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Boggart, it says in Regulus's stiff, tired cursive on the topmost sheet of a high stack of parchment, four years' worth of class notes. Shape-shifter. Class C Malicious Being. The parchment is dated 6th September 1974, nearly two years ago.

From the sparse, disjointed notes, Regulus can tell it hadn't been a good morning for paying attention. Back then, most mornings had been like that, wrapped in cotton wool, the edges softened and dulled and dampened by the lingering effects of Dreamless Sleep Potion. But there is nothing he can do about it now.

Under the flickering light of Grimmauld Place's brazen gas lamps, the words blur and crawl over the parchment. For a minute or twelve, Regulus just watches the inky millipedes dance. He startles when, somewhere on the other side of the wide-open window, a Muggle church bell chimes twelve a.m., joined after a moment by the sinister hum of the downstairs grandfather clock. Regulus rubs the back of his neck, trying to get the kinks out. Twelve a.m. means he is behind on his schedule.

Right, he thinks, and stares the blurry notes into submission. Boggart. Shape-shifter. Class C Malicious Being. Dwells in the dark.

He glances over to the window and this time, his neck actually cracks. The chill of it snaps him out of his revision-induced stupor. He unfolds from his hunched position at his desk, a hand over his eyes, trying to recall the words he's just read, Boggart, shifty, malicious, dark. Damn it all. His sweat-damp fingers move over the parchment, trying to find his place again, and the words smudge. The window is wide-open, but still the air just sits on him, warm and thick and smelling of dust and formaldehyde. The charms that keep the moths out must smother what little breeze they get in central London, but he thinks of hyperactive flappy buzzing things and decides he'd rather suffocate.

Regulus forces his attention away from thoughts of imminent suffocation and back on the parchment, where his thirteen-year-old self had drawn a painstakingly exact diagram of hand movements, three times as complicated as probably needed, and a word, in capitals and underlined: RIDDIKULUS. Beside it, he'd scribbled, (think of sth. funny).

Underneath that, in a different-coloured ink, there's a frustrated note from nearly a year later, when he'd tried to learn all this for his third-year exams. The question is simple enough:

What if I don't know it's a Boggart?

Unfortunately, his younger self hadn't been frustrated enough to actually look up the answer, which is why Regulus has liberated two tomes from the Black library – Manes Malum, to cover the basics, and How To Traine Your Boggarte, a large, bewildering book heavily ear-marked and annotated by both his grandfather and father. Regulus has only read its meandering introduction, which on forty pages failed to answer the most pressing question: Why on earth would you want to?

He looks to his two open books for advice, but they're half hidden by an empty teacup ringed with tannin and a letter that Lethe brought after Lunch: See if you can get away from Grimmauld Place tonight, it says in Barty Crouch's spiky scrawl. We are celebrating Mulciber's 17th at the Tar and Feather. Should be a laugh. Privately, Regulus thinks Mulciber losing his Trace is nothing to be celebrated - nevertheless, he should probably have written back, tell them he couldn't make it. Like this is a tea party.

Focus, Black, he thinks. He notes down, Recognising the Boggart, and underlines that three times. Another half hour with Manes Malum gives him: Worst fear, but figurative. Simplistic. Evolving. Query: Is apparition exaggerated (e.g. larger than life, distorted)? Out of place/context? (Examples: Appears as person climbing out of desk drawer, tropical snake in northern Scotland, wrong shadows etc.).

Well, that seems straightforward enough. Regulus gets up to stretch, turns, and slams backwards into the desk, the edge digging painfully into the back of his legs.

He's not alone.

Shifting in and out of the flickering shadows is a pale man, or something like a man, taller than any man should be and holding his gaze, eyes and mouth gaping open like wounds, face twisted into a mockery of fear. Regulus is unable to move, unable to feel or act or think

It is therefore with some surprise that he finds himself with his wand in his hand, an echo of a spell in his ears, an afterimage of flashing light in his eyes. Which is when he realises he's just Stunned his new dress robes.

The robes are stiff, black, and richly embroidered, and so thick he is absolutely going to suffocate if he has to wear them for the wedding. Somehow wedged on top of them – and how did that even get there – is the horrible silver mask Bellatrix sent him for his birthday back in June. Relatives like that, he thinks, vexed and weary, no wonder he's so jumpy all the time. Strange, though, he's sure he'd stuffed that thing into the back of the sock drawer.

But Grimmauld Place is like that. If the house wants something to turn up, it'll turn up.

He regards the robes, the mask, and his stack of notes, each problem as insurmountable as the others, and thinks, Break, I need a break. His mouth is dry. And a glass of water.

Regulus's snaps his fingers for Kreacher, but then he remembers the house-elf is on vigil; the first and last holiday he will ever have. His next plan is to aim Aguamenti at the empty teacup from earlier, but it's been a long day, and the water comes out lukewarm and smelling of rust. Fantastic. To the bathroom, then.

Outside his bedroom, the house lies mostly still, and he intends to keep it that way, moving carefully to avoid the creaking floorboards, the squeaking doors. Next to his bedroom door is Sirius's, locked, which reminds him that he hasn't actually seen his brother since this afternoon in Diagon Alley. This almost certainly means there will be a row in the morning when their parents discover Sirius has given himself the night off. There'll be raised voices and crackling magic and quite possibly a dramatic dash for the fireplace, and a whole lot of eggshells to tread for the next three days.

He passes the closed door to Father's study on tip-toes, his eyes averted, jumps at the thumping noises coming from within. Three thumps, then three more. Re-gu-lus, Re-gu-lus. Probably some prize exhibit of Father's collection – and he walks by quickly. Whatever it is, he doesn't crave its attention.

The bathroom is splashed with bright moonlight and black shadows. Over the basin hangs a stained mirror. His reflection takes one look at him and says, "You are as pale as a ghost."

"Everyone is pale in the moonlight," says Regulus.

The image in the mirror shrugs. "I would check my food for lead shavings if I were you," it says.

Regulus glares at the mirror. The mirror, naturally, glares back. "No-one asked you," says Regulus.

"Oh, the carelessness of youth," says the mirror in his own voice. "I have watched the likes of you for centuries. Poisoning is more popular than darts."

"I'm not being poisoned," says Regulus.

"The pallor, the posture, the weakness of the spine…" mutters the mirror. The reflection presses up against the glass, eyes squinting. "Come closer, boy, so I can see you properly."

Regulus snorts. "But grandmother! What big eyes you have." He turns on the tap.

The mirror says something indignant, but it is drowned out by a long, mournful groan in the pipes. That is all that happens for a minute. Finally thick, oily black sludge starts crawling down the enamel basin. Regulus stares at it in resignation.

"Again?" he says to no-one in particular.

"Oh, am I part of this conversation again?" says the mirror with a general air of offence. "It's the plimpies that live in the pipes, they're breeding in this heat. That house-elf ought to lay down some traps."

"I'll be sure to pass it on," says Regulus. He wishes someone would lay down a trap for whatever lives in that bathroom mirror.

For a second he watches the sludge in the sink bubble and creep. Oh, this bloody hot summer. Maybe he'll have more luck in the kitchen, he thinks, and turns to the bathroom door. He reaches for the doorknob and then he stops in his tracks.

