she dipped her chin. “Society is always going withdraw from those who break away, and that is what you have been doing, in case you haven't realised it. You are acting… erratic.”

“I'm not erratic,” Regulus objected with some defensiveness in his tone.

“Perhaps you can't see it, but you are,” she said in response, framing the tone with finality. “Nothing you are doing is consistent with the Regulus Black I know, and the others undoubtedly feel the same.”

Stubbornly, he pursed his lips for a second, then responded, “Coming here is consistent.”

“It is, and that is something to be celebrated,” she granted a little more warmly. “You belong here with us, not with the riff raff.”

“Yet when I come here, everyone ignores me.”

“Because of the riff raff,” she pointed out with a sip, “and the erratic behaviour.”

“My behaviour is quite purposeful, actually.” Subtly, his expression darkened to something more serious. “I’ve already stated my concerns about the Dark Lord, both in respect to myself and in respect to you, and I struggle believe that you do not have even a shred of doubt.”

Discomfort seared the edges of Narcissa’s expression, but she did not drop her eyes. “Let us entertain for a moment the claim that Dark Lord would...discard us if we displeased him. Betrayal is guaranteeing that to be so, and I cannot put my son at risk-”

“He’s already at risk,” Regulus interrupted a little more sharply than he intended, and perhaps more sharply than Narcissa had expected, given the startle on her face. “He was at risk the moment Bella broke out of prison, arguably even before that. She’s recruited him, hasn’t she?” Narcissa’s face had already begun to shatter before he pushed the last words past his lips, barely managing to set her teacup aside before clasping a hand to her mouth to stifle what might have otherwise been a rather miserable sound. Steadying himself, Regulus continued, “That’s why you were so upset last time.”

“I didn’t know until he’d already done it,” she began with a tightness to her voice, half muffled by her hand, though it had clenched to a fist now. “I did not want that for him, not when there is so much danger. He’s just a child, and I cannot give the Dark Lord an excuse-”

“-The Dark Lord doesn’t need an excuse, Cissa,” Regulus interrupted again, a sad sort of weight pressing heavily in his tone. “He has enough already, if the mood strikes, and before you pin that on me, it’s not just about me, and you know it. That is what I am trying to tell you.”

“He will kill us if we leave now,” Narcissa said, digging her still-clenched fist into her thigh, as if to brace again the emotion trying to claw its way back onto her face.

“He will probably try,” Regulus said, supposing it sounded a little bit like bravado, but there was little else to grasp on but the willful confidence that he could make this work. “However, you might have noticed that I survived this process, and I was alone in it. You don’t have to be alone.” Her face contorted a little, but he spoke on with an earnest push. “I want to help you.”

“You aren’t helping.” Intently, she locked their eyes again. “Even with the Dark Lord aside, and all of the Death Eaters, there’s still Bella. I can’t leave her to this, and she’s…”

Trailing that thought to its end was unnerving and depressing. Regulus shook his head and continued with a frown. “Dangerous.” Narcissa’s echoed frown offered no immediate objection, but as she started to open her mouth, he spoke on: “Has she said anything else about me?”

“She still isn’t pleased,” Narcissa said, perhaps unnecessarily, though Regulus could not help the twinge of dread at his cousin’s confirmation.

“At the Ministry, she was going to kill Sirius,” Regulus said, his frown deepening as his eyes flicked down to the teacup he had picked up again. “Does she intend to do the same to me?”

“She told me no harm would come to you for now,” Narcissa answered, though Regulus wasn’t sure he liked the hint of uncertainty in her tone. “At least nothing permanent. I’m doing my best to keep this from exploding in your face, and you are making it very difficult. Whatever Sirius told you that you have to gain, it isn’t worth it - not for you, not for any of us.”

“Sirius isn’t making me say or do anything,” Regulus insisted, tearing his eyes from the tea and leaning forward.

“Of course not,” she said quite unconvincingly, mouth thinning as she clasped her hands on her knees. He watched his cousin’s eyes tighten at the corners, a subtle tell of annoyance, but she did not pause long before speaking again, voice more stilted. “How was your birthday?”

“It was all right,” Regulus responded, though it felt like a terrible understatement. “Uneventful.”

“I assume he was present.” Narcissa leveled a sideways look at where the front door would be, were there no walls closing them in, and her nose crinkled slightly as she took another sip.

Lifting his brow slightly, Regulus mirrored the sip, letting her question hang uncomfortably in the air between them, though he couldn’t decide if it was more or less damaging to confirm as much.

Narcissa made that determination for him when she stood, expression strained but softening somewhat. “He’s going to drag you down with him, Regulus. When you surround yourself with danger, danger has a way of catching up to you.”

An ironic warning, given her own situation. Though it seemed rude to counter the remark so bluntly, Regulus met that expression with steel of his own, rising with her from their chairs. “It does; yet I'm not the only one courting danger.”

Her expression flattened a little, but her eyes were no less genuine as she looked him over again with a subtle headshake. “I thought your birthdays were longsince over. I would rather this wasn’t the actual end to them, so please just...try to think this through.”

“I hope the same for you,” he said, eyeing her with a sad smile, and for a beat, he nearly left it at that.

This matter did not rely on thinking alone, as he well knew, and the look in Narcissa’s eyes suggested a similar conclusion. The past was heavy, weighed down further with the complications of the present, and no matter how they might have relied on the scripts of their youth, those scripts could no longer be relied upon. Her words were deeply familiar, yet her intentions felt as shrouded as ever, catching him in a strange limbo between the hope of acceptance and the threat of rejection. Childish though it was, some part of him just wanted to hear that it could be okay - however much he might fear that it couldn't.

Mustering the words, Regulus spoke again as she started to shift towards the door. “You came here today, but what will you do if I remain as I am?” he asked, staring at the golden locks twisted up on back of her head. “I can’t safely come back without accepting the Dark Lord too, and not an option.”

Silence stretched for a little too long. “Regulus…”

He did not much like the pangs of distress in her tone; whether they were better or worse than the harrowing silence, he could not decide, so he cut through both of them. “I know it feels unfair to ask. The guilt I carry for putting you through this is no small thing, but I would not be doing so if I was not serious about finding some other alternative. Bella… I don’t even know how to start talking about Bella.” (Bella, who sobbed at the Dark Lord’s feet; Bella, who would kill Sirius and Regulus and everyone around them in a heartbeat, if he was honest with himself.) “But I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, that I do not intend to give up on this family.”

“Stubborn, aren’t we?” she said with what sounded like the smallest hint of a smile in her tone, though she was still facing out into the hallway.

“We are, a bit.”

It was not until the front door had shut behind her, punctuated by the familiar crack of apparition, that Regulus realised she had not answered his question.

“Hold the lift!”

Emmeline spilled into the half-open doors of the Ministry lift, slamming against the side of the wall with an undignified 'oof'. She wasn't sure if she was more or less embarrassed to find the world's most uncoordinated Auror as her only company, but she was in a hurry. Getting caught up in anachronistic research was easily done, both because it was interesting and because it felt like doing one of those 'spot the difference' games they do for the sweepstakes in the paper. It gave such a pleasant feeling of accomplishment to find the patterns, but it was doubtful that Hestia would enjoy being left at the Leaky by herself.

“I think I'd die if I tried that in heels,” Tonks said. She smiled in a somewhat forcible manner, which made Emmeline want to give she and Remus both a good shaking. If they were so clearly - and so miserably - not pursuing something, they really ought to get it together and make a try of it.

“Running in heels is an acquired skill,” Emmeline declared, but took the compliment. “You look terrible.”

“Cheers,” Tonks deadpanned.

“I mean you don't look like yourself,” Emmeline said. “Not quite as colourful as usual, shall we say.”

Tonks made a face. “It's complicated.”

“So complicated that you're both making yourselves miserable,” Emmeline said. Tonks shot her a dirty look, so she shrugged and continued. “I don't claim to understand the difficulties involved with lycanthropy, but as I understand it, it's only contagious through bites, and the scarring is quite permanent. A good regime of bondage really could solve your problems.”

Tonks stared at her blankly for a moment, before something in her eyes sparked and she started laughing at her. At least it was a genuine seeming laugh, if a bit outside what Emmeline thought she'd do. Tonks was holding onto the side of the lift and wiping her eyes as Emmeline waited impatiently for the uproar to calm down.

“It's just good practical sense,” Emmeline tried again.

“He won't even think about going out with me,” Tonks wheezed, “and you're recommending practical shagging tips!”

“It's not as if he's never gone out with anyone,” Emmeline said, as a hint of defensiveness slipped into her tone. “I've met a few girls he's gone out with. Besides, none of them ever described him as a natural biter, so he's really overreacting if that's the only problem.”

That seemed to set Tonks off again while Emmeline rolled her eyes and waited.

“I suggest sitting down and making a list of potential problems, weigh them against both of you looking like wet blankets, and come up with some creative solutions,” Emmeline replied over Tonks's wheezing. “You're my friends, and I don't like to see you both miserable. Especially now.”

“Don't tell me,” Tonks said, rubbing her hand across of her face. “Tell him!”

“Why don't you suggest it?” Emmeline said.

“Because he half-runs every time I get him alone,” Tonks said, beginning to droop a little. Merlin alive, but she was so young in moments like this. The intermittent relationship drama during the last war had kept the gossipiest of the Order going through frightening all night waits.

“If you really want to talk to him, then invest in some good running shoes,” Emmeline advised as the lift doors opened. “I've got to go. I'm meeting Hestia for lunch.”

Emmeline bid Tonks goodbye in the lobby and walked at a hurried pace for the fifteen minutes or so to the Leaky Cauldron. It was looking depressingly sparse, but she gave a nodding acknowledgement to Tom, who pointed her in the direction of what looked like lime green robes reading the paper. She ordered with him before taking her place in the far corner, just in time for Hestia's head to pop over the broadsheet.

“You're very late,” Hestia chided.

“I lost track of time,” Emmeline said with a smirk.

Hestia returned it; it was always a fun commentary on her that she worked with time and had a tendency to lose track of it. Not as badly as Dedalus, but certainly enough. “How was your mini-break?”

“Quiet,” Emmeline said, truthfully. It had been a quiet, pleasant night spent looking at a curious owl, a sleepy village harbouring the pureblood elitists, and for the most part, good company. “How's the hospital?”

Hestia pinched her jaw. “Overloaded. Me, Ida Delaney, and Caro Abbott by ourselves in Spell Damage when the last attack came in. It took half the houses in the street right off of their place and scattered them. It was chaos. Not to mention the reporters sniffing around.”

“The Prophet had their chance,” Emmeline said, trying to keep the bitterness from her tone.

“The Prophet is worried about being taken over like the WWN.” Hestia barely suppressed a shiver. “They found that poor newscaster’s torso halfway across the station.”

“Barbaric,” Emmeline said stiffly. She had been trying to ignore the fact that she knew her own home had been a mess; if not from Regulus telling her, then from the state of the room afterwards. She supposed it was cowardly not to see it head on, but she didn't want that to be the memory she carried with her or to compound her own guilt.

“We were supposed to have another....gathering,” Hestia said, looking around conspicuously.

“I know,” Emmeline nodded. “We're all so spread out, but there's been so many attacks lately.”

As if she had queued it up herself, there was the sound of screaming and things breaking from the back. With haste, both women sprung to their feet and raced towards the entrance of Diagon only to be caught in the tide of people fleeing it. Frustratedly, Emmeline promptly grabbed Hestia's arm and apparated near where she had once lived in Knockturn and took off at a sprint.

The cause of the ruckus became immediately apparent. Florean Fortescue's ice cream parlour had overturned tables, glass all over the floor, and the door had been knocked off its hinges. Looking back at Hestia briefly, Emmeline grabbed her wand tightly and steeled herself for a fight that did not come. The place had simply emptied. There were smatterings of blood that made her adrenaline kick into her veins, but whatever it was, it had happened quickly, efficiently, and with a target in mind. Emmeline wanted to kick something over. She hated when they were truly competent – it made her feel damned useless.

“He's not upstairs,” Hestia said, brow furrowed as she appeared in the doorway again. “They've taken him, haven't they?”

Emmeline nodded curtly.

“Did that happen before?” Hestia asked.

Emmeline nodded again. People had gone missing all of the time, but there had also been signs of disappearance here and there. She thought with a shiver of the inferi, an army of the living flesh, and wondered with a sickening lurch if that was what had become of Caradoc and the others like him for whom they found no body. If it was the fate of poor Florean.

“Nothing we can do,” Emmeline said, looking about. “We ought not be standing here when the Aurors arrive, in case it's no one friendly.”

There wasn't a lot of time to spare once they got to the train station.

It had been a manic morning. Mr. Weasley had been called into work early, and despite repeatedly pointing out they were now NEWT students who didn't need to be escorted, Bill volunteered to take them before he went into work. Then it was a matter of getting things packed up, since Harry wasn't sure if he was coming back here or not. Mrs. Weasley seemed to think he was, but Harry hadn't spoken to Sirius about it yet. He hadn't seen him since he left to go up 'the beach,' barring a quick trip to Diagon Alley, which had been irritating enough for both of them that they didn't stay. If he thought being thought of as soft in the head last year was bad enough, the rumours of what happened at the Department of Mysteries (part of it, anyway) had meant he was not only getting the Boy Who Lived level of public staring, but also the talk of being ‘chosen,’ which had sparked it even worse. Adding Sirius into the mix hadn't helped either; it'd only been a few weeks since his name had cleared, and he hadn't said anything publicly. Hermione supposed it might mean people thought it was all a ploy, or they were just scared, but the mix of interactions had left them both feeling sour.

The beach, or Porth Iago, had turned out to be a small wizarding seaside village in the north of Wales. Hermione had delved into researching the place. She'd explained that it was a cultural hotspot for old magical families, with vacationing there going back half a millenium due to being both remote and difficult to get to for muggles. They weren't staying there directly, Harry knew. He'd heard Sirius saying as much to Mrs. Weasley. They were going to a neighbouring magical harbour about a couple of miles away, which was apparently much less exclusive and a popular holiday spot for younger children. Mrs. Weasley had said she'd gone up to the seaside and ridden the winged horses with her brothers when she was a little girl. She'd then warned them against getting sunburnt.

(Ron had told him later that he'd heard the story of one of her brothers managing to get the other to burn a swear word into his chest using the salve, and his grandma hadn't been too pleased. It sounded like something Fred and George would do.)

The closest thing Harry had ever been to going to the beach had been when they were trying to get away from his Hogwarts letters, so he wasn't sure what exactly they were going to do. Hermione must have had the same thought, because she had her head in books and guides for several days before they left. She wanted to try the diving (Harry'd had enough to that with the Triwizard), sailing (might be alright), and she was curious about the pleasure wheel (Harry hadn't asked about that one). Thankfully, Bill reassured them that there were interesting things to do as well, and that they had a lot of quidditch space up there, haunted houses, live music shows, and they sometimes had jousting matches you could go and watch.

After some wrangling with the Ministry guard, they finally got away and met up with Sirius on Platform 3¼. Until that moment, it had never occurred to Harry that there were other platforms at King's Cross for wizards.

They spotted Sirius easily enough; he was still uneasy about the crowds. Harry guessed if he'd been avoiding being human in crowds for a decade and a half, he might feel a bit uneasy too. He did look better, less pale or drawn. Harry had vaguely thought Sirius would like living by the sea, somewhere a bit wild and stretching out. He'd thought the same back when Sirius had first asked if he wanted to come and live with him. He still hadn't gotten used to the idea, and it felt like it'd be snatched away at any moment.

Sirius grinned when he noticed them. “Alright, Bill?”

“Yeah, just dropping off some trouble for you,” Bill said, with a wink.

“They do look like trouble,” Sirius agreed. He looked them over. “Nice hat.”

“Thank you,” Hermione beamed.

They clambered onto the train with just enough time to get their seats before Hermione launched into a million questions, each of which seemed destined to go unanswered. Sirius explained he didn't spend much time in Porth Colmon, having spent his summers in Iago, but that the train doesn't go up there.

“You get there magically or not at all,” Sirius said with a snort. “You can have a look about if you want, but not by yourself. Remus is coming down tomorrow, and Regulus and Emme – Emmeline Vance – are there at the minute, so you want to go about, you talk to us first.”

“There are supposed to be some historic sights,” Hermione said, her sense of danger conflicting with her desire to see all of it. “The castles, the gardens, the cliffs, the gallery-”

“We can figure something out,” Sirius promised.

They spent the rest of the train journey talking about the games of quidditch they'd been playing, the wedding preparations, the animosity in the house with Fleur, and the prospect of going back to school with Snape teaching Defense, as well as a new Potions master.

“He might come up here,” Sirius remarked, before barking a laugh at the horror that must have reflected in his face. “Slughorn, not Snape. He used to do the circuit.”

“He said he'd been hiding for months,” Harry said, thinking back to meeting him.

“It must be bad for Slughorn to give up his creature comforts,” Sirius mused.

When they reached the station, they stopped by the harbourside to get cones of fish and chips before taking a walk up the winding road along the coast for what seemed like ages. The house they came to looked like it was two houses that had been slapped together haphazardly at the middle, with a wooden panelled blue top and a stone, white bottom and a giant overhanging roof. The garden had obviously been let to run wild, but the place looked sturdy enough. The inside was like a mix of Mrs. Figg's old furniture, Umbridge's office, and old car boot sale with junk everywhere.

“Who lived here?” Hermione asked.

“Cass,” Sirius said, before elaborating. “Cassiopeia, my great aunt. She was a bit mental, but harmless as far as people I'm related to go.”

“She must've really liked cats,” Ron said, picking up what looked like a dusty cat toy.

“Yep,” Sirius said. “Took them everywhere.”

Definitely reminded Harry of Mrs. Figg.

They unpacked their things into the bedrooms, with Hermione on the second floor and he and Ron on the first. Sirius encouraged them to go explore when they were done, which they took to heart. About half a mile down the road, they came to another village, which looked peculiar. A lot of the houses were mismatched colours, there were gardens and hedges shaped into a variety of animals, a horde of palm trees, and a gigantic chess set that made him instantly think of the set they'd encountered their very first year. He hadn't thought five years later, they'd still be fighting Voldemort.

Still, Ron seemed to be enjoying himself, and Harry couldn't help but get caught up in his enthusiasm.

They spent the rest of the day exploring. They went to the unicorn preservation society at Hermione's request, then down to the maritime boats where they had battle reenactments. They were too late to see one today, but promised themselves they'd come back to see it the next day.

It was starting to get dark by the time they were coming back. Harry had lost track of the time, but it was the first time in ages that he felt he wasn't being watched from behind him or from something in his head, and it felt good enough that he hadn't wanted it to end. He'd thought Sirius might make a comment on it, but he didn't; they just talked about what they did and about the reenactments. He seemed happy enough for them to go.

“I'd go early,” Sirius recommended. “Remus'll be here in the afternoon, so we should take the chance to go up to the main house and look at the castle while he’s around.”

“Where was he?” Harry asked.

“Order business,” Sirius said, with a tone of finality. Another frustrating dead end. “You should get some sleep. You have people to offend tomorrow simply by existing.”

The morning brought a smattering of rain, but it cleared up as they headed along the main path. Harry could get used to the anonymity of it, to warm days spent in grasslands, on beaches, and being able to walk to the next villages without apparition. Hermione had already said that she and Ron were going to go out for their licenses this year, as they'd be seventeen when the next tests were administered. As fond as he was of flying, Harry couldn't wait to be able to do it as well. It seemed like the kind of thing that came in handy when people kept trying to kill you.

The reenactment was busy: a lot of noise and people enjoying trying taking the helm of the ship or following around the 'treasure map' along the main coast. They were trying to find the pub (which had once been a pirate hangout) when Harry spotted a familiar wisp of blonde hair. He smacked Ron's arm and headed on in the same direction, but within five minutes, Harry had lost him in the crowd.

Hermione appeared in front of them. "What were you looking for?"

"Malfoy," Harry said, going up on his tiptoes to try and see better. "I thought I saw him."

"So?" Ron shrugged. "A lot of people come up here for the holidays."

Harry hadn't been sure if he wanted to tell his friends about his suspicions. He didn't want to get brushed off, or told he was imagining things, and he couldn't be sure that they wouldn't. He didn't want to keep it a secret either. If they did believe him, then they could go and find out what Malfoy was up to.

"He's joined the Death Eaters," Harry said, shoving his hands in his pockets.

"How do you know?" Hermione asked, brow furrowing.

"I saw him showing someone - Nott, maybe - his arm," Harry said. "What else could it be?"

"Maybe he's just got a weird mole," Ron suggested.

Harry shook his head. "It was something he was proud of."

"He might be proud of his weird mole," Ron replied.

"Did you tell Dumbledore?" Hermione pressed, skating over Ron's comments.

"I told Sirius," Harry said, "He said he'd pass it along, but nothing's come from it yet."

"That you know of," Hermione reminded him.

Harry shook his head, more from the frustration than disagreeing with her. He was sick of secrets. They just caused everyone problems. Besides, if they were letting Fred and George join the Order, they were at least as mature as those two and had all faced down Voldemort and his followers on more than one occasion.

"I'm going after him," Harry decided, beginning to hike up.

"We told Sirius we'd wait for Lupin and go up together," Hermione said.

"I want to know what's going on," Harry insisted. If someone got hurt because he let Malfoy just walk on by himself, or if they could have gotten some information that would help them in the long run and didn't, then that would be on their shoulders. "So I'm going. You don't have to come with me."

“Of course we’re going,” Ron said, who looked at Hermione.

Hermione looked torn. “We can’t get caught up here.”

Harry nodded. “We won’t. We’ll be careful.”

Regulus was browsing the shops in Iago - hoping with silent fervor (and little luck) that he would be struck with inspiration for a reciprocatory birthday present to give to Harry - when he caught sight of Draco approaching from the grasslands. Alone, conveniently enough, considering the potential for unbearable interactions, were they to speak with Narcissa present. Since learning of the boy’s existence, Regulus had entertained a number of circumstances in which he might meet his cousin’s son. None of them had involved a girls’ lavatory, fake identity, or Harry Potter, and Bella’s presence in Draco’s life made the reality of it even worse, but it was too late to undo what had already been done. If Draco was a Death Eater, time to wait around for problems to solve themselves was no longer an available luxury.

To himself, Regulus dryly acknowledged that asking anyone (be it Sirius or the other kids) for gift advice was embarrassing enough, but there was quite possibly no worse person than Draco. However limited his direct exposure might be, it was clear that they did not get along and may prove an even greater barrier than Narcissa and Sirius were.

As if summoned by thought along, Regulus spotted a familiar array of conspicuous hair - messy black, carrot red, and bushy brown - slipping through the crowd just as Draco disappeared into a bookshop. The three teenagers did not appear to have noticed Regulus himself yet, fixed as their attentions were on shop front, and though he might have expected that from Hermione, he doubted the other two were concerned about the books themselves. Harry had snuck off from Regulus himself, not so long ago, and there was a very apparent lack of supervision that he doubted Sirius had approved. (A jarring thing to think, considering his brother’s own rebellious tendencies.)

They were lingering outside of Draco’s destination with faces pressed to the glass when Regulus stepped up behind them, folding his hands neatly.

“Good morning,” he began, his tone as pleasant as it was aware. “It appears you've lost your Iago escort.”

There was a collective jolt throughout the trio of teenagers, who stepped back from the shop window with a mixture of contrition and stubbornness. They stole a glance at each other rather than answering, with Ron giving a shrug.

"We got side-tracked," Harry admitted.

“I can see that. You know, it's much easier to browse for books when you can actually read the titles and contents,” Regulus responded, lifting an eyebrow pointedly. “And it is much easier to spy on people when you have not carried out the same plan previously.”

"It wasn't a plan," Harry replied, a hint of defensiveness coming into his tone.

“The same non-plan, then,” Regulus granted, glancing between the three. “This is the Iago area up here, and although I do not have a problem with your presence and exploration, the fact that Sirius, of all people, has passed restrictions on an area really should be telling.”

"We're fine," Harry protested, though there was very little heat behind the words. Perhaps he was taking into account they'd gotten caught.

"And we were just going back," Hermione said. She locked eyes with Harry and lifted her eyebrows. "Aren't we?"

“Shall I apparate you back?” Regulus asked, glancing between them as he recalled the last spying attempt on his watch.

"We can manage," Hermione said, finally taking her eyes off of Harry when his shoulders slumped. "We're supposed to be meeting Lupin anyway, and we shouldn't be late."

For a moment, it looked like Harry might argue again, but he seemed to decide it wasn't worth the argument.

Coming from Hermione, the reassurance sounded a little more reliable, so Regulus granted a nod, lingering outside the shop for a moment longer as he watched them scurry back in the direction they had come. As far as Regulus could guess, that meeting with Lupin might have been a chaperoning trip up here in the first place, though he doubted Lupin would be particularly keen on spying, at least as far as safe activities went.

When the three teenagers were out of sight, Regulus slipped into the bookshop, and for a moment, simply appreciated the familiar rush of nostalgia. Though he never hesitated to pack half the shelves at home to drag up to the Welsh coast, he had spent a great deal of time in this particular shop. Whether Draco was a reader himself, or whether he was in search of a certain text in particular, Regulus could not say for sure; it still stung, no knowing much of anything about him, but he supposed the only way to get around that was to start finding ways to learn.

Striking up conversation felt awkward, considering their previous (rather humiliating) interaction, but he determined with little delay that it would be more prudent to probe for Draco's reaction before saying anything at all. Unlikely though it was, perhaps the interaction hadn't been meaningful enough to remember.

Draco did not seem as though he planned to immediately leave, so the rush to push forward faded into a more relaxed pause at one of the bookshelves focusing on advanced conjuring spells, plucking one to start flipping through.

Looking up from the book in hand - Advanced Alchemy - Draco seemed to notice him, before giving a slight shake of his head and looking back at the book. After a beat, then another, he finally piped up. "You're not even trying to be subtle," he said, eyes flicking up to him.

Biting back a comment about polite greetings, Regulus glanced over with a lifted brow. Narcissa's son had a bit of an attitude, he'd noticed, though it was difficult to say if it was a permanent state or if Regulus was currently in the designated attitude category.

“I'm allowed to browse,” Regulus responded pointedly. “I've been a patron of this shop since before your parents were even married.”

"It would be pleasant to be left to one's own devices, but it doesn't appear to be happening," Draco said, before giving the window a pointed look, then glanced back at Regulus. "Or did they finally give up and leave?"

“They've left,” Regulus confirmed with a little flicker at the corner of his mouth, shaking his head. “Window-shopping is a less convincing espionage tactic when you're doing so at a bookshop.”

“What espionage?” Draco scoffed, shutting the book around his fingers. “They couldn't have been more obviously following me about if they'd slipped screaming off the cliffs walking up here and died.”

“Espionage is not everyone's calling,” Regulus granted with a nod. Presumably, Harry did not realise Draco was aware of his spying attempts, though such a confirmation was not particularly surprising. Harry and his friends stood out in a crowd - especially this crowd. “Although I am sincere in my fondness for this shop, I will admit that I was, in part, motivated to clear the rather strange circumstances of our previous meeting. I was not particularly honest, though I expect you were keen enough to deduct as much.”

"Hiding in the girls bathroom with Potter," Draco deadpanned. "Those circumstances?"

“His presence was circumstantial,” Regulus began, which was true in a sense, as Harry would not have been present if he hadn't been required for the chamber. The subject was a risky one - Draco could easily report the details of his skulking - but the worst that could happen was already an inevitability. Arguably, it was better to spin some direction than to let the possibilities flail freely, though it was a poor and not entirely convincing comfort.

Steeling himself, Regulus continued. “As was the unfortunate location. Lavatories of any nature were not my intended destination, I can assure you of that. I was searching for a particular passage but was, in the end, unsuccessful. I have been away for some time, but stories of Slytherin's monster struck me as intriguing, being a Slytherin alumnus myself, and although I am not actually a reporter, my curiosity clearly gets away from me sometimes. Waiting until the term was over and reconnecting with Snape at that time would have been more prudent, but I must admit I was a bit curious about your High Inquisitor, too. Exceptionally poor planning, but at least some interest was sated.”

Draco looked at him with a measure of disbelief, but perhaps also a spark of amusement. "Those circumstances were breaking into Hogwarts and going to the lavatory to go looking for something from three years ago were because you were curious about it," Draco summed up.

“Essentially, yes,” Regulus responded directly, turning up the corner of his mouth. “I have since decided it is not worth the effort involved, but it was interesting enough, as far as diversions go.”

"If you find skulking around bathrooms with people who are soft in the head interesting," Draco muttered to himself before placing the book back on the shelf.

“Life has been very dull, lately.” Eyes flicking down to the book Draco had replaced, Regulus shifted the subject, feeling that the Hogwarts fiasco was slightly more contained. Even if Draco tattled on him, it was a story he could at least vaguely defend for long enough to deflect, which was all he could hope for, at this point. “You're interested in alchemy?”

Draco hesitated for a moment, before nodding. "There's not enough sign ups for it to be taken as elective this year."

A small, sobered smile flickered on Regulus's face as he thought of his grandfather - not the one he directly shared with Narcissa, yet it was strangely comforting, all the same, to see a flicker of it in Draco.

“An interesting subject, certainly, though it was not available for pursuit when I was at school, either,” Regulus began, and after a beat, continued carefully, “However much I might enjoy reading, I primarily heard about it from my grandfather when he saw fit to expand upon his own experiences. Reticent though he was, it was always fascinating. Come to think of it, you might have known him, considering he was family to you too, albeit more distantly. Arcturus Black?”

For a moment, Draco stared at him with an interested expression which slowly turned more neutral. "There aren't any Blacks left," he said with confidence.

“I understand how that misconception came about, but it is nonetheless a misconception,” Regulus responded, nerves twisting up and bundling, but he could not quite pull apart the anticipation from the anxiety. The lack of reaction suggested that Bellatrix had not said anything to Draco yet, at least, which was a small blessing... “Your mother and I are cousins, and I'm very fond of her, but I was assumed dead, making for a rather awkward situation to clear up. Do pardon my reservation on the matter.”

“My mother would never be seen with someone who socialises with traitors and filth!” Draco responded hotly. His tone lowered considerably, as if he did yesterday to be overheard.

“You ought to seek context before making assumptions. I relate to that sentiment more deeply than you are likely to realise, given the unfortunate circumstances of our meetings, but I am not some slumming traitor to be dismissed, whatever the current climate,” Regulus said, his tone firm and even as he held a more direct gaze. “I once took such hard lines for the unshakable truth, but the world is a complicated place.”

"It's not complicated," Draco said, a loftiness returning to his tone. "Either you associate with them, or you associate with us. You can't do both. I keep seeing you with them; I've never seen you associate with any of us."

“I'm associating with you right now,” Regulus said pointedly. “Just because you see something in passing does not mean that your understanding of the situation is complete.”

"You're being condescending with me right now," Draco said, with his chin lifting a little. "My understanding is that they're the reason my father isn't here right now, and anyone who thinks they've got the right idea is no friend of my mother. She's not a traitor, and neither am I."

“I do not delight in your father's imprisonment,” Regulus countered firmly, though he wasn't entirely sure if that was as true a statement as it had been some months ago; regardless, whatever fate Lucius did or didn't deserve, Regulus knew he didn't like the determination he saw in Draco's eyes.

With a subtle shift, Regulus scanned the immediate area for other shoppers, but all he could see was a bored-looking cashier reading a book on the other side of the shop, so he continued in low tones. “The friends I grew up with are dead or in prison with him, with the exception of Severus, and I don't like that either. People I care about are suffering, and however it might look at a glance, I stand by my attempts to remediate that. At your age, I pursued a more conventional solution, but I'm afraid it only made things worse,” he said, gaze flicking down to Draco's arm, then up to his eyes again with a stubborn set to his face. “I don't expect that to mean anything to you because it would not have meant anything to me, but that is the truth of it.”

Draco followed his eyeline to his arm, and pulled it close to his body with a look of tense frustration. He also seemed to glance at the shop worker, before setting his jaw. "Then you didn't try hard enough," he declared. "I won't be making any such mistakes."

“Presumptuous of you to assume,” Regulus said dryly, shaking his head and trying to calm the prickle of annoyance. “I merely want to communicate that I understand what it is like to have the weight of family and expectations on your shoulders. Perhaps it does not feel like much of a burden now, and this iteration of the war is bound to differ, but sometimes the idea is more grandiose than the reality. Do with that as you will.”

“For someone who keeps telling me I'm making assumptions, you're making plenty of them.” Draco retorted coolly.

“I'm stating experiences,” Regulus corrected firmly. “If they sound like assumptions, it is merely because we have faced similar circumstances and made similar choices.”

"You're stating vague commentary about my life, choices, and family. You approach me on my summer holiday, around Potter and his ilk, then go around implying my mother is being disloyal while claiming to care about her, implying you know things about me and I've only seen you twice, once of which was coming out of a bathroom you found curious and interesting," Draco said. "I don't think you know what you're stating. I'd go get myself an appointment with a mediwizard if I were you."

“I know exactly what I am stating. It's vague because we're in public, and there are some things that are better not to state or show off when the environment is not private,” Regulus said with a hint of annoyance before his expression smoothed again, resisting the urge to glance at Draco's arm again. “You misunderstand the context, but there is evidently no point to arguing it further right now. You spoke first, and no one is forcing you to continue doing so, should you wish to stop.”

"I was done here anyway," Draco replied, and with it, pushed straight past Regulus with little courtesy or regard.

Mouth thinning in a flash of irritation, Regulus thought privately that the boy’s manners were surprisingly atrocious, but he said nothing, instead stubbornly sticking his nose in the book he had plucked off the shelf. He waited several minutes, ensuring Draco had sufficient time to depart before returning his own book and stepping out to apparate back to Aunt Cass’s house by the harbour. Boats peppered the coast, and throngs of people were still wandering about the surrounding activities, clearly enjoying much less annoying holiday conversation.

Sirius was stretched out on a chair in the back when Regulus dropped into another, just adjacent, and summoned a book through the open window without a word.

"Hello to you too."

Regulus glanced over at Sirius as the book flew into his hand. “Hello,” he said, shifting in his seat.

Sirius opened one eye to look at him with the barest hint of a grin, "Is that what it sounds like when I do that?"

Crinkling his nose a little, Regulus supposed it was not his most polite entrance. “Similar, yes,” he admitted with a little huff. “I apologise for my poor manners. Perhaps they are contagious.”

Sirius snapped his fingers. "You've lost me there, I don't make apologies." Pushing himself up on his elbows, he did a visual scan of his brother. "What's pushed you to the point of ill manners?"

“Conversation with Draco could have gone better,” Regulus said, his expression still drawn a little as he opened his book.

That piqued Sirius's interest. "How much better?"

“He is willfully ignoring my sound advice and is convinced his mother will refuse to talk to me, even though she and I just had a perfectly lovely conversation,” Regulus said into the book with a mild twinge of annoyance.

"You foisted advice on him right after meeting him?" Sirius gave a chuckle. "No wonder it went badly. Did you forget what house you were in? Have you retroactively joined Ravenclaw? Or has all this time with blunt Gryffindors begun to rub off on you?"

Regulus leveled his irritation at Sirius briefly before looking down at the book again. “It wasn't direct advice, per se,” he said a little defensively.

"But you launched right into what you thought instead of just talking to him and getting a feel for what to say first?" Sirius swung his legs over the side of the seat, turning to face his brother. "I'd expect that shit from me, but you? I know you're excited about meeting Narcissa's brat, but were you in that much of a rush? It's not as if he can join the Death Eaters twice."

“He started the conversation with an attitude. I wasn’t going to concede to insults,” Regulus said, lifting his chin a little as he leaned back in his chair.

Sirius gave a bark of laughter. "He's sixteen, Slytherin, and a spoiled brat. Of course he gave you lip!"

Slanting his mouth, Regulus made a little hmph sound. “I was merely trying to relate, with perfect civility, might I add. It was unnecessary. I was a more polite teenager than that.”

"Most people are tossers when they're teenagers, Regulus. Some people even grow out of it." Sirius huffed at him, with a grin. "Even you had your moments. You thought someone might insult you, or was beneath your attention, you were snotty with them first, probably so you could justify it as just reacting when they got shirty with you right back. "

The justification was more annoying than it might normally be. On some level, Regulus recognised that he could easily make that same argument if it had been someone else expressing annoyance with Narcissa's son, but it did little as a balm for the sting when all he wanted to do was shuffle the kid out of a disaster waiting to happen.

With a heavy sigh, Regulus stared hard at the page open in front of him.

Sirius moved, and pushed the ball of his foot against Regulus' knee lightly. "How bad was Narcissa?"

“Narcissa was arguably pleasant, actually,” Regulus responded with more finality, those little flickers of tension seeming negligible at the moment. Strained though it had been, it felt downright comforting by comparison.

"Then stop worrying about it," Sirius said, pushing himself back onto his chair. "You don't have any pull, so you'll just have to wait on her using some of hers before you try that again. Try to not to take it personally; he was enough of a brat to Buckbeak that he nipped him, and thought it would be exceptionally funny to go chasing down Harry dressed as a dementor when he realised they scare him. Needs a good kick if you ask me, but manners are the least of his problems."

"Yes, I'll just stop worrying," Regulus drawled in a tone that suggested he was unlikely to stop worrying, though some of the tightness loosened in his face. Once again, he sighed; Narcissa had been more noncommittal than he would have preferred, but she had come, had warmed, had not shut him down, and she remained still a hope to grasp at. "At least Cissa hasn't withdrawn."

Sirius sighed. “You thought she would?”

“I hoped she wouldn’t.” Though he stilled his tongue before saying as much, Regulus could not help but worry that he was overestimating her degree of caring - that society, Bella, her son and husband - would be too much. Her willingness to speak to him had steeled him when Draco said she would never, but the past was no guarantee of the future. Regulus knew he was supposed to be the one who was unshakably confident in their family’s ability to pull through, and even Sirius was trying to be reassuring, but the sting of the day still lingered sharp.

What would she do if Regulus kept pushing? What would she do if her son wouldn’t follow?

“I know I'm just repeating myself at this point,” Regulus added with a shrug, still looking at the page.

“There's something to be said for consistency,” Sirius remarked. “But there is a chance - maybe just in the short term - that you could lose them. You gonna be able to handle that one?”

“How I feel about it doesn't have much bearing on whether it will happen or not. I must deal with it regardless,” Regulus responded dryly.

"If it helps, I don't truly believe it'll be a permanent state." Sirius sighed heavily. "Sooner or later, the truth always comes out. Whether that's Voldemort throwing them to the wolves, maybe literally since Greyback is kicking about, or if it's Bellatrix showing she no longer gives a shit, it'll show eventually that it's all just one big scheme for power and nothing and no one else matters at all. If you told her the truth, then Narcissa's not that stupid; she'll see the signs, and what she chooses to do with them is up to her. I want to believe it's grabbing her kid by the scruff and pulling him out of the firing line, but let's face it, if Druella had done that with Bellatrix, half of the problems would be solved already. Someone's got to break the cycle, but it also has to be her choice - as it was yours."

Regulus nodded, breathing out some of the tension. Though Draco had been more stubbornly committed to the Cause than he'd hoped, Narcissa did not seem to want him involved anymore than Regulus did. It was not a lot - it was not a guarantee - she would never leave the boy behind - but if they could drag Draco out of this mess, it might still be possible.

“I hope she'll make it,” he said with a nod.

"For your sake, as do I." Sirius gave a sudden laugh. "Try to remember they can't kick you out of a family you're the head of, last remaining of the name of, holder of the ancestral house, and in charge of the bloody tapestry."

Regulus lifted his eyes, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “I will remember. I cannot make them stay, but at least they cannot forcibly eject me, which is something.”

"Technically, that would make them traitors," Sirius chuckled.

The smile rose from Regulus’s mouth to his eyes. “I can appreciate a technicality. Especially an ironic one,” he said with some amusement, despite the sting. “That certainly turns the familial context on its head.”

"What did I tell you in January?" Sirius said, as he sighed in a hopelessly dramatic fashion. "I can never just do something without Bellatrix deciding she wants to do it too, but louder and more dramatically. Nothing is sacred anymore."

Sniggering, Regulus shook his head. “Well, the chance of her copying your defense of blood equality remains low.”

"What's truly frightening is if Voldemort decided muggleborns were the best thing ever tomorrow, I don't know how true that would be." For a moment, it looked like Sirius wanted to laugh at that, but there was a seriousness to his tone. "She might know it's all about him, and not about some bullshit purity obsession. She might be too infatuated to care." He glanced back at Regulus. "I told her that once, years ago; that I never thought I'd see the day a Black called themselves someone's servant like it was a badge of honour. But she does, and if Narcissa's kid isn't that far gone, there's hope he'll wise up, yes?"

“There is,” Regulus granted with a nod. The accusation of servitude had been slung at Regulus, too, many years ago - an aggravating and upsetting blow - and the point had not been wrong, which had only made it worse at the time. Truthfully, he found it a little baffling to think that Bellatrix could hear a point like that and not care in the least - yet even then, she had been exceptionally fixated on the Dark Lord, and it seemed to have only grown worse. Unsettling though it was, his own mind, too, had been resistant for a time.

Those days were behind him now, however stubbornly the ramifications might stick to his feet like a shadow, and it was not a memory he wanted to stew in. Instead he tipped his head and brushed off the thoughtful distance from his expression. “Perspective is a strange thing.”

"For example, from most people's perspective, taking a werewolf, muggleborn, blood traitor, and Harry into the mess for an afternoon sounds insane, when in reality, Hermione wants to go look at the castle, and it will probably be so boring that I'll wish I brought books everywhere like you do," Sirius replied. "Death from monotony would be a terrible way to go at this point. Still, got to find out if your girlfriend's just a gossip or if something's actually going on with Remus."

“She isn't my girlfriend,” Regulus said, conspicuously walled off by his book and trying to ignore the way he could almost physically feel his attention sharpening inside his head. (He still had a time-loop to explore, and annoying though his brother’s prodding might be, it did spark a thought to ask how she felt about skipping work for a Day That Won’t Exist. He had intended to roam about by himself, but it felt a bit lonely, today.) “I do, however, have the right idea about bringing books everywhere, it’s true. I rarely find myself in mind-numbingly boring situations.”

Sirius snorted. "Keep telling yourself that."

Chapter Text

There was no noticeable indication of the time-loop when Regulus arrived at the designated location at (or rather, just before) the designated time, nor did he see Emmeline right away, despite her confirmation-by-fire-call the night before. He was a little unclear on how to initiate the loop beyond roaming around the spot and hoping he hit the correct spot. The horrible mess of thinking you triggered it when you didn’t was just starting to creep into his mind when he saw Emmeline slip from a stream of people and start walking towards him, effectively fending off the creeping anxiety and instead drawing up the corner of his mouth.

“Good morning,” Regulus greeted when she reached his side.

“Good morning,” Emmeline replied warmly. “Have you initiated yet?”

He shook his head. “I decided to wait until you arrived. We simply walk into the space, and it will trigger, correct?” With one hand, he gestured towards the area before them.

“That's the gist,” Emmeline confirmed, though with a flicker of wistfulness, she added, “I can't enter it with you until Friday, or I'll not be here when the shutdown supplies arrive. While a lost few days sounds nice, I suppose you'll have to make do with me resetting for a few days too.”

Disappointing news, he had to admit, though she had still come, so that was something. “No consequence-free neglecting of your responsibilities today, then?”

“You have an entire consequence free time, you can do whatever you like, and you choose to spend it with me?” Emmeline shook her head, barely hiding a smile. “Ask me once you’re in the loop. I might not remember it; I’m not sure if the memory will return when I enter on Friday or not, but either way, I’d be honoured to have a day of neglecting my responsibilities with you.”

Regulus considered pointing out that he enjoyed spending time with her when there were consequences, so naturally he would value doing so when there weren’t, but instead he nodded with a smile in his eyes and shifted to pass through the spot where the time-loop was supposedly active. No discernable change crept over him, no visual markers were in place, and once again, he felt a little unsettled about whether it had actually worked or not.

“There's not supposed to be a noticeable change, correct?” He glanced around him then back to Emmeline.

"No, we can tell everything is slightly out of sync, but it's so miniscule, it isn't noticeable without diagnostic spellwork," Emmeline replied. She reached over to pat what looked like a person's garden wall and tapped it. "It starts just beyond that, and once you're in it, you're out of sync with the rest of us. Did you expect to feel something?"

Regulus shrugged. “I suppose, though it is more a matter of not knowing what to expect, rather than expecting something specific. If people seek them out, I wondered if perhaps it was obvious once you were in it, though I suppose they must figure it out in hindsight when their day loops back, and it is the second time that is intentional.”

"People tell each other." Emmeline shrugged, clearly not thinking much about it. "I can show you the diagnostics if you like, but I suppose the easiest way would be to use a pocket watch. You should find yourself a partial second off, so the longer you're in it, the more off your watch will be. Assuming you have a watch, but you do seem the traditionalist sort that would have been given one."

“I do,” Regulus confirmed, patting at his pocket where his father’s pocket watch was nestled. Traditionalist, indeed. It had been given to him on his seventeenth birthday (as dictated by said wizarding tradition) and with him ever since, though the cave had been a nightmare he hadn’t expected to survive, much less a delicately attached accessory. His chest twinged sentimentally, but he brushed it off. “Seems reasonable.”

"I'm a terribly reasonable person," Emmeline said, though her attempt to stop smirking clearly meant that she didn't really think so. "Loops are a strange phenomenon. You would think, if you were reliving over several days, you would end up tired, as it'd be over twenty-four hours at one point; but generally, one's health is restored to the entry point. You can imagine how dangerous that knowledge would be, so we don't spread it around."

“That is fascinating,” Regulus said, shaking his head as he eyed the spot where the time-loop supposedly began. “And quite convenient for the one utilising it.”

"It's harder to break out of than in. The poor muggles have no idea they're stuck in the same time frame, but I suppose it's no harm done, really." Emmeline gave him a tap on the shoulder. "You'll be fine; I've done it a hundred times or more, and this is wizard made, not an anomaly. People know they shouldn't mess with time, but they still do, and this is a spectacular fluff up that's taken down a residential estate."

“They can do that?” Regulus lifted his brow. “How does it work?”

"They don't do it on purpose." Emmeline made an ambiguous hand gesture. "Or, I suppose, some might, but when people try to mess with time, it's usually either to turn it back to prevent something, the desire to be in two places at once, or some stressed mother with four kids under five who doesn't have enough hours in the day. But time is difficult to control, and the consequences can be unpleasant to say the least. There's always a price, which can be a little loop in the neighbourhood you were attempting to go to, aging several centuries in hours and dropping dead, or in one case, a Tuesday that lasted thirty-six hours. You can't control the consequences; magic is not cast in a vacuum."

“Hm.” Regulus eyed the trigger point thoughtfully and shook his head. “Well, hopefully the residential estate was not too terrible a loss. I cannot help but look forward to the curiosities of exploring the loop, nonetheless.”

"It's not a dangerous one. It's just a bit...stuck. You're perfectly safe, so I do expect you to have fun." Emmeline gestured ahead as well. "It's an adventure."

“It is,” he said, a light smile returning to his face. “I have been wondering at how to spend that adventure, and though I know your department has been crawling with Aurors in weeks past, I cannot help but wonder if a consequence-free day would be an appropriate time to sneak about in a place I am not strictly permitted to be sneaking. What do you think? Would you be at risk of any lasting trouble?”

Emmeline laughed. "You always make it sound as if I own the department. Do you do the same thing with all Ministry employees?"

“Well, I’m admittedly less concerned about how your boss feels about it, which is probably a contributing factor,” he responded with a tilt to his mouth.

"I'm not entirely sure I have a boss," Emmeline said, her tone dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "I do submit paperwork, and it's gone when I look, but I could be working for a mutant Norwegian Ridgeback for all I know. However, if you have an interest in draconology, we can certainly take a look. The Aurors, the ones still with us, have vacated."

A smile flickered on his mouth. “I might be concerned about the opinions of a mutant Norwegian Ridgeback, but it is hard to say. I am interested, nonetheless.”

Emmeline appeared to consider it for a moment. "No brains."

“I can agree to that. Curious as they might be, they certainly gave Ron Weasley a hard time, and I would prefer not to experience it firsthand,” Regulus agreed with a nod. The peek through a door had not truly felt like enough, but he imagined there would be other equally interesting rooms to investigate…

"Mind magic is not something I feel so proficient in that I could intervene if things went squirrely. I'm not willing to risk your safety if I can't intervene myself." Emmeline looked over him, then looked back at the street. "Locked doors are off-limits, and for good reasons. If I say stop, as much as I enjoy our debates, stop, then we can talk about it. Otherwise, we can look into others - Space, Time, perhaps Alchemy or Experimental if there's time and limbs left."

“I consider myself well suited to relevant mind magic, though I imagine that room is quite a different matter,” Regulus said with a wry shake of his head, and not for the first time, he wished the Department of Mysteries was not so aptly named. There were endless fascinations that were out of reach by definition, though little breaches such as this were of some comfort, at least. “Even so, I concur that a exploration of Space, Time, Alchemy, and Experimental magic will be sufficiently enthralling.”

“Someone’s got a diverse knowledge. What mind magic are you thinking of?” Emmeline asked, curiously.

“Though it has been some time since I last had suitable means and circumstance to test it, I took well to Occlumency when I was initially exposed,” Regulus explained with a slight tip of his head. The Imperius Curse, too, was a spell of will and mind, but even with the possibility she wouldn't remember, it didn't seem appropriate to bring up. Instead, he continued, “I like to have a broad range of experience.”

"Impressive," Emmeline admitted. "What other subjects catch your attention?"

“I enjoyed Runes, Charms, and Transfiguration the most, as well as their relationship to various objects and artifacts,” Regulus responded simply. “Beyond that, I had some interest in the idea of Alchemy, especially in light of my grandfather's involvement with it, but I did not pursue it with much intention. However, Narcissa's son is apparently intrigued by it, which I found interesting.”

Following a brief glance back at the loop’s initiation spot - he did hope it worked - Regulus turned back to Emmeline again. “Though perhaps we can discuss further as we make our way to the Ministry? I have little concept for the best approach. Perhaps disillusionment might be sufficient, or perhaps Harry would lend his cloak, but I suppose you would have a better grasp of it.”

There was no other term for it. Emmeline cackled to herself. "Do you really think if you walk in with me, anyone is going to bat an eye? The only reason we ran into trouble before was the attempted removal of a prophecy and a bloody great snake."

“It's not an unreasonable assumption,” Regulus defended pointedly. “Your department is kept very shrouded. I would be more paranoid about breaches, were I overseeing it; but if you insist, I suppose I will just benefit from their lax approach.”

"That's cute," Emmeline smiled, before putting her hand out to be taken. "I don't mind that you thought that; it's better everyone thinks that. But I also think it's rather telling no one thought a group of teenagers running about was cause for alarm."

“Precisely. I would expect that to be more concerning,” Regulus commented as he took her hand for the apparition process, experiencing that familiar tug for a only a moment before they appeared with a crack in front of what appeared to be the entrance to a public toilet. An unspoken question lifted his brow as he glanced over at her.

"You seemed preoccupied with being seen, so I thought the back entrance would be more appropriate." Emmeline reached for her wand again, but then stopped in her tracks. "Have you been inside the Ministry before? Other than the mad dash last month."

Regulus shook his head. “Only for the mad dash. I never had much reason to visit as a teenager.”

Emmeline smiled at that. "Then for basic layout, we'll come out at the very far end. It's more discreet than the middle of the atrium. We're on the next floor down, but there's no direct lift access to the floor below because it's the courts, so we get people passing through the entrance chamber to use the stairs all the time. We might see Dedalus - I think he has a case today - but we won't look out of place." She then gestured towards the toilets. "However, this way involves flushing in - which sadly is exactly what it sounds like."

Without bothering to hide his pinched expression, Regulus eyed the toilet with no small amount of displeasure. “I suppose an elaborate jest is too much to hope for.”

"Just step in and think of England," Emmeline said, giving his a shoulder pat before heading into one of the stalls.

“Revolting. Let it go on record that I think whoever dreamt up this entrance was a terrible person,” he complained as he stepped in to the stall beside hers, “with no concept of dignity or hygiene.”

When a flush sounded in response, Regulus scowled down at his own toilet bowl and wished that apparating straight into the Ministry was more safe and feasible. On a workday morning, it was bound to be teaming with employees roaming about the atrium, and there were no other places he could picture clearly enough to successfully pop over.

“A veritable monster,” he muttered to himself as he cast an Impervius spell, hoping it would repel some of the water. Just a beat later, he stepped in, wincing at the slosh, but a swift flush brought the dreadful experience to a close within seconds.

Following a thorough round of drying and cleaning spells (Impervius charm or not), Regulus stepped out to find Emmeline waiting. “The Ministry ought to consider a new entrance,” he commented.

Emmeline snorted. "Given the time period, you can thank either Lestrange, Milliphutt, or Orpington. I'm not sure which."

“I will not thank them.”

“Don’t be pedantic.” Emmeline gestured to the nearest lift, which was thankfully only housing stragglers rather than the teeming numbers that were descending in the middle of the lobby. "We can leave via the floo, and you won't have to do it again. Level nine?"

With a nod, Regulus stepped towards her to stride towards the lift, eyeing his surroundings as he walked, though this particular corridor was less dramatic than the atrium had been with its massive statue. Of course, the Dark Lord and Bellatrix had been more dramatic still, but it did not actually lessen the impact of the statue.

It was a short ride to level nine, and a more familiar one as they neared her department. The night of their break in had been chaotic - a rather different sort of chaos from the morning bustle - and he could feel his curiosity mounting as they drew nearer.

Emmeline moved close to him, and spoke quietly. "The entire walls are tiled black to be disorienting. You have to know the right sequences to get in the right doors, and then ask for the right area. Even those can be restricted. The love room is always locked."

Regulus nodded, taking in the dark, nondescript design more carefully than he had been able to the time before. “Lead the way.”

Emmeline stopped in front of one of the doors in the poorly lit hall. It looked no different from the other doors peppering the hallway, but she tapped it thrice and said, "Magical origins." The room seemed to heave for a moment, but then the door opened to another chamber. She then looked at Regulus with a swift smile. "Shortcut."

With a little smile, he followed her through.

The room was long and dark, lit by green flames about halfway up the towering walls. There were several tanks, each with what what looked like a variety of body parts of both magical creatures and (more worryingly) people. The room appeared silent and empty, cast in the eerie glow.

Emmeline did not seem phased at all, and beckoned him onwards. "I don't think biological magic is quite your area of interest, but this is the way through to the experimental sections."

“I see,” he said, staring down a free-floating eyeball for a passing second before turning his attention to the front again. “This department certainly does address a variety of topics.”

"We're hoarders, we keep everything." Emmeline pointed off to one of the preserved things on the far side of the room. "Back about the time purism really became vogue - it was practiced before, as your family tree will attest, but not considered the norm until around the seventeenth century - they wanted to look at what made something magical or not, and was it possible to transfer magic from one thing to another. If you're curious, it's not - when you're born, you're either magical or you're not."

Regulus could recognise a part of him that would have once felt very frustrated by that news, however inconsequential it might have become once he had he left home. That muggleborns stole magic from squibs had never been a point of debate, growing up, and he supposed it was not exactly a point of debate now, though for very different reasons. Muggleborns could clearly perform magic, but muggleborns in muggle families and squibs in pureblood families had never made much sense in isolation of an explanation. “Have they made progress in settling on what does cause it, or only what does not?”

"Not in the last four centuries." Emmeline tapped once again on the wall, until another set of doors appeared. "The prevalent theory is that it's genetic, which leaves us with two uncomfortable ideas: one, that it is simply a random set of genetics, and if both parents have the gene, it happens regardless of if the parents are magical themselves. More likely if they are magical, but in no way a guarantee." She raised another finger. "Or perhaps even more uncomfortable, that we were an magical species at one point and muggles are simply the result of genetically anomalous squibs having generations of children without magic and muggleborns are throwbacks to an ancestry long before their families living memory."

“Uncomfortable, indeed.” Neither option was a particularly palatable solution for those he would hope to sway, and Regulus truthfully could not decide for certain which one was more uncomfortable. He thought that perhaps the second one made more sense because at least then he did not have to think of his own magical status as some random collision of chance, but he was nonetheless relieved when they came to what he assumed to be the experimental room.

The experimental chambers were in a wide corridor, with some sections in bright light, and others, dark enough that you could see no one. They appeared to move a variety of things - glowing orbs, wands, sceptres. The witches and wizards running around it, absorbed in their work, had little regard for the two of them. Emmeline gave him a wry look.

"This is where most of the smaller questions are addressed," she whispered. "But they still don't know what a star being born looks like."

There was a crash that made the floor move, but once again, no one seemed to take notice of it, nor the bright flames off to one side. Emmeline took a wander up to one of the stations, which proclaimed it to be investigating the effect on taste of refilled food and drink. "I'm not sure what burning question everyone has this week."

Regulus stepped close, thinking it to be sufficiently interesting, despite how hectic it was. “I would guess there are more than one.”

Striding across the room, Emmeline pulled some parchment down and began to look over it. For a moment, she said nothing, then gestured for Regulus to come and join her. She gestured to the list, which looked as if it were written in gibberish.

"It looks like the major experiments today are dream manipulation, skill transference, and..." she gave a snort. "Whether crystalised memories have colours. I think someone just dropped one, memories are tricky. Is there one in particular you want to go have a nosy at?"

“Dream manipulation,” Regulus responded with interest piquing at the back of his mind. Although he was quite confident in his developing horcrux theory for the strange visions Harry had experienced in the past year, it rang a bit personal, too, if he was honest (though he would rather not be).

"That'll be over..." Emmeline trailed off, before pointing to a cluster of people who seemed to be popping bubbles. "There." Upon their closer inspection, there were images playing in the bubbles and they were emanating from an Unspeakable who appeared to be asleep. Another Unspeakable, seemingly oblivious to the extra presences, clashed two of the bubbles together, which caused them to ripple and attach. "It's a job for the socially awkward," Emmeline confided. "We get a bit absorbed."

A smile flickered on his mouth as he watched the Unspeakables prodding at the bubbled dreams, a subtle shimmer flickering in the spotty light of their corner. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said as another dream popped, and he had to resist the temptation to reach out and pop another himself.

"I don't want to hurry you, but the longer we linger, the more out of place we shall look." Emmeline gave him a reassuring smile, then began to walk over to the wall and reveal the doors again. "What about Alchemy? I know a couple of Spagyrics working on some new medicinal potions with elementally transformed plants. They've got some silly stuff they probably won't mind someone playing with."

Regulus nodded, and though his curiosity lingered, he knew that he could not. “Going from one interesting thing to another interesting thing is not the worst problem to have.”

"Welcome to my life," Emmeline said, before beckoning him forward. "You have a familial interest in the subject?"

Regulus was still looking around the room as he nodded, responding in low tones, “My paternal grandfather. He received an Order of Merlin for it, following the Global Wizarding War, when the Ministry required resources to get back on its feet.” Sparing a glance at her, he added wryly, “Sirius tried to throw it out last summer, but it yet remains.”

Emmeline ducked her head. "Is that reflective of your grandfather, or just almost a casualty of Sirius's war on familial objects?"

“I rather liked him, but from Sirius’s perspective, I suppose it was a mix of both,” Regulus admitted.

Emmeline stopped in her tracks, brow furrowed. Then she smiled, as is suddenly realising something. "He gave them a lot of gold," she said, with a laugh. "Of course he did, he was an alchemist, gold wouldn't be in short supply at all. That's quite funny, and I suppose true from a certain point of view. That was a little bit Slytherin archetypal, but I don’t think I ought to tell Sirius that - I don’t imagine you’d find the opposite complementary either."

A subtle amusement tugged at the corner of his mouth as Regulus met her eyes. “All of those things are true.”

"I do find it strange, if I think about it," Emmeline said, as the smell of metal and smoke filled the air from the Alchemy chamber. "Being judged on one's potentials long before the chance to live up to it, which does not take into account how much a person changes in those years, but also being judged on family seems rather common. Look at the Weasleys. Though you could also look at Fabian and Gideon; they were twins, but sorted differently. I don’t understand why one potential is chosen over another. I'd love to get a closer examination of that hat, though I think telling it so cemented my own sorting."

“A lot can change in seven years. It’s true,” Regulus agreed, his tone thoughtful. Being in Slytherin had been so important that he’d scarcely eaten or slept until the whole ordeal was over, though it felt a little embarrassing to admit as much. “It sounds as though you were an easy student to sort, and an accurate one.”

"Oh, I decided at the age of eight where I would go." Emmeline waved it off dismissively. "I had pro/con lists, navigated a focus group, made graphs, and researched the first hand accounts for a more qualitative view."

With a sniggering laugh, Regulus eyed her again. “Of course you did. I did much of the same, though my sources might have been a little bit biased. The correct answer was established prior to starting.”

"You considered another house?" Emmeline asked, skeptically. "You."

“I would not go as far as to say I considered another house,” he corrected, tipping up his chin in jesting haughtiness, “but that does not mean I did not research the projected experience thoroughly.”

"You didn't just ask around?" Emmeline inquired. "What is the use of siblings and cousins if not that?"

“They were the aforementioned first hand accounts,” he said with a quirk of his mouth, “hence why I said they were biased.”

"I see," Emmeline sniggered. Once safely in the room, it was much darker than the others. There were green and blue floating orbs and the occasional flame that stretching into the high, buckled ceilings. There were a few stations, but it was already quieter than the previous room. "I suppose I thought you meant your parents or grandparents."

“I received a great deal of information, both first hand and not, from many people in my family. Parents and grandparents were among them, as well,” Regulus said, eyeing another burst of flame, then turned his attention to Emmeline wryly. “We had a very large family with very strong opinions on the matter, if that is not obvious.”

"I have yet to meet anyone in your family who has anything but a strong opinion on everything," Emmeline remarked. She made her way over to one of the tables, where a variety of mutated plants were lying in disarray.

“We are none of us short on opinions and convictions,” he agreed with a little smile, shaking his head, though it was a short leap to a very depressing line of thought in that subject, so he instead turned his attention to the plants. “Any particular notes on this one?”

"A cure for everything," Emmeline said, before shrugging. "Flamel's elixir of life is, of course, now gone. As such, we muddle on trying to find alternate routes to optimum health. Immortality too, if that's your pleasure, but I've never liked the idea."

“I can think of some individuals in particular that ought not be made aware of this particular line of study,” he commented, sharing a significant look with her. “As for myself, curious though I might be about generations to come, I do not actually want that, either.”

"I can think of one who likely already knows. Thanks for nothing, Rookwood." Emmeline looked thunderous for a moment, but only a moment. She picked up one of the plants from some of the containers. "It does lead to discovering new things. I heard a rumour that Bertie Bott's started here, and kept finding flavours. Of course, that could be up there with evil assassins in the footnotes, so take it with a grain of salt. It takes a special sort of person to put one of these in their mouths just to see what'll happen. I think I'll stick to anachronism labelling."

“That does sound less risky,” Regulus agreed, and privately he thought that tampering with such a thing was perhaps one way to attempt the assassination of one particular seeker of immortality, though there was probably some ethical concerns in the likelihood that someone else would probably try it first. Shaking off the thought, he asked instead, “Will we be visiting your corner of the department today?”

“I thought we would go there last,” Emmeline replied. “Because it's the one place you can ask questions I can actually answer.”

Eyeing the room, Regulus took in the little stations and corners of alchemy research for a moment longer. It continued to baffle him that they had just strolled in without consequence; his own day was going to reset, regardless of what they did or did not do, but even if this had been a normal day, the witches and wizards holed away in this space had taken no notice at all. In truth, he had expected Emmeline to be exaggerating on the matter.

“Where shall we go next, then?” Regulus ask, pulling his eyes from his surroundings and reminding himself that lingering and staring would attract their notice.

“Space. The department, sadly, not the atmosphere.” Emmeline gave a pronounced pout. “It’s not as fun as the muggle one, as it’s mostly about the effects of planetary alignment on magic. Oh, and don’t inhale too much. You might start to feel a bit giddy. Please excuse my saying so, but I don’t think you have any tolerance built up.”

“Tolerance?” Regulus lifted his brow; the Space Room sounded intriguing, even if it was more about planetary assignments than stunning photographs, but it was the warning that stood out. “Is there something in the air?”

"Ah." Emmeline made a screwed up face, with her lips beginning to twitch with mirth. "A lot of experimentation with it involves the intake of certain plant life with some mind-altering effects. It's a little stuffy, and you might feel a little light-headed, but as long as we don't linger and you don't inhale deeply, you shouldn't get any of the effects. Excellent place for snacks, though."

“Altering your mind is necessary for observing the effects of planetary alignments, then?” he said wryly, thinking that she looked far too amused - smothered or not - for it to be a legitimately serious method. “Makes the stars twinkle brightly enough to see them better?”

"Did I mention the lack of oversight? They want solutions, answers. They don't care how it happens," Emmeline pointed out - to which Regulus sniggered - before tapping the doors to once again appear. However, someone walked through one, almost bumping into the woman and looking rather startled. They sidestepped, then Emmeline shrugged. "That saves me the trouble. After you."

The smell of fruity smog filtered through the door, and through it, the night sky was visible and shifting on the ceiling, casting an eerie glow. There were a few Unspeakables at a variety of what looked like telescopes, while others were lying on mats on the ground.

“Beautiful,” Regulus remarked as he stared up at the ceiling-sky. “Have the studies determined anything of note?”

“You get a lot of people muttering ‘Mercury in retrograde’ if something goes wrong,” Emmeline admitted, with a forceful shrug. "Without the telescopic lenses to see as far away, I think it's stuck. I had the exceptional pleasure of visiting one of the institutes in Uganda a few years back as part of some ICW work, and their department on space must be three times the size. We can describe the atmosphere of Phobos all we like, but the priority isn't there to go and see for ourselves. In contrast, in the seventies, muggles sent up testing equipment and did all of these tests and took full colour photographs before we'd even finished school. They found water, volcanoes, and discovered there could have been life on Mars, just like the exhibit. You can go and see the visitor centre in America, which is about to go on my 'to-do' list."

“So you were saying.” His eyes lingered on the ceiling, a small smile forming. “It seems there is quite a lot out there. It's fascinating.”

“I get a little obsessive,” Emmeline admitted. “Not that you’d relate to that.”

“Not at all.” Regulus met her eyes with a little smile. “Have they made any determinations about the effect of space movements on magic, or is it still a series of shots in the dark?”

"Total oblivion," Emmeline confirmed, with a shake of her head. "Or they do know and aren't sharing, which is equally likely around here."

“I cannot fault them for that,” Regulus granted with a tip of his head. “I don't much like to share either.”

"You're not doing so badly with me," Emmeline pointed out. "I'm not so innately wily that it's all me."

“You are an exception,” he said to the ceiling, eyeing a swath of twinkling stars as he leaned into a slight bump, nudging her shoulder with his own.

The subtle haze seemed as if it ought to make it harder to do one’s observational duties, but it was atmospheric, he would grant it that. As recommended, he tried not to breathe too deeply, despite the calming nature of the dim, night sky, magically contrived or not. Contentedness had settled over him, and with it, far more relaxation than he thought he ought to have, walking freely through this particular Ministry department. Although it might’ve been managed just as easily on any day, the way that anxiety peeled away with each retractable moment was worth the choice.

