Amy (such_heights) wrote,
Amy
such_heights

FIC: I Know Where The Summer Goes

I Know Where The Summer Goes
PG-13, 7100 words.
Sirius, Regulus, and the Black Family.
Summary: The Black family travels en masse for their summer holiday. This time, Sirius isn't going home again.
Notes: For msqu at hp_summergen. With enormous thanks to my lovely beta, mrs_batman. Originally posted here, now slightly edited to slot better with DH canon.


Regulus smiled the embodiment of summer itself as the train pulled out of the station. Curled up in a corner, he took out a book to appease Narcissa, who had been set to watch the youngest Blacks. No one seemed to have noticed that he and Sirius couldn't quite qualify as children any more.

Really, Regulus was dreaming of freedom, of a month away from the grime and oppressive heat of London, to clearer skies where their mother's reins relaxed a little. He was looking forward to getting out to the sea during the day, and to sneaking out with his father for impromptu astronomy lessons at night.

He glanced up at Sirius, who was looking out of the window, but his eyes barely registered London's landmarks. Regulus watched him slowly blink, seeming very far away. Sirius then caught Regulus' eye, grinned quickly, and returned to the letter he was writing. Regulus idly leafed through his book and felt the lull of the train as it took them all away.

*


Sirius was on his feet as soon as the train began to slow down, restless from the journey. He grabbed his suitcase and dived into the corridor, pressing his nose against the window to peer at the coastline that hadn't been visible from their compartment. Water sloshed against the rocks below, and seagulls could be spotted in the distance. He smiled, lost in the view.

"All right there, Sirius?"

He turned to see Uncle Alphard shutting his compartment door, and nodded. "Just want to get there, that's all."

Alphard nodded. "I know the feeling. Between you and me," he said, lowering his voice to a conspiring whisper, "I don't know why the rest of the clan insist on coming this way every year. Nothing wrong with the Floo network, you know."

"Oh no," Sirius replied with his best impression of his father's booming tones, "that's much too common."

"Ah, so I'd feared," Alphard replied gravely. "Well then, young Sirius, we'll just have to make the best of things, won't we?" He squeezed his shoulder.

"Hey!" Sirius shrugged his hand off with a look of indignation. "I'm nearly of age now."

"And so you are," Alphard replied easily. "Forgive an old man's indulgence, would you? You and your cousins seem terribly young to me."

"Even Bella?" Sirius asked with a grin.

"Maybe not Bella," he conceded.

The train let out a loud, arriving whistle, and the rest of the Blacks began to emerge. Narcissa bustled Regulus out of their compartment, adjusting his collar. Walburga and Druella seemed deep in conversation, whilst Bellatrix looked on with a barely detectable frown on her face.

"Well then," Orion said with enthusiasm as he hefted up the largest suitcase. "Shall we get going?"

*


As they approached the house, Regulus hung back for a moment to admire the view. It was a sprawling building, with wings and annexes added over the years. An enormous lounge stretched out across the seafront, with more windows than walls and a deck extending like the fore of a ship. Steps ran down to an inlet where boats were moored, and on the other side was a tall stone tower, filled with a myriad of bedrooms, drawing rooms, and an enormous dining hall.

Orion insisted on a formal dinner the first night, and Regulus and Sirius were packed off to don formal robes with much protest. Regulus stared at himself mournfully in the mirror, horrified at his high collar and the thick, unyielding velvet.

"I'd forgotten how awful these were -- school robes seem the height of style now." He looked over at Sirius. "What are you doing?"

Sirius laughed as he turned around, revealing a considerably modified outfit. His robes were now artfully jagged where they ran down past an enormously ruffled shirt. Regulus raised a disparaging eyebrow.

"Running off to sea, are we?"

Sirius shrugged. "Something like that."

"She'll go mental," he said casually.

"She is mental."

"Your funeral -- I'll grab the camera, shall I?" Regulus gave Sirius another look up and down, torn between exasperation and amusement. "You're a complete idiot."

"But so dashing, don't you think?"

Regulus just rolled his eyes and headed downstairs.

Sirius lasted about thirty seconds, mostly by grace of bafflement on all sides, before being packed off to sort himself out "at once, young man!" An entrée of scallops was already on the table before he slipped into his chair next to Regulus, who was being plied with wine by Narcissa.

"I hope it was worth it?" he asked, delicately picking up a fork.

"You've got to do it, really," Sirius answered, still with the same inane grin he'd been wearing for most of the evening so far.