Something is outside in the hall. He couldn't say what tipped him off – there is no sound, no footsteps, no wheezing breath or rustle of clothes. Nothing so much as stirs the tarry shadows that lie still and heavy beyond the opal glass set in the bathroom door. He waits with bated breath until that thing turns away –

A door slams in the distance, rattling the window panes. In his back, the mirror moans softly.

Regulus counts to ten before opening the door carefully. He gives the hall just a cursory glance, just a touch more attention than he did before. The door to his father's study is ajar, but there is no light inside. For a second, Regulus considers aborting his mission – forget that glass of water, and go to bed thirsty. Unfortunately, his mouth is as dry as a South English lawn in the middle of the summer drought, so he does his best to creep past again. At least the thumping has stopped.

The stairs are next. Regulus climbs down with his eyes closed, like he did when he was five, one hand on the banister and his feet feeling ahead for the Vanishing steps. He counts the plaques in his head. Tiffy, Allie, Annie, Dottie, Lottie, Tibbs, then the landing, Nutty, Putty, Hattie, Pattie, Frannie, Olga, Nell.

Downstairs, the smell of formaldehyde is stronger, mixed with a cooler draft of mould and wet dust from the cellar. Regulus tiptoes into the kitchen, leaving the lights resolutely off, reaches into a cupboard for the least ornate leaded crystal goblet he can find, and fills it with water from the tap. His eyes catch on the things in the sink, soaking in cold soapsuds. The bone-saw, the hooks, the metal clamps.

He turns his head away from the sinister instruments, instead casts Lumos to see if the water looks fresher than that from the upstairs bathroom. But it's caught up with him now, the stink of formaldehyde, the shadows, the unsettling night-time sounds of Grimmauld Place, and his spell comes out stronger than he'd thought. It bathes the kitchen in bright yellow light, and he sees her, laid out on the table.

Tilly's head is inside a large jar, floating in cloudy fluid; Tilly's dry, tiny, ancient body lies some distance away, shrunken down to nearly nothing, surrounded by house-elf sized bottles and bowls and pots full of potions meant to preserve. Glue and resin, thread and formaldehyde.

Tilly is Kreacher's late mother. She fell yesterday carrying a tray up the stairs. Broke her neck and died on the second floor landing, soaked in Lapsang Souchong and covered in cheddar shortbread crumbs. Kreacher has three days to prepare her head for display. Tonight, he is out, visiting the other families' house-elves and collecting their donations, strips and bits off the tea-towels, pillowcases, and tablecloths they wear. Tomorrow, he will sew them into his mother's first and last dress, to bury her body in.

Regulus comes to his senses, and extinguishes his wand. Merciful blackness engulfs him. His hand, he realises, is oddly cramped around the goblet, his thirst all but forgotten., and he takes a tentative step forward, trying to creep out of the kitchen without knocking over any of this, before his eyes get used to the darkness.

Slam!

Regulus drops the goblet. It shatters into a million pieces on the kitchen floor, spraying his legs with water and glass. From the hall, he can hear thundering steps – Father, maybe – and he freezes to the spot, like he's caught in some terrible act, in the kitchen with a dead house-elf, when all he wanted was a sip of water.

There's another crash from the hallway, this one closer, sounds like the troll's foot, every time, Regulus thinks; followed by a string of expletives which at least solves the mystery of who, and then, finally, the kitchen door is opened with perhaps more momentum then necessary, and a dark figure is silhouetted against what little streetlight reaches the hall.

That figure raises a hand to his lips, and says, "Shhh."

"Sirius?"

There is a brief pause, barely enough to make Regulus wonder. "Who else would I be," says Sirius finally.

His brother lounges against the doorframe to hide his slight wobble, taking a thorough look at the shadowy scene – the decapitated house-elf on the kitchen table, the broken glass, the pool of water on the tiles– taking it all in, analysing it, keeping it for ammunition. Then he says, "What the hell, Reg," turns, and strides away, leaving Regulus abandoned in the kitchen.

More thumping in the distance, this time from the parlour. Regulus finds he can finally move. With a swish of his wand, he Vanishes the glass shards, most of them, anyway; they're a bit hard to see in this gloom. In the doorframe he hesitates – his breath held, his heartbeat soaring – wondering what on earth has rattled him so much just now. Wondering if that thing is still there. Regulus shakes his head, and follows his brother into the parlour.

He finds Sirius plonked down on a dainty sofa, fingers working deftly on the knotted laces of his heavy boots. Sirius, too, has elected not to turn on the light.

"I was just getting a glass of water," says Regulus, hating that he's already defensive and they've barely exchange words.

"Yeah, okay." The laces of Sirius's left boot seem to be putting up a fight, or his fingers are clumsy, Regulus can't tell. With a muttered curse, Sirius tears the boot off his foot and, upon further consideration, throws it against the wall so hard it rattles all the glass doors in the nineteenth century cabinets.

In the three seconds that follow, everything is very, very still. Even the creaky, echoing house is holding its breath.

"Bad day?" volunteers Regulus.

Sirius doesn't reply for a moment, just wriggles his socked toes. Then he turns his attention on the other boot. With the mood he's in, Regulus expects a dismissal. Run along now, Reg. Go play with your terrible friends.

It doesn't come. Regulus half wishes it would. Instead, Sirius asks, "Are they home?" His tone is carefully neutral.

You couldn't have asked before you made this bloody racket? thinks Regulus. "Your completely undeserved streak of luck continues," he says, and Sirius snorts.

"Father's at Borgin and Burkes," adds Regulus, because if it were him he'd appreciate the heads-up. "It's delivery night, they're having a party for the regulars."

"A party," says Sirius. "At Borgin and Burkes." He shakes his head, but the concept doesn't seem to make any more sense to him than it does to Regulus.

"I guess it might be more of an auction?" guesses Regulus.

"That's even worse," Sirius points out. "Like we need any more of this bloody cursed rubbish."

"They're collectibles," Regulus corrects him softly. They've had this argument before: Regulus believes there are worse hobbies for Orion to have. Sirius refuses to waste his imagination on that.

"Then they should be in a museum," says Sirius. "Or a haunted house. Remember when he brought home that bloody bathroom mirror? It ate me."

An icy chill goes through Regulus despite the lingering summer heat. "It always tells me to come closer," he says. "I was wondering why."

A flash of possibly teeth in the dark. "Same," says Sirius.

"But," says Regulus, desperate to exert at least some superiority, "I didn't feel the need to go and find out."

"That's cos you're a chicken," says Sirius with some authority. Regulus notes it doesn't keep him from complaining: "Took me ages to find the way out from behind the glass. And I had bite marks all over. What about Mother, where's she off to?"

"Spending the evening with Aunt Druella and Uncle Cygnus," says Regulus. "They've disinvited Uncle Alphard and apparently that means their whole seating plan is no longer acceptable. It's a complex optimisation problem and only three days to go."

"Finally, something good comes off this bloody wedding," says Sirius. No doubt Walburga is at this moment three glasses into a bottle of red and elbow-deep in diagrams, explaining to Druella and Cygnus exactly where they want to seat their guests at their youngest daughter's upcoming wedding.

Regulus wonders what Narcissa thinks of all this. And whether Lucius the Beautiful, landed gentry from rural Wiltshire, has any idea what he's marrying into.

Sirius yawns deeply, clearly not interested in any of this. "And what have you been doing all lifelong evening," he says, his voice in that carefully conversational tone that would fool anyone except a Slytherin. "It's a beautiful summer's night. Got some fresh air, at least?"