With a little smile, he added, “I trust your dependability and your contributions, which is a favourable mix.”

"I don't believe anyone has ever referred to me as favourable. I'm flattered." Emmeline stepped over the legs of one of her co-workers, who grumbled something unintelligible. "Don't lie in the middle of the floor if you're bothered by people walking over you. Be thankful I'm wearing flats."

"Whozat?" The Unspeakable replied.

"He's a constellation," Emmeline said, without missing a beat. "We're taking a quick walk around the sky."

"Yeah, alright."

Emmeline gave a nod towards the other side of the room. "Think we should move."

When they were well past the man on the floor, Regulus leaned in to whisper, “Technically, I’m a star,” punctuating the correction with an amused smile.

"A binary star." Emmeline rolled her eyes. "And when you're willing to twinkle, I'll say as much."

Shaking his head, Regulus responded, “I don’t think I’m the twinkling sort.”

"Where's your sense of adventure?" Emmeline scoffed. The door once again revealed, and she began to work on it. "You could be and have no idea. You didn't seem the camping sort either."

“Perhaps it depends on what twinkling entails,” Regulus granted, and a beat later, the door had opened before them to reveal what he assumed to be the Time Room.

Inside the time room was a giant, golden clock hanging from the ceiling. On the walls, several time pieces hung from golden chains and displayed a variety of different times. They also seemed to be moving at different speeds, and some didn't have numbers, but rather symbols that had no immediately discernible meaning. There were several shelving units down one side of the room, which held a variety of different time groupings and names like 'lost in time' and 'unusual anachronisms'. On the far side of the room was an open doorway, but it was dark inside. As they moved away from the entrance, the wall sealed behind them with large mechanisms. Everything was in muted grey, silver and brown tones.

"I hope this isn't too anticlimactic," Emmeline said. "I won't expect any twinkling."

“Not anticlimactic, no,” he said with a tone of appreciation, watching as one of the brass-armed clocks spun lazily backwards in the far corner.

"We've got our time objects over there," Emmeline pointed to the shelves. "Then we've got the different times each person is experiencing. The parchment over on the tables are the maps showing where different anomalies are. The room on the far side used to house time turners, but since they were all smashed, they're working on some experimental ones but aren't at the testing stage yet. Oh, and the desk over there with the fairy lights is mine. It's very dark in that corner, but it does mean I get left to it more."

Regulus eyed the map with particular interest (though there was no way to make much sense of it from the distance they were at), then shifted his attention to her desk with a little nod. The surface was controlled chaos, for all her put together appearance, and amusement flickered as he recalled her admitting to a tendency of that sort.

“I think something exploded on your desk,” he commented mildly.

"I get backed up a lot!" Emmeline said, with a hint of defensiveness. "Especially when I go gallivanting up to Wales for a certain someone's birthday party."

With a smile in his eyes, Regulus tipped his head in a little nod. “That is an acceptable excuse.”

"Is it always an acceptable excuse if it allows you to get something you want?" Emmeline whispered.

“That is the typical way of it,” he confirmed in quiet tones of his own. “Convenient, is it not?”

"Very cheeky," Emmeline replied, though she did not sound as if she minded in the slightest. "There's your loop over there. I think you're about halfway through by now."

“Thus far, it has been a good experience,” he said, eyes flicking over at her indication. “I can see the appeal.”

"Thus far, it hasn't been that exciting for you. Just wandering with me on my way to work." Emmeline shrugged. "Isn't there anything more fun you'd want to do?"

“You say that, but I find all of this quite fascinating,” he admitted, pulling his eyes from the surroundings again to look back at her. “If I accomplish anything too successfully, I won’t want it to reset, and I don’t want to specifically bait death, either. Surprisingly enough, that cuts out a fair few options.”

"Perhaps you missed your calling. I suppose I thought you'd take a day off. See a show. Break and enter. You know, fun things." Emmeline gave him a quick smile. "I owe you Shakespeare at some point, in addition to camping. However, the best time to go for the Lights isn't for another month or two."

“Any day can be a day off, but not any day can remove even the vaguest concern about there being any lasting consequences, should I be noticed in a place I am not strictly meant to be,” he responded easily, and as he began to turn over ideas at the back of his mind, he added: “However, breaking and entering is not a terrible idea either. I can be patient for the Northern Lights and this Shakespeare you speak of.”

Emmeline made an undignified snort in an attempt to keep in her laughter. "That might be the most Port Out Starboard Home thing I've heard in quite some time. Alright, I suppose being disciplined must help with getting things done if you have no direct need to do so, but if there's something you're not doing you want to be, don't let me keep you."

“You aren’t holding me back from anything, worry not,” he assured. “The loop repeats throughout the day, does it not? However, if you have actual work to do-” He paused. “If I am within a loop that is going to reset, I assume any work you do is automatically undone as well, even if you did not enter the loop yourself?”

"No, we're out of sync now because I didn't crossover into the loop." Emmeline explained. "Life outside the loop remains as normal, with only events you're involved with - or people in the loop in general are involved with - being consistently rewritten. Time is malleable."

“Hmm. Interesting,” Regulus said thoughtfully. “I suppose you do have actual work to do, then.”

"Yes, buying a house in London is expensive, so I'd like to keep the job," Emmeline nodded. "I can't impose on you forever."

“I do not consider you to be an imposition, nor do I think Sirius feels that way,” Regulus responded with a little smile, “but I will leave you to it. Thank you for the tour.”

Emmeline gave him a nod. "Thank you for the company. Just ask the wall for the exit."

There were several hours left in this particular iteration of the time-loop when Regulus had disentangled himself from the Ministry corridors and the throngs of people within them. Though he had made light of the ‘day off,’ the series of events to follow was exceptionally normal. An early lunch, then back to Iago again with an itch for unanswered questions, both important and unimportant.

He had thought first of the prophecy, presently off limits to him, though he had not yet asked Dumbledore himself. Harry was likely to know, but it somehow felt like a guilty sort of deception to convince the boy to tell, only to have him forget he told at the loop’s end. It was a solid plan as far as execution went, but he did not want it to rain down on Harry (or himself) should that information be put to actual use. If he was to ask Harry, it was probably best if Harry was at least aware of it, though Regulus maintained hope for Dumbledore’s willingness to be reasonable.

Emmeline’s ‘recommendation’ of breaking and entering had brought to mind his eldest cousin’s home - the Lestrange Manor, where he had itched to investigate shortly after returning to England, but it was a near-guarantee for trouble, whether from the Ministry or the Death Eaters. To pursue that was perhaps more dangerous than deceptive, but at least the stakes were arguably less high if they were impermanent. There were few Aurors that he was on any sort of speaking basis with, and only one that he thought would probably comply with providing some insight on the matter..

It was Sirius who provided the location of the Tonks household, though she would soon be leaving for her late-day-to-night shift, and sending a formal call would do no good when the day was just going to reset anyway.

With time to fill, he thought again that a plan for well-utilised breaking and entering was not a bad use of his time at all.

At two o’clock, the time-loop had set him back in the same place he had started, and this time, he parted ways with Emmeline more immediately (though it was for the second time that day). The six hours felt slower, that time, slogging through the same morning, and he assumed Sirius did not remember anything about the Tonks-related questions because he did not bring it up when again lunch rolled around, hours later. Conversation was instead centered on Harry and the other children, who seemed to be enjoying their vacation quite a lot. He hoped they were not attempting to repeat the previous day’s spying attempts, but tattling on them felt to be in bad form, so instead he let it lie, listening to Sirius relay the tale of what they had done once they were actually with Lupin, rather than scampering off without him.

When again two o’clock was nearing, Regulus returned to the time-loop, approaching it more confidently this time. Tonks first, and then perhaps a peek at the Lestrange Manor. His cousin’s home was undoubtedly being watched, but a bit of creativity was likely to do the trick.

(If it did not - at least he would only suffer the trouble for a few hours at most.)

With the loop initiated, he apparated straight to the Tonks residence, and though he knew the time-loop would spare him the need to admit to either the visit or the nervousness, that nervousness was nonetheless swift and jarring as soon as the house appeared in front of him.

His (previously estranged) cousin’s home looked exceptionally normal and well-cared for, backed by what he assumed to be a gated garden, though he could not see past the high fence. The path was lined with thick foliage - mostly flowers and well-trimmed bushes - and flowered ivy decorated the face of the house. Steeling himself, he rapped three knocks on the door and waited.

For several moments, there was silence on the other side of the door. However, the noise of rustling came from behind the fences, along with the sounds of metal clanging and finally, part of the fencing swung open to reveal Andromeda. She was holding her wand in one hand, and a large bucket in the other. Her wand lowered, though she kept a firm grasp of it still.

She blinked at him owlishly from beneath her comically large sunhat. "Good morning," she said, mildly.

“Good morning,” Regulus greeted in return. “Normally, I would call ahead before arriving, but I’m afraid it’s a bit impromptu today. I was wanting to speak to your daughter for a moment, and Sirius directed me here.” Trying to smother the awkwardness (and reminding himself it would not endure past the day), he added, “I hope you are well.”

"Discretion of a town crier as per usual," Andromeda sighed, before stuffing her wand in her pocket. "She's run upstairs to get changed, but you're welcome to wait if you want to come through."

“Your visit to Grimmauld Place was not so different,” Regulus pointed out lightly. “All the same, I don’t mind waiting.”

"I fully admit that Nymphadora gets it from my side. She's got the subtlety of a sonorus charm too." Andromeda sounded amused, and rather fond of it. She took a couple of steps back, revealing the lush and colourful garden behind her. "I thought you went on holiday."

“I did, but I thought it might be better to come here, rather than ask her to visit Iago, all things considered,” he said with a tight smile as he slipped past Andromeda - into the garden and around into house.

Regulus was not sure what he had expected from his rogue cousin’s life beyond the Family, but the inside of the house appeared comfortable, thick with plants and photographs and peppered with little piles of clutter. The ceiling hung low, and though it might feel snug in other circumstances, he could not help but feel a little claustrophobic, thinking that this was the space Andromeda had run to so long ago. If not this building, then perhaps one like it.

Andromeda walked up two stairs, and leaned on the wooden bannister. Behind her, shifting colours indicated pictures of Tonks through several ages and looks respectively that peppered the stairway.

"Nymphadora!" Andromeda called.

"What?" came a muffed reply.

"You have a visitor," Andromeda called back.

"I'm in the loo!" came the reply.

Andromeda's shoulders slumped, and she muttered, "Indisposed, you're indis-oh, never mind," she raised her voice again. "Hurry down. You have to leave soon."

"'m coming now!"

Andromeda dropped down the stairs with a sigh. "I've attempted, but she's stubbornly rejected anything close to polite vocabulary. Half the residents of Iago would faint within half an hour of her being there." Andromeda looked him over curiously. "How did you get on?"

“With Iago? It remains a work in progress,” he admitted, shaking his head.

“Oh dear,” Andromeda quirked an eyebrow. “I suppose that means you got the ‘looking everywhere but you’ problem.”

Regulus sighed heavily. “I did. Narcissa is still agreeing to meet and talk to me, which I am grateful for, but progress beyond that is currently stagnant.”

Andromeda gave a heavy sigh, and then pulled off her hat. "I'm afraid things tend to be as they always were, or rather, the facade is always that things are as they always were. I'd be more prone to nostalgia for it if I'd stayed there with Nymphadora when she was little, but it would be wrong to blame a perfectly lovely village for ongoing familial dramatics."

Upstairs, there was the sound of something crashing, but it didn't seem to phase Andromeda. "Then again, I don't know if I'd have quite the confidence to have flaunted traitors and half-bloods and then invite the society princess for high tea. I'm surprised she agreed to do it again."

“She’s perhaps the only one within that crowd that I do have any sort of confidence in, at present,” he admitted, tipping his head to the side with a little frown. “Clearly enough, it’s making her uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t expect positive results if I were to corner her in public… but something must be connecting with her, I suppose.”

"I wish you well," Andromeda said.

At the sound of the door, Andromeda took a few steps out of the way as Tonks clambered down the stairs. She took one look at her mum, then Regulus, and quirked her eyebrows. "Am I in trouble?"

"Have you done something you should be in trouble for?" Andromeda asked.

Tonks pointed at her. "I'm not falling for that one. What's up?"

“There is something I wish to discuss with you, and Sirius pointed me in this direction,” Regulus responded. Not for the first time, he thought her brown hair made her look strangely like Andromeda, if different in manner. Less so than Andromeda’s resemblance to her elder sister, but far more so than when a spiky mop of pink had been on Tonks’s head. “If you have a moment?”

"Sure," Tonks shrugged. "You want to sit outside? If it's private, like."

Regulus nodded, trying to resist an uncomfortable shift as his eye caught a grouping of family photos just off to his right. He didn’t let himself look too closely. “Outside would be perfect.”

Tonks pushed past the furniture, slipped out of the back door, and stopped. She then went over to the seats furthest from the house and flopped on them. "No guarantee, but it's decently private."

“It seems like it should work well enough,” he appraised as he sat down in the seat just across from her, offset slightly. After casting a quick spell to obscure their speech to any potential eavesdroppers beyond the fence, he felt quite satisfied. “I hope you will pardon me jumping right into it, but I wanted to ask about the Ministry’s surveillance of the Lestrange Manor. I assume they are watching it?”

"A bit, but they don't know if they'll go back to it," Tonks admitted. "They clear houses out when they go to trial; anything Dark gets used as evidence. Still, if I remember right, that was back in ‘81, and there were some places they couldn't get into."

Thoughtfully, Regulus nodded as his hands folded neatly in his lap. Could there be a horcrux within Ministry evidence? If the Dark Lord had given one to her, would she have been bold enough to leave it out where it could be seen? Most likely not, and asking for examples of what the Ministry had cleaned out would be a list long enough to last all afternoon, even if Tonks did personally know in detail. Truthfully, he doubted that she did. Regardless, those tucked away holes were familiar to him, and his search criteria would be different than an Aurors…

“Any alarms that you are aware of?” he continued.

"Why," Tonks asked. "You want inside?"

“I do,” he said with a nod, and once again felt a settling relief that the time-loop would wipe away these particular hints. “There is something specific I want to investigate but would rather not have Aurors rain down upon me. I prefer to be discreet about the specific goal, but I’m in occasional contact with Dumbledore about it, so it is not completely rogue.”

"It's nothing to do with case evidence for your upcoming thing, right?" Tonks clarified. "I heard Dedalus was about to get into the nitty gritty."

Regulus winced a little but shook his head. “I’m not looking forward to that, but no, I’m not tampering with evidence.”

"Then I can probably drop you off," Tonks admitted. "It's probably just a couple of trainees. We can't spare more than that. We're getting attacks or finding bodies nearly every day now."

With a frown, he nodded. The sweep of arrests had locked away most of the people significant to Regulus on a personal level, but there were always legions of more. It seemed that had not changed, even will all the years that had passed. “I appreciate it.”

Tonks ducked her head. "Try not to get arrested in your first month of vigilantism. I'd appreciate that."

With a wry huff, Regulus slanted his mouth. “I will try not to. I would rather not be arrested at all, but the irony of being immediately arrested for acts against the Death Eaters would be unbearable.”

"If you blew your secret identity before Fred and George, you'd never live it down," Tonks snorted.

“If that isn’t motivation for discretion, I don’t know what is,” he said dryly.

"Listen," Tonks said, growing a little more serious. "We have our own watch schedules. If you're about to start trying to go about different Death Eater places looking for something, if it's a noticeable something, you could check with whoever’s watched the place. They'll have seen it more than you have in the last fifteen years."

“A valid point, but that’s part of the problem. I’m not exactly certain what it will be, and I cannot say if it would have even been noticeable.” Regulus said with a slightly pinched expression. “Besides, I’m trying to limit the number of people who contact this particular search.”

"You know you're going to get shit for that, right?" Tonks said.

With a firmer set to his mouth, Regulus shrugged. “The information is sensitive, and Dumbledore knows about it. I would like for everyone to trust me, but I’m not going to compromise what I’m doing to achieve that.” A brief pause, and then a press forward to a related curiosity: “Do you have any insight on who does take issue with my presence? Sirius and Emmeline have both indicated the vote was not unanimous. I would not have expected it to be, but with the exception of Alastor Moody, who I already know has a problem with me, the others are hard to read.”

"It's not all personal," Tonks admitted. "Despite you being you, the whole Death Eater moniker - even left behind by a couple of decades - it makes you a little scary for people. You're just going to have to keep your nose clean, and deal with it for a while ‘cause they got every right to be afraid."

“I know,” he said with a sigh, trying not to feel aggravated when it wasn’t Tonks’s fault, specifically. “However, I’ve kept my nose clean and have gone out of my way to be helpful for a year now. Everyone except for Moody is polite enough to my face at this point; I am just trying to get a concept for who is still concerned so I can take particular care.”

"Okay, but you find out who's not real keen on you," Tonks started. "What do you do with that information? Try and talk to them more? Convince them that's just not who you are anymore?"

“When appropriate, yes,” Regulus confirmed, though he thought it seemed a bit obvious. “As well as take greater care in what I say, if someone is likely to be more sensitive about certain issues. I can moderate it blind, but it helps to have context.”

"You know that's going to make them even more freaked out, yeah?" Tonks said, skeptically.

“I'm not planning to declare it randomly,” Regulus said a little defensively. “There is nothing strange about better-informed context.”

Tonks looked him over critically, before seeming to decide on something. "Don't think Kings knows what to make of you. He's on board with the leaving the Death Eaters, but I don't think he's comfortable with a purist being in the Order. Even a dead polite one."

Regulus nodded thoughtfully; it sounded accurate to his expectations and consistent with what the others had said about the group in general. “Sirius and Emmeline did mention something of that sort, as well. I am trying to work on that,” he said, though it was hard to say exactly how when the concerns felt a bit intangible to him. He was at least thinking about the concept of working on it. “Any other concerned parties of note?”

“Nah, think Vance has changed her mind,” Tonks replied.

“I’m glad for that,” he said quite sincerely as some of the tension lightened, if only a little. Emmeline’s skepticism had been arguably more apparent than most when it chose to show - the Gaunt shack flickering in his mind as one such moment - but the trust extended had been more apparent, too. A complicated balance from the start, but Emmeline, at least, was among those he felt confident in, even without Tonks’s report. (Nonetheless, it was a nice reminder.)

“Yeah, we know,” Tonks said. “But it’s not your past that’s causing you a bit of a tiz - you’re doing better than Snape, since he acts like a real git and half a decent human being thirty times a day, and you don’t know what you’ll get. It’s just being the new kid, and being the new kid when you obviously still have a load of crap to work through. Nothing wrong with being posh or having a bit of ego; you don’t treat people differently, and I’ve said as much, but if we’re being dead honest here, I’m every bit as related to you as Draco Malfoy, and you don’t think of us in the same way. I didn’t expect you to; I didn’t expect to even think you were halfway decent as a person, and I do. I’m still amazed you’re decent enough to me, but the difference is really noticeable. Stuff like that, makes people talk. Talk doesn’t mean they’re right, does it? ”

“No, it doesn't,” Regulus agreed, shaking his head with a little frown, and though he itched to defend his particular dedication to Draco, there was little point in debating family matters that were going to unravel in a matter of hours, forcing him to debate it again. He felt a little guilty that she was so aware of that distinction, even if she was not exuding any bitterness about the matter. Huffing a small sigh, he continued, “There are many factors at play. It's not just a matter of blood, though I know it looks it. I appreciate your willingness to be understanding on the matter.”

"After the Department of Mysteries, we're cool, alright?" Tonks said, giving him a lazy mock salute. "And you don't go about calling me my stupid name, so you're stand up in my book."

A little smile flickered on his mouth, and he nodded. “That sounds reasonable.” With a little quip, he added, “Truth be told, I wouldn't want to be called Nymphadora either.”

"You're a bloke." Tonks winced. "You'd have gotten Oberon."

“That would not have been so bad. Oberon is a moon, I believe, so at least it's still thematic,” Regulus granted. "Even so, I prefer my own name.”

"I think mine's hairy butterflies, bright multi-coloured ones," Tonks said, though she still made a face at it. "I think I started changing colours within an hour, so maybe that's why."

“That is quite apt, then, I will grant her that,” he said with a little smile as he shook his head. “I should, however, move on to the Lestranges’ to maintain my schedule. Does that suit your own?”

"Yeah, just give me a sec to make sure Mum isn't ear-to-the-door, and we can clear off," Tonks agreed. She stood up and wandered over to the kitchen door before turning and giving him a thumbs up. She then instantly tripped over one of the potted plants and let loose a string of swearing as she hobbled back over.

Wryly, Regulus shook his head. If anyone had the discretion of a (very clumsy) town crier, it was that one.

Ivy and grime had crept over the face of the Lestrange Manor in the decade and a half that it had stood vacant, and no matter how many times he had stepped inside as a teenager, he felt a wave of discomfort to stand before it again. Tonks had left shortly after dropping him off, and though he saw no indication of other visitors, he recalled her warning about the trainees. They were unlikely to be a great deal of danger to him, especially if the Ministry had made little progress with breaking into the more hidden areas of the manor, but if he wanted to make the most of this time, he would nonetheless need to keep his wits about him.

Once he was through the slew of protective charms and wards, he apparated immediately from the grounds into the manor itself; in just a crack, everything was dimmer, dustier, but equally quiet. The Lestrange Manor had never been a bustling place, but not even the manor’s house-elf was likely to roam these halls now, if he were to make a guess at it.

For some time, he scaled the various stairs, roamed the halls, examined the cabinets, and for a time, even gave into the temptation to slip into the library for perhaps a little longer than he ought to have. As Tonks had indicated, the manor had been picked clean of artifacts and texts to such a thorough degree that he actually felt a little pang of regret that he had not gotten to the place first.

It was not until he reached the disguised entrance to one of his cousin’s outsider-inaccessible rooms that he had any real hope of finding information of substance. Tonks’s report that the Ministry had been unable to break through did not surprise him, but when he stuck his hand through the illusion of a portrait, he was met instead with the sharp, prickly stab of the wall hooking his fingers and palm against it for an uncomfortably long second before releasing. Retracting his hand, he winced, then slipped through the portrait into a pitch-dark room. Bitterly, he thought that Bellatrix’s expression had never indicated that it was going to hurt quite that much when last he’d followed her inside, but he stone-faced the thought away and felt grateful that there had been no one present to witness the cringe. He wondered if she numbed her hand first, or whether she had just willed herself not to mind the wall’s invasive analysis of her blood.

At the moment, her approach was a moot point, and after lighting the oil lamps hanging on the walls with a series of wand taps, Regulus began examining the room. Much of it was a collection of particularly illegal items that he wouldn’t care to take home to Grimmauld Place, however rare they might be. He was not even entirely sure what some of it was, but it looked vaguely familiar enough that he was pretty certain it had all belonged to the Lestranges when he’d seen inside as a teenager - with the exception of a dusty box sitting on small, square table tucked in the far corner.

At first glance, the box was wholly unremarkable, but when the light of the oil lamp caught its glimmering insignia, Regulus saw that the lid off this particular box had the same design as he'd seen on Slytherin’s locket. He scarcely spared the time to check for curses before pulling it open, but inside was arguably the most unremarkable set of objects he could have imagined. A thimble, what looked to be a plastic toy with a string, and several other things that he would not expect Bellatrix to find worthy of hiding away. For a hopeful moment, he thought there might a horcrux among them, hidden amongst the most unnoticeable objects, just as his (or rather Bella’s) old tome had suggested to be most practical... but there was no indications of a curse on any of them, nor did they buzz with that eerie, otherworldly energy that made his skin crawl.

He had been studying the strange box and its Slytherin insignia for several minutes when a heart-stopping crack ripped the air behind him, startling the box in his hands - and to his disappointment, sending its content scattering to the floor. Heavy footsteps sounded from the open doorway - still disillusioned but nonetheless unlocked - as a gravelly voice boomed out, “Enjoying a bit of family nostalgia, are you?”

Regulus scowled at the table in front of him, then set to forcing his face into something calmer before twisting a stiff look over his shoulder. Trainees would have been preferred, but if Auror Alastor Moody was going to show up unannounced to interrupt his investigation, at least he was alone.

“It isn’t a matter of nostalgia. I’m conducting an investigation,” Regulus said, trying to bite away the urge to say the situation was not what it looked like - the thought sounded guilty even to Regulus.

“Alone, in the dark, holed away in your nightmare of a cousin’s manor, where apparently you can just stroll in at any time? Never thought to mention that, did you?” Moody said with a little more leading accusation in his tone than Regulus thought was entirely necessary.

Bristling, Regulus sat the box aside and took a steadying breath, leaving the older man’s words to simmer for an uncomfortable beat before he responded. “I don’t have to clear everything with you personally. I am in contact with Dumbledore about the matter, which is enough.”

“With Dumbledore, is it?” Moody asked, skepticism suddenly thick in his tone. “So he knows you’re down here, then? Could fire call him in now?”

Regulus crinkled his nose. “Well, not specifically here; he’s just privy to my investigation in general.” With a slightly bolder annoyance, he added, “I know you would love an opportunity to shove me in front of the authorities, but I’m not breaking any laws. I opened everything as the residents would have, and I’m doing this for the sake of our mutual acquaintances.”

“You used what I assume to be blood magic to open a secret chamber full of illegal contraband,” Moody said, his creepy eye swirling around the room before locking on Regulus again. It was immensely unsettling.

“I didn’t touch any of it. Feel free to check,” Regulus argued, though the eye was now flicking down to the box.

“And what is that?”

“It didn’t have anything interesting in it. Just some junk,” Regulus said, despite his own curiosities about the innocuous contents. “Unless thimbles are illegal now.”

“You expect me to believe that, do you?” Moody narrowed his normal eye, which was perhaps even creepier because the overly large one didn’t narrow at all.

“It’s true. Search the floor, if you must.” Being assumed to be a liar when you were actually telling the truth was perhaps more aggravating than being caught in an actual lie, and for a moment, Regulus’s expression communicated as much. “How did you even know I was in here?” he asked, acknowledging that it was the mostly blatantly suspicious question he could have asked, but the irritation was mounting, and at least it was information for later purposes. (Were it not for the interruption, he could still be looking-)

“This door is rigged to alert me the moment some bloody idiot successfully opens it,” Moody said, quite rudely, as far as Regulus was concerned. “You just weren’t the bloody idiot I expected.” Jabbing a wand at him, Moody added, “Let’s go, then.”

“No need to hold me at wandpoint,” Regulus said defensively, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. “Just tell me where we’re going.”

“To sort this out,” Moody answered, unbearably vague, and Regulus wished privately that this particular room permitted apparition like the rest of the massive manor did, even if it was restricted within the bounds of the wards. Getting to the grounds would have been enough.

“There’s no need,” Regulus argued, not sure he wanted to know what ‘sorting it out’ would entail. “Tonks knows I’m here, if you can bite down your accusations long enough to-”

A jarring whoosh tugged at him, and for a moment, everything went blurry and whirry around him; when it sharpened again, he was again standing before the time-loop, surrounded now with London sounds instead of judgemental Aurors.

Shaking his head (and trying to calm the thunder in his chest), Regulus let out a huff of a breath, as if in some attempt to breathe out the tension stringing up his limbs. Emotional exhaustion had set in far too deep for two o’clock in the afternoon, and though he could still squeeze one more time-loop into the day if he waited until that evening, he instead apparated straight to the house in Iago and made haste for a sofa to collapse on.

He had half a mind to tell Emmeline about the strange box he’d seen, and talking to Tonks had reminded him that he ought to thank her for the book she’d gifted him earlier that week - but the activities of his actual timestream could wait a little bit longer.

Chapter Text

A certain steel was required to weather Iago gossip, and even before everything began to fall apart in her late adolescence, Narcissa had known well that tongues were sharp and eyes were sharper.

Morning tea at the cafe had only just started when Persephone Avery approached, starting the day with a furtive murmur that Narcissa decided quite immediately that she could have done without.

“What are you implying?” Narcissa responded stiffly as Persephone shifted back in her seat.

“I’m not trying to imply anything. I just thought you should know, if you had not heard already-”

“Who was it?” Narcissa interrupted firmly, smoothing the pattering panic in his chest and holding her face like carved marble. “When was it?”

“Earlier this week, I believe. Clary said she saw him walking with some woman she didn’t know but wouldn’t admit why she was there,” Persephone said with a little sigh, “Probably slipping off with Ernest again. I don’t see why she doesn’t just marry him or move on. Second marriages aren’t a thing to drag your feet on, you know, and Ernest may not be the best, but-”

“I don’t care about your sister-in-law; I’m asking about Regulus.” Narcissa tightened her mouth a little. “Does anyone know who it was?”

“No one else saw, and ‘woman with brown hair’ is hardly a distinctive description. Honestly, I’m not even sure if Clary did. She does enjoy a good story,” Persephone said with a shrug, mouth twitching down subtly at the corner. “I don’t know what to make of it. He seemed normal enough when I saw him, but the stories are unsettling.”

The look Persephone leveled at her held an unspoken question - ’What do you make of it?’ - and a cornered sort of discomfort clenched in Narcissa’s chest.

“I wish Sebastian was here. I’m sure you wish the same about Lucius,” Persephone continued, shaking her head with a frown, seeming to catch on to Narcissa’s disinterest in commenting on the matter.

“I do,” Narcissa confirmed, punctuated with a sip of tea, but her uncertainties about her incarcerated husband combated with her uncertainties about her free-walking cousin, and it was hard to tell which aspect was more frustrating.

Years had passed since last their family had a scandal - Lucius’s arrest was not truly a scandal, not in that respect - but how predictable it was that Sirius ret-enters the picture of their family, and their name starts getting tarnished again. Regulus had begun to mix with that embarrassment’s associations, and if this was not proof of the way it was going to drag Regulus into the muck with him, she did not know what further proof she could get. Regulus would know better to pursue anything with some random woman, and in that respect, she did not truly worry that he required reminders on the matter; yet it did trouble her that she would not have thought he would argue the justification of the traitors’ company, either, before the events of this summer. That Regulus knew the sort of keen harshness that Iago could breed made it quite a bit more frustrating that he was not even bothering to hide these associations.

Persephone had moved on to talk about the Jugsons, and Narcissa tipped her head politely, trying to re-center her mind on the conversation. Perhaps Regulus could use another brush of reminders, but she half-worried it would be some approximation of Sirius’s justifications that she would hear, just as she had the two times before.

This needed to stop.

With the end of his time at Iago drawing nearer - and Harry's birthday drawing nearer still - Regulus was again wandering the shops, but this time, it was without such specific hunting purposes. He and Sirius had ultimately decided to split a gift, but when he saw the bookshop, Regulus felt a little pang. Regulus had not initiated contact with Draco since last they had spoken, nor had he done so with Narcissa, but the echoes still lingered in his mind.

For the past few days, he had felt as though there were more sideways glances in his direction, but whether it was a positive or a negative change had yet to be determined. The villagers running the shops didn’t seem to mind him - the older man running the bookshop even remembered him, when at last he initiated conversation - but the migratory Society seemed to be taking its time in deciding the verdict. A month later, it was not so terrible as it had been that first day, as far as frustration levels went, but this study in exclusion had been significantly less riveting from the receiving end.

The magical items and artifacts shop had supposedly received a shipment he was curious to poke at, in case it inspired any connection to the useless spread of items he’d found at his cousin’s. Within the shop, he could see a fuller spread on the shelves, even from the cobblestone walkway, but he had not yet stepped through the door when a vaguely familiar voice cut from behind him:

“You have a lot of nerve, showing up here after what you did.”

Regulus stiffened against a startle, pausing for a still moment before turning around to see Corban Yaxley. The older man’s expression was demonstrably chillier than most of the social shutdowns, and Regulus did not much like the way his hand tapped casually near his pocketed wand, but it was no different than Regulus had expected from the start.

Tipping up his chin stubbornly, Regulus held the stare.

“As is my right,” Regulus argued firmly. “I’ll come for as long as I deem it an enjoyable diversion.”

“Assuming you live to see another,” Yaxley said dryly.

Yaxley’s threat was jarring against the backdrop of subtler ostracization, and Regulus steeled himself against any reaction with cold grey walls behind his eyes.Though escalation was perhaps not the easiest way to diffuse this particular interaction, he felt a defensive sort of irritation bubbling up. “I’ve been doing a stable job of surviving, but the lot of you seem to be struggling to stay out of Azkaban. I would worry more about that, if I were you.”

“And how long will that last when your new vigilante shields determine you to be a security risk?” Yaxley inquired mockingly, to which Regulus’s nose crinkled in distaste. “For someone so determined to burn bridges with his previous friends and allies, you are putting a lot of trust in a scrambling lot that resents what you represent, and even if they did not, stands no chance. The Dark Lord’s defeat was a fluke last time.”

“It won’t be a fluke this time,” Regulus countered coolly, and though Yaxley jerked forward a step with his fingers folding around his wand, Regulus held still as a statue. He could not tell if Yaxley was out of the prophecy loop or if he was purposefully misrepresenting the complexity, but it was irritating, nonetheless. To hold back another unpleasant remark, he focused on silently counting the seconds until Yaxley responded.

It was five very uncomfortable seconds, in the end. “You’re going to regret running,” Yaxley began, eyes narrowing slightly. “You know what will happen. What always happens, eventually. It’s a waste of blood, but the Dark Lord doesn’t suffer traitors, and I’m already tired of suffering your lip.”

“I would rather not fight you - any of you - but I’m not going to drop to my knees to beg or to die, so I suppose that brings us to a bit of a quandary, as it is.” Regulus again lifted his chin, trying to ignore the anxious nerves webbing in his chest. “If anyone wishes to debate it like a civilised person, I am amenable to such a thing, but if we’re talking matters of preference and annoyance, I’m already tired of suffering threats, myself.”

“You ought to get used to them if you intend to mix with traitors and run your mouth like some short-sighted child. You have a good family, and you were a good kid, but don’t think that will be enough to make this go away.” The line of Yaxley’s mouth was hard and flat, his eyes dark and fixed, and Regulus felt the sharp truth of it, as fresh as ever.

“That is the way of it now, isn’t it?” Regulus said, narrowing his own eyes. “Killing off bloodlines as soon as questions are raised. Is that what we do now, as purebloods? It’s one thing to ostracize and quite another to eradicate a name.”

“This isn’t about raising questions. It’s about betraying blood,” Yaxley said sharply.

“I’m not the one betraying pure blood,” Regulus countered sharply in return.

“That’s how it looks from this side.”

Regulus pursed his lips, holding the stare for a beat before speaking again. “We have been used, all of us. If you feel otherwise, I recommend spending some time thinking about who is losing the most on the the Dark Lord’s side of the war.”

“I don’t take recommendations from traitors,” Yaxley said, tapping a finger on his wand in an unsettling manner.

“I think you’ll find that is your loss, in the end,” Regulus said, fighting to keep his tone even (and more confident than he strictly felt), “but do as you will. I mean what I said about civil debate, but ‘you are a traitor’ - peppered with threats - is not something I consider to be a valid or compelling argument, so I will excuse myself for the moment.”

Yaxley’s scowl was darkening as Regulus shifted toward the artifact shopfront, and though he did not think Yaxley would actually curse him right there in the street, it was not until the shop door had closed behind him that he let their locked gaze break.

Despite no longer being under the threat of arrest, Sirius had still found himself on the outskirts of socialising throughout the holiday. He couldn't complain; there was a full moon tomorrow night, and Remus seemed to struggle even more now with the upcoming approach than he had when they were young. Regulus had never been the most social person, so they did their collective socialising in small increments. Harry had his friends, and he didn't want to intrude on that. They'd headed down to Colmon Pier and spent most of the morning doing a wave riding lesson, then tried it for themselves. It wasn't them alone; there were a smattering of other kids, a couple they seemed to vaguely know from school and others that either went elsewhere or were homeschooled.

He could see them from where we was, half running into the water and occasionally tripping one another. The beach was warm enough that he'd consider swimming later, but he made do with a large drink and a view of the trio’s shenanigans. No one seemed to be paying them much mind - something he doubted Harry had much experience with - so Sirius was determined to let them enjoy themselves. Everyone was doing their own thing, with a few small children trying to fly brooms or small, winged horses. There was a mixed background of the WWN and what he was pretty sure was Radio One, playing a variety of songs with nonsensical lyrics.

There was a movement behind him. Everytime the adrenalin spiked in his veins, Sirius tried to tell himself to calm down. There would be plenty of time for the fight, but he'd scurried about these beaches or ones like them half his childhood and once or twice when he was old enough for it to be immature. Making a good memory was useful too. Remus had brought news of more dementor attacks, and to his own embarrassment, Sirius was having trouble keeping a corporeal patronus. However, this particular approach required no patronus.

“You could have woken me,” Remus said, as he sat down on one of the plastic chairs with an old-man sound.

“I tried,” Sirius replied. “You were out for the count.”

Remus was glancing around the place, as if everyone could take one look at him and see some bright sign saying 'werewolf' above his head. Thankfully, no one paid him any mind any more than they had Harry. “Any problems?”

“Not since they decided to go stalk Malfoy,” Sirius said. He supposed he probably should have said they shouldn't have done that, but he wouldn't have listened at their age. They were about the same age that the lot of them had started guerilla fighting with Death Eaters, so why would he have expected Harry and his friends to be any different?

“You're sure nothing happened with that?” Remus said.

Sirius reached to hand him one of the drinks from the box, which he took gratefully. “I'm sure. By the sounds of it, they were taken for a long walk to nowhere, so Malfoy might have had an inkling he was being followed. Either the boy inherited more from his mother than the tendency to wail at the top of a hat or Harry has about as much subtlety as his father.

Remus cracked a smile. “Or a little of both.”

Sirius returned it. “Probably both.”

A shift caught his eye, and Harry and Ron launched themselves up to them. Harry downed half a pumpkin juice while Ron, who was beginning to look a little toasty, half threw water on himself. Harry gave him a skeptical look, and if it'd been him, that look meant his friend was about to get mocked. Sirius was a little surprised when he stopped himself. Somehow, Remus still seemed to come under adult territory for them, so they tended to behave a little more controlled around him. Probably a callback to his teaching days.

“No Hermione?” Remus asked.

“She wants to go diving,” Harry said, breathlessly. He gestured over to where one of the instructors was indicating some breathing spells.

“Don't fancy it?” Sirius asked.

“Had enough of it with the Triwizard.” Harry made a face. “We were going to take the brooms out?” He sounded almost as if he wasn't sure if he was telling them, or asking for permission.

“Try not to go into trees,” Sirius said.

Harry huffed at him, amused.

“Don't stay in the sun too long,” Remus said.

“We won't,” Harry promised. He grabbed a groaning Ron by the arm, and the two of them legged it back up the beach.

Remus turned back to look at him. “Should we move to see the green?”

Sirius shook his head. “It's close enough that if they run into trouble, we'll hear it. There'll be people in Ireland that'll probably hear it.”

Remus quirked another smile at him, before settling back into the chair. “I don't know how they can run like that,” he said. “Or perhaps I've just gotten old.”

“You could still run like that,” Sirius said. “Given proper encouragement.”

Remus's eyes flew open. “That was not a challenge.”

Sirius lifted his hands, and in higher pitched tone, he said, “I know.”

Remus narrowed his eyes. “I'm serious.”

“I wouldn't recommend being,” Sirius replied. “The family situation alone makes being me very awkward.”

“I'm too tired for puns,” Remus told him.

“Then you must be tired of life,” Sirius replied. “It seems like it's one giant, cosmic joke right now.”

“Jokes are funny,” Remus said, quietly. Then he added, “Not your jokes, but most people’s.”

“Don't blame my jokes for your shirty sense of humour,” Sirius sniffed at him. “Besides, I'm not the one who just warned them not to stay in the sun. You sound like a mum. Not mine, of course, you'd have to be a few more nuts short of the fruitcake for that, but someone who actually gives a damn about their offspring kind of mum.”

“I don't imagine Molly will appreciate us returning them resembling lobsters,” Remus replied, a hint of defensiveness to his tone.

“No, I guess not,” Sirius said.

“Is Harry going back to the Burrow?” Remus asked.

“I'm not sure yet,” Sirius admitted. He hadn't asked. Of course, he wanted Harry to stay so he could see more of him before he went to school, but if he wanted to go and play with his friends, Sirius couldn't begrudge that.

“Have you talked to Dumbledore yet? About Lily's sister?” Remus clarified.

“Not yet,” Sirius admitted. It was a conversation he was dreading, because he knew they weren't going to see eye to eye on it. But if Harry was only safe there for a couple of weeks a year, and no where else, what was the point of it? He'd be safe at Grimmauld Place. Dumbledore himself was the Secret Keeper there. He didn't want to send him to people who didn't want him there for the sake of that, and Harry was old enough now to have a say in his own life and where he stayed. “I haven't seen him.”

“You will,” Remus said. “An owl came in: usual place, usual time, in four days.”

“Meeting?” Sirius inquired, even though he knew the answer even as Remus nodded. “We'll probably pack up and just stay, then. We can't stay out of the game too long.”

“Truthfully, I thought you'd be stir crazy for a fight by now,” Remus said, sheepishly.

“I am,” Sirius said, with a flicker of a grin. “But the last year was absolute shit for everyone. A break is good too.”

“There'll be no shortage of fights,” Remus replied. “Try to make them all with Death Eaters, and not the Order?”

“I'll do my best,” Sirius said, but even at that moment, he was thinking of a certain greasy-haired prick. “But I make no promises.”

Then, without warning, he tipped his drink onto Remus' legs. Immediately, Remus squeaked and moved swiftly up and out of the way.

"Sirius!" he hissed at him, trying to wipe it away with the edge of the beach towel.

Sirius shrugged, and went to grab another drink. "See, you can still move pretty fast when you want to."

Twisting and turning her quill in place from side to side over her desk was unlikely to be considered productive by even the most loose definitions, and Emmeline had never been much of a fan of those. Having to vanish the dripping ink every few minutes was already becoming tedious. There was nothing to do. Perhaps not nothing, but nothing that would feel like an accomplishment and nothing that would work towards her socialisation quota for the week. Paperwork done, project proposals submitted, further supplies and input required. She'd already asked for expedition, but Harper had looked at her as if she'd grown another head and instead told her to take some time off if she was done with everything.

Taking time off would mean return visits, owls, fire calls, opening the pile of cards that still sat on the table at Number Twelve. She needed to find somewhere else to live; she didn't like the idea of leaving her life stained all over the Order safe house, or someone's home. In this case, both. She'd made a few inquiries, trying to find somewhere she could feel at home in, but thus far, nothing had felt right. Perhaps it wasn't destined to. Perhaps she ought to rent until You-Know-Who was destroyed, as she might once again lose a place.

Unwilling to go down that rabbit hole, Emmeline made a split-second decision and found herself apparating to Laburnum Gardens. It was a quiet little housing estate, red and cream houses and cars parked by what seemed like every home. Through a set of large black gates, you could find several fenced off garages. If she had any money wagering where Sturgis would be, it was beyond that gate. However, she had not been raised an animal and marched up to Number Two's door. She rang the bell, hoping that the rendition of Auld Lang Syne in July (how it was still July, she had no idea) would alert Sturgis to her presence. He'd never been able to get it to play anything else.

The door opened, much to Emmeline's surprise. Sturgis was, as he often was at home, in what were probably technically pyjamas and barefoot. For someone who tinkered with small parts and was slightly accident prone, she was surprised he didn't get things embedded in his feet more.

“I thought you'd be out the back,” Emmeline blurted out, before adding a, “Also, good morning.”

Sturgis squinted at her. “It's morning?”

Emmeline turned to the sky. “I think that's the sun, which would indicate as much. I can't give you proof. Am I interrupting?”

“No,” Sturgis said, taking a few steps backwards into his hallway to allow her to enter. “You're not at work?”

“You need coffee,” Emmeline told him, gesturing to herself.

“I need coffee,” Sturgis agreed.

“I'll do it,” Emmeline offered, stepping over the clutter to get into the kitchen. The main lights were still broken from the last time she'd been here over a week ago. “We can drink from cups like civilised people.”

“S'cuse the mess,” Sturgis added, as if she'd ever seen the place without things strewn here, there and everywhere.

“That light needs fixing.” Emmeline remarked, when silence followed.

“Yeah, cheers, Mum.” Emmeline caught sight of him long enough to see the flush of red hit him. “Sorry.”

Was this what it was going to be from now on? Everytime one of their lot tried to talk about their parents, they'd look at her under a scope to see what she would do with it? Regardless of the stab to her chest, she slammed the thought away and gave him a quick glance of displeasure. He shied away from it, and she immediately felt guilty. “Do you have cups?”

“Yeah, I reckon so.” Sturgis said, without meeting her eye.

Emmeline put them down on the counter with more force than rather was necessary; she refused to be pitied and handled over something she'd seen happen again and again. At least Mulciber was in jail. The vile boy had become a vile man, and he could bloody rot there for all she cared. She poured the coffee in, and shoved it over to him. “Why aren't you in the garage?”

“I got in late,” Sturgis said, swallowing down the hot coffee without so much as a wince.

“Partying all night?” Emmeline tutted.

“Rani had a show,” Sturgis said, by way of explanation.

His younger brother had been in the year above Emmeline at school, but she was unlikely to forget him even if she and Sturgis had not met through the Order. Ranulf had, as far as she knew, always been endlessly dramatic. She'd once seen him tear an entire cushion apart at the seams, sending the fluff everywhere, just because he didn't believe it properly expressed the anguish of the scene he'd been working on. Not for a play or anything. He just worked on scenes. Life was a show, at least according to him. It didn't surprise her to learn he'd gone to the WADA, nor that he was still performing.

“Better than the last one?” Emmeline inquired.

“A bit,” Sturgis admitted.

He could act, certainly. The problem wasn't talent. The problem was his ability to go into a tone only dogs could hear when he was getting annoyed. As far as Hufflepuffs went, he was rather highly strung. Especially considering Sturgis was the living opposite of that. They had another sibling, Bertie, but he'd gone to Australia back in the seventies. Young children and war were not meant to mix. Others had not been so lucky.

Emmeline forced her mind to a screeching halt in that direction. “Perhaps you can take Sirius along to translate.”

Sturgis chucked into his cup, making a gargling noise. Emmeline counted that as a job well done. “He's a bigger snob than you are,” he said, as he took the half empty cup away from his mouth. “He wouldn't go.”

“You go to the after party?” Emmeline asked.

“Yup,” Sturgis nodded.

“You get plastered?” Emmeline added.

“A bit,” Sturgis said, before flushing again. A little embarrassed about it, but for no really good reason.

“He'd go,” Emmeline said, shortly. “Maybe even I'd go for that.”

No matter how much she wanted to huff at him for the look he gave her, she oughtn't. She knew, somewhere down below the icy numb that took over her whenever she thought about that night, that he was trying to be respectful. She was suddenly aware of the fact she had likely done the same thing to him after Azkaban.

“That's not the WWN,” Emmeline said, a peace offering and a change of subject.

“Toad the wet sprocket,” Sturgis replied.

Emmeline wasn't sure she heard him correctly. “I beg your pardon?”

“The music,” Sturgis offered. “Song six on the cassette, so it's by Toad the Wet Sprocket.”

“That's the band name,” Emmeline took from the context.

“I like it.” Sturgis admitted. “It's weird.”

“You do like weird things,” Emmeline had seen her share of weird things in the Department, but there was a mundanity to this sort of thing. The weird normal, she supposed. She remembered thinking his tinkering with the deconstructed electronics, useless within Hogwarts, was downright peculiar. But he was simply a boy three years older than her then. For a moment, she longed to be back there more than anything. To know they could walk down to the Great Hall and see Marlene, or James pulling one of his stunts, or Lily or Mary. She supposed she could go and see Mary, but what would she tell her? They had fallen out of regular touch, aside from Christmas cards. She'd gotten married, had a career away from the war. A part of her wanted to commiserate about the prick Mulciber had been, but she could feel a humiliating prickle to her eyes at even the thought, and the only thing worse than awkward silences would be awkward mascara running.

“Like your lizard,” Emmeline forced out, pushing her thoughts back to Hogwarts.

“Milly wasn't weird,” Sturgis protested. “She was a cat.”

“She was weird,” Emmeline insisted. “She was feral.”

“She was a hairless cat,” Sturgis shrugged. “She was different.”

“What's the point of a hairless cat?” Emmeline made a noise of disapproval. “The point of a cat is it's furry and cute. Otherwise, get a lizard.”

Sturgis rolled his eyes at her before glancing at the bulky box where a cassette tape was playing. “I don't like to listen to the radio if I don't have to,” he admitted, quietly. “Not since they started on it again.”

Emmeline couldn't fault him for that. Bloody Death Eaters ruined everything. “Do you want to show me what you're working on?” she asked, instead.

“Aye, lets go out the back,” Sturgis said, putting down the now empty cup.

“Put on shoes,” Emmeline insisted. “There's glass outside, and if I wanted to go sit with someone doing themselves an injury, I'd have gone to Tonks's.”

“I'm not that bad,” Sturgis said, but he was trying not to laugh. She could see it in his eyes.

“No, you're not,” she admitted. “Besides, I'd only go and see Tonks if I wanted a serious and depressing discussion. If I wanted to look at misery, I have better places to go. Home, for example.”

Sturgis looked caught, and she hadn't meant to put it to him quite that plainly. “Still house hunting, eh?” he said, instead. He still wasn't looking at her, but at least he was treating her half normally by speaking to her.

“Nowhere good,” Emmeline replied.

“There's some down here,” Sturgis offered, “A little glass aside, it's a very respectable area.”

“It's rather not,” Emmeline contradicted.

“What's wrong with it?” Sturgis asked.

“There's a convict for a neighbour,” Emmeline pointed out. “I've already got that staying at HQ.”

For several heart-slamming moments, Emmeline feared she had overstepped a boundary. Neither of them said anything, but then Sturgis finally laughed at her. “Says the Unspeakable,” he said. “If Law Enforcement knew half the stuff you get up to down there, you'd get locked up too.”

“We're vigilantes,” Emmeline deadpanned. “We're all technically breaking the law.”

Sturgis raised his empty mug again. “To breaking the law, then.”

Emmeline leaned over and clunked the cups together, “Yes. And to one day, not needing to.” One day soon, she hoped. Then again, when it was over, what would on earth would she do then? “But possibly still doing so, for harmless fun and social outing purposes.”

One of the worst things that you could do with Sirius was leave him to his own devices. He could stir up enough trouble for twenty, given an hour and boredom. However, he was at least attempting to pass himself off as an adult and semi-suitable guardian for a teenager, so this was how Sirius found himself with a morning of absolutely no consequence. Remus had safely volunteered to play escort up to one of the historical castles that Sirius had been to so many times that the thought of going again made him want to carve his own eyes out. Regulus had cleared off, likely buried beneath his longest and least terrible relationship with the books in the little bookshop. Sirius didn't know if it annoyed him more, or less, that everything still seemed stagnant, right down to the bloody bookshop. Nostalgia was one thing, but this felt like a timewarp.

A timewarp where he wasn't as agile as he used to be, judging by the fact that he slammed his hip into the narrow doorway twice. Only once was clumsiness, however. The other was the sound of a deep clanger, the unmistakable sound of a visitor bell that that probably hadn’t been used since before he hit puberty. It was the shock more than the sound, though it sounded every bit as ominous as he could dredge from the recesses of his mind.

Maybe Remus had forgotten something; maybe one of Hermione's millions of leaflets had come loose, and she was all a tither over its absence. She was an exceptional young woman, but if she was wound any tighter, she'd bounce. He clambered down the stairs and flicked the door open with his wand, largely because he could.

However, it was not Remus on the other side of the door. It was someone who looked suspiciously like Narcissa, and therefore, probably was Narcissa. "He's not here," he said, before she could utter a word.

Narcissa’s face tightened to a pinch as she lifted her chin to peer at him through her nose - a feat, considering he was noticeably taller. “I see you are. I thought you hated this place.”

“Every last brick,” Sirius replied. It was the first time he could remember seeing her up close since her wedding, though he knew they must have seen each other here, that summer. “But it's where he wanted to be, and if it carries on as horribly as it is, I won't have to do it next year.”

“I think it's evident that he doesn't know what he wants,” Narcissa said coolly with a brief glance down the alley. “It does not have to be like this, but you are only confusing him.”

“Nah, he knows exactly what he wants, and he can't have it,” Sirius corrected her. Regulus wanted some mythic idea of what he thought his family would be, and it was something they'd never been. “But he's stubborn and is going to try anyway. I'm just letting him get on with it.”

“‘Just letting him get on with it?’ You can't possibly think it isn't obvious, what you're doing,” Narcissa said through a narrow expression.

Sirius shrugged animatedly. "Letting him find out first hand that people would rather grovel before a megalomaniacal prat than deal with his desire not to become a mass murderer? Again?"

“Misrepresenting, as always,” she said with a fresh scowl, holding her face with an unnatural tightness. “These ideas you're putting in his head are far more dangerous to him than just leaving well enough alone, but of course, you’ve never had qualms with prioritizing chaos over what is best for the rest of us.”

Sirius could barely contain his snicker. Oh, if only he could have managed to put any of this stuff in his head, but Regulus was a stubborn prick who dug his heels in until he made up his own mind. "I wish I could take the credit, but when he showed up, he informed me that he refused to ever be subservient again. I'm not saying I'm not enjoying his discovery of his backbone. Did you know he's got a set of pipes on him? All these years, I had no idea he was capable of even raising his voice, let alone yelling."

“He isn't acting like himself at all, so although every word out of your mouth sounds like a bold faced lie, I suppose yelling is not the most unbelievable,” she said tensely, holding herself a little taller.

Sirius leaned his shoulder against the frame of the door. "He's acting exactly like himself. He's just not willing to compromise at the cost of his soul. I can accept his terms, and if you can't, you can just chalk yourself up to being one more person on the list of the people he loves who puts their own needs above his. We gather for brunch on Sundays, always RSVP."

For a fleeting beat, Narcissa looked almost surprised before she chiseled it away. “Don't compare what I'm doing with what you did. I'm looking out for his safety.”

"His safety," Sirius repeated. Who was she kidding? She couldn't possibly be quite that stupid. She had to know that the only safe way out of the Death Eaters was to eliminate their leader, or be forever stuck as his whipping boy or running off. "His safety is Bellatrix calling dibs on his murder? It's forcing Unforgivables on fifteen-year-olds, is it? It's having them murder people without ever knowing why? It's having teenagers incriminate themselves so completely that they can't go to anyone at the Ministry for help or they'll get locked up?" An edge crept into his tone unbidden, but he did nothing to control it. "He wasn't safe; he was so trapped that he thought himself better dead, and you want him to go back to that? You're being selfish."

Narcissa’s mouth quivered slightly before she could stop it, and she paused a beat too long before speaking again, voice tight. “Bella promised she would not hurt him.”

"She won't," Sirius said, simply. "Until she's told to, then she will. Or she'll have someone else do it, and claim it's for his safety or your safety, or anything really that's not 'didn't worship the ground her master walks on'." He could see it so clearly in his mind's eye that he felt a shiver come down his spine. He pushed the image away." The only safe place for him is never being in the same room as Voldemort, and he traded that safety in to make sure no one had to go through the same shit. Because he didn't want your bloody kid to end up facing the choice to kill or be killed! No one should have to face that choice. If anyone who claims to care about him had pulled him out of the fire, told him he was too young, or that compassion is not shameful, or even that they need to keep him breathing long enough to get his leg over and spawn, then he wouldn't have had to go through hell. If you think you're not as complicit as the rest of us in not protecting him, think again. He may not blame you, but he loves you, so of course he doesn't blame you. He blames himself, like he always does. But you, you're getting a chance at a do-over. Try not to fuck it up this time. Don't trust Bellatrix to look after him, because she's made it clear she'd rather see him dead than put anything above Voldemort - even her own blood."

Once again, an uncomfortable silence seemed to wrap itself around Narcissa’s throat, sharpening each point as it landed. “I don’t have to stand here and suffer a lecture from the likes of you, of all people,” she began after a moment, her tone more brittle than it had been a moment before. “I would not have wished this situation upon him, then or now, but-” She shook her head, seemingly interrupting herself. “I did not come here to talk to you Just pass along to Regulus that I need to speak to him.”

Up until now, Sirius had to admit: he hadn't been sure if there really was a ghost of a chance, but he found himself smiling. Not over any ridiculous nostalgia; they had not known each other or liked each other enough for that, but he couldn't deny it would help. She hadn't lost her mind completely. “No lecture, but merely a reminder of what it felt like last time. That was hard enough. I'll pass it along, but don't be surprised if he won't go to you without assurance it's just you. I don't think he enjoyed meeting your son.”

With a twinge of suspicion, Narcissa narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, would you relax. I'm sure he'll end up thinking he's wonderful and can do no wrong,” Sirius sighed.

“Hm,” she said stiffly. “Of course.”

Was it possible she hadn't heard as much from either of them yet? There was absolutely no communication going on that was meaningful at this point. "I'll leave him a message if he's not back," Sirius said, slowly. "Satisfied?"

“Well enough,” Narcissa said more firmly, stepping back. For a moment, she seemed to hesitate, mouth pursed to a line, but without another word, she lifted her chin and disappeared with a crack.

When Narcissa next saw Regulus no more than an hour later, it was seated under a tree, nose tucked in a book. The image of it was a jarring spectre, a fully grown echo of himself, and she felt her throat tighten again; but whether the tightness was born from nostalgia or from the frustration that Sirius had heard something before she had, Narcissa had yet to determine.

She did not stop to draw him over as she passed, though she thought she saw his eyes flick up from the page for a moment. From the corner of her gaze, Priscilla Yaxley and Ava Parkinson seemed to be trying to pull her aside just a few paces past, looking ready for a spiel. Narcissa could muster no patience for conversation when just a few minutes with the traitor had drained her so. Instead, she pretended not to notice as she apparated back home to the summertime manor.

This felt unfair - all of it. Narcissa hated the feeling of relief that she'd felt when Regulus had the sense to stay where he was, sparing them both the Parkinson tongue. She did not fear them; dramatic goings or not, she yet held more clout than either, but she had grown used to a spotless reputation, and the way the smudges were touching her again had her more on edge than she liked to admit. Guilt, too, prickled at the acknowledgement that Regulus (of all people) could trigger such a feeling; and when the snotty side of her thoughts tried to snip that it was his own fault, she saw in her mind's eye a sixteen-year-old boy, sitting across from her at tea, rubbing at his arm without saying a word until she pulled it out of him. (She'd told him about the peacocks, that day. When he had straightened up, she’d convinced himself he was fine, distracted, strangely interested in her white-feathered lawn birds.)

The way Bella had stepped in to take over had made her a little jealous, at the time - with Evan, too - but the three of them had some grand destiny she had not wished to interfere with. Now, the way Bella was pulling Draco aside made a sick nervousness twist in Narcissa's stomach.

Two ropes tugged, pulling her son and her little cousin away from her in two different directions: her son towards a destiny that would kill him, and her cousin towards a rebellion that would kill him. Regulus had told Sirius about meeting Draco, saying nothing to Narcissa. Draco, too, had said nothing.

(Did her sister know?)

Draco was nowhere to be seen, as was the norm, now. Perhaps he was with his friends, roaming the beach, but she thought he was probably with Bella again, just as he had been the day before, though he said little about that, too - as if she could not figure it out. More than once, she had been tempted to say as much, but she worried it would only make him slip further into the waking nightmare if she were to speak too plainly of his absence.

An hour had passed when a tap on the window drew her attention to a small owl, black and copper and clenching a note in its talons. She was unsurprised to see the note was from Regulus - responding to her request, it would seem. For a passing moment, she considered inviting him to come, but she did not know when Draco intended to return, and she was not ready to approach that without a better understanding of the situation.

They met in the back garden of the Blacks’ summer home, instead, following the reassurance that Sirius had since left.

Whether Sirius had prefaced her visit with any air of concern, she did not know, but Regulus’s manner had some subtle edge of uncertainty. She wished that she could tell him to relax, but she did not feel particularly relaxed, herself.

“You were seen wandering about with one of your traitor friends - a woman, at that, which you must understand was foolish - and you failed to mention meeting my son,” she began, and to his credit, the wince in response was only noticeable because she knew from experience that it was most likely happening. “Which would you like to start with?”

“There is nothing legitimately scandalous about walking,” he said. Without leaving room for argument (and her lips were poised for argument, because there very well could be something scandalous in it), he continued with a more apologetic tone. “As for Draco, I did not intend to keep it from you, but he did not take to my presence very well. It's not that I can't recognise the delicate nature of this situation, but I just… wish I could help him.”

Closing her mouth to a line, Narcissa watched him for a moment, and some degree of annoyance started to dispel. She had been prepared to defend her child - after all, Sirius had made it sound as though some level of animosity had sparked - but her heart softened again at the earnest look in his eyes.

“I wish I could, too,” she said, and more than the guilt, she hated the feeling of helplessness. How proud, her boy looked, and how pleased, like he was trying to stand too tall. “And I wish you would let me help you too. You’re being careless, strolling about with a woman, however harmless your intent. You know that.” The uncomfortable look on his face confirmed it, even if he kept whatever words he was thinking to himself. “If you must mix with them, be more mindful about it, at the very least.”

“It was the outskirts,” he defended..

“It’s Iago,” she countered.

Shaking his head, Regulus’s mouth turned down a little at the corners. “She’s a friend.”

“I don’t suppose you intend to say which one?”

“Not if Iago intends to criticise her, no.”

It was a fair point, though Narcissa could not help but feel a little grumpy about the evasiveness. “I’m only concerned for you.”

“I know you think I'm just trying to make it all worse, and maybe I am making it worse,” Regulus began, mouth tugging down more. “It is not what I expected out of life, but that is not always a bad thing. If you decide you want to get out…”

The frown on his face made him look younger - or maybe the stress behind his frown had always made him look a little older. She was deeply uncomfortable with the possibility that he could be more relaxed when he was so blatantly courting ostracisation at best and death at worst, but he was not holding himself like the strung up child she remembered. He could not possibly enjoy the traitors’ company that much - not truly. Perhaps his brother’s, as he’d been a child prone to sentiment, but he had loathed Potter and the other Gryffindors. He had never reached beyond the friends around him in Slytherin, never shown a modicum of interest. If they were kind to him now, he had to know it was false, yet if he didn’t...

Perhaps the confidence in his eyes was an even more frightening prospect.

“I know,” she said after a moment. She knew she needed to leave before the madness rubbed off and started sounding like something reasonable.

Upon his return to the summer house, Sirius lingered around the doors for longer than he ought to have. While it was always fun to tempt the fates and wagging tongues to say something, the purpose had been to see the viability of maintaining something with Narcissa while her sister lost what was left of her mind. No matter what his issues were with her, Sirius had no intention of jeopardizing that for Regulus. He wanted to be sure she'd left. When he listened for voices, and heard none, Sirius slipped into the garden.

Regulus was alone, sitting under a patch of shade and absorbed in his book. Nothing unusual there in the slightest. "Is she gone?"

“Yes,” Regulus answered, then glanced up.

How informative.

"Did I narrowly avoid weeping?" Sirius asked.

“No weeping,” Regulus confirmed, marking the place in his book before shutting it loosely on his hand. “She expressed some concern about my associations and made it clear that she was aware that I did not mention speaking to Draco; but her initial manner led me to expect it was going to be harsher.”

"By associations," Sirius started. "Do you mean me?"

“You were not specifically mentioned this time,” Regulus said, shaking his head, “but don’t worry, she is horrified about you, too. Even so, it wasn’t actually the most unpleasant conversation I’ve had today.” Wryly, he slanted his mouth down. “Yaxley approached me this morning, which was the first approach all month, with the exception of Narcissa. As expected, it was not to express supportive sentiments.”

Alarm lit a fire in his stomach. “Are you alright?”

“It was an unpleasant conversation, not an attack,” Regulus responded, indicating his unmarred frame. “Baiting, for the most part, sprinkled with the air of a threat, but he’s a Death Eater, so it’s not exactly surprising that he would do so. In hindsight, I was perhaps less polite than I ought to have been, but I don’t think he is likely to act on his frustrations immediately.” Regulus lifted a shoulder in a small, half-shrug. “All the same, I thought I ought to mention it, in case his annoyance maintains.”

Yaxley being a Death Eater wasn't a surprise, but confirmation was still good to have. It struck Sirius as odd for a moment, as he could remember when Regulus returned that he had so carefully omitted any names unless Sirius had brought them up first. He'd put money on it being not wanting to confirm anything they didn't already know. But now he seemed to say it so casually, the distance between himself and the Death Eaters. He wanted to help so openly these days. Sirius had to duck his head to the hide the smile threatening to break out, because he was not at all ready for the mocking that would ensue.

Sirius cleared his throat. "You're only polite when someone is polite to you. It doesn't sound like he was being polite."

“He was not being polite at all, no,” Regulus confirmed, expression souring a little. “I told him I was willing to debate it when he muster some civility because I don't find threats to be a compelling argument, but he has not taken me up on it yet.”

"Then fuck him, you've got better things to do than cater to the likes of him," Sirius shrugged. He didn't expect many positive reactions, but he couldn't be sure. In terms of being predictable, Iago had delivered exactly what he expected. "Are you alright to pack it in on Thursday? Meeting call went out for Friday, and it's probably better to stay down afterwards to give everyone an idea of the schedules."

“Thursday is fine,” Regulus responded with a tip of his head. “Morning?”

"Not early," Sirius scowled, as his brother’s idea of morning and his own were two different things. "There was another unauthorised Kiss yesterday, so I'd prefer to blend in as much as we can."

The mention of dementors seemed to catch whatever petty remark Regulus had been intending to return regarding Sirius and early mornings because his expression fell from haughty to a frown. “Consider it noted. Do we know who it was?”

"They weren't magical. Taking their kid to Diagon when they got set on, by the looks of it." Sirius replied grimly. That made the third one in the last few weeks, along with at least two more disappearances. "I'm going to mention Hermione taking some back up when she goes with her own. They're going to be targets."

Regulus frowned, lowering his chin in a slight nod. “That seems like good advice.”

"We may just do it as a group," Sirius said, thoughtfully. It might be a bigger target, but more people meant it would be harder for an attack to be successful. Especially somewhere like Diagon. "I think shopping trips will be on hold, at least until we can get a better idea of the movements. We're up to three attacks in Diagon, and five more in London since we left. Time to get back to reality."

Regulus nodded his head, punctuated with a huff. “The Dark Lord’s Cause has never been particularly respectful of the holidays. Back to reality, mess that it is.”

Chapter Text

When Regulus strode into the dining room at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, he saw several of the Order members already milling around, split between the near corner of the room and a patch of chairs at the table. Emmeline was already seated and chatting with Hestia, Bill standing just beside them. When Emmeline’s eyes caught his own, he felt a mirroring smile start to tug at the corner of his mouth, and with it, a wave of reassurance. The uncertainty of facing his first real meeting with the members of the Order had been twisting in his stomach since morning - he could still feel Moody’s judgemental eye, even if that timeline had been written over - and however motivated he was to know what happened on this side of the dining room wall when ‘the vigilantes’ met, it had been strangely hard to force himself to set his book aside and walk down, even though they had been well-settled into the house since arriving back from Iago.