"Hmm, if you say so," Regulus replied, amused. "Mother had a time explaining it away to Cygnus, you know. You're 'dramatic', apparently."

"Really?" Sirius asked, sounding delighted.

Regulus shot him a look. "You are such a bloody Gryffindor, it's embarrassing."

"Oh shut it -- Cissa, pass me down a bit of that wine, would you? Cheers, my lovely." Sirius poured himself a liberal glass with a satisfied smack of the lips.

"Really embarrassing," Regulus concluded.

*


It was raining the next morning. Droplets pattering against the windowpanes woke Sirius unseasonably early, and so when he padded downstairs it was silent. After securing some toast from the kitchen, where house elves were already bustling around attempting to get the house up and running after its months in hibernation, he curled up in a window seat and watched the sea, which was becoming increasingly choppy.

There was a grey light over everything, making the beach below seem almost silvery. There were a couple of brave souls -- Prewetts, Sirius thought -- still trying to go for an early morning swim, but apart from that there seemed to be no activity at all. The rest of his household seemed to have taken the dismal weather as an opportunity to stay in bed, and so he decided to take a quick refresher tour of the house.

Room after room stretched out along the seafront, with a collection of chaise-lounges, bookcases, and old lamps dotted around in strategic positions. His father's study lay at the end; strictly forbidden, of course. With a cursory glance around his surroundings, Sirius turned the door handle. Surprisingly, the door opened. He crept inside, wondering why on earth he hadn't been in here before. At home, the study had charms encircling it for a ten-foot radius, and despite all of Sirius and Regulus' best attempts, they'd never managed to even get close. This was lax indeed by his father's standards, and he took a deep breath in anticipation.

Despite the mysterious aura surrounding it, the study didn't appear all that exciting to Sirius' eyes. He was hoping for a blood-stained dagger, or maybe top secret Ministry files. A mahogany desk, leather armchair, and bookshelves lining every wall, it all seemed perfectly uninteresting. There was a stack of notes in illegible handwriting, and he tried a couple of the drawers in the desk, but they were heavily locked and by then he'd lost his original enthusiasm for the endeavour.

He decided to take a swift peek at the bookshelves, wondering if there'd be anything of use to the Marauders. Rows of history books, dealing with goblin riots, the rise and fall of Grindelwald, and the genealogy of most of the Wizarding families his parents considered respectable. Stuffy novels from at least two hundred years ago, dealing with duels of honour and suitable marriages. Then Sirius stumbled on books that seemed too horrific even for the Restricted Section at school, with titles that seemed to suggest possibilities of ways to inflict pain Sirius could barely imagine. He nearly reached out a hand to take one off the shelf, but James and he hadn't been able to get the pus off their hands for weeks after their last encounter with a book they weren't supposed to be reading, and he drew back warily. He frowned, hardly surprised, but filled with a kind of morbid curiosity about what exactly his family used these kinds of books for.

His eyes wandered down the shelf, all the way to the last book in the section, entitled Werewolves: Dealing With The Scourge. Unable to stop himself this time, he gingerly laid a finger on the spine. Nothing happened, and he gradually slid it out from the shelf, before rapidly flicking through it with growing horror. In it were grotesque -- and, from his own first-hand knowledge, completely inaccurate -- drawings of full moon transformations, detailed descriptions of the werewolf in human form, who apparently would have eyes too close together and an easily identifiable skull shape, amongst other things. Whole chapters devoted to horrific methods of killing werewolves when transformed, and a closing treatise where the author expressed his frustration at the Ministry's supposed lack of hardline legislation to deal with this 'plague on society'. After half an hour's tortured reading, Sirius slammed the book shut, shoved it back into its place, and doubled over, breathing heavily.

When he'd recovered himself a little, he noticed he'd disturbed some parchment, which had fluttered to the floor. He picked it up, and discovered it was a leaflet, though what exactly it was about he wasn't sure. Several meeting times were on the back page, along the names and Floo details of some familiar pureblood names. He flicked through it again and started to pick out tell-tale phrases: 'purify wizard-kind', 'change at Hogwarts', and in the corner of every page a heavily-inked coiled snake. He stood motionless for a while, mind in a riot, until he began to hear movement and realised he'd better make a quick escape.

*


"Regulus! Regulus, wake up!"

Regulus groaned and rolled over. "No. 'M sleeping."

"Bollocks you are. This is important, wake up!"

"What…" Regulus sighed and dragged himself half upright, rubbing his eyes, "could you possibly want at this ridiculous hour of the morning?"

"Come on, you get up earlier than this at school," Sirius was saying as he swam into Regulus' bleary vision.