"I was upstairs," says Regulus, and again he feels like he needs to defend himself. "Studying. What?"

"Odd choice, that's all," says Sirius. With that, he draws up his legs and settles down sideways on the sofa, his head on the armrest. It looks painfully cramped. "I mean," he continues, "when you could have spent the evening traipsing after the other Slytherin toadstools. It's Mulciber's 17th today, is it?"

"How on earth would you know?" says Regulus. Suspicion rears its head. "Have you gone through my mail?"

Sirius snorts. "Drunk idiots all over Camden," he says. "I hear our birthday boy passed out in a bus shelter. Nearly got picked up by a Muggle ambulance."

"You make it sound like so much fun," says Regulus. "Shame I had to give it a miss."

"So you weren't there with them?" says Sirius, still a hint of mistrust in his voice.

"I think I just said that."

"Glad to hear it," says Sirius. "Would have hated to have to call that ambulance on you."

Regulus groans softly. "You're an idiot. I hope you're aware." He hopes Mulciber was as passed out as Sirius says he was. The boy might be unpleasant at school, but he is downright terrible with Muggles.

There's an uncomfortable, horizontal shrug from the sofa. "I'm not the one spending this fine July night studying. What on earth could possibly have you worried so much?"

Right. So it might be a bit of a sore subject for Sirius, what with the massive row he had with their parents two weeks ago, but he literally asked for it. "Oh, I don't know, maybe O.W.L.s?" says Regulus.

"O.W.L.s," says Sirius. He takes this moment of confusion to swing back into an upright position, a little too far in the other direction, then oscillates back, folding his legs underneath . "O.W.L.s," he repeats. "Now that is interesting. They're a year away. Why O.W.L.s?"

"Ten months," Regulus corrects him. "And I don't know if you noticed while you were casually breezing through them, but they cover five years of classes."

"Oh, there's a trick to it," says Sirius dismissively. "It's called getting it the first time round. What are you stuck on, then?"

"I'm not stuck, I'm just –" starts Regulus. All right, he is stuck. "Defence," he mutters. "Working my way through the alphabet." He pauses, but really, he's in for a mocking either way. "I got all the way to B."

"Basilisks, Banshees, Bundimuns – no, no, let me guess… Boggarts?" says Sirius, and Regulus nods. "Oh, this is hilarious. They're easy. All you have to do is point and laugh."

"Yes, I see how that one would come easily to you," says Regulus sourly. "They're actually quite a complex species, if you bothered to pay attention to the finer points."

"And I'm sure a Boggart would be flattered to hear you talk like that," says Sirius. "Did you know that Muggles make art just to scare other Muggles? They write books and such. I'd explain what a horror movie is, but it took me ages to understand – they'd think a Boggart a fine artist, wouldn't you agree?"

It's one of Sirius's conversational traps; he's nearly as good at those as Mother is. "I don't make a habit of agreeing with hypothetical Muggles," says Regulus. Instinctively, he looks around the room in case anyone – or anything – is listening. But there's nothing beyond the shifting shadows.

"The point is," says Sirius, and he drags a hand through his hair, "the point is, the finer points don't matter. Artistry has no place in defence. How did you do in the practical?"

"Didn't," says Regulus. "We had Dvorky in Third Year, remember. Not a big fan of practical lessons."

"Big fan of private practical lessons, I've heard," quips Sirius, and it's so terrible Regulus has to laugh.

"Where does the old man find them," he says.

It doesn't mean much in this grim dusty darkness, but he imagines that Sirius is cocking his head to the side and staring at him intently.

"And because of a shit Defence teacher in your Third Year, you are now panicking and cramming like your O.W.L.s are tomorrow," says Sirius.

"I am not panicking," declares Regulus, perhaps quicker and with more conviction than strictly needed, "I –"

"Let me be the judge of that." A shift and a twist in the shadows. A grin, perhaps. "What you need," says Sirius, "is a real Boggart to practise on. Come on upstairs, I know where Father is keeping his."

There is really not a whole lot Regulus can say to that one except, "Why would he keep a Boggart." Then again, he thinks, why would Father buy slippers that chew up your toes. In Grimmauld Place, why is a rhetorical question.

"Why would you keep any pet," says Sirius with a certain amount of disdain. "Because you can teach it tricks."

Boggart. Shifty. Malicious. Dark, Regulus finds himself rehearsing in his thoughts, and then he remembers the heavy book currently lying open on his desk: How To Traine Your Boggarte. Now he wishes he'd read that one more thoroughly.

"How do you know?" he says.

"We've met," says Sirius shortly. In the shadows, his dark silhouette twists again, trying and failing to get comfortable on the tiny sofa.

Regulus pauses for a moment. "Well, I guess I have a tonne of follow-up questions, but the most pressing is probably, why are you snooping through Father's things?"

"Oh," says Sirius. "Oh. No, you got it wrong. It came to visit me. Stayed all night, I think it liked me." He laughs, and something is wrong with that, Regulus thinks, because none of this sounds funny. "I taught it a trick, too."

"Huh," says Regulus. All night? He can't imagine a worse nightmare. "I thought the trick was just to point and laugh."

"It is, if you have a wand," says Sirius. He has drawn up his legs on the sofa, hugging his knees, and Regulus is quite sure he is looking up. "So. You. Me. Boggart," says Sirius. "I want to see you come up with in a fight." There's something in his voice, thinks Regulus. That exact same thing that has Sirius constantly on a collision course with the nearest brick wall. A certain destructive drive. A will. A hunger -

And then the shadows fold in on themselves, like someone turning his back and leaving, and for a moment there is nothing, just blackness, just Regulus talking to himself alone in a haunted house after midnight. And still he feels watched, so intently watched -

With a single flick of his wand, he ignites all the candles in the chandelier, and the parlour is instantly filled with bright, flickering light. What he sees makes him instinctively take a step back.

"Oy!" shouts Sirius. "Warn a brother, will you!" He's shielding his eyes with his hands, and while Regulus is a bit blinded himself, he can still see there's something very, very wrong with them.

"What the hell, Sirius," says Regulus.

Sirius's knuckles are bruised and bloody. His face, when he lowers his hands, is in a similar state, purple and red scuff marks on his cheek and jaw. His lower lip is split and bleeding. He stares up at Regulus, eyes narrowed, all coiled up like a cat about to pounce. Like he hasn't had enough yet.

Regulus's first instinct is simply walk away. A lifetime of experience has taught him not to insert himself into whatever conflicts are going on in his brother's life, largely because most of them are between him and their parents. Except things have improved, haven't they? That's what he's been telling himself for two years now. Their parents haven't laid a hand on Sirius in ages, possibly not since the terrible summer before last –

"Weren't you supposed to get your hair cut," Regulus says, and he's not sure if he's defusing the situation, or merely avoiding it.

"Yes," admits Sirius.

"I left you at the hairdresser's!" says Regulus. "You were sitting in the chair already! How on earth –"

"I was late for a thing," says Sirius.

"What thing?" says Regulus. "Unless you had an appointment for getting beaten up –"

"Oh, that," says Sirius. "I told you. Drunk idiots all over Camden. Just like in school, except look Ma, no wand."

"So, no haircut and a brawl? That's a shit alibi, Sirius." says Regulus. "You were gone for eight hours."