The Weasley twins were huddled conspiratorially by a cabinet - a point of some mild concern. However, converse to the normal way of things, it was their father who wrangled Regulus’s attention into action. Arthur and Molly were paired up just a few paces away from the door, absorbed in their own discussion. Roaming the halls of his home - and seeing the Weasleys wandering within it - had brought back to his mind the scattered burn marks on the tree. Narcissa was unlikely to approve of that series of questions, but there were yet a few living lines to tug.

Blotches of family had been obscured from his history for any number of reasons. Arthur’s mother, presumably, had been disowned for marrying the wrong kind of pureblood, and however much that might have made sense when he was a rapt child, the logic seemed a bit strange, from a blood perspective. Somehow, the Weasleys had stayed pure longer than some of the neutral families, yet he didn’t even know the name of the sister between Callidora Longbottom and Charis Crouch.

Emmeline had caught his eye again - a silent invitation, so as to not interrupt Hestia’s story - but following a subtle indication that he needed a moment, Regulus instead walked over towards the Weasley parents.

“Might I have a moment, Arthur?” Regulus asked, his tone carefully casual, despite the mix of immense discomfort and curiosity pressing at the back of his skull.

Arthur's eyes darted over to his younger sons, perhaps wondering if it was something that they'd done that he was about to hear about, but with no obvious infraction, he gave a nod. "Of course. How can I help?"

Pausing for only a beat, Regulus gathered his thoughts to a point, mentally steeling himself for what probably seemed a simple question, however heavily history and expectation might weigh on his shoulders.

“I would like to ask you about your mother,” he finally said after a few seconds (which had felt as though they lasted so much longer).

Arthur looked flummoxed, but seemed to recover quickly. "My mother? I'm afraid she passed away some years ago."

“My knowledge is quite limited on the matter,” Regulus continued, trying to maintain an even tone despite the obvious reason behind the statement. “When was that?”

"Must've been '83, '84?" Arthur looked to Molly, giving his chin a scratch in thought. "It was just before Charlie started school. We weren’t sure if we’d have trouble."

"Twelve years ago," Molly provided, with a wistful sort of look.

"Ah, then yes, '84," Arthur confirmed. "Why do you ask?"

“I expect you have noticed there are certain voids on the drawing room tapestry,” he began, but before Molly could share her brewing comment on the matter, he continued, “I know nothing about them, not even their names, but - should you be so obliging - I have decided I would like to start.”

For a moment, Arthur looked quite speechless. "I can give her a name, if that's what you're after. Cedrella. She had two sisters, as I recall, though never much spoke to either when I was young. She and my father were teenagers when they got married, eloped right after graduating. She was a bit of a romantic, believed that once you had met the right person, then it was just silly to prolong it."

Regulus nodded, lips pressing to a thoughtful line. It seemed rude in the moment to pull out his parchment and take notes, but at the very least, he committed the information to memory for later. He could still ask Great Aunt Callidora, but there was no telling how she would react to questions about her sister. He did not have a particularly good read on her, and Cedrella sounded like her exit had not been completely unlike Andromeda’s. Romantic, perhaps, but clearly not well-received, in light of the disownment.

“I see,” he said, focusing his attention on Arthur again. “Thank you. For the sake of reference, do you know how old she was when she passed? I assume she was born between 1915 and ‘17, but the numbers were burned off with the name.”

"It was ‘17," Arthur confirmed, but if anything, he seemed more confused. "Why do you ask? Are you trying to find out about the missing name dates?"

Again, Regulus nodded. “Some names are likely to be lost to time, but for those that are not, I am attempting to fill in the gaps.”

"I can't be much help, other than that." Arthur admitted, apologetically. "It'd been about fifteen years since they'd last spoken by the time I was born. Mum is the only one I really know of."

“I expected as much,” Regulus admitted wryly. “Though I intend no offense, I frankly would have been surprised if you had known of many others, given the isolation.” Behind him, Regulus heard the door open and close, and with a slight twist, he saw Tonks slink in, looking glum as ever. With a glance back at Arthur and Molly, he nodded with a shift towards the table. “Thank you all the same.”

Making a beeline for the seat next to Emmeline, Regulus ran through the Cedrella birth and death dates in his mind again, then settled down beside her.

Hestia gave a half-hearted wave. It could be construed as a lack of enthusiasm, but the darkness under her eyes indicated that it may simply be tiredness, "Are we a full house tonight?" she asked.

"I'm not sure about Hagrid," Emmeline admitted. "But I think Arabella is coming. If she can rise to throw cauldrons at Fletcher for falling asleep at his post, I'm sure she's well enough."

"She'd rise from the grave to do that," Hestia replied.

Emmeline shifted her focus to Regulus, her curiosity unspoken by obvious. "I don't think you'll have seen Arabella. She doesn't get ‘round very easily, and her surveillance spot requires near constant monitoring."

Regulus shook his head. “I don't think I have, no. Where is her surveillance spot?”

“Usually Harry,” Hestia interjected. “But currently his relatives.”

“We do mix and match spots, but ever since Dung left his post for a job, she's been diligent,” Emmeline clarified. “I did offer, but we're waiting on the replacement spy - imperiused or otherwise - to show up among Unspeakables. A uniquely qualified task for me.”

“I imagine it would be,” Regulus noted. “What other places require monitoring?”

"It varies," Emmeline admitted. "The major places are, of course, within the Ministry, St. Mungo's, and Diagon Alley. They're the historical hot spots."

"Don't forget Tinworth," Hestia added. "They were making jokes about it by the end of the war. Who in their right mind would want to live there after, what was it, four attacks in two years?"

"Diagon needs to be stepped up," Emmeline replied grimly, before she leaned back and raised her voice. "Tonks, any sign of Ollivander or Fortescue?" Tonks looked back, but shook her head. "Damn it."

Discomfort had settled in Regulus’s bones, and it was with great care that he kept his face neutral as the subject of Tinworth pricked and faded with a hot and crackling flash, tugging his attention from their continued conversation. Ollivander and Fortescue were concerns, no doubt, but he had taken some part in one of those four strikes against Tinworth, and he doubted that the mood would remain quite as accepting with that in the air. If there were those in the room that had a problem with him politely and quietly holding onto tradition…

Behind them, the door open and shut again as a stream of people entered, catching his eye again. Most of them were familiar; he assumed the unfamiliar woman walking behind Sturgis was the ‘Arabella’ they had mentioned, though it was not impossible that others had gone unmet and unmentioned. A long beat later, another wave washed in, punctuated with Dumbledore’s arrival.

Across the room, Remus approached Dumbledore, but whatever he said, it was quiet and quick before he resumed his seat next to Sirius. Emmeline, Hestia, and Tonks must have continued talking about the missing persons, but it only felt noticeable as the hush fell.

"My friends, welcome. The Ministry has now set up a taskforce, upon which is - recently torn from his retirement - Alastor Moody, and Nymphadora Tonks. Along with several other Aurors and hit wizards, they'll be drawing up target areas and homes. Thankfully, we will have access to the list and can be alert when required." There was a general tone of assent. "Surveillance will change accordingly, and Kingsley has drawn up the list to keep as much checked as can. However, we can already see that some attacks are coming without warning. We have five instances of muggles who have been killed for no discernable reason, two family homes among them. There appears little reason to remain hidden, and this is being thoroughly illustrated."

The headmaster looked briefly to Remus. "I must also inform you all that it appears Fenrir Greyback is up to his old tricks, as one of the houses has a surviving child who has been infected. It is likely he will be looking to rebuild that army, by creating it if need be. We must be available to help when we can, but also, remember our own safety. Portkeys must be retained, and safe houses must be used."

Emmeline tapped Regulus's shoulder lightly before whispering against his ear. "Have you gotten yours yet?"

Leaning into the whisper, he shook his head. At a mirrored volume, he responded, “No. I wasn't aware of them, actually, at least not outside of specific circumstances.”

"I thought as much," Emmeline replied. "We'll talk to Sturgis about the portkey, but safe houses change; we'll see what's easiest if you have no preference."

He tipped his head in a small nod then turned his attention back to the meeting.

"We'll open the floor to other concerns," Dumbledore said, as attention was drawn to the other members in a sweeping gesture.

Sirius spoke up. "We'll have to do a Diagon run soon. With the attacks, I think we should do it as a group. Hermione's parents will be a target as well."

"It'd be a large group," Kingsley said, thoughtfully.

"I know it won't be subtle," Sirius admitted, as if he'd ever been subtle. "But it will be safer. Molly?"

"What about the Ministry escort?" Molly asked.

"They can come too if they really want to," Sirius said in a tone that indicated he didn't think much of the idea. "But if they can't keep up, it's their own fault."

"Or if you deliberately lose them, you mean," Tonks said.

Sirius just winked at her in response.

"That's settled," Dumbledore nodded. "Are there any other concerns that have yet to be raised?"

Something in Regulus’s chest seized at the question - and with it rippled the temptation to quash the rising thought. As much as they had been present in his home for the past year, the Order of the Phoenix was nonetheless a relatively unpredictable entity. What they would do with his contributions was uncertain - but what might happen if he sat on it was no less unsettling.

Silence hung for an uncomfortable moment, broken after a few beats when several other members peppered in their reports and concerns. Dumbledore was starting to shift towards what Regulus assumed would be the close by the time he had fully mustered control over his own voice to speak his own piece, forcing the words out of his mouth as.

“As of late, I have been troubled by the issue of recruitment within the Death Eaters’ ranks,” Regulus began; even saying the words ‘Death Eater’ within this gathering made his insides twist again with buckled nerves, but he steeled firm against it. There was one other individual in the room who knew the truth of it well, and his eyes flicked briefly to meet the unreadable expression on Severus’s face, but he still had trouble knowing where his old friend now stood on the issue, caught as he was between the two. As he returned his attention to Dumbledore, Regulus added, “Particularly in respect to those still in school. I have no confirmation on the matter, but it happened in the previous iteration of the war, and there is reason to believe it is happening again - or will, if it has not already.”

"A grave concern," Dumbledore allowed, with a thoughtful nod. "If a difficult one to caution against. While we can watch over the more likely targets, we all know from experience that we can have difficulty identifying that successfully."

"We keep our eyes open and intervene when we can," McGonagall said, before her eyes flickered towards Moody. "As well as checking for Polyjuice."

"Yeah," Tonks added, "Not hiring another Death Eater for Defense would probably be a leg up."

Sirius snorted. "Whoops, a bit late for that."

McGonagall gave him a sharp look, to which he shrugged but didn't elaborate further.

"It is something we will try to be more vigilant of," Dumbledore allowed. "Above all else, Hogwarts must be a safe haven for all of its students, regardless of their circumstances."

Nodding stiffly, Regulus thought it all sounded a bit vague and noncommittal, and he pressed his lips to a line to stop himself from saying as much. What could be done from an action perspective was hard to say - short of abducting the high risk children in question - yet a simple ‘we’ll watch for it’ struck Regulus as a cop out with little conviction to it.

More than likely, Dumbledore and McGonagall were watching those students for the good of the other students - not with the intention of helping the children who had fallen deep into something they could not escape, even if they decided to on their own. A strange bitterness stung in his chest, but to say as much would accomplish nothing, however much it troubled him to think of Draco falling deeper than he must already be. Perhaps school would be a reprieve from assigned tasks, but with Harry in the school too, Regulus could not help but fear there were more uses for a student than once there had been.

Young Death Eaters did not want the help of Dumbledore or McGonagall, and he was not naive enough to think that was the solution when he himself would have scoffed, but the response had rather missed his point, nonetheless. Perhaps it was better that they had missed his point, but it stung no less. He glanced to Severus again, thinking that he was likely to prove a more productive line of conversation in that respect, if he could catch Severus before the other man had the chance to dart out of the door.

“Something to say?” Moody cut into his thought, and when Regulus flicked over a glance, he saw that creepily protruding eye swiveling to look at him.

Nothing that is likely to accomplish anything was the thought that rose in Regulus’s mind, but instead he shook his head and said, “Just thinking.”

Dumbledore interjected. "Then I suggest we adjourn for the evening. Alastor, if I might have a word on the way?"

Behind him, Emmeline tapped the back of his shoulder again. "Never play cards. You’re a terrible liar."

Twisting to meet her eyes, Regulus resisted a huff. “I expect he would not have cared for my commentary, and I concluded that there is more to be lost than gained from verbalising it.”

"You have other places to voice it," Emmeline gave him a consolatory pat on the shoulder. "Until some of the friction loosens."

Pressing his mouth to a small half-smile, he nodded. “Too true. So, how do I go about arranging for that portkey? Are they associated with the safe houses mentioned?”

"They're different, in case someone grabs it." Emmeline explained, as she flagged down Sturgis. "Usually, we'd pick somewhere you feel safe, but I'm not sure if there is one for you. Aside from here."

“This is it, yes,” he admitted, slanting his mouth as he shook his head. The little village in France sprung to mind, then, though it seemed a bit excessive for the average scuffle escape route.

"Then we'll do some pot luck," Emmeline shrugged. "Unless there's someone you want to be with in case of injury?"

As it was, the people he would want to be with when he was injured were more often present in this particular house rather than other houses, though he could not speak to how the Order distributed in such a situation. More than likely, this was not where anyone else felt safest, but within this house, at least he could always rely on Kreacher.

“The list is a bit shorter than it once was,” he said wryly. Or rather, the names on the list had changed. From the corner of his vision, he spotted Snape starting to shuffle towards the exit, and with a slightly pinched expression, flicked his eyes first to Dumbledore - who he also hoped to catch before leaving - then back to Emmeline. “If my presence isn’t required, I trust your judgement on the matter, but if it’s better to be present, I will be back shortly. There is something I would like to speak with Severus about, and he is a bit slippery in leaving these gatherings.”

With a motivated stride, Regulus crossed the room and stepped out, seeing that Severus had not gotten very far down the hall yet.

“Severus, if I might have a word?” As he approached, Regulus pressed his mouth to a thoughtful line. Again, a strange discomfort prickled at the back of his mind, aligned though their overall goals might remain. For a year, Regulus had been in this house, yet only a handful of those days had occasioned a visit from Severus, and even fewer had resulted in conversation; even so, at least he was not dropping threats or aggressive ultimatums, for all his distance from the rest of the Order.


The man’s familiar drawl was dry. Without the benefit of history, Regulus might have assumed it to be bored, yet closer inspection revealed a keen interest behind his eyes. Regulus was opening his mouth to speak when the Weasley twins bounded from behind, past the two of them and up a flight of stairs to where the other children had likely closed themselves off in some room or another. For a moment, Regulus paused, waiting for a door to shut above before returning his attention to the conversation. Tipping his head to the side, the two slipped into a room, and though Regulus did not wish to miss Dumbledore before he left, either, there were too many ears about to speak openly.

Severus lifted his brow in a subtle flicker as the door shut behind them. “If the intention is to avoid suspicion, your execution is a bit lacking in subtlety.”

“In this moment, I would prefer privacy over the avoidance of suspicion. I wish to speak of Draco.”

“I thought you might,” Severus said, elaborating no further.

“Whatever they might say in respect to the school as a whole, I have my doubts as to the protection that would be afforded to him, given his particular situation,” Regulus said with a subtle crinkle of his nose. “I do not know what the Dark Lord’s plans are for Draco, what his plans are for young Death Eaters within Hogwarts in general, but it troubles me greatly.”

“I suspected as much.” There was a little curl at the corner of Severus’s mouth. “There is a certain measure of bias one experiences in that room, as you will come to learn. Rest assured I will protect Draco, just as I have in the years you have been absent. His mother begged it of me weeks ago.”

A stab of jealousy jabbed in Regulus’s chest, but with a measure of care, he kept it from flickering on his face. “She is very concerned; as she should be. I’m surprised you did not talk him out of it.”

“He did not come for permission,” Severus said curtly.

“I’m sure you subtly discouraged it when appropriate.” The snip slipped out before Regulus could wrangle it back down his throat, and though Severus did not bristle, a certain sharpness narrowed in his eyes.

“I maintained my cover.”

“Of course,” Regulus responded, and though an edge of sarcasm was burning in his mouth and behind his teeth, he filtered it out in favour of neutrality before he again permitted himself to speak. “That is very important,” he said, though it did not feel very important to Regulus at all when it meant throwing Draco to the un-mercies of the Death Eaters. There were non-traitorous ways to encourage him to wait, but now that he had joined… “I am merely disappointed to see history repeating itself. I want something better for him.”

“Do not presume to think I wanted for this to happen, but if you are referencing a life of rebellion, do you truly think that would be better for him?” Again, the tone was dry, and Regulus did not much like the leading nature of the questions.

“I would have settled for finishing school before throwing himself into a cause he cannot safely step back from,” Regulus correctly firmly.

“Have you not done the same? Twice, at that,” Severus pointed out, to which Regulus crinkled his nose.

“Only once,” Regulus countered.

“You are naive if you think the Order’s ‘leave at will’ philosophy applies to you too,” Snape said in a stinging, lofty tone that Regulus did not like much at all. “You are here with conditions, as am I, and those conditions are protected by Dumbledore. You know better than most in that room why this is a problem,” he said with a sweeping gesture, and Regulus felt a guilty pang as he thought of Dumbledore’s curse-blackened hand. “While they are unlikely to murder us for choosing to withdraw, the promise of protection is contingent upon continued cooperation. They coat it in sugar to preserve their moral high-ground, but now that you have been brought in, they will never trust you, should you want out.”

“Some of them are beyond any hope of trust, but not all of them,” Regulus said, a little defensively.

“They are not your friends, even if you think they are,” Severus returned sharply, and again, Regulus fought a bristle. “If the tides were to turn against you, do you really think they would prioritise you over one of their own?”

The sting wriggled deeper, a trail of punctures as Regulus stiffened against the point. Sirius, perhaps, would stand for him - maybe even Emmeline, though if it were at the expense of another, he could not be so sure. He could not even be so sure that they ought to, in such a situation, yet the thought was no less hollow.

“Why are you pressing this? We are meant to be on the same side, all of us, but this is not the first time you’ve extended to suggest otherwise,” Regulus responded with a furrowed brow.

“The same side, yes, but you can pursue a common goal without mutual trust,” Severus said in turn. “They do not trust you without reservation, and you should take care in the same manner.”

“I do not blindly trust them,” Regulus countered with a frown.

“But you would like to.” The words were a statement, rather than a question. “Your growing closeness with Vance is nauseatingly obvious, as is your willingness to ignore the continually contemptible existence of your brother. Consider the risk, and what you must give up, should you continue an open rebellion.”

Suddenly, Regulus wondered if Narcissa had said anything to Severus about their conversations, or whether Severus was merely putting forth a perceptive guess - or perhaps a little of both. “I am taking these things into consideration, but you ought to know better than anyone that there is more to tentatively trust in the Order right now than there is for me in the Death Eaters.” Locking his gaze more firmly, Regulus added, “I did not come back to isolate myself from them both.”

As Severus’s mouth thinned, Regulus continued, “I consider you to be part of that.”

“Of which one?” he asked dryly.

“Of the Order,” Regulus clarified with a slightly stubborn expression. “No one else in that room understands what we have experienced and what we continue to experience. A continual frustration, might I add, but one that I am trying to accept for the truth that it is. Perhaps you don’t trust me either, and I will not pretend that I have not experienced a degree of uncertainty about whether I might find myself the subject of a loyalty test, now that the Death Eaters know I am alive. Even so, I recognise the similarly delicate nature of our situations. Considering the overwhelming amount of Gryffindors I now interact with on a regular basis, I must admit I do value that, however sparse your visits might be.”

“When it comes to obnoxious Gryffindors, I assure you I am subjected to far more,” Severus deadpanned.

The tension loosened a little, and Regulus quirked the corner of his mouth in a little smirk. “I suppose you are. A teacher. Somehow, I have failed to express just how surprising that news was.”

“It was not my occupation of choice.”

“I suspected as much.” Regulus shook his head, smothering his mouth to a line again. “I will leave you to it, then.”

Severus tipped his, and the two lingered in place for a moment before slipped back out into the near-empty hallway, one after another. Most of the Order seemed to have cleared off, and Dumbledore - now finished with his own conversation - looked ready to vanish out the front door as well when Regulus set his feet to rapid steps again.

“Before you go,” Regulus began, and Dumbledore turned his half-moon spectacles back. “There is something I have been meaning to ask.”

“What is on your mind?” the elder wizard asked as the rest of his body turned to match. Severus passed them then, taking his exit instead, and Regulus waited until the door had thunked shut a few long seconds later before speaking again.

“It’s about the prophecy,” Regulus said in a lower tone. “I think it would be...beneficial to our collective purposes if I could listen to the contents in their entirety.”

“I’m afraid that is not possible,” Dumbledore said in a regretful tone, though Regulus did not think he could feel too regretful about it if the ball remained as intact as Regulus had last seen it.

“The prophecy survived, did it not? Why is it not possible?” Regulus asked, trying to filter the small, demanding rush into a more even delivery.

“You recognise the value of limited information distribution, do you not? There are certain things you have kept to your own chest, as I understand it.”

Regulus thought it was a rather unfair point when they were talking about something that could very well help in the consideration of the horcruxes, and this time, he did not bother to filter the annoyance from his face. “With the others, certainly, but you are aware of my ongoing... task. The prophecy may well inform it.”

“If it does, I am certain I will catch it,” Dumbledore responded with a smile, but Regulus found it more grating than comforting, in the moment. “The pursuit of your pardon will begin soon. Ensure that you are ready for that, and I will attend to concerns of the prophecy.”

The reminder of his case for freedom (and present lack thereof) was skillfully, if blatantly, implemented. Perhaps it would have felt less like a threat if the conversation with Severus had not already put him in a mood, or if the prophecy wasn’t being held back from him for no discernably good reason, but he arranged his face into something neutral.

“I will be ready,” Regulus said, despite the dread pooling in his stomach, and without further word, apparated straight to the top floor. As far as politeness went, he knew the exit could have used some work, but he had started to grow attached to the prospect of knowing the full extent of the prophecy, and to try and go about that with official channels and be cut off so immediately was more irritating than he had expected.

With a huff, Regulus dropped into the seat at his desk and tried to focus his mind, pulling out parchment to start scribbling down the new points of information. At least his first meeting with the Order had not been a complete loss.

A long-standing eye for details came in handy when trying to have an incognito meeting. As Sirius reached the top of the stairs to the hallway, he noticed the telltale burn marks of an attempt to burst through the silencing charms that'd been set up prior to the meeting. The top landing was empty now, but he could well imagine the younger Weasleys – no doubt irritated by their brothers' inclusion – trying to break through to listen in, no matter what their mother told them. He didn't imagine Harry was taking too well to the exclusion either, but there was nothing he didn't know already, or they were things he had no gain in knowing.

Behind him, Remus came to an abrupt stop just shy of bumping right into his back. They exchanged a look, one of both exasperation at the continued efforts and a little nostalgia-infected pride that they were every bit as stubborn and creative (if not more so) than they'd been at the same age. Harry was sixteen now, the same age Sirius had been when he'd left home, older than Regulus had joined the Death Eaters, only a year younger than when he and James had first started getting into fights with Death Eaters.

“Are you planning on coming to Diagon?” Sirius asked.

Remus shook his head. “There'll be enough attention on you as a group without me adding to it.”

“Despite what you seem to believe, no one can automatically tell you have a furry little problem,” Sirius said. He wasn't sure if that was true; with werewolves coming more to the forefront of the war again, the signs of infection would make the rounds, and no doubt, Remus would know that. “I'm not asking anyone else. I can't stomach any more lovesick stares. I went through all of that with James, and I didn't have the patience for it then either.”

Remus winced. “So I remember.”

It had been a bit of a sticking point when Lily had first been added to the group, but they'd gotten over it. Or he had, because they could spark off an argument between each other easily, but he didn't think that he could remember Lily specifically starting one.

This was different. He wasn't one to stand in the way of something that made people happy, but the limbo was making him feel crazy. You could cut the tension with a knife. “I'd never advocate anyone I like, let alone an old friend, getting involved with someone I'm related to. However, the pining and flirting is so much worse. Either have at it, or don't. The tension is driving me crazy.”

“It's not on purpose,” Remus said, with a hint of defensiveness slipping into his tone.

“I know that,” Sirius pinched the top of his nose, and sighed heftily. “It could all work out. Even if not, we could all end up dead, and there's no reason not to try and grab a little joy where you can. I don't begrudge that at all.”

“It's dangerous,” Remus said. “She deserves better.”

Caught in between the desire to defend his younger brother (he had gotten considerably better, and he was still growing, so people could lay off and let him find his feet, ta very much) and the surprise that Remus would say so, given that he had been under the impression they were getting on. Besides, it wasn't the point. “She's a grown woman,” Sirius insisted. “It's her choice who she chooses to like. It's got nothing to do with being better or worse. Give her some credit.”

“I do. She is a remarkable woman,” Remus agreed. “But she's young, and it would only drag down the rest of her life.”

“She's not that young,” Sirius insisted. Vance was older than him, a fact she enjoyed lording over him from time to time.

“She's twenty-three.”

Something stuttered in Sirius's brain, as he opened his mouth to argue. Walking back into his mind was the sudden realisation he hadn't been particularly specific as to Regulus and Emmeline's ridiculous whispering in the corner like a couple of gossiping hens, and remembering Emmeline putting forward the idea that Tonks had a crush on Remus. He hadn't paid it much mind; Tonks reminded him a lot of himself at that age, and he'd had crushes that lasted all of an hour before fading. Especially so that he wasn't entirely sure where Remus stood on it.

Self-pitying, apparently. Sirius had to laugh at that.

“It's not funny,” Remus insisted, sounding more hurt than Sirius had truly meant for him to be.

“I wasn't actually talking about you, mate.” Sirius admitted, with a grin. “But I did hear the reason my baby cousin is moping is because she wants to get her leg over you.”

Sirius!” Remus hissed.

Sirius paid him no mind. “It's a bit weird,” he admitted. “But not ‘cause you come over a bit furry once a month. She can change into whatever shape she wants; she can be hairy any time she fancies. Point stands, grown woman with her own choices. Except her mum might chase you and hex you one if you upset her.”

“She deserves someone whole,” Remus said, sadly.

“Got bits missing, have you?” Sirius glanced over him in an obvious way.

“There's a whole me missing once a month,” Remus replied.

Sirius wanted to argue that too. Being a wolf was part of him, and while it was dangerous, that didn't make it an automatically bad part. Dangerous didn't always mean bad. If Remus didn't look ready to wallow in his own pit of pity or fit to argue with him till sunrise on the matter he would.

“Do whatever you want to do,” Sirius said, with a shrug. “But I've got two sets of adolescent romantic dramatics and none of you are actually teenagers.”

“You don't understand,” said Remus. “I wouldn't wish you to either.”

“Sure,” Sirius said, rolling his eyes. “You've got someone who not only knows your deepest and darkest and not only accepts it, but still wants you? This sounds so terrible.”

“She's your cousin,” Remus said. “It's weird, you said yourself.”

“It's not as if it was you that met her when she was a nipper, is it?” Sirius pointed out. How he went from feeling awkward and not sure how he felt about the idea of Remus and his cousin's kid shacking up to actively saying to get it was beyond him, but he couldn't stick watching people be miserable when they had the power to change it. “If you like her, she likes you, just don't bite her, and get the hell on with it. If you're running off and she's looking like Snape when you could both talk about it and decide one way or another, you're both damned fools.”

For a moment, Remus said nothing. Then a small grin flickered. “It worries me when you're the rational one.”

“Me too.” Sirius shuddered. “But in for a knut, in for a galleon. I'm not going through Lily and James again.”

“What about when Harry starts dating?” Remus asked.

“He had a girlfriend,” Sirius said, struggling to remember the brief mentions of another quidditch player. He hadn't heard much about it, he realised, given that he'd gotten a tendency to bite Harry's head off last year when they did talk, and half the time, they couldn't because of bloody Umbridge. He despised the thought, but it was hard to think of it through the fog that he'd felt weighing on him when stuck in this house for what seemed an eternity. He still shouldn't have taken it out on Harry. He wanted to know what was going on in his life, not just the bad parts. “I don't think he still does.”

“There'll be others,” Remus said.

“Probably,” Sirius allowed. “But I think I'd rather deal with Voldemort than any more bloody pining.”

It didn't take long realise that the twins, thick as thieves, had met up with their younger counterparts and were whispering away in Harry's room to their siblings, Harry and Hermione. Normally, discussing anything of the Order would be cause for concern, but this was more a simple case of defying their mother, and it was not as if doing that was in any way unusual in this house. Sirius decided to leave them to it; there was nothing sensitive this time, and they could make a note if there was something they really shouldn't be saying next time. Sirius made a look for Dumbledore, but he’d flitted off to parts unknown, forcing his conversation with him about Harry to another time.

On the top landing, Sirius hesitated. He was starting to feel like an agony aunt more than a vigilante, but at the same time, it was all going on around him, and he still woke up in a night sweat remembering the horrors of James's pining-induced poetry. He'd been exceptionally lucky to find friends, even some family by blood and otherwise, that cared for him, and that had always been enough for him. That wasn't the situation he was witnessing, though. He was watching his brother faff about, not knowing where to be at and not giving any clues to his eventual decision in the last month other than allowing continually sickening displays of flirting. While he seemed to be finding his voice in the Order (though restrained, if tonight was anything to go by), and even against his old allies, he seemed to still be stuck floundering at the idea of a relationship.

It better be because he'd decided to he wanted to, because Sirius in no way wanted to believe he'd let this awkwardness escalate over the last month simply because he couldn't say no. Maybe that would have been the case twenty years ago, but he hoped that Regulus had grown and learned a lot since then. Everything was always so insanely complicated when you make everything contingent on a set of bullshit rules and enforce it on your kids.

Trying the door, Sirius found it wasn't locked. "I wasn't sure you'd be up here," he said.

“Yes, of course, Sirius, you can come in. Thank you for asking,” Regulus said without looking up, scribbling something on the piece of parchment that he was hunched over at the desk.

Sirius huffed at him. It wasn't entirely unexpected to find him with his wand in a knot over Moody calling out the fact he was obviously biting his tongue, and that Draco Malfoy's involvement with the Death Eaters was a lot less hypothetical than he was letting on.

Sirius opened the door further and walked in before shutting it behind him. "I wasn't planning on coming in, but since you said it so nicely."

Seemingly done with his parchment - at least for the moment - Regulus folded it and slipped it into his desk drawer before turning his attention to Sirius. “How can I be of assistance?”

Formalities and all. This was going to be considerably worse than he thought. "It went that badly?"

“Not in every possible respect, but on the whole, today has been less cooperative than I had hoped,” Regulus responded.

"That would explain why you look clenched tight enough to make diamonds," Sirius replied mildly. He sat down on the bed, before being struck by how funny it felt to do this. They'd spoken this way many times, but there was just something about the frustrating level of formality, the impeccable and irritating neatness, and their positions that brought to mind the fact they used to do this quite often. More specifically, Sirius coming in and sitting cross-legged on the bed while Regulus either tried to read, write, or do things that were other than paying attention to him before giving up on such a vain endeavour. It even looked the same.

No, Sirius realised with a start. It didn't. Something had changed. He looked around the room with a frown, as he couldn't quite put his finger on it. "Did you redecorate?" he asked. Was it the colour? He was sure there used to more silver.

“Yes,” Regulus confirmed as he gave into the pattern and twisted in his chair to face Sirius. “A couple of months ago.”

"Is that when you removed the heads?" Sirius asked, in a distracted sort of way. They'd barely spent much time here in the last two months, between Iago and France. He hadn't really had the chance to check for possible changes.

“Around that time, yes.” Regulus dipped his chin in a little nod.

"What else?" Sirius asked. However, no sooner had the words left his mouth did he realise that something else was missing. This exclusion caused a jolt to his chest he couldn't quite identify. "You got rid of your murder board!" he exclaimed.

“Stop calling it a murder board,” Regulus said with a subtle strain in his voice, followed by a soft huff.

Sirius waved off the comment. "It was a board of newspaper clippings of a variety of murders. Thus, a murder board. I thought you wanted to keep that."

“I decided that I didn’t,” Regulus responded, waving his hand at the jarringly empty spot on the wall. “Clearly.”

"You're about twenty years late with that attitude," Sirius replied evenly. "Have I done something extra special to annoy you or are just in a mood?"

This time, Regulus let out a heavy sigh in place of his huff. “It’s not you - just residual irritation.”

Since he wasn't throwing anything, Sirius could respect that. He was handling a bad mood (residual irritation, his giddy aunt) better than most if he was just being a little snippy. "Because you got a brush off from Dumbledore?"

Furrowing his brow, Regulus opened his mouth to say something, paused, then closed it again into a thin line. Confirmation enough.

"If your concern is Narcissa's son, he already knows." Sirius shrugged. Harry had tried to raise the issue, after all. "Since he hasn't expelled him, I'm guessing he has some sort of plan, but the man is annoying inscrutable right when you don't want him to be."

“So it seems,” Regulus huffed, shaking his head.

Sirius sighed heavily, and leaned back onto his elbows on the bed. "I was going to bust your balls, but it's no fun if you're already miserable."

“What for? I haven’t done anything,” Regulus said, lifting an eyebrow.

"Precisely my point," Sirius huffed. "You realise you've let it get to the point where literally everyone has noticed your little entanglement? You better have decided you're actually alright with it, or this is about to become exactly the humiliation I warned you about a month ago."

Pressing his lips to a line, Regulus leaned into the back of the chair. “Entanglement? That’s dramatic.”

"It's the noble and most ancient house," Sirius said, letting some of his sarcasm drip into his tone. Much as he was loathe to admit it, this particular affliction tended to get him too. "There's nothing about you, or I, or anyone else we're related to that's not bordering on melodrama."

“That seems to be the consensus,” Regulus said, crinkling his nose. “But to your point, barreling into things isn’t exactly the best option either.”

"How many Death Eaters are you related to now?" Sirius could also bring up that Narcissa was endlessly dramatic even without the branding, but it seemed a little divergent to his point. "I'm not suggesting barrelling, but you better have decided you're alright with the flirting because you've had a month to tell her you're not, and you haven't. It's getting worse than dramatic. It's...cute."

Regulus rolled his eyes but shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I’m capable of handling my own situation.”

"A month ago, I believed you," Sirius pointed out dryly. "But I still have no idea where you stand. Does she?"

“You seem to be much more concerned about it than she is,” Regulus said dryly in return.

That was likely fair. Part of it was undoubtedly the rules and regulations of good manners which prevented her from going up and giving him a good shake, but the more Sirius thought about it, the more he realised he did actually care about the entire situation. Sirius had very few old friends whom he’d been close to that were still alive; and from their age group, it was now just himself, Remus, and Emmeline. They were both still very noticeably them, even after all these years, a few more grey hairs and scars aside. With being reliant on people coming here, he hadn’t really had a chance to socialise much, but he did see them both most of the time.

Then there was Regulus himself; he’d managed to connect with Sirius’s oldest friends now in a way that he didn’t when they were young, much to his younger self’s chagrin. He didn’t seem out of place around them, and if he was honest with himself, he thought he was currently spending more time around Emmeline than Sirius himself was. Just like the Order meeting, they liked to hole up and talk. That was a minor miracle - Regulus hated talking about anything of consequence.

Could he really blame himself for being invested? An old friend and his brother dancing about each other for months, when it was obvious to anyone that they actually liked each other. He’d seen it before with Emmeline, but he’d been busy then, and no doubt Marlene had busted her metaphorical balls back then too. He’d never seen anything close to it with Regulus. He still wasn’t sure what shape a relationship would take for him, but he had the awful, sinking suspicion that it would probably make him happy. Familial relationships, for him, would always be tied up with honour codes and expectations, but a new relationship wouldn’t have the same weight in the baggage if he could get over the hump of blood purity. A lot of things would become simpler if he could get past that.

(A few things more complicated, too.)

“The longer you let it continue, the more likely it is to turn into something real rather than a fleeting crush. Then if you’ve decided against it, it’s going to be harder.” Sirius forced himself to shrug. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. Or her. But I also don’t want your anxieties to be the only thing standing in the way of two people I give a damn being happy, for as long as they can. I don’t want you to think that you don’t deserve to be happy because of your past, because of old family motto, or because you still feel like you let everyone down by not being a merry miniature mass murderer.”

With a heavy sigh, Regulus shook his head, finding a floorboard to stare at. “I know.”

"I don't want you to end up like that portrait," Sirius said, unable to keep the shudder from his voice. "Stuck in the past, or worse, like Dad, stuck in this routine you think you ought to be in because it's expected of you. I know you don't hate it, but being stuck here, doing the same things as everyone else, it won't change your past or absolve any of that guilt. Sitting in the past, going over it again and again, is no way to live. I want you to have a future. I don't think a relationship is integral to it, but if you're denying yourself not because you don't want it, but because of the crap that's still floating around in your head from being a teenager stuck in a shit situation, then yes, that bothers me."

Regulus slanted his mouth downward, frowning at the floor. “I wish I could just pluck out the complications; but it isn’t just about me - thinking that it is would be selfish - and I recognise what that means in this situation.” Again, he huffed a sigh. “Part of me is tired of caring about what is selfish in that respect, but at the same time, just because I’m tired of feeling selfish doesn’t mean that I don’t... I’m simply trying to reconcile that. It’s very frustrating.”

“Being tired of feeling something doesn't mean you stop feeling it.” Sirius let out a slow, steady breath. He understood that. One day, he was going to set Regulus down with a list of screwed up thoughts he had managed to glean from their upbringing and just have him tick off all that apply so he could actually tell what he was dealing with instead of it smacking them both in the face like this. “Doing something that is good for you, rather than some collective we, doesn’t make you selfish. People who care about you will want you to be happy, even if it’s not what they imagined for you. I realise you've always had trouble with that one, but I don’t want it to wreck your life when you’ve fought hard to have one. Other people's happiness shouldn't come at the cost of yours. Whether or not you decide you want a relationship is about you. She's a big girl, and she hasn't run screaming yet, which doesn't bode well for her being sane, but you won’t know till you try, or explain you’d rather be friends.”

“I want to be insulted that you're suggesting a relationship with me is a sign of insanity,” Regulus began with a pinched expression, leaning an arm on the back of his chair and resting his chin upon it, “but it's likely to paint a target on her back, so I suppose there is some truth to it, even with other issues aside.”

"You're taking too much credit. Emmeline's already got a target on her back, and she put it there all by herself," Sirius reminded him. It wouldn't make any such difference if they already want her dead; she can only die once, and it doesn't particularly matter which perceived infraction would do it. "Besides, you shouldn't take it personally. I think anyone who voluntarily gets involved with anyone with Black blood must be barking. The Death Eaters, Slytherin obsession, emotional constipation, insanity, difficulty havings kids, cursed objects everywhere, mental house-elf, and pureblood mania is a big price to pay for excellent cheekbones."

Again, Regulus rolled his eyes. “You make it sound a lot worse when you phrase it like that.”

"I'm making it sound exactly what it is." Sirius absolutely dared him to even indicate any of that wasn't true. It all was, to some degree. "When you find someone who looks at that huge list of crap they'll have to put up to be with you, either as a lifelong friendship or something else, and sticks around? I can't explain how brilliant that truly feels. That there are people willing to be screamed at by Mum, or the rest of the judgemental dead, or anyone else who's opinion they have to deal with, and they still want to be there with you, even though they don't have to, there's nothing binding them to do it, it's just that that they think you're worth dealing with all of that..." He thought of how Harry always seemed so pleased to see him; that Remus, who was always so fucking careful, let his guard down around him; of sitting on top of some empty tomb in High Gate with James, who just obviously knew he'd be there, and felt his throat constrict.

Pressing his lips to a line, Regulus nodded, though the thoughtful expression on his face did not seem to indicate an immediate intention to respond, instead leaving the words to hang thickly.

"You are worth that, and fuck anyone who says otherwise, alright?" Clearing his throat before he did something horrible and embarrassing, Sirius laughed nervously to himself. "Besides, people are going to start making bets soon on whether you get over it, or Remus does it first. I intend to win."

“Is the bet why you've been pressing this point?” Regulus asked, though a flimsy smile was starting to crack through his pensive frown. “I knew there had to be an ulterior motive.”

"Of course, " Sirius deadpanned. "That you're my brother and I care about what happens to you is all a clever ruse."

“And elaborate, at that,” Regulus returned evenly, shaking his head with the flickering hint of wry amusement. “I expected as much.”

"Yes, convincing Mum to have another baby when I was eleven months old just so I could make a series of bets on you was particularly challenging since I don't think I'd gotten on to double syllables yet," Sirius said. "But clearly, it all worked since you're here."

“I wasn't aware your special skills involved convincing Mum of anything,” Regulus quipped, “but I cannot argue with results.”

"You're right," Sirius had to agree that he'd never managed to convince her of anything. "I don't think anyone's managed to convince Mum to do anything since 1925. She's been dead eleven years, a sentence I never thought I'd say since I never thought she was capable of doing something as mundane as popping her clogs in the first place, and I still don't think anyone could. Not even you."

“Probably not,” Regulus said with a tight smile. “The odds are not in my favour, as far as betting goes. I prefer to win my gambles.”

"Me too," Sirius replied. "So before Bellatrix decides to come and smother us in our sleep, try and make a bloody decision, will you? Or we'll have-" Suddenly, he stopped and thought for a moment. He wasn't sure whether or not Regulus would count Tonks. Sirius would, but he'd always been close to Andromeda, and the tree meant little to him, so it didn't matter that she wasn't on it. "Do you count Tonks? In terms of blood-as-family."

Regulus donned a thoughtful expression, hesitating for a moment before tipping his head in a little nod. “I was not sure how to interpret or categorise her at first, and it was admittedly difficult to connect her with Andromeda when her hair was blindingly pink; but yes, I do recognise that she is blood-family, even if it feels a bit strange.” He shook his head. “Actually, ‘very strange’ is probably more accurate.”

"I would have thought connecting her with her mother would make it harder, not easier." It did seem consistent with how he seemed to categorise them, even if that meant that made things more difficult with Bellatrix. "She's not that weird; I'll change my mind if Andromeda ends up with a bunch of pink and purple furred grandchildren, but other than that, she's just a bit colourful."

“That would be strange in quite a different way,” Regulus said wryly, sitting up straight in his chair again.

"Is it being an Auror?" Sirius asked. Admittedly, he found that quite strange.

“There is more than one factor, but that is certainly among them. I really had not spoken more than a few words to her until shortly before Bella broke out of Azkaban, which was a bit uncomfortable, to say the least,” Regulus began, shaking his head. “In general, she has felt more like a friendly Order member than Andromeda’s daughter, but not always - it’s difficult to explain.”

"I hadn't seen her since she was about seven until that first Order meeting, when you saw Dumbledore," Sirius admitted. It had been a pretty strange experience. "I don't see much of either of her parents in her. It's not like Harry, or the Weasleys, or you. It's easy to pin down where a sense of humour or something they think comes from. Tonks has me at a loss."

“I can’t speak to her father’s personality, but I would not have thought her to be related to Andromeda,” Regulus said, shaking his head.

"No, but And's not cheeky around you," Sirius pointed out. "You were still a baby when she got up the spout. It's like seeing Tonks now; it's hard to reconcile her with the seven year old, but I wouldn't have talked to the seven-year-old in the same way."

“Children and adults are two very different things, it’s true.” Regulus tipped his head in agreement.

"Even the perpetually-forty ones." Sirius replied.

“There is nothing wrong with maturity beyond one’s age,” Regulus sniffed.

"There is if everyone expects them to be an adult when they're not one," Sirius replied. "Children deserve to be children, and not have to worry about making a few mistakes or worrying too much. Or being side-alonged to Death Eater gatherings for that matter."

Regulus stiffened at the remark, the muscles in his face pulling tense for a beat, but his frame loosened again just a moment later as he nodded, more solemnly. “I can agree with that.”

"And even if you don't want to hold them accountable for doing that, I sure as hell do." Sirius thought maybe it was easier to be angry about the current generation being dragged in, so Regulus didn't have to think about how he'd done personally.

“I realise that it isn’t okay,” Regulus said with a frown, though his tone held a measure of discomfort, and quite predictably, he added: “I don’t want it to happen to Draco.”

"I think you know it's not okay happening to your youngest relative," Sirius elaborated. For others, of course not, but for Regulus himself, he'd make excuses, rationalise it, say it was complicated. "I just don't think you know how much it wasn't okay that it happened to you."

“I know it wasn’t… I left, didn’t I?” Regulus pointed out with a slightly pinched frown.

“You didn't do it for yourself.” Sirius replied evenly. “You made yourself suffer through inferi to try and stop Voldemort. That's not the same thing as leaving to save yourself.”

“I did want to stop him - but I wanted out, too,” Regulus said to the floor.

"You didn't just want to stop him. You tried to." Sirius insisted. "There would have been nothing wrong with leaving for yourself, to save yourself, but you could have done it quietly at any time. You didn't. You retraced those steps knowing you wouldn't likely survive it to get a shot at helping save lives without any credit at all. That's not leaving to save you - it's trying to save everyone, and I'll bet that rattling around in your brain,you'll have still managed to brand that as selfish instead of heroic."

Eyes flicking up to Sirius again, Regulus thinned his mouth and huffed softly through his nose. Again, he folded an arm on the back of the chair and propped his chin just shy of the wrist. “It depends on the day. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Heroic might be pushing it when it was only a partial success, and leaving was thoughtless towards the people left behind, regardless of intention; but the sentiment is appreciated all the same.”

“A brave act you don't intend to benefit from for the benefit others is heroic by definition,” Sirius pointed out. It was true, regardless of how he felt about it. “True heroics always include sacrifice. What bigger sacrifice is there for you than family?’

“That doesn't feel like the heroic part. It just feels like the miserable part,” Regulus said sardonically, the sleeve rustling beneath his chin as he shook his head.

“If brave acts were easy, everyone would do them,” Sirius said, because that was true. The right thing often felt terrible at the time. “You did a spectacularly stupid thing, but you were also young, far too young, and when you could, you tried to make up for it at great cost to yourself. You're willing to give everyone the chance to do the same. Merlin forbid, I think if Bellatrix decided it wasn't worth it and packed it in, you'd forgive her in a heartbeat despite being half the reason you ended up in the Death Eaters in the first place! In fact, I think you'd want her forgiveness for not doing more to bring about the impossible realisation.”

But that was what growing up in this house did to you. You were better than everyone else, but still not good enough, and nothing you could do would ever make up for any failures. “You have to recognise that you're capable of great things, you've even done a few, and that you don't have to apologize to everyone for the rest of your life for that. You're owed a lot more apologies than you need to give.” Including probably a few more from him, especially if this one wasn’t yelled across a room.

“It doesn’t always feel that way,” Regulus said with a thin smile. A little more lightly, he added, “Regarding the apologies, that is. I know I’m capable of great things, of course.”

Sirius plucked one of the pillows from the bed, and threw it at him. "Piss off. The role of arrogant prick has been taken."

Regulus caught the pillow and tucked it under his arm, resting his chin on that instead. “No need to assault me. I was just doing what you said,” he returned, though his mouth had lifted to a slant.

“It needs work,” Sirius said dryly. “That's an A at best. You'll have to practice.”

“I will practice. An A is not sufficient,” Regulus responded lightly, shaking his head. “Whoever designated A as 'Acceptable’ had low standards.”

Sirius laughed at the parody of it. “Cheers, Dad, nice to see you, losing the chin ferret has really made you look a decade or two younger and considerably more alive than I last recalled.”

“The point stands,” Regulus pointed out, only half in jest. “Even if ‘chin ferret’ would not be my recommended descriptor for his facial hair.”

“Chin kneazle?” Sirius suggested. “Perhaps ferrets should be limited to Narcissa’s boy.”

“You’re terrible.” Tapping a finger on the pillow beneath his chin, Regulus added, “If this pillow wasn’t so comfortable, I would throw it back at you in an act so uncommon to my disposition that you would not see it coming. Consider yourself lucky.”

“I must be being a bad influence,” Sirius puffed proudly. He hadn't been able to be an appropriately terrible influence since before they'd gone to school. “I know you've been a horrible one. I was downright polite to your adoring cousin when she called in.”

“So it seems,” Regulus noted, shaking his head with a touch of amusement. “Who knew it was possible?”

"I can make an effort when I want to, and I'm in a situationally inappropriate good mood." Sirius admitted. "I wouldn't bet on it lasting."

Even so, he'd had trouble moving out of it. There was something about flitting between countries, being able to sit on a beach, mucking about with his oldest friends, hanging about with Harry - and if he was honest, feeling a little like his brother didn't absolutely hate him - helped things. He had no idea what Regulus was saying about them getting on to Narcissa, but for now, he was enjoying it. Despite the war, he was feeling as if he could do things again. He could keep an eye on Harry; he could go down the pub for a pint if he so chose; and the war seemed so much more close to being over. The idea of having a future was terrifyingly possible in a way that wasn't being consumed by grief in the way it had been. It was still there in the background, but it felt less. He felt a little guilty about that; it was his fault, and his choice, and he should still feel it, but it was hard to hold onto that guilt in the face of the possibility of seeing Harry grow up, of fighting with his friends again, and this time, not losing his younger brother in the process.

It felt hopeful, nauseating, and exciting all at once.

“That is good enough for now,” Regulus said wryly, but a little smile remained, despite the tone.

It was, wasn't it?

Chapter Text

To wait for the Dark Lord’s arrival was an agony that Bellatrix never took with ease, no matter how many years had passed since first she joined the ranks of his trusted warriors. Spread along the line of Cissy’s banquet table were her comrades in arms, many of whom were familiar from the first war, ignited so long ago. Peppered among them were a mess of embarrassments who Bellatrix assumed the Dark Lord must have some use for, disgusting though they might be, and Pettigrew was chief among the embarrassments. She relished the twitchy way he cringed and looked away when she met his eyes. No longer did the Death Eaters meet in masks as they once had, but she could not decide if it was more satisfying to see the nervous expression or more annoying to see his face at all.

(Whatever her thoughts, the Dark Lord knew best.)

“Your cousin has been running his mouth,” Yaxley grated at her from across the table.

“I have told you not to call him that,” Bellatrix countered sharply, feeling a stirring of anger in her stomach, clawing its way up through her chest to beat at the base of her skull. “And you say that as if it is anything short of his life’s purpose.”

“I don’t mean that one,” Yaxley corrected, but when she turned a pointed glower, his stiffening posture suggested that he had noticed his repeated mistake in phrasing. Collecting himself again, he continued. “Regulus. That kid barely used to say a word, but he’s getting mouthier. When do you plan to do something about it?”

“Do not presume to dictate my timing, Yaxley,” she sneered back, feeling a very different sort of anger pressing in her skull. “I said that I will deal with him, and I intend to.”

“I just want to make sure you aren’t feeling soft about it. If that night at the Ministry wasn’t-”

A loud slam cracked through the air as her hand slapped firm on the table. “I am not SOFT!” Bellatrix shrieked, the words bubbling out through a curling snarl.

Beside her, Rodolphus shifted forward in his seat. “What she means to say is that he was a pliable child, may now be a pliable adult, and the intention is to confirm whether or not he can be made useful for the Dark Lord’s purposes. If not, he will be eliminated, as is the fate of traitors.”

“I do not need you to speak for me,” she snapped hotly at her husband, but Rodolphus merely sat back in his chair with a dark-lidded look and turned his attention back to his brother beside him. With a fresh wave of annoyance, Bellatrix shook her head, fingers curling to a fist against the smooth surface of the table. “I will deal with Regulus, should the need arise.”

“I only meant to point out that he’s not sounding very confused,” Yaxley said with a defensive edge. “Gibbon might have reported a man by his description visiting Crouch, but if he had any doubt that night, he isn’t showing it now. Gibbon, has he gone back?”

“Not that I’ve seen on any of my shifts.”

Gibbon had been new to the Cause when the Dark Lord fell, and Bellatrix had yet to settle her opinion on him, but his support of Yaxley’s drivel was doing little for his case. Whatever annoying habits Lucius might possess, Bellatrix almost wished her brother-in-law were among them because at least he cared about Cissy’s state of mind regarding the whole thing. Rodolphus was being mostly useless about it, as ever. “Whether he is stupid enough to visit a hospitalised Death Eater twice is not the point. It is not your call to make.”

“No, it’s yours. But you have to admit there is some bias to consider. I wouldn’t want my old mentee to reflect badly on me either, especially not if I was related to him,” Yaxley said flatly.

In a flurried sweep, Bellatrix had sprung to her feet flung out her wand in a jagged arch that ended with a perilous point. Yaxley, too, had pulled out his wand, his posture reactive, though neither had cast on the other as of yet. “Suggest I am biased one more time. I dare you.”

“I can appreciate a good brawl, but that’s enough from you, Yaxley,” Rodolphus said dryly, cutting off the other man, even as he was bristling. “Speaking of mentees, has Draco indicated any progress in his task?”

“His options are limited at present, but his enthusiasm is well making up for it,” Bellatrix said tightly.

“Would not want another-ergh-” Yaxley grabbed at his throat with a coughing croak, a panicked flash flickering to a scowl as her wand had finished its cursing flourish. Holding it aloft, she stared him down, the wordless spell still ringing in her skull for several tense seconds.

To her right, a few more Death Eaters trickled in to the banquet hall, sparing brief glances at Yaxley as they passed. She let the curse linger a moment longer to emphasise her unspoken point to the new audience before she swished a nonverbal countercurse, releasing Yaxley's sputtering cough into the silence. He seemed to have decided that finishing his unwelcome commentary was no longer a priority, and Bellatrix considered that accomplishment enough as she sat back down. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Rabastan's smirk, and based on Yaxley's scowl, she guessed that he probably could too.

At the back of her mind, Yaxley’s remarks about Regulus yet burned. The little king, ever compliant and so eager to please them all. How vastly out of character his behaviour had been at the Ministry, and the reports in its wake were even more troubling, but Cissy was holding firm to her plead on his behalf. How much easier it would have been, were the defector tied to anyone else, but her own blood was spitting in the face of all she had done to guide him to glory.

Bellatrix did not feel particularly patient, and her little cousin was running out of chances. As her eyes flicked over to Gibbon, Bellatrix thought of her other protege - more successful in many respects but no more than a husk now. Though Crouch had presumed to make an attempt at usurping her position as their master’s most loyal servant, drumming up a great deal of contention during his brief return to the fold, as a boy, he had always seemed a source of motivation for her soft-willed cousin.

Around her, the room fell quiet in anticipation of the meeting’s initiation, and her mind yet buzzed. There was not much to be done about Crouch’s state, but as her eyes flicked over to Gibbon again, she wondered if there might be some benefit still to gain.

August gave little reprieve to the heat.

Though every spell imaginable seemed to be cast upon Number Twelve, Emmeline found herself longing for the shaded hedges of her own back garden. There was little stopping her from going over there, as it had long been declared habitable again, but she was in the throes of deciding to either sell it or try and make it feel homey again without the horrible memories that seemed to surface upon even entering the front door. Technically, it was also dangerous: it was obvious that the Death Eaters knew where it was, so if she did in fact sell it, it would cause the people living there to be in danger. It would put her in danger to live there. Her Grandmother had offered her the spare room, but to her mind, the Isle of Wight was a holiday place and not a place for serious study. She had no intention of tainting it.

She ought to ask if the back of this house was also shielded to a similar degree. It might make for a change of scenery to work out there, particularly with the sudden influx of teenagers running up and down the house and causing portraits to have fits. She didn't mind the noise as such, but it was getting a little difficult to look at some of the more delicate ideas regarding soul displacement without arousing teenage curiosity.

Finally, a moment of reprieve came when Sirius corralled up the largest offenders - aside from himself - and declared that they were Burrow bound. Something about a Quidditch match, and usually when sports came out, she zoned out. This did give a now rather rare opportunity to set up a pleasant study session, if Regulus were so inclined.

“Would you like to take advantage of the privacy?” asked Emmeline, when she managed to track him down.

Regulus looked up, tipping his head in a little nod. “The quiet will be welcome.”

“I can’t promise I’ll be quiet,” Emmeline had to admit, as she was well aware of the rambling potential lying in wait. “But I have some further soul encasement thoughts, if you’d like to talk about it without prying ears.”

“I would. We are due to revisit the topic,” Regulus agreed firmly, marking and shutting his book. “We never did fully consolidate.”

“This summer has been distracting,” Emmeline admitted. It had been more so than she cared to admit. “The house has been rather active too. I'm suddenly glad I don't have teenagers, let alone four of them. I'm not sure of your outside charm work; would it be secure to work there?”

“I’m confident in it, yes,” Regulus said, stirring from his seat to set his book aside before crossing a few paces to reach her. “Shall we?”

“Do you want to get some stationary, or do you already have a book full of notes you can add to?” Emmeline asked. Personally, she thought the book more of a risk, but it would be easier to contain one book than loads of bits of parchment

“I have my notes with me already,” Regulus responded with a little tip of the head.

Of course he does.

The garden was not particularly well-cared for, as the focus had been the house. The patches of grass were sunbleached and patchy with the heat, but folding a few cooling charms, the old seats felt much more comfortable to sit on. She took out a small, blue book, and with a lick of her finger, began to leaf through it for her own notations on the subject.

It was mostly a collection of Riddle related trivia that she had managed to dig up. Seemingly having had a meritorious career as a prefect, he had been given an award for special services while still at school. She made a note that they ought to speak to the younger lot about that; she had the niggling feeling it had been mentioned. She had noted that the ring had the mark of Grindelwald on it, though not surprising for the era. She had managed to track down the familial names of the dorm mates and experienced a total lack of surprise to see Avery, Lestrange, Nott, and Rosier listed. She passed him the book to peruse.

"It's only preliminary," she admitted. "I haven't really had the chance to sit down and talk to Harry, with all the flitting about."

Accepting the book, Regulus ran his eyes over the page with a look of pointed concentration, punctuated with another little nod.

“It is consistent with my own understanding,” he began, pulling out a neatly folded piece of parchment out and unfolding it to reveal two columns of neat - if stylistic - writing trailing down the page. “My primary focus was the nature of the objects themselves, though I found that taking to Harry admittedly did provide more insight about 'Tom Riddle’ than I had expected.”

"I'm suddenly glad I took runes," Emmeline joked. It was definitely coded, but she scanned over it to try and think of what a few of them might be before she committed to asking.

It likely needed a cypher, but she could gleam some based on context. TR→DL was obviously Tom Riddle to Dark Lord, the unknown spell used was perhaps for the horcruxes themselves, but it seemed a little scant to have further things on there, HP was rather obviously Harry, and she ventured a guess that GaR was the Gaunt ring with herself and Dumbledore as the involved parties. That likely meant the five preceding were also possible horcruxes. SL was likely Slytherin's locket, the second used in a spell (resurrection?), then TRD was obviously Tom RIddle's diary, which left her feeling somewhat unsettled by the HP. But there were other initials too - WF, what would that be? CoS, that was likely the chamber of secrets, was this the Harry connection? K was rather obviously Kreacher. SS was likely Salazar Slytherin, given the note of sentiment.

One did not imagine that such a creature could be sentimental, she thought sourly. "I can hazard a guess at some," she admitted. "Though WF has me rather stumped."

“That is referencing Arthur - specifically the snake attack,” Regulus explained. “WF for ‘Weasley father’ because I did not actually recall his name. I was really only speaking to Sirius, Lupin, and the children at the time.”

A little rude, but not wholly unexpected. "You have a lot of ticks," she said. "I assume those are confirmations. What haven't you confirmed yet?"

“This column is more dedicated to the ongoing concerns,” he began, gesturing to it. “Initially, I was speculating what the remaining objects might be, starting with the other founders’ relics, as well as how many he might have made, though there is little in the way of confirmation on the latter. Clearly not all of the objects are related to the founders, but it is still worth the consideration until investigation suggests otherwise. Hermione had mentioned Albania, but I did not see much of consequence in my initial glance... Speculations about the legilimecy link, the resurrection ritual, curiosity about the basilisk, Harry’s scar, and whether our point of concern can in fact be placed within living beings... I also left a decoy of the locket in the original’s place, but I can’t say for certain if he’s realised it yet, so I suppose that remains unconfirmed, beyond the fact that it has not come up yet... Things of that nature.”

"The founders are still a solid lead," Emmeline admitted. Without the knowledge of whether or not two souls could exist in the same vessel, it was one of the better ones. She didn't want to jump onto that one while there may be another explanation. "Albania is a little random for a thing to bring up, unless the reference is to Helena - the Grey Lady. I believe she was killed there, and I suppose by extension, so was the Baron. He does like his Slytherin links, why not one to its resident ghost? Could he have something of his, like the weapon used, for example?"

“That's certainly possible,” Regulus admitted, “and worth some investigation. Perhaps one of them might provide some insight. I mean to ask Harry for a proper look at the chamber before school starts, so opportunity may present itself then; or if not, Harry may well be able to ask during the school year, though I don't know how obliging the Baron would be for him.”

"He does seem rather sullen," Emmeline agreed. "But Helena isn't much better. She's not a big talker at the best of times, but especially outside of her own house students. She tends to only speak to those who, by preference or circumstance, remain isolated from their peers. I'd recommend asking Harry if he has a Ravenclaw in his little army."

“I’ll make a point to ask.” Regulus folded the parchment again, slipping it back in his pocket again. “But this does remind me... on the day I was in the time-loop, I discovered something strange at the Lestrange Manor. An interruption prevented the degree of thoroughness I would have preferred in my investigation, but there was a box with Slytherin’s crest on it - the same iteration on the locket, specifically. Nothing inside seemed to be of any consequence, nor did it give off the same strange feeling as the other two items of concern: A plastic toy, a thimble, things of that nature. Perhaps it was Bella’s, but it was not the typical crest, and I can think of as many reasons for it to be the Dark Lord’s as I can think of it to be Bella’s - trophies, perhaps... I saw no immediate identification, so it was not as helpful as I’d hoped, but…” He shook his head. “I haven’t completely discounted the possibility.”

“A toy.” Emmeline thought back to her own list of locations. “Perhaps it’s linked to the orphanage. I’m afraid it was torn down some years back, but we could likely find a staff listing from the financial records.”

“That's quite possible. You know the location, then?” Regulus asked, lifting his eyebrows. “And I suppose another question is how long he was there - whether he ever went back for holidays or if he always lived at Hogwarts, from them on. They could be from young childhood, certainly, though they did not appear to serve much practical purpose.”

"Oh!" Emmeline exclaimed excitedly. One of her uncoverings had been a birth record, which was rather like a Hogwarts ledger but used by muggles for what she imagined were census records. She made the copy with some help from a bored, if generally bearable person at the office. "I can help with that! The birth record was where I found it. Not too many Marvolos around, not even in the twenties, so it wasn't difficult to find him. Thirty-first of December, 1926, born at Wool's Orphanage. It's signed M. Cole, so I imagine that was the registrar at the time. I can also say with some certainty that no one is allowed to remain at the school during the summer - believe me, I saw it tried, so then, certainly he went somewhere."

“I see,” Regulus said, nodding. “I wasn't certain if that applied to orphans as well, and I never particularly wanted to stay, myself.”

"Harry," Emmeline said. "I believe he wanted to stay." Of course, she believed Sirius had once or twice as well, but it seemed as if it would rather sour the mood to point that out. They were none of them teenagers anymore.

“I see.” Regulus nodded with a pensive expression. “All the same, I suppose the site might be worth investigating, even if it's torn down, in case he's hidden something there. I don't know that it is worth retrieving the box itself, yet, but I did make note of the contents in case they turn out to be important. I know where to get it, should it be necessary.”

"Good, if it turns out we have a Lord Hoarder on our hands, it'll be more difficult to identify the correct objects. The ring was hidden. Oh, that reminds me, did you happen to note what the symbol on the ring was? I was wondering if there might be a connection."

“Not at the time, but it was Grindelwald’s symbol, wasn’t it?” Regulus said with a thoughtful tone. “If the ring belonged to the Gaunts’, perhaps they were supporters. The ideology is similar enough. Researching objects associated with Grindelwald may not be a bad idea either, if that is where you were going with that train of thought.”

"I haven't seen much of the paraphernalia from that war," Emmeline admitted. It may have been locked away, out of vogue, but she was quite sure she ought to have seen something. "It struck me as odd. I may ask Nana Henley; she's been quite insistent about me staying with her, so visitation should at least suffice. I'd ask if you'd like to tag along, but she's rather intense and doesn't mince her words. I'm afraid I'm her last surviving grandchild, and no one had any children. I'm doomed for a 'I raised four children by myself during a war when I was younger than you, it's not an excuse' lecture. It would be worth it if she knows if the symbol was in common enough usage, or if the ring was perhaps something of personal significance beyond the family connection."

The corner of his mouth flickered, and he shook his head. “I have no shortage of intense family members, but the point is well made, all the same. I agree that speaking to her about it could be beneficial.”

"Exactly," Emmeline said solemnly. "You don't need to add my own on top of yours. I really don't want to address the whole 'living with a bunch of boys' either. If she finds out I've been seen without my makeup, that's it, you can forget horcruxes, it's all you'll hear."

With something caught between a fluster and a smirk, Regulus shook his head. “There is nothing wrong with your face, but it sounds as though there is no need to feed that particular monster. Horcruxes are a much safer subject, as ironic as that statement might be.”

Feeling the tingle that usually meant her ears were going a charming shade of pink, Emmeline adjusted her hair to hide them. "Yes, well," she said, more as filler. "When it comes to grandparents or a Dark Lord, the latter is at least defeatable. You've settled upon seven as the number of choice?"

“I don't know that ‘settled’ is the right word for it until more have been found, but from a theoretical perspective, seven is the strongest contender,” Regulus began thoughtfully. “More, perhaps, if living hosts are possible. The ring, the diary, and the locket are confirmed. Three is a significant number in itself, and significance seems to be a priority in this process, but I'm unclear if one was used for his resurrection or if the original soul somehow remained intact. Even barring the use of a horcrux in that situation, adding the remaining founders’ objects raises the number to six. The snake makes seven, and if Harry was an accident, then eight. If living hosts are not possible, or if he could not acquire or did not desire the other other founders’ objects, then it could well be something related to the orphanage, another object within the current categories, or perhaps even something thematically different from any of them, such as an item associated with his adult life.” Heavily, he let out a sigh. “It is hard to say.”

"It does feel as if there's no way to know for sure. I do wonder though," Emmeline started, as she attempted to piece together these fragments. "Was he aware of Harry, if this proves correct? He does seem to try to kill him, and wouldn't this in turn, destroy part of himself in the process?"

“My assumption is that the Dark Lord does not realise it - if the theory is correct - but it remains little more than speculation. Although I don't put much stock in prophecy, I remain curious if there might be anything that would tip those assumptions in any particular direction.” Regulus shook his head then, crinkling his nose slightly. “And of course, there very well might be a completely different reason for what happened with the snake, but I've yet to find anything deeply convincing. I was curious about the dream manipulation in your department, but it was hard to say with such limited exposure.”

There was a fleeting thought of deja vu, before Emmeline sat back in her chair with arms crossed. "Since I don't think you had time to see it before, I'm taking a wild guess at how you spent your consequence free couple days." Fighting the bristle that she would have liked to have done it herself, she tried to resettle into the debate. "Nevertheless, there's been more than one prophecy involving him, but I don't know the wording in either. Perhaps Harry, and Dumbledore I expect, alone know them in full."

“Yes, that does seem to be the case,” Regulus remarked thoughtfully. “And I take from your response that our tour of your workplace is restricted to some alternate timeline now. You had speculated the possibility of remembering when closing the loop off, so I was curious.”