"The point stands," he said, still feeling very dopey.

Sirius sat on the edge of his bed, squishing his feet. Regulus decided it wasn't worth the effort of complaining. "So," Sirius began, "I went into father's study this morning."

"Without me?"

"Would have had to wake you up even earlier."

"Fair point. Well, I take it you ran into trouble, then? That's usually what happens when you're left to your own devices." Regulus was gradually entering the land of the awake now, and drove a toe into Sirius' knee to prove the point.

"Ow, watch it!" It had the desired effect, as Sirius shunted. "I didn't get caught, if that's what you mean. But I found stuff."

"Really? Astonishing, that was definitely worth waking me up for." Then Regulus noticed the expression on Sirius' face. "Oh Merlin, what is it?"

"There's loads of Dark Arts stuff in there, really nasty. I know, I know, that's not all that surprising. But I mean, there was this brutal book on werewolves, talking about them like they're not even human -- "

"They're not, Sirius," Regulus pointed out in confusion.

"Yes, they are!" Sirius snapped back. "Apart from twelve nights of the year they're as human as you and me."

Regulus raised his hands appealingly. "All right, all right, sorry. When did you become some kind of werewolf activist?"

"Doesn't matter," Sirius replied shortly, and Regulus made a mental note to pursue this line of enquiry later. "Anyway, that's not the point, not really. I found this."

He threw a booklet onto Regulus' lap, who looked through it for a moment or two, then looked at his brother in bemusement. "So?"

"So? Doesn't it bother you our father has pureblood supremacist literature in his holiday home?" Sirius was looking increasingly fired-up, and Regulus stared at him in wonder.

"No, can't say it does particularly. What the hell's got into you today?"

Sirius seemed about to explode, and consequently appeared to have lost the ability to speak, so Regulus saved him the trouble.

"Look. It's all talk and politics, this stuff, it's not going to come to mass murder or anything. Your Mudbl—sorry, Muggleborns, are perfectly safe, and if this stops them getting into the higher echelons of society and government, well, excuse me if I find myself unable to care particularly."

All the colour had drained from Sirius' face, and he was staring in a way that made Regulus feel decidedly uncomfortable. "Come on, snap out of it," he continued. "You know, I was thinking, if it ever stops raining we really ought to haul the boats out today and get them sea-worthy." Still silence. "Sirius. Will you at least bugger off so I can get dressed in peace? Hey." He leaned over, somewhat awkwardly, to grab Sirius' shoulder. "We'll talk about this later, if you want, all right? Though I really don't know what on earth's the matter."

Sirius blinked, finally, as though exiting a trance. "Right. Yeah. Err, sorry about that. I'll see you in a bit."

Regulus watched him leave, and then sat still, resting his chin on his knees. He picked up the leaflet and flicked through it, thinking. A line here, a mention or two there, but nothing concrete - nonetheless, the presence of a man, who Regulus was beginning to hear so much about, was unmistakable. If you knew where to look. He traced the insignia on the corners of the pages.

"Voldemort," he murmured to himself, thinking of the press clippings he had at home, the whispers he heard from the other end of the dinner table. Something was coming, and there was no need for Sirius to treat it as a coup. Change, after all, was good.

Regulus groaned and stood up, trying to shake such serious thoughts from his mind. This was summer, after all, and he'd be damned if Sirius and his need to fight against everything would wreck it for him.

*


Sirius sat by the window in his room, staring out over the sea. He half wanted to grab quill and parchment, but who would he write to? Remus, to tell him all about that book? He must have seen a lot worse many times before, and it wouldn't do either of them much good, anyway. He wanted to write to James, really, but James was on holiday with his perfect family, in his perfect life, and Sirius couldn't bring himself to lay bare his own family's special brand of insanity. He tugged at his scalp absently, lost in a confusion of thoughts.

But footsteps and voices were beginning to sound out in the hallways, and so he headed back downstairs again, feeling impossibly wearied from the day already. He poured tea and listened to his father's grand plans for the rest of the summer, and as he answered questions and fetched crockery with a polite smile, it occurred to him rather absently that he had never felt so peculiarly and entirely detached from his own body. He watched himself play this role he'd been assigned for a lifetime, and wondered what on earth his friends would say if they could see him now.

*


"Are you sure it's quite safe, going out by yourself?"

"Narcissa, I've been sailing for years, think I'm just about old enough to take care of myself now."

Regulus hauled the dinghy towards the ocean, itching to be off.

"What if the winds change and you get into trouble? And those clouds still look like it could rain at any moment."