"You want to be an accessory? You can be an accessory," says Sirius., because he never lets himself be cornered for long. "Or you could do the rational thing and let me resort to lies and obfuscation. Speaking of which." He sighs, staring down at his hands. "Can I borrow your wand," he adds.

Regulus hesitates. Because this is Sirius's punishment for the Muggle Studies O.W.L.: No magic for an entire summer. They've taken his wand, and now he can't even get into Diagon Alley on his own. They've locked away the Floo powder. They've instructed Kreacher not to listen to him. See how much he likes living like a Muggle. And Regulus absolutely knows better than to get in the way of one of their parents' power plays.

A few awkward seconds tick by, and Sirius looks down. "All right then, have it your way. I just – shit, I really can't let them see this. I thought I was doing well, all things considered."

And the curious thing is: Sirius has been doing well, disregarding minor details such as the Muggle Studies O.W.L. Regulus can't remember a summer in which he wanted to clip his brother round the ears less. Sirius has spent hours at Madam Malkin's, getting fitted for dress robes for Narcissa's upcoming wedding, and they're every inch as ridiculous as Regulus's – if not more so, because he is the heir and to Madam Malkin that means sequins. He's gone to ballroom dance lessons twice a week, same as Regulus, and he's bloody excelled at them.

So why would Sirius chicken out tonight, three days before the wedding? There is a breath-taking lack of sense to this entire situation. Why would he flee the hairdresser's chair and then roam Muggle London for eight hours? What could he possibly be trying to accomplish?

Whatever it is, if their parents find out it'll be an explosion, and Regulus has become far too accustomed to all the peace and quiet of the last two weeks. "Oh, for God's sake, have it," he says, and holds out his wand. "If you tell anyone, I swear I will –", he pauses, searching for an appropriate threat, then finishes with a rather anticlimactic, "feign ignorance."

Sirius accepts his wand gracefully and with an irritating lack of surprise. "Thanks," he says. He points the wand at the grazes and cuts on his left hand and applies a number of wordless spells. Drunk though he might be, his magic is impressive, even with a borrowed wand. The bruises bloom in reverse, sink below the surface. The cuts smoothen out. He does the same thing on his right hand, wand in his left, and it works mesmerisingly well. Regulus watches with some envy, because it really shouldn't work at all. He himself has trouble with simple levitation charms when he uses his non-dominant hand, and that's with his own wand.

"What's it turn into for you. The Boggart," says Regulus, because he'd really rather not talk about either Sirius's effortless superiority, or the fact that Mulciber's drunk friends beat him up regardless.

"Oh, this and that," says Sirius. "Keeps changing." Regulus waits for him to elaborate, but he never does. Instead, Sirius waves the wand at his palm in a complicated flashy motion. Regulus is convinced at least half of that is him taking the piss, and can hardly hold back a gasp of surprise when the skin on Sirius's palm turns into glossy, uneven silver.

"You know, there's a mirror right over the mantlepiece," says Regulus.

"Getting up is so Muggle," says Sirius with a sly grin. "Magic is might, remember? Oh, will you look at this face! This is a delicate task." He examines his distorted reflexion in the makeshift mirror on his palm, trying out a few spells on his bruised cheek. Regulus is almost relieved to see those are a lot less effective when Sirius can hardly see what is going on.

Without warning, Sirius hands the wand back to Regulus. "Help me out here," he says.

"What," says Regulus. He hates being put on the spot. And surely Sirius can manage this himself; he'd been quite comfortable showing off up until now. Regulus turns the wand in his hand, doesn't even know where to begin. "You know I'm shit at healing spells."

Sirius seems exasperated. "You've been on the Quidditch team for three years, surely you've picked up something,"

"I'm the Seeker," says Regulus. "I'm the one who ends up being healed."

It's the truth. Seeking is risky business. Even their mother, whose greatest character flaw is certainly not excessive concern for her sons' wellbeing, has taken him aside last June and asked him to play a little more carefully.

"You're a bloody moron, is what you are," says Sirius, who has given him much the same lecture – albeit with a lot more swearing - after the last game of the year, when he'd cracked his head open. "Scared of everything except heights, I suppose. The Boggart will love you. It'll follow you around forever… Which form do you think it should pick?"

Regulus had been trying to convince himself that any self-respecting Boggart would just take a look at him and give up in confusion, but he knows Sirius is right. This is not how it works. A Class C Malicious Being is a parasite, a tick; it digs its metaphorical teeth in and doesn't let go.

Could it turn into water, he wonders. Dark, cool water from the Black Lake, impenetrable, deceptive. He imagines meeting the Boggart where it dwells in Father's study. The water would run down the stairs and flood the cellar, the parlour, the drawing room, and all the cursed things inside them. The thought makes him laugh, and Sirius gives him a look that is almost reproachful. Could it turn into the pale man, he thinks. The tall pale man he saw in his room – but that's just a mask and a set of robes, it's not real, it's not real.

And lastly, could it turn into Father, but then, how would he notice the difference?

"My notes say," begins Regulus, and then tries to remember what they actually say. Shifty. Malicious. Dark. "My notes say it's going to be something over the top," he says. "Something unrealistic and out of place."

Sirius shrugs and makes an expansive gesture, encompassing the many, many cabinets with Dark Artefacts, the music boxes that will send you into deeper and deeper sleep, the rings that will shrink after you put them on, just a little bit every day, until your fingers turn black and fall off, the stacks and stacks of sheet music for the harpsichord under the bay window, with dire warnings that those notes should never, ever be played.

"Everything here is over the top," says Sirius. "Come on, now. It's a simple enough question. What scares you most right now?"

"Right now, you say?" Visions rise up in Regulus's mind of a grinning, glowing Lord Voldemort clambering out of a desk drawer, who dislocates his jaw like a snake and swallows Regulus whole. The dead, headless house-elf laid out on the kitchen table, rising to brief, vengeful afterlife. His own reflection in the surface of a bottomless lake. All of which, if said out loud, would probably meet with Sirius's approval – that boy has a streak for drama a mile wide. But in all honesty, right now -

"O.W.L.s, probably," Regulus admits.

"Huh," says Sirius, and he looks genuinely disappointed and a little suspicious. "Well, good news is, you don't need to bother with Riddikulus, because that is already objectively ridiculous."

Regulus takes a deep breath, remembers why it's a time-honoured Slytherin tradition not to give your deepest fears away. Because they can and will be used against you.

Then again, Regulus is not the one with open wounds on his face. If that doesn't win him the argument, then what will. "Good thing I have my Gryffindor big brother," he says, "who is so above mundane fear that he doesn't know when to run the fuck away!"

"When has panicking ever solved a single problem?" says Sirius.

"I am studying for my O.W.L.s!" snaps Regulus. "How is that not solving the problem!"

"No, you are pretending to solve the problem!" says Sirius. "You're overpreparing for the O.W.L.s, instead of trying to figure out why they scare you silly in the first place!"

"And why's that, genius," says Regulus. "Since you've got me all figured out."

Sirius opens his mouth, then closes it. "I don't know," he says, and for a moment Regulus is convinced he's telling the truth. All pretence of that is lost when Sirius adds, "But your Defence marks are fine. If you're trying to solve the problem of O.W.L.s, I suggest you start with Divination."

Regulus flinches, tries to direct it inward, but to no avail, because Sirius grins. Nothing makes him happier than knowing he got to Regulus.