"Time is a bit..." Emmeline put her hand out and shook it from side to side. "Wibbly-wobbly. Even to those of us with experience in such matters."

"So it seems," Regulus said wryly. "Well, you did not miss anything of great consequence, considering it is your workplace, but I rather enjoyed the look around."

Thinking back to one of their earliest conversations, Emmeline smirked. "See any assassins?" she asked, as innocent as you like.

“Not a single one,” Regulus responded with a tone like regret. “I had my recruitment spiel prepared, all for naught. However, between the brain room and the potentially murderous alchemy plants, I suppose there is room for some creative interpretation.”

“Just don't write any books about it,” Emmeline laughed. “You'll lose your academic credit, which is much worse than your life.”

A smile quirked on his lips. "I cannot argue with that."

For the third time that afternoon, Sirius's wand flew from his hands and clattered ten paces from him.

“Harry,” Sirius said, with a mixture of pleading and exasperation. “You can't duel by disarming alone.”

“It's working,” Harry replied, gesturing with his own wand to Sirius's lying on the grass. Then for good measure, summoned it and held it out for Sirius to retrieve it.

Cheeky bugger. Sirius felt a rise of affection for it, but he squashed it down. They'd been trying to better equip Harry to deal with dueling, but he couldn't seem to get it into his head that finishing the duel as quickly as possible wasn't always a possibility. Not to mention that there were those who didn't require a wand to to defend themselves. It wasn't his specialty, but Sirius had learned a few tricks here and there.

With a finger flick, the beaker full of pumpkin juice on the table launched its contents over Harry. After the initial shock, he gave Sirius a look of such betrayal that he couldn't help laughing to himself.

“A lack of a wand doesn't make a Death Eater defenseless,” Sirius told him, conjuring a towel for him. “There's those who know how to do wandless magic, even bits and pieces like me, or there's someone who'll just thump you.”

“No Death Eater has tried to thump me yet,” Harry groused.

“Let's not give them the chance to start,” Sirius said, before tapping the wand against his palm. “You have to get better at your offense.”

Harry mumbled something unintelligible into the towel. Sirius waited him out. They had a little time. Headquarters was quiet this afternoon, with Vance off doing her job and Regulus off trying to become one with the library. It was a good time to practice.

“I don't want to hurt anyone,” Harry said, though from the tone, the word hurt was being substituted for something a lot more final.

“It's not about hurting them,” Sirius said, as gently as he could. “It's about disabling them from hurting you. Lets try again, alright?”

When darkness suddenly became a very fuzzy light again, Sirius began laughing. Whether it was the mix of uncertainty, confusion, and touch of pride in Harry's looming face, or the fact Harry had definitely hit him with a nasty stunner, Sirius didn't know, but it was the most offensive spell he'd been hit with all day. No matter what, Harry seemed to show far too much trepidation with what he was using, and he really needed to get him more comfortable.

When Sirius himself had been young, he had taken to dueling like a duck to water. Aside from being scolded for lack of proper etiquette (not for the first time), he had loved it. He was winning early; he did dueling club at school, and it was the one of the only times he had time with his father by himself. Regulus had never been much one for dueling either, now he thought of it. Sirius could twist his arm, but part of his confusion as to the reveal that he'd been fighting his brother in the snow all those years ago had been that he'd improved considerably.

Sirius assured him he was completely fine, then left Harry eating in the kitchen. He'd gotten walloped harder by Bellatrix a couple of months before, so it was hardly more than a quick tap. As far as defensive spells went, stunning wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. He needed a better way to get through to Harry that there was a way to be offensive in a defensive way. If it worked with his brother, then maybe they could get it working with Harry without trying to get him to change his entire dueling style.

So, Sirius went in search of said brother. He needed some better insight. If he could see him fighting from an outside perspective, he might get on a little better, and even if not, defensive as offensive might be some obscure spellwork, and Regulus loved his rare spells.

"Recreational or business?" Sirius asked, once he got to the library.

“A little bit of both,” Regulus answered, placing a hand on the page of his book. “How did dueling with Harry go?”

"He keeps wanting to disarm rather than disable," Sirius sighed. He didn't really want to complain about him; it was a shitty thing to do, but it would be a lot easier if he had some instinct to fight on demand. "We can't get three moves in before he shuts it down. He's worse than you. At least you're competitive."

“Yes...I did not have much opportunity to observe his dueling at the Ministry, but I can imagine it's more of a problem when everyone is trying to kill you,” Regulus agreed with a crinkled expression. “I prefer defense, myself, but if disarming is the primary trick, all they have to do is practice their wandless magic. Is he varying the spells, or does he always end it by disarming?”

"He varies a little," Sirius admitted, trying to resist the urge to come to defense. This was supposed to be helpful. "But he's jinxing more often than not, throwing water, impediments, something like we'd have done play dueling. Death Eater or not, he doesn't want to blast people, but it's not going to withstand up against an Unforgivable throwing fight."

“Throwing water won’t do him much good, no, but there are ways to disable and deflect without blasting people,” Regulus said with a thoughtful tip of his head. “But I would not call myself a master duelist, so I don’t know how much help I am on this subject.”

"You're a defensive duelist," Sirius corrected him. "Apparently, so is he. I'm sure as hell not."

“No, you certainly are not a defensive duelist,” Regulus said wryly. “As for Harry...from a defensive perspective, I would not say that shutting the duel down quickly is a problem to be fixed, but it sounds as though his spell repertoire could use some work. Is that the case?”

Sirius nodded. "The problem is if he gets entrenched in using only those moves; if he needs to vary, he won't be able to. I can't practice with him if he won't prolong."

“Very true,” Regulus agreed with a slow nod. “That is a situation in which one would benefit from variety, as well as fluency in reading the appropriate moment to implement a particular spell. It’s not quite the same as relentlessly hurling curses until one of you collapses, which may be where the breakdown is.”

"Any chance of a hand?" Sirius asked.

Regulus lifted his brow, paused a beat, then nodded. “I’ve never approached it from a teaching perspective, but if you think it would help, I don’t mind trying to assist.”

"I just want someone who has his perspective and is actually capable," Sirius replied. He wasn't expecting bloody miracles. "So far, we've established that he can hex his way out of a Slytherin attack, but seems to do the exact same move for Death Eaters. Bella in particular is not going to play nicely; she didn't even go easy as a kid. I don't want him to be in a fight, but I think he'll end up in them regardless of what I want, so he has to get better at more advanced spellwork."

“That’s very likely,” Regulus agreed, slanting his mouth down. “I will make an effort to communicate that distinction. He will be staying here until school starts, correct?”

"Should be," Sirius confirmed. He had an inkling Molly thought otherwise, but unless Harry asked, he was inclined to have as much time with him as possible before school started. The niggling feeling he was going to have to justify it next summer laid heavily on him. "Till Diagon, at least."

Regulus lowered his chin in a slight nod. “Then it should not be difficult to find time. Is he aware that you asked?”

"No, he's downstairs eating his weight so he can be taller than you by seventeen," Sirius replied (to which Regulus rolled his eyes). If Harry wasn't taller already. He really was growing like crazy; it was hard to remember the toddler when he looked at him. "But he was clearly getting frustrated with me doing it, so I'm calling in reinforcements. I'll ask Remus when he's back too, assuming he's not moping in a pool of his own delayed teenage angst."

“Noted,” Regulus said. “I’ll see if we can make progress with a different method, then.”

When Regulus found Harry later that day, the boy was practicing magic in the garden, flicking various colours and swooping spells, though the concentration in his expression seemed to cast more focus than playfulness on the scene. The sun had lowered in the sky, peeking over the top of the surrounding buildings with a lining glow, though the heat of the afternoon had not fully lifted enough to forego any cooling charms.

“What are you working on?” Regulus asked, shutting the door behind him and walking out into the middle of the garden.

"Non-verbals," Harry replied. At first, he didn't turn around, but when only a single light spark appeared, swirled, and disappeared, he slumped. "I've never done them before. Hermione said they were NEWT level."

“They are. Non-verbal spells can be challenging, so it is good to get the headstart,” Regulus said, tipping his head in confirmation. “You’ve been quite busy, it seems. Sirius mentioned you were training earlier, too.”

"If only one of us is going to survive," Harry began bluntly, "call me selfish, but I'd like it to be me."

“I’d like for it to be you, too,” Regulus said with a strained smile. To bring up that Sirius had been detailing Harry’s aversion to variation in his strategy felt like a betrayal of sorts: neither Sirius nor Harry were likely to benefit from sharing the finer details of that exchange, however gentle his brother might be when it came to Harry. Instead, Regulus finished his approach and continued, “You were thrown into all of this far sooner than any child should have even been thinking about the realities of war, but if that must be the way of it, far better that you can protect yourself.”

"I'm six for six, so I'm not doing that badly," Harry replied. He let his wand drop. "Besides, I don't want to kill anyone. That's what he'd do."

The tone in Harry’s voice resonated with a feeling Regulus had experienced at that same age, different though the allegiances might be. As it was, Regulus felt more vehement about the Dark Lord’s death now than he had felt about anyone’s death as a teenager, but it was not quite the point he felt the boy was making. Undoubtedly, Harry wanted the Dark Lord gone as much as anyone, if not far more, but that feeling was very different from setting a death in motion.

“The Dark Lord needs to be permanently stopped, but killing is not the solution to most fights, as far as I am concerned. Truthfully, I’ve never had much of a stomach for it, myself,” Regulus admitted, pressing his lips to a line.

"Him, I'm alright with," Harry said, with a harder tone. "But I'm not going to sling out torture curses either."

“I can agree with that wholeheartedly.” Regulus shook his head with a sour expression. “Fortunately, there are other options.”

"Like petrification," Harry said. "Or elements. I'm trying fire, but I thought I probably shouldn't do that in the house."

“I appreciate you not setting the house on fire,” Regulus commented quite sincerely. “As for petrification, it is certainly more effective than it is often given credit for.”

“I know,” Harry said. “It's how we stopped Neville following us after Voldemort when we were first years.”

Though Regulus doubted the petrification of Neville Longbottom was much of a dueling situation, the point still stood that the spell did its part. Somehow Harry and his friends had survived face-offs of that nature each year since then, but first years going against the Dark Lord nonetheless made his stomach turn. "For the best, I imagine. I've heard you disarm your opponents rather a lot, as well."

“Isn't the point to finish it quickly?” Harry grumbled.

“As far as I am concerned, yes it is,” Regulus agreed, loosely crossing his arms across his chest, “and I think your ongoing success speaks for the fact that - stylistically - it clearly suits you. I, too, prefer to cut to the end of a duel as quickly and cleanly as possible, but I would posit that variation strengthens a defensive approach. There are a great many options to consider from this perspective, even beyond the standard shield charms. For example, one could cast a temporary blindness spell; perhaps a spell that creates double-vision; a simple incarcerous spell; removing bones so your opponent can neither hold the wand nor properly wave their hand for wandless magic. There is a spell that causes a horrible, obnoxious blare in your opponents’ ears, but only they can hear it, so it lessens their concentration, in theory, which can give a small edge in the chaos of a fight… Truthfully, I’m rather fond of environmental manipulation, as well. Using the trees, the pillars, the furniture. It’s striking, the benefit you can gain with an effective survey of the setting around you.”

With a soft and thoughtful huff, Regulus added, “The point is...many of these spells are annoying at worst, far more tame than any Death Eater is going to hurl at you, but tame does not mean that they cannot be strategic. Sometimes petrifying a Death Eater and dropping a bookcase on him is sufficient, but if that is always your strategy, then they can - and most likely will - adjust for that. Variety, fluency, and creativity can make a big difference in the long-run, and unfortunately, we don’t know how long the run is.”

“I did get someone through their eye hole in the mask at the Department of Mysteries with a conjunctivitis,” Harry admitted, almost as if he wasn’t sure that was quite what he meant. “But we used a lot of prophecies as bowling balls.“ Then Harry stopped, realising what he said. “Do wizards have bowling?”

Regulus lifted his eyebrows and shook his head. “No, I don’t believe so. However, it does sound like it is along the right track.”

"You throw heavy balls to knock over pins, or in this case, Death Eaters," Harry said, by way of explanation. "I just don't want to use something that might hurt other people around."

“A valid concern,” Regulus granted. “Much of that will come down to precision of spellcasting and maintaining awareness. For example, there is a spell that will momentarily petrify a small crowd of people, rather than only one. That might be appropriate if the entire crowd is an enemy, or if you can encompass everyone - friend or foe - in the vicinity, but you may find yourself in a difficult situation if a friend is included in the group while a foe in the area was not, because that friend would then be defenseless until the spell wore off. Sometimes you can use a lack of precision as an advantage, but I feel it is a matter of reading the situation.” Tipping his head to the side, Regulus drummed a thoughtful finger on his arm. “Are there particular spells you are worried about?”

"Anything that can bring someone down enough that it stops them, but not that it has a chance of killing them," Harry replied. "Or me, or anyone else if it backfires."

“Those can be largely avoided, I think,” Regulus said, though he could feel an echo of Bellatrix rolling her eyes aggressively at the back of his mind. “Causing harm is one way to disable, but it's not the only one.”

"That's why I disarm people!" Harry said. "I knocked Snape out disarming once."

“That is one way, certainly, but what if they are adept at wandless magic?” Regulus asked, lifting his brow. “I don't know much myself, but summoning is one of them.”

“So I should summon the wand that way?” Harry asked.

“Summon it however you like, as long as you have a plan for when they summon it back again,” Regulus said wryly.

Harry paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Snap it.”

A little smile flicked on Regulus's lips, and he shook his head. “You are quite committed to this strategy. Excellent next step. Now let's take it a step further. You've snapped the wand, limiting the spells accessible to your opponent, but not all. They instead summon your wand to them because we have established this is in the Death Eater’s repertoire. What do you do?”

"Probably thump them," Harry admitted. "Which would be a lot easier if I could apparate on my own."

“I suppose that is one solution.” Regulus shook his head again, though the dry, slanted smile had not yet dropped. He had half a mind to think the boy was just being stubbornly contrary now. “Another option might be to cast a different spell as a follow up to the disarming, considering how difficult a thumping is to achieve from a distance when apparition is not an option. It is a frustrating disadvantage.”

"Disarm and stun," Harry said, in response. "Which is what I've been doing."

“Perhaps, but it isn't what you said.” Regulus lifted his eyebrows. “Is there a particular reason you aren't interested in learning additional strategies?”

"I don't always do it," Harry replied. "I do want to know other ideas, but I don't want to get into a habit of it. I don't want to go around hexing people for no good reason."

“Having a varied repertoire can only help. I don't make a point to excessively hex anyone either, nor would I suggest as much for you, but I simply want to emphasise that relying heavily on a few spells is inviting them to notice and start planning for it.” Not every Death Eater was sharp enough to catch on nor talented enough to account for it - Regulus knew that well - but some were. “Your style is your own, but it's about more than a signature spell. Just something to keep in mind.”

Harry dithered for a moment. "I'm giving it a go, but until someone tries to kill me, I won't know. I shouldn't have to wait too long, someone usually puts my life in danger around October."

A depressing thought, and Regulus granted a flat smile - or perhaps more of a grimace - as he nodded. “That seems to be the way of it.” Shifting his weight, Regulus paused for an awkward beat before adding, “Should you wish for any recommendations, let me know, but otherwise I will leave you to it.”

"Are you coming to Diagon, when we go?" Harry asked, seemingly out of nowhere.

Regulus lifted his brow again. Prior to the Order meeting, it did not seem like something to impose upon when he was not a guardian of any of the children in question - normally the Weasleys rounded up the supplies, as far as he’d gathered - but Sirius was not wrong that there was safety in numbers, and safety was in short supply. “I have been considering it, yes.”

"With us or with Malfoy and his mum?" Harry asked.

A little sting pricked at the back of Regulus’s mind - part defensive, part sad to think that Cissa and her son would not welcome him on such a trip, even if he were to ask - but he kept his face neutral, save for a little pull at his mouth. “Complicated though that situation might be, I was referring to you and your friends.”

"You should duck out before we head to Fred and George's," Harry warned him. "It sounds like your worst nightmare. Hermione's got a black eye from one of their testers."

“Fred and George’s?” Regulus lifted his brow.

"They've taken over one of the empty shop fronts to sell their creations. Jokes, creatures, potions, and a bunch of defensive objects." Harry smiled at the thought. "They're doing really well."

“Hm.” Regulus made a thoughtful sound. They had tested more than a few of those creations within this house, and though a joke shop was far from his realm of his interest, he could admit it suited the boys well. “I hadn't heard.”

"I think it helps," Harry said. "I heard Diagon's been empty, but they're always packed. After Mr. Fortescue was taken, no one feels safe going anymore."

“Understandable, all things considered,” Regulus said, pressing his lips to a line.

"I'd still prefer you lot than Ministry guards," Harry winced.

“We are much better company, it's true,” Regulus granted with a nod. How strange it still felt, sometimes, to be lumped in with ‘you lot,’ but truthfully enough - the company was not so bad at all.

To his surprise, Sirius found Harry sitting on the steps of the topmost landing the following morning. He didn't seem upset or worried, but it wasn't always easy to tell. The last couple of weeks, Harry had been running about with his mates a lot, but Sirius idly wondered if – with the looming end of the school holidays in sight – if he was going to see another upsurge in the clingy behaviour he'd seen in January.

“Alright, Harry?” Sirius asked.

To his amusement, Harry seemed to startle. “Er, yeah.”

“Bad dream?” It wasn't out of the question. He definitely wouldn't have been the first kid to seek refuge on the stairs after even a normal nightmare. Sirius had done it himself, he was sure, even if it felt so long ago that it was fuzzy.

“No,” Harry replied.

“Phineas being a prat again?” Sirius had moved the portrait into the hall, and he didn't think Regulus had kicked up a snit about it, so he figured that it was fine. No one needed a tittering Slytherin in the room when you were going through puberty.

“Not really,” Harry said, which probably meant that he was.

“Budge up,” Sirius said, before shuffling himself onto the same stair with a little effort. Morning was not exactly his best time for functional thought. “What's eating you?”

“Nothing, I-” For a moment, Harry seemed almost embarrassed.

It was only then that Sirius noticed he was twirling some parchment, hidden under his knees. “News?” Sirius asked.

“I made Quidditch captain,” Harry all but mumbled.

Something warm and happy rose in Sirius's chest, and he felt himself beam. “That's brilliant!” He grabbed Harry in a one-arm hug and squeezed him tight enough that he felt his glasses hit his hair. Some things never changed. “Really, really great. You deserve it; you're a hell of a seeker.”

Though a little pink, Harry seemed more pleased now than anxious. Sirius had a feeling he already knew the question that was about to come. “Was my dad-”

“Yes,” Sirius cut him off. “Beginning his sixth year.”

He'd known the smile was coming, as it still tended to whenever someone compared him with his parents in any way that wasn't a description of a hedgehog on his head or Lily's eyes. “Same as me,” he said.

Caught up in the thought, Sirius gave Harry a couple of pats on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said, before leaning on his knees to get up. “I bet I've got a couple of photos of it.”

Sirius pushed back into his bedroom, heading to the large cupboard where he knew there were some pictures both from Tonks and ones he'd left here by accident twenty years ago. He was sure he'd put them back in there. It took a little digging, and reaching into something alarmingly sticky, but he found one of the old boxes. He dropped it on the bed and tried to sort through them despite a total lack of order.

“Aha!” Sirius said when he found one of their old team. There was a stab of sadness that he fought, that half of t them were gone now, but this was more about showing Harry-

-Harry, who was lingering near the door, for some reason. Following his eyeline, Sirius cringed internally at his teenage decorating habits and tried to joke it off. “Don't suppose you'd believe it was just the bikes I was interested in?”

Despite looking a bit pink about the ears. Harry shook his head. “I was looking at the photo,” he admitted. “I was just surprised.”

“Permanent sticking charm,” Sirius admitted. There was no way his parents were getting the picture down, which made it a little harder to look at for its traitorous inclusion of Wormtail. “Your dad tried to paint it all red and gold, but it got changed back to silver often. I usually remembered to redo it when I came back; must've forgotten the last time. “

Sirius then handed the picture over. “Here.”

Harry took the picture and looked over it for a long moment. “She looks familiar,” he said, pointing to Marlene McKinnon.

“That's Marlene. She was in the Order photo that Mad-Eye showed you,” Sirius explained. “She was in your mum's dorm. Hell of a firecracker, that one.”

“Were they friends?” Harry asked.

“Yeah, they were pretty good mates,” Sirius said. “You'd usually see her and McKinnon and Vance and Macdonald – that's Mary, swear Vance was the only one of them I could understand when I first met them.”

“Why?” Harry asked.

“Your mum, back when we were firsties, had a proper Brummie accent, and I couldn't understand a word of it,” Sirius laughed. James had been bad enough, but he at least just sounded like a less colourful Hagrid. “Then McKinnon and Macdonald, they were Scottish, so you understood them right up till the point the slang came up, and then it required a translator. They weren't so bad after a couple of years, though.”

“My aunt doesn't sound like that,” Harry replied.

“I don't sound like Regulus either,” Sirius pointed out.

After a beat, Harry seemed to gather courage. “Did you ever?”

“Nah,” Sirius said, then he relented a little. “Yes, a bit. I was never as polite as him, not a day in my life, but I probably sounded a bit pretentious. I'm only telling you ‘cause Vance reckons Benjy got some of it in on video, and if he's managed to get me sounding like a twat, I best own up to it.”

“I thought muggle things didn't work at Hogwarts,” Harry asked.

“I think it's all after Hogwarts,” Sirius said. “But I've been known to bust out the voice from time to time if I'd had a couple.”

Harry handed him back the photo, but Sirius waved him off.

“You can have it if you want,” Sirius said.

“Cheers,” Harry said, looking back down to it. “I didn't know you were a beater.”

Sirius nodded. “Yeah, my sixth and seventh years. Your dad finally twisted my arm; he'd been on since second year.”

“You didn't want to?” Harry asked.

How could be explain that James had gone round the twist with it? He was an obsessive bastard, competitive, pain in the ass, and worst of all, a morning person. Harry didn't need to hear his father insulted like that.

“Seemed like a lot of work,” Sirius settled on. Then to swiftly and smoothly change the subject, he gestured to the picture. “I've got a lot more pictures and postcards, stuff from your grandparents, back at the flat. We could take a wander up there if you'd like.”

“That would be great,” Harry smiled.

Chapter Text

"Hi, Harry!"

There was a flash of anxiety before his brain kicked in, and Harry realised that no Death Eater is going to say hello to him in such a friendly tone. Those suspicions were confirmed when he saw Neville waving enthusiastically at him from outside Obscurus Books. Harry looked back over at the motley crew that had accompanied him to Diagon Alley: Mrs. Weasley, along with Ron and Ginny; Sirius and his brother ("He gets in too much trouble left to his own devices," Sirius explained, "Almost as much as you."); and their security escort, Hagrid. They were supposed to be meeting Hermione and her parents, but Tom said they hadn't passed through yet.

"Hi, Neville," Harry said, before scanning the crowd for Neville's grandmother.

As if reading his mind (he really hoped not, he'd had enough of that for a lifetime), Neville pointed to Madame Malkin’s. "Gran's been talking everyone's ears off since the Department of Mysteries. I thought she'd be angry, but she said she finally saw some of my parents in me!"

To Harry, that sounded terrible to hear only then, but Neville sounded so pleased about it, he didn't want to say anything. "That's great," he said instead.

"I didn't think we'd see you here," Neville went on. "With the security measures. Did you hear about Ollivander?"

Harry nodded, then glanced to his side once again. He saw Sirius had pricked up in a way that so resembled his animagus form that Harry had to beat down a snort. He gestured to the group behind him. "I have my own security."

Neville seemed to register the group, before grinning back at Harry. "Cor, you do, don't you?" At that moment, Trevor, Neville's frog, made one of its usual bids for freedom. "Trevor!"

Harry was completely unsurprised by the way Sirius seemed to pop up, toad in hand, and offer him the wayward pet back. He'd been doing it a lot lately.

"Alright, Neville?"

"Er, thanks," Neville replied, taking Trevor back.

It could've just been Neville being his normal amount of awkward, but Harry had the sneaking suspicion that having his face plastered all over wizarding Britain and Ireland over the last two years hadn't done Sirius any favours. Even if he didn't look that much like the poster now since he'd cut his hair shorter and taken to wearing more muggle clothes than not, it was obvious that he'd just gotten recognised. From the brief flicker of annoyance, it was obvious to Sirius as well. He wasn't enjoying being stared at any more than Harry was.

"That's my godfather," Harry said, plainly.

"From the Department of Mysteries!" Neville exclaimed, but looked around sheepishly as some hushed staring took off around Diagon. "Sorry."

"We have met before," Sirius told him. "But it was a very long time ago."

"When?" Neville asked.

"About sixteen years ago," Sirius replied. Harry estimated it at him only being a few weeks old, then. "Your vocabulary's diversified since then. That's not Frank's mum, is it?"

"Oh, that's my Gran, yes," Neville said, as he looked back at his grandmother. She seemed to be giving someone the what for outside Madame Malkin's.

"She hasn't changed," Sirius said, but Harry wasn't sure if it was an impressed or exasperated tone. "Frank always said she was tough as dragonhide."

"You should hear her talk about Harry," Neville said, before putting on an affected voice to presumably imitate his grandmother. "He's got more spine than the whole Ministry of Magic put together."

"You were at the Department of Mysteries too," Harry said, uncomfortably.

"I didn't face him," Neville said, with that vague air of awe which continued to make Harry uncomfortable.

"No, you faced Bellatrix Lestrange," Sirius stepped in. "Considering both myself and a trained Auror got knocked on our backs from her, that's no small feat."

"It didn't work, though,” Neville said, though he couldn't hide a certain spark of pride. "It was mostly just things we learned from DA. Are we still doing it?"

"No point, now Umbridge is gone," Harry said.

Neville looked crestfallen. "I learned loads with you!"

"You might not learn anything more," Sirius muttered. He gave Harry a knowing look, and Harry immediately remembered who their new Defense teacher was.

"We might do a couple," Harry replied. "Just in case."

"Try not to go chasing after Death Eaters without letting someone know," Sirius said.

"I wasn't," Harry replied. "I was looking for you."

"Don't do that either," Sirius said. "If there's trouble, I'm probably in the middle of it. Biological hazard. Reg can't pull you out of the fire everytime; he's just as bad."

"He didn't," Harry said.

"Didn't what?" Sirius looked confused.

"Pull me out of the fire," Harry said.

"At the Department of Mysteries," Sirius clarified, looking between Harry and Neville. "I thought he and Remus grabbed the two of you."

"He did," Harry said. "Lupin grabbed me, I mean."

"In the Atrium?" Neville asked.

"Yes," Sirius clarified, before reaching over the heads to find where his brother seemed to be looking surreptitiously at the books in the window displays of Flourish and Blotts. "I take it he didn't stick around and talk about it."

"Er, no." Neville said.

"My little brother. He's usually polite when not in mortal peril," Sirius said, before calling out to beckon him over.

From a few paces over, Regulus glanced towards the group, pausing just a beat before wandering over.

"Hello." Regulus glanced first at Neville with a flicker of recognition. "Neville Longbottom, isn't it?" he noted, then flicked his eyes to Harry, then Sirius. "Did you need something?"

"Did you really grab someone you didn't know and apparate without an introduction?" Sirius asked.

"You make it sound like I just abducted him off the street. An introduction was not exactly situationally appropriate at the time," Regulus responded dryly.

"It sounds very rude. You've changed," Sirius said, with an overly dramatic sigh. "You would never have been rude before."

Harry thought that actually, being a Death Eater was probably considered a little rude when they tried to kill and torture people, but it seemed like the kind of thing you shouldn't bring up in Diagon Alley when it's swarming. "There's one on the tapestry."

"One what?" Sirius asked.

"Longbottom," Harry said. He wondered if it was a distant relative of Neville's. "On your family tree."

"The house motto may as well be 'If you were pureblood, we'd be related by now'." Sirius shrugged. "Besides, it's not my tree; I'm not even on it."

"Callidora," Regulus supplied without acknowledging Sirius’s comment, then looked to Neville. "She's your great-aunt, isn't she?"

"Wow, yes," Neville said, looking back to Harry. "She's really old, but she writes lots of advice. Do you remember the letters I kept getting when I was choosing my subjects?"

Harry nodded; he remembered that Neville's relatives all seemed to have very strong opinions about what he should do, and the dorm room was flooded with letters from them. At the time, he hadn't been able to push past the pang of jealousy, but things were different now. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to be an Auror, and that meant he had set classes he needed to take. He had no idea what Neville wanted to do, now he thought about it.

“Does she still keep in regular contact, then?” Regulus asked, turning a look that was flecked with interest.

“She owls,” Neville said. “I haven't really seen her since it turned out I was magical after all.”

"Hm." Nodding thoughtfully, Regulus loosely crossed his arm. "I wonder why. We did not often see her either, though we were more distantly related compared to yourself. If anything, I would expect the opposite."

“Side effect of the hiding out - you don’t let in the crazy part of the family” Sirius added, to which Regulus shot a look of mild annoyance. “Frank and Alice did too.”

“I have a lot of relatives,” said Neville, as he turned a little pink about the ears. “It's not easy for everyone to get in one place and be heard.”

“Indeed not. I suppose it all gets a bit sprawling, at some point,” Regulus said with a thoughtful knit of his brow.

"And my gran can be..." Neville trailed off, looking at Harry as if he had a clue what to say. He shrugged in response. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. They would've given anything to have someone like you, but they have me, so I don't think they really want to see me." There was an awkward beat of silence, where Sirius leaned in and said something inaudible to his brother before Neville perked up. "But it might be different now. I've even gotten a new wand! They think it was one of the last ones Ollivander sold before he was taken."

“That's certainly something,” Regulus began. “Did something happen to your first one?”

"One of the Death Eaters at the Department of Mysteries broke it," Neville said. His eyes flickered downwards. "It was my dad's. I've never had a wand of my own before. I thought they’d be angry, but they’re just happy."

Harry thought back to one of the first things he'd ever heard from Neville. When they were all talking about their backgrounds, Neville had said that his family had been sure he wasn't magical and weren't even sure Hogwarts would take him, even when he was, in case he wasn't magical enough. Yet Voldemort had thought they were both threats, hadn't he?

"It was Dolohov," Harry said. "I recognised him. He was dueling Hermione."

"That explains why she was in a worse state than the rest of you," Sirius said in a hard tone, to which Regulus added a stiff nod. "Dolohov's old guard. Getting out with just a broken wand is more than most."

"And he broke my nose," Neville said.

"Episkey," Sirius said, tapping the side of his nose. "Learn it and use it. Heals minor injuries, and you won't end up going about with a crooked nose like your boggart. I've lost track of how many times I've gotten a busted nose, or leg, or finger, and I've only ended up in St. Mungo's twice and got a couple of scars. Let’s get your lot doing the same, make sure you outlive your Great Aunt."

Harry tried not to snort with laughter. He suspected it had more to do with avoiding coming clean after fighting in school, but Hermione probably already had the spell memorised. She usually did.

"It is certainly safer - and less likely to draw attention - both of which are valuable in their own right," Regulus agreed wryly, shaking his head.

Harry glanced around Diagon Alley, which despite being more sparse than it usually was at this time of year, was still packed enough that he could see both people from school and people he didn't know pointing, staring, and whispering.

"I don't think not drawing attention's an option," Harry said.

“Indeed not.” Regulus followed his eye line to the little patches of people. “It seems we are a bit of a spectacle at the moment.”

“Chosen One, ex-convict, Department of Mysteries fighter, and…you walk into Diagon Alley.” Sirius made a vague gesture in his brother’s direction, which either meant Death Eater or Slytherin, depending which he thought was the worst offender this morning.


Bustling towards them was Hermione, with her parents looking wary behind her. He didn't blame them; there'd been an attack on muggle parents not that long ago, let alone that they were probably worried for their daughter. Harry wondered how much Hermione had told them about what happened.

"I thought we'd missed you!" Hermione cried, as she came to stop. "We had to go to Gringotts first. Mum, Dad, you remember Harry! And that's Neville, you remember me telling you about Neville. Oh, and Sirius, you've talked over owls, when I went up to Wales."

"Harry's family, yes.” Mr. Granger looked a little unsure, but put his hand out nonetheless. “It's nice to put a name to the handwriting."

While Mr. Granger and Sirius exchanged a polite handshake, Harry struggled not to beam at the description. Of course, the Grangers had never met the Dursleys, so it was a natural thought to have given that they were all in Diagon shopping for school supplies, but it didn't make it feel any less giddy in his stomach.

Sirius introduced his brother younger brother as giving them a hand with the protection detail.

“Is it really that dangerous?” Mrs. Granger's eyes flicked to her daughter.

“It can be,” Sirius admitted. “But we’ll be alright if we’re in a group. It’s unlikely there’ll be a pre-planned attack without knowing more about the day we were coming.”

“So!” Mr Granger said, perhaps looking for some sort of common ground with the strange group of people. “Those aren’t very common names. Both constellations, aren’t they? Bit of an astronomy buff in the family?”

Regulus flicked his eyes over towards Sirius then back to Mr Granger, hesitating for a beat before responding. "One could say that. Although not everyone has particularly strong feelings about the stars, it has been an ongoing naming tradition in our family for centuries, so there are more who fit the pattern than those who do not."
"Mythology buffs are closer," Sirius explained.

"We do like mythology," Mr. Granger said. He did seem a little more comfortable. "Hermione is from the Ovid. The Greek. Which ones were you thinking of?"

"No idea," Sirius shrugged. "Probably Greek, it's Orion's dog, isn't it?"

"Ah, then Basiliscus," Mr. Granger said. "For Regulus."

This caught Harry's wandering attention, and he turned back to the group. "Like the snake?"

Regulus was eyeing Mr Granger with something that might have been curiosity when he shifted his attention to Harry with a little nod. "Same root, yes. The mythology varies, depending on the cultural source."

"Yeah, he only wishes he could petrify people by looking at them funny," Sirius provided. He put his hand on Harry's shoulder, and patted it. "Since we're all together, we should get a move on. Longer we're here, longer we have the chance of someone uninvited coming along to join the fun."

Later that morning, Regulus collapsed into one of the overstuffed chairs, settled with a book he was not yet motivated to open. Even within the safe confines of his own home, Regulus could not keep his mind from reeling through what ought to be interpreted as an altogether uneventful shopping trip in Diagon Alley. The group - bordering on an entourage, from how it must have looked - had not suffered any assaults from Death Eaters; they had not even run into Narcissa or Draco, which Regulus had been half-expecting. Considering his luck, Regulus it had seemed inevitable that the trips would collide, but the worst they had suffered were scattered stares - stares that could easily trickle back to Malfoy Manor, of course, but harmless enough in the moment.

Death Eaters were not the source of his discomfort, but rather the unexpected points of conversation that cropped up within their own huddled crowd. Neville's self-deprecation had been mildly surprising, considering Frank and Alice Longbottom had been known powerhouses within the Auror ranks, as far as Regulus was aware, but it was Hermione’s father who had been truly unsettling. Not unpleasant - it might have been more comfortable if he had been - but rather the man was well-spoken, with more intimate knowledge of mythology than Regulus would have expected of a muggle. Perhaps some expectation was warranted with a child named Hermione (and for that matter, with a child as bright as Hermione seemed to be), but he had never dedicated much more than a passing thought.

The moment had passed quickly, the conversation seeming to shuffle past like the Diagon patrons weaving through the crowds. Curiosity had buzzed at the back of Regulus’s mind, turning over what sort of circumstances led muggles to information like that, but his mouth might as well have been sewn shut for all the conversation he managed for the remainder of the trip. It was within the confines of his own mind that he entertained the questions as Harry and his friends bought their supplies in a familiar flurry, and now, in the quiet of his house, they rang even louder.

Yet it was not only the curiosities of muggle education that prickled at the back of his mind: Hermione’s father had mentioned 'Basiliscus’ - the Greek version of his name, yes, but Harry had been right to compare it to the snake, and it had brought forth their failed attempt at the chamber some months ago. Without any students (and one less Umbridge) in the castle, perhaps now was as opportune a time as any. Setting the book aside (otherwise untouched), Regulus set down the hall to where Harry had been staying.

“Harry?” His door was wide open, and Regulus glanced inside where the boy was walled in by the year’s new school supplies (and a number of other things, from the look of it). “Do you have a moment?”

"Er, yeah," Harry pushed away some of his new supplies to the end of the bed. He pulled himself on it, tucking his crossed legs under himself. "Is something wrong?"

“Not wrong, no,” Regulus responded, shaking his head. “Your mention of the basilisk merely reminded me that I intended to ask you about the Chamber of Secrets again. We were unsuccessful this past spring, but I thought perhaps the summer lull would negate most of the complications we faced last time. Would you still be willing?”

"Sure," Harry said. "But I don't know if students are allowed there during the summer. I asked the Headmaster about when I was in first year, and he said they weren't."

“I don’t expect the Headmaster will mind too terribly if it is for the betterment of the war effort,” Regulus said, though Dumbledore blocking him from further knowledge of the prophecy did cast some doubt on the thought, however small. “Nor should it take long.”

Harry stopped moving for a moment, but he must have decided it was a good idea anyway. "Or we could just go in through one of the tunnels."

Regulus's mouth flicked up at the corner, and though it would be simple enough to ask Dumbledore again, he felt rather disinterested in the prospect when they last time he asked permission, it resulted in a metaphorical door shut in his face. "A suitable alternative."

Beside him, Harry opened one of the drawers and pulled out the parchment. He then placed it on the bed, spread out to show the edge of the Hogwarts grounds. "There's one here," Harry said, pointing to the fourth floor. "It comes in from Hogsmeade again, but we won't need to go through Honeydukes. There's always the Shrieking Shack, but Snape knows about that one now."

Running his eyes over the map again, Regulus nodded, baffled (and mildly horrified) anew by the reminder Sirius and his friends had possessed access to such a thing for at least a portion of their Hogwarts career. Perhaps that would never stop springing to his mind when he saw the weathered old parchment, but it was at least some small comfort that he could garner plenty of benefit now, even in their absence.

“I feel we should keep a closer eye on this,” Regulus commented with a wry smile, tapping on the map, “deserted though the corridors are likely to be. With that said, I agree that it is best to take additional precautions and avoid the better known options, so if you think the fourth floor suits that, then I think that is a good starting place.”

"I just didn't want to risk losing it last time," Harry said, with a touch of defensiveness. "Normally, I just shut it down, but I've done that with Snape before, and the map’s defenses are...personalised, at least for him. I didn't fancy losing it."

“Worry not. You won’t lose it,” Regulus said in a placating tone. According to the map, Snape appeared to be holed away in his office as they spoke. Although Regulus knew he probably oughtn’t invade the professors’ privacy, his eyes darted around curiously to the other names. Slughorn was there, too, and so was a professor named Trelawney; the name was familiar enough that he wondered if she’d gone to school with rest of them, though he supposed he could be thinking of the Seer with the same surname. “Nothing additional is required to get in or out, correct? Just parseltongue to enter?”

"Not exactly," Harry admitted. "Getting in is okay. It's a tunnel, and as soon as you jump in, you just whoosh down. But getting out, there's no way to climb out. Last time, I was able to call Fawkes, but if we weren't going to do that, brooms would work. It's narrow, but if me, Ron, Ginny, and Lockhart fit through last time, I think we'd be okay. Have you thought about what to do about the venom?"

The prospect of ‘whooshing’ down anything was not particularly appealing, but as long as there was not sewage waiting for him at the bottom, Regulus supposed it was still comparably better than the Ministry’s choice in transportation methods. “I have some fortified vials and containers that are suited for transportation and storage, so that should not be an issue.”

"Then yes," Harry said. "That's all you need."

As it turned out, the Chamber of Secrets did not, in fact, have sewage at the bottom of its aggressively rapid chute, but did have an excess of slime that Regulus could have still done without. The stone floor was damp and slick to the touch, and a lingering chill in the air prickled along Regulus’s skin - far colder than any August air had the right to be - but it was the pungent rot that he found most staggering. The unnervingly large basilisk carcass was still there, untouched, just as Harry had speculated it would be, and Regulus felt a strange lurch at the sight - and an equally prominent thrill at the prospect of obtaining his own venom, this time, for a far more reasonable price.

Personally draining a basilisk’s venom was at least comparatively less terrifying when the basilisk was already dead.

After rising to his feet, Regulus dried his robes with a casual flick of his wand and shifted his eyes around to the dim surroundings, comprising of a rather prominent serpent theme that finished on the image of Slytherin himself, cast in a green glow.

“So this is the Chamber of Secrets,” Regulus said, looking back to the basilisk and trying not to gag on the smell.

Harry had no such compunctions towards such things, bending over and putting his head between his knees to cough and heave a couple of times. "I think-" he said, trying to regain his breath- "-we're under the lake."

Crinkling his expression, Regulus tried not to breathe through his nose. “That would make sense,” Regulus said, voice sounding a little strange. With another flick of his wand, the air around them began circulating, visible only by the the subtle way it brushed at their hair. Far more noticeable was the gradual way the stench seemed to thin to to something a little more breathable. With a little wave of his hand, he added, “This may not completely solve the rot problem, but hopefully it will dampen it a little. I do not wish to imagine further what it must smell like over there.”

Harry nodded. The state of the giant snake after rotting for three years down here hadn't been at the forefront of their discussions, but it really was terrible. "You're really squeamish for a former Death Eater," Harry commented, lightly.

With a tight smile, Regulus shook his head and batted off a series of rather intrusive memories starring his eldest cousin remarking on very much the same thing. Those echoes were phrased in a much crueler way, digging their curling claws into his mind, but he subtly shifted his posture to something a little straighter.

“I was ill-suited,” Regulus responded instead in a tone that was lighter than he felt about the matter. Setting off in a stride towards the basilisk, he took particular notice of its lolling head and protruding fangs and reached a hand into his bag to grapple for a container without bothering to look.

"How long did it take you to figure that out?" Harry asked, approached the basilisk carcass himself. He looked around the chamber warily.

“Too long to manage a smooth exit,” Regulus responded vaguely, supposing that Sirius must not have gone into much detail at all if Harry did not even know how long Regulus had been a Death Eater. Pausing in front of the slack, crooked jaw of the snake, he took a moment to take in the placement and structure of the teeth, a thoughtful expression loosening on his face.

"Be careful about the contact with the venom. While it didn't feel like the worst way to go at the time, I don't think it's what you're aiming for." Harry looked over the basilisk, and scrunched up his face. "It seemed bigger when I was twelve..."

“I imagine it did.” Eyeing the massive creature, Regulus thought that it still seemed rather big, even as an adult, but he brushed off the thought. “Basilisk venom is an exceptionally unpleasant substance, and indeed, I will take care with it. To die from this now would be terribly anticlimactic, in light of everything else. I’m just getting a good look before drawing it out. Suffice to say the opportunity to examine a basilisk is rare indeed.”

Harry nodded, but then gave a laugh to himself. “I'm suddenly missing the days when my biggest problem was the hat choosing Slytherin first.”

“Slytherin House is not some terrible thing,” Regulus countered lightly, glancing over at Harry then back to the fangs. “But your problems certainly did escalate rapidly.”

"You'd have thought it was a terrible thing if you'd been sorted anywhere but Slytherin when you were twelve," Harry countered.

“It would have been. My entire family has been sorted into Slytherin for nearly a millennium, with the exception of Sirius, and our mum did not save all of her shouting for her time as a portrait,” Regulus said in what was at least intended to be a casual tone as he opened the first vial - about as tall as the length of his palm - and held the open mouth up to the basilisk’s fang. Muttering an extraction spell, Regulus watched the sticky black liquid start to seep out the bottom of the fang and stream slowly into the vial, and although it would not require much monitoring, were he to cast a levitation spell on the glass, he nonetheless held it in place with a look of concentration.

Regulus’s own remark felt uncomfortably like a betrayal, so he opened his mouth to speak again, but Harry was already responding, face contorted at the liquid coming out of the fang.

“I’d only known about magic for a month. I’d only just found out my parents had been murdered. I didn't care what house I was in - I just didn't want to be in the same one as Voldemort. Then I met Malfoy, boasting about his entire family being Slytherin, and he said if I wasn't nicer to him, I'd end up murdered too. Didn't fancy listening to that for the next seven years, so I told the Sorting Hat ‘anywhere but Slytherin.’"

With a very sudden and profound discomfort, Regulus held his attention on the fang and the venom with even more exact concentration, unsure what he ought to say to that. Avoiding the Dark Lord’s house made sense, all things considered, though it was not the house’s fault that he did what he did. And Draco… Although the interaction with his youngest cousin had not been particularly pleasant on the whole, either, it was hard to imagine an eleven-year-old child threatening another with murder, even within their family. He could neither fully agree nor could he defend against it, and he certainly did not know what to say on the subject of murdered parents, so he frowned forward at the fang.

“When I said he was going to end up like his, I didn't think he'd take me seriously and sign up,” Harry was muttering in an irritated tone. “And he's more squeamish than you. I don't think you can use a parent’s excuse note to get out of maiming someone.”

Tension stiffened the muscles in his shoulders as Regulus flicked his eyes over at Harry, brow knit to a point. All of his words felt sticky in his throat, but he forced them out, fighting to keep the uncertain dread out of his voice. “Certainly not. Has he maimed someone?”

“Not that I know of. I think he just enjoys mouthing off, but I never thought he actually had it in him to do more than hex people,” Harry replied. “Then I realised what was on his arm.”

Shoulders loosening again, Regulus pressed his lips to a line and looked back to the fang. Somehow, he doubted Harry would be open to hearing the complexities that could lead a teenager to join a group that was far out of his depth, so he bit back a bubbling defense. “War can do strange things to a person,” he began, then immediately shifted the subject as the vial of venom his the halfway mark: “I wonder how much venom is in each fang. I have never seen a text that specifies.”

"No idea. I just stabbed it with a fang. I don't know how much it took." Harry peered over, then reeled a little with a wince at the sight. "But it's not the war I'm worried about. I keep thinking about the Quidditch World Cup, when they put on those masks and went around killing people just for fun. Voldemort wasn't even back then, so do we even know they'll stop once he's dead?"

“We don't, no,” Regulus admitted with a fresh wave of discomfort. “We must prepare for that possibility, but defeating the Dark Lord is first priority. I'm not usually one for prophecies, but eliminating him from the equation can only help.”

"Fat chance when the person who's supposed to do it is never told anything," Harry complained. Then he stopped. "Why do you call him that?"

Regulus glanced over, then back to the vial again. “Emmeline asked the same, recently,” he said, his mouth thinning thoughtfully “Force of habit, to a degree, I suppose. Saying 'You-Know-Who’ or 'He Who Must Not Be Named’ sounds silly.”

"It does," Harry agreed, hunching down to check on the viscous liquid. "I kept trying to say You-Know-Who, but I felt ridiculous. Being so afraid of someone you won't even say their name gives them power over you, and after this last year, I'm done being afraid of him. He's just a man. A man using magic to stop himself from dying, but still, just human like everyone else."

Regulus nodded, his face pensive. The thought of saying the Dark Lord’s actual name still made his stomach lurch in a strange way, but he no longer felt like cringing when the others did so. He was not sure when it had ceased to be jarring. Fear...did he fear the name? He did not respect it, though Emmeline had asked about its reverence. Without fear or reverence, he did not much like what was left.

“That is an interesting perspective,” Regulus granted, though he felt a little bristle, uncomfortable with the thought that something so small could still have some measure of control when he had left the ranks so many years ago. (Yet - perhaps it was true, a little bit.) Again, a frown pulled down at his mouth.

"Anyway, almost everyone else who calls him that is a Death Eater," Harry added, almost as an afterthought. "Or Mr. Crouch, who might've been worse than one."

The mention of Barty’s father stung sharp and sudden in Regulus’s chest, but to acknowledge the senior would lead him to the junior, and around Harry, there was nothing to gain in how he felt about that.

“Well, I am not a Death Eater,” Regulus said with finality.

"No, I know that," Harry said. "But you were one, and if you hadn't been, you probably wouldn't be here."

Slowing the venom to a drip as it started to near the top, Regulus nodded.

“Probably not. Ironic, isn’t?” Regulus said, and when the drip had slowed to nothing, he pulled the vial out and sealed the top. There was already far more venom than he could possibly need, but while it was free and available, better to stock up and have excess than find themselves in short supply.

Slipping the full vial into his bag and pulling out the next, he unsealed the top and once again fit it beneath the fang to restart the process.

"My life is full of irony. At this point, I'm used to it." Harry went over to the bag, and took a look at the vial. "How many pieces do you think there are?"

“Pieces?” Regulus lifted his brow and glanced over at Harry. He had only vaguely referenced them to Harry, but he wondered now if perhaps Dumbledore had told Harry anything more while they had been in France…

"You said you thought there were other things, like the memory." Harry asked. "That's why you wanted the venom, because it destroyed the diary when Ginny hadn't been able to. Wouldn't they be tied to other things too? Unless he's been keeping diaries the whole time, and that was just the first volume."

Regulus glanced over at Harry, thinking back to a moment before - the sentiment that no one ever told him anything - and wondered just how much Harry did or did not realise. To some degree, withholding information was in the boy’s best interest to protect him, but in these matters, perhaps Harry had more right than most of the adults.

“You said that no one shares information with you… There is a place for the compartmentalisation of information, but when it directly applied to you…” Regulus shook his head. “This line of conversation requires discretion, and to communicate the gravity of it, the majority of the Order is presently unaware, to better protect from loose lips. That is not a commitment to take lightly, but because it already involves you, perhaps you ought to be better informed.” Regulus checked the vial again - slow and steady - then back to Harry. “Are you comfortable with maintaining discretion?”

For a long moment, Harry didn't say anything. Then he nodded.

Nodding back, Regulus began. “These ‘pieces’ are called horcruxes.” The bluntness of the statement seemed to punch through the air. “They are shards of-” Regulus hesitated for a breath and steeled himself- “-Voldemort’s soul, split off and implanted in various objects. I took one with me when I defected, assuming it to be the only one, but when he returned last year, I knew there must have been others. To be frank, the number we are dealing with is all speculation right now. I have destroyed two so far, so there were at least three, but I suspect more.”

"So when the Killing Curse rebounded off of me," Harry began slowly, "then that was what kept him like a kind of ghost? Like what was left of his soul was going about without a body, until Wormtail found him two years ago?"

Again, Regulus nodded. “I cannot confirm if what you observed is the resurrection ritual for horcruxes or if it was another related process, but for our purposes, I am tentatively speculating it to be the same.”

"So there could be parts of his soul all over the place," Harry said. Then he shook his head, "No, I don't think he'd do that. He'd never put it somewhere ordinary, he's too arrogant. I'm trying to think of what he said in the graveyard. He said he had gone further than anyone in his goal to conquer death, that he didn't know what he was after, only that he was alive, and he could possess people. Wait! So could the fragment in the diary! Is that what happened to Ginny? Is that what happened to me?"

“I have been entertaining speculations on that matter,” Regulus admitted, though it was precariously close to the one thing about horcruxes he did not think Harry necessarily needed to know at the moment. The last thing they needed was him getting some sort of sacrificially Gryffindor idea that killing himself would eliminate a horcrux when they didn’t even know for certain if one was in there. “However, not all horcruxes seem to have this ability. The one I stole as a teenager was Salazar Slytherin’s locket, and it took me approximately a year to figure out a method that would actually destroy it. The split soul did get quite aggressive when it realised it was under legitimate threat, but it was not a matter of possession - nor was the ring, which was discovered and attended to earlier this year. Each one has had a different line of defense, but I think you are in a better position than most to be on the lookout for such things.” He glanced over with a wry smile. “Considering the pattern of your first five years of school.”

"Are they all connected to Slytherin?" Harry asked. "The diary was written by the self-titled Heir of Slytherin."

“To Slytherin himself? That is yet to be determined,” Regulus responded. “The ring belonged to the Gaunts, who are descendents of the line, so they have all been connected thus far… but Emmeline has been working with me recently, and we have been exploring the possibility of other founders’ objects. In light of that, I would ask that you be on the lookout for any clues about Ravenclaw’s diadem or Hufflepuff’s cup. I’ve been in proximity to the sword, and it did not fit the aura of the others, so I do not think it is affected. Either that, or it was, and when the basilisk venom infused in the blade, that destroyed the horcrux itself.” Eyeing the venom in the vial, it was nearing the top again, and he began to once again slow the extraction to properly seal it.

"I don't know what those are," Harry admitted. "I think this Chosen One thing would go a lot better if it was Hermione. I bet she'd know."

“Surviving objects that belonged to the founders of Hogwarts,” Regulus supplied. “There may not be much to glean from Hogwarts itself, but it can only help to be watching for it.” Perhaps tasking Harry with speaking to the ghosts about Albania could wait until he’d had time to process everything if he felt unsure about the objects themselves.

Yet on the subject of chosen ones- “That does, however, remind me… I have been curious to know the full extent of this ‘chosen one’ prophecy so often referenced. As I stated earlier, I am not one to put much stock in them, but I have been wondering if there may be some additional clues to be considered in the full wording. Dumbledore has kept it all rather close to the chest, but with so many threads to pull, even rubbish like divination seems worth considering.”

"I don't remember it exactly." Harry said. "But I know it was eavesdropped on, so Voldemort only knows a part of it. Lucius Malfoy knows at least part of it too, because he knew about the scar. It said that the person with the power to kill him would be born at the end of July, to parents who'd defied Voldemort three times. That was me, or Neville. Then that he would be marked, which he did, he gave me a scar. And that..." He seemed to stop, and hesitate. "And that I'd have a power he wouldn't know, but I don't know what means. I don't have any special power."

Something in Regulus’s chest seized, and he fought to keep his expression neutral. ‘A power he wouldn’t know’ - the nature of prophecy was the ability to interpret multiple possibilities from a single line, making it terribly prone to the bias of expectation, but Regulus did not like the sound of that. His eyes darted over to Harry’s scar as he sealed the top of his vial, not even bothering to look at it, though it sealed solidly, nonetheless.

“Hm.” Regulus crafted his tone into something casual as he slipped the vial into his bag again. “Prophecies are strange things. Is that all you remember?”

"Either must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live if the other survives," Harry said, in a tone that made it sound like a direct quote.

The sharp dread in Regulus’s chest was only worsened by the addition, but he committed it to memory, nonetheless. “I see. We shall carry on towards his prompt destruction, then.” A thin but nonetheless sincere smile. “Thank you for the details; I don’t know what may come of them, but they are something to think about.”

"It's why I need to be back at school," Harry said. "I had fun this summer, it was great but...if it has to be me, the longer I spend doing that, the more people he has a chance to kill. I don't want anyone else to die because of me. I want to do something that matters."


Regulus frowned, and though the words and circumstances were a little (or a lot) different, the sentiment resonated quite soundly. Something that matters. Guilt was a nasty thing, as was the imposition of responsibility, and to think of that on the scale of prophetic proportions only amplified it further.

“You are doing something that matters; a break did not change that,” Regulus said, and as he continued, his voice got a bit tighter, despite the lightness of tone: “To that point, although I do gather that your existence makes him exceptionally grumpy, he was orchestrating the deaths of many people before you were ever born - born directly and indirectly - so do not be too hard on yourself. It’s terrible, but they most likely would have done the same, regardless of whether you were at Iago, the Weasleys’, or Hogwarts.”

Harry snorted. “Exceptionally grumpy?”

Regulus meet his look with a little flicker of a smile.

Harry laughed in return. "Okay, so family ring, diary and locket down. At least two possible objects, that's five. Maybe the sword, which would be six. Did he split it all at once into tiny bits, and he's leaving them in things, or does it have to be done a bit at a time?"

“I cannot say for certain, but my suspicion is that it was done over time. Murder is the means to split the soul,” - Regulus smothered a shiver and blocked out the blaze of a fire - “but he did not even indicate that the horcruxes existed, much less did he explain his process. It has been more a matter of piecing together information over time.”

For a long moment, Harry said nothing. "But he's murdered a lot of people. If he doesn't do it every time, then why those murders?"

“Once again, it is speculation, but at least one of them, we believe, was created when he murdered his muggle father and grandparents.” Though the trip to the Gaunt shack had only been earlier that same year, it felt so long ago - so much had happened, and he could not help the fleeting thought that teaming up with Emmeline had been a choice he appreciated even more, in hindsight. Focusing his thoughts in the present, once again, Regulus added, “With that in mind, I would guess that he used murders he considered to be particularly significant.”

"So if you figured out what murders were significant, you could figure out when each one was made," Harry speculated.

“Which could, in turn, hint - to some degree - what significant objects he might have had access to at the time,” Regulus continued with a little nod. “It is all a work in progress, but it is coming along - and the more contained it remains, the less likely he is to realise we are aware of it. Thus far, he does not seem to have noticed.”

"So the diary was Moaning Myrtle. She was the muggleborn student the basilisk killed when he let it loose in the fifties." Harry said. "But Lucius Malfoy had the diary. Couldn't that mean that other Death Eaters have them?"

“It's possible - even likely. The ring was not in the care of a Death Eater, but the locket was entrusted to me.” Regulus paused, then amended sourly, “Well, entrusted to Kreacher. All I was told was that he required an elf.”

"Dobby might know," Harry said, suddenly. "He said he used to be around when Voldemort was there, but no one paid any attention to him. Dumbledore gave him a job here; he should be here, if it's not his day off."

“Dobby?” Regulus lifted his brow. “He was the Malfoys’ elf for some time, correct? The one you freed?”

"He's kind of a friend." Harry nodded. "He knew about the chamber, and no one ever thought to specifically tell him not to tell anyone. He didn't want Voldemort to return either; said that it was much worse for elves under him, and no matter what happened to him, he had to try. Even if he did keep almost getting me expelled in the process."

“I did not see it much at the time, but Dobby is right about there being little regard for elves. The-” Regulus caught himself and crinkled his nose. “-Voldemort left Kreacher to die without even acknowledging it, perhaps assuming I wouldn't notice… All the same, Dobby is certainly worth asking. He would have likely been around those who would have been involved, and most people truthfully don't pay elves much mind.”

“I wasn’t making a dig at you,” Harry said, quickly. “You can call him whatever you want to.”

Though anyone - not just Harry - pointing out the title always felt a little bit like a dig, Regulus nonetheless believed him; and perhaps worse, thought there was some measure of validity to it. When Emmeline and Sirius had brought it up, there had been a certain discomfort to thinking that the perception of him was somehow cast into question over something as harmless as a habitual title (that was far less ridiculous than everyone else’s), but there had been something a little more harrowing about Harry’s interpretation. Being so afraid of someone you won't even say their name gives them power over you-

“I had only thought of it as a matter of semantics, but you raised a valid point. I’m rather tired of being controlled, too,” Regulus said with his lips in a line as he pulled out a smaller vial - the one that had been in the little box in the cabinet - the last he’d brought.

Harry smiled at that. "He really shouldn't complain. It's not as if you're calling him Tom."

Adjusting the vial in place, Regulus’s mouth flicked up slightly at the corner. “That would be worse.”

"He doesn't have anything to lose. I already told them at the Ministry who his parents were." Harry said, evenly. "Needed a distraction, and that seemed like a good one."

“I would say so. He doesn’t seem particularly pleased about about those parents,” Regulus commented, watching the venom drip in, though it was significantly smaller.

"You don't get to choose them." Harry shrugged, and sat down cross-legged. "I wouldn't choose the Dursleys, and I think you'd like one that doesn't scream all the time."

With a frown, Regulus let out a slow, heavy sigh and shook his head. Though Regulus himself had brought up her tendency for screaming just a moment before, it was not as though he did not want her to be his mum…

“Family is family,” Regulus settled, though he could not say if it was an argument or an agreement.

"Unless you're Sirius," Harry laughed lightly. "But it's still better to have a complicated family than none at all, right?"

“Sirius is family too. It’s not my fault he left,” Regulus said to the vial, voice even despite the little sting; it was a strange feeling, unbidden and unwelcome, and he had not meant it to come out quite so defensively. His mind had somehow started its distracting spiral, and he made an effort to shake himself off of the path. Complicated was better than nothing. With a smothering shrug, he stopped the venom and sealed the top of the vial again.

"No," Harry said, quietly. "It was just why you joined the Death Eaters."

Tucking the vial into his bag, Regulus eyed the line of fangs, more to avoid looking at Harry than for any further need to study them. Whether the boy’s words were a statement or an accusation was unclear, so without responding, he stepped back from the snake. “I am finished here. Do you need anything, before we return?”

Harry moved to get up. "Just to talk to Dobby if you still want to."

Regulus crossed his arms with a little nod, staring hard at the back of the beast’s throat. For a moment, his feet felt stuck to the ground, like it would take every straining effort to lift his shoe even one inch as the shadowed memories of the Death Eaters of his childhood weighed down, heavier on his shoulder than they had been in some time. Drumming up questions he ought to ask Dobby would be the better course of action, but Bella’s exacting stare hooked with a thousand tiny claws - and his brother standing in the door of Regulus’s room at Iago, telling him that everything was going to be okay when he must have known it wasn’t going to be okay at all. That he was going to walk out the door and leave them to figure out the mess in his wake.

Stiffly, his arms tucked a little firmer, and he turned back towards the way they had come. “I do.”

Harry seemed to sense his distraction. "We'll be quick."

Such was the life of an Unspeakable that Emmeline was frequently delayed from her appointments.

However, for this particular one, she can't say that she couldn't have done with another delay. A few more days, weeks, perhaps a decade or two. However unready for it she felt, she plodded onward around the same corner she'd been taking home for over a decade. It all looked more or less the same; slip through Eccleston Square’s apparition point, go down to the white townhouses, turn the corner at the pub, and second house on the left. The first floor white, with two additional exposed brick tops that her mother had lovingly restored. Somehow, it seemed as though it all should have changed. She hadn't really been back here in a non-investigative capacity. It felt wrong to hold the wake there, and she found now that she could remember very little of it.

There was one crucial difference to the house now. Outside, there was a dark-haired woman lingering conspicuously. She could see one of their neighbours poking her head through the curtains to spy, perhaps thinking Hestia was not a friend come to help her retrieve a few things, but rather some sort of criminal. Where was that sort of vigilance when she needed it? Logically, she knew that would have only escalated the situation, as muggle law enforcement would be crawling all over it then too. Standing here, it wasn't the easiest thing to be logical.

"My apologies," Emmeline said. "My presentation ran long."

"I didn't mind the wait," Hestia replied, graciously. "If you're not ready, perhaps your grandmother could come and do this herself."

Emmeline stamped the thought out immediately. It hardly mattered that she had been stomping the thought out of her mind at any given opportunity. There had to come a time where injuries must be faced head on, and she couldn't bear to hear any recriminations of fault from Nana right now. She would only ask why she hadn't been home, and explaining such things was difficult with a shrewd lady. Besides, she had spent her life around Gryffindors. She understood the importance of finding bravery in the most difficult situations.

"I'm going in," Emmeline announced, and to her pride, she could only detect a small wobble in her tone.

Once inside the door, her heart rate kicked up to annoying levels. She could feel fresh sweat unbidden along her arms, born more out of her own upset than the August warmth, and she jolted a little as Hestia closed the door behind her. It echoed. The house didn't smell of blood, or worse, which she was grateful for, but it somehow felt worse than downstairs; it was difficult to tell they had not simply gone on holiday.

“Where would you like to start?” Hestia asked.

“The artwork,” Emmeline said. There were pieces littered throughout the house, from vases to paintings. “And photographs. For me.”

Between the two of them, they began to make quick work of downstairs. If she didn't think about it too much, it wasn't so bad: it was like moving house, and she had done that so many times. She'd even managed a wan smile at some of the more ridiculous pictures of her littered around the cabinets. She thought of the cabinets at Number Twelve. Object memory, the reason a house became a home.

Then when there was little else they could do downstairs, they turned their attention to the stairwell. It was harder to breathe on the landing, nose wet and hands spasming at the mere memory. It felt long ago, and yet, only yesterday. It was more obvious here, though the bookcase had been righted. The long wooden cabinet, which had held her paternal grandmother's thimble collection, was long gone as kindling to the fight. She struggled to think of anything else, beyond a feeling of cowardice, shame, guilt, and whatever else her mind wanted to throw at her the moment.

It took only a few steps before she felt something underfoot. She bent down to pick it up, finding it to be a surviving thimble. Bridget Wenlock, famous Arithmancer, discovered the magical properties of seven. Emmeline gave a startled laugh. Was that not the working theory number of horcruxes? Or whatever the plural of it was. Of all the things to survive.

“What is it?” Hestia asked.

“A thimble,” Emmeline said, showing it to her. “Nana Vance collects thimbles. To be polite, Mum, she, um,” she cleared her throat. “She said she liked them too, so Nana sent her a collection.”

“Where are the others?” Hestia asked.

“There were smashed,” Emmeline said, pointing to the sun shadow where there should have been a cabinet. “Mum has-had-had a cabinet, and I smashed it onto Mulciber. It's a good thing she's not here, she'd have killed me for that...” She tried to punctuate the statement with a laugh, but a hoarse and snotty sob happened instead. To her complete and utter horror. “S-sorry.”

About to go digging through her robes to find her handkerchief, Emmeline found one already placed in her hand. “You don't have to apologise.”

“I do if-” Emmeline gulped hard, and blew into the handkerchief. Her face felt hot, wet, and her throat was getting tighter, not looser. She was starting to feel lightheaded, as if there was too little air and a flight response was kicking in. She wanted to get outside, where it was airy, and away from this hallway, but she was also likely to look atrocious. She forced out, “If I've gotten snot on you.”

“I'm a Healer,” Hestia said, quietly. “Do you know how much human gunk I've gotten over me over the years?”

Unable to trust herself to comment, Emmeline shook her head.

“A lot,” Hestia nodded, knowingly. “Do you want a hug?”

Normally, yes. As a rule. However, at the moment, with her own inability to control herself in the one place she had always considered to be safe and home, she felt raw inside her own skin. She couldn't be sure it wouldn't be painful to accept it, even as a comfort, even if it made no sense. Instead, she said in a soupy voice, “I don't know.”

“Perhaps we could try it,” Hestia offered. “And if you don't like it, we don't have to continue.”

Emmeline nodded, and the two friends embraced. Emmeline was a little taller than her friend, so she could see the top of her head and smell a rather perfume-heavy shampoo. Or perhaps an herb. She couldn't deny the distraction helped, if not fully. They stood there for a long time, or perhaps it wasn't long at all, but it felt like it. The murky soup of distress that felt like drowning was really ruining any hope of objectivity.

“We don't have to go on,” Hestia said, taking her hand as the two parted. “One floor is plenty for today.”

Embarrassment fled to her cheeks. She hated to be overly emotional in front of people. She found it tended to lose her some credibility, and somewhere in the recesses of her mind, it didn't seem very ladylike either. Or perhaps too ladylike. She was beginning to wish someone had written a guide to all of these feelings intermixing and flowing in her with a clear step by step explanation to how to deal with them and address them in a timely manner. She despised the uncertainty of it.

“Another day,” Emmeline forced out. She had at least half of the things, and it would have to be enough.