Narcissa stood at the edge of the pier, shawl wrapped around herself against the sea air, which was clearly not to her taste this morning.

"I shouldn't getting wet will be a problem," he replied dryly. "And they do teach us some useful things at school, you know." Regulus laughed. "How is it I ended up with two mothers?"

"Oh, don't." Narcissa shot him a glare, which Regulus much preferred to all her fussing. "Merlin only knows why you get so excited about all this stuff, anyway."

"Leave me alone," he replied without malice, and got out his wand. "I could always expand for two," he offered with a grin, and Narcissa just rolled her eyes.

"Go on then, get out of here -- make sure you're back for lunch."

"Yes, mum," Regulus replied cheerily, and Narcissa sighed with great sufferance before turning back to the house.

Regulus pushed the boat down a little further, until it was bobbing at the edge of the water. He grabbed his wand, and hopped in lightly, quickly setting up charms to get himself moving. The water lapped around the boat obediently, taking him out into the bay. Seagulls swooped, the mid-morning sun shone bright above him, and the horizon beckoned. He settled against the side, entirely content.

Everyone else at school told him flying was the thing, and it was pretty good - the thrill of a Quidditch match, the moment he sighted the Snitch, then to feel fluttering wings between his fingers and the ground soaring below him. But as far as Regulus was concerned, they were missing out on something. He appreciated the freedom of a broomstick as much as the next person, but it was nothing compared to this. Sailing was the best thing in the world. To be contained in a vessel of delicate beauty, to be surrounded by nothing but the sea and open sky, to gently twist and turn through shooting small streams of water at one side of the boat or the other. Yes, this was it, and as he felt a small wind pick up behind him he closed his eyes in bliss.

*


Sirius heard the whistling first. His father rounded the corner, and Sirius closed the book he'd barely been reading for the last hour.

"Sirius!" he boomed, and strolled over. "You can't possibly be studying, not on a beautiful day like this!"

Sirius looked up and forced a smile.

"Everything all right?" His father regarded him for a moment. "Missing your friends, is that it?"

Sirius nodded easily in assent. It would do.

"Ah, I understand. Gone elsewhere for the summer, have they? Lots of families are holidaying in the south of France these days. Narcissa was quite taken with that at one point -- perhaps next year. But Sirius, you know your friends are always welcome here, if you wanted to invite someone."

Sirius imagined James, Remus, and Peter sitting at the dinner table in dress robes and tried to suppress a laugh. He wondered what his parents would do if they knew just who he was friends with, anyway.

"Thank you, I'm not sure what their plans are, but I'll certainly ask."

"Excellent." Orion smiled indulgently. "It would be very nice to have some more young people in the house -- and we must stop you moping around! Now, your brother's already taken to the sea, you really ought to go and join him."

"Yes, good idea, I think I will," Sirius replied hastily, and got to his feet. He walked away from his father with a gnawing in his stomach, and wondered what on earth he was going to do.

He stepped outside, where the warm summer sun helped a little to pacify him. A month here, a month home, and then he'd be back at Hogwarts again. It wasn't long, not really. He sank into a deckchair, and found his stare once again drawn out to the sea. He saw a sail in the distance, which he knew had to be Regulus' boat. He smiled for a moment, glad that at least one of them was enjoying the holiday.

*


When Regulus reluctantly returned to shore, he was puzzled to find that Sirius was nowhere to be seen. According to his mother, he'd taken sick and gone to his room, and so after lunch -- an enormously elaborate affair, all things considered, and Regulus really wasn't that hungry anyway -- he was sent upstairs with a tray. He walked a little slower than usual, trying to figure out what on earth was wrong with his brother.

Sirius had never seen fit to truly associate himself with his family since second year, and Regulus knew that perfectly well even if their parents didn't. So quite why he was so distressed by anything related to the family seemed a mystery to Regulus, who considered himself to have a slightly better appreciation of how privileged they both were to be born Blacks.

Sirius had far too many high and mighty ideals for his own good, it would seem. Regulus sighed as he approached Sirius' room and saw the door was rammed shut. It was going to take Regulus a long time to talk him out of this particular funk. He raised a hand to knock on the door, then paused. Maybe better just to leave him to it. Regulus put the tray down on a table in the hallway.

Perhaps he'd developed a crush on a Muggle, Regulus thought, mind casting back to a girl in Sirius' year -- oh, what was her name, red hair -- Evans, that was it. Quite the beauty apparently, if you went for that sort of thing. Poor sod, he reflected with a slight tinge of sympathy.