Typical of Sirius, too, to end the conversation on this note. "You know what," he says, "I am too drunk for this bullshit. I'm going to bed."

He springs up from the sofa and makes his barefooted way across the eighteenth-century Persian rug, narrowly missing the flesh-eating curses knotted into the Herati pattern, like he doesn't even care for the skin on his feet.

"Tell me when you decide you want a go at the Boggart, though," Sirius adds. "I wouldn't miss that for the world."

And then he stands still. Because in the ringing silence of Grimmauld Place, there are heavy steps in the hall outside. And there is really just one person that could be.

"You said he was out," hisses Sirius. "This is all your fault, you –"

"He was out," Regulus whispers back. "And these parties at Borgin and Burkes go on forever, I didn't expect him back until sunrise!"

"Oh shit oh shit oh shit," says Sirius, gingerly touching his face. "He really doesn't need to know I got into a fight with the bloody pillars of Pureblood society."

He looks up. "I'll try and sneak up the back stairs. If he sees me, say you did this. Please?"

"Me?" says Regulus incredulously. "Why would I ever –"

"Oh, I don't know, tell him I deserved it, he'll believe that."

Then the door creaks open, and Sirius decides to dive behind the bloody harpsichord of all things. It's a shit hiding place even with the shadows that have retreated there.

"Oh, good, Regulus," says Orion. He is still wearing his light summer travelling cloak. "I was hoping you'd still be awake." His gaze sweeps over the room. "Have you seen your brother?" he says, slightly wrinkling his nose.

"I believe he's gone to bed early," murmurs Regulus. "I haven't seen him all evening."

Regulus knows that his father takes note of the askew Persian, the rumpled decorative cushions on the sofa, and worst of all, Sirius's new boots, already scuffed and dirty after just one night out, one at the foot of the sofa, the other one halfway across the parlour.

"A problem for tomorrow, then," says Orion. "Come join me in my study, Regulus. There is a discussion we ought to have. Tell that house-elf to bring up a nightcap."

"Kreacher is on vigil, Father," Regulus reminds him, but Orion has already exited, closing the door with a sound like a tomb.

Shit, shit, shit. Over the harpsichord, Sirius stares at him. The study is bad news, and they both know it. Really, really bad news.

"Have you even been in the study before," whispers Sirius.

"Not in two years," Regulus reminds him. He can't blame Sirius for forgetting, really, since he keeps those memories shut firmly away himself. He opens the cabinet with his Father's prized spirits. Shit. "Which one do I take up?"

"What, no panic?" says Sirius. "No running away?"

"Don't sound so disappointed," says Regulus. His takes a step back, surveying the shelves and shelves of bottles. "Uh…"

"I've seen him offer the brandies to business partners," Sirius volunteers.

"Probably laced with Veritaserum then," says Regulus. "What's this one, Irish whiskey? He's not too fond of the Irish, isn't he."

"That's not much of a clue," says Sirius. "He's not very fond of anyone."

"Yeah, but a man's got to hide his poison somewhere…" mutters Regulus. "Scotch whisky? That is a reasonable choice, isn't it?

All the Scotch whiskies are for some reason extremely dusty except for two: Ogden's Ancient, which gives off a faint smell of blueberries and tea that Regulus would recognise anywhere as Dreamless Sleep Potion, and the Macallan Fire, which is half gone and doesn't smell of anything much except maybe the stuff Kreacher uses to clean the oven.

Preparing a tray probably takes him three times as long as it would Kreacher, and Sirius isn't helping. He's watching Regulus pour whisky into a decanter, his expression thoughtful, almost calculating. Regulus half expects him to follow when he picks up the tray and carefully carries it upstairs, past the rows of shrunken house-elf heads, but when he ends up in front of his Father's door, he finds himself all alone. His heart is beating in his throat and his hands are sweatier than they should be, even with the bloody summer.

After a deep breath or three, Regulus knocks on the heavy oak door and almost drops the tray when Orion calls, "Come in."

The study is bright and stifling warm, a hundred torches on full blast, but what catches Regulus's eyes is a parcel sitting on the armchair, wrapped in brown paper and stamped with the Borgin & Burkes crest. He makes it all the way to the middle of the Roman-style tablinum before Orion looks up from his desk.

"Ah, thank you, Regulus," says Orion, taking the tray from him and pouring a generous measure of Macallan Fire from the decanter into two tumblers. The sight of the honey-coloured liquid makes Regulus's stomach roll. What if he picked the wrong one? What if this will make him double over, or foam at the mouth, or merely spill all his secrets?

Well then, he thinks. In light of these doubts, it would be incredibly impolite to wait for his father to drink first. As if on autopilot, Regulus takes the offered glass, takes the tiniest sip he can possibly get away with, and it still sears his tongue and burns all the way down his protesting throat. But he doesn't die, so that's a plus.

On the other hand, there's really no telling how long he has left, because there's a slim folder on Orion's desk that Orion is now taking up and flipping through.

"Regulus," says his father, and he swallows, nearly choking on the lingering burn.

"Yes, Father," he says.

"You know what this is?" says Orion.

"My report cards from Hogwarts," says Regulus.

Orion sets down the folder, and sighs. "Then you already know why I've asked you here," he says.

The trouble with choosing the path of least resistance is that sometimes, there's really no telling which one that is until he comes out on the other side. Regulus settles for a non-committal, "Father?"

Orion sighs. "Tell me what's wrong with your report cards."

So non-committal is out, then. Feigning ignorance, however, is still in the running. "I've averaged at least Exceeds Expectations in all classes but one," says Regulus, his eyes cast downward. It's dangerously close to insolence, but by miles better than what he almost says – you try being top of your year when anxiety chews up one half of your day and Dreamless Sleep Potion swallows the other.

"Yes, we are painfully aware of your abysmal performance in Divination," says Orion. So much for feigning ignorance. "As for the rest ," adds Orion, "you are aware the expectations are different for someone of your status? You're not meeting them, let alone exceeding them." He speaks with a sneer. "Your brother, despite his many faults, at least has realised this."

Regulus wonders what Sirius would think, if he could hear this. Sirius with his twelve O.W.L.s, nine of which were "Outstanding". One of those is, unfortunately, Muggle Studies, and frankly this may be the only reason why Regulus still won this summer's popularity contest.

Another is bloody Divination.

"Open it," says Orion, with a nod to the wrapped parcel.

"What is it?" asks Regulus, before he can help himself.

"That question," says Orion drily, "is entirely against the spirit of Divination. Give it a guess."

Regulus gingerly picks up the parcel. In his experience, nothing good ever comes wrapped in Borgin and Burke's brown packing paper. He can tell the thing inside is roughly spherical, and surprisingly heavy for its size. And with the way this conversation is going –

"Is it a crystal ball," he says. Honestly, the thing is a bit squishy, but that, too, is not too unusual, considering the source. The things from Borgin and Burke's are only ever a rough approximation of themselves.

"Good," says Orion. "Go on."

Regulus carefully peels off the brown paper. It is damp and smells faintly of seaweed and stagnant water. After that, there is another layer, this one waxed. The thing inside feels like a giant grape, he thinks, yes, a grape that is about to go off. He presses his finger in its side; it leaves a dent. Then, wishing he had his dragon-hide gloves from Herbology, he unfolds the layer of wax paper.

For a long moment, he just stares at the thing.

The thing stares back.