With a prickle of curiosity at the back of his mind, Regulus had stepped into the Hogwarts kitchens for the first time in many, many years, just ahead of Harry. A small crowd of elves had been milling about - preparing lunch for the Hogwarts staff, from the look of them, though it was strange to see such a comparatively small quantity in the absence of a castle full of children. Despite the heaviness of his mood, when they had found Dobby, Regulus had entertained a flicker of fond familiarity, though it felt a little out of place. Dobby had a miserable time as the Malfoys’ elf, and even when Dobby remembered him positively as a rare guest who did not treat him like rubbish, Regulus suffered a little prick of guilt for how dreadful his cousin’s family had been to the elf. The extent had not been apparent beyond the occasional rude comments, but it was no less disappointing to hear so directly.

Successful though they had been at locating the elf, it took no more than a few minutes to determine that Dobby had not actually garnered any clues of significant note beyond the diary entrusted to Lucius. Additional eyes and ears were always beneficial at Hogwarts, especially when people tended to speak as if house-elves were invisible nonentities, but he could not help a twinge of disappointment that Dobby had no treasure trove of eavesdropping. The Lestranges’ elf would likely be more helpful - after all, if he and Lucius had been tasked, surely Bella herself had been given one - but there had been no sign of any living creature in the manor when he had visited, and more than likely the elf had been given to someone else in the family, if it was even still alive.

He and Harry were looking at the map as they walked down the kitchen corridor towards the nearest stairway, but in the dungeon basement below, Slughorn’s all-too-familiar name again caught his eye. In some sense, Regulus still felt strange thinking of it as a homecoming for Slughorn when his own memories of school had concluded with his Head of House still solidly in place, but with a year of hearing people complain about Severus and his run as Potions professor, perhaps there was some small element of that return.

Interestingly enough, Severus was no longer anywhere to be seen on the map, but it was just as well. He had been in a rather bad mood, the last time Regulus had visited.

“Might we take a small detour before leaving?” Regulus asked, looking over to Harry. “I thought I might say a quick hello to Professor Slughorn. Perhaps we are not strictly meant to be here right now, but he is unlikely to tattle.” In truth, even if Slughorn did tattle, Dumbledore had expressed no concerns with breaching the chamber the last time, so even with their lack of express permission, he could not be too cross about it.

"He's already here?" Harry stuck his head closer to the map. "Oh, yeah. We can go if you want, I've only met him the once."

“Setting up, perhaps,” Regulus speculated as they reached the stairs, turning to go down towards the Potions classroom, rather than back up to the ground floor. “He was my Head of House, and possessing of a more amiable disposition than you are likely used to in that classroom, from the sound of it.”

"I know," Harry said, following on as well. "He mentioned you when I met him. He seems nice enough, didn't lead by calling me lazy, sloppy, or arrogant. Just a bit..." he trailed off, perhaps never finding the word to describe him.

Regulus could not help but feel a bit pleased to have been mentioned, even if there was some likelihood that it was in relation to Sirius, considering the conversation was with Harry (something that notably did not annoy him in the way it would have a year ago). “He likes to bask in the glory of those around him, avoiding the spotlight himself,” Regulus offered, shaking his head with a little smile. “I imagine he liked you rather a lot.”

"I think he knew what Dumbledore was doing asking me to go with him to ask him to come back," Harry shrugged. He didn't seem that bothered by it. "It's different with the Department of Mysteries. I don't mind people wanting to talk to me because of that because at least I did something there, and it's not because of something I didn't choose to be a part of or because my parents murdered and I wasn't."

“That’s understandable.” Regulus inclined his head in a little nod. “If you would prefer to avoid the conversation, I will not be long.”

"I don't mind going," Harry said. "Er, that is if you want me to, I can just wait here if you don't."

“You can come along. I merely wanted to give you an escape route if you wanted one,” Regulus said with a little quirk of his mouth.

Harry laughed at that. "Any chance I can keep that offer in reserve?"

"Oho!" came a voice ahead of them. "I thought I heard people talking!"

“Good morning - though I suppose it is nearly afternoon,” Regulus greeted, though he was uncertain of whether he ought to call him ‘Professor’ when it had been over a decade and a half. “We were just coming to see you.”

"Were you really?" Slughorn's eyes flickered from Harry to Regulus, where they suddenly stretched wide. "Well, this is certainly an unexpected pleasure. Mr Black?" He added it on, as if he wasn't entirely sure.

Regulus tipped his head to a nod. “It has been quite some time. You are looking well.”

"As are you!" Slughorn held onto his chest, and gave a wheeze of uncertain laughter. "Much more so than I expected. I'm sorry, my boy, but it's rare to attend a pupils funeral and have the chance to catch up with him twenty years later! I trust you're keeping well?"

“The re-acclimation process has been going rather well, yes. The world is a very different place in many ways, and in others, very much the same.” (The success of his re-acclimation was perhaps open to interpretation, but Regulus kept the thought private.) Lightly, he added, “I did not see you in Iago, this summer, so I was wondering if you had heard yet. Do pardon the suddenness.”
"No, no, I'm afraid I've been out of the loop for a while," Slughorn replied, though his tone was one of discomfort. He clapped his hands together, and then smiled. "No matter! A pleasant surprise is very welcome indeed, especially in such times. And of course, it's not much of a surprise to see you with Harry!" He turned his attention to the boy. "I did mention he was part of my house, didn't I?"

"You did," Harry said. "And that Sirius wasn't."

"No," Slughorn sighed. "I've always been a little put out about that, I had everyone else. Being gifted often runs in families, too. I went to school with Arcturus, exceptional alchemist, and with your grandfather as well, though he was a few years my senior. I never forget a good potioneer. Are you taking it?"

Harry nodded.

"Excellent!" Slughorn said. "You're in excellent company, six O's at NEWT, along with a captaincy, wasn't it?"

Regulus nodded, clipping a reaction to the mention of his NEWTs. All those years ago, he had left home before the results arrived, and though exams had been rapidly knocked down from their short-lived position as Most Stressful and Important Task, he had been unbearably curious in the end. Far too many nights had been spent with a situationally inappropriate sense of disappointment that he was stuck in France and did not even know what his scores had been. For some time, he had forgotten how badly he wanted to know.

“Yes,” Regulus said instead. Privately, he felt that being a Death Eater had taken more emotional energy than NEWTs, quidditch, and the responsibilities of a prefect combined, but he had never made that particular extracurricular known to his old professor and did not think it wise to emphasise now. “That final year was very busy, as they so often are. I expect Harry will experience much the same.”

"Yes, a very stressful time," Slughorn agreed, before glancing back down the corridor. "I'd invite you in, but everything is everywhere. Trying to get everything ready has never been my favourite part of coming back. But I imagine we'll have a chance to catch up properly soon, won't we?"

“I expect so,” Regulus said, inclining his head. “Hogwarts will certainly benefit from your return. Take care in settling back in.”

Slughorn preened, and smiled. "Of course! And Harry, I shall undoubtedly see you on the train."

As they parted ways, Regulus found that his mood had lightened significantly, once again, brushing away the stress of the chamber and the disappointment of the kitchens. To be accepted so naturally by a prominent figure from his youth, without much in the way of doubt and nothing in the way of disdain, was surprisingly refreshing. Slughorn had been isolated from the collective ire of Society, untouched and untested by popular opinion, but he had always been a little more flexible in favour of those he favoured. Perhaps it was a bit inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but Regulus could admit, at least to himself, that it cheered him.

Laden with a bag of basilisk venom an a morning of conversation to sift through, Regulus deemed the day very successful, indeed.

Arriving back at Number Twelve, Emmeline stood for a moment or two to fortify herself. She felt drained, her eyes still burned, and her throat was beginning to hurt. Both she and Hestia had sorted out a storage section for things until she could take them to her grandmother's, or until she found another place to stay, but she had made at least some decision towards the house. She couldn't go back and live in it. She felt a cold fury at Mulciber for robbing her of that feeling of home, but at least now she knew she couldn't go back there and try to ignore it. She could just about manage walking around, but her heart split open the moment she'd ascended the stairs. It would need to be sold, and for the fourth time, she would need to move. She couldn't stay at HQ forever. She very badly wanted a home to feel safe in, and it hadn't felt quite so raw or real until now that it was gone.

She slipped into the hallway and removed her shoes with a sigh of relief. There didn't appear to be anyone about.

“Alright, Vance?”

Emmeline started, loudly. She hadn't realised Sirius was on the floor on the upstairs landing; why he was on the floor on the upstairs landing was likely a better question, but one she wasn't equipped to deal with today.

Unfortunately for her budding headache, this was the absolute worst hallway in the world to squeak in. Behind her, the rage of Walburga Black filled the air.


"Oh, do cease the histrionics!" Something in Emmeline had broken, and she felt too raw in her skin to be yelled at today. "The only person bringing dishonour to the magical world is people like you! What is the point of tradition and houses if they are only used to toss away the very family they are supposed to protect? If good people lose their lives for it and horrid old women can use it to justify sending one child for the slaughter and throwing away another? How is that protecting anyone?" Realising that she had raised her already hoarse voice to screaming levels, Emmeline clamped her hand across her mouth in a mixture of embarrassment, shame, and being far too uncomfortable for words to cope with any of this.

With a flash of colour, she realised the sudden and deafening silence was because Sirius had pulled the curtains across. The two stared at each other for a moment, before he gave her the most irritating smile.

"If I didn't know it'd set the old bat off," Sirius whispered, pointing to the portrait, "I'd give you a round of applause."

"It's not funny," Emmeline said, unable to keep the anger out of her tone.

"No, it's not," Sirius said. "But I was getting sick to death of you acting like her calling you all the names of the day wasn't pissing you off. She wouldn't have deserved that kind of politeness when she was still knocking around; she doesn't deserve it now she's dead."

Emmeline ran her hand over her face. "It's been an exceptionally trying day."

"You want to talk about it?" Sirius asked, before hushing his voice.

"You have no idea how much I very badly do not want to talk about it," Emmeline said. At that moment, the only real idea she had was to sit in a very long bath and climb into bed.

“I can bust out the drink if you need one,” Sirius offered. That was, generally speaking, his usual response to this sort of thing.

Emmeline shook her head. “I think drinking will only make me do something exceptionally stupid.”

“Sometimes, doing something exceptionally stupid helps too,” Sirius said.

“That only works for Gryffindors,” Emmeline gave him what she hoped was a better smile than it felt like.

“You're an honourary,” Sirius said. “Marlene always said so.”

It seemed as if today was a day for hitting upon sore subjects. At moments like this, she wanted very badly to see her best friend. Sometimes, she could go days without thinking of it, and she would think that something she saw or did would be something Marlene would like, and she'd remember it all over again. Today, it felt as if she was being winded.

It must've shown on her face, because Sirius almost immediately winced. “I didn't mean to upset you.”

“It's not you,” Emmeline forced out. She bit back a truly terrible comment about his tendency to forget that he was not the only person to lose his best friend in the war. If she didn't want to lash out at a portrait, she truly didn't want to lash out at a good friend. “I need to deal with this by myself.”

For a moment, he looked fit to argue. He must have decided otherwise, because he merely nodded. “Goodnight, then.”

Emmeline nodded in return, “Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Find the prophecy and bring it to me.

Draco had rolled the command over and over in his mind. There could be no other word for it. Being in the presence of the Dark Lord only a handful of times in the last year, it was unclear if anything he commanded was simply a request, but he doubted it. He more than doubted this. As his aunt had reminded him upon her return from the Ministry, his father had failed in retrieving the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries and would now have a respite in Azkaban for his failure. Not that it was a true stay in Azkaban, his aunt had remarked, as the dementors had fled it.

However, faced with the stench of failure and the horrors of disgrace, Draco had jumped at the opportunity to prove that it was nothing more than a fluke. His father was a talented man; even if the Ever Perfect Potter was at the Ministry, the idea that Lucius Malfoy had been hoodwinked and overtaken by Longbottom and a flurry of idiotic traitors was almost too much to bear. Failure was not an option.

The so-called Chosen One prophecy was no longer in the Ministry; of this, he was now sure. It could only be touched by those involved in it, which naturally meant Potter would have it. If he'd given it to Dumbledore, the likelihood was that it was currently in the school. There was no guarantee that he had done that. It was the smart thing to do, even if he was an old dodder on his last legs. So where would he stash it? He dismissed the idea that it'd be put somewhere muggles could get to it. It'd scramble their brains, and he'd never do anything like that. It could be with the Weasleys. It's not as if anyone would notice if it scrambled their brains. They might even get some better class scores if it did. There was always Longbottom, but he'd probably touch it and drop dead because he forgot he wasn't supposed to.

Where did that leave it? There was the dog, an embarrassment to his mother’s noble blood, but he hadn't the vaguest idea where to look for that. Another idea walked into his head unbidden. There was another person he'd seen stalking about Potter. This wasn't the same cousin, he was quite sure, but it was possible the emergence of another traitor was not coincidental. He could ask his mother about it, but he had to be careful not to confirm or deny anything. She could not get into trouble on his account.

Given the breeze that had finally descended and cut through the sweltering heat, it was not such a surprise to find her in the garden. “Mother,” he started, as he tried to think how best to approach a delicate subject. “Do you have a moment?”

Looking over, she met his eyes with an obliging expression and shifted to face him. “Of course. Is something troubling you?”

Draco glanced around, to assure himself of the privacy. "Just the continued appearance of someone claiming to be related to you."

A sort of keen interest flickered in her expression as she folded her hands neatly in her lap. “Oh? Who is it?”

"I didn't catch a name," Draco replied. It was unlikely mentioning running into him coming out of the girls bathroom with Potter would shed any light on it, but it was still his most automatic thought. "In the book shop, and at Hogwarts. Do you have a cousin?"

Expression softening, his mother's mouth pursed to a gentle line. “Yes - Regulus. He was the youngest and a frequent patron of any bookshop he could find,” she offered with a strangeness to her tone.

Draco curled his lips. "There's three of them?"

Her nose crinkled. “I have only one living cousin. I meant youngest in the family.”

Draco fought against the urge to roll his eyes. "Why is your only living cousin having holidays with Potter?"

She sniffed with distaste. “Something clearly has him confused. He is not acting like himself at all, as of late.”

A thought occurred to him rather suddenly. "Didn't your youngest cousin die?"

At that, she frowned a little deeper. “He and Evan both, yes, I had thought so; but in the case of Regulus, it turns out I was mistaken.”

"He did sound a bit..." Draco searched for a word that meant totally crazy, but wasn't that. It seemed like it might insult his mother's family if he did that, even if it was true. Even so, crazy was better than traitor, so it was still a step up. "Out of sorts. Did you talk to him?"

Again, she nodded. “I have spoken to him, yes. It is a complicated situation, but I will see it through, whatever the result may be. Regulus was not a traitor.”

With an uptick of nervousness, Draco continued. "Then I would prefer to meet him officially, not skulking around. Perhaps we could go to him."

His mother's expression shifted then, lifting up around the eyes. After only a fleeting second's pause, she nodded, thumbing the back of her hand despite her board-straight posture. “I'm certain something could be arranged. I don't understand why he is lowering himself, but questionable commentary aside, I do believe he means well. Regulus always puts family first, in the end. He will come to his senses.” With an asserting nod, she added, “I will inform him of our intention to visit.”

Privately, Draco thought he would reserve judgement on that. Time would tell if it was some Potter-induced temporary insanity. Potter often went into histrionics, maybe being nuts was getting contagious. But none of that mattered if Draco got to have a snoop around.

"Thank you," he said. He just about managed not to add on they couldn't suffer any more embarrassments.

Regulus was huddled in the drawing room when the tip-tapping of an owl drew his attention to the window behind him. A letter from Narcissa, he immediately realised, identifying the neat swoop of her handwriting; there was no true need for the confirming signature at the bottom, though he was delighted to see it, all the same. At once, his eyes swept through the letter - a request to come visit, he noted as relief began to swell in his chest - and he had nearly reached the end when his brother yanked at his attention from across the room.

"Why do you look as if someone just used the sacred words 'first edition'?"

Trying to smother the pleased expression, Regulus folded his letter and glanced up. “It's Cissa - asking to visit with Draco.”

"You're getting excited over a tea party," Sirius said, in a bemused tone. "You better do it in public. I don't want to have to deal with a kidnapping."

“It’s not a tea party,” Regulus responded, a little bit crossly, and stuck the folded letter in his pocket. “Draco is specifically interested in seeing the house - and before you say anything, I do recall that he is a Death Eater, do realise the potential for a trap, but am not terribly concerned about it. As long as our sweep of the house is thorough, it presents as nothing more than a residence, just as it always has.”

"Of course he is," Sirius said. He ran his hands over his face, making a noise of annoyance. "You might not be terribly concerned, but it still functions as a safe house. You have to tell people, Vance and Harry, at least."

“I will,” Regulus responded, making an effort to filter defensiveness out of his tone. “The charm would mask those protected by it - with the exception of us, presumably - but I would not be so impolite as to spring that on them without warning.”

"Be prepared for the fallout." Sirius said, with a visibly forced shrug. "That's all I'm saying."

“What do you think they are going to see that would be so concerning?” Regulus asked, raising his eyebrows.

“I think that as long as they don't know about the Fidelius, it's safe,” Sirius replied. “But the point of a safe house is that it's safe to come running into day or night, and if either of them clock the ward, they might have the unfortunate sense to look out the bloody window.”

At that, Regulus frowned. Even after a year, it was still difficult to think of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place as a ‘safe house’ or as ‘headquarters’ when it remained - as always - his home. Allowing the Order to meet there and seek refuge had not felt like a problem, even before he had joined their official ranks, but that did not make it any less his personal living space or ancestral home.

“Then we can warn the others too. It is not as though Cissa and Draco are likely to stay terribly long,” Regulus said, though at least part of him wished they would - or at least wished that they felt amiable enough that their presence needn’t be a dance of perceptions.

"And me?" Sirius asked.

“What about you?” Again, Regulus lifted his brow.

"I hope you've packed your bags for the incredibly long guilt trip I'm about to inspire," Sirius said, plainly. "Because she's going to snoop upstairs, or her kid will. Phineas will need to be shut up. Truthfully, if it's about to start being used as a real home again, we need to start looking for somewhere else, and not just because she'll wonder what our dearest mother is screaming half-breed or traitor at."

Propping an elbow on the arm of his chair, Regulus fit his chin into the palm with a more pronounced frown. Without half-breeds or traitors around, Regulus thought privately that their mother might not actually scream as much at guests, but he suspected that pointing it out with that particular phrasing would not actually help.

“You are right about laying the guilt on thick,” Regulus said dryly, a touch of uncomfortable annoyance in his tone. “They won’t be wandering around without me, and Phineas has been moved before, we can move him again. I don’t mind sharing the space, but I didn’t ask for my ancestral home to be given to the Order.” Even as he said the words, they felt a little childish and combative, but his brother’s intended guilt shot had landed a little too squarely, and the defensive bristle lingered.

"It wasn't someone's home when I told Dumbledore he could use it," Sirius replied with a barely contained eyeroll. "It was just an old building, well-warded and filled with things no one had come to see in a decade, or for me, almost two."

For a moment, Regulus leveled a frown, a little more stung than he liked to admit that Sirius still thought of it as nothing more than an ‘old building’ when it came to the question of who was allowed to use it, even now. He wanted the Order to feel safe there and recognised the trouble that would be pulled to the surface, but he had not invited any of them into his home - except for Emmeline, whose comfort was admittedly of greatest concern.

Picking up the book he had set aside, Regulus opened it up again with a flattened expression. “It is now. You have communicated loud and clear that you don’t care about it, but I do.”

"It's almost like I have a lot of lousy experiences tied up with the place and really don't enjoy being bombarded with them day in day out," Sirius said, in a grumpy tone. "But regardless of either of those feelings, meeting needs calling so people don't drop in unannounced at the wrong moment, and to try and find a secondary location, just in case Bellatrix decides to drop in now she knows where you are. Or even if Narcissa does without warning."

“A secondary location would be a safe option, as things are, but I would like to point out that I did not specify my residence,” Regulus said, the defensiveness still sticking to his throat a little more than he liked. “Me being alive at all is reason enough to make an educated guess, but it’s not as if I sent an announcement. Being evasive with them would only make it worse, suggesting there is something to hide here.”

"There is something to hide here! If there were nothing to hide, Narcissa could show up on the doorstep at any time. Or worse, use the floo." Sirius said, with a throaty noise of frustration. "I'm thinking about the long term. I don't fancy being ambushed, and while you might have a modicum of protection from Narcissa at the minute, I don't, and I have no guarantee the charm will apply to me. In fact, it probably won't."

“I am aware that there is something to hide, which is actually my point. Do you really think that they would be less likely to show up unannounced if I was suspicious about it? Saying ‘you can’t come to the ancestral home’ will only draw more attention to it,” Regulus said, though he was speaking tightly to the page of his book now. “We can set up precautions to lock out visitors who don’t have permission, but sating their curiosity is better than heightening it even more by trying to shroud it with restrictions.”

There was a beat of silence. "I don't trust her."

Regulus flicked his eyes up from the page, and though his mouth was still pinched, some of the tightness had loosened in his tone when he spoke again. “I don’t entirely trust the situation either, but I don’t think she is trying to schedule my murder, and as long as we are thorough, there is nothing that ought to indicate any whiff of the Order. If she asks about your living arrangements, I can always lie and say you avoid the house like one would avoid kappa-infested waters because most people have the sense to assume you would do just that.” His eyes flicked down again.

"Murder plans or not," Sirius sighed, "it's not just the Order I'm worried about."

“Emmeline will probably be at work, if the timing in the letter is maintained, and you and Harry can take a break from the house, if you are worried about potential issues or tip offs on that front,” Regulus said with a subtle lift of his shoulder. “I will start looking into further protective measures for the house going forward, too, if that makes you feel any better. I was planning to do so anyway, with the assumption that Bella’s grace period won’t last forever.”

After another beat of silence, Sirius reached for one of the ornate cushions on the soda and tossed it at his brother’s torso. "You cannot be that dense."

Catching the small, hurtling cushion with one hand, Regulus settled it neatly in his lap, resting the book atop it. He knew his brother wasn’t concerned about Kreacher, so that was thoroughly out of the question, and though it was an almost comical sort of thought, he was not in the mood to hear Sirius complain about Kreacher. “If you are referring to me... No one is likely to attack me with Narcissa standing right there, and I will be in no more danger after the visit than I already am now.”

"Narcissa can cause more suffering for you with a few sentences than Bellatrix can with her wand," Sirius replied.

The sting was unexpected - not because Regulus thought it an unfair statement, but rather because he knew it was true. As illogical as the feeling was, he dreaded Narcissa’s rejection significantly more than he dreaded a surprise ambush from Bellatrix, but it was not an emotion that he knew what to do with, so he pursed his lips to a line for an uncomfortable beat.

“There is still a chance she could come around,” Regulus said, though he was looking down again, not reading the words on the page at all.

"I know that. I might not like her, but she's no Bellatrix." Sirius put his hands on his knees, and sat down slowly. "But if you're protecting her and her kid, you need a little protecting because you'll be too distracted to see the hit coming. This is a prime location to give you a nasty shove into a corner, in an environment where you can't just pick up a book and ignore her until she goes away because you don't want to argue with her. Protecting yourself is important. She's got claws on her when she wants them."

Regulus nodded, though his mouth was turned downwards. Narcissa was not one who typically used those claws on him, but she had landed a sting or two already, and he knew the ground was at risk of dropping out from under him with a badly met argument. That she and Draco wanted to come visit was perhaps promising - and deep in his chest, he wanted to believe that it was - but the more his mind reeled, it troubled him that he could not pinpoint what the change of heart might have been. He badly wanted a chance to show them that they could make it all work - but if they didn’t want to…

“Protecting myself how?” Regulus asked. “The closest thing to a shield charm from unpleasant conversation is to plug my ears, but I expect I am a bit too old for that now. Or perhaps a silencing charm, but I don’t think that would do much to de-escalate the situation.”

"It's not the conversation; it's how you feel. You can't do what I do; no one would believe you don't care, but there's nothing wrong with looking at what she can use - the blood, the name, the Death Eaters, disappearing and letting her think you were dead, or hexing her sister - and making sure you have an answer you won't choke on." Sirius then shrugged. "Or a wild idea, just tell her she's being upsetting and ruining an otherwise pleasant visit. Manners might overtake her, or she might care enough to stop if she knows it's painful for you. I emphasize: might."

Words clustered at the back of Regulus’s throat, but for a moment, they would not come out, so he simply nodded his head. Having an answer to all of her questions was not, in itself, the most difficult part, but rather trying to find answers that were both true to what he felt and not wildly offensive to her sensibilities. Those answers were essential if he wished to maintain any hope of reconciliation and to convince her and her son that defection was not only the right answer, but also the best option. The attempt with Draco had been even more abysmal than the limited success of his conversations with Narcissa, and this would be a matter of accounting for both.

“Perhaps so,” Regulus said after an uncomfortable beat. “I can do that.”

"Tell me if you can't, and fuck it, I'll hang about just in case." Sirius nodded. "There's nothing wrong with it if you can't. I'm not going to have a go at you, but I do need you to speak up."

“I have thought about the answers to those questions extensively,” Regulus began, shaking his head. “I just need to figure out how to phrase them more effectively, I suppose.”

"You do that," Sirius said. "I'm going to go see if Harry wants to go see his friends for a day or two in case they decide to pop in unannounced."

Regulus nodded. “I will tell Emmeline,” he confirmed, though even after Sirius had left the room, he lingered in the chair with thoughts spinning in his mind.

This place was a safe house to her, too, as much as he had grown accustomed to her presence. Though it was, in reality, no less safe now than it had been all this time, he wanted her to be able to feel safe, too. Undoubtedly, this was not the first time Number Twelve Grimmauld Place had occurred to a Death Eater, but it was nonetheless a sign that the Death Eaters were potentially turning their eyes to it. Her living spaces had been invaded far more often than any person’s ought to be, and though she had known that risk going in, he felt far more guilty about her than he did about the Order’s headquarters.

He found her in the library - as he expected he would - absorbed in a book he couldn't quite identify from the door.

“Might I interrupt for a moment?” he asked, though he had already taken a few steps into the room.

"You're not interrupting," Emmeline said. She placed the book down on the table and pushed her book away. "What do you need?"

“I received a letter from Narcissa just a moment ago,” he began as he approached the table, supposing there was not much else to do than dive into the point. “It seems they have made the rather easy deduction that I returned to this location. Draco is asking to see the house, and quite frankly, I think it appears more suspicious to deny him entrance than to oblige.” (Furthermore, he could not completely shake the surge of hope he'd initially felt, however depressing a turn the conversation with Sirius had taken. A less important point to emphasise, most likely...) “It does, however, affect you, as a current resident of the house… The timing should align with your work hours, but it seemed prudent to warn you, nonetheless, considering the potential ramifications.”

Emmeline blinked once or twice in quick succession, then nodded. "I shall consider myself notified, thank you."

His mouth pursed to a line as he watched her face, and his hands found the back of the nearest chair, drumming an absent beat. Perhaps that was all that needed to be said - the information had been relayed - but his mind was still grasping at a way to stay a moment longer and resolve the strange air. He recalled she had gone with Hestia to clean out her house while he'd been at Hogwarts with Harry - something that had seemed to linger behind her eyes, but he did not know how to bring it up when it was his schoolmate who had done it.

“Should you find yourself in need of a new project outside of work, I will be researching new wards and contemplating potential modifications for the Order’s safe houses and residences alike. You needn't feel obligated, but you are welcome to join me, if you'd like,” he offered, resisting the urge to shift on his feet.

Emmeline seemed to consider it for a moment. "My concentration is a little reluctant to engage at the moment. Is it dangerous?"

“No more than usual,” Regulus admitted, “but I’ve been meaning to for some time, and it seemed as good a reason as any.” A breath of a pause, and then he added a little vaguely, “How are you holding up?”

“In need of more engaging distractions,” Emmeline replied, dryly. “I can't promise good company, at least for the moment. But perhaps neural company.”

“Neural company suits me just as well,” he said, expression lightening a little. “I did not want to burden you right away, but there has been some minor development with our ongoing research, should you feel it is a proper distraction; but if you would rather avoid the war, I’m sure we could come up with something else.”

Emmeline smiled at him. "You're saying that knowing full well no matter what, I must know what this development is, aren't you?"

There was the hook. A little smile tugged at his lips as the nervous energy peeled away. “I am.”

"Using my inquisitive nature against me is a bit fiendish," Emmeline replied. "Especially saying it's only a minor development, which in translation means it's not minor at all."

“I prefer ‘strategic,’” he responded lightly, mouth still quirked up at the corner.

"Don't make me upgrade to manipulative," Emmeline said, in a warning tone.

For a moment, he considered asking if ‘manipulative’ was worse than 'fiendish,’ but he could not say for certain if she was in the mood, so instead he folded his arms on the back of the chair. “All jesting aside, I intended to provide an update, regardless; it is merely a matter of timing.”

"I meant what I said. You're not interrupting." Emmeline said, with an eyeroll. "You can come and talk at any time."

“You said you weren't up for discussing protective spells, a moment ago,” he pointed out, lifting his brow, “so I was trying not to make assumptions.”

"Assume that if there is a stimulating mystery to be solved and I'm wallowing, telling me about new details about it is an excellent way of getting me to move," Emmeline replied, with a huff. "I'm sorry to tell you that protective spellwork does not hold the same stimulation."

“I think both subjects are fascinating,” Regulus responded firmly, “but no matter.” After shutting the door with a wandless flick, he continued, “I retrieved a rather significant quantity of basilisk venom with Harry's assistance, and considering his tendency to stumble upon these horcruxes without even trying, I told him what it is we are dealing with. I did not detail the theories on living hosts, for obvious reasons, but he will be able to watch for any clues related to the Founders, should any exist at Hogwarts.”

"Breaking into Hogwarts, having Death Eaters to HQ, and spilling your guts to Harry," Emmeline noted with a flicker of amusement. "You are feeling rebellious lately, aren't you?"

“I suppose I am, a bit,” Regulus admitted, shifting to pull out the chair he had been propped on and settled in it across from her. “Sometimes one must creatively reinterpret certain restrictions in order to accomplish a goal.”

"The only rules which apply are the ones I was intending to follow anyway?" Emmeline translated.

As a young child, Regulus had shied away from rule-breaking of any sort, but he had to admit it was much easier to accomplish tasks of a forbidden nature when rules were loosened. HIs mouth quirked. “Essentially.”

Emmeline glanced over him, then snorted wryly. "I think being around notoriously impulsive and reckless people has had a bad influence on you."

“That must be it.” More than likely, that shift could not be blamed entirely on the mass of Gryffindors surrounding him - truthfully, Regulus would have never discovered the horcruxes or left at all, had he followed the rules within the structure of his life - but the house did have a very different energy about it with such a consistent Gryffindor presence. A stark contrast with what it once had been - one that he suspected his parents had feared, to some degree, and he felt a fresh sting of guilt.

"Or perhaps Sirius isn't as unusual as he likes to pretend," Emmeline theorised.

“I don't think anyone wants to take that title away from him, though perhaps for a variety of reasons,” Regulus said wryly.

"I seem to recall you once telling me you could be considered very rebellious," Emmeline commented. "But perhaps leave the lack of impulse control to the lions. Particularly around horcruxes. You did say they fight back."

“They do,” Regulus responded with a nod, and with a little quirk, he added, “On the subject of rebelliousness, there is a place for it, but I wouldn’t say that I make quite the lifestyle of it that Sirius does.”

"No, of course not." Emmeline nodded sagely. "It's not as if you did something deemed impossible in a break for freedom, or joined a vigilante organisation, or have stolen anything, broken and entered, or been rather mouthy with people."

“That would be complete madness,” Regulus quipped back. “Doesn’t sound like me at all.”

"Or attending muggle places of business or reading their books or art," Emmeline added, though she was clearly trying not to smile. "That's not you at all, no."

“Scandalous. It was probably a dream,” he suggested lightly.

"Presumptuous of you to think I dream about you," Emmeline said.

Regulus fought the embarrassed flush with what he hoped was valiant success. “Figuratively speaking, of course.” Shifting slightly, his tone became matter-of-fact again as he shifted the subject: “Back to the point of Harry - Although there was not much in the way of revelations, he did also share a portion of the prophecy that supports the theory that Harry is a host, however much I would like for it to be untrue. I am not one for prophecy, as a typical rule, but it claims Harry will have a power unknown - perhaps to both of them, ambiguous as it is - which could mean anything, but sounds rather like the abilities Harry shares with him. Harry also mentioned that the prophecy specifies that they must die at the other’s hand, which is not particularly reassuring, either.”

"It does make the most sense. If he was going about killing people and stuffing parts of himself in there, he had just murdered at least two people," Emmeline pondered, tapping the book in front of her. "Though I'm sorry to partially disprove your theory, it's a power unknown to Voldemort, but something that Harry has. Something that you also have, as I rather hope do I, and the Weasleys, and many others. I expect the only difference is that they don't have a part of soul that isn't theirs inside them, so it doesn't disprove it entirely."

“If it’s something everyone has, why would a prophecy go to the trouble of specifying it for Harry?” Regulus asked, lifting his brow, though curiously had crept into his tone. “And what is it, for that matter? Has it been confirmed?”

"We know he has some ability to control people, whatever is left of his collective soul, undoubtedly. He kept trying with Harry, culminating at the Ministry, but we've already seen to some degree what happens to the victims of such a thing in Quirrell and the others. Their mind, body, it gets burnt out and destroyed." Emmeline actually smiled, a little bitterly. "But young Harry was able to do what they could not - he drove him out of his mind, not with the misdirection of occlumency, but by using the same weapon Lily gave him when she sacrificed herself. Arguably, the most powerful magical force there is. Love, of course. The emotion appears to be toxic to him, and in his somewhat unique situation, Harry is capable of weaponising it against him."

Regulus thought that defeat by the power of love sounded a little bit ridiculous, old magic or not, but he recognised that it was rude to say as much. Although he still suspected the horcruxes were relevant to the prophecy if it was legitimate at all, he instead simply tipped his head. “I don’t imagine he has much of that, no. Any other prophecy-related theories?”

"Oh, I can feel that cynicism from here," Emmeline waved her book at him. "Even if you want to set aside divination and prophecies, love is an intense emotion, and intense emotions bring about very powerful magic. It's how it manifests in children, more often than not. If you want to consider it from an outside perspective, if Harry had no particular reason to want him dead, then he may not have gotten involved at all with any of this. However, Vol-" she coughed, and pressed on. "Voldemort murdered two people he loved. From experience, this does instigate a desire to kill the person responsible in violent and painful ways. In targeting Harry, he has instigated his own demise. That's usually how it goes with prophecies. They only mean something when people act upon them, and change their behaviour accordingly."

Regulus quirked his mouth a little. “All of that, I can agree with.”

"There is the possibility it's talking about the soul fragments," Emmeline mused. "It's really only supposed to be one soul per body."

“I would not be surprised if it had a two-pronged reading. Divination and prophecies strike me as prone to multiple interpretations,” Regulus remarked lightly. “With how many of these fragments there are, the prophecy should probably have its Sight checked if it managed to miss them.”

"Trelawney," Emmeline said. "Let's not blame magic for poor interpretation of it."

He granted a little smile. “I suppose I will give you that one.”

"How gracious of you," Emmeline said, dryly. "You know that Harry has been infected with basilisk venom before, and if your theory holds, it didn't destroy it?"

Lifting his brow, Regulus shook his head. “I had not heard. Presuming the theory is sound, I wonder if the presence of the host’s soul means that the fragment is pocketed somewhere specific - or the fact that he is still alive, perhaps the venom did not have time to take effect. That is for the best, of course, because it’s better that he’s alive, but it’s curious.” Regulus did not want to think that Harry himself would have to be destroyed for any assault on the horcrux to work, but the point made his stomach twist in a sick lurch. “I don’t intend to jab him with more basilisk venom to test it, of course, but it is important to consider in respect to our options. Perhaps it is worth initiating the search into whether it’s possible to localise any attempts to destroy the horcrux, or to remove it in a safe way,” he added with a thoughtful frown.

"I don't have the details, unfortunately," Emmeline admitted. "Though thank you for the image of you sneaking around with a dipped cotton swab, trying to surreptitiously poke Harry around the house in various places to see what may happen."

With a muffled snigger, Regulus shook his head. “I can imagine how well that would be received. ‘Yes, Sirius, I’m systematically poisoning Harry, but only a little bit, and it’s nothing he hasn’t survived before.’”

Emmeline snorted. "It would require telling him about the soul splitting, which you seem reticent to do."

“I would not say telling him would be required, per se, but it would be terribly difficult to explain in the absence of such context,” Regulus said wryly. “However, in fairness to my brother, I am reticent to tell the vast majority of people. Thus far, the list includes you, Dumbledore, and Harry - I suspected that Dumbledore already knew, and Harry likely has one in his head. It’s a short and highly specific list.”

“I'm honoured,” Emmeline replied. “It does save me the trouble of stalking and theorising on the wrong subjects. I'm not sure whether to hope Harry finds something or not. It would be nice to know what else was chosen to establish pattern, but there being that much of him shoved in the school around small children is chilling.”

“That is the trouble,” Regulus agreed. “One has to know the target to fight it, but sometimes it would be more preferable to be wrong, given the circumstances. Those children have been through enough, as it is. All of them.”

"We didn't exactly have an easy time of it either," Emmeline reminded him.

Regulus shoved down his own unwelcome memories of adolescent war involvement. They had been through enough, too, in hindsight, but it could not be changed now. “No, certainly not,” he agreed.

"But if there is something - if they've been there since he was at school," Emmeline said, suddenly sitting forward. "Does that not mean they were there then too?"

“They may well have been. If he was creating horcruxes at the time, he may have done so several times before moving on. I don’t know that I would have hidden them in the same building as Professor Dumbledore, but it’s not impossible,” Regulus said with a little tip of the head.

"Though an extremely accomplished man, Dumbledore is not infallible. He didn't notice three animagi running about for several years." Emmeline added, with a shrug. "Or perhaps, a giant snake?"

“I was specifically thinking of the basilisk when granting that possibility,” Regulus said wryly, “as useful as its venom will be. But a small herd of unregistered animagi applies, as well.” As did a small herd of student Death Eaters, perhaps - or maybe Dumbledore had known, just as he suggested knowing about Draco, and simply had not seen fit to intervene. It was hard to say, but not a welcome question to pose, if he were to guess.

"The man is ineffable," Emmeline said. "How did you know what the ring was?"

“I wouldn’t say that I ‘knew,’” Regulus admitted pensively, shaking his head. “Being in close proximity to them feels a bit awful - though when I first had the locket, I already felt awful, so it wasn’t as noticable, I suppose. Truthfully, I was mostly just hoping the Gaunts did not hide family rings in boxes under the floor for no other discernible reason.”

Emmeline stared at him, then rolled her eyes. "So more or less a guess, then. For someone so careful, you're impressively reckless at times. How will Harry know? He's at least as reckless."

“They seem to be finding him, rather than the other way around, so at least he will know what to stab them with, should it happen again,” Regulus responded, which perhaps was not helpful from a proactive sense, but he did not expect Harry would find very much in the school, anyway.

"Did you leave him with venom?" Emmeline asked.

“It didn’t seem prudent to give him basilisk venom to keep on his person - or even to leave in the dormitories with so many other students around - but he is both the only one with access to the chamber, now, and has the means to sneak about undetected, so he could probably manage it, should the need arise,” Regulus said.

"No, perhaps not if he's getting Slughorn," Emmeline huffed a laugh. "He might tackle him for it."

“Indeed. It’s probably best not to mention the venom stash, right under Slughorn’s nose,” Regulus said with a quirked smile. “Basilisk venom is normally rather expensive.”

"I'm relieved the old man's not dead." Emmeline said, returning the smile. "I heard his house got raided. Did you hear about those last time? The uh, showing up at your door with ‘join or die’ propositions? I think Remus had one."

“Now that you mention it, Sirius said something of the sort a while back, but I was not aware of them happening at the time,” Regulus responded with a wrinkled nose. “Either they weren’t doing them yet, or perhaps it was the result of the rather limited pool of people I interacted with. I’m glad to hear he successfully avoided it.”

"Me too," Emmeline said. "People who know his real name tend to disappear, from what I could find."

“Which is not very surprising, all things considered,” Regulus noted with a nod.

"No, but it does make things awkward." Emmeline sighed, then leaned back against the chair. "We have a means of destruction but nothing to destroy. It's very frustrating."

“I initially had the opposite problem,” Regulus added, “which was also very frustrating. I do not like relying on luck, but at least we have several leads to follow. Harry and I spoke to Dobby, too, and although it does not seem that anyone was as loose-lipped around him as I had hoped, it did remind me to specifically consider which Death Eaters may have been entrusted, rather than focusing solely on the objects themselves. Bellatrix, for example - both Lucius and I were connected to them, so I would be surprised if she was not.” Crinkling his nose, he suddenly wished he had spent his time in the Lestrange Manor more efficiently, but there was nothing to be done about it now. At least he knew about the Auror trigger, now. “In the time-loop, I did a quick sweep of the manor, but there are plenty of rocks left unturned. They have a Gringotts vault, too, of course… and many of their possessions were taken by law enforcement when they were initially arrested, so for that matter, there could be a horcrux in the Ministry…”

"The Ministry shouldn't be too difficult. There's usually an inventory list that Kingsley can get a hold of. Gringotts is harder, but evidently, no longer impossible to breach." Emmeline nodded. "I'd say they were the older lot, but your involvement does contradict that. As far as I know, none of your family from the previous generations had any involvement with him?"

Regulus shook his head. “Just Bella and myself, as far as blood relatives go.” Those numbers changed if one went into cousins within other family branches, such as the Rosiers spanning off from his Aunt Druella, but he suspected that was not what Emmeline meant.

"There doesn't seem to be rhyme nor reason to who he picks, then. That doesn't seem right. He goes to a lot of trouble to procure objects, so it can't be random." Emmeline flinched suddenly. "Oh, no. What are the odds of the Greyback lot having hidden one?"

Slanting his mouth down in thought, Regulus paused a moment, then shook his head. “It's certainly possible - and worth consideration, given the lack of consistency - but I don't know that he would trust it to the feral pack. As far as I know, their function is more for chaos than marked service.” Tapping a finger lightly on the table top, he added, “But in truth, I cannot actually speak for the selection process itself, beyond my own experience. I offered Kreacher because I did not realise what I was volunteering him for, so in that respect, my involvement was more coincidental than intentional… yet Bellatrix was the one who told me personally that he required the assistance of an elf, so a connection is nonetheless still possible.”

"We really need to get a better look into his history," Emmeline said, decisively. "If we're to have any hope of finding a pattern at all. I think it's time to start tracking people down, even the muggles may know something and not realise the importance of it. I’ll look into a possible excursion."

Regulus nodded. “I think that is a good idea Any threads that could shed some light are worth pursuing. Returning to the Lestrange Manor is not terribly high priority because I have had at least a brief look, but I intend to get another, if I can. Because Kingsley checking inventory is already a consideration, it may even be prudent to bring him along in case the Aurors have any alarms or traps set.” Regulus paused only briefly before adding, “However, on the subject of timing, probably best left until after my situation is settled with Dumbledore and the Ministry, to avoid worsening any perceptions. Hopefully it will be resolved soon.”

“I can give Dedalus a little push my if you'd like.” Emmeline offered. “He can get a little scatterbrained with his appointment times, but he's good at what he does.”

“That may be helpful,” Regulus said with a nod, though the actual appointment itself was unlikely to be pleasant. Somehow he doubted they would simply take his word for it and pardon it all without question when their previous pardons had all slapped then in the face with recent arrests… but if Emmeline thought Dedalus was capable, he would at least trust that.

"The quicker you start, the quicker it's done with," Emmeline said, reaching over to give his arm a quick squeeze. "I can guarantee, no matter what you say, they've heard worse. Some of the pardon deals last time bordered on ridiculous."

Meeting her eyes with a small, pressed smile, he nodded again. “So I’ve heard. It seems as though Imperius was a popular one.”

"Ah, yes," Emmeline nodded. "There is that, but I was thinking more the people who did admit to doing it of their own volition but named enough other people that it didn't matter."

Regulus lifted his brow. “That was a legitimate option?”

Emmeline huffed, but she looked almost amused. "I keep forgetting you were out so early. Yes, it was something of a scramble to figure out who was actually involved. Thus the more names that came up, the better, at least as far as Crouch was concerned. Karkaroff outed quite a few, including my old boss, which at least I can count as legitimate. I'm quite sure some weren't, especially now."

“Lucky I was already dead, then,” Regulus said wryly. “Who all did Karkaroff name?”

"Now you're asking," Emmeline commented. She shut her eyes, then opened them again after a moment. "Three people who enjoy competing for my most loathed person, in Dolohov, Travers, and of course, Mulciber. Rosier too, though he'd been dead for quite some time by then. That's where Mad-Eye lost that chunk out of nose."

Regulus tried to smother a frown at the mention of Evan - and he knew it was Evan, rather than his father. Sirius had said early on that Mad-Eye Moody had been the one to kill him, along with Wilkes, and Regulus was a little surprised that a year later, it still stung. He could not muster any regret on behalf of Mulciber, and he felt worse for Travers’s sister than he did for Travers himself, but she had not been particularly friendly at Iago, either. Shaking his head, he huffed, instead. “I’m now imagining this revolving door of Death Eaters, scrambling to name each other. That must have been uncomfortable, following the break out earlier this year. Any others of note?”

"Honestly, I would need to look it up. It was an extremely charged time, not too long after they found Frank and Alice and what happened with Lily and James, of course. It's difficult to remain objective," Emmeline had to admit. "It must've been December of ‘81, so there probably are more. I know someone tried to out Snape, but Dumbledore wrote it off, and it got dismissed. They took it all quite seriously; a person's word could be seen as enough."

“Hopefully Dumbledore’s word is still enough now,” Regulus remarked with a crinkled nose. “Suffice to say the Death Eaters are rather cross with me, and I would prefer the Ministry didn’t hear my name from a Death Eater, first.”

"Heading it off before they do is your best option," Emmeline replied. "As it stands, I think Karkaroff made the appeal from Azkaban, and then it had to filter through, so it took a little time. The Ministry is grappling for legitimacy, so while I'm not generally a fan of the practice of it being who you're related to, it doesn't hurt to have the Ministry already admit they've made a mistake with Sirius. They'll cover their bases."

Privately, Regulus thought it was probably best if they did not investigate too thoroughly, but instead, he nodded. “If it helps, I don't mind it.”

"Are you worried about it?" Emmeline asked.

“As long as the Ministry does not choose to ignore Dumbledore and make a statement, Dumbledore’s record of past success is promising. I just don’t much like the alternative,” Regulus said with flattened mouth. “But we don’t have to dwell on that.”

"Given how they've treated him, undoubtedly they would also like to get into his good books too," Emmeline said wryly. "You would also make a terrible statement. You were underage at the time, left long before the fall, have a moderate disposition - or should I say, appear to. You have also participated in the first acknowledged battle of this war, and were seen doing so."

After some of the things he had done, some part of Regulus lurched with the knowledge that he did deserve Azkaban - but to hear Emmeline’s dismissal was a bright spot in the sour thoughts, and Regulus granted a little smile to communicate as much. “I suppose those are fair points.”

"Have you ever known me to waste your time with a point that wasn't?" Emmeline asked. "You're just not a good choice anymore. The family name no longer has the same connotations, and if Severus Snape can manage, you'll be fine. Even if you have to take up teaching."

“Teaching might not be my first impulse, but it is several steps above Azkaban,” he said as his smile quirked up a little bit more at the corner.

"Depending on the students," Emmeline grinned. "Perhaps only one or two steps."

With amusement flickering in his eyes, he tipped his head. “A compromise, nonetheless.”

"That would depend on what your impulse would be," Emmeline said. "If you could be doing anything, what would you choose?"

“It is difficult to say,” Regulus admitted, though he took on a thoughtful tone. “Research, experimentation, and spell development are all intriguing, as are runes and artifacts. I suppose I focus on particular interests based on motivation in the moment, but in the sense of a dedicated effort, I don’t know what I would most like.”

“How very scattered of you.” Emmeline considered him for a moment. “No singular cause or action is attractive to you by itself.”

“At the moment, my singular cause is destroying the horcruxes,” Regulus responded easily, “as it has been since I was seventeen, but it is my hope that there will be no more need for horcrux-hunting when the war concludes. In the meantime, entertaining a variety of productive hobbies suits just as well. To that point, I have rather enjoyed our astronomy-themed diversions, too, though they are not strictly productive in the traditional sense.”

“Still feel like attempting camping?” Emmeline asked.

“I do,” Regulus answered without hesitation, despite this way his mind reeled. Camping was still questionable; camping alone with an unmarried woman was bordering on scandalous (and would certainly qualify as a full-blown scandal in the eyes of Society, though he had no intention of directly telling them); but the thought of seeing the Northern Lights with Emmeline triggered a pleasant leap in his chest that brought a smile to his face. “The aurora will be stunning, no doubt.”

“It’s actually, um,” Emmeline started, before stuttering to a stop. “I have a birthday coming up, if you’d like to go soon.”

“Of course,” Regulus responded, though when he thought about it, he was not actually certain when her birthday was. He had only seen her in passing, in the autumn of last year - a strange thought, with how differently it all felt now. (Perhaps more importantly, how differently he felt now.) “When would that be?”

"Let me check the star charts and see when it's going to be the best visibility." Emmeline made a face of distaste. "I hope they've sorted out the gravity in Space again. I don't mind floating, but with prior notice."

“It was an interesting room, to say the least,” Regulus remarked with a quirk of the mouth. “Let me know what time is ideal, and I will accommodate.”

"Time, very funny," Emmeline nodded. "I'll let you know."

Regulus could feel his mood brightening, and a smile lingered light on his face. Although he was not looking forward to defending either cousin’s presence before the Order, sitting with Emmeline in the library was a balm in itself. Tensions had yet to fade, but if everything blew up in his face - if the Order griped or his visitors somehow betrayed his hospitality - at least there was something to look forward to that the war wouldn’t touch.

The silence of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place in the early hours of the morning could easily have been described by others as unnerving. Even portraits aside, the house seemed to be in a near constant state of bustle at any given moment, but not now. Emmeline had never been the sort to mind a little quiet, but somehow, the lack of something else to focus on was making her ability to focus on the words enough to take them in. It was a frustrating state of affairs. Being awake at all was a frustrating state of affairs, if truth be told. As a rule, she was not prone to insomnia, and only when things gathered on her mind did she find difficulty falling asleep. Still, she kept to her rule of only laying for half an hour, and if no closer to a restful sleep, get up and do something.

The drawing room was comfortable. It was easy to imagine larger, familial gatherings in rooms like this. The piano, the fireplace, the overly cushioned seats, the large windows which were currently draped by huge, thick curtains. She had lit the gas lamps, but kept them low; she didn't want to find herself feeling more awake as she wound down.

“Book that boring?”

Emmeline had drawn her wand from her housecoat before she could process who it was, but Sirius did not seem wholly bothered. She'd assumed he was asleep. Folly, perhaps, given that he was prone to bouts of insomnia and had been as long as they'd known each other. She was pretty sure she had a picture somewhere in those boxes that now sat piled up in her room of him having fallen asleep on an exasperated Lily during their seventh year at some gathering or other, and suddenly the drooling dog jokes that James seemed to find so hysterical made sense in retrospect.

“There's no need to hex me for insulting the books,” Sirius said. He was still dressed, so perhaps he just hadn't gone to bed yet. This would account for his inability to function in early mornings without adrenalin.

“You startled me,” Emmeline said, unnecessarily. She put her wand back down beside her on the chair.

“You looked a bit out of it,” Sirius said, before he gestured to the book. “I must've been standing there ten minutes, and I didn't see you turn a single page. I've grown up around enough swots to know that's a sign something's up.”

“It's just a little trouble sleeping,” Emmeline said, before looking him over. “I'd prefer you didn't stare at me for ten minutes when it's obvious I'm not paying attention. It's creepy.”

“Sure, that's what's creepy around here,” Sirius said, before flopping with his usual lack of decorum onto the chair opposite. “Me.”

“You have your moments,” Emmeline said. She placed both her palms on the book in her lap. “Besides, as I recall, you don't enjoy people lurking about and staring at you either.”

“Never stops them,” Sirius replied, eyes flicking over her. “What's eating you, the prospect of having a baby Death Eater in the house again?”

“A little,” Emmeline admitted. She had no doubt the charm would hold, but nothing was infallible, and it seemed risky. However, it was also unfair to ask someone to treat their home as anything other than their home, let alone someone like Regulus who viewed the place with an exceptional reverence. “It's a reminder I need to find my own place.”

“I don't mind having you here,” Sirius objected.

“I know you don't,” Emmeline nodded with a smile.

“Regulus sure as hell doesn't either,” Sirius insisted.

“I know that too,” Emmeline replied. “But it is still staying in someone else's home. I don't want things to become difficult.”

“Why would they become difficult?” Sirius asked. “Because you lost your rag with a couple of paintings? I do it ten times a day. Not to mention it's par for the course around here. People screamed and argued and barbed their way through this house for as long as I can remember.”

“But they are your relatives,” Emmeline said. “It's different.”

“Not by much,” Sirius insisted. He then lowered his voice further. “This isn't about the two of you, is it? ‘Cause he hasn't said anything?”

Oh, for Merlin's sake. “No.”

“It just takes him longer to figure things out, it doesn't mean he's not-” Sirius began, but Emmeline interrupted him.


“I just don't want you to feel like-”


“It's not that he's-”

“Do I look like a rehabilitation centre for purist boys to you?” Emmeline snapped. She winced in regret almost instantly, both from the words, the implication of them, and the fact that for a brief moment, Sirius looked put out.

“No,” he mumbled. “That's not-”

“I know,” Emmeline said, before sitting forward to put her face in her hands and take one deep breath, then another. “I don’t think of it that way, but will you please give me some space to work this out for myself? I realise, in the grand tradition of older siblings, you are prone to infantilising your brother. But since when have you ever known me to shy away from something I truly wanted over anything as idiotically backward as pureblood elitism?”

For a moment, Sirius said nothing. Then, as she looked up, he shook his head. “I haven't.”

“Then has it not occurred to you that I have my own reasons for not speaking up?” Emmeline sighed. She supposed it was her own fault for not raising the issue between them when he had begun winding her up about it, but she hadn't anticipated it would become such a thing.

“I thought you might just be waiting for him to get over himself,” Sirius admitted. “You do like him, like him, don't you?”

In that moment, Emmeline had to refrain from pointing out how juvenile that sounded. She reminded herself that they had a gap between their relationship, from the ages of twenty-one and thirty-four. At twenty-one, she would likely have phrased a crush in such a way too. She tried to remind herself to be patient.

“I do,” Emmeline said. “But I'm not the sort of person who waits around without good reason.”

“If his notorious past and occasionally ill-spoken present aren't the problem,” Sirius asked, “what is?”

A difficult question, not because she didn't know the answer, but because Sirius was not known for taking a suggestion of loss well. Neither was she, but she was somewhat more internal about her feelings, and often, it took her much longer to think things through. She considered that Regulus likely did the same, considering his note-taking, so she hadn’t thought it would become such a stupid issue.

“Opening up requires a certain courage, one I'm not sure I have the fortitude for at the moment,” Emmeline said. “I have a rather large tendency to lose the people I love to this stupid war, and it breaks my heart every time. Almost all of my closest friends were murdered, my parents now too, and I don't know if I can take going through that again. I'm still trying to work through them. Somewhat unsuccessfully, if my nerves are anything to go by.”

Sirius looked at her, and she thought perhaps he would say something, but he didn't. He just glanced downwards, stood up and left the room.

She wondered if perhaps it just dredged it all up again for him; perhaps for Harry's sake, he'd been trying to put it out of his mind. She reached again for the book, wondering if perhaps she should try something more stimulating, when Sirius returned and slid a glass of something that looked and smelled alcoholic.

“I'm not sure drinking at two in the morning is a good life choice,” Emmeline said.

“It's a shitty life choice, but so is vigilantism, and like you said, almost everyone is dead,” Sirius said, sitting down and taking a swig, not from a glass, but from the bottle. “If you're going to make a bad life choice, I'm your best company. I have the most experience.”

She could go back up to bed, or simply decline, of course, but they didn't do this much. He was one of her oldest friends who was still here. She saw Mary occasionally, here and there, and Remus had withdrawn so heavily after James and Lily and what she had thought was Peter and the arrest fiasco that they hadn't kept so strongly in touch that she felt on solid ground with him. Her friendship with the remaining member of the Ravenclaw group in Sturgis had continued onwards, but Remus and Sirius, she'd known those two when they were still in school. They had a shared experience, and talking about it with someone who might have an inkling of what she was talking about held a strange appeal.

She took a drink from the glass, and promptly coughed. “Oh, that is awful!”

Sirius laughed at her, low but genuine.

“This is the kind of swill we drank as teenagers,” Emmeline said, before just tossing it back and feeling an uncomfortable burn in her stomach. “That'll rot your stomach.”

“Where's your sense of adventure?” Sirius asked, with a gleam.

“I don't find the idea of heaving up in the morning for an uncomfortably long time particularly adventurous,” Emmeline protested, though she did let him pour another one in. She did give it a glare for good measure. It was always a good idea to establish dominance with malevolent things you were about to consume.

“Yet you're the one who lived in Knockturn, not me,” Sirius said.

“That was Marlene for you,” Emmeline smiled, though she could feel the grief of that rising. It was never all that far away lately. In the space of four and a bit months, they had lost Benjy, Gideon, Fabian, Marlene, Caradoc, and Dorcas from their little group, and then the mess at Hallowe'en had been the final nail in the coffin, seemingly losing James, Lily, Peter and for all intents and purposes, Sirius in one fell swoop. Then barely time to breathe before the news of Frank and Alice's capture, and then the realisation of what had been done to them. It made her heart hurt just to think of it, and she could feel her eyes becoming a little blurry. “It's easier to be brave when you have someone to help you.”

“You're telling me,” Sirius smiled back, wide and genuine.

“I had to try and explain that Regulus was not the one I ended up getting arrested with when they met,” Emmeline said, looking down at the glass. “Well, cautioned, but we'd never have been at that sit in if not for Lily and Marlene.”

Sirius shook his head, “You couldn't argue with them. Stubborn.”

“Because you're terribly easy going,” Emmeline said. Sirius tossed one of the throw pillows at her, but she caught it. She had done so almost instinctively, having seen him do it fairly frequently over the years. “Honestly, that is part of the problem.”

“How does my stubborness have anything to do with you getting your leg over?” Sirius scoffed.

“Not yours but it is something you share,” she took another drink and made a face at the swill. “Stubbornness. Running into things without thinking. The martyr complex. If you add these things to someone who is already a target, he is in exceptional danger.”

“He overthinks,” Sirius argued. “He doesn't just do things.”

“Oh, yes, he does,” Emmeline said, thinking of him and that bloody ring in Little Hangleton. “It in no way cancels out his intelligence, diligence, or conscientiousness, but I do think it runs interference with it if he is the only one who would get hurt if something were to go wrong. Self-sacrifice is noble, yes, but I don't want to set myself up to get hurt again because he can't think through his consequences when it is himself on the line.”

Sirius made a face, but then nodded. “Yes, alright. He does do that.”

“Is that not part of the reason you're still here?” Emmeline demanded. “You despise this place. I can see you liking the safety of it, but as a place to be as often as you are – are you truly telling me it isn't some self-sacrificial nonsense about making sure he doesn't wallow through this place alone?”

Sirius looked at her with surprise written all over his face. “It's...not an easy place to be.”

“No,” Emmeline admitted. “I enjoy it as it is interesting, and curious, and it has a lot of history. But that is not my mother, and I don't have the same history, and still, in my current, rather frayed mental state, it's grating on even me. I need some space to figure out my own mind, and this is a reminder of that.”

Sirius nodded. “I can understand that.”

“Good,” Emmeline said, with a nod. “If something happens, it does, and that would be lovely. If it doesn't, I still have a wonderful new friendship. But either way, I need my own home.”

“Then I think you've already made up your mind,” Sirius said. “You're already close enough to get your heart broken is something happens to him. But it's not going to, because it will be over my dead body that something does, and I'm a cockroach. I don't die.”

“You have had several spectacular near misses,” Emmeline agreed, lightly. She supposed he had a point. Would it feel no worse if something happened now? Was she already invested entirely too deeply? “One thing is for certain, it is neither the time nor the sobriety to be having serious considerations of anything.” Sirius huffed a laugh, and she realised what she said. “Oh, shut up, you're completely ridiculous.”

Sirius beamed in response. “Thank you for noticing.”

Chapter Text

When faced with the Black ancestral home, Draco found himself a little speechless. Unfortunately, not in a good way. Not that there often was a good time for speechlessness; he was an intelligent and naturally loquacious person, so it was often more beneficial for him to be talking and other people to be listening. But this, this was something of a shock.

In all truth, he hadn't been expecting it to be literally Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. He imagined it was just the name, the way some of the most exclusive restaurants were simply known as No. 8 despite being quite apart from any other sort of building. But no, it was quite literally the twelfth house along a row - no, the sixth house along the row, did no one know how to count? A glance at the houses on either side seemed to confirm it, with numbers eleven and thirteen omitted. It must be some highly superstitious building. Someone had clearly taken arithmancy entirely too seriously.

It just looked so unassuming for an ancestral home. It had little of the grandeur of the manor, and his mother may have had a more humble origin of the multistory townhouse in Kensington, but that was just a house she'd been raised in. Ancestral holdings were different. Coming face to face with the one from his maternal heritage, he was thoroughly underwelmed. There was no greenery, the walls looked bordering on dingy of all things, and there were obviously muggles around the neighbourhood, as their transportation seemed to be littering the place.

One of the oldest magical lineages in Britain, and its ancestral home was a row townhouse (not even having the decency to be an end house), stuck in a muggle infested area, run down, and looking quite abandoned.

"It's seen better days." Draco said, preferring in situations that could be delicate to his mother to be the master of the understatement. Besides, what if it hadn't seen better days? What if this was literally it? If that were true, perhaps her cousin had taken his death to to save himself the embarrassment.

His mother granted a thin smile. “It has,” she agreed. For a moment, it looked as though she was preparing to say something else, but instead she strode forward, grasped the ornate snake knocker on the front door, and gave it three solid raps.

Almost immediately, the door creaked open to reveal - nothing, at first glance, but an incredibly old house-elf, upon looking down at the floor.

“A warm welcome to Miss Cissy and Young Master Draco,” the elf said in a scratchy but altogether approving tone, yet he barely had the chance to get the words out before Draco saw his mother's cousin step out of the nearest room.

“Thank you, Kreacher,” the man said as he approached, then looked up to them with a gesture to step inside. “Come in.”

Inside the front door was a long hallway, with a few doors down the side. There must have been a hundred portraits adorning the walls, a couple he could recognise from the manor, as well as his grandfather, who he could still remember, even if it was a little difficult to think in specifics. He wondered what each of them had done to deserve a portrait in such place of pride, and why some were bigger than others. The dim gaslights led to a cramped and stifled feeling, but the grand staircase was familiar.

Also familiar was his mother's somewhat barmy younger cousin. However, he was not nearly as interesting as the things littering the tables. Was that a renaissance athame? It looked like the right handle. And a giomantic charmstone? He couldn't read the sigil, but it looked too big for scrying work. Admittedly more interested in taking a look at the items littered about as if they were nothing more than worthless ornaments than making niceties with someone who had obviously taken leave of all senses, Draco pulled himself out of his distraction. He had to be cordial. This was supposedly his idea.

He ducked his head in greeting, in lieu of the knowledge of how one greets a seemingly resurrected, somewhat mental relative.

“You look well, Regulus,” his mother said politely, to which the man tipped his head.

“As do you,” he responded, maybe more stiff than well, but neither seemed intent on admitting how terribly uncomfortable it was. “Before we start looking around, is there anything Kreacher can get for you? Tea, perhaps?”

“Not right now, thank you,” she answered.

After turning a little nod of dismissal to the elf, his mother’s cousin - Regulus, it was - clasped his hands neatly. “In that case, it is worth establishing your points of interest.” His eyes flicked to the table that Draco was trying not to stare at again; when he looked back to Draco, he continued, “Is there anything in particular you would like to see?”

Since 'anything that will help me find an errant prophecy' was probably not the sort of answer he should give, Draco shrugged. "Whatever is most interesting."

“Most likely, that would be the drawing room - upstairs,” Regulus responded with a gesture towards the staircase as he started making a step in that direction. “Cabinets of artifacts, shelves of books, and a tapestry detailing the family tree, going back for nearly a millennium, now.”

What sort of maniac was asked about something interesting, and spouted off that they should go somewhere they'd find books? This just added to the theory he wasn't at all in his right mind. However, artifacts could potentially be interesting, especially if they were just strewn around and forgotten about, as if they weren't precious at all. The tapestry was also a point of interest, if only because he might be on it.

The staircase was only a little winding, not even comparable to Hogwarts, but he liked to believe he held his disappointment in check. He was rewarded with the drawing room, which looked much more like his typical experience. Ornate glass-fronted cabinets, lit chandeliers, desks, chaise lounges, and a grand piano. Light streamed in from two large windows, giving a stately appearance rather than the sort of place you'd find tucked away in Knockturn Alley. In the corner, a large tapestry graced the wall that, like most things, seemed like it needed a good touch up. Mother knew a person; perhaps they could recommend. He wondered how to communicate the idea, but as adept as they were with having conversations via eyebrows alone, that was likely a little too complex.

"What's in the cabinets?" he asked.

“An accumulation of artifacts, cursed objects, and various treasured items collected across generations prior - the safety of which is very situationally dependent.” Tipping his head, Regulus added, “I would not recommend touching anything without asking first, but if there is anything you would like a closer look at, do not hesitate to let me know.”

“What sort of reckless half-wit goes around touching clearly guarded objects?” Draco scoffed. “They’re likely locked away for a reason.”

The corner of Regulus's mouth lifted wryly. “Too right.”

Draco walked over to get a better look at what was covering the wall. The tapestry was a mess of little black holes in random places, likely due to people being cast out for betrayals or having lost their minds completely. It was a little shocking to see so many in one place, a lot more in the recent ones. It really did show the wizarding world was going to the dogs. However, with some satisfaction, he did note that he was the most recent addition to it. He flickered his eyes away from his father's name and focused on that instead.

He also ignored the fact that there was a Potter on it. Why couldn't he leave well enough alone? Even Draco’s own family tree wasn't sacrosanct enough to be untouched by the ever perfect Potter clan.

Fighting the incoming eye roll, he looked instead up towards the faded ones at the top. They were more difficult to read, and even contained the occasional name he wasn't familiar with.

"It's not signed," he commented.

“Not every tapestry is, depending on the commissioner. I would say that detailing every traceable name for a thousand years is more important than knowing the person within those first group of names was the one to start it,” Regulus responded, his own attention turned to vast spread of names.

If it were him deciding to chronicle an entire tree, Draco would want his name on it. How else would they know who'd done all of that work? "You're not dead on it," he said, suddenly remembering he and his mother’s conversation.

“I was, previously, but I have since adjusted it for accuracy,” Regulus responded, looking down at the section in question. Draco could see that his mother had turned towards them and was now eyeing the tapestry too. For a glance, she had taken a double-take glance at one of the chairs near the door, too, but there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about it. She must have realised the same because her eyes roaming the most recent generations, though it was hard to say what she was looking for.