Sirius barely left his room for days after that, much to Regulus' frustration. He brought him regular meals, even deigned to knock on his door on a few times, but he only glimpsed briefly on the way to and from the bathroom, and the look on his face was utterly impenetrable.

Then, four days later, Sirius suddenly announced himself cured, and sat down at breakfast as though nothing strange was going on. Regulus rather hoped that was that, and he could simply chalk it up to yet another of his brother's strange fancies.

*


Sirius felt on the brink of something cataclysmic. He hardly knew what had been going through his head for this last week, only that this had become about much more than just some books. A storm was brewing somewhere in his heart, and he couldn't recall the last time he'd felt afraid, not like this. So he carried on as best he could -- it was a performance, really. Nods and smiles and the right gestures at the right time, while all the while he felt a cold sense of distance from almost every member of his family.

He suddenly became sharply attuned to things he'd mostly allowed to slide before -- snide comments from his mother about other families, who dared to be half-bloods; sweeping generalisations from his father about the state of the Wizarding world today; the look of sheer disdain on Bellatrix's face when almost anyone who wasn't a Black was mentioned.

One night after dinner, the rest of the family went to retire into the drawing room with a bottle or two of Ogden's finest. Sirius made a move to follow Regulus upstairs, but his father held him back.

"Why don't you join us, Sirius? I'd say it's high time."

Sirius caught the expectant look on his father's face, and found it difficult to suppress a morbid curiosity. "That would be great," was all he said, and he glanced over to where Uncle Alphard stood. His uncle gave him an amused but sympathetic smile. Bolstered, he followed meekly into the next room.

The drawing room was an ornate and close affair. Armchairs so heavily upholstered they were almost uncomfortable to sit on, a thick mahogany side cabinet that Alphard was in the process of opening, and beautifully embroidered blinds that somehow, when drawn, seemed to suck some of the air from the room. Sirius sat uneasily on the edge of a chair in the corner, tapping a foot restlessly against the chair leg and heedless of his mother's stern glance.

Drinks were handed round, and the talk was dull for a while -- a debate about the upcoming Minister of Magic elections that seemed mostly to revolve around Floo network policy. Bellatrix seemed just as bored as he was, lazily sipping from her glass with half-closed eyes.

"I don't trust any of them," Orion was saying bitterly, which finally prompted her to stir, as she leaned forward in his chair.

"So forget them!" she hissed. "The government is nothing more than a craven, ineffectual bunch of fools."

"Proposing anarchy now, Bella?" Alphard asked lightly.

Bellatrix ignored him, eyes gleaming. "Lord Voldemort is rising, and it is he we should be giving our allegiance to, helping him gain his rightful place in the world." Bellatrix's eyes swept around the room, falling contemptuously on Sirius for a moment. He glowered straight back at her. "He is the greatest wizard of modern times, and he will purge Britain of the filth that has been invading it for too long."

Sirius felt a shiver run down his spine, and was unaccountably afraid. Well, that was unacceptable.

"Filth?" he began, struggling to keep his voice steady. "Well in that case, I'd say we should just get the Ministry to set out a new environmental policy?"

"Don't talk about what doesn't concern you, boy," Bellatrix snapped.

"Doesn't concern me? Forgive me, cousin dearest, but if Wizarding Britain's going in for a radical overhaul I reckon that probably will just about register on my horizons."

"Oh it will. Tell me, Sirius - I hear so very many things about you. Are you the deviant blood traitor I've been led to believe you are?"

"Bellatrix, please!" Walburga interjected, looking horrified. "Don't talk to my son like that!"

Bellatrix ignored her, not taking her eyes off Sirius.

"Blood traitor…" Sirius said slowly, rolling the phrase around his mouth. "What makes a blood traitor, exactly?"

"They tell me you're friends with a Mudblood -- pretty girl, by all accounts, it's almost sad, really. I can't remember her name. Well, it's not as if filth really needs a name, anyway."

"Don't you dare talk about Lily like that," Sirius raged, rising out of seat.

"Oh, I'm sorry -- you're not in love with her, are you, Sirius? Because that really would be awful."

"Sirius," his father said hesitantly, "who is she talking about?"

Sirius started laughing. "Oh, Bella, you need to get yourself some better sources, what nonsense! Lily Evans," he said, smiling suddenly at his father, "is a witch in my class. Extraordinarily gifted, Slughorn's star pupil, and it just so happens that her parents are Muggles. And so what if I was in love with her, anyway? That a problem?"