"It's an eye," he states, wishing he didn't sound so defeated. So weak. He flattens the wax paper on his father's desk and carefully sets the thing down, resisting the overwhelming urge to wipe his hands on his trousers.

"The eye," says Orion, "of a Giant Squid. Its only eye. Largest eye there is in the world. Very rare. Very powerful. Superior, in short, to the mass-produced crystal balls you are forced to use at Hogwarts."

"Fascinating," tries Regulus, and then, despite himself, "Did they let the Squid live or."

Orion shrugs. It is not the sort of question he concerns himself with. "If you can't See in this…" Orion continues, "then you are truly hopeless, wouldn't you agree?"

Regulus raises his head to look at his father, and wishes he hadn't. It is clear that Orion wants him to prove it right now – on this stifling summer night, when he has been up for eighteen hours – that he is not truly hopeless. That he can See something, even if it takes special expensive dead gelatine for him to do it.

He wishes – sometimes, not too often – that he were like Sirius, able to make things up on the spot. Sirius says he has never seen a single bloody thing in his tea leaves, or his cards, or his palms, in the milky depths of a crystal ball or the glistening entrails of a dead pigeon. He just enjoys telling stories.

Regulus sees water.

His tealeaves: Dregs of muddy water. His cards: The Queen of Cups, waiting by the waterfront. His crystal ball: Unmoving, opaque water. His sign: Cancer, one of the Water Trigon. His palms: Somehow, impossibly, water. Even on the Ouija board the Slytherins aren't supposed to have – there are some nasty spirits down in the dungeons – he'd get an S, and another S, and another, and the other Slytherins think they're snakes but Regulus knows they're waves on the water.

So, yes. He really did deserve that P in Divination. And if his father truly believes this is because Hogwarts' standard-issue crystal balls are not posh enough for the likes of a Black – well, he is going to find out.

With a wave of his wand, Orion dims the lights. Shadows fall and creep forward. On the desk, the eye pulses slightly, the white growing translucent. Regulus sits in front of it, stares at this dead thing, and sees the water it came from.

"Concentrate," says Orion, as if he could, with his father leaning over the table, watching over him while he is attempting to do the one thing he really can't, which is see through the water. "What is in there?"

"A lake," whispers Regulus. The lake is grey, the surface undisturbed. Like it's waiting for something.

"Of course, your poor teacher mentioned," says Orion. "Go on."

Regulus stares at the poor creature's eye, but the moment is gone and he doesn't particularly miss it. He shakes his head.

"I'm sorry," he murmurs.

To his great horror, Orion walks around the table, lays a hand on his shoulder. He doesn't usually do that.

"Your mother," says Orion, close to his ear, "she sets great store in Divination. There is no causality, only magic. If we can turn a teapot into a tortoise, then we can know which way it'll crawl. It makes sense, don't you think?"

"Yes, Father," says Regulus. The darkness, combined with the heat, makes him slow and sleepy.

"I, on the other hand…" says Orion, "well, who needs Divination when we can make that tortoise crawl wherever we want?"

His fingers dig into Regulus's shoulder. Regulus can't even remember when his father touched him the last time. "There will come a time in your life," says Orion, "and believe me, it'll be sooner than you think – where you find you will need to talk. To tell people what they want to hear so you can get what you want, whatever you want. You'll make that tortoise dance."

"You mean for me to lie," says Regulus. Oh, if his father knew how much he lies.

Orion sighs. "What do you see, Regulus?" he says.

Regulus forces his gaze back on the eye. The brackish smell grows stronger, mingling with the formaldehyde from downstairs. It has much the same effect on him as the incense in the Divination classroom. His thoughts grow muddy as does his vision, and in the corner of his eyes, he sees something – a shadow, misaligned, falling over the orb –

"A boat?" he says.

"Meaning what?" says Orion. "A new beginning? Travel? Riches? Tell me what I want to hear."

"It's just a rowboat," guesses Regulus, and that is a lie. It's just a shadow on a milky dead eye. "It's under the water."

A shadow that wasn't there a second ago, when neither of them have moved.

"Sunken?"

"Waiting," says Regulus, and he doesn't even know why, except that the boat doesn't look damaged at all.

His father sighs deeply. "Waiting for what, Regulus?"

An image, unbidden: The tall pale man in his bedroom, that nightmare mask, moulded after a nightmare face. Him.

"The ferryman," he whispers. Before him, the water moves: Not a lake, perhaps. A river. Styx.

For a moment, it's eerily quiet in the study; not a sound except the faint burble of water.

Then a voice cuts through the tension: Someone is laughing, and it's definitely not Regulus. Nor is it Orion, whose hand finally lets go of Regulus's shoulder, and he looks up at the interruption, annoyed.

"He's had enough for today, don't you think?" says Sirius from where he's lounging in an armchair.

Despite the summer heat, Regulus grows cold. He hasn't even heard his brother come in. Now Sirius glides forward to stand by Regulus's side, meeting their father's gaze without hesitation. The move is bold even by his questionable standards.

"Not sure what to think about the dead squid eye," Sirius says, wrinkling his nose with something that looks like disgust but might also be approval. "Cos if you're trying to give him a fright – well, you're just shooting fish in a barrel, aren't you."

Orion stares at Sirius and something in his mild expression looks like it wants to change. In the end, he keeps it under control. "Go to bed, Sirius," he says. "This doesn't concern you."

"Mother always says I should take my responsibilities as the Black heir more seriously," says Sirius, with a wink at Regulus. "I dunno, this seemed like a good opportunity to start. You tutor him in Divination and I'll do Defence. Problem solved, correct?"

"Since you insist on bringing up your responsibilities," says Orion. "Tell me, son, what happened to your face?"

Regulus opens his mouth to take the blame, as more-or-less agreed on previously, but Sirius just talks over him.

"I stayed out late in Muggle London and got into a fight," says Sirius, in a tone that seems unaware that this confession may just start World War Three.

"You would." Orion surveys Sirius's face, even goes so far as to reach out, grab his chin to turn the bruises into the flickering light. Under his analytical gaze, they look even worse than they had in the parlour. They're terribly mundane. Pure violence, no magic at all.

"Who?" says Orion.

"His terrible friends," says Sirius with a nod at Regulus. "Mulciber and the lot. Pride of Slytherin house."

"They're not my friends," says Regulus quickly.

"They should be," says Orion off-handedly. He gives a small tut of disappointment. "Embarrassing. Heir to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black." The way he says it, it sounds like mockery. "Out on the streets, fighting like a common Muggle. Losing like a common Muggle."

"If I'd had my wand," says Sirius, "I could have fought like a wizard."

He's walking a very fine line, realises Regulus. Talking to their father can be a game of four-dimensional chess at the best of times. Be obedient. Be assertive. Follow the rules. Lead, don't follow. You're dirt. You're royalty. Magic is might. The trouble is, Sirius has been historically shit at walking this line. And Regulus can read their father, and calm as he may be, it is the sort of calm that means all the birds have stopped singing.

Regulus knows, of course, that the entire thing is a distraction for his sake. Sirius is stealing the limelight so Regulus can get out of this unscathed once again, whatever it is, impromptu Divination lessons during Witching Hour.

Except Regulus doesn't want his help, and, he knows now, he's never wanted it: Because, eventually, Sirius will decide it's not worth it. And then he will leave, and Regulus will be all alone.