If the man was going to edit it, surely he should figure out a way to fold in the wayward branches so there weren't unsightly marks all over it? There ought to be professionals to do it if he was incapable. He took a glance over at the cabinets, taking care not to touch anything, but they weren't as cluttered as downstairs. There were a few curios, jewelry, vials of what appeared to be blood, and what looked like some kind of paw.

"Is that a griffin claw?" Perhaps the blood was salamander; both were potions ingredients when powdered or otherwise reduced, though one was much rarer than the other.

“It is,” Regulus confirmed, shifting his attention back to the cabinets.

"Pansy's father just acquired one," Draco said. "In Cairo." And she hadn't shut up about it for a week, either. He was having to duck owls.

“Pansy…?” Regulus began in a leading tone.

“Parkinson,” his mother supplied from where she now stood by a group of hanging photographs, several of which appeared to have her in them.

A look of immediate recognition flashed in his expression. “Sage or Aster?”

“Aster,” she responded again without missing a beat. “Sage has a boy in his third year and a girl in her first. Pansy is in Draco’s year.”

At that, Regulus nodded thoughtfully. “To the original point of the claw, I imagine her father is rather proud of that.”

"It's been in every letter for a week," Draco grumbled.

Regulus did not mask the dryly amused flicker at the corner of his mouth. ”That does not surprise me. I cannot speak for your classmate, but her father was rather vocal about such things.”

Every spare space on the wall that wasn't covered in ornate mirrors seemed to be covered in portraits. It wasn't unlike Hogwarts, though most were small enough that they squeaked more than talked. A few seemed to be grumbling for no apparent reason. Draco had no idea he was related to such moody people - his aunt aside. "I wonder if idiot is also genetic then," he mused, thinking of some of the other students. It would explain Longbottom. The Longbottoms got themselves on the wrong side of his aunt and uncle, so clearly, they were a few nuts short of a fruitcake.

“There are some individuals who would make a strong case for that argument,” Regulus remarked wryly. “At the same time, children can overcome terrible parents, too. I've known individuals with at least one abysmal parent who turned out alright.”

"If alright is up to your standards," Draco commented.

“I am understating for the purpose of mild conversation,” Regulus clipped, though his tone remained even. “The person in question was my best friend when we were in school, and he was quite remarkable, despite the unfortunate circumstances.”

"I have no idea if our standards align at all," Draco said, and this time, he was unable to keep the loftiness out of his tone. The man’s expression went a little stony, but he made no move to speak as Draco continued, "You do have some peculiar ideas, though I do like the athames. I haven't seen ceirean bone outside of a museum." Even if it really did need a thorough polishing, those were definitely gaelic markings and the most likely source of the handle.

“In respect to our standards, you will have an easier time understanding such things when you inquire after context rather than assume,” came the firmly measured tone - to which Draco could see his mother spare a tense look - but Regulus's tone loosened to something more obliging when he added, “But as for the bone, it is certainly a rarity. You are welcome to a closer look, should you wish for one.”

The struggle not to roll his eyes caused Draco's face to twitch in an unpleasant manner. Of course he wanted to look at it, that was why he'd singled it out. "I would," he said, trying to sound more measured than irate. "If it's welcome."

Regulus eyed him for a moment, then dipped his head in a little nod without another word. When he opened the case, he took out his wand and gave it a little wave and flick over the blade. After a beat, he picked it up, thumbed the handle, then handed it over with the blade pointed out to the side.

It wasn't as polished smooth as Draco imagined it would be, but he also didn't have quite the obsession with knives that his aunt seemed to. They seemed a little too messy for his tastes. Anyone could wield a knife, although a magical one like this did make it a more appealing idea,; particularly if it was cursed or poisoned; but it still required getting up close to stab someone and, mostly likely, ruining some perfectly good shoes in the process.

Of course, he said none of this. "Not that heavy," he said, instead.

“The materials are lightweight but very strong,” Regulus commented, watching him turn the knife over. “This particular blade was my great-grandfather’s - your great great uncle’s - and speaks of his appreciation for ornamental bonework. He had it forged, personally, as I recall, having… come upon a small set of the bones in his adulthood. From that particular set, he also gifted objects to his children, so there is an alchemy bowl made for my grandfather, Arcturus, as well as a flute for Great Aunt Lycoris, and a serpent sculpture for their youngest, Regulus, who I was named for.”

"It all ends up here?" Draco asked.

A broom would likely have been better, unless they were all old enough to appreciate rarity of them. Even then, they could just acquire it as they saw fit. Draco glanced to his mother, then back again to Regulus. And the names - people had the cheek to laugh about his name. Idiotic traitors, but he supposed they were still a person, even if they were sorry excuse for one.

“Many of our prized possessions, yes, but by no means all of them,” Regulus responded simply.
“We have accumulated a number of properties, so I believe my grandfather and his siblings brought their most favoured objects with them when they moved out as adults. This house actually went to our shared grandfather, Pollux, because my grandfather Arcturus preferred the manor in Guernsey, so that is most likely where the bowl is, for example.”

So there was actually a more size appropriate place. Draco practically heaved with relief at the realisation. He may have been to it, after all, but if he did, he didn't remember which. He only knew he'd never come to a particularly shadowy townhouse in a muggle area. "And now it's yours?"

“All of the properties and holdings have passed to me, yes,” Regulus confirmed with a nod.

That meant that if he truly was involved in this, there could be any number of hidey-holes anywhere. Draco's face darkened for a moment, but he fought to maintain some kind of composure in front of his mother, who seemed to be watching them carefully. "Even though you were dead?"

Regulus lifted his brow, just slightly, as he took on a more guarded tone: “Misunderstandings like that happen in war, so it was not difficult to sort out.”

"Evidently," Draco said, though even as he said it, he decided he'd been spending entirely too much time with his head of house. Draco wasn't good at restraining his mouth, or being particularly careful with it, but something didn't feel right. "Why was there a misunderstanding?"

At that, Regulus lifted his eyebrows a little more noticeably. “Because being presumed dead is more simple to remedy than being actually dead.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Draco could see his mother shifting with a deepening frown as she spoke up. “Presumed or real, the grief is no different.” That was clear from the way she put up with this nonsense.

The man had the decency to look guilty for a moment, then shook his head. “Given the situation, the chances were incredibly slim that further grief could be avoided in its entirety.” His eyes flicked to meet hers, and for a split second, her expression seemed to crack before she smoothed it over again. “Difficult situations lead to difficult decisions, and not every rippling effect is what a person might have wanted.” Shifting on his feet, Regulus turned his attention back to the cabinet, eyes raking over the shelves of objects.

"It was a very long misunderstanding," Draco commented. This had to be relatively new, as he had never encountered this person before.

“It was,” Regulus agreed without looking away from the shelf. “One that I persisted through long enough to label a misunderstanding, so in that respect, I prefer the misunderstanding. However - to our previous point of conversation, you were asking about the accumulation of objects. It is true that, even spread across multiple homes, the majority always land here. Stylistically and functionally, the properties vary, but a great many people have passed through this particular house, and it has a way of gathering up those people in a way the other residences don’t.
These runic stones, for example, were created by my father.” With his wand, he prodded at a small, intricately carved bowl of different coloured stones. “Touching them temporarily neutralises a particular sense - each stone, a different sense. It takes a while to wear off, but it oughtn’t be permanent.”

That sounded exceptionally useful, aside from the part where it does it to the person touching it. It would be harder to manufacture that. As fascinating as it was to poke about in the cabinets, there was still a whole house and possibly an outside space. “You said you liked Quidditch before. Is it possible to play here? There doesn’t seem to be much room.”

“There is room to fly in the garden, but not enough space for a full pitch,” Regulus answered, glancing over. “One person per position would be manageable, but I always played at school and spent most of the summer at Iago where Quidditch was played freely, so it did not really matter much if there was space here.”

If you couldn't just walk outside and play, what was the point? No wonder it felt completely cramped. "It'd be too close to the houses anyway," Draco replied.

“There's a disillusionment charm, so onlookers are not so much of a problem,” Regulus said with a shrug. “I would say that the limiting factor was more accurately a lack of desire to invite that many people over at one time. School and Iago were sufficient.”

“What’s wrong with having people over?” Draco asked, puzzled. “We have people over all the time.”

“There isn't anything wrong with it, per se, and we entertained plenty of visitors, but I prefer to have time to myself, too,” Regulus clarified.

“Right,” Never mind dead, try dead and musty. Or dead boring. This was shaping up to be a colossal waste of time.

Regulus flattened his expression. His lips parted slightly, as if he was preparing to say something in response, but instead pressed his mouth to a line, leveled a look over to Draco’s mother, then returned his attention to the cabinet. A stretching beat passed before he spoke, his tone distanced but polite: “Is there anything else you wish to see?”

“Aren’t you related to a headmaster?” Not that Draco got called to the offices all that often, but he had vague recollections of an empty portrait with the name. Not the usual sort of name either.

“Phineas Nigellus Black, yes,” Regulus responded. “My great-great-grandfather - and your mother's, as well.”

“He has a portrait in the Headmaster’s office,” Draco noted idly.

“And one here, as I recall,” Draco heard his mother chime in.

Regulus looked between them and nodded. “There is. It is not so different from the one in the Headmaster’s office, but if you wish to see it, I will take you up.”

"Yes, I would," Draco said, decisively. He couldn't think of another way of escaping the clearly unhelpful drawing room.

“In that case - this way.” Regulus gestured toward the door but had already started leaving the room, glancing back once he reached the threshold - maybe to check if they were following. “Of course, I cannot guarantee that he will be there, but it is presently up in the upstairs nursery.”

That made him perk up with interest. "Why in the nursery?"

Lifting a shoulder, Regulus responded, “No reason in particular. He used to be in a different room, then a hallway. A change in scenery can be beneficial.”

Draco saw his mother shoot a wary glance. “It’s not being used, is it?” she asked.

With a soft, dismissing sound, Regulus shook his head. “No. If anything, it’s a place he can go where no one will bother him because there have not been any babies in this house for a very long time.”

"I thought it would be because he was being childish," Draco commented. He thought back to the last time, and he could have sworn that as he'd left, he'd heard the telltale sound of a raspberry being blown. That could have been Dumbledore, though. It sounded a lot like him.

“I believe he prefers ‘clever’ to ‘childish,’ but perspective comes into play, as with so many things. Arguably, he has been rather well-behaved lately.”

"Riveting," Draco said, flatly, to which the man leveled a brief, narrowed glance out the corner of his eye before stepping up onto the top landing..

There was nothing of particular interest; for all of the objects and all of the potential for something notable to be going on, it mostly seemed like a man out to save his own skin rather than show the proper loyalties and respect, shut up in a townhouse with some impressive magical objects. If the high point of the tour was going to be an old picture in a nursery, he was going to draw a line through his involvement and figure out a better way to get to Potter when they got to school.

When the door to the nursery swun open, Draco could see something soften in his mother’s expression, her eyes flicking around - seemingly to every object except for the conspicuous portrait, which was empty, anyway. The distance in her demeanor seemed to falter, for a moment.

“It has been such a long time,” she said almost wistfully, eyes turning to two small, dusty desks that had clearly been built for small children, given the size. Looking to her cousin with a pressed smile, she added, “I remember when you were small enough to fit in those - always writing little letters. It gave me quite a fright, the first time Kreacher popped in to deliver one, but it was nonetheless endearing.”

“It was information of the greatest import,” Regulus responded, looking back at her with a little smile.

With a flicker at the corner of her mouth, she shook her head. “Like the ten names you had been recently assigned to memorise on the tapestry.”

“As I said: Greatest import.”

“I don’t know where you put it all. I had started Hogwarts that year, and I couldn’t remember half of them. At least not their given names.” She folded her arms neatly below her elbows, eyes sweeping the room again before finally landing on the portrait of the former Headmaster Black. The glance was short-lived when she realised there was no one in it.

“How much younger are you?” Draco asked. The whole exchange sounded like he was much younger at the time, perhaps four or five.

“Six years,” Regulus answered, glancing over.

It was more than Draco had expected. A horrible thought suddenly slammed into his mind when he thought of the school years. Given all of the times Draco had seen him around idiot Gryffindors, it was skin-crawlingly possible. "You were in the right house, weren't you?" He didn't know if he could take it if he was so closely related to someone out of Slytherin.

“Of course I was,” Regulus responded firmly, crinkling his nose a little.

There was no need to get on like that. It was a perfectly legitimate question. Traitor seemed to be a catching epidemic within this particular branch, and more than once, Aunt Bella had been talking about hacking it to pieces to save them all the embarrassment.

"As you're rather fond of loitering about them," Draco drawled. "I assume there is a bathroom nearby?"

Regulus leveled an even expression. “There is one on this floor, just across the hall. You are welcome to use it.”

Draco excused himself, and walked out onto the landing. There were two other rooms on the landing, one belonging to the traitor, and the other to the man himself. There was a ridiculous warning about not entering the room, which made it promising. If there was anywhere he'd find a clue - if one actually was to be found here - it was likely in there. He looked around, but no one had followed him.

However, as soon as he touched the handle, there was a sharp zap that jolted through his body. He strangled a yelp, but it was still noisy enough that he worried he'd been heard. Quickly, he walked to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. The last thing he wanted to do was explain any of this to his mother. He'd already be letting one family member down by wasting his time here; he didn't want to make it another.

Regulus could not fully smother the wry flicker on his lips when he heard Draco’s telltale yelp from across the hallway, and the resulting burst of laughter from Tonks, who was still standing watch just outside. She had been the settled compromise - hidden by the charm, competent if the Death Eaters showed up, and more comfortable than the other Aurors in question - but Regulus had been nearly as anxious about her knocking over a table as he had been about the Malfoys’ presence alone. Impressively enough, she had only bumped into one of the drawing room chairs, and neither Narcissa nor her son had seemed to take much notice. With the Fidelius in place, Tonks’s laugh was for his ears only, but it was just as well, considering Narcissa's expression was already sour with the zap-and-yelp alone.

“What was that?” Narcissa asked, starting to shift a glance out the door, but he did not miss a beat in responding.

“It seems Draco did not heed the sign on my bedroom door and attempted to open it without permission.”

“He's naturally inquisitive,” she said a little defensively.

“Then all he has to do is ask,” Regulus countered, trying to keep the annoyance at bay, telling himself it was not entirely her fault that her child was exceptionally impolite. More than likely, it had been Lucius insisting that the Malfoys were the superior name between the two family backgrounds, because on that matter, Draco appeared to be surprisingly confused. Regulus could not remember the last time he had been forced to work this hard at keeping a mild and polite attitude. His first Order meeting might have actually been a simpler task, compared with a teenager who absolutely insisted on insulting and belittling every attempt at civil conversation - even the things they had in common. But Narcissa was important, and he knew he could not get away with very much on that front when she was present. He only wished that the same applied in the other direction. Draco did not seem concerned about his rude tone at all.

“Would you have said yes?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“I have nothing to hide in there. He can see it if he cares to ask,” Regulus responded, a little tightly, despite his intention to remain mild. “What matters is the permission, and the obvious intention to skulk about my home. If his only concern was the bathroom, then he would not be trying to open doors that are marked otherwise. This is just a house, Cissa, as it always was. He won't find anything because there is nothing to find.”

For a moment, it looked like her cheeks might have pinkened, but she steeled her composure again in a flash. “He wanted to explore our family’s ancestral home.”

“You cannot honestly expect me to believe he wasn’t implying insult with nearly every word that passed his lips, Cissa,” Regulus said, though he softened his tone. “Whatever he has been led to believe, I am not actually a complete fool. I just have a better grasp on my manners.”

(“Ouch,” he heard Tonks comment from the other side of the door, but he once again pretended as though he did not hear her.)

“I would prefer you didn’t insult my son, Regulus,” Narcissa said, her frown deepening.

“I would prefer he didn’t insult me,” Regulus said, his tone more earnest than sharp, as he mirrored her frown. “I’m honestly trying, but I’m not so lacking in dignity.”

“What are you expecting?” she asked, discomfort and defensiveness creeping in. “Honestly, he was being rather civil.”

“I'm expecting to be treated like a person instead of a bug beneath a hovering shoe,” Regulus said, twisting the ring on his finger. He could feel that Draco was still on the top landing, but he seemed further down the hall. Perhaps he was rifling through Sirius’s room instead. That would be a nasty surprise. Or perhaps he was trying to peek in the attic or down the stairs.

“Then come home,” she said, her words an echo that repeated often in his mind, but he shook his head with a sigh.

“I am home.”

“You know what I mean,” Narcissa said, wrinkling her nose a little and flicking her eyes toward the closed nursery door, though he suspected she was looking past it rather than at it. “Does that wretched stain live here too?”

“Do you honestly think Sirius would be caught dead in this house again? He loathes the place.”

“I was looking at the photographs in the drawing room and noticed a distinct lack of representation for Bella, so I was wondering,” she said, though Regulus suspected she had been wondering about it even before seeing the pictures. Sirius had been at the house in Iago, but by comparison, the argument could be made that the summer home was still a step up from this one, from his brother’s perspective.

A beat of silence passed as Regulus acknowledged to himself that his cousin legitimately was right about Sirius cleaning out the photos of Bella, but he could not very well admit as much, therefore: “She did threaten to murder me.”

“After you attacked her, Regulus.”

“That is rather dramatic. I have already explained that I didn't 'attack’ her. I stunned her to defend my brother, who she was trying to kill,” he said, a little defensively.

“To defend a traitor,” she corrected.

“I'm feeling a little betrayed at the moment, but not by him.”

Her tone sharpened a little “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

Immediately, Regulus reeled back the snap in his tone, letting out a slow huff as he shook his head. “And not by you, either… But I gave everything to this family - my entire childhood, my adolescence, my firmest devotion - and I don’t understand what it is I’m supposed to do to get some acknowledgement of that.”

“I know you did,” she said, expression pinching gently, “but you left.”

“I lived.” (I tried to make a difference.) “I care about you, Cissa, and however he might be acting right now, I care about Draco, too.” Firmly, he met her eyes, a clash of grey to grey. “If it would save your family - save your son - would you not consider it, even for a moment?”

Narcissa’s expression was starting to crack slightly when Regulus heard Tonks calling from the other side of the door: “He’s coming back this way!”

Within a few seconds, the door opened again. Regulus turned to acknowledge the entrance, grateful to avoid the subtle startle Narcissa experienced, though he felt a little bit guilty that she had not been given the same warning.

Draco looked between the two, perhaps caught between saying something of the mood in the room or making some excuse for going to the wrong door. Instead, he merely said to his mother, "We ought to take our leave, if you're ready."

Regulus caught his cousin's eye, trying to read her expression, and at once, he was overcome with the urge to say more to soften the jab of his words. All of the mounting tension of the visit had started to crumble, but where he had felt the stab of irritation just a moment before, he now felt the harrowing fear that she wouldn't come back.

Indeed, what Regulus wanted to do was to ask Draco to step outside of the room again so he and Narcissa could finish talking, but instead, he held Narcissa's gaze, and they both seemed to settle on a nod at the same time. It was Narcissa who then turned a bracing expression to her son, having regained her composure quite admirably, considering the reeling flips her mind had undoubtedly been doing within the safety of her head. He knew that reminding her about Draco's danger was a cheap shot, but if nothing else could stir a reaction...

"I am ready," Narcissa said crisply, and to her credit, gave Regulus an acknowledging glance.

With a thin expression of his own, Regulus gestured toward the door to start their walk to the bottom. "I will see you out."

Draco nodded, then added, "Thank you for the tour. It was enlightening."

Regulus thought privately that it might be the closest thing to a polite comment Draco had made the whole time, but somehow, it still felt backhanded.

"The pleasure is all mine," Regulus said instead as they reached the stairs, descending flight after flight in a silence that only seemed to thicken with each landing they passed. He thanked them for coming when at last they reached the ground floor, but it was not until the door was securely shut behind them that he allowed the stiffness in his shoulders to fall, staring squarely at the carved slab of wood.

"Yikes," Tonks said from behind him. "Is this the part where I pretend like I wasn't here for that really uncomfortable experience?"

Sighing heavily, Regulus turned away from the front door and started for the staircase leading back up. "Thank you for not knocking over anything of noticeable consequence."

"You're welcome?" she said, a touch of hesitance in her voice as he swept up towards the next landing. "Hey, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Regulus responded, not feeling fine at all, but nothing sounded better than closing himself in the study, and Tonks seemed to catch the hint because she didn't follow up him right away.

With a door shut securely behind him just moments later, Regulus released a slower, more measured breath, then made his way to the bookshelves to pluck off the first thing that caught his eye. Interactions with Narcissa and Draco were a delicate, complicated dance, and he knew that he'd tripped; it was a waiting game to see if the step could be salvaged.

“I didn't expect to find you here.”

Spinning on his heel, Sirius was confronted with Tonks rather than some considerably less welcome intruder.

Truthfully, he'd been caught between not expecting company and expecting some very unwelcome and potentially furry company. After leaving Harry at the Burrow, much to Molly's delight, he'd gone over to Remus's. He was gone on another wild wolves mission, which worried Sirius more than he'd like, given the way some of the ferals behaved and the fact he couldn't just talk to him; but being here did alleviate some of the acidic feeling that had been sitting at the bottom of his stomach. It was a hodge-podge sort of place, and Sirius was half tempted to at least work on some of the woods before he caught himself. He and Remus no longer technically lived together; he probably would find it invasive.

Still, he had said it was alright to come back here when he'd mentioned half the things that had been left here. Sirius had managed to locate Harry's letters to him (he had not written to Remus, something he'd have to ask Harry about at some point and was undoubtedly a sore spot for Remus as well), along with the other object he had needed to pick up. While he had his own keys to their mutual flat from before everything, Remus had warned him that he'd warded those keys out. It had been admitted to in shame, but Sirius had brushed it off. If Remus could forgive him, then he surely owed him the same in return.

The appearance of Tonks was a bit of a surprise. Could it be he'd finally gotten over himself and actually talked to her? More to the point, wasn't Tonks meant to be at Grimmauld Place?

That was what he'd begrudgingly agreed to when the point had been raised two days ago at a quick meeting. The response had been an almost unanimous 'when hell froze over should Narcissa come here,' but even Sirius had to admit, refusing her would make it seem as if there was something to hide, and he had no guarantees he'd be hidden there for her or her batty sister. It had been Kingsley, ever the calm voice in these situations, who'd said they ought to let her see there was nothing to hide, but also look for alternative safe houses. It was meant to be an empty residence, and it was empty no longer. It was being treated as a home. It had been McGonagall - in place of Dumbledore who had flitted off who knows where - who said Sirius couldn't remain in the house to watch. Blowing his living space was bad enough, but it would also possibly clue them into Harry being there, and that was an unacceptable risk. Tonks, though potentially familiar, had no ties, even if she was seen. She also wasn't in the habit of looking the same, so it mitigated some of the risks.

(If she had managed to get through it without knocking something over, it'd be a minor miracle.)

“I thought you were at the house,” Sirius replied, levelly.

“Yeah, I was, but they've scarpered for now,” Tonks replied.

Sirius had been trying unsuccessfully to put that thought out of his mind too. “How'd it go?”

“Dead awkward,” Tonks said, with a shudder. “The miniature Malfoy was sour and judgemental, Regulus got into a blame game argument with Madame Malfoy, and her kid tried to open a door on the top landing that he shouldn't have.”

“He get shocked?” Sirius asked.


Sirius gave a bark of laughter.“You can't knock on a door marked do not enter if you're not willing to get your hands dirty.” Malfoys, as a rule, liked to behave as they were clean as a whistle and twice as smarmy.

Still, he didn't know if it made him feel better or worse that it'd gone badly. He'd suspected it would; if Narcissa was not willing to make concessions for her own sister, why did Regulus truly believe he would be different? Oh, he knew the answer, he still clung onto the deluded idea that they'd put him first even if he knew deep down they wouldn't. But it was painful. He didn't wish pain on him. Sirius would well remember the difficulties he’d had, and he couldn't stand most of them. Not for lack of something akin to love, if he was truly honest with himself, because it had still hurt. Regulus had hurt much more deeply than the rest, because Sirius had thought he'd known him better. Maybe neither of them had. Maybe they were just two stupid kids wrapped up in a lot of shit they didn't ask to be a part of, too close to really get a handle on it, let alone what the other person thought. Regulus had outright admitted to parts of it being a facade, and Sirius had no idea at the time. But if Regulus was going through that now, if he was only now understanding the cost, Sirius didn't envy him it.

“She noticed about the photographs,” Tonks said. “But she thinks he removed them.”

“What photo-” Sirius stopped himself, remembering that he had indeed cleared a load of photographs last year. “Nah, he was pissed I removed them; they're in some bag in the attic. The fit he was having, you'd think I set them on fire and danced around them.”

“Cheers for that mental image,” Tonks gave a light chuckle.

“He did well, then?” Sirius knew this was a test as much as it was anything.

“He was fine, managed to dodge most of the more telling questions,” Tonks commented. ”She got well emotional, though, when he started talking about how he'd had to die to keep living.”

Understandable, Sirius thought privately, but in no world would he ever admit to agreeing to anything Narcissa Malfoy had to say.

“It's cool you've worked things out that much,” Tonks said. “I can remember when you weren’t even talking.”

That threw Sirius for a loop. “What?”

“When they were talking about the Department of Mysteries,” (who wasn't, these days?) “he just said he had to defend his brother, and that it wasn't you that was acting like traitor.”

Sirius stilled at that. “He implied Narcissa was traitorous?” It was an idea Sirius had put forth a little, that considering Regulus had the tree and the only access to edit it, technically Narcissa and her barmy sister were the ones on the outs. He just didn't think he'd taken the comment to heart. He really had to be more careful around his brother. Regulus always listens and takes things in. He had to remember that.

“Not exactly,” Tonks said. “More like that he'd given his whole life to what she and people like her had wanted, and would have died if he'd stayed, yet they're still treating him like shit.”

It was true, but Sirius had definitely not expected him to say it aloud. Let alone to Narcissa. That backbone was getting out of control. Perhaps he was more hurt than Tonks had realised, and letting his emotions get the better of him. Not exactly unusual, in terms of blood family, but not something that happened to Regulus particularly often.

But Sirius had pushed him to Iago for almost exactly this reaction, hadn't he? Sure, he had considered that Narcissa would put on her big girl bloomers and put her own blood above societal expectation, given how close they had been, but he reminded himself that she had lost – no, let go of – a sibling before. There was a precedent. It was important to get the lay of the land, but it was maybe important that Regulus get a little hurt in return. It was awful, of course, and there was something in the back of his mind that sounded a lot like payback for doing it to him, but it wasn't the reason why it had to happen. Regulus had been maintaining he was still part of that society, and he wasn't. More and more, Sirius had become sure of this. He no longer gave the supposed virtues of it that he did as a child, nor did he particularly shut down if it was mentioned, as he would have a year ago; but something had shifted. He didn't know how aware of that Regulus was, but it was clear he would never again fit in with that society. Once you could see its cracks, you couldn't go back: Something Sirius himself knew intimately.

Harry himself was a crack, and Merlin save him, they got on. He may have created a monster, but the awkwardness of a year ago had faded, and now and then, something the other had said would get quoted back through the other person, and he'd be caught between feeling glad and - if he was honest - surprised. He couldn't grasp what was so different about Harry - who, while a different person, was very much like his father - that made his brother not react with an instant scowl, like the mere mention of James did. This transgression alone would do enough to add to the cracks, because Society (big S) would treat him differently for it. The same things applied to other people too. Regulus had been swapping books with Remus (werewolf), he got into crazy house-elf discussions with Hermione (muggleborn), he'd been flirting with Emmeline along with the books (half-blood, also the weirdest polygamous relationship ever), he'd joined the Order (vigilantes), and he had, as he had said, defended his brother (traitor) and wasn't backtracking on it. If anything, he seemed to be gaining steam on the idea if he felt solid enough on it to defend that in front of Narcissa.

Tonks coughed, bringing him out of his mind, which had been going a thousand miles an hour.

“Sorry,” Sirius said, easily. “I'm just surprised.”

“How come?” Tonks asked.

He's never defended me before.

He didn't say that, but the thought hit him with an emotional wallop. He'd made excuses for him before, but defended? No. He thought of their interactions with the friends they had once shared (most of them dead, or monsters, or worse, cowards now), their family, their parents, and he remembered something clear as crystal about the night he left. It was a hard memory to re-live, so of course, he'd spent years going over it. You're their child first, and my brother second. Their parents were long gone, but their influence lived on in how Regulus controlled himself. At least, it usually did. It might have felt like a hollow victory to a better man, but Sirius didn't claim to be one of those, so it felt pretty damn great, thanks.

Was it simple age that had changed things? Because at the time, Regulus had thrown back the accusation that he put him second too, and now, this was true. Sirius had been open and honest about that. Harry would have to come first. Or was the difference that he liked Harry? Was it really that simple? Could he have dragged him into the carriage his first year, put down some ridiculously swotty things in front of he and Remus, and avoided a lot of the shit they went through?

“I don't know,” Sirius shrugged, which had some truth to it. He didn't know why it felt important. Just that it did. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Watering Remus's plants,” Tonks replied, as if that was totally normal.

Maybe it was normal for them. Sirius had only had his freedom for less than two months, and of course, they had all interacted outside of Grimmauld Place. He still had to figure out his place in the Order again, in a more active way. Not just in the fight, but socially. It'd never been much of an issue before, but again, he felt the disconnect between the lost years - even with Remus there. Although it was better since Remus knew him well enough to look past it, he was painfully aware that people he had called his closest friends had spent twelve to fourteen years living their lives when he'd been stagnating or running. He had to get into better fighting shape, but while the novelty was still fresh, he also had to figure out what the hell he was going to do for the rest of his life. Even if it wasn't a long one.

“Any word from Remus?” Sirius said, trying to change his subject internally.

Tonks looked drawn. “Not yet. Soon though, yeah?”

“Hopefully,” Sirius nodded. Speaking of having no one to watch his back, Remus should be finding a way to check in and show he wasn't in danger, or a lack of wolfiness wouldn't prevent Sirius from going up there to get him back. Sirius had faced enough dramatics without Remus adding to them.

Naturally, when he returned to the house, Regulus was nowhere to be found. Sirius tried not to take that as a bad sign, even if the nerves kicked up and made him jumpy. No study, no library, and finally, when he was about to check his room, he saw the attic hatch was open. It took him a minute to climb up and poke his head through, but it seemed he had found his wayward younger brother.

"What are you doing up here?" Sirius said, by way of greeting.

Regulus looked up from where he sat cross-legged on the floor (which looked to be Scourgified around him, of course), and a ball of light was hanging above him and several open boxes, lighting up the dark and dusty space..

“Looking at photographs,” Regulus responded simply. A book was open on his lap - or maybe an album, if it was photographs. “What are you doing up here?”

"I was on the top floor and pulled myself in an upwardly direction. This is where I ended up." Sirius was unsure if it was a good sign or not. If they happened to be the Bellatrix pictures- but no, those were framed. This was obviously an album. What the hell was in an album up here that would be sentimental enough to be kept, but not enough to be displayed in the rest of the museum? "Trying to find and destroy embarrassing ones to thwart the Vance quest?"

Regulus rolled his eyes. “No. You know as well as I do that the photographs she seeks legitimately do not exist… It has just been a very long time since I looked around up here. This one-” He tapped on the album in his lap- “-has pictures of our parents when they were little, which is, I suppose, something they did not want on the shelves. The bag with photos of you is up here too, though they are a little scattered. It might have been thrown.”

"I'm legitimately shocked they weren't just destroyed. They're terrible pictures.” It was true, he scowled in most of them. “I've got the only half decent one."

Regulus crinkled his nose but did not take further pause before tugging at the lip of a nearby box and adding, “But perhaps most surprisingly, I found this box, which seems to have photos and trinkets from when Phineas lived in this house. Not strange in itself, but there were a few people I didn’t recognise.”

Sirius had to admit a small - miniscule in fact - measure of curiosity. The idea of Regulus not knowing the entire lineage by heart was a completely foreign concept, but some may be people who died when he was too young to remember. Sirius took a couple of crouched steps towards him, before kneeling down. "Let me have a look, then."

After setting aside the album in his lap, Regulus picked up a handful of small portraits from inside the box, though the frames appeared to have been removed at some point.

“She’s one of them.” He pointed to a young woman, maybe still a teeanger, with her dark hair pulled up into neat plaits. There were two others in the portrait, around her age, looking severe. “The other two are Phineas and Elladora. They’re younger than most of the portraits around the house, but I’m confident that it’s them. As for him-” Regulus shifted to show one of a young man with a very affable expression. “-He is in several, too.” Uncomfortably, he added, “I was wondering if they might be the two burn marks - there were two from around that time. A sister and a son, I suppose it would be...”

Sirius glanced over the two pictures. He didn't particularly recognise either, so it was very possible. The attic was a common banishment spot, then. He felt a bit funny about his own being shoved up here, but he supposed for posterity, they had to keep something. "It's possible. I know one of them pulled an Andromeda; got it out when I kept badgering everyone that Christmas before Mum lost her shit. It can't be Cedrella, ‘cause say what you want about their allegiances, the Weasleys still have a pureblood lineage. If it's him, there might be some lucky kid out there with the name and none of the baggage."

Regulus nodded slowly, staring hard at the faces, as if further details might surface from sheer willpower. “Perhaps.”

Sirius had to wonder that, even in his panic, family was still the coping mechanism. "I'm sorry it didn't go well today," he said. Then he added the more truthful, "Mostly sorry."

Regulus glanced over, then down again with a heavy sigh. “I believe Order-related suspicions were successfully avoided.”

"You know that's not what I meant," Sirius replied, flatly. As much as it could be fun to live in the land of denial, this was not the place for it. "While the continued safety of everyone is vital, hiding up here with a bunch of dead family photos for company doesn't scream 'we bonded and things are brilliant'."

Slanting his mouth downward, Regulus offered a small half-shrug without looking back up. An uncomfortable silenced stretch between them for a moment, and Regulus opened and closed his mouth twice before he at last spoke aloud:

“It is just...frustrating?” he said, though his tone could not seem to decide whether it was a statement or a question. “I’m trying to be civil.”

"Why?" Sirius scoffed, before leaning over to whisper. "There's no one else here but me. My opinion on Narcissa hasn't changed in thirty years, and I've seen that kid in action. Be as uncivil as you like, it's not going to be worse than what I think."

“I know,” Regulus admitted with a frown. “But just because I can doesn’t mean that I should, and complaining about them won’t make the situation any better - whether it’s said to them, or to anyone else.”

"That's stupid," Sirius said, shaking his head a little. "You're trying to break them out of doing what they should do, but imposing the same rules on yourself?" Didn't he remember what happened the last time they left things like that untalked of? It became a festering resentment based upon a total misunderstanding. "Besides, it might help. Going over it in your head is just going to lead you to the conclusion it was your fault it went badly."

Regulus did not look entirely convinced, but his sigh was more of a huff this time. “Narcissa’s son is just....exceptionally disrespectful, and it it’s exceptionally disappointing.”

"You get your hopes up when it was him wanting to go family history digging?" Sirius pressed. He was sure he knew the answer already, but it was a sad thought.

His brother’s face tightened a little. “The thought crossed my mind.”

This was going to be incredibly painful if he kept his heart on his sleeve like that. Where was that stony ability to block people out now? But no, the more he considered that, the more it was just him trying to seem exactly what he was supposed to seem rather than what he actually thought. No need to backslide into that. On the bright side. Narcissa’s kid was a disrespectful brat, yes, but there's been no sign he's sadistic. You can grow out of disrespectful brat. But would pointing that out just give a false sense of hope?

"He's more of a Malfoy," Sirius settled on. "He's his father’s son, as you are yours."

Regulus’s frown deepened. “It was a little bit shocking, truthfully. He was rather condescending, not only to me - which was irritating, but not altogether surprising - but towards the whole family. I know he’s a Malfoy, but he’s on the tree, too.”

"To his mother?" Sirius asked.

“No.” Regulus shook his head. “The insults were just implication, but not well-hidden implication.”

"It's not his house," Sirius said, not for an excuse but perhaps some explanation. "It's different for you because it's your house on both sides, but did you ever hear any reverence for the Crabbe name from Mum, or any of her siblings? It doesn't mean he's not rude. There was no need to be a prick about it after specifically asking to come here, I grant you. Those of us who are pricks about it have earned the right, and it gives us a bad name. It just means he was checking up on you, likely not because of his mother, but her sister."

At that, Regulus’s face went a little stonier, but he fell silent for a moment.

"She probably thinks you're being difficult," Sirius said, switching back to Narcissa. "You've never been so before, so it's an adjustment. You're not getting the traitor treatment from her, even if you are from almost everyone else who judges people by that. She can acknowledge you, because you don't want to be a Death Eater, but the mark of blood treachery hasn't really come up...aside from my involvement in this, which you could have backed down about but haven't. By her measure, you're making this harder for yourself. She can't see how much things have changed, even in the last year. I can, and you still surprise me sometimes."

“I know,” Regulus said with a frown, though some of the sharpness had loosened in his face. “She is aware of where I stand on you and the Death Eaters - has been for some time now - and the fact that she is still hesitating seems like it ought to be a good sign… but I recognise the likelihood that she is simply hoping I will snap out of it.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know if that makes it more or less frustrating, in the end.”

“More,” Sirius replied, quietly. “It's messy and emotional.”

“But without it, am I not left with no chance at all?” Regulus responded in equally quiet tones.

“Not a good chance, no.” Hoping Narcissa would come to her senses would be fruitless if she couldn't see a real way out. “Things will change. We held the last major victory; they lost half of their breakouts to Azkaban, and they've done nothing but throw murderous tantrums ever since. We're on a more even keel. When a body count begins to rack up on that side - and it will, especially with Moody coming out of retirement, the man does not piss about - it'll be easier to see the consequences of either choice. Bellatrix's path may be that of murder and mayhem compared to your port in the storm, but she is her sister. Letting go in that situation is never easy, until a line is crossed that cannot be forgiven. Knowing Bella? She won't just cross it, but bloody dance across it and expect praise for it.” He glanced back at him. “I'm grateful you've never put me in that situation.”

Meeting his eyes for a flick, Regulus nodded. “I’m not interested in murder dances.”

"You haven't used the Cruciatus or Killing Curse on a person, you haven't targeted anyone I care about. The worst thing you've done is kill someone, and I'm not happy about it, but I know how easily it can happen, and you literally tried to give your life as penance. True remorse is...I can deal with it. We could have so easily killed someone running about with an uncontrolled werewolf. Someone innocent, not bloody Snape. I have no idea if any of my own hits in the war were lethal. " With a chill more from memory than reality, Sirius shuddered. "I could have killed you that night. If you want to talk truly unforgivable, it's trying to murder a sibling."

“You didn't know it was me,” Regulus said quietly, though his expression had pinched again.

"I meant Bellatrix, but thank you. Would blowing some other kid’s head off been better?" Actually, a little, but it seemed like that was probably not the right answer in this situation. "Perhaps not as unforgivable, but still a shitty thing to do. The whole hood and mask thing is idiotic, regardless. You're blocking your peripheral vision. There are better ways to disguise an identity, but does it get used? No, it's all this ceremonial bullshit, because Society loves ceremonial bullshit. I swear, if someone sat down and really thought about it, they'd realise they were being made fun of."

Regulus crinkled his nose but tipped his head in a little nod.

"I don't think I said thank you," Sirius continued, after a quiet beat. "I know my manners are atrocious; they are a work of art to be as terrible as I've gotten them, but I usually remember to say thank you when my life gets saved."

Glancing over, Regulus held his look for a moment before speaking. “The aftermath was very hectic.” A pause, and then: “You're my brother, and I have no tolerance for the prospect of your death, Bella or not. But I appreciate you saying it, all the same.”

"I know that," Sirius said, and he did. It was just different to know Regulus was willing to actually say that in front of other people, especially people who disagree with his assessment. There was something important about it, even if he struggled to pinpoint what, and he wanted to acknowledge it, but since a punch to the arm would lead to an accusation of hurting him for no reason and a hug would do what Voldemort couldn't and kill him, he found himself struggling to relay gratitude when he couldn't fully explain why it felt important. "But you shut down when you don't want to talk about something, and you could do that about me, or you make excuses. But you did neither, even though it would have made things easier for you. I didn't expect that. I think you like throwing me for a loop."

“Perhaps a little bit,” Regulus said with a little quirk of the mouth, but his expression remained sobered. “Yet for all the unpleasantness that comes from pressing such a point, it is a point that will benefit more from consistency, if ever it can be taken seriously. Withholding comment might make it easier to go back to an approximation of what it was, but I don’t want to go back to an approximation that dictates who am or am not allowed to speak to.”

"I'm the last person to ever tell you to give up power over your own life," Sirius replied, with a small grin. "I don't think you could hack it anymore. It would drive you crazy to know a whole bunch of people are wrong about something that you're right about but not be able to tell them, or convince them otherwise. Even without the Death Eater part, you've gone too far from convention to ever be comfortable in it again. Isn't that why you're suddenly getting curious about the marks? You want to know if you think they actually deserved to be removed."

Slowly, Regulus nodded, looking again at the box of old portraits and what must have been belongings that never made it back to the disowned Blacks in question. “I always took it as fact that they must have; suffice to say I am a little less confident in that, at this point.”

"It's always been at the discretion of whoever had it at the time." Sirius reached over to take out a couple of the old pictures; the people in them looking a little irate about being shoved about roughly, so they were definitely related to him. "Dorea married a Potter when they were getting loud about blood politics. Cedrella married a Weasley, and was removed. I think taking Uncle Alphard posthumously off was just petty. Even for Mum."

“It was a very tense subject. Or perhaps more accurately, a very tense non-subject,” Regulus said with a sigh, shaking his head.

"It was petty. He was only trying to help." Sirius insisted. "So there probably are several petty removals, but the further back you go, the harder it'd be to find the reasons. Oldest now would be, what, Callidora Longbottom?"

Regulus nodded. “Since speaking with Arthur and Neville, I have been trying to determine the least awkward way to initiate such a conversation with her. Thus far, I have exactly zero ideas that are free of awkwardness and discomfort, but it is a work in progress. Technically, I suppose I could also ask Phineas,” Regulus said, glancing down, as if to look at the landing below them.

"Voluntarily interact with Phineas." Sirius couldn't contain his shudder of distaste. "’Hey, what did your sister and kid get blasted off for?’"

“I don’t think he’s so bad,” Regulus commented. “It’s still less stressful than asking Great Aunt Callidora. He may be a portrait, but at least Phineas has been in this house my whole life.”

"Phineas has been in this house since for over a century." That was probably it, wasn't it? "You and your bloody antiques."

“Nonetheless, one cannot deny that he has more perspective that most on anything that has happened since the 1800s. Now that I think of it, he had an aunt or uncle who was disowned, too.” Regulus over a little to peer in the box again.

"It's an epidemic," Sirius huffed. "Is it any wonder the whole line shrunk and withered?"

To that, Regulus merely pressed his lips together

Sirius pressed on. "If you start tossing people aside over love or money, you're going to start running out of people. Or more pointedly, you're going to run out recorded people. Says a lot you get on better with Andromeda's kid than Narcissa's, though."

“The irony has not escaped me,” Regulus said with a sigh, shaking his head. “I have been trying.”

"Some kids are just pricks, no matter what." Sirius shrugged, adding, "Sometimes, they grow out of it. Sometimes, they become Potions Masters. But try just taking ownership of your own mistakes, rather than everyone’s? You left the door open; whatever happens now is not on you. It has to be his choice."

Regulus frowned a little as he looked over at his brother, then tipped his head in a little nod. “I know.

"Alright, I'm going down. I'm too damned old to sit in a cramped, dirty loft being morose about this family's stubborn, moody, and petty ideas. There's more fun ways to give myself a dead leg." Sirius reached over and patted his shoulder twice. "Don't stay up here too long. I know you like the relics, but you’re not one. That reminds me, do you want to put the stuff Uncle Alphard gave me back where it’s meant to be? It’s in the basement at my flat."

Regulus looked over, then nodded. “If you don’t mind it.”

"I don't think he planned on losing it, just underestimated the level of snit." Sirius huffed. "So if you're okay with it, it's better off with you."

“I am.” Regulus had made a little face at the word 'snit,’ but his mouth was starting to quirk wryly as he shook his head. “It would take hypocrisy to an entirely new level if I were to be grumpy about him leaving you money, now - all things considered.”

"Hypocrisy isn't a big leap to jump to. I think all And's got is a painting, but you can rifle through and see what you want to keep. I think there's some pictures there, but probably some old stuff he got from people as well. I didn't really go through it at the time. There was a lot going on." Sirius pulled himself up and attempted to glare the roof into submission so he didn't wind up cracking his head on it. "Makes you wonder how much junk is stuck in storage rooms and attics all over the place."

“I must admit I have been wondering that very thing. I was thinking to check the other properties to see if there is anything else to be gleaned,” Regulus said, neatly returning a few of the paintings and photographs back to their respective boxes. “I suppose we shall see.”

"You might find something that belonged to Callidora or her sisters, and if so, you can have an excuse to go talk to her," Sirius commented.

Thoughtfully, Regulus nodded. “I’ll check Great Aunt Cass’s house first. They were similarly aged, I believe.”

“I think she would have told you age was merely an illusion,” Sirius wiggled his fingers theatrically at the words. “But you are right.”

As his mouth flicked up at the corner, Regulus nodded. “Too true.”

As if Regulus would ever argue being right about something. "Remember what I said about staying up here too long," Sirius said, instead of addressing it. His brother could hang out with the dead if he wanted to, though why he did want to was a mystery, given he didn't have a good history of the dead playing nice.

“I will,” Regulus ressured before turning his body a little to place a few more of the scattered belongings back in their appropriate boxes.

Everything back in its place, as always.


When Regulus poked his head into the nursery with two small paintings in hand, he saw that his great-great-grandfather had returned to the frame again, slumped with the appearance of sleep. The room was dim now, casting thick shadows as the sun sunk below the buildings outside the window, and Regulus had started to back into the hallway again when he heard a familiar drawl.

“How was your visit?” Phineas Nigellus said, straightening with ease, so Regulus supposed he had not been sleeping at all. “As nostalgic as you'd hoped?”

“Not exactly,” Regulus admitted with a frown. “Narcissa’s son didn’t have quite the appreciation for our family that I had hoped. He sneered at the lack of a signature on the tapestry, despite it going back twice as far as his own. He liked the artifacts, but not much else, I don’t think.”

“Blessed with his father’s peacock sense, then,” Phineas quipped. “How disappointing.”

“It is,” Regulus agreed, and it felt a little bit less like a betrayal when his great-great-grandfather had said it first. “Not that-”

“You don’t have to justify it,” Phineas cut him off in what would have sounded like a bored tone if not for the fact that Phineas’s manner was always like that. Gesturing at Regulus, he added, “What do you have over there?”

“I found these up in the attic,” Regulus answered, moving closer and holding up the small painting of what Regulus assumed to be Phineas Nigellus and his siblings. “I recognised you and Great Aunt Elladora, but not the third.”

“Ah.” The recognition was immediate and apparent as Phineas looked at the smaller painting, which Regulus had noticed was charged with movement but no sound - or rather, maybe they had all been silenced to keep the attic quiet. None of them had chattered at all. “That is my youngest sister, Iola. She married a muggle.”

Regulus nodded slightly. She was the one Sirius had been talking about, then. “Like Andromeda?”

“No, not a muggleborn,” Phineas groused with an emphatic sigh. “An actual muggle.”

“Oh,” Regulus said, unable to find any other words to put forth, but Phineas didn't seem to notice.

“A boy from one of the houses on the row, as she told it. She was supposed to marry Corvus Lestrange, and if our parents could have locked her in her room until she had done so, they would have in an instant.” Phineas shook his head, wearing his typical expression of mild annoyance. “I should have done the same with my own.”

“Speaking of,” Regulus began, setting aside the first portrait to hold up the other.

“How many of these did you find?” Phineas huffed but answered anyway. “That one is my second-born. Phineas. Got the notion that muggles ought to have rights. I half expect he met Iola somehow, but she was gone before he was born, and he never would say. Foolish, the both of them, and so convinced they had the right of it. Wouldn't listen to a moment of reason.” Phineas eyed him shrewdly. “Why is your mouth open like that? You look like a guppy.”

Immediately pressing his lips to a line, Regulus shook his head, but he could not help the slightly mystified feeling. “I'm just surprised you are speaking of them so freely. The subject always makes everyone so tense.”

Phineas Nigellus, to the contrary, looked exceptionally unconcerned “It happened over a century ago, and we are down to you and your brother, now. No point in stewing.”

“But didn't you burn your son off, too?” Regulus asked, though it sounded a little petulant when said aloud.

Phineas must have felt the same way, based on how he snorted. “I suppose everything we did a century ago is consistent with our current view?”

“Touche,” Regulus said uncomfortably.

“I still think they were both utterly foolish to throw away their lives the way they did, but they were not the first, nor the last.” Keenly, he eyed Regulus in a way that felt far too pointed. “A Black is a Black, when you get down to the end. Are there any more up your sleeve? My uncle, perhaps?”

Regulus's expression lifted immediately with curiosity. “No, but would you tell me about him, too?”

“Maybe another day. I'm far too tired,” Phineas Nigellus drawled with a yawn that seemed too exaggerated to be real.

“Then why did you-” Regulus began, but his great-great-grandfather had already walked out of the frame, maybe to the portrait at Hogwarts.

With a heavy sigh, Regulus picked up the first painting again, situating then in his arms and wondering if he ought to put them up again. Phineas Nigellus would never ask, but he couldn't help but wonder if it was due to a lingering disappointment or due to the plaguing feeling that you could never really ask again for what you had once rejected. Even in the past few minutes, the room had darkened a little more, but even without the sun, Regulus had already burned their faces into his mind. Iola and Phineas - the latter, named for a father who has cast him out. Or perhaps the younger Phineas had cast himself out.

He thought of Narcissa’s reticence then, and of Sirius, supposing that the distinction was not always different.

Chapter Text

It was a little after eight in the morning when there was a sudden, unwarranted flash of light from the top landing. Sirius startled awake, on his feet before he could register what spell it was and scrambling to get his wand off the cluttered bedside table. Who had come into the house casting? Was it Narcissa's kid, or the woman herself? Did she tell someone? He doubted Bellatrix; the spell seemed to do nothing at all.

Sirius then registered the laughter - no, giggles. That wasn't anyone he was related to at all, and squinting through sleepy eyes, Sirius realised it was instead Emmeline with what he was pretty sure was one of Sturgis's contraptions. No, it was a camera.

That was a camera flash.

"What the hell, Vance?" Sirius said, before lunging himself towards her.

Vance took off at a speed that was extremely improbable in her heels, taking two steps at a time as she bolted down the stairs. Sirius had been running up and down these stairs a lot longer than she had, so she was doomed regardless, but he was still annoyed she managed to keep a lead. On the second floor landing, he didn't register Harry down on the landing below until Emmeline called "Good morning, Harry!" as she sped past him. Sirius merely tipped a salute at his godson, who looked on flummoxed. Naturally, their stomping about had awoken his mother, but in the time it took Emmeline to run down the full length of the ground floor staircase, Sirius managed to climb over the bannisters and drop down.

Emmeline came to stop but mimed an inability to listen due to his dearest mother’s screeching. He took her by the shoulder, giving her a shove towards the dining room and following her in. However, for the second time this morning, he was forced to double-take. There was a large, blue structure that had taken over the dining room. Was this some sort of Harry-shaped joke that he didn't get?

"What is that?" Sirius asked.

"A tent," Emmeline said, as it was perfectly normal to have a tent overtaking the grand dining room.

Sirius tapped the side of the camera, which hung limply in her hands. "Have you taken leave of your mind this morning?"

"My mind doesn't allow leave," Emmeline replied. "It's an every day of the week vocation, being me."

Sirius gave up on trying to argue semantics. "How does that translate to a tent in the dining room?"

"It was the least used room," Emmeline replied. "I wanted to make sure I could get it up."

Which didn't particularly shed light on it either. "Why?"

"I'm going camping," Emmeline shrugged.

"Is that a good idea?" Weren't there still a whole bunch of people attempting to murder her? It wouldn't be the most safe way of going around.

"We'll be fine," Emmeline waved him off.


"Regulus and I are going camping," Emmeline said, in a tone that you would explain something obvious to a young child. "You knew that."

"I know you joked about it!" Sirius said. "He's not an outdoors boy, Emmeline. He's very much an indoors boy. Ironically, the only way to get the stick out of his arse about the messiness of the great outdoors is to shove him on a broom."

"We'll be fine, thank you," Emmeline replied, nonchalant.

"None of this explains why you're taking pictures of me in my sleep," Sirius groused. "That's creepy."

Emmeline shot him a look. “Like being able to watch what everyone is doing every minute on a map?”

“We didn’t go about looking in people’s bedrooms,” Sirius muttered.

"The door was open," Emmeline protested. "I needed to test the camera."

"Which brings us to why you have what looks like a Podmore-special." Sirius waved his hand in front of the camera.

"I asked Sturgis for his Vishis player for the trip, but it's broken," Emmeline finally explained. "He lent me his extended length camera until he could get it fixed."

Sirius shook his head. "A what player?"

"Vishis," Emmeline replied. "Or is it Vishus? It really needs a vowel, the inventor must have been Welsh. It's the muggle pensieve thing."

Finally, something clicked in Sirius's brain. "The video camera? Benjy's old one?"

"Yes, that!" Emmeline declared. "He was quite sure it was working last week, but it's Sturgis; last week could be 1980."

Sirius ran his hand over his face, all thoughts of going back to sleep banished by the adrenalin. “Don’t you have work?”

“It’s barely eight,” Emmeline replied, evenly. “I don’t need to leave yet.”

Sirius swore; he’d been expecting to sleep until at least after ten. His headache from the night before was bound to come back. Still, he supposed if he must be awake at such a terrible time, and Harry was obviously up as well, then he should take the time to go to the flat today. He had been putting it off for a while, but Harry would be back at school soon, and he had some random things from James and Lily - notes, postcards, even a jumper - that may mean something more to Harry than to him.

They meant a lot to him too, but he had some of his memories. More so than he had a year ago. Harry barely had that.

He had also told Regulus he could root about in Alphard’s stuff in the basement too, so he could probably kill two things with one stone. He doubted he’d ever live there again; it wasn’t suitable for Harry, though now he thought about it, probably still had some of his toddler things in it. He tried to ignore the pang in his chest for that toddler. He liked the teenager; he was bright, good-hearted, and loyal. Pretty funny, when he was in his right mind for it. It was just harder sometimes to equate the toddler to the teenager, especially as the teenager got closer to an adult.

Sirius shook the thought way. He had to appreciate what he had, not what had ripped from him due to his own stupidity, the Ministry, and traitors he won’t dignify with attention in this moment. He now had Remus’s keys; it was early enough they could get a look around, and the two of them had buggered off a few times by themselves before. At least he’d be around this time.

Number Twenty-One B Delancey Street was just off the high street in Camden. It was a square, faded red building with two steps in front of it. Sirius had loved it the moment he'd seen it; he'd bought it within the week of viewing it in April and moved in with Remus at the end of the school year. They had all done a little decorating, which meant it had always been half-done because they'd always ended up mucking about instead of doing much of anything else. From the outside, it didn't look that different. There was still the little buzzy thing you had to use to get to the stairs to the top floor; the windows were still placed in a haphazard fashion; the green gate at the side was still patchy and rusted; and although the Arlington Road sign no longer said Arselington Road, he could almost pretend the last twenty years had evaporated like a smoke.

Not completely. Twenty years ago, Harry was still the mere concept of Elvendork, and Regulus wouldn't be caught dead here. Sirius was a little disappointed he'd done the paperwork to revive himself, or that would have been an excellent joke.

"Don't put your foot on the second step," Sirius warned. James had originally mucked about with it, so even if Remus had not, it'd never been exactly right. One of his neighbours sprouting spontaneous hair growth all over her body had been funny at the time, but he'd seen what James's hair did to combs, brushes, and all manner of hair products. Harry wouldn't thank him.

Regulus lifted his brow. “Does it creak, or did you do something to it?”

Sirius gave him a pointed look. "Why do so many of our interactions begin with the words 'did you do something to it'?"

“Because history strongly supports such a conclusion,” Regulus asserted with an unapologetic tone as he passed over the step in question.

Though Sirius could definitely argue the point, he supposed he wasn't entirely wrong about the precedent. "Why would I do something to my own step?" he grumbled, as he heard a snort from Harry. He was trailing behind a little. "Alright, Harry?"

"Yeah," Harry said, ducking into the hallway. "It's not what I thought."

"Because it's muggle or because it's not gigantic?" Sirius asked.

Harry looked embarrassed for a flickering moment. "Both, to be honest."

"I've had muggle neighbours my whole life. I merely never met them." Not even because they were muggle, though that played a part in it for a while. Mostly because they were old, and he didn't see the point. "I also don't require that much space. I'm not a fan of clutter, and I don't keep things for no reason."

Sirius let the door shut behind him and heard the mechanism lock. He still wasn't exactly sure how that worked, but it's not as if he knew anyone he could reasonably ask. Ted, maybe, but he always seemed like such an adult. Even if he was one himself, Ted was more of an adult. Arguably, most people were more of an adult, but he wasn't going to give ammunition by asking how the weird buzzy thing worked. Lily had promised to tell him; it could wait for the day she perhaps could.

"Need to grab the basement key. Door's not locked," Sirius said, mostly because it never had been. They'd relied on spellwork, their own wards, and passcodes. The old lock had never worked properly anyway.

Stepping inside, there was still haphazard and fairly mismatched shoes in the corner. Some looked a little more trampled, likely by the Aurors. The wallpaper was patterned brown and cream, as he'd remembered it. A lot more faded. Despite the wallpaper, the decor was - much to the pride of his eighteen-year-old self - nothing much at all like Number Twelve. He could see the mismatched dining set that Remus had partially bought from home, and chairs they'd seemed to simply accumulate. The walls did have photos on them, but they were stuck up with spellotape and mixed in with old band posters and a cross-stitch that Dorcas Meadowes had once given him with the words F*CK DEATH EATERS upon it.

He slipped into the second door of the hall, and found himself in his own room. Not as he'd left it; the space had clearly been upturned. It might take him a bit longer than anticipated to find the keys. "Give me a sec," he called back out. After a beat, he remembered; he actually did have his wand on him. “Accio keys!”

Which meant that several keys suddenly came flying from the mess and forced Sirius to duck as they embedded themselves in the bedroom and hall walls. “Duck,” he said, lamely.

Regulus quirked an eyebrow, glancing first at the keys, then to Sirius. “Your timing is a little off.”

"My ducking is a little off," Sirius answered, before pulling out a couple of the embedded keys. Where had all of these keys come from? He didn't own that much. His motorcycle keys had gone to Hagrid, though he might have had a spare. He might have had the keys to James's, but he couldn't recall ever having used a key. "I have no idea what half of these are."

"That looks like it comes from Hogwarts," Harry said, picking up one of the old, larger keys.

He was right. It did. Had he nicked one of the keys from Hogwarts and never given them back? Borrowed - or 'borrowed' them from Hagrid? Then, with a sudden startled laugh, he remembered where this particular key had come from. "Well-spotted," he said. "It's the broom closet down at the Quidditch pitch."

"Is that something you get as captain?" Harry asked.

"Probably," Sirius replied.

“It is,” Regulus confirmed in turn.

“You would know.” Sirius gestured the key in the direction of his brother pointedly. "I was never a captain. I'm not the overachiever around here. This is from a very long, very involved story about us lot - not your mum, she'd gone home since she had a lick of sense - and some accidental trespassing. Really probably not a repeatable story just yet."

"Why?" Harry said, stiffly.

He thought it was something bad. Ever since that pensieve, he'd noticed a little bit more trouble when talking about his father's school escapades. Sirius could at least stomp that down. "In part, because it was just a really stupid thing to do, even if it was funny at the time. Mostly because what I know of this story is second hand. It involves one of the first times we ever met the Order, two Death Eaters, ill-advised apparition, splinters in uncomfortable places, and - from what I've been told - Dumbledore's brother chasing Remus and your father out of the Hog’s Head in his nightie. I wasn't there; I lost them with a floo mishap." Come to think of it, whose bathtub was that he'd ended up waking up in? "I think I ended up at Vance and McKinnon's, but since they went through flats every five minutes back then, I'm not sure."

On second thought, it's not like any of that sounded good to tell someone's child. But it didn't involve stringing anyone up, even if they did deserve it, so it was probably alright.

Harry handed him the key. "Why were they having to move a lot?"

"Because Marlene McKinnon never met a fight she could back down from." As if Sirius could claim he did. "Tiny, but terrifying. Think of your Ginny, for example."

"She's not-" To his surprise, he watched as Harry turned pink for a moment right to his ears. "I mean, she's just - she's Ginny."

Oh, for the love of Merlin, not another one. Was this his penance, now? He was doomed to spend his life dealing with flustering crushes and teenage yearning? At least this was from an actual teenager.

Pointing to his own room, Sirius abruptly changed the subject. "I know there's a bunch of stuff of theirs under the desk; I can see Quidditch stuff from here. We better go and see what mess the Aurors have made of Uncle Alphard's things. I'm sending Tonks in to eat the faces off them if they've damaged anything worth keeping. You coming?"

Regulus tipped his head in a slightly uncomfortable nod and stepped forward to move down to the basement.

"Do I need to check your mouth?" Sirius said, bouncing down the stairs again, and this time, taking a utility door to another stair set. "I appreciate all the tongue-biting, but if there's blood, you should probably rinse it out."

“My mouth is fine,” Regulus said stiffly as he stepped onto the second stair set after him.

“I'd keep all decisions on that to yourself until you see what mess the Ministry's made in here,” Sirius replied, feeling the telltale cardboard at his feet. There definitely was a wider walkway around the boxes than he'd had, and he doubted he left them stacked that way. “I really need to check what might've been impounded, but I'd need to check the old inventory sheet. He wasn't Grandfather, but he might’ve had a few things they found a bit iffy.”

“I suspect it does not take much for them to deem it questionable,” Regulus remarked, shaking his head.

“That's the Ministry for you.” Sirius pivoted around some old horoscopes that probably contained something of value. “Have you decided what you're telling them? Whatever you say about your own circumstances, it's going to end up implicating others in the process. How you say it will decide who you screw.”

“I know,” Regulus said uncomfortably, expression pinching with an awkward pause. “Fortunately, most of the people I interacted with have already implicated themselves at this point.”

“It's not the implicated people that I thought of.” Sirius replied, trying to ignore the uncomfortable expression. “But you will only have absolution from what you admit to, and no matter what, you will end up having to lie. You're part of the Ravenclaw Rebellion these days, and figuring out what you want to say with Dedalus and what you're willing to say will help get through the parts you'll have to lie through.”

Regulus nodded slowly. “I know. I’m not going to sell out the Order.”

“I knew that!” Sirius rolled his eyes. “I'm talking about if they go looking at the other houses and try to get you on a technicality of you owning a restricted object, or deciding who knew what and when if you don't fancy putting someone like Narcissa in the firing line for obstruction or lying.”

With a furrowed brow, Regulus nodded, mouth pressing to a quiet line again.

Why did he always think that Sirius would believe the worst of him? Regulus had worked hard to prove himself, and he wasn't even enjoying the benefits of it. “It's going to be hard enough on you with Bellatrix,” Sirius added, quietly.

To that, Regulus let out a heavy sigh and nodded. “I'm not looking forward to it.”

An understatement of the century. "You keeping Crouch's kid out of it?"

“I suppose it depends on what they ask,” Regulus responded with a frown. “I don't want to drag Barty into it unnecessarily, but I suppose his involvement is a bit obvious at this point. I don't want to trap myself with a superfluous lie of omission either.”

"It's not as if it'll make much of a difference at this point," Sirius commented. "You can't give Bellatrix another life sentence; she's already got one. Another is just greedy."

“I don't think she would see it that way,” Regulus said wryly, “but I know it doesn't make much difference for them from a legal standpoint.”

"No decent person enjoys being a snitch," Sirius acknowledged. He pulled out a drawer and coughed against the sudden, musty smell it let loose. "But it's what it looks like from the outside. A kid getting involved with something half their family was before freaking out when they realise it's a murder and torture club, and no, their parents or grandparents didn't lift a finger to stop it because they all figured either he was such a little adult he didn't need the help or his lovely cousin and friends would take care of him. It doesn’t hurt your case. It’s just not flattering."

Regulus sighed, scrunching up his nose. “There is not much in the way of flattering explanations.”

Finally, one of the boxes had a set of photographs. Set was probably overstating it; it looked more like individual ones all shoved in there and forgotten about. "Better than Death Eater," Sirius said, before tapping the side of the cabinet. "I think this is the personal things. The rest is just accumulations."

Regulus nodded, approaching the cabinet. For a moment, he eyed one of the brightly coloured masks (couldn’t say the country of origin) laying on a smaller cabinet to the side, then turned his attention to the box of seemingly random photographs. Picking up a few, Regulus fanned them in his fingers to look at the three at once: One of Alphard on what looked to be a ferry, and two baby photographs. One of the photographs was of the two of them, taken the Christmas that Uncle Alphard got his camera, but the other definitely wasn’t.

“It looks like this one is from before Uncle Cygnus was born,” Regulus said in reference to what was probably a picture of their mum (looking characteristically unpleasant) and Alphard when they were little.

"They didn't change much." Not entirely true, as while their mother had always been a tall and imposing woman, there was barely two years between her brother and herself. Not unlike them, Sirius thought, with some discomfort. "You're right; he was born around Uncle Alphard's first year at school. Maybe second. This is definitely before that. I've never been so thankful our own had no interest in each other like that. I think I'd have thrown up again if we'd ended up with another one when I was thirteen." Sirius tapped the picture where his toddler self was, red-faced and clearly upset, looked on the verge of doing exactly that. Even the thought was enough to induce a shudder. They were not affectionate people, their parents, not even really with each other, and it made it a little more palatable that they just treated everyone like that. It wasn't personal. "You were just destined to be the baby. A bit terrifying to think the baby before you is Tonks's - and Draco Malfoy's - grandpa now."

“A loose definition of ‘baby,’ as ever. I think everyone is a little bit uncomfortable with that fact,” Regulus said, letting the photos drop back into the box and picking up a few others. “Or at least those who are aware of it. I would expect that Draco is not.”

"Baby is the youngest of a generation." Sirius waved his wand at Regulus pointedly. "Like you. But how would he know? He's his own generation, far as everyone's concerned. Tonks may be his cousin, but she's not family, and thus, doesn't count. No wonder he's spoiled."

“I’m aware of the circumstance,” Regulus said without looking up from the photographs, having picked up a small stack to flip through. “But that didn’t make it less strange to realise he doesn’t know you were a Gryffindor. Not that I would expect it to come up when you are historically a Non-Topic, but it is still jarring.”

"Damnatio memoriae, the fate of traitors. Nothing to do with me is meant to be passed down." Sirius gave a dry huff. It was supposed to be a punishment, but the tree hadn't mattered to him for a long time when he'd been sixteen. There might have been other things he missed, but the idea of his life being just another part of a lineage wasn't one of them. It was freeing. "There's not many sentimental people, and even our own parents were not chatty. It doesn't bother me. I wouldn't know much about our parents’, their generation, or our grandparents’ school days beyond a few stray details." Sirius tapped the photo splayed in the box. "They probably hadn't finished school when this was taken. I can't remember if it was just Andromeda's parents who got married when they were still in school."