"Sirius." All the geniality had gone from Orion's voice now, as he stared at Sirius with something approaching hatred. "Have we taught you nothing?"

Sirius tilted his head to one side. "No, I can't say you have, particularly." He began to move, almost unbidden, hand reaching for the door. "And d'you know what?" Sirius stared around the room, to be confronted by blank, furious, or averted expressions, with the exception of Alphard, who gave him a quick, small smile. "If you all hate Lily, and other people like her, so much, I'd choose her over any of you, any day, you prejudiced hypocrites."

He could see more ugly words forming on Bellatrix's lips, and with shaking hands turned the door handle, before almost falling out into the corridor. He could hear loud voices from within, but he was too furious to what they were saying. Instead, he ran, ran back through halls and rooms, until he reached an outside door and flung himself outward.

The night air was sharp and cold, and stung against Sirius' flushed face. He continued to run, down to the shoreline, until the cold began to seep in and his energy wore out. He slowly fell to earth, leaning against a rock and staring at the vast expanse of stars. Time passed, the sea gradually retreated down the beach, and he paid no heed.

*


Regulus stared up at the ceiling, unable to block out the furious sounds from downstairs. He groaned, rolling over and clutching his sheets a little tighter. It sounded like his brother had really done it this time.

"Idiot," he muttered to the wall, dreading tomorrow's inevitable fallout. He was tired of the tightrope act of diplomacy in this family, and rash madmen like Sirius did nothing whatsoever to help matters.

*


"Your star's bright tonight, Sirius," said a voice from behind him, and Sirius nearly leaped out of his skin.

Uncle Alphard sat down next to him, usual smile tempered with something else unidentifiable. "Listen, I've just finished talking to the rest of the family back in there, and don't worry, I think it'll be all right."

"Really?" Sirius asked tonelessly.

"I think so -- I said you were at a particularly idealistic age, I was sure your tongue got away with you, all that sort of thing." Alphard sighed. "I think they just about bought it, anyway. But the point is, Sirius, what were you thinking? Well, clearly you weren't."

"How can you listen to them?" Sirius asked, turning to face Alphard. "How can you just sit there, and say nothing?"

"Because I, unlike you, have some modicum of common sense," he replied calmly.

"Or you're scared," Sirius said sharply.

Alphard didn't say anything, just gazed out towards the midnight sea.

"I'm sorry," Sirius muttered after a while, rage beginning to dissipate.

"No," Alphard said slowly, "you're right, of course. But having a healthy regard for one's own interests is no bad thing, Sirius."

"It's hardly very important. Uncle Alphard, I -- I don't want them to take me back, not my parents, not any of them." He had to repress a sudden shiver. "I can hardly stand to be related to them."

"Blood is blood, no matter what you think. Come on, you can stick it out -- a time will come when you'll be glad you did, I promise you." Alphard reached out as if to lay a hand on Sirius' shoulder, then let his hand drop. "Nothing I say is going to make much of a difference, is it?"

"I doubt it."

"Sirius --" Alphard hesitated for a moment, and something in his tone made Sirius look up hastily. "You know I've been in and out of hospital recently."

"With minor ailments, you said." Sirius frowned.

"I know. You're right on the money, Sirius, I am a coward. But the truth of it is -- I'm so sorry, this is no time to burden you any further -- I haven't got very long left, my boy. These old bones of mine are finally giving out on me, it would seem."

Sirius stared at him in disbelief. "What?" he murmured. "You're joking."

"Rotten timing, isn't it? Still, I daresay I've had my fair share of things by now. But Sirius, what I'm trying to say, is that whatever you decide to do, you needn't worry. Even if they disinherit you, you'll be all right. I have no one I'd rather leave my mortal goods to."

Sirius tried to speak, but the words were somehow lodged in his throat. So they sat, listening to the distant lap of the waves, and for the first time since he'd left the Hogwarts Express, Sirius felt at peace.

*


When Regulus woke up, there was a deep and sinking feeling in his stomach before he was even fully conscious. He scrambled out of bed, and ran towards Sirius' room, feeling some kind of unknown dread. He burst in through the door, to find Sirius hunched over parchment, quill clutched in hand.

He leaped up at Regulus' entrance, and Regulus almost turned to run straight back out again.

"Regulus, what the hell?"

"Oh Merlin -- sorry, sorry, I don't know what I --"

"Hear last night, did you?" Sirius asked in a more measured tone.

"Basically impossible not to, I'm afraid. What on earth happened?"

"I'll spare you the sordid details." Sirius sat back down again, looking changed, somehow -- Regulus couldn't place what it was.