And that, Regulus realises with chilling clarity, is the thing that scares him most in the world.

"I am tired, Father," he whispers, unwilling to deal with the aftermath of this realisation. "May I be excused?"

Orion sighs. "Not yet," he says, and he walks back to the other side of the desk, shuffles through his folder.

"Your mother and I have talked it through. You, Regulus, are a true Slytherin," says Orion, pointedly ignoring Sirius for now, which Regulus feels is a situation neither Sirius nor himself will be able to stand for long.

"You may not be cut out for academia," Orion continues with a glance at the folder, "but you have talent for politics, for liaison, for subtlety. This," - and he motions to the horrible Squid eye -, "talking, divining which future most benefits us - is a skill you can learn, and indeed I will teach you. Perhaps you are wondering why. Let me tell you."

He pauses for gravity. "While we are having this conversation, the world is changing quickly – too quickly, perhaps, for some of us, those who have grown comfortable – and we, as a family, need to make the sort of liaisons that will ensure we continue to thrive."

Regulus tries to keep his face blank. He really doesn't like the sound of the word liaison. Or thrive, for that matter. It sounds exactly like the sort of speech a young Black would get right before their betrothal to a more-or-less distant cousin. Or worse -

"You want him to join Voldemort," Sirius says very, very softly. Case in bloody point, thinks Regulus, before he fully registers what Sirius has said, and that's when a wave of terror hits him, so hard and so bodily it might as well be nausea. Maybe it's the awful firewhisky, he thinks. Or maybe it's the name. Maybe he's just seasick, on that rowboat, halfway across the river Styx –

Orion closes his eyes in exasperation. "Note that I do not include you in this praise of subtlety," he says, and Sirius shrugs, fearlessly.

"You know me, of course," says Sirius. "And I you."

Orion glances over to him, briefly, almost bored, but something seems to catch his attention, and he examines Sirius more closely. Finally, he nods, and Sirius gives him a wide open smile.

And proceeds to fire another missile. "Why him, though?" says Sirius. "Why not me? I'm the heir, I should get dibs."

"You know exactly why," says Orion.

"Yes, I do," says Sirius matter-of-factly. "I want you to tell him. Tell him why you expect him to sell his soul for a pittance, and why you're letting me off the hook. I've fought you all my life, and I never thought I might be winning, except now you're giving up on me with four months to go. He spent years trying to make you both happy."

Sirius draws up to Orion, closer than Regulus would ever be comfortable with, and says, "I want you to explain to him that this is his reward for being good. Go on. He's terrified already, I bet you can make him cry."

"That's quite enough," says Orion very, very calmly.

"I've got plenty more," says Sirius.

"I'm sure of it," says Orion. "You can tell the Lethifold after I've locked you in the cellar." Sirius shoots him a look like a dagger, but Orion has his hand on his wand now, and even Sirius exhibits occasional bouts of self-preservation. So Sirius takes a watchful step back.

"Now, Regulus," Orion continues, "understand what we are offering. Take this year to think about how best you may serve this family. The choice is all yours. And if, after O.W.L.s, you still feel that school is not for you, well, you don't have to go back. The world awaits you."

Regulus swallows around the lump in his throat. It's not as if he hasn't expected this, this thing that Sirius put into words so succinctly. You want him to join Voldemort. He has ruminated on this too many late nights, early mornings, even before Bellatrix started writing all these letters, sending him these… things, cloaks and knives and a silver mask that fits him perfectly. He wonders if this is her doing, too; if she has whispered into Orion's ear to take him out of Hogwarts early. Let her gift-wrap and deliver him. He'd thought he'd have until N.E.W.T.s, at least.

He looks at his father and knows it's not an offer. It's just Orion making the tortoise dance. Yes, father, is his first wretched reflex, and he swallows it down.

"But," he says. "Won't they laugh at me? My peers. When I cannot use a nonverbal jinx, or brew a blended antidote, or recognise a Boggart in the wild?"

"Oh, please," says Orion. "Your peers are idiots whose opinions ought not concern you, and you should be able to do all of these things already."

"Yes, Father," says Regulus, recognising a losing battle when he sees it. "Thank you, Father. Please, may I be excused." The tumbler is still in his shaking hands, and for lack of anything better to do, he drinks again. His mouth is dry and numb from the last time, but the warmth sits there in his belly, spreads out into his arms and legs and he can't stop shaking, he can't. He thought he'd have three more years, and now it's, perhaps, only one. He will need to sway them. He will need to be better -

At his side, Sirius gives him a very soft nudge. Startled, Regulus almost drops his glass. Sirius gives him a subtle nod and Regulus follows his gaze, towards their father's hand, holding the tumbler, swirling the amber liquid thoughtfully. The shadows are all wrong.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," says Sirius when Regulus doesn't immediately jump to some sort of ill-defined conclusion. "Are you going to do it, or what."

"Do what," whispers Regulus.

Sirius just laughs. "Think of something funny, Reg."

"What?"

But he can't fight it: Understanding pools through him, not a lake now, a waterfall. Regulus can hardly breathe, sweat running down the back of his neck. Oh, this blasted summer.

He never meant to find the Boggart. But the Boggart found him anyway, dug its teeth in, like a tick, and it's sucking him dry.

"Put that away, boy," says Orion, his low, dangerous voice cutting through his whirling thoughts.

"I," starts Regulus. Indeed, his wand is in his hand, pointed at his father, accidentally or on purpose, and it feels unnaturally hot. Something funny, he thinks. Nothing about this is funny, and his mind is as blank as the surface of the sea.

"Think of Tilly," says Sirius softly. "Think of her head, shrunken and preserved like last year's gooseberry crop. Think a head like that could tell you what to do? Think you could laugh at that?"

They both watch him very carefully now, Orion all calculating, waiting for him to step over the line. Sirius, half concerned, half amused, and as usual so far over the line he can't even see it anymore.

"The spell is Riddikulus," Sirius says helpfully.

"Yes, I know," Regulus says, clutching his wand so hard his knuckles turn white. If he gets this wrong – if he gets any of this wrong – who would ever forgive him?

Not Orion, he thinks, and that decides it.

"Riddikulus!" he shouts.

The spell hits Sirius square in the chest and he gasps, but not with fear. Funny, thinks Regulus. Wasn't I supposed to laugh? For the thing that looks like Sirius laughs like it can't ever stop.

"Like shooting fish in a barrel," it says eventually. "Cheers, Mr Black. Your sons are a riot."

And then it twists and turns and into the shadows it goes, leaving Regulus all alone.


Nearly an hour has passed. Regulus has lain in bed for most of it, on top of the covers and careful not to move in the still oppressive heat. He listens to the noises the house makes. Mother has come home, slamming every door in her wake, shouting at Kreacher for not being there to take her coat, shouting at Orion that England is going to the dogs, shouting at Sirius for still being out. When his parents have settled, Regulus tiptoes into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face –

"Oh, you poor child," says his image in the mirror, "it must be poison. Come closer, boy, and let me -"

– so he flicks some soap at it and goes back to bed. The mattress like quicksand already, heavy and far, far too warm, but his daily dose of Dreamless Sleep Potion will take care of that. It always does.

He fishes the vial out of his nightstand, peels the foil off and tips the contents down his throat. His limbs grow soft and heavy at the first faint taste of blueberries and tea, even though, logically, he knows it takes a good few minutes to kick in.