“No - they were the second in a row, if you look at the birth years,” Regulus replied.

"One doesn't always mean the other," Sirius replied. "But your ability to instantly know all familial facts never ceases to impress and slightly disturb me."

“I suppose my memory suits it,” Regulus said with a half-shrug, flipping to the next photograph.

"You alright down here if I leave you to nose about?" Sirius asked, before glancing upward. "Harry's been alone long enough that trouble is probably about to start."

“I’m fine, yes,” Regulus said, sparing him a glance for good measure. “Go ahead.”

Sirius nodded. “I’ll get you when we’re heading out.”

It felt different to walk in alone. Not truly alone, for he could hear Harry in the bedroom and knew logically that Regulus could probably spend a week down there looking over anything before he'd notice time passing, but alone enough to process how it looked. Though he'd had many places to call home, Sirius had only created one space for himself his entire life. It looked like the first home of two teenage boys, which is what it had been, but it had been crystalised and ransacked through. Some bits still had dust, and the corners were still cobwebbed, but most things had been scuffed up and rifled through as if it hadn't been anyone's home at all. Sirius spared a thought to Remus living through this happening and felt, not for the first time today, that he wanted him to be here.

It was harder still to glance into his own room, and at a fleeting look, Harry sitting on the floor was almost indistinguishable from his father. His life of late had consisted of nothing but moments like this; of exploring Number Twelve in a way he hadn't since he was a small child, though this time he was trailing behind to see what his brother was doing rather than the other way around. He'd gone to the same beaches he'd spent his childhood on, gone and sat at Andromeda's and let her fuss and dury in the way she had always done for as long as he'd known her, and here, he could feel it again. The ghost of what used to be.

In the present, he watched Harry run his fingers under his glasses in the same way that James had always done when he was upset about something, but trying to hold it together. What he'd been feeling at the time had always been written all over his face, no matter what, but while Harry had the same subtlety (or there lack of), Sirius rarely saw him outright emotional about anything.

“What have you got there?” Sirius asked quietly.

Harry looked up, a deer caught in headlights. “It's, er. It's a letter.”

“It does resemble one, yes.” Sirius took a few steps in and almost tripped over an old pair of shoes. That could've been Aurors, but honestly, it could have just been him. He wasn't the most organised bloke at the best of times.

“My mum wrote to you.” Harry made a motion as if to hand him the letter, but then stopped himself.

“Sometimes,” Sirius agreed, with no small amount of confusion. “Is that so strange? You write to Ron and Hermione all the time.”

“No,” Harry shook his head, and the frustration of what he was trying to communicate was more than evident. “It's just reading her writing, it's different from a photograph. It's almost as if I can hear her talking, like I know what she sounded like when she – I mean, I do know, but only a little, and I'm not explaining this right...”

“It's more personal.” Sirius managed to give him a weak smile. “Anyone can look at a photograph, but not everyone will hear her voice in the words she writes.”

Harry looked at him and took a long shuddering breath. “She wrote about me.”

“Of course she did.” Sirius did smile this time, genuinely. “Why would she not?”

It didn't appear Harry had much of an answer for that one. “We had a cat?” he said, suddenly.

“Yes,” Sirius said. “James had a feral stray set up shop when he was a kid, called uh, Patch. No, second name was Patch.”

“The cat had a surname?” Harry asked.

“First name Cabbage, often referred to as Mr Patch unless you wanted your hair clawed out.” Sirius caught the look Harry was giving him and bristled. “Don't look at me like I'm the crazy one here. It was a well known fact that James was not allowed to name things anymore. We all learned this the hard way. You were nearly called Elvendork, till your mum got him to use his grandfather instead.”

“I'm named after my dad's grandfather?” Harry interjected.

“You didn't know that?” Sirius asked. That was hardly unusual. Sirius was named after his as well, and Regulus after both their grandfather's younger brother and their grandfather himself. Recycling names had its upsides.

Harry shook his head. “So there was another Harry Potter?”

“I think his real name was Henry,” Sirius mused, as he tried to think back to the spare conversations he’d had with James and his father. “He was on the Wizengamot, so there should be a picture down there. Ask Arthur, or whoever you're with, to run you past the offices.”

Harry nodded, but seemingly more to himself this time. He lifted the letter, now finally showing Sirius the contents, if not handing it over. “It was about my first birthday.”

Sirius swallowed thickly. “I have a picture of that, but it's at Grimmauld Place. Tonks swiped it for me. If you see any indentations around the furniture around here, that's probably why.”

“You bought me my first broom,” Harry said, as if this was something important. “You didn't tell me that.”

“Didn't I?” His memory wasn't what it used to be. “You loved flying, even then. It used to be the bike. I had this motorcycle I used to love; it was a 50's model, and it was beautiful. I used to take you on that a lot when you were a baby, and you always squealed the place down. A broom seemed like a safe bet. It's why I wanted to see you fly.”

Harry smiled at that. “You could've saved yourself a lot of trouble if you'd just talked to me then. Or any time you tried to get into the dorm, actually.”

Sirius gave a bark laughter. “And you'd have believed me, would you?”

“I'd have heard you out,” Harry said, with such an earnestness that Sirius could believe him. James would probably have heard him out too, now he thought about it.

“As hard as it's been,” Sirius said, tentatively, “I'm glad I didn't. I wasn't in my right mind, if I ever am, and I don't like the thought of you getting caught in the way of that. I'm sorry to tell you that I got my temper from my mother, and I don't handle it well when I'm upset. I don't handle the anniversary well. It's why I'm not going to the memorial.”


“You don't know about the memorial?”

Harry made a noise of frustration. “I told you, no one tells me anything!”

“When did you tell me that?” Sirius asked.

“A few weeks ago,” Harry said, distractedly. “What memorial?”

Sirius took a breath. “There's one in Godric's Hollow, where your dad was from. Every year, on November 1st. Remus goes, so do Emmeline and McGonagall. If you want to go, you – could ask her.” Even the thought of going anywhere within a hundred yards of that house made his stomach drop and his blood run cold. But if it was something Harry wanted, he'd try. He owed him that. It was half his fault that he was clinging onto a letter from his mother instead of the real thing.

For a long moment, Harry said nothing. Then he pointed to the letter. “There's a page missing. Do you remember the end of it?”

Sirius looked at the run off sentence about Dumbledore and shook his head. “Probably about what a little toerag he was he was young. I heard he was wild as a teenager.”

“It's hard to imagine Dumbledore as a teenager,” Harry said.

“It always throws me off to see him in old pictures,” Sirius agreed. “He was ginger at one point.”

Harry laughed, “Really?”

Sirius nodded, “Regulus has been pulling this, that, and the other out of the attic lately. There's some group school photographs from Mum's and Dad's days, back in the ‘30s. He was a bit ginger in them.”

“Was that when Voldemort was at school?” Harry asked.

“Year below my dearest mother,” Sirius said. “It's almost understandable. Six years around my mum would turn into anyone into a homicidal maniac.”

The following day, the grand family tour continued its path to the coast of Wales once again, this time landing where their Great Aunt Cassiopeia had once lived - more recently, where Sirius and the kids had resided during their stay at Porth Iago.

Curiosity had prickled, at the time, but Regulus had not carved out the time on those lazy days, merely dancing around the idea of distant burn marks. The past was a steep step into deep waters, and the dams had since burst open, pushing forth a certain momentum of discovery. He had visited Great Aunt Lycoris’s house, the day before, but there had been nothing out of the ordinary from what he would expect from the Family. Stepping through those doors had triggered a rush of memory - from his escape from the inferi cave, rather than anything as a child - but he’d stuffed the thoughts down swiftly. A variety of interesting objects and (acknowledge) family photographs were spread throughout the house, but there had been nothing to build upon his search. Now, Regulus once again found himself in a dusty attic with aging wood slanting around him, surrounded by a different great aunt’s eccentricities and memories alike.

Just a few minutes before, Sirius had abandoned the rifling in favour of searching the house for anything he might have left during their stay. Regulus suspected it was actually just an excuse to get out of the attic, but he appreciated that his brother had come at all, so he did not comment on the suspicion, instead continuing to gather up any related curiosities that seemed worth bringing back to the house.

As it turned out, there were no pictures in the attic, so he soon turned his search to the house itself. It was terribly invasive, poking in a dead person’s room - and when Sirius had passed by in the hallway, his brother had not spared the opportunity to make a rude remark about ‘taking his time looking through an old lady’s drawers’). Even so, for all the invasiveness, it was in the personal spaces that he found success. Aunt Cass had kept her photographs in a bedside drawer. Family did not visit much, at least not within Regulus’s own conscious memory, and he supposed her cats were unlikely to be harsh on the judgement front. Even Regulus had kept the photos of Sirius hidden in his room, angry as he was. He wondered a little about how Aunt Cass might have felt, but the mix of his own memory stung swift and sudden, tugging at the train of thought.

The metal tin of photographs was no longer than his hand, easy enough to carry, so Regulus had it clasped securely as he wandered back down to the ground floor where he found Sirius still milling around.

Sirius eyed the tin, perhaps curious or perhaps simply wanting to leave. "You done, or are you going to faff about a bit more?"

“You don’t have to stay, you know,” Regulus said dryly, though he could not drum up too much annoyance when Sirius had stayed longer than Regulus might have expected at the start. This house was probably only interesting to him when Harry was in it. “I can manage some old houses by myself, if you’re ready to leave.”

Sirius looked back at towards the door, clearly restless but also torn between staying and not. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other once, twice, and then seemed to decide. "Are you sure?”

Regulus tipped his head. “You can go on. I’ll see you back at the house.”

“Yeah, alright.” Sirius was barely out the door before the crack of apparition sounded.

Breathing out a sigh, Regulus looked at the small tin in his hand, then strode out the front door and turned around to look at his great aunt’s mismatched house, struck immediately with the smell of the coast. They had not often visited her as children; even with all those summers here in Iago, it was Aunt Cassiopeia who had come to them, rather than them making frequent trips to her eccentric house of quirks and cats. He wondered if that bothered her or if she might have liked it better that way.

With a crack, he apparated to the house he had spent so many summers in, growing up - the one he had gone back to, just this summer. He searched its attic, too, but he was unsurprised to find it lacking in additional insight. This was not the place to hide embarrassments, nor points of shame and despair. Traitors weren’t meant to mix in Iago - not even the memory of them. He would not have thought their ancestral home was either, but it was not the first aspect of his investigation that struck him as confusing or difficult to swallow, and there was nothing to do but tuck away the information and try to make the most of it.

By the time Regulus had left the second family home of the day, the sun was hovering over the horizon, not yet touching the water, but it had already cast its amber glow over the slow-rolling waves. He could feel his hands clamming up just a little at just the thought of the settling night. All over again, he was frustrated that he couldn’t go sit on the beach like a properly adjusted person - if he could call his youth ‘properly adjusted.’ He probably couldn’t.

Steeling himself, Regulus instead set off on the path he’d walked with Emmeline, just a month and change before. Society had not wanted her here; Society had not wanted a certain few people in his tin of photographs, either. He could feel himself slipping into such an ostracised category, if this summer was anything to go by, and that made his hands feel even clammier - but he knew he couldn’t go back. Didn’t even want to, really, at least not in full, but months into the process, that still did not seem to matter much to anyone.

The rocky ledges rose on each side of the path, and after a short stroll, he found a nice nook of sorts that opened up to the grassy knolls and hills on the other side. He apparated up without ceremony, but he did not dedicate much time to the Welsh scenery before opening the small tin. There was a little boy in many of the pictures, and judging by the ages of Aunt Cassiopeia and his grandfather Pollux, that was probably the burnmark within their branch of the family. It was strange, how she had only kept photographs of him when he was little - the ones of her cousins stretched into adolescence, which helped a great deal with their recognisability. As Sirius had speculated in passing, Great Aunt Callidora had some photographs in the stash, too, of her and Charis and what must have been Cedrella - Arthur Weasley’s mother. How normal, it all looked - a far cry from the blackened char on the tapestry, and further still from the complete erasure from all conversation. There was no information notated on any of the photographs, but he supposed Aunt Cass wasn’t intending for them up to be found.

For some time, all Regulus could hear was a subtle breeze and the faint sounds of waves breaking along the beach, but it was the sound of loosened rocks that caught his attention first - loosened rocks, a blast, and the sudden sensation of falling as that blast knocked the ledge out from under him. All at once, the world was whirring stones of brown and grey, jutting out with sharp jabs that he couldn’t quite grasp. He hit the ground before he could fumble out his wand. His knees and legs felt like they were shattering out from under him with a blinding white pain that caught his arms next, then knocked out his breath out of his chest as he tipped over in a tumble. The debris was sharp and grainy beneath his hands - his whole arms, both of them, felt a bit like they were vibrating, but it was his legs that were searing with even the tiniest shift.

Everything felt like dirt and agony, but when a photo of the little boy landed by his hand, he remembered the tin up at the top. In a haze, that tin felt like the most important thing, and after pulling out his wand - thanking his lucky stars it had not snapped in the fall - Regulus cast a silent summoning spell for photos and tin alike, more because he still couldn’t breathe properly than anything else. The descending cloud of pictures, as well as their container, zipped towards him. He was closing them inside and slumping against the rocky wall when he heard a voice.

“I should have gotten a better angle to spare the ledge,” came the dryly mocking tone. “But I suppose this is fitting too. Playing in the dirt does get you dirty.”

Trying to pull his mind into focus and ignore the pulsing pain, Regulus narrowed his eyes towards the voice and saw a Death Eater in full garb, standing there in the Iago pathway like it was perfectly normal. Perhaps it was more normal than Regulus liked to openly let on, but he really hated the sudden twist of panic in his chest. It hurt to grasp his wand, but it would hurt a lot more to get blasted to bits, and he did not particularly want to give whoever it was the benefit of the doubt by assuming it had been meant as a joke.

“That was incredibly rude,” Regulus muttered, biting back a hiss as he shifted his weight off of his legs. Wand still in hand, he barely waved a shield charm in time to stop the follow up curse, and his mind was reeling, but not in a particularly helpful way.

With another swish of his wand, Regulus knocked the Death Eater back into the rocks just as a blast of fire connected with his arm, catching the sleeve. Immediately, he felt the searing pain and smelled the burn of flames catching his skin, but a rapid Aguamenti stopped it from spreading beyond the sleeve.

A follow up shot from the Death Eater was already on the way, and Regulus cast another shield charm just in time to block. Shooting a blasting curse at the rocks above the Death Eater dropped a stream of debris; this accomplished little in the way of harm, but it seemed to distract the assailant enough to follow up with a petrification spell. With frustration, Regulus saw the spell miss - his poor grip at play, perhaps - but he didn’t waste any time thinking about it further. The Death Eater, whoever he was, could be seen fumbling for the wand he had dropped, and Regulus took that extra window of time to shove the tin under his arm and apparate back to London.

Appearing in the street in front of his house was not a risk Regulus typically favoured - one never knew when a muggle might be looking - but even a shift of his legs was blinding, and he refused to drag himself from the shroud of trees in the park just across. He was visible for no more than a few seconds, appearing just outside the bounds of the charm, then shifting inside with a concentrated attempt to ignore the splitting pain.

When he reached the front of the house, Regulus collapsed against it with a shaky, steadying breath. Part of him wanted to apparate straight to his room to avoid a measure of humiliation, but it was difficult to concentrate, and he was probably pushing it, apparating even once without splinching. He could not have said how long he sat there (no more than a few minutes, though it felt like much longer), but when his breathing had calmed to something less frantic, he waved his wand again to make the serpent knocker on the door clunk its three rapid raps - then rested his head back against the house with a sigh.

There was a knock at the door. As a rule, no one knocked the door of the Order Headquarters. Most people who knew the Headquarters were there simply walked in, and then made their presence known. It happened on occasion with meetings, when someone was known to be coming, but as far as Emmeline was aware, no one was scheduled to be coming there who'd knock. She wondered if she ought to go and find the resident house-elf, though perhaps she was the reason he had not materialised. He certainly didn't seem to like appearing around her.

The only real options then were to either open the door and have it look extremely peculiar if it was someone not on the ward, as no one would see her, or go find the house-elf. She supposed she could just ignore it, but it seemed a little rude. So would opening the door and getting stabbed. Why did her manners often conflict with her vigilantism? She lost more houses that way.

Bounding up the stairs, Emmeline did not find a house-elf, but she did find Sirius. "I thought you'd gone out," she asked.

Draped over the lounger in what could only be described as a casually dramatic fashion, Sirius shrugged. "I did, but going through an old lady’s drawers has never been my idea of fun."

A blatant lie, given the continual desire to get something from McGonagall's private quarters at school. "The door knocked."

Sirius sat up. "What do you mean, the door knocked?"

"I don't mean that I think it did it by itself," Emmeline replied. "I mean someone knocked the door, and I don't know of many occasions where knocking would happen."

Sirius twisted himself back into a sitting position. "Since Death Eaters don't knock, that means it's either Andromeda looking for me or Regulus, or Narcissa Malfoy." He stood up, and went over to one of the windows to the front of the place. She hadn't considered doing that. She hadn't actually been sure that would work.

It was entirely unexpected for him to just bolt out the door. Not in general - Sirius had always been a bit of a jumping bean and rarely stopped to explain himself, but wouldn't some form of communication be so pleasant? Uncommunicative pains in her backside, the lot of them, at times.

"Well, which is it?" Oh, there goes that bloody portrait again. It was so easy to forget about when it was quiet in the house.

As she got to the bottom of the stairs, Sirius opened the door and there was a sudden crack of apparition. Some of the ridiculous dramatics in this place were enough to make her want to tear her own hair out. He couldn't have gone far. Surely, opening the door didn't mean you could just apparate out. Did it?


No, just right back where he was. With a heavy sigh, she started back up the stairs. She turned back into the drawing room, and her stomach dropped. There was Regulus, looking considerably worse for wear on the same lounger. He wasn't looking particularly happy about it, either.

Emmeline hurried over. "What in the hell happened?"

For a moment, it looked as though Regulus - pale as a sheet - was going to rub at his temple, but he did so for only a second before looking at the scuffs on his palms and lowering them. After flicking a glance over at her, he let out a slow breath and leaned his head back. “Experienced a bit of conflict, I suppose one could say.”

"I see your talent for the understatement continues to thrive." Emmeline grabbed a pillow from one of the other chairs and tapped his shoulder lightly. "Head up."

"Not too bloody. Keep him out of trouble for a minute," Sirius moved to stand up. "I'm going to go find that useless elf and find out where the pain potions are. I'm not calling him in here; he'll wail the place down, and Mum's already got that job well in hand."

"I think you ought to call Hestia to be safe," Emmeline replied. "I've seen nightgowns with more colour to them. Where is it worst?"

“Legs - fell from a ledge,” Regulus said, holding his face neutral, save for a shaky wince. “Most of the rest will likely do fine with a salve, I should think.”

"Fell, or got pushed?" Sirius pressed.

"Is this helping?" Emmeline pushed at the air near him, being unable to reach. "I don't want to risk healing it in case the bone shattered, and no one should be subjected to your healing attempts. Hestia, salve, painkillers, go."

For a moment, Sirius dithered. However, a good strong glare always produced excellent results when you were right in the situation.

"Painkillers will need to wait for Hestia, or they may mask something wrong." Emmeline took a quick glance over him. "Salve should be fine, though. Do you want a drink? You look ghastly."

“I’m fine,” Regulus responded, pinching his eyes closed for a moment.

“I have the most horrendous feeling you could be bleeding to death and say the same thing,” Emmeline said. She conjured a flannel nonetheless. “Let's see those hands. There's probably some grit in there. Do you know who did this? We should try and make sure the right Auror gets it if we're calling them.”

Regulus held out a hand - the right one, first - and frowned. “I’m not sure. The Death Eater was an adult man, from what I could tell; but I didn’t recognise the voice or mask, so it wasn’t one of the Lestranges. Anyone else I might have recognised is dead or already in prison - or in Severus’s case, on our side.”

“The game has changed,” Emmeline agreed quietly. “There's very little blood, aside from where you've obviously tried to shield yourself.” She turned his hand over, making sure there was no glass or anything in it. “That usually means old pureblood - they will kill, but they do feel strongly against large spills of pure blood, so it's never messy. I think Sirius has been one of the few exceptions to ever be bled badly, but he will taunt. Other hand?”

For a beat, Regulus was staring hard at the ceiling. His right hand had retracted, but the left - the one with what looked like tattered burns - hesitated before he held it out.

Concerned, Emmeline touched it lightly. “Do you think it might be broken?”

“It is possible, but I'm not certain if it's a full break. I was able to grip with my wand hand, but not well. I have not attempted to use my left to the same extent,” he responded in a quiet, measured tone. “Moving it is painful, but that is not exactly unique to my arms at the moment.”

"If you want to play Healer, you're going to need an outfit." From behind her, Emmeline heard the telltale bustle of Hestia Jones and her (extremely) magic bag. "You should probably have dinner first, too. People will talk."

Her words were light, but there wasn't much tease in them. She was in job mode, which Emmeline could well understand. "He had an altercation involving a Death Eater and a ledge. At least one leg is probably a nasty break."

"Okay then." Hestia pulled out some cloth and a few potions bottles. She turned to Regulus now. "Do you want me to shoo the hovering people, or you okay with me doing this here?"

“Here is probably fine,” Regulus responded. His eyes had closed again with a subtle pinch as he shifted.

"Can you tell me where the worst of it's coming from?" Hestia said, moving around to the end of the chaise and moving to take his shoes off. "Did you hit your head at any point?"

“No, managed to break the fall before my head could hit,” he responded, letting out a huff as he opened his eyes again. “I do have a headache, but more from the jolt than any serious impact. My legs got the worst of it.”

"Can you wiggle your toes, or is it too painful?" Hestia prompted.

He paused for a beat, scrunched his face slightly, then shook his head.

"I think the amateur is on the mark, then. I'm going to want a better look, make sure I can't see the bone through the skin before I start working, so you're going to have to disrobe enough that I can see. Arms too - I don't want to start and realise I've got more pieces to work with than I expected and have them heal wrong." Hestia dropped her voice to a slightly conspiratorial whisper. "That offer to shoo still remains."

Face reddening a little, he muttered, “Shooing would be better.”

Hestia nodded. "I'm an excellent shooer, best in my department." She suddenly clasped her hands together. "Right! Sirius, you can go down and inform your mother this is a quiet area. Afterwards, we're going to need a change of clothes, loose and comfortable. Emme, these are particularly disgusting pain potions, so we're going to need some of your continental hot chocolate, cream, the works. It's also better not on an empty stomach, so I think biscuits will not be optional."

"That's not subtle," Emmeline said.

"Let's leave something for the wedding night, shall we?" Hestia replied. "Go on, hurry up. Let's not leave one of our own pain, we're supposed to be the good guys here."

Emmeline pressed her lips into a thin line, "Yell if you need anything?"

With a hint of embarrassment still creeping through his expression, Regulus nodded in response and looked up at the ceiling again, letting out a heavy huff.

With some reluctance, Emmeline cleared the room. She had thought to ask Sirius about what Regulus had even been doing, but out in the hallway, it would be hard to hear over the noise of Walburga Black, the one-woman screaming show. Sirius made an indicator towards going downstairs, and they broke formation as he went to the usual wrestling show while Emmeline headed down to the kitchens.

It took a few deep breaths for her to move on to doing anything at all, let alone the rich, liquid chocolate that had been requested. Her heart was still somewhere around her throat, beating too fast for her liking with the feeling of worry; and the frustrating thing was that she knew she'd feel like that. This was why she wasn't sure she wanted to even attempt to focus their relationship in a non-plantic way, because he was sitting there, a martyr in the making ('fine', he says, with shattered legs, totally fine), and this was another worry she'd be introducing to her already worrisome and hectic life. But...perhaps it didn't matter. Would she feel less for someone simply because the relationship was platonic? If Sturgis or Dedalus had come in the same fashion, would it have hurt any less? Feelings, by and large, were complicated, annoying and persistent, but they were at least consistent. She would care, regardless. She did care regardless.

There wasn't the right sort of chocolate to melt for the right kind of drink, but she hoped she had added enough cream that it wouldn't matter. She hadn't the slightest clue whether Regulus had a sweet tooth or not, but hot chocolate was something she had promised him before, and he'd been amenable.

When she arrived back upstairs, Hestia was coming out of the door and closing it after. "Getting changed," she explained, though she looked a little troubled. Emmeline was about to ask if there was something more seriously wrong, but she shook her head. "We'll talk later. He should stay off that for a day, take it easy for a couple more. Salve three times a day, and don't ingest it."

"Ingest it?" Who would ingest a salve?

"You'd be surprised." Hestia poked her tongue out theatrically but moved along. "I'll check in tomorrow."

Emmeline nodded. She waited until Hestia had gone from sight, counted another minute or so, before knocking as loudly as she felt able without risk of more screaming.

“Come in,” came the muffled reply.

Shoving her wand into her hair, Emmeline shifted the tray to one hand and opened the door. "Tea service?" she laughed. "Well, actually, grossly over-sweet chocolate service."

Regulus had been staring at the ceiling, and there was still a bit of a distant look on his face when he looked over at her, but the hint of a smile was starting to tug at the corner. “Hopefully she was right about it masking the potion’s aftertaste; apparently, it was not an overstatement.”

"I'll do it occasionally for Remus with wolfsbane. If it helps that, you'll be fine. That stuff is stomach churning." Emmeline pulled a table up and set down some of the silverware carefully. "How are your hands?"

“Not terrible,” he responded, looking down at them for a brief moment, then turned his attention back to her. “They started feeling stiff once I’d settled, but the potion’s already helping.”

Emmeline smoothed down her dress so she could sit down onto the floor properly. She really hoped they'd gotten everything weird out of the carpets. "What were you doing?"

“Looking at the photographs I found at our Great Aunt Cassiopeia’s house - the one where Sirius stayed with the kids this summer, in Iago,” Regulus said with a little frown. “I should have looked then, but I wasn’t quite ready to pull at those threads, I suppose.”

"I thought the photograph quest was mine," Emmeline commented. She flicked her wand to begin pouring the viscous liquid into the ridiculously fancy cups. "What was it you had to prepare for?"

“On the tapestry - the burn marks,” Regulus began. “I’d been wondering about them, so I started looking for people I don’t recognise. Surprisingly enough, Phineas was actually rather obliging when I asked after the ones around him, but it’s probably best to keep that between us. I don’t think he fancies being viewed as too cooperative.”

"I rarely have the pleasure," Emmeline replied, dryly. "You haven't broken into the Ministry for their census records, nor Hogwarts for their student lists, so I suppose you haven't gone completely mad with it. What is it you're looking for, in the photographs?"

“Nothing in particular - anything that comes of it,” Regulus said, taking the cup for a slow slip as his eyes flicked around the immediate area. When the cup lowered again, he added, “I think Sirius left the photographs outside.”

As if anything he ever did qualified as 'nothing in particular'. "Would you like me to get them?" Emmeline asked.

He turned his glance over. “If you don’t mind.”

"I'm here to help." Oh, well, that didn't sound ridiculous at all. If she was going to start getting flustered, this was going to make life unbearable. One small mercy was that the tin remained on the inside step, so it had hardly been a chore to leave, grab it, and bring it up.

"My gran has a tin like that," she said, as soon as she set the retrieved tin down beside him.

“Thank you for bringing it up.” He tipped his head at the tin, eyes lingering for a moment before he turned them back to her. “Do you know what your gran keeps in hers?” he asked, taking another small sip of the hot chocolate.

"The last I saw? Sewing supplies. She's crafty. I'm sorry to tell you that I'm not at all." Emmeline put her hand on the tin, and then tapped it lightly. "May I see?"

He nodded, mouth flicking with a little smile. “Of course. I don’t know if they will hold as much interest to you, but you are welcome to have a look.”

“I'd consider myself an expert in your family photography.” Emmeline had gone through an impressive amount of staunch, serious pictures in her quest for something she could determine an embarrassing picture. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Probably,” he answered, pulling off the lid and fitting it neatly underneath. “I think Arthur’s mother is in a few of them - with her sisters.” He thumbed a few photos aside until he came to one with three young women, two with dark hair and the third with blonde hair that stuck out amongst the sea of brunettes in the tin. “I don’t know for certain yet, but it seems likely.”

“Is nothing labelled?” Or were they removed? Emmeline had to admit that as yet, she was still unfamiliar with the nuances of disownment.

“I cannot say for certain. Labeling has been inconsistent. Whatever the original state was, I don’t think Aunt Cass wanted to erase them, or she wouldn’t have kept the photos in her room,” Regulus said, staring hard at the small pile.

It just seemed so sad. It was different to what she'd expected, but even to Emmeline, she had to know not everyone would be furious and ban the people they once loved, or at least were blood relatives of, from their sight. "I realise this is a serious conversation, and you are a little bit medicated, so you can tell me this isn't the moment if you like." It was only fair, as it could be construed as taking advantage. "But it seems to me like, despite their removal from an unofficial, if very historic, document and a dismissive public face, most of the people on that list of burn marks seemed to have people who loved and missed them. Is that not considered a valid choice? Does one action really speak for everyone?"

“That’s a complicated question,” Regulus began, breathing out a heavy sigh and tapping the photo lightly against the lip of the tin. “It does speak for everyone; but it doesn’t necessarily represent everyone.” A brief pause, and then: “You asked what I was looking for, and I suppose that is part of it.”

"What you represent?" Emmeline asked. "Or if anyone else didn't have quite the same desire to slash and burn their bridges?"

“Both, I suppose,” he said with a small, tight smile as he let the photo drop back into the tin. “It all felt very… certain - and final - back then.”

"Everything does when you're young, and it all feels so very out of your control." Not so for Emmeline herself, though she had seen it with others. If anything, the reverse was true for her own childhood. It was all within her control then, and everything had become so uncertain. "I don't know if I can understand what it is that can cause a break of that magnitude within a family, especially when it seems to make people angry and miserable. I know there must be some boundaries, given the fanaticism and murder threats, but I really don't envy the job. Besides the formality, these girls look happy together. It's difficult to imagine that not too long later, they wouldn't be part of each others’ lives, get to know each others’ children, grandchildren, for no reason other than her husband believed in the rights of those who don't have magic. It’s quite tragic, in its own way."

“It is,” he agreed with a frown. “For all that time, I did not feel sorry for them because it seemed they'd done it on purpose… and I did not think it bothered anyone else in the family because it only seemed to make people angry if it came up at all. Anytime I was upset about Sirius, I felt as if I was committing some terrible betrayal.” Again, he looked up at the ceiling with a heavy sigh. “The irony is terribly depressing.”

"It is. I can't believe that all of these people woke up one morning and decided that they didn't want to be a part of their family anymore. There's always more to the story. Given your age at the time, it's not a surprise the complexities were lost on you." Ever the problem of dragging children into it, and now it was happening all over again. She had not joined the Order with the knowledge that she could end some child's life because they were driving themselves to an impossible ideal. "I can see why you want to know their stories. It gives them back a certain measure of the immortality that you get from that tapestry, to have their stories known by what's left of their family. It's how you keep people alive when they're gone, with their words, their pictures, and their hot chocolate recipes."

Turning his eyes to her again, Regulus looked at her for a quiet moment, then nodded. “That is it, exactly…” Pulling over the tin so it was nestled next to him on the lounger, he seemed to busy himself with separating them into two piles. “There was nothing that scared me more than getting erased and forgotten. I don't want to forget them either.”

"That's nothing you have to fear now, is it?" Emmeline said, quietly. "In fact, I believe you've seemingly already survived such an ordeal as being without your given name, and you're still you at the end of it. If the worry is that you are somehow easily erased, that's ridiculously dramatic, which I do expect from you, but also quite foolish."

She took a glance to the doorway, given the discretion at which this secret was unveiled. However, there was something in his demeanor that made it seem like that 'was' afraid was very much an 'is' afraid, and she could set that straight at the very least. "Let’s look at this logically. You are the first person to walk away from the Death Eaters and survive it. The first to uncover the secret of that bastardised immortality. You chose to join the Order of the Phoenix, and to protected those who needed it. You have simply accomplished too much, and been too integral to be at risk of being forgotten. If it's something more personal, a worry of family, or, of that being forgotten, then I'd like to point you to the fact that you very much do have that. It's smaller, more complicated, and different in form than what it perhaps once was, but not something that can be yanked away at a moment’s notice, for the good and the bad. I don't say it as an insult to the memories of these people, but rather to draw your attention to the fact you can't suffer their fate, and though you can't change it, you can, I have no idea, write a book or something someday. You have a slightly terrifying, passionate, varied, and intense family history full of very unique people. It'd be fascinating."

He thumbed at the photos for a silent beat, his expression pulled to a thoughtful focus. “That would be some book.” He looked over at her, then, and when his mouth flickered at the corner, it reached his eyes, too, despite the twinge of sadness lingering. He picked up a photo from one of the piles - a little boy, maybe five years. “There are yet more holes to fill.”

"Not for now. For now, you're resting," Emmeline reminded him as she raised her cup. "Are you one of these people who are difficult if they're ill or injured?"

Regulus tipped his head. “I suppose it depends on how you define ‘difficult’.”

Not a terribly good sign. "Do you argue about the need for rest, resist rest, do explicitly the opposite of what the Healer has told you, and stop taking potions before you're supposed to because even though there's still pain, you want to be a bit of a martyr about it?"

“Only when it’s important,” he settled. “With that being said, there are more meaningful things to martyr oneself for than broken legs, so I will make an effort to comply with the given instructions. Encroachment though it might be, at least it is only a few days.”

"Find a good book, and be a gentleman of leisure with it," Emmeline replied, approvingly.

“I do love a good book.” Regulus smiled again, meeting her eyes as he took another sip of his hot chocolate. “Do you have any recommendations that you would like to put forth?”

“Fictional or factual?” Emmeline asked. Most of her reading these days involved buying books and saying she’d get around to reading them, then delving into textbooks and old works instead to look for Order-related work. “Or muggle, which is usually a mix of both. Or perhaps totally factual, and no one’s thought to corroborate it magically.”

“Lupin once said something of the sort, about the mix...” he said, setting down the cup again with a soft clink. “I’ve no significant preference at the moment. I was investigating additional wards and protective spells, but it’s probably best I keep the serious casting until after the potions have run their course.”

"Remus would know; you should see some of the werewolf books. Perhaps something a bit less serious," Emmeline suggested, the hypocrite that she was. "Bawdrip's got one about spells that were invented when they were looking to try and invent something else. It gives me hope one day Experimental Charms will have a reason for existing that isn't turning half of Archival Administration into large, gooseberry shapes."

His mouth tugged up into a little smile. “Bawdrip, it is, then.”

Chapter Text

With a brood of Weasleys expected to descend upon the Order headquarters, it was of no surprise to hear a massive commotion on Friday morning. However, when Emmeline managed to emerge long enough to track down the noise, she was met with a different yet altogether welcome surprise. Standing on the second floor landing was Remus Lupin, looking somewhat shabbier and skinnier than usual, but also quite content chatting with Sirius, who was extraordinarily animated for this time of the day. She did a little calculating in her head: two days since the last full, moon. A little more scratched up as well, she imagined, though he had always hidden that aspect well before wolfsbane.

“Good morning,” Emmeline said, by way of greeting.

Remus turned around to face her with a large, if tired, smile. “Still here, then?”

“Trying to find a good magical place in London without worrying about having it burnt down is every bit as annoying as I recalled,” Emmeline replied, taking the few requisite steps down to give him a quick, one-armed hug. “Is this a visit, or are you done?”

“Done for now.” Something he looked very relieved about. “I may have to return later, but the resource is currently exhausted.”

“It’s not the only one,” Sirius said. He gave Remus a poke to the shoulder. “You should grab some sleep before the kids get here.”

“I’m fine,” Remus yawned. No one should ever put him or Regulus in a position to be gravely injured. They would both insist they were fine until one or the other drops dead first. “A long soak would not go amiss.”

“You know where the bathrooms are,” Sirius replied.

“I do, but I got accosted outside of it before I could.” He didn’t seem as if he minded too much, though.

“Alright, fine.” Sirius held up his hands. “I should make sure Harry’s up before everyone gets here.”

“I think I’ll invest in some coffee,” Emmeline said, leaving the two still talking on the landing as if they hadn’t both decided they should be doing something else.

As the drawing room door was still ajar, she poked her head in to confirm her suspicions. “If that’s not you relaxing-studying rather than study-studying, should I be chiding you?”

Regulus met her eyes with the hint of a smile, then held up the book in question to reveal that he was nearly to the end of Weaving Wards and Other Protective Spells. “Guilty - but in my defense, I read Bawdrip yesterday.”

"I see drastic measures need to be taken," Emmeline said. She wanted to seem stern but knew the smile threatening her was probably messing with any attempt to devote to her scowl. "I wasn't planning on going until my birthday, if only to run away from a truly terrible 'surprise' party that's sure to occur, but I'm happy to adjust my schedule. Do you still want to attempt to camp with me?"

“I do,” Regulus confirmed with a little nod, letting the book settle on his lap again. “Everything seems to be going as planned as far as recovery goes, so that should not be a concern. What day would be best?”

Emmeline brightened for the second time that morning. "I was thinking during the week, as it would be less crowded. I did a little research, and the best option without a large body of water required to be near is a forest in the Scottish highlands. You can see the swirl of galaxies without the need of anything; you just look up, and this time of year, you can often see the Northern Lights, which would be lovely."

“Lovely, indeed,” he agreed with a smile. “I trust it will live up to the months of suspense.”

"Oh, I haven't even started suspense yet. You just wait." Emmeline looked back out into the hallway, wondering if that was Remus coming out already or the shuffling grint of a half-asleep teenager. Or it could also be Harry. "That's Remus back, if you didn't hear him. I'm going to guess he used the floo or is more adept at entering quietly than most."

“I’ve found that he typically is,” Regulus said approvingly. “It has been a while. Sirius is pleased, no doubt.”

"Quite excitable for the morning," Emmeline agreed. "Though I know I had no way of knowing about the whole animagi business, I'm a little disappointed in myself for not noticing. In retrospect, he does act a little my old neighbours Yorkshire terrier whenever someone or something new enters the place.”

“I expect you took the news better than I did,” Regulus said wryly, shaking his head.

"I'd take that bet," Emmeline replied. She couldn't help the sudden wince when she thought about Peter. He had to have been involved with Marlene’s death; the timing was too circumspect, and it was her home and her entire family. It was enough to make her stomach turn. "The revelation had the secondary side-effect of realising I'd likely been attending memorials and sending cards to the person responsible for my dearest friends’ murders, let alone Lily or James or everyone's life that got torn asunder for a peace that couldn't last. I did not take that well."

Pressing his lips to a thin line, Regulus nodded. “It came as a surprise to me; I can only imagine what a shock it must have been to all of you.”

"Everyone except Kingsley. It was the information he'd been missing." Emmeline sighed wholeheartedly. Had it really been over a year since that? "I feel much the same these days. If people are going go around doing things that put them on my mortal enemy list, I'd like it to be accurate. Don’t you?"

Regulus nodded, mouth set with certainty. “That is my preference, as well. Vengeance is much more difficult when you don’t know who to direct it towards.”

"Perhaps one day, when we're not about to be overrun by teenagers, we can compare notes," Emmeline said. "I wouldn't be surprised by duplicate names."

“Neither would I, these days,” Regulus responded with a dry huff. “That time is coming up, soon enough.”

“Doubtless that Remus's return will help ease some of the concerns about Sunday morning, though. Tonks said she'd keep an eye on the train," Emmeline replied.

“That ought to help - in both cases.” Regulus nodded thoughtfully. “It's a potentially vulnerable time, knowing that Harry will certainly be there.”

“It’s a Ministry escort,” Emmeline said, with a huff of laughter. “I find the automobiles a little claustrophobic.”

“I suppose I’m not missing out on much, then,” came his dry response, mouth quirking a little.

“I fully expect Sturgis to drag you into one of them at some point,” Emmeline said, dismissively. “You can’t do worse than Mr. Bones - Edgar, he started screeching about combustible engines and infernal contraptions. It was quite safe. It used to be Fabian Prewett would test Sturgis and Gideon’s work. Oh, and Sturgis has promised he’ll give me that pensieve camera when he’s done some tests, so when he does, you can grill him as to how it all works. I haven’t the foggiest. I just want some pictures of you camping for posterity.”

“How am I supposed to vehemently deny I’ve gone on a camping trip if there are pictures?” he asked with a subtle (but no less dramatic) sweep of his hand.

"Two steps ahead of you there." Emmeline smiled. "If I were more akin to villainy, this is where I would be introducing a maniacal laugh."

“A quiet demeanor does not fool me. I’m inclined to believe the maniacal laugh is merely implied,” he quipped back.

Emmeline put her finger to her lips. "Do not blow my cover."

“Should the photographs be undignified, I can promise you no such thing.”

Regulus was propped on the drawing room lounger later that morning, a pair of crutches leaned against the side; yet instead of using them, he had his wand in hand, swishing books back and forth from the nearest bookshelf; he had been doing so for the past few minutes, but he could not settle on the entertainment for this last stretch of recovery. Helpful though the crutches were, he did not much like the indignity of hobbling, and he was relieved that each passing day took him closer to moving about freely. Tomorrow, he ought to be rid of them, but he didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to gripe at him for not following ‘the healer’s instructions’ when magic suited just as well. He’d done very little in the past few days, which was normally a blessing. Finding a quiet space to read was one of the great joys in life, but something about being restricted to it damaged some of the fun in it.

The pain was lessening - and with it, the potion dosages - though he was starting to feel the stiffness and occasional sharp twinges as his dull haze was whittled away. Hestia had checked in briefly, albeit a bit uncomfortably, he thought. She'd seen the Mark on his arm as she tended the burn blistering his arm. Regulus had insisted he could apply the salve himself, and he wondered if she perhaps wished she had allowed him to do so. Although he expected they must realise it was there, in moments like that, he wondered if it was possible they did not. He had felt no compulsion to bring it up, and he was admittedly unclear about what they did or did not know about the process of becoming a Death Eater, even now.

When a flicker of movement drew his eyes to the doorway, Regulus brushed off the thought. “Welcome back.”

"Hello," said the familiar tones of Remus Lupin, who poked his head through the door. He appeared pale, with some fresh red streaks that could be scarring but he didn't seem particularly bothered by it. Instead, he indicated Regulus himself. "I heard you were the walking wounded. Or rather, the not-walking wounded. I'm surprised you don't have a canine companion unwilling to leave your side."

“I suppose he figures I am not going anywhere at the moment,” Regulus responded. “Or all of the reading bored him. Perhaps both.”

Remus made a glance around the room. "Or he's got Harry's cloak. A bit of a down side to him being here."

“That is so unsettling.” Scrunching his face, Regulus, too, glanced around the room. Wryly, he added, “Though I cannot decide if it is more, less, or equally unsettling when compared with the map you all apparently used to spy on everyone in school. I’m noticing a theme.”

"Oh, seen that, have you?" Remus didn't seem particularly apologetic about it. If anything, he looked a little proud. "I don't know how much of what we did counts as spying, so much as making sure the coast was clear. Perhaps we ought to have thought to look at what everyone else was doing, but we were too carried away with ourselves."

Regulus would have thought of it immediately, he knew, but decided not to say as much. For that matter, it would have made sneaking off to the Restricted Section markably easier, too.

“Indeed,” Regulus commented instead. Stubbornly, he fought the temptation to let his mind wander down the trail of personally-offensive mischief that Sirius and his friends would have been clearing their coasts for. Pushing his mind forward and past, he added, “Harry seems to enjoy it.”

"As I understand it, the cloak is the only family heirloom he has access to. It's very old, his great grandfather's at the least." Remus gestured around the room. "I'd think you'd know something about how attached people can get to those things."

“I would,” Regulus agreed with his mouth slanting up slightly. “It must have been a high-quality cloak. I did not think they maintained invisibility for that long, unless it was recharmed along the way.”

"Dumbledore said as much," Remus confirmed. "As long as he's not being malicious with it, there's little harm in Harry using it. Other than the occasional stalking."

“Occasional stalking of Draco seems to be the common way of it,” Regulus said, though it immediately stung to think of Narcissa’s son. Spying on Draco could become problematic if Harry was hidden from sight effectively, especially now that Draco had involved himself with the Death Eaters, but that was a concern that went beyond the convenience of an invisibility cloak. “Even so, it does seem harmless enough.”

"They take turns. Draco stalked him last year, so it's his go now," Remus said. He leaned against the doorway, perhaps betraying some fatigue. "If that's the only trouble he gets into this year, we can all sigh with relief and get on with things."

“I suppose we shall see if he can manage as much,” Regulus agreed, eyeing him for a moment. “You are welcome to sit down, by the way.”

Remus hesitated. "I don't want to intrude. I have no doubt you've had more people than you'd like crowding your space lately."

“How refreshingly considerate,” Regulus said, though he had not minded the majority of the social interactions as of late, if he was honest. The house was bound to get much more chaotic when the children arrived again. “You are welcome to do whatever suits you. I’m merely book-browsing.” He held up the one in his hand - a book detailing the known history of various colonies of Merfolk and the artifacts that came from wizarding contact - then set it down again.

"Living without the social niceties for a while makes you appreciate them more." Remus smiled tightly. "It's funny how much can change in a month. Are you aware there appears to be a tent in your dining room?"

“Ah - yes. There is,” Regulus said as he felt a little leap in his chest.

"Brilliant," Remus nodded, more to himself than Regulus. "I was wondering if I'd been given spiked hot chocolate, but I feel reasonably confident if you've also seen it, it's not imaginary."

“I became aware of it prior to the administration of pain potions, so I do believe we can say with some confidence that it is real,” Regulus remarked as he sent the book on merfolk back to the shelf with a flick of his wand and summoned another from the shelf to replace it.

"Good choice," Remus said with approval. "Most written viewpoints on Merfolk are written by people running away from them, so they're not what you'd call accurate. I can recommend some if it's something you're interested in."

“I have not decided what I am interested in this morning,” Regulus admitted, “but I am continuing to accept recommendations, nonetheless.”

"Because you're unsure when you'll be interrupted by the stomping boots of several teenagers?" Remus asked.

“From what I hear, it could happen at any moment.” Regulus glanced down, as if to peer through the wooden flooring. “I expect it to be a noisy affair.”

"I heard that Tonks is escorting them, so I fully expect your mother's portrait to greet them promptly." Remus gave a small huff of laughter. "She may come back for the farewell business tomorrow, as she's more inconspicuous than the rest of us for Sunday morning. I also believe she has once ridden in a car so won't gape at it."

“Emmeline was saying as much earlier this morning,” Regulus commented with a nod, “in respect to both Tonks and the car.”

"I did forget you had an in house news system," Remus replied. "Perhaps I should be asking you what's going on."

Regulus’s mouth curved up slightly. “She's typically thorough, but I would rather hear it twice than not at all.”

"I believe you." Finally, Remus appeared to make a decision and wandered into the room. He sat down gingerly on the chair, heaving a sigh as he sunk into the comfortable surroundings. "You can ask if there are things you want to know. I'm sure one of us knows, or can point you in the right direction. Like the, er, misnamed Ravenclaw Rebellion, we do try to work collaboratively and appreciate fresh eyes when they want to engage."

Regulus tipped his head in a nod. “I must admit it is a less aggressive environment than I once anticipated. The willingness is appreciated.”

Remus nodded in response. "I wouldn't like you believe you were being purposefully excluded."

“It has gotten better, in that respect,” Regulus admitted, though the cost of those improvements did become more and more evident any time he thought about Draco and Narcissa. “This summer has been a strange one, to say the least.”

“In light of your upcoming work with the Ministry,” Remus started quietly, as if he were unsure if it was his place to ask. “Have you chosen whether or not to report being attacked?”

Twisting his mouth, Regulus paused for a beat before nodding. “It’s probably best to have it on record. Tonks or Kingsley seem like they would be best options.”

"They are both highly capable," Remus agreed. "The more evidence you have, the better it'll be. Scrimgeour may not be Fudge, but the Ministry isn't an easy thing to predict. Umbridge has returned to her post."

Regulus wrinkled his nose. “Indeed. I do not wish to take my chances. A pardon seems like the sort of thing that would be difficult to just ‘try again later.’”

"Speak to Dedalus the next time he's here," Remus recommended, with a pinched expression. "Dumbledore will come in and say his piece, but he doesn't prepare. He just does it. That's what happened before. You will probably want the preparation time."

With a nod and a well-resisted sigh, Regulus acknowledged to himself that he could not keep pushing it off, especially if the Death Eaters were no longer sparing him their aggression. If they wished to make a fight of it, there was even less benefit to sitting on his ticket out of prison. Physical damage was not the only weapon they had; truthfully, Regulus would argue that their information was a greater danger.

“Preparation, yes,” Regulus echoed. “It’s a delicate situation to try to convey.”

"That it was for a limited period a long time ago will help." Remus gave a huff. "Believe it or not, being around Harry is going to do the most help. He's not very happy with them, a situation they'd like to remedy, and while it's not the most comfortable thing to consider, you have more possible strings being pulled there than most in favour of your ability to have a record wiped clean."

“That suits me just as well,” Regulus admitted; connection to Harry had been mentioned before, and though it had not been his original intention for getting along with Sirius’s godson, he would not complain about the benefits, either. “Whatever helps convince them.”

"Dumbledore has always tightly regulated access to Harry, even if Sirius seems to be deciding to run with what he thinks is best for now. I'm sure Dumbledore is just letting them get some time together." Remus gave an uncomfortable smile. "I believe Sirius saw him again before I did. I don't believe he's ever gone to anyone else's home but the Burrow, either."

“Really?” Regulus slanted his mouth in thought. “That is rather limited. No wonder Harry was so delighted about the beach.”

"You heard about Frank and Alice. Harry is protected by his blood, but no chances have been taken whenever possible. No one is allowed near him without Dumbledore's trust in them." Remus gave a light shrug. "Being around him so consistently does speak volumes."

It was strangely reassuring, though it had felt more like a matter of necessity, considering this house belonged to Regulus; coming to visit Sirius or coming for Order-related meetings along with his friends would naturally set up the situation as such. However, Remus sounded sincere enough about it, and he supposed there would have been other options for Harry to do either of those things, were Regulus considered to be too terribly untrustworthy. “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

Eyeing Remus’s tired expression, Regulus added, “Do you have anything set out, now that you are back? Or will you be enjoying the opportunity to relax?”

"I'm going to try and get everyone's patronuses corporeal. The amount of dementor attacks has been worrying." Remus grinned fleetingly. "Without Harry in the house, I may even keep Sirius's attention for it for more than ten minutes."

“That ought to improve your odds significantly, yes,” Regulus said with a little lift at the corner of his mouth. “It helps to know your audience.”

"If I were doing that, I would only have to point out that you're fully capable of doing it and he isn't," Remus replied slyly. "I'd guarantee he'd be doing it until he got it down for the rest of the day."

At that, Regulus’s mouth turned up with more noticeable amusement, the mental image as clear as crystal. “Motivation is a remarkable thing.”

Remus smiled, though it turned into a yawn. "Excuse me," he apologised. "A few months without wolfsbane has played havoc with me."

“I can only imagine.” Truthfully, Regulus did not really want to imagine the mild-mannered Remus Lupin, stuck roaming around with a pack of feral werewolves, cut off from comfort and civilisation. “If you would like to go rest, there will be plenty of time to resume discussions later.”

Downstairs, there was a sudden and unmistakable crack. "I believe Tonks has arrived," Remus saids dryly. "She has my house keys, so I had better retrieve them while we are all still able to hear ourselves speak."

“Fortunate timing.” Remus looked just a little bit uncomfortable as he stood, though he seemed to be visibly attempting to hide it, so Regulus did not comment further.

After their polite goodbyes were exchanged, Regulus watched him disappear back out into the wallway, then looked back to the books. Time for his search to resume.

The telltale cries of Walburga Black drew Sirius's attention from the downstairs landing. He could hear talking, likely Remus and Regulus discussing books or messy habits or whatever it is those two talked about over tea and biscuits, but had not wanted to interrupt. The desire to hover over his brother was conflicting with the fact that Regulus seemed to have long periods of calm, doing very little that was exciting or dangerous, and then all of a sudden, wallop! He gets himself into trouble. Usually at the exact moment Sirius has turned away, making him feel foolish for not expecting it. He's lucky it wasn't worse.

Harry beat him down the stairs, which was of no surprise. By the time Sirius himself had sauntered slowly to the ground floor, Tonks had taken on his mother and the curtains, and Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Ginny were shouting over the noise. It took Mrs. Weasley shushing them, moments after the portrait went silent, for them not to set her off again. They filed down to the kitchen with brief waves and spilled out into the basement. Kreacher had been poking about; the sound of him disapparating echoed the moment Hermione showed up. He'd never found someone so obsessive about wanting to talk to house-elves that house-elves were deeply disturbed by her.

“Good rest of the summer?” Sirius asked, shutting the door behind Ginny so they could talk without an elfish eavesdropper.

“Yeah, it's been decent,” Ron replied. He and Harry seemed to be in a contest for who could grow more in a short space of time.

“Except for her,” Ginny replied, darkly.

“Ginny,” Mrs. Weasley said, from where she appeared to be taking on the role of a meal without thinking of it. It was a mother tone; not his own mother’s, of course - she had no concept of volume control - but he'd heard it enough elsewhere. Danger ahead.

Ginny gave her mother a smile much too wide to be real, then mouthed later. Okay, then. He could deal with a little family dramatics. They were his bread and butter, after all.

“How has everything been here?” Hermione asked, before she released the ginger cat from her luggage. He didn't look too pleased about having been in there, giving her an indignant look before going to have a good sniff about.

“Few minor incidents, nothing important.” Sirius waved them off.

“Aside from Malfoy,” Harry muttered.

None of them looked surprised by it, so clearly Harry had told them when he went there. He could understand the irritation. Sirius didn't like having his space invaded either.

“What did he want?” Hermione asked, looking genuinely confused.

“He wanted to snoop around,” Sirius replied. “It was better to let him, and 'see' there's nothing here. He did get more nosey than he should've and ran into one of Regulus's little traps the twins were mucking about with last summer. How're they doing?”

“Wonderfully!” Mrs. Weasley replied. “They're so busy these days. You'll have to see the shop.”

“You weren't with us last time?” Ron asked.

“I swear, you have the observational ability of a dungbeetle sometimes,” Hermione replied.

“No, Harry was with you lot,” Sirius said. “I was sure any Death Eaters were going to bite off more than they could chew if they tried anything.” They noticeably preened at the statement. “I had to keep an eye on my idiot brother, who gets himself into trouble when he's left to his own devices for too long. I do want to see it, though. I've heard great things.”

“It's not any better when they're older brothers,” Ginny said, sweetly. Ron tossed one of the bags of what looked like sweets at her, and she caught it with ease.

“She's after your position, mate,” Ron replied.

“I'll take any spot,” Ginny replied, coolly. “Is Tonks coming back down?”

“I'm not sure,” Sirius said. It was likely she'd gone in search of further awkward interactions with Remus. “Remus is upstairs, so she probably went to see him. He's only just back.”

“Is he going away again?” Hermione said, worriedly.

“Not for a bit,” Sirius said, in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. He didn't feel all that reassured himself. “He's done all he can with the ferals. It'll pay off later.” He almost added 'we hope', but it'd have undercut his calm. “Besides, they've managed to get the Ministry signing off on Tonks as your Ministry escort for Sunday morning, so she'll be here for that.”

“Is that why we're going from here?” Ginny asked.

Sirius nodded.

“Who all's going?” Harry asked. Perhaps he was a bit worried about making a spectacle of himself, even more than he normally would just by being him.

“Me, and Tonks, and Remus with Kingsley on hand if things get out of control,” Sirius listed off. “Regulus will stay here, because one Death Eater run in a week is my limit for him.”

“He was in a duel?” Hermione gasped. He'd almost forgotten they'd spent half of last summer being swotty together in the library.

“He's fine,” Sirius said. “Some shattered bones, Hestia Jones – she's a healer – she's already been here and sorted it. He’s just needed to be careful for a few days.”

“Arthur's been so intense about the precautions,” Molly said, mournfully. She turned to look at the children with a creased brow. “Everyone's in so much danger now. You will all be careful at school, won't you?”

“It's not as if we go looking for trouble,” Ron protested.

Harry added, “It just seems to find us.”

The next day ushered in a sense of freedom for Regulus, clearing him to wander at will, and with that freedom, he had steeled himself to send Deimos out into the world with a letter for his Great Aunt Callidora. Although Regulus had told himself that the delay was purely because he did not want to say anything strange with potions fogging his mind, in truth, he still did not know how she was going to react to him reaching out. Even when he was a child, surrounded by the myriad branches of his family, Callidora had never remained close with the rest of them after she was married into the Longbottom family. Weddings and funerals and societal events that she would have attended anyway were reliable enough, but rarely did she show up for anything beyond that.

Callidora’s response was cordial and obliging, though he wondered how well informed she was in respect to the summer dramatics - or even to his living status, though she said nothing blatant in her letter. An invitation to her home in Yorkshire was extended for the following day, and when he arrived with select photographs slipped neatly into his pocket, he paused a moment to let his eyes graze over the pale brick, reaching up for two levels. Fleetingly, he thought that he had never visited her house before. Her husband Harfang Longbottom had passed two years before Regulus’s mother had - he had seen as much on the tree - but he knew little beyond that.

When the door opened, Regulus was greeted with an old house-elf who ushered him inside. They passed a sitting area and a number of pictures - some he recognised vaguely, some he did not - and through to a door that led them back outside again, this time to a patio where Callidora was sipping a cup of tea and reading the day’s Prophet. Upon hearing the door, she glanced up and closed the newspaper in a neat fold. Her manner was prim, as he would expect, and her eyes flicked from his feet up to his face again.

“You are much taller than I remember,” she said wryly, and when he stared at her for a silent beat, she gestured to the chair across from her, white-painted metal twisted in an intricate design. “Take a seat. Dippa, fetch some tea for our our guest. You do take tea, don’t you?”

“Yes, thank you,” Regulus said, glancing first at the elf, then settling in the chair.

“I must say your letter was a surprise. Lovely colouring on your owl, by the way.”

“Thank you,” he said again, thinking that for all his mental preparation, he felt less prepared for the small talk than he was for the gut-wrenching dragging up of old wounds. Perhaps it was all the practice with the latter, as of late. “He was a birthday gift.”

“Stunning, if a bit vocal. I will admit that word of your visit to Iago long preceded your letter, so it was not as jarring a surprise as it might’ve been, but what brings you out to Yorkshire?” she asked keenly as she took a sip of her tea.

The house-elf cracked into being just next to him, setting on the table a fresh pot of tea.

“Family,” Regulus began, his face taking on a thoughtful expression, and he saw the look in his great aunt’s face sharpen slightly. “So many of them are gone now. When I was in Iago, I went by Aunt Cassiopeia’s house by the water, and she had some photographs I found to be curious,” he continued, hazing the timelines a little with a careful - but nonetheless even - tone.

“Oh?” At the mention of Cassiopeia, her manner softened, if only a little. Perhaps they had been close, though he couldn’t really think of any human his Aunt Cass had been close to. Perhaps it was to do with Callidora’s absence, or perhaps it was pity. He did recall a general air of agreement that Cass was a little bit batty.

“I beg your pardon if I am over-stepping, but…” He pulled out the photographs from his pocket: copies, all of them, in case something were to happen, or in case Callidora wanted them by some chance. “Are these photographs of you and your sisters? Charis and Cedrella?”

She did not seem to expect him to say the name, based on her subtle recoil, but it was sadness he saw in the taught lines of her face - not anger.

“You know her name?” was all Callidora said, though her tone was hard to read.

For a moment, Regulus hesitated, watching for any sign of a bite in her manner, but if he had to assign an interpretation, she seemed to be entertaining something like curiosity. “I spoke briefly with her son. One of them, I suppose.”

“You did, did you?” She lifted an eyebrow, though her expression remained otherwise impassive. “No wonder the rumours are so unflattering. I do not think your mother would have liked that very much.”

“No, certainly not,” Regulus said with his tone held still against the tension twisting in his chest. There was no accusation in her tone, but it still took a stuttering moment to drum up the rest of his response. “I know very little about what happened and even less about how you might have felt about it… but it was difficult for me when Sirius was disowned. Presumptuous though it might be, I thought to share the photographs I found, by chance that they might be meaningful. There has been a great deal of loss - for everyone.”

Callidora slowly picked up the picture, eyes locked on the three young women huddled together for their pose. “So much loss,” she agreed in muted tones, something changing again in the subtle movement of her face. “Cedrella was such a fool for that boy. She tried arguing it, that he was just as pure as any other matches they could direct her to, but you know well who won that debate.”

“You can keep them, if you’d like,” Regulus offered, though he was half-worried he might break her nostalgic spell by speaking.

For a moment, Callidora did not look up, but she did nod. “You are surprisingly thoughtful.”

Regulus thought it was a bit much to call it ‘surprisingly,’ but he bit his tongue. After another beat, she lifted her head and spoke again.

“It does not bother you, her indiscretions with a blood traitor?” Callidora asked, her voice still measured as she watched his eyes.

“Does it not bother you? You are still listed on the tree, so you could not have been in favour,” he said, perhaps a bit bluntly. Though it had become abundantly clear that the tree was a much less reliable indication than he once thought, it served to pull out a response, as he’d thought it might.

“I was wounded by her choice, but perspective can play a remarkable role. You were already missing by then, but it was your cousin Bellatrix, a Black, who participated in the torture of my nephew Frank and his wife. One of the Fawley girls.” Something fierce had lit behind her eyes, and though his own face was still as stone, he held that look. “A line was drawn somewhere, but I don’t know that the line truly even knows where it is anymore if two respectable and successful purebloods can be tortured so carelessly. It could have been Cedrella and her husband, had they more grit to them. No remorse.”

“Have you ever said anything of the sort?” The words sounded like a challenge on his tongue, despite his calm tone. He could see her bristle, but he steeled himself against retracting them.

“To what end?” she asked stiffly.

“Drawing attention to the hypocrisy,” Regulus offered, though it sounded naive even to his own ears, in light of all the terrible responses that kept beating up against his attempts. Her expression suggested it sounded similarly to her ears, as well. “I realise that a single voice may sound foolish against the din of whatever everyone had thought for such a long time… I only mean to say that I once aligned every thought in my mind with such an expectation. You spoke of perspective, and I suppose I have experienced a fair few doses of that, myself. It makes me wonder who else might feel the same.”


Her eyes lowered to the thin stack of photographs still faced downwards beneath his fingers. “What are those?” she asked.

Regulus picked up the pictures and flipped them to face her. “These were at Aunt Callidora’s, too. I did not recognise him as showing up in any of the portraits or pictures I’ve ever seen, so I wondered if it was perhaps her little brother. There’s a burn mark next to her name, between her and Dorea.”

If it was possible, Callidora’s expression pinched more painfully as her eyes locked in on the little boy, no older than seven in any of the photographs.

“Marius,” she said tightly.

Marius. “What happened?”

“He was a squib,” she answered a little distantly. “He died.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in as Regulus stared at her, a little dumbly, but she had not yet looked up from the picture of the little boy. “Died?” he echoed, though the word felt clumsy. He wanted to ask how it happened, when it happened, but his mouth would not cooperate.

“Marius appeared to be a late bloomer, you could say, later than any Black in known - or at least catalogued - memory. The same happened with our Neville: treating the child carelessly, permitting or even contriving dangerous situations, leaving cabinets unlocked that even a magical child ought not be permitted to risk, no matter how reliable their uncontrolled magic ought to be in protecting them.” Callidora’s voice had gone cold, yet it was as weightless as the drifting snow. “I tried not to think too hard about it, at the time. No one talked about what had happened, save for the spreading confirmation that he was a squib, accompanied by the scorched spot on the family tapestry. Cass took it the hardest.”

“Does that mean they killed him?” Regulus asked hollowly, feeling his stomach drop.

“Not directly, I suppose. They didn’t cast a curse or bust his head open, if that is what you mean, though Cass said to me once that they might as well have.” There was something a little harder in her tone, like it was someone else talking, but she spoke on, “I cannot say if she snapped or was merely playing at willful madness, but she got a bit odd, after that.”

“Her brother was dead,” was all he could say at first. Flashing across his mind, he saw Sirius and Bella hurling curses at each other, and with a sudden lurch, he felt ill. “How old was he?”

“Turning seven, that year,” Callidora answered, and her face had split a little now, turning down into a deepening frown.

Turning seven - had he still been six, or did she mean it in a general sense? It didn’t matter really, for the returning lurch. Regulus anchored an elbow on the table to pressed arched fingers against his closed eyes, though it did little for the mounting pressure. Merlin alive, there weren’t any pictures older than seven because he didn’t live past seven-

“Are you okay?” she asked, and her voice was a little bit gentler for a moment as she shed the drier tones. “Perhaps I should not have been so blunt. I assumed…” She shook her head, as if to brush off whatever her trailing thoughts had been.

He smelled the steaming tea beneath his nose before he saw it, but when he moved his fingers to open his eyes, there was the cup. A blue outline of some sort of flower spread itself all over the white surface, and for a moment, he stared at the flowed so that he didn’t have to look at anything else.

Callidora didn’t ask him again if he was okay. Instead, she took a slow drink from her own cup and looked out at the garden, her hand resting on the folded up Prophet as if she was considering whether to open it up again.

Regulus thought it might have been better if she did, even if it would be considered poor manners. He was worried she might ask him to speak if he looked up, but when he, too, turned his eyes to the garden, still coloured with the late summer blooms, no further inquiry of any sort came.

That realisation was accompanied by a flood of relief, if it could be called that. His mind reeled with flashes of his family, with names and faces that were each jarringly familiar. Squib or not, a child had died in their care, covered up and written off as a charred smudge on the tapestry. Regulus had heard of no public squib blemish, so it was unlikely that the scandal had spread beyond the family, particularly with it being that recent. He'd always her the insistence that Blacks did not have squibs in their line, without exception. Seemingly, that was true in the same way that they did not have Weasleys or Tonkses in their line.

The little boy - Marius - had just vanished. How many had mourned him? Did they just pick up and move on? Were they relieved to be rid of the shame?

Again, Regulus’s stomach turned. Those who were strong would persist and survive - a sentiment not always said but always felt. Those who were not would be burned away and trimmed, swallowed by their fate. Forgotten.

Though he had asked to know, for a moment, Regulus almost wished he could scrub it from his mind, could un-hear the uncomfortable implications that crawled over his skin in little bumps.

In silence, they sipped their tea.

It was late into the afternoon on Saturday when the door opened without the usual screeches of Sirius's own dear mother. The most likely event in this case was that Regulus had returned from his little outing to see his - great aunt? Cousin however removed? Sure enough, a glance over the bannister found Regulus doing his usual routine upon re-entering the house. A bit stiffly, perhaps. It was possible the meeting hadn't gone well. Either Callidora was not so obliging in person so much as accustory, or Regulus hadn't dealt well with going out again this soon after the attack. If anything, it reminded him they needed to set up a better failsafe, not to mention something for the imperius. Perhaps he was simply lost in glorious contemplation about the most noble house, but something niggled that this probably wasn't the reaction of that.

"You look terrible," Sirius informed him, as loudly as he dared without awakening the portrait.

Regulus glanced up, pausing only briefly before he started up the stairs to the first landing.