"Do anything very stupid?" he asked.

"You'd probably think so -- far as I'm concerned, most sensible thing I've done in a long time." Sirius smiled suddenly. "Feel an awful lot better, anyway."

"Are any of them speaking to you?"

Sirius shrugged. "Alphard said he smoothed things over, but I have no idea. Can't say I especially care, anyway."

Regulus glanced at the parchment on Sirius' desk. "Who're you writing to?"

"Ooh, take a wild guess."

"Potter, I see. Pining for him already, are you? How sweet."

"Shut up," Sirius said, but he was grinning. "Honestly, the amount of aspersions being cast against me at the moment -- get this, Bellatrix thought I had a thing for Evans, apparently!"

"You don't?"

"No, course not!" Sirius laughed disparagingly. "Come on, James would hex me half way to Timbuktu in a heartbeat!"

"Oh, well. That's good, then."

"Not that it would matter if I did, of course?" Sirius said in steely tones, and Regulus had to repress an eye roll.

"No no, obviously not, equality, tolerance, etcetera etcetra. You are such a self-righteous bastard sometimes."

"All part of the charm, you'll find." But Sirius was looking at Regulus much too seriously for his liking. "You don't really believe all their supremacist crap, do you?"

"Sirius, I'm not about to go cast Unforgivables on that Evans girl, if that's what you mean."

"Well I bloody well hope not. But you won't get sucked into all of that rubbish, will you?"

Regulus had a feeling it wasn't a question. "I'll do my best," he replied, not wanting to aggravate Sirius any further. He winced slightly as the lie slid easily off his tongue, but it wasn't worth arguing.

"Well, good."

"Right. Are you done being a lunatic now?"

Sirius laughed. "Oh no, I shouldn't think so." His face softened. "Hey, Reg -- you know I love you, don't you?"

"Sorry, come again?"

"Because you and Uncle Alphard, you're the only half-way decent family members I've got."

Regulus opened his mouth to protest this sweeping generalisation, but thought better of it. "Getting sentimental in your old age? All right then, I -- Sirius, I'm going to have to kill you after this -- I suppose I love you too. I still maintain you're an idiot, however."

"That's okay."

"You're not going to hug me now, are you?" Regulus asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Nah." Sirius wrinkled his nose. "I think that'd be rather too far."

"Good. So what, have you got a terminal illness or something?"

Something flashed in Sirius' eyes, and for a heart-stopping moment Regulus thought he was right. Then Sirius shook his head. "No no, worse luck for you."

"Well in that case, I'm starving -- breakfast?"

"Err, you go ahead. I'll be down a bit."

Regulus sighed. "Fine, suit yourself."

He walked downstairs, anxiety not as diminished as he would have liked. Something was definitely going on, and Regulus suspected it was serious.

*


The reply from James arrived that evening, hastily scribbled.

Hi Padfoot -- yes of course, we'll come and get you tomorrow morning, seven o'clock. Hang on in there! --Prongs.

Sirius carried it in his pocket like a talisman at dinner, using it as a guard against every remark that made bile rise within him, until Bellatrix became tired of trying to goad him. His parents nodded at him approvingly, and he returned the gesture with a blank, bright smile.

Not long now, he told himself as great fruit platters were served at the end of the meal. Not long now. He allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment, every once in a while, imagining long, sunny days in James' back garden drinking cheap wine and messing around on broomsticks. No, not long now at all.

He excused himself uncontested straight after dinner, shutting himself away in his room one final time. He heard Regulus' distinctive soft footsteps a few minutes later -- they paused outside his door for a long time before finally shuffling away. Sirius nodded, then got up and began to pack away his life. There were things still in Grimmauld Place, he realised belatedly, that he'd need to return covertly for as soon as possible -- he suspected he'd have ample time, rather than anyone dare to cut their precious holiday short.

Then he thought of his parents telling Kreacher to clean his room out, and finding all of his banners and posters. He laughed for a moment, imaging the house-elf's face when he saw his pin-up girls, joint present from James and Peter last Christmas. If he'd done his charms well enough, they'd never get them down, and the thought gave him far too much pleasure.

But he packed away what he did have -- books, clothes, and a few trinkets. It only took him fifteen minutes. "Now what?" he demanded of the curtains.

*


Regulus drifted off into an uneasy sleep, which brought with it strange visions -- Regulus in danger, and however much he yelled and screamed for Sirius, no help came. Consciousness arrived for him fitfully, and he turned restlessly, clammy and uncomfortable.