Through the low lullaby in his ears, he hears the front door go with the merest of sounds, hears soft footsteps along the hall and up the stairs. They creep past his door and he holds his breath and tries to disappear. A creak in the hall, a silence, a whole indecisive dance.

Then the doorknob turns with the faintest of clicks. Clockwise, anticlockwise, anticlockwise, up, and that treacherous door falls open.

"Oh," Regulus hears himself say, his voice barely above a whisper. "Not you again."

He has barely set down the empty vial on the night stand when Sirius sneaks in, barefoot on the thick carpet. He plonks down on his bed as if he belongs there, and glares at him with colourless eyes.

The confusion on his face rather spoils whatever effect he's going for. "…Again?" says Sirius.

From outside the window, the Muggle street lights bathe the room in orange light. The shadows are just shadows now. Without the bruises, Sirius looks surprisingly all right, every inch the heir, his hair unexpectedly short and neat and somehow still falling into his eyes just so.

Regulus supposes this must be the original Sirius. If there's one thing the Boggart couldn't do, it's surprise him.

"I met Father's Boggart," Regulus whispers. Lying is a bit of a chore when he's hopped up on Dreamless Sleep Potion, and he can't always be bothered. Sirius looks down at him with an expression that's surprisingly soft. Pity, maybe.

"I'm sorry," says Sirius. "That thing's a right bastard; I hate it." He pauses. "It lies, you know."

"Yes, I know," says Regulus. "It's a Class C Malicious Being. It only talks to terrorise you."

"Swot." Sirius laughs softly. "What'd it say?"

"That you're going to leave."

Sirius exhales. "That bastard," he repeats.

Regulus wonders if there is any point in asking. Or any point in anything at all. He remains still, watches Sirius look around, look for words. It never takes him long. This time, the empty vial on the nightstand catches his eyes.

"Do you miss it sometimes?" Sirius asks. "Dreaming?"

Odd question, Regulus thinks. Bit like asking if he missed a cancer that grew on his heart, even if his chest feels empty without it. "Not those dreams," he says.

"You used to get so many nightmares," says Sirius. "Before. You'd dream of drowning in a pond. You'd come wake me up and tell me all about them. Creeped me the fuck out."

"Well, I'm not doing it anymore," Regulus snaps.

He is tempted, though: Tell Sirius all about the river Styx, and the rowboat he saw in that poor Squid's eye. Tell him about the ferryman, and the payment he will demand. Maybe then Sirius will think twice about running. Or maybe he won't be able to run fast enough. He knows about the dreamless sleep; perhaps best if he doesn't know about the sleepless dreams…

In his half-asleep and uncaring state, the conundrum is nigh unsolvable. "Where have you been?" Regulus asks instead.

Sirius huffs. "I got my hair cut," he says. "As I was told." The hand he runs through his hair stops in its tracks, as if he still can't believe how little there is left. He's gone for a classic undercut, a tad more daring than the typical Slytherin common room coiffure.

"Suits you," says Regulus, because someone has to. Mother will surely find something to complain about. She always does.

"Not the point," says Sirius.

He is right. The point, of course, is appeasement, and Regulus is a self-taught expert. And as such, he can't see this summer ending in anything but an explosion – because Sirius is not like him. When Sirius stashes away his feelings, they don't just disappear. They condense into something heavy, something volatile - something that is best dealt with by ducking.

Unfortunately, he has that from Mother, who is very unlikely to ignore an eight-hour detour between a haircut and home. "Where have you been?" Regulus asks again.

Sirius looks away, an admission of guilt before he even says it. "I met Uncle Alphard in Muggle London," he says. "He invited me out to dinner, then I took the long way home. That's all."

Uncle Alphard, the black sheep of the family. Recently disinvited to the wedding because it was discovered he still corresponds with Narcissa's sister Andromeda. This cannot mean anything good. "And what did you talk about," says Regulus.

"He has a flat in Camden he's not using; I had a look," says Sirius. "What? I need a place to live when I turn seventeen."

That really shouldn't have caught Regulus off guard - it's not as if he hasn't had this particular countdown stuck in his head for the last two years. Sirius's seventeenth birthday is four months from now, but Regulus still doesn't have anything resembling a contingency plan. "Here," he suggests.

Sirius snorts. "Anywhere but."

Regulus is sure his brother never meant his response to sound so cruel, but does it matter? He doesn't say anything, just succumbs to the low thrum in his ears, the sound of his sluggish blood. It isn't impolite to turn away and draw the covers over his head, he tells himself. With the Dreamless Sleep Potion coursing through his system, it's a wonder he's still some approximation of awake.

"Alphard told me I needed to speak to you," Sirius's voice cuts through his slow thoughts. "To stop with the stupid games and actually talk to you."

"Stupid games?" says Regulus. "… Which ones?" With some hesitation, he unrolls again from his cocoon and opens his eyes.

Sirius's gaze turns to the tall pale man in the corner, the silver mask wedged on top of Regulus's new dress robes.

"Did you enjoy my installation?" he asks.

Regulus gives a deep, heart-felt sigh. "I knew that was you," he says. "You really shouldn't be going through my things, it's disrespectful."

"Spare me the moral outrage," says Sirius. "You are fifteen, and no-one in this miserable house is looking out for you. Did Bella send you that thing?"

Regulus once again finds himself mesmerised by that silver nightmare face, the gaping eyes and mouth. He can't look away. "She's playing," he says. "Bella's just playing. I'm fifteen, what could they possibly want with me."

"Like a cat with her food," says Sirius. "You're the canary, Reg. She'll get you killed. She'll leave your carcass on Voldemort's doorstep."

Remind me to pay the ferryman, Regulus thinks with not a small amount of hysteria. "Poetic," he says. "What are you going to do, put me in a cage."

There is blessed silence for a long while. Regulus is a little surprised that Sirius doesn't blurt out the first thing that surely must have occurred to him, which is, "Come with me". Because even he must know it's impossible. The fearless Sirius Black himself is waiting until he is seventeen, until no-one can knock down his hard-fought door and drag him back to this house where even the mirrors try to eat him. Regulus has only just turned fifteen; he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

He feels the frustration inside Sirius, this problem without a solution. Sometimes he thinks they'd both be better off without the other. They could afford to be selfish, for one.

"I could stay," whispers Sirius, because he's a bloody Gryffindor. "I could. If you need me to. But you have to fight this, Reg. I'm not staying just for you to do this anyway."

"Stay," repeats Regulus, disbelieving. "You can't even stay out of trouble for a fortnight, how will you put up with this for another two years."

"Let's just see what the summer brings, shall we?" says Sirius. He springs up from Regulus's bed, sizes up the tall pale man in the corner. In a sudden impulse that shouldn't surprise Regulus – it still does, naturally, it startles him to the core – Sirius snatches the ugly silver mask, throws it against the wall with all his strength, and then he just stands there, still, almost thoughtful.

The noise is terrible, but the echo is worse. A floor away, Walburga starts yelling.

"I'll deal with that," says Sirius, and his face is a mask, too. "You just sleep, Reg. See you in the morning."

Sirius closes the door softly behind him, but he could have slammed it for all Regulus cares now, black dreamless sleep lapping at his foundations like water. In the corner of the room, the mask glitters. That silver thing, that inhuman face - it winks at him, and there he has it. Payment for the ferryman.


The End.