For a brief moment, Sirius ran through the possibilities. He hadn't done anything to upset him lately, not that he knew of. There was the actual possibility of imperius, but Regulus did train against it, so hopefully not. He settled on merely asking, "Are you alright?"

“I’m not hurt... Just thinking,” Regulus dismissed vaguely with a frown, pausing for a lingering second before turning to walk into the drawing room.

Sirius opened his mouth to quip about how painful it looked, and recommending he not do that anymore. However, it would have fell on an empty landing as Regulus disappeared into the room at the end of the landing. Sirius followed, now more curious about it. Perhaps he'd gotten some of the answers to the missing names, and he wanted to look at the tree.

In line with his suspicion, Regulus stopped in front of the sprawling family tapestry. Briefly, he glanced back at Sirius, meeting his eyes for a beat before looking back to the front to stare hard at something.

“What?” Sirius asked, bordering on terse now from irritation. “It’s the same thing you stare at all the time.”

Pinching his expression, Regulus folded his arms across his chest. “Aunt Callidora told me about the photos I found the other day. The ones Aunt Cass had at Iago. Cedrella was within my expectations, but…” For a second, it seemed as though Regulus might go quiet again, but just as the silence was starting to settle, he continued, “Did you know there was a squib in our grandparents’ generation?” This time, Regulus tapped the charred spot between Cassiopeia and Dorea.

"We discussed it at length during all of those long, deep, and heartfelt conversations I had with our grandparents." It stood reason enough; almost all magical families had one or two, even if they didn't admit it. There was nothing wrong with it. Some of the best things came from people who didn't have magic.

“If you don't care about what I'm saying, by all means, go back to whatever it is you were doing,” Regulus said with a sudden tightness in his tone, though his gaze did not waver from the spot.

"It was a daft question." Sirius shrugged forcibly. If he didn't look quite so distressed, Sirius'd have snapped at him by now. "How would I know that? The official stance has always been we don't have any squibs, which is ridiculous; all magical families do. Where do you think muggles came from?"

“I really - don’t care where muggles came from, right now.” Regulus’s tone still had a strange, sharp quality to it, his expression frozen if not angry. “The point I’m trying to make is that this child,” - he pulled out one of the pictures from his pocket without actually looking at it - “doesn’t have any photographs past this age because that is when he died. She said it probably wasn’t the intended result, but - I just - I don’t know what to do with that, so if you could bite back the sarcasm for a moment, I would really appreciate it.”

Now they were getting somewhere. This would have been this house their grandfather had lived here as a child, and this would have been his younger sibling. Their grandfather must have loved that, having a squib for a brother. Half of their dramatic genes came from that side of the family, as their mother well attested, and no way they took that one well. "Intended result of what?"

“I don’t know; she did not specify outright, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for details - if she even knew them.” Regulus folded his arms again, the picture tucking up under. “She only indicated that he was put in harm’s way on more than one occasion, perhaps to startle the magic out of him faster... but there presumably wasn’t anything to startle out.”

Though Sirius had heard of the practice, he'd only ever known it in the context of successfully drawing magic to the surface. He supposed no one really told the story if it failed. "Daily," Sirius gave a humourless huff of laughter. He made a vague indication to the house. "This place is dangerous enough. You warned me of that when I first told you the kids were coming here."

“I wasn’t thinking about them dying,” Regulus said with a frown.

"I don't think they would have, they're teenagers." Not that teenagers couldn't get into the same trouble, but Sirius had to figure after everything they'd been through, a few bolt-spitting clocks or cursed boxes were not going to phase them. "But we explored when we were children, even though we weren't supposed to. You feel safe here."

“I know.” The frown pinched a little, but Regulus didn’t say anything else.

"I don't," Sirius stated, simply. There was a point he must have, because he knew from personal experience what was in half of the problem areas and had little problem exploring them. Even the things not on display in the attic, they had never shown much care with. To his horror, Sirius found himself with a lack of surprise where he wanted there to be some. It was always about proving you could handle the name, wasn't it? "Since Iago, you're no safer than I am, here, but you love it. It's just no place for people without magic. If they didn't think it was worth their child's safety, then it's just another generation who should never have been parents in the first place."

Regulus pressed his lips to a line, saying nothing, this time.

"The house is everything," Sirius pressed on, but with an increasingly bitter edge to his tone. "And you're nothing without it. So why would they place a child's life over the risk of losing that? They had spares."

“This isn’t making me feel any better.”

"I can't make you feel better," Sirius said, honestly. He didn't drink, clearly getting his leg over would take till he was fifty at the rate he and Vance were going, and he couldn't laugh it off. "I can only commiserate. Most of this, I've come to terms with and did a long time ago. This just opens exciting new avenues of horror, wondering about how, where, and unmarked graves."

“Horror is right,” Regulus admitted slowly, shaking his head. “It’s unsettling.”

“Is there anything about this entire family that isn’t?” Sirius asked. “You’ve got mass murderers, torturers - pureblood torturers too, so completely inconsistent - and sadists, a screeching banshee in the front hall, the most hated headmaster Hogwarts has ever had, parents who care more of heritage than for their child’s wellbeing or - Merlin forbid - their happiness, or people who don’t want children at all but do it because it’s what they’re supposed to do. Any time anyone shows any indication of questioning it, they’re shoved back in line or thrown away like a toy someone is done playing with. You can be proud of the exploration, alchemy, spellwork, but it doesn’t change the fact half of the family are or were horrifying. I’m not surprised. I want to be. I want to think someone around here gave two shits about their children, but as the only person here to have first hand experience of that throw away, I’m thinking I got off easy.”

“So it seems,” Regulus said distantly, face still pulled to a point.

“I thought you'd argue that,” Sirius admitted quietly. He didn’t like to see him defeated; indignant, even angry was better. He thought back to what James had said in this situation - You’re worth ten of them - but he didn’t think it’d be comforting to repeat. “It’s only what it was. You’re not them.”

Regulus breathed a deep sigh and nodded. “I didn't think there was that big of a gap between the two.”

"You don't see people as a means to an end," Sirius replied. He very much doubted Regulus ever had. Even as a kid, he'd had too much heart to do that. "You're a terrible Slytherin; you don't like using people. A bit of cunning, vengeful plenty, definitely asked to be put there. No way it was that hat's first choice. But the only choice for you, because you needed to be worthy of something that should be freely given. Let's face it, if there was anyone who actually shaped up to be a half decent parent and didn't get blown off for their trouble, it was a long time ago."

“I’m not a terrible Slytherin. It’s not just about using people,” Regulus countered, though it was in the same settled tone he had been speaking in for the past few minutes.

"If you only want people when they think how you want them to think and abide by your rules so you can get something out of it, it's using people," Sirius replied. Still, it was nice to hear at least an obligatory argument for it. Watching the fight go out of him now would be terrible. "I just described most people on that tapestry, and they're all Slytherins. It's a pattern. You said it yourself, that they wanted something from you without considering what it would do to you. It's a shit thing to do, and it's using people. You don't do that. You see value in treating people as individuals with choices, not good and bad statistics to be weighed and measured."

“I maintain that being a Slytherin is not a bad thing,” Regulus responded, a bit stubbornly. He exhaled another huff, though the worst of his despondent demeanour was fading, at least a little. “However, I appreciate the point you are trying to make.”

"I didn't say it was a bad thing. Just that it's a common house trait, especially in this house." Sirius took a few steps towards the tapestry, and tapped it with his fingers where the burn mark was. "Don't take on the blame for other people's mistakes. If you think it's cruel to burn out a child for dying, just fix it back."

Some of the tension started to loosen in Regulus’s face, and he tipped a little nod. “I’ve been thinking about that, with all of this.” He waved the photo with a subtle gesture before slipping it in his pocket again.

"It's not as if you can ask if they want to be put back on, but a little kid probably doesn't deserve the same fate as those of us who made a choice," Sirius said. He had no idea what Andromeda thought of it all, but he didn't like the idea personally. A piece of old tapestry doesn't define the be all and end all of family. "But you've got the picture, you - I assume - have a name. You can go from there if keeping the memory alive is important to you."

“His name was Marius,” Regulus said without pause. “And it is. Important, that is.”

That’s because you are a half decent person. “So between 1915 and 1920…” Sirius looked along the line curiously. He did went through a mental list of who would have been around at that time. If you were going to memorialise someone, you should at least know something about them. “Slughorn might have something. He usually does the Iago circuits, or….Phineas, I suppose, though I don’t believe Phineas will talk about it if he knows the truth.”

“He was forthcoming about his sister and son, though this is a bit different,” Regulus said before pressing his lips to a line.

"A squib and a traitor is not the same thing. A squib can't help what they are." Sirius thought briefly for a moment, before realising it was unlikely Regulus knew about Arabella. "There's one in the Order. She saw the dementors when they attacked Harry, so they must retain some magic."

Glancing over, Regulus lifted his eyebrows. “Hm. I did not realise.”

"Whether that's just Arabella being Arabella, you never know," Sirius replied. It stood to some reason. The Hogwarts caretaker interacted with the school that non-magical people couldn't see; both of them were able to communicate with their resident animals; and the ghosts could interact with them just fine. Outside the room, the sudden sound of loud clambering footsteps drew his attention. It seemed they were done with their mock Quidditch.

"Who won?" Sirius called out.

"I don't want to talk about it!" came Ron's reply, as presumably he and Harry clambered back up to Harry's room.

Having had some experience with the annoying event of a sibling winning consistently, Sirius well understood the tone. "Congrats, Ginny!"


Sirius turned his attention back to his brother. "Didn't Aunt Cass have a cat called that? A little black one?"

Regulus looked thoughtful for a moment, then responded, “I believe that one was called Mars. Nonetheless, the name is certainly close enough to make a case for it. Aunt Callidora said that she was very upset.”

Given it was thirty years ago, Sirius was surprised he even remembered that much. Trust Regulus to remember with clarity. "Her brother got killed. It's not something you get over. Add in the burn mark, I'm surprised she didn't hit someone. I wonder what he thought about it all." Sirius tapped on his maternal grandfather's name. "Unless he was too busy with a baby to notice."

“He was rather strict, too.” Regulus frowned at the tapestry. “I don't know.”

Strict is one word, mental would be another. "You want to be left to obsess?"

“‘Obsess’ sounds like a bit much, but there is plenty to think about.” The corner of his mouth flicked back up a little, though it couldn’t really be called a happy expression.

"You're doing that look at the tapestry as if it has all the answers." If that wasn't obsessive, what was? "It would never be you, doing something like that. You're terrible at putting conditions on caring, and you can recognise when a child needs protecting. Keep it in mind."

Regulus nodded as a little bit more of the tension loosened from his shoulders. “I will.”

That night - the last night before their swarm of children were to clear out for Hogwarts - the drawing room was buzzing with evening activity. Quidditch was playing on the wireless - Pride of Portree versus the Ballycastle Bats, so no one was particularly worked up among the listeners huddled on the sofa, at least as far as personal favourites went. With a book in hand, Regulus’s mind was flitting back and forth between the pages before him and the announcer’s enthusiastic relaying of the game. He was perched somewhere between the Quidditch sofa (on which Harry, Ron, and Ginny were situated) and the reading corner (where Hermione had settled), and he was reminded with a funny twinge that it was not unlike the first time he had met most of them. So much had changed in a year.

Emmeline had vacated the room as soon as Quidditch was turned on; Sirius, on the other hand, had been flitting in and out with all the attention span of a interested but very restless gnat, and Tonks had been going between busying herself with preparations and popping in to hear updates on the game. Regulus hadn’t seen Lupin since supper, but he’d looked exhausted enough that he could very well be sleeping already.

It was almost easy to ignore the oppressive stretch of the tapestry in light of the flurry of activity that the children always brought… or if not ignore, at least delay the temptation to dwell. Several hours had passed, but his mind was still sticky with the jarring truth about Marius. Though he still did not have birth or death dates, Regulus had magicked the name back in its place that afternoon, a strange conviction knotting up in his stomach despite how pointless such a thing probably was in the grand scheme of it all. He did not like the way thinking about it made him feel, but even more than that, he did not like the way dismissing it made him feel.

His thoughts had started to drift when a score by Pride roared out from the wireless, drawing his eyes from the wall back to the group.

"Still don't think they'll win?" Ginny stated, with so much certainty in her tone that you could be forgiven for believing she had insider information. Regulus privately acknowledged that he might have misjudged the chances of bickering, but it was, at least, still more mild than the time Ginny’s brothers had called the honour of the Harpies into question.

Ron rolled his eyes. "I'm not getting into it with you again."

Harry put his hands up in a surrendering position.

"Don't do that at tryouts," Ron warned him. "They'll eat you alive."

"That's definitely what I'm worried about," Harry deadpanned. "Death Eaters are just the warm up act."

Hermione spoke up without looking up. "I saw Angelina last week. She asked if the DA was going to continue."

"She's not in school anymore," Harry replied.

"Do you have to be?" Hermione looked up. "Learning doesn't stop just because you leave school."

Ron shot her a mild look of disgust. "I thought you said we weren't doing it anymore. Umbridge is gone."

"And you think Snape'll be better?" Ginny gave a dismissive huff, as an advert came on for de-gnoming your gardens. "He'll spend the whole lesson telling you what's wrong with it without explaining why it's wrong or how to fix it."

"Teaching is not his strong point," Hermione agreed, tentatively. She reached into her pocket to reveal a small coin. "She wanted to know if they should hold onto this, just in case."

Harry seemed to consider it for a minute. "What did you tell her?"

"That it couldn't hurt to," Hermione said. "There's always Hogsmeade, if you do decide to get everyone back in one place."

"I was keeping mine anyway," Ron said. "It's still ruddy good charmwork."

Hermione ducked behind her book for a moment, but she was smiling when she lowered it. "Hopefully you won't need to."

Holding a hand open, palm to the ceiling, Regulus looked to Hermione and asked: “May I?”

Hermione shuffled forward in her seat and placed the coin on Regulus' palm. "I suppose you were in too much of a hurry last time to see them. It's just a coin for now. I haven't had the chance to destroy the list or the master coin."

Turning it over in his hand, Regulus thought - not for the first time - that it would have been a far preferable method compared to the permanent mark on his arm, but there was nothing to be done about that particular issue, as far as he could tell. Joining the Death Eaters was not really supposed to be a membership that dissolved or came to a voluntary end; it was natural that the system of alert would not be, either. As he returned the coin to Hermione’s hand, they had moved on to further discussion of the DA, presumably, at least based on the context:

"You know Marietta Edgecombe never got that jinx off completely," Ginny said. "She still had 'sneak' across her face on the train."

"I might've been a bit enthusiastic with it," Hermione admitted.

Lifting his brow, Regulus asked, “Why did she have ‘sneak’ jinxed across her face?”

"Because she is one," Ginny responded.

"It was a failsafe," Hermione explained. She pocketed the coin again before settling back into the chair comfortably. "If someone betrayed the DA to the Ministry, then there would be consequences."

“Hm.” It made sense enough; there were certainly people in Regulus’s life that he wished would be blemished with such informative labels upon their personal betrayals. “I suppose that is how Umbridge found your meetings? I heard something of the sort but not the details.”

"Yeah" Harry said, irritably. "She said it was because her mum works for the Ministry-"

"-so does our father-" Ron added.

"-Right, I said that; she didn't have to say anything." Harry finished.

"It put everyone in danger," Hermione said. "It meant Dumbledore left, and Umbridge took over the school."

"Lucky Umbridge fell for Hermione's terrible fake crying confession when we did get caught," Ginny laughed.

"I thought you were too busy trying to kick out that IS member’s knee to notice," Hermione replied.

Ginny grinned. "I was multitasking. Besides, even I almost lost it when you started talking about trying to find Dumbledore at the pubs."

"Lying isn't my strong suit," Hermione groaned.

“Never a dull year, hm?” Regulus remarked wryly, shaking his head.

"That was just this year," Hermione said.

"You didn't get to hear about the dragon or the troll when we first went to school," Harry added. Regulus recalled hearing a little, but he opted to let them chatter on about it in case more baffling details were to surface.

"It's like this every year," Ron said. "Second year, it was a giant snake and a bloody great big spider. Third year - Sirius was a lot scarier when he was a mass murderer hellbent on stabbing you to death."

"Cheers!" came Sirius's voice from further down the landing.

"Me almost getting stabbed in my bed used to be impressive!" Ron said. "It just sounds stupid now."

Sirius poked his head around the door. "Sorry, always been my problem. My lack of desire to kill blood traitors and muggles has been disappointing people since 1973. Who's winning?"

Regulus shook his head with a wry smile. “Pride.”

Sirius didn't look at thrilled about it. “You lot packed?”

There was a resounding 'no’ in the form of 'kind of’, 'a bit’ and a plain old 'no’ - except for Hermione, who was mostly ready.

“Remus is staying here to watch over the other trouble magnet,” Sirius glanced to Regulus briefly. “But unless you want to arrive with a full Ministry escort, you'll have to get a move on in the morning.”

Rolling his eyes, Regulus looked down to his book again. “I was under the impression he was going with the rest of you for extra security. Not that Lupin cannot choose to stay if he wishes, but I can handle a morning by myself. I promise not to invite the Death Eaters over for a house party while you are escorting Harry to the platform.”


“Or tours?”

“That was a very specific situation,” Regulus countered.

“Your life is a very specific situation,” Sirius replied.

Regulus tipped his head a little. “True enough. But at least that means it is usually planned with warning.”

“Kingsley’ll be on hand if there's trouble, regardless. Call me if the Bats get their act together,” Sirius replied before ducking out again to the sounds of muffled conversation in the hallway.

“Do you think he suspected anything while he was here?” Hermione asked, tentatively. “Malfoy?”

Regulus shook his head, nose crinkling slightly. He did not want to badmouth his cousin to peers who already disliked that cousin, but the sting still lingered. Stubbornly, he smoothed it down. “I don't think so. He did try to sneak off and look around, but his demeanour did not suggest he found anything he was looking for. If anything, he seemed bored. A bit insulting, but not concerning. Any undesired conclusions he comes to could have been drawn without stepping foot inside the house.”

“So no different from usual,” Ron said. “He’s always bored and insulting. Really makes you miss the ferret.”

“We’ll just have to be careful talking about it,” Hermione added.

“Yes, there is suspicion enough already,” Regulus said, pressing his mouth to a wry line.

"We managed to keep a secret organisation secret for most of last year. I think we'll manage," Harry said.

"With the help of two prefects," Hermione reminded him. "I'm starting to understand how that map was able to be made, if they had at least one prefect in their back pocket.”

“Speaking from experience, it does help,” Regulus admitted.

"Having a prefect in Slytherin is not the sort of help we'd like," Hermione groused.

Regulus lifted his brow. “The point stands that Slytherin prefects can be a great help when you get along with them.”

"The Slytherin prefects are Draco Malfoy and his girlfriend." Ginny scoffed at the idea. "Even if he wasn't a Death Eater, it would still mean trouble."

"We don't know he's a Death Eater," Hermione said, with a tone of exasperation.

"I know," Harry said, pointedly. "And you don't believe me."

"It just seems a little..." Hermione let her sentence run off.

"Because it's Malfoy." Ron winced. "It's not that we don't believe you. It's just hard to imagine him doing anything that doesn't involve saving his own skin."

"You don't think he'd do it to try and get his father out of prison?" Harry said. For a moment, no one said anything. "I know what I saw. Can't you just trust me?"

"Of course we do, mate," Ron said before Hermione gave a slight nod in agreement. "Afraid you'll kick us off the team otherwise."

Harry gave a surprised laugh. "I think that'd cause a mutiny, and Katie would have to take over. She might have to anyway."

"You managed with the DA," Hermione reminded him.

"That was just fighting Death Eaters," Harry replied. "This is Quidditch."

‘Just’ fighting Death Eaters. The boy’s perceptions were remarkably skewed, though Regulus supposed his own teenage years had gone a bit off kilter, too, even without a deadly face off each year.

“Are you nervous about your captainship?” Regulus asked, looking up from his book now that the conversation was turning away from the uncomfortable ‘is Draco a Death Eater?’ debate.

"A seeker isn't the most team focused position," Harry replied, with a frown. "I like watching it, but deciding what's best for a whole team isn't something I've done before."

“The Seeker may not be as connected during the game itself, but I assume you have an understanding of Quidditch strategy, or at least what has worked for your team in the past. If you are thinking about your team as a collection of skills to interlink, then it doesn’t matter what you are individually doing on the pitch once the game starts,” Regulus began, entertaining only the briefest thought that this wasn’t the Hogwarts Seeker he had expected to be encouraging when a win for Gryffindor was a loss for Slytherin, but it felt a little less important in the moment than he thought it probably should. “For that matter, it sounds as though you can lead a group of your peers, from what I’ve heard about the DA. That says more for your fit as captain than your position does.”

"A lot of the team are gone this year," Harry said, after a moment. "It's just me, Ron and Katie Bell, one of our chasers. That's two chasers and two beaters needing replaced. Aside from Ginny, I don't know what else I'll have yet."

"They'll have to be better than Kirke and Sloper," Ginny made an face at the idea. "They were barely half decent. Let's hope for good second years or we're doomed."

“I obviously can’t speak for Gryffindor’s prospects, but I don’t see any indication of you being doomed as a captain, at least,” Regulus said, shaking his head. “I recall well the stress of the additional responsibility, but I think you will manage it.”

"I forgot you were a seeker as well," Harry admitted. "How long were you captain?"

“Just my last year,” Regulus answered, privately thinking that he was a bit relieved he’d never had to suffer captainship at the same time James Potter was heading Gryffindor; he had been insufferable enough from the perspective of a player, but Regulus bit his tongue on that particular thought. “Alongside NEWTs and prefect duties,” - and holidays with the Death Eaters, he added privately, and horcruxes, as well - “one year of chaos was enough for me.”

"You had a busy year," Hermione said. Her tone more than indicated that she was perhaps thinking of the holidays with Death Eaters too.

"I'll stick to just Captain and NEWTs," Harry sighed. "If I fail Defense, I have no chance of getting into the Auror programme.

“Of all the subjects, that doesn’t sound like the one you’re in danger of failing,” Regulus said, lifting his brow.

"Remember who's teaching it," Harry said glumly. "At least we won't have to worry about talking about HQ in Defense."

“Calling it headquarters will draw the wrong sort of attention," Hermione said.

"We can just call it the house, Sirius calls it that. Just be glad you and Ron don't have to deal with Fred and George," Ginny said, reaching over to turn the volume back up on the radio. "When it comes to prefects, they've caused more nervous breakdowns than NEWTs. At least if you take points for being a Death Eater, we have a chance of winning the cup this year."

Regulus considered pointing out that it did not work that way, however much they might dislike Draco, but arguing the semantics of it in a room full of Gryffindor teenagers did not seem worth the effort. Instead, he took the volume switch as an excuse to turn his attention back to the game. That, at least, was a match up he didn’t have to worry too much about.

Any hopes that Harry'd had for not being noticed or causing much of a fuss went out the window the moment the group arrived at King's Cross station. The group filed out in the presence of two men in suits, one with dark hair and a calm expression and the other with a large and impressive mustache who looked deeply uncomfortable. They were ushered in and onto the platform quickly, with Tonks meeting them on the other side. Her hair was still the same mousy brown, but she had woven it into tight curls with flowers.

“Barbary and Gumboil,” Tonks breathed, as the Ministry people – hitwizards, it turned out – headed back through the entrance way. “They're pulling out all the stops.”

“Where's Kingsley?” Sirius asked, glancing around the sea of students, families, and animals at the station.

“Keeping a low profile,” Tonks said. “Are you going on together?”

Harry opened his mouth to say yes, but Hermione cut him off. “Ron and I have to go the prefects carriage, remember? Then rounds.”

“You better get on then,” Tonks said. She took a glance at the clock. “It's almost time.”

It wasn't the first time Sirius had come to see him off, but it was the first time he'd done it in a way Harry could actually say goodbye. He had no idea what he was doing at Christmas, if he'd stay at school or go to the Burrow or go back to Grimmauld Place, and it occurred to Harry there were all of these things he could have been asking about all summer, but he'd forgotten. It'd just been so jam packed, between going to the beach, back to Hogwarts, the secret of Voldemort's immortality, Malfoy, the photographs, the Burrow; he just hadn't thought to ask about what would happen when he came back or when he would be. They didn't have time to ask now, but he could owl. There was no Umbridge.

“Keep your nose clean,” Sirius said, squeezing his shoulder. “Don't let the git grind you down. Don't go running off to fight Voldemort by yourself. I'm all for embarrassing him a fourth-”

“-Fifth-” Harry muttered.

“A fifth time,” Sirius corrected himself. “As funny as it is, it's not worth your life.”

“I wasn't alone,” Harry said, but hastened to add, “but I'll owl if there's anything more dangerous than Malfoy lurking. ”


He looked behind him to see Tonks on the train, only a couple of feet away. “Is she coming up to the school?”

“Just to Hogsmeade,” Sirius started, but he stopped for a beat, glancing around.

Harry was about to ask him what he saw when he saw a spark of blurred light and found himself on the ground of the platform. Suddenly, everything was moving – someone cried out, people were crowding together and yelling, and he saw a fleeting glance of a suit which made him think one of the hitwizards went past him. He felt Sirius yank him up by his arm, and push him towards the door of the train. On the side of the nearest compartment, Harry caught a fleeting glimpse of a black scorch mark.

“What's going on?” Harry yelled over the commotion, as he found himself being shoved into the compartment.

“The train's going to go any minute,” Sirius said, patting the compartment door. “Go find your friends; we'll sort it out.”

But he didn't have his luggage! “What about Hedwig? I can't leave her!”

“I'll find her!” Sirius promised. The whistle was already blowing to indicate the train was leaving. “Stay with your friends until they've done a sweep of the train. Go!”

With one last look at the commotion outside, Harry ran into the corridor of the train where he was almost immediately met with Ginny and Neville.

“What's happening?” Ginny asked.

“Someone blasted the train,” Harry said. “We better find a compartment.”

The platform had descended into chaos within minutes. Despite being only feet from the train, when Sirius had turned back to see where they were standing, there was nothing there. It was possible his luggage had just been added to the train along with everyone else's, but Hedwig was an unusual owl. She'd be noticed.

“Molly.” He waved her down when he saw the bob of a ginger head amongst the crowd. Her wand was out, but she was looking more upset than ready to fight. “They're all on the train.”

“They're searching it now. No one's getting on or off,” Arthur called from behind her. “They'll find them.”

With a sickening lurch, Sirius found himself doubting them. There had been Death Eater recruits in his sixth year, and in fifth, but he'd had no idea at the time beyond suspicions they were all purist pricks willing to glorify it. The person responsible could already be on the train because they belonged on it. That was too close to Harry to be a coincidence, and he didn't like that he couldn't find his luggage.

“Harry's luggage is missing!” Sirius replied. “So's Hedwig.”

“I'll tell Barbary!” Arthur pushed against the crowd and got an umbrella in his stomach for his trouble.

In front of him, Sirius heard the telltale sounds of the Hogwarts Express starting up again. Fuck.

Chapter Text

“We can reschedule,” said Emmeline. To leave and head off to the middle of nowhere for camping now seemed like abandoning the Order. What about Harry? Someone had taken a shot at him, and his luggage had gone missing. This wasn't a good time. Her birthday was still a few weeks away, and even then, the Order business took precedence.

“So you can sit about here doing what exactly?” Sirius replied when she'd told him as much. “Tonks is with Harry up at the school. They found his things, and McGonagall checked them.”

“What about the attack?” Emmeline asked.

“A noisy spell that would have given him a nasty burn, but it wasn't anything big. Like I told Regulus, no one was hurt.” Sirius shrugged it off in a way that looked entirely too practiced to be real. There was no way he was being nonchalant about Harry. He was never nonchalant about Harry. “It was probably one of the Slytherins.”

“Not everything is house politics,” Emmeline insisted. “What about you?”

“Piss off, Vance. I'm thirty-six. I don't need a babysitter.” Which was not at all what she had been getting at. He had long since made his dislike of being in this house alone very noticeable, and she was doing exactly that.

“There's just so much going on,” Emmeline replied. “It may not be a good time.”

“There's never a good time in the middle of a war,” Sirius said. “It's one night getting away from all of the crap to go be swotty at stars. You'll be back tomorrow. I'll try not to burn the house down.”

It was a legitimate concern. “Is Remus staying here?”

“For a bit,” Sirius replied. “Because I haven't seen him in a while, not for any other reason. Besides, you promised me camping pictures that I can lord over my brother for the rest of what is going to be a very long life if I have anything to say about it.”

“He is bringing a camera too, I believe,” Emmeline responded. That would mean they'd have an excellent muggle-magical cross section, if the Northern Lights did decide to put in an appearance. “I don't think he's truly too concerned about being seen camping.”

“It's true;, he's growing up. Going camping with girls and muggle technology, modifying the house and tree, saying muggleborn.” Sirius thumped his chest twice. “So proud.”

“Well, if you're going to be a pillock about it...” Emmeline rolled her eyes, even if she couldn't suppress a smile. Sarcasm and 'humour' probably meant he wasn't going to go up to join Tonks without telling anyone. “You'll send word if there's a problem?”

“Even the Order can survive without you for a night,” Sirius replied. “I know that's hard to believe.”

“You should take the time to work on your messages.” Emmeline said. In actual fact, she didn't believe she'd seen Sirius's corporeal patronus since...well, not since the ‘80s, if truth be told.

“I didn't ask for homework,” Sirius said with a little too much snap to it for her liking. He was hiding his expression behind a mug, so it was hard to tell if she'd crossed a line. Perhaps she'd bother Remus into pushing him a little. He could push further than she was able to.

“You studied three years to become an animagus,” Emmeline reminded him. “Don't act as if you're not studious in your own right.”

“That was different,” Sirius said. “That was for Remus.”

“And this is for Harry.”

Sirius gave her a dirty look. “Too much time around the resident Slytherin. He's rubbing off on you.”

While Emmeline could easily contest that – she had to be a little good at pushing people to do what she wanted in her line of work, after all – she instead said, “Chance would be a fine thing.” It probably wasn't very hygenic to cause whatever he was drinking to be coughed and spattered across the kitchen table, but as far as shutting him up went, it worked a treat.

The sun was just tapping the horizon when Regulus and Emmeline arrived at their camping spot. Regulus still found it a little odd to say as much, even within the confines of his own mind. Camping was not an activity he had done before, nor an activity he had particularly planned to start, yet the fuzzy idea that they had been talking about for months had finally taken form. Here they were in the Scottish highlands with a tent and a stretching night sky.

Despite the drama ruffled by the stray shot at Harry, they had been urged out the door. In his stomach, anticipation had been stirring for months, buried by one stresser after another, but surrounded by the open stretch of grass and the bordering trees, the world seemed to peel away. Perhaps it was nervousness that squirmed, or perhaps just the off-footed feeling of yet another new experience, but whatever it was, he found it was overall positive, if he had to put a qualifier to it.

Looking around, he saw no sign of other tents, and when he twisted around, Emmeline was swishing theirs up into position with a flick of her wand. Meeting her eyes, he tugged a little smile and walked back over.

“Not the grandest of accommodations, but I'm sure roughing it will not kill us.” Emmeline wiped both her hands together. Her usual pinned curls were pulled up in a ponytail, which she seemed to pull out of the way of as the winds were coming up. “Besides, we want to be outside.”

“Indeed. There is little point in camping out for the aurora if one is not outside to see it,” he agreed. “Did you end up bringing the muggle pensieve camera?”

"Sadly not." Emmeline placed both of her hands behind her hips. "As a rule of thumb, never expect anything you give Sturgis back when he says it'll be ready. He tinkers. I suppose I don’t blame him taking some time. It would be nice to see some old footage. After a while, you can't quite remember what people sounded like, or how they moved in a hurry. It's important to preserve what memories I can."

Regulus nodded, feeling a little twinge. “Certainly. Time will do that.”

"You'll simply have to work on not getting in trouble until I can get the camera." Emmeline glanced over him, with her eyes lingering around his legs. "If it's possible."

“It has only happened one time in seventeen years,” Regulus countered pointedly. “I'm sure I can manage.”

"They've only known about you for a few months, and last time ended very unpleasantly." Emmeline took several steps back, perhaps gazing at the orange of the horizon. "Yes, I think this is a good spot. It's several hundred feet until any main water source; the muggles are largely down there, so no problems in the statute; we have our supplies, so no need to worry about refueling...just need to set up the hover charm for the camera, and I'd say we're well prepared."

For a moment, Regulus considered the argument that leaving the Death Eaters at all typically resulted in a successful hunt, but it did not feel important enough to circle back, so instead, he nodded.

“The sunset alone is lovely,” he commented, “but I hope the aurora is cooperative.”

"We can come back if the experience is agreeable," Emmeline decided. She bent down with her wand, tapping on the ground before small flames erupted. "It gets a bit nippy up here at night. I brought a couple of blankets as well, just in case we wanted to sit outside without open flame. I did also bring some books on the phenomena. Did you know that at around two hundred feet, it has a low level noise?"

“You've thought of everything, hm?” A little smile tugged again at his mouth. “What sort of sound does it make?”

"Static." Emmeline's cheeks pinked slightly. "You joke, but you like that I'm thorough. I didn't pack a star chart, because I would expect you to know what you're looking for, but everything else."

“I do,” Regulus said, smothering a flicker of awkwardness that rose alongside a rush of fondness, and he settled in a comfortably-padded chair they had transfigured upon setting up. It wasn't exactly unpleasant - she was right that he liked it beyond the point of mere appreciation, though it felt a bit silly to put to words. Perhaps it was the knowledge that his brother's eyes would be rolling out of his head, were he present, or perhaps that Narcissa's would be narrowing for quite another reason, but it was true, nonetheless. The feeling had been teetering on the edge of his thoughts for some time now, like feet dangling over the edge of some wall of conventionality.

He knew the rule, but it did not feel very important, at the moment. “There are a number of things I like about you, with your thoroughness among them,” he added after a brief beat, the tone measured to something casual, though he continued rather swiftly: “And as it applies to the star charts, you are right in that, as well. Professor Slughorn informed me that I got an O for my NEWT exam, so I might as well put that to use in very important situations, such as this one.”

"You left without knowing?" Emmeline made a full cringe. "That would have done me in, I'm afraid."

“I left the night we got back. It was a truly dreadful wait,” Regulus admitted, watching where the sun was dipping still lower. “I put a lot of effort into those exams, all things considered - or at least a lot of stress. I didn't think about it much at the time, but it bothered me later.”

"What did you end up taking?" Emmeline inquired. "I think we can both agree you didn't really have the constraints of bearing employability in mind."

“No such constraints, no,” he said with a little shake of his head. “I took Astronomy, Charms, Transfiguration, Potions, Defense, and Ancient Runes. What about yourself?”

"I had a little bit of the constraints, so try to restrain your urge to mock the fact I took Divination." Emmeline transfigured herself an overstuffed seat, too, before settling into it. "I did also take Potions, Runes, Arithmancy and Charms, but as you can see, I'm not terrible at Transfiguration. I'm just not terribly interested in it."

With a lightened tone, Regulus glanced over with a flicker of amusement “There might be a little bit of mockery, but I will do so in my head so you don’t have to feel bad about it. That counts as restraint, does it not?”

"It has its moments. Sight is a little bit like traveling a long hallway and being able to hear people talking inside. You never get the context or the full story, so it takes true analysis and luck to be able to decode it. Tangible answers are often not within grasp." Emmeline gave him a cheeky look. "You'd hate that. Or perhaps not as much as you'd imagine you would. You like to have your answers quite cut and dry, but at the same time, maintain enough spark you can keep searching into it and end up somewhere else. An active mind, as my father would have called it. No off option. I can certainly relate. Time is easier, more solid."

“What did your father do?” Regulus watched her face, thinking that she had not spoken of them much at all, since the attack on her house, but she did not appear to be visibly upset. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

"He was an authenticator at Montague & Cadwallader's, the auction house. It's the thin white building next to the Menagerie in Diagon." Emmeline nodded to herself, but gave a tight smile. "He was very good with portraits. You'd be surprised how many people want originals of a variety of people, from Dumbledore to Merlin. Especially if they're vocal. He could identify pigment origins, historical parchment inaccuracies, anachronisms in stylistic choice, inconsistent vocal charms." She lifted her fingers together. "A good eye for little details. I like to think I carry on that particular legacy."

“I would say that you do.” Regulus held her gaze for a moment, then tipped his head and looked to the low crackle of the fire. He thought then that he would have liked to meet Emmeline’s father, to ask him personally and perhaps see what other Emmeline-esque similarities might surface. It was a sickening cruelty, what had happened, though he supposed she felt it more keenly than anyone. “It sounds like an interesting line of work,” he added.

"It is," Emmeline admitted. "But too finicky for me. I require new curiosities or I get bored. It did mean I spent a considerable amount of time in your front hallway because, while I'm quite sure all of the portraits are in fact genuine, they still look as if they were painted for museums. They're not personal. They're detached, or only showing a very specific snapshot. With no disrespect, I don't believe I've ever seen anything quite like your mother’s. Given the other portraits’ purposeful representation of how they wished to be seen or remembered, it was very startling at first."

Regulus continued to find his mother’s portrait startling, even a year later, though it wasn’t polite to explicitly say as much, so he nodded instead. “It’s not very consistent with my experiences.”

"I know it must be distressing to see something like that. We don't have to discuss it." Emmeline shrugged a little. "It's only a curiosity among curiosities for me. I could imagine spending an entire lifetime trying to get all the details of that house down and still not completing the survey." ‘

“That’s probably true. I’m still discovering things, myself,” Regulus said, shaking off the mental image of the hollow, volatile portrait behind the curtains at home. “Quite a few years were lost along the way, but I suppose the point still stands.”

"It enjoys consistently surprising me," Emmeline said, in a tone that suggested she had just decided this. "Of course, I knew Sirius first, long before I stepped foot in doors, and most of the time - and I do emphasise the word most - it's not much of a reflection of him as I know him. Parts, but sporadic parts, rarely seen parts. Then of course, I saw more of the house before we spoke. I had no particular inclination to watch someone who I couldn't reasonably interact with, but I suppose what I garnered, I had an expectation. Then I believed that no, I don't believe it is an accurate representation of you - or what has lead up to you - either, for you are so deeply defined by your individual choices. I couldn't envisage a warmth there, a safety, a fostering of curiosity without danger, but it has meant that to more than one person in its current capacity. I like to think houses like that evolve and change with whomever has them at the moment. They have blood, and magic, in a shell not unlike us - and not unlike you, I think it enjoys surprising people who do not account for its intricacies. I do enjoy surprises."

“An accurate appraisal.” Some of the tension eased as Regulus lifted a small smile and looked over at her. “For the most part, I prefer facilitating surprises as compared to experiencing them, but I suppose that works rather well for our purposes…” A brief pause, and then he added: “Though it feels strange that the house did not seem a very accurate representation of me. I suppose it has always felt so central.”

"I'll amend to I enjoy surprises from people I trust not to make it an awful one," Emmeline agreed. "The observation wasn’t an insult to either, but rather a difference in personality. You are understated, the house is very much not. You're quiet, no go there either. There is a brutality in many of the objects that simply does not reflect you, beyond perhaps a curiosity in how they function.You are both compassionate and empathetic, and have never once insulted my choice of hairstyle, and I can't say the same for that either. While I try not to take it personally - a portrait is not a person, but a moment in time locked in paint and magic - I will admit to it being a little grating in one's sanctuary to have to deal with that. Not that I'm not grateful, of course."

Regulus felt a little twinge of guilt on behalf of the house's less polite behaviour. There was a question as to whether his mother would have been easier or more difficult to listen to on the subject of Emmeline's presence in the house were she still alive, compared to the echo remaining in her portrait. The living commentary would probably be worse, though he felt guiltier still for thinking it.

“I apologise for their commentary. Your hair always looks lovely,” he said, eyes flicking to the ponytail and back again.

"I like that you made my point for me there." Emmeline smiled widely before looking down in a slightly sheepish manner. "You don't have to apologise for something that isn't your doing. I can cope with some period appropriate purism, though the more recent examples do get to me more. My point was that while you are obviously respectful of your family history, you don't think in the same old patterns or traps. It's a priority, but the priorities appear to be the safety of others, the downfall of a certain so named dark lord, and preservation, but not necessarily participation. The only sad part of that is you don't priortise yourself, which is very upsetting because you are a singular individual who deserves as much if not more."

In his chest, Regulus felt a pleasant little thump. He was not a stranger to compliments with a name that would have propped him through his childhood regardless of his academic and athletic efforts, but it was a different kind of earnestness - more personal and focused.

“There are a lot of factors in play, not just myself - but - I appreciate that,” he settled, meeting her eyes. “I suppose the perspective of it all is a bit different now.”

Emmeline nodded. "Because you're not eighteen - or was it seventeen?"

“Seventeen, yes,” he confirmed with a little nod, “but my birthday was a month later, so it depends on how you think about it.”

"I think eighteen was a long time ago too," Emmeline replied. "It may not be what you imagined, but you don't seem unhappy with how things have turned out. Frustrated, but that's to be expected."

“I’m not unhappy, no.” His mouth tugged up a little at the corner, watching her face. The frustration was certain, but it was almost strange, how much more frequent the pleasant moments were - and embarrassing though it was, she was a frequent centerpiece in those moments, making it a little more embarrassing to think about. “Were it back then, I probably wouldn't be here…” When he looked back to the sky, he saw a smear of orange where the sun was steadily disappearing. “But I'm glad that I am.”

"Me too." Emmeline smiled back. "But I think we should get a blanket out and do as the gazers do. While I can rough it lying against the ground, something tells me you're not a fan."

She wasn't wrong. He tended not to make a habit of lying on the ground, but when he looked up at the darkening dome above them, he felt that it mightn't be so bad, with the sight to come. “To do as the gazers do, I suppose I could make an exception.”

"There's that adventurous side again," Emmeline replied. She stood up, flattening down her robes as she did so. "However, I still think a blanket to lie on is a good idea. Something crawling in the grass is not how I want to be interrupted tonight."

“Obviously. I'm not going to lay on the ground without the blanket,” he said dryly, but the little smile remained in his lips as he glanced over. “There's mud down there.”

"I think that's why it's the great outdoors. Mud, trees, a variety of insects to bite you." Emmeline wagged her finger at the sky with a stern expression. "You had better be worth the potential of all of that."

“I prefer the sky. It's much cleaner up there.” He shifted his attention upwards in a mirror to her own gaze, sweeping his eyes across the little pricks of light creeping into view. “But despite my preferential feelings, her point still stands, so I expect an impressive display if I am going to lie on the ground.”

She glanced back at him, "Have I let you down on one of these outings as yet?"

Turning his attention back to her, he met her eyes with a small shake off his head. “No. You have not.”

"Then I suggest you trust me," Emmeline replied. "Even if the weather is uncooperative for a light show, there are no lights for miles. We should get a stunning view of the stars."

“I was talking to the sky just then, not to you,” he said with a play at solemnity. “If you lower your expectations by saying ‘just the stars are sufficient,’ it's going to hear you and make less of an effort. We must maintain our united front.”

Emmeline stared at him for a long moment before beginning to laugh. "Your ability to say 'the sky is listening' with a straight expressions is proof you're still entirely ridiculous. Let no other Unspeakable hear you. They'll open an investigation into whether we do have an eavesdropping sky or not."

“Are you certain it hasn't been proposed yet? I'm rather sure one of them was talking to the ceiling in the Space Division during our tour.” He cracked a little smile.

“That's the herbologist faction for you,” Emmeline replied coolly. “I haven't done that since I was a teenager, and never on the clock. I get other perks.”

“Such as the time loops, prior to their closing? I would prefer that, as far as perks go,” he agreed with a nod.

"I'd think access to that amount of experimental and exploratory magic, objects, and phenomena would be perk enough for you." Emmeline took another glance at the sky. "Do you want to stay here, or hike up somewhere higher for a better look?"

“I am in favour of a better look,” he said, shifting a little to glance at the landscape for higher ground. He had never done much in the way of hiking, but if they were going to come out here and make a night of it, might as well reach for the best of it. “As to the perks, I was considering it from a differential perspective between the rooms, but as someone who who is outside of the department, access to any aspect of your fascinating workspace has been a delight.”

Emmeline simply nodded and disappeared from sight for a few moments before returning with an old looking satchel. "What would you choose, if you could have chosen a department?"

“It’s hard to say,” he admitted, sifting through the memories of each room they had strolled through within the loop - and those they had not. “Space, time, alchemy, the manifestation of thoughts… There was only a glimpse into each, if that, so it is hard to say what would be most compelling with further investigation. To narrow it, study of the mind is interesting, aggressive brain tentacles aside, as is the exploration of astronomical bodies, though it is a bit difficult to take their mind-altering substances seriously.”

"I don't think making up your mind is your strong point." Emmeline sniggered. "Too much to see, too little time to do it all."

“There is a lot to consider when making key life decisions. I like to be confident in them,” he said, finding that his eyes were flicking to hers again. Taking a hypothetical job at the Ministry was one level of thought, but quite another decision had been prodding at him, and he wondered how much it had been prodding at her, too.

Certain strides forward could not be so easily backtracked: words could not be unsaid, feelings could not be untangled, past expectations could not be fulfilled as intended, no matter what efforts were made. Regulus supposed that such a point had come and gone at some point, but for all his considerations, it was hard to say exactly when.

He rose from his chair, then, to scoop up the other bag nestled against the tent, and as he slung it over his shoulder, he joined her at the edge of their tiny camp space. The view of the sky was lovely from the chairs, but from atop the hill, it would be even lovelier.

Finding higher ground hadn't been too difficult. This was Scotland, after all. Almost all of it classified itself as higher ground. It could never be said that Emmeline was the type to trek up hills very often, but with the required incentive, she could push herself to do so. It took a little wandering through some uncomfortably scratchy brambles to find a nice clearing without too clear a view of the lake.

She set aside the bag with its heated containers and spread out a large blanket and a few pillows, more for setting her elbows on than anything else. She then initiated the cushioning charm, as she could feel something digging into her thigh otherwise. The camera set up took longer - it was much fiddlier than it had been in the workshop - but perhaps it was just different with the wind blowing. Beside her, Regulus was snapping occasional photographs of the scenery with the magical camera and when she took a few test shots, they appeared agreeable. She left the automatic snap timings to take random moments of the sky and went back to situate herself. It took awhile for the green and yellow glow to spread across the sky, seperating a deep blue and purple sky in half between the streaks and the stars. There wasn't much view of the galaxies as there had been in pictures: there were too many shimmering streaks for that. It was still exceptionally peculiar to watch as the colours began to spread a change, a deeper green, purple, red. A wavering rainbow lighting up the night.

"It almost looks like thousands of candles twinkling in the wind," Emmeline whispered after a while, because it seemed like the sort of moment you should whisper. She shifted again from her position on the blanket, even if it was a little dizzying to look up for too long. “I suppose it’s early yet, but I am surprised how thick it is. I wonder if it’s the weather.”

“Perhaps so,” Regulus whispered in return, planted on his stomach with a pillow beneath his own propped up arms. Their shoulders had bumped a little when she moved, but he did not seem to react too much to it. “Whatever the reason, it is certainly breathtaking.”

"It's not cold, so it could be heat waves," Emmeline theorised. She did try not to think about the fact she was a little sore about that, but while she was generally a fairly cuddly person in comparison to most people, it was a little harder to deny ulterior motives while blushing. She pushed her hand out towards some of the more pinkish area. "I think there's a new wave coming in there."

Turning his head towards her, his eyes flicked from her half-covered cheek to her eyes. With a shift of his own, Regulus bumped back at her shoulder with the hint of a smile. “Should you need any cooling charms, I would be happy to oblige.”

Was he making a joke about her mocking his insistence on wearing long sleeves due to his illustrious youth? He was barely able to look her in the face when speaking about it a few months ago. That seemed like progress. "Cheeky," she said, lightly. "I'm glad you're here, even if you are cheeky."

“I’m glad that you invited me along.” He held his attention on her face for a moment longer before looking forward again to the rippling smear of colours. “Another line on the list of things I did not think I was ever going to do. I did not used to think I would like such a list very much, but I suppose I have you to thank for the beautiful view in more than one respect.”

Emmeline squirmed around, before moving to sit on her knees. "That was quite blatant for you," she noted. While there had been a vague flirtation going on, that was bordering on the subtext becoming very much text. It was inevitable after a few months of dancing around the issue. In a moment of impulse, she pressed the subject. "At the risk of making a pleasant night uncomfortable, I've thought about it extensively and have reached an impasse without input from you on the subject. We don't have to, but I do believe it warrants discussion at this point."

Regulus nodded, then pushed himself up to sit next to her. His eyes remained on the aurora ahead of them as his arms folded loosely over his knees, but he did not let the silence sit for long: “I have been thinking about it, too.”

"That's a relief. This would be much more embarrassing otherwise." Though Emmeline had to admit, it was plenty embarrassing as it was. Having a grandiose light display in the heavens above certainly would provide ample distraction when needed. "I suppose I should not beat about the bush, then. I do, in actual fact, find you to be quite attractive, physically, which is quite obvious, but more substantially, er, for me, as it is, more so mentally. You have an interesting mind, and you're not boring, and those aspects mixed with a good heart is an exceptionally rare thing and not something I take lightly. I'm not bored; I don't feel in any particular danger; and along with the variety of physical signs which I won't get into would all indicate genuine emotion rather than a crush. Though I have other trepidations, I think I'm happy about it. What are your thoughts?"

A pause stretched for a few lingering seconds (punctuated by an awkward shift of his own) before Regulus responded. “My thoughts bear some similarities. You are lovely, without a doubt, whatever impolite commentary has come your way - but a keen mind rings far more interesting, and there is no other mind I would rather engage with.” He took in and breathed out a soft huff. “I did not come back to England with the expectation of collaboration, nor companionship, and truthfully, I did not even think I wanted it. Which would have been simpler, of course.” With a slight shake of his head, he continued, “You have been a series of exceptions to rules I did not feel particularly motivated to change - or permitted to change, perhaps… but being around you makes me feel happy. Guilty, sometimes, for being happy… but the guilt doesn’t make the feeling stop. The feeling just makes me want to stop feeling guilty.” Regulus tipped his head a little and turned to meet her eyes again. “To name a few, among a great many thoughts.”

"Everyone brings their history into a new romantic relationship. We'd have more than most. Neither of us make excuses for it, but it would be something that would require addressing." Some things, more than others, would cause problems in different ways. They had a history of conflict in that it was likely that his former cohorts did murder a considerable amount of her friends and family, though he had never shied away from it, nor the associated guilt or unfairness of it.

"There are the mundane things of previous relationships, and given the current climate and the one we both grew up in, I imagine those have their own associated scars." Taking a deep breath, Emmeline took the plunge. "You would have to deal with the fact I'm impure, whatever that truly means, and that this would cause friction within certain circles you're attempting to maintain. As much as I find the culture fascinating in its own right, I don't believe purity of blood is a real phenomenon, and I certainly don't believe I'm somehow less magical because my family have never been magic exclusive in their affections. I may not have been as vocal as my friends, but I am an ardent supporter of muggleborn equality; I believe in the squib rights movement; I'm not a fan of the legislation that keeps magic and muggle separate as long as our cultures as preserved and respected, and not merely because it keeps me from ever seeing inside giant telescopes or going to space."

There was every chance much of this was a moot point, but she pressed on regardless. "While I do not believe you see me as lesser than you, nor have I ever known you to be vocal about muggleborns in any way, shape or form, I do believe this could be a potential issue for both of us. You, because I believe some of your guilt would stem from the fact that having a successful relationship could end in a marriage which would not be socially accepted by some peers, nor ancestry. Me, because I'm not the type to take the judgement easily nor quietly, and frankly, my Nana might eat you alive. They are valid concerns, particularly in this climate and stage of life. It's not the biggest hurdle for me - that is very much the martyring and perhaps the knock on effects of vigilantism versus Death Eaters - but it is inviting trouble. I could handle it, but I have no intention of forcing it upon you and believe our friendship, given time, would be maintained regardless. I'm also going to take some water, because monologuing is quite taxing on the throat."

Regulus dipped a small nod as she grabbed her water bottle, then turned his eyes to the horizon again. A few more uncomfortable seconds passed before he gave any verbal response. “I’ve thought about all of that, as well… with little luck as far as solid solutions go, but I do know that I don’t like what these rigid restrictions have done to my family.” A hesitant, steeling breath, and then: “I found out what happened to my mother’s uncle - why he was burned off of the tree.”

It was not exactly the response she expected, but Emmeline pressed nonetheless. Sometimes it took a little dancing to get the point with him. "Oh?"

His eyes had trained again on the shifting colours of the Northern Lights, but it didn’t seem like he was actually looking at them, for the moment. “He was a squib. He died when he was six - maybe seven… An accident, it sounded like, when the magic wasn’t drawn out. I don’t know who, but someone burned him off for it, afterwards. He was just a child.” Shaking his head, Regulus looked for a second like he was going to say something else, but instead just tightened his mouth.

The gasp released unbidden, but aside from the anger in her stomach, Emmeline found herself merely saddened by it. A child could not be held accountable for the prejudices of the world. It wasn't unheard of; the rumour mill always grinded about the extremist measures to maintain a fully magical bloodline, but no less horrifying. "There does seem to be something of a pattern of placing responsibility of an entire house and its woes or successes on children in your family." She wasn't sure how he would take it if she followed on, but honesty was important. "While sacrifice can be noble, sacrifice for the sake of appearances is a horrifying concept if said sacrifice is your child. Though I will admit, I've heard some of it reflected from Arabella. She has a horrid habit of saying how she serves no use. It’s an ingrained attitude, this idea that without exceptional magic, you are some sort of non-entity. I would posit children are not supposed to have a 'use' - they are simply your children - but I fear this is likely why the removal took place. I'm sorry for your loss."

Closing his eyes, he took in a slow breath, then let it out again, just as slowly. When he opened his eyes again, there was still the hint of a frown, but some of the tightness had loosened from his face. “I’ve dampened the mood further, but it has been on my mind, recently, and… isn’t something I wish to perpetuate. My decisions as of late have… not been particularly popular, but I don’t want that mindset to dictate what I’m permitted to do,” he said, shifting a little to meet her eyes again. “I assure you that it’s not a matter of ‘forcing’ anything upon me. Since before I can clearly remember, I’ve known the sort of reactions to expect for acting against expectations, and I will not pretend that I have particularly liked to see those reactions in action, but - I don’t make decisions lightly.”

Still watching her face, Regulus untucked an arm from its loose fold on his knees, then held out his hand between them, palm up.

"No, but you do make them in isolation." Emmeline scooted a little closer, and threaded her fingers into his. "I have not had a good few months. It was not a good last war for me either. I have lost too many people I care about, and your tendency towards self-sacrifice for the wider good scares me half to death. If you don't want to perpetuate decisions based on worth, could you start with yourself? Regardless of the outcome of any decision you should make, happy and alive is my prefered state for you. I'm prepared to deal with extremist viewpoints; with any particularly terrible thing you've done in your brief tenure as a Death Eater, providing you can deal with any participation I had in stopping Death Eaters you may feel attached to; and the sheer volume of teasing I can expect from my friends; but reassurance that you know you're cared for deeply and wouldn't run off without telling someone and at least talking about it first would mean a lot. I don't know how many more losses my heart can take at the moment."

Regulus paused a beat, eyes locked with hers, and then he nodded. “I can agree to that.”

"Then I lift my concerns," Emmeline nodded. "Are there any I can help you with?"

“Those that are within your control have already been addressed.” Shifting his grip, he then lifted her hand to press a kiss to the knuckles. “Perhaps it will be a disaster, but at least it is likely to be a happy and intellectually stimulating disaster,” he said with a subtle flicker at the corner of his mouth as he gently squeezed her fingers.

Emmeline felt herself blush, but this time indicated her face with her other hand. "It's a good thing I look nice with pink cheeks, because I think it'll be my semi-permanent colouring for a while. To intellectually stimulating but happy disasters, then. Not to mention the end of the ridiculous betting pool."

“Is the betting pool actually real?” Regulus lifted his brow, slightly. “I assumed Sirius was making that up.”

"Oh, no, it's real." Emmeline barely stifled a laugh. "It's leftover from our school days, but half the Order ended up in on it. I'm not sure who claimed September, but I rather hope it's Remus. Not only will it really annoy Hestia, but I'm quite sure I'm going to clean up with he and Tonks, and fair is fair. There's always several going on at once. We used to have one on how long till the next Prewett-shaped explosion, on relationships, word choices. It's a safe house habit, a little light entertainment to break up the crushing fear and angst."

Another flicker of wry amusement tugged at Regulus’s mouth, and he shook his head. “Of course. I should have assumed as much.”

"It's a legitimate concern. When Sirius comes out with something, it's either a bold lie or it's an audacious truth, but they have the same intonation, so who knows? It makes playing Truth or Dare very frustrating." Of course, Regulus would know that even better than she would. She would have to indicate a desire to try playing around them both to see what what happen. "If it truly upset them, I would do nothing of the sort, but the rumours can be entertaining. We rib each other. The muggle Minister’s wife reportedly made a sherry-fueled pass at Kingsley, for example, so for a week afterwards all he got were fake drunken passes. It's the curse of too many extroverts in one place. It’s loud, gossipy, and always something is going on."

“A very special mix of extroverts, from what I have gathered,” he remarked. With a deep exhale, he threaded their fingers loosely again and shifted his gaze back to the aurora, lined with bold splashes of colours that rose up to meet the dense expanse of stars that domed above them.

"Special is not the term I'd use," Emmeline replied dryly. She gave his hand a slight tug. "I think we ought to go back to enjoying the quiet while we can. It won't last, at least until there's time to do this or something like this again."

Regulus dipped his head into a little nod, face relaxing into a look of contentment. “I think that is an excellent idea.”

That had gone surprisingly better than expected. It was done in private, whereas there would more likely be opportunities for frustration, embarrassment, and the intrusion of other issues when they returned back to the house, but for now, things were fine. Quite well, in fact. Reluctant to let go of his hand as it was actually rather cute that he'd done that, she did a little contorting to try and figure out a way to lie back at the same time, but it did involve quite a decent amount of scooting that really wasn't at all dignified. She let out a huff. This was the kind of trouble relationships brought. They were not dignified; they could be a pain to navigate; and trying to find out another person's preferences and rhythms in an intimate setting was always higher stakes. A glance at Regulus showed he seemed quite happy enough with it, and he did not seem to be chortling at her. Perhaps he was just being polite, but he’d shown no such hesitation in mockery before. Perhaps, then, he too didn’t want to shatter the moment.

At least if she was about to make a fool out of herself, caring for someone, she wouldn't be alone in the matter.

On the outset of the night, Regulus had intended to find time in his busy stargazing schedule to sleep. He had even brought a vial of Dreamless Sleep along for the nightly lull, guarding against the nightmares that often crept in when he left his unconscious mind to its own devices, but never before had he seen a sky so beautiful. In that, he found a lovely excuse to keep awake - and in the reeling thoughts that stirred in the wake of his talk with Emmeline. Leading up to the trip, he had not strictly expected to lay those particular thoughts and feelings out on display, but he felt strangely light, now that he had.

For hours, they had laid back on the cushioned blanket, huddled against the chill and staring at the dizzying web of stars in relative (but nonetheless contented) silence. From the satchel he’d carried up the hill, Regulus had at one point pulled out the camera, snapping a few photographs of the aurora itself and the thick, glittering stars hanging above them. They would not do justice to the reality of it, he knew - especially in respect to the bold colours - but he was curious to see if the magical camera would capture the subtle, dynamic movements.

When at last Emmeline was starting to drift, just a few hours shy of sunrise, they returned to their campsite below where she had climbed into one of the beds inside. Regulus himself had wrapped himself in a blanket and stubbornly pushed past the pull of sleep, well into that hazy sort of second wind sometime around four in the morning. For once, it wasn’t the inevitable flood of disapproval from certain societal factions that he found himself dwelling on, but rather a pointed sort of relaxation in the moment, free from it all.

The first hint of morning light was just starting to glimmer on the horizon when Regulus heard the rustle behind him, coming from the tent. Blinking a few times, he twisted around in his chair to see Emmeline poking around from between the flaps, already dressed in her clothes from the night before - or more realistically, she was probably still dressed in her clothes from the night before, not unlike himself.

“Good morning,” he greeted.

Emmeline blinked owlishly in return. "You're very chipper for someone who must have had less sleep than me."

Though he was no stranger to sleepless nights, even when there wasn’t a beautiful sight to soak in, Regulus pressed a smile. “Sometimes it is easier to simply maintain momentum.”

“I should have tried maintaining momentum,” Emmeline commented before she raised her hand to cover a particularly effusive yawn. “It was still worth it.”

With a small smile, he turned forward again to look at the start of the sunrise, still flecked with streaks of green. “I must say I was not disappointed.”

"High stakes for next time," Emmeline replied. She tapped the side of her head. "Already planning."

“Such a view is difficult to surpass, but I shall look forward to it,” Regulus said, leaning back into the chair with a contented sigh. “Any ideas yet?”

"It depends whether we go big or we go small," Emmeline replied, barely stifling another yawn. "I have reasonable ideas for both, and a few unreasonable ideas for good measure. I think I'm going to light the fire again and bake some apples; would you like one?"

“I would,” Regulus answered as curiosity nudged at the edge of his mind. “Vague as they might be, the options sound promising.”

"You do have varied interests. It does mean weighing my options to see what is going to work and what's going to take some preparations." With a lazy swish of her wand, two green apples floated into the vicinity of the blackened ground and remains of a fire. They wrapped themselves in silver paper, then as the flame reignited, they dropped into a hover. "I'm considering a particular multipronged museum, which has a scaled celestial map and specimens retrieved from space travel that you can touch with your own hands. That sounds quite exciting. There's also a variety of skeletons and recreations of extinct species, exhibits on genetics and change at the deepest levels. Or there's a safari, I don't know if you've ever been on one? I may have a slight obsession with the baby giraffes at the sanctuary in Wiltshire; they will just lie on your knee. Leggy, unable to keep from bumping into everything, but very sweet and very friendly if you’re not threatening.” Emmeline sniggered. “Oh, I think I just described Tonks!"

“Accurate, indeed.” Amusement flickered at the corner of his mouth. “Well, I have never done any of those things, so it does not sound as though there is a wrong answer, in that respect.”

“I believe I did tell you once you needed better experiences,” Emmeline replied. “Trying new things can help that.”

“You did - and have seen to it that there is no shortage there,” he remarked.

For a moment, Emmeline looked unsure. "You'll tell me if I'm pushing too hard?"

Regulus nodded, and despite some aspects of his questionable adolescence, he felt it was probably true. “Should it pass the point of interesting, I will decline.”

"I won't ask you to do anything unsafe without consulting you first," Emmeline said, in a serious tone. On the fire, the apples spat and crackled to punctuate the statement. "I'm sure there's also plenty you've done that I haven't."

Regulus was not, in truth, terribly concerned about Emmeline putting him into danger - typically, he had that managed on his own - but he simply nodded, rather than saying as much. Judging by her remarks the night before, she was aware of it already.

“That is true enough. The nature of those experiences has shifted every seventeen years or so, but they are experiences, nonetheless,” he commented wryly.

Emmeline gave him a look of sleep-dampened disdain. “Though admittedly first hand experience of certain magic has a certain appeal, and definitely did when I was seventeen, if you've really read every book in your library, your expertise in some obscure things must be considered unusual and interesting without dragging that into it." Then she clicked her teeth. “Also, I can’t dance anything other than sad uncle at wedding dancing, so I imagine that too.”

“I’m afraid ‘sad uncle at wedding dancing’ was not part of any curriculum I experienced; in that, I expect your point stands.” His mouth flicked up. “As to the subject of obscure knowledge, Sirius would argue that I’m not allowed to count book expertise as experience, but I am inclined to prefer your criteria.”

“The first of many differences in our respective childhoods, I'm sure,” Emmeline replied. “On both counts, as I don't have siblings let alone argumentative ones. Besides, all things are theoretical and based in knowledge alone until someone does them. Perhaps a fundamental difference in viewpoint. There are those who do things then work with results to theorise, and those who theorise and then test. There's room for both schools of thought.”

“Certainly.” He tipped his head in a nod. ‘A fundamental difference in viewpoint’ sounded accurate. He and Sirius had experienced that on more than one occasion - some serious, some inconsequential, but frequent, nonetheless. Or rather, it had been frequent earlier in life, at the least. “I often tried to ignore Sirius when he expressed unsolicited commentary on my ‘boring life,’ but I rather like that view of it.”

"The fact he uses boring when you're life is a series of quiet moments intertwined with insanely dramatic moments indicates that he doesn't understand the meaning of the word." Emmeline jiggled her head in an indecisive fashion. "Or that his standard for dramatics is so high that it seems quiet by comparison. If you're not in a life or death situation at least once a week, you must be a bore. I'd argue it's more difficult to have a less dramatic existence in your case, given the amount of drama-prone people and unforgiving, large-scale environments that you appear to be in or around day in and out. You are technically in constant peril. You just don't seem moved to act like it, or thrive on it."

“I find excessive dramatics to be stressful, after a point,” Regulus admitted, and though his brother was not the only one in his life that was frequently guilty of it, he opted to leave the comment vague. Even then, he supposed the worst of the dramatics were often in the safety of the house. “For that matter, they do not change the state of peril, either, though I had not put much specific thought into it in that light.”

“No, but it can be cathartic.” Emmeline pulled the wrapped apples from the fire, setting them lightly on a propped up box to cool. “I’m not surprised you didn’t think of it. As a rule, going from those I’ve met or heard of, you really do seem to be full on dramatics or none at all without much in between. That must be exhausting. Being a little dramatic now and then isn’t so bad. I can be quite melodramatic when occasion calls.”

“What sort of occasions tend to bring on your dramatics?” he asked with the hint of a smile.

"A few," Emmeline replied, perhaps with a touch of defensiveness to her tone. "Anything more than three glasses of wine and I start to become loud, clingy and incomprehensible. I know I got into a panic once because it was Saturday, but no one could prove it was Saturday because ever since the first Saturday, do we know someone kept meticulous score of which day it was? What if they overslept? It could have been Sunday, even Monday. There was no way to know for sure. Everyone just looks at a calendar and assumes. This may be a Time Department sort of dramatics, but it does show how I can escalate, especially if I’m tired or under some sort of influence."

Regulus's smile spread into a poorly veiled grin. “Well, that does sound like a very serious concern.”

"It's not always negatives. Sometimes, I get overly dramatic when I figure something out that I didn't realise I had been wondering about. It's like there's a queue of questions in my brain, and though the important ones take precedence, sometimes I'll find the answer to one in the queue and feel the need to announce it and possibly jump even if it's a little bit silly," Emmeline admitted, looking down and away from him. "Or just very big questions. At what point does something you've charmed to respond or mimic a living thing become classed as a sentient being? If blood magic is often used in old buildings, are they in some form sentient as they seem to have quirks or preferences, such as the infamous Friday staircase at Hogwarts or the fact that your house doesn't listen to your mother’s portrait in regards to Sirius, despite the fact he's been removed from the family tree? I get dramatic when I get obsessed. I'm sure you relate."

“I do. I suppose there is a correlation between the two for me, as well,” he granted. “A big investment - whether in action or thought - calls for a comparable response.”

"Given that we are about to