*


At four o'clock in the morning, the birds began to chirp, a sound that soon became ceaseless. Sirius jumped out of bed, irrationally furious with them and tempted to pull his wand out on them. But as he yanked back the curtains, he was met with a beautiful pre-dawn light that stayed his hand.

Eyes wide from a sleepless night, he ran a hand through his hair distractedly, a thrill of excitement curling in his stomach. Three hours, that was all. He opened a window to a rush of early morning air, and his mind went swiftly back to that first morning here. Struck by a sudden urge, he pulled on some socks and padded out of his room and downstairs, listening carefully for any movement at all.

He wandered through the hallways of this grand summer house of the Blacks, passing through doorways almost reverentially, in goodbye. This wasn't even home, but as he suddenly recalled a flood of memories of every summer that he could remember, it was as good as in many ways. Here he'd learned to swim and to sail, built a tree house for his brother with magic before he'd even started school, been taught the names of every star in the sky.

He brushed a hand against the windowpanes in the front hall, then quietly undid the locks and stepped outside. He circled the house, admiring it from all sides -- as a family, they always had had a taste for the gothic, and that was one thing Sirius most definitely inherited. He reached the back of the house, and stood on the decking to watch the birds soar.

*


Regulus woke up, and jumped out of bed with an enormous sense of urgency. He ran to the window and pulled his curtains back. Yes, there, at the front of the house stood Sirius, trunk in hand, being hugged by a woman who could only be -- and yes, James Potter stood beside them, staring up at the house. Regulus pulled back hurriedly. He stood stock still for a moment, frozen, then ran, almost throwing himself down stairs and past rooms, praying not to crash into another living soul.

He wrenched the front door open and dashed out into the drive.

"Sirius!" he yelled. "What are you doing?"

Sirius froze, staring at Regulus. "I didn't think you --"

"You're leaving. You're really leaving."

James' mother glanced around nervously, checking the windows, no doubt seeing if anyone else was coming to stop this escape attempt. Regulus just looked at Sirius, heart sinking right down to his shoes.

"Regulus, I'm sorry. But I can't stay, I really can't. You'll be better off without me, anyway - hey, I'm sure I'll get disowned, you get to be heir and everything."

Regulus felt nothing but disbelief. "Oh yeah, like I care about that - Sirius, you're my brother, I -- how can you --" He sighed, sensing it was hopeless. "There's nothing that would make you stay?"

Sirius shook his head mutely.

"You won't even -- not for --" Regulus turned sharply, tilting his head upwards and biting his lip to stave off the treacherous emotion that was rapidly building upwards. After a long moment, he turned back. "All right then." He raised a hand up shakily, in a parody of a wave. "Have a good summer."

Sirius nodded tightly. "I'll see you in September, I'll find you on the train, I swear."

"Go on there, what are you waiting for! Get out of here already, you -- you complete --"

"Idiot," Sirius supplied with a sudden grin. James moved forward, after an anxious glance over at his mother.

"Come on, Pads, you heard him."

"Goodbye," Sirius said in little more than a whisper, and Regulus nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Mrs Potter grabbed her son -- no, sons -- by the arm, and in the blink of an eye they were gone.

Regulus stood there for a long time, staring at the place where Sirius had been. The complete silence of the morning was unbearable, and it was all he could do not to shout out in frustration and everything. And then, to his eternal shame, Regulus sank against the front door of his own house and cried.

*


Sirius stared in amazement around a room Mrs Potter had said he could call his own. Quidditch posters covered the walls, put up not with permanent sticking charms, but just with Spell-O-Tape, which his mother never allowed into the house. The carpet was an almost blinding shade of yellow, and there was a dent in the wall that James reliably informed him came from his first-ever indoor flying attempt.

He could hardly bring himself to put the trunk down, in case that brought this illusion to an end.

James quietly approached from the doorway, gripping Sirius' elbow. "You all right?" he asked searchingly, looking into Sirius' eyes.

Sirius thought about his parents, who must now be awake, and after his blood - if it took as long as a day for the Howler to reach him he'd be amazed. He thought about Bellatrix, who'd be crowing she'd been proved right, Uncle Alphard, doing his best to be diplomatic - but thinking about his uncle was painful just now. Regulus, how would he be getting on? Narcissa would be there, she'd look after him, and he'd be all right.

"Yeah." Sirius nodded eventually. "Yes, I'll be fine."
Tags: character: alphard black, character: sirius black, fandom: exchanges, fic, fic: harry potter, narcissa malfoy, regulus black
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