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Chapter 13: The Brothers Black
“Hey, Sirius, have you seen this?” Regulus still had a quill clamped between his teeth from working on the crossword, so his speech sounded more like, “Heesheeshe, hoyoo sheendish?” His hair was horribly messy today – an electrocuted black mop, as he’d decided that the four seconds it would have taken to brush it would be much better spent levitating his older brother’s bed while Sirius was still asleep. The two men – one eighteen, and the other thirty-six – were arranged in the main parlor of a cozy cedar-log lodge that, on this particular day, was resting on a strip of beach facing the depot.
Regulus, who was lying upside-down on a sofa with his feet dangling over the back, squinted at the newspaper fanning out between his hands. He had to hold it right over his face because his eyesight was on the unreliable end of the spectrum. People were constantly mentioning to him that he ought to get reading glasses, but Regulus maintained that they would cramp his style. After all, how would anyone be able to admire his chiseled cheekbones if they were covered up with an extra pair of eyes? Besides, it would be too time-consuming to have to put them on whenever he wanted to read advertisements for discounted melons and cat litter.
Overhead, a steady rain sloshed against the roof and skylight windows. He was thankful to be in an environment not permeated with the gloom of gray drizzle, warm and dry in this rectangular room with walls like sticky amber. The afternoon here smelled of sawdust, pine wreaths, and lingering smoke in the fireplace that had been lit earlier to brew Invigoration Draught in a cauldron; oval rugs woven from deep ocher and burgundy cropped up every few feet. A rocking chair swung back and forth like a pendulum over one; the thick, rope-like rug silencing any repetitive creaks. Mad-Eye Moody was seated inside, dozing, with both hands clasped protectively over his wand.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Regulus murmured to his newspaper.
Sirius did not reply. He’d managed to claim the claw-footed armchair – a coveted seat – before Regulus could get to it. Regulus was younger and rather faster, but Sirius was not above cheating. When they’d decided that this sort of dreary weather called for a relaxing day at the lodge, Sirius had stolen Regulus’s shoes and lobbed them into the ocean to give himself a two-minute head-start. Presently, he was making an exaggerated show out of how comfortable he felt in that chair by producing sound effects of utopia-level contentedness that sort of crossed between a sneeze and a snore. A book from a nearby table lay open across his lap on the pretense of reading. If he’d actually bothered to glance at it, he would have discovered that it was a guide for diagnosing your own infections, written entirely in Arabic.
“Capital idea!” Regulus declared in a much louder voice, seemingly engrossed in his issue of the Daily Departed. “Well, what do you know? There’s a remedy for everything nowadays. Hmm. Hmm, hmm, hmm. Oh, that’s not very good, is it? Tsk. Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
Sirius propped his chin in one hand, elbow sinking into the armchair’s plush fabric, and allowed his attention to stray to the panorama beyond a bay window that consumed most of one wall. Long boughs teeming with periwinkle petals interrupted every seven or eight inches of space, hanging down from the eaves. Those clumps of pretty flowers, wisteria, were supposed to be adorning the lattice siding of Emmeline Vance’s tree house, but had apparently been spliced with the lodge during an overnight rearrangement of town structure.
The tree house neighborhood was one of the more whimsical bright spots of Cliodna’s Clock, resembling a woodsy park. There were no roads in this region, only grass and trees – trees so wide that they could be lived in, if hollow, and trees so tall that sometimes two or three lift cottages could be built into their branches. They were called lift cottages because they looked a bit like lifts going up and down the trees, suspended mostly by magic. Helga Hufflepuff lived in such a lift cottage just underneath Alberic Grunnion; Grunnion’s children frequently climbed out of their windows and plummeted through thin air for a few gleeful seconds before landing directly on Helga’s roof, which was composed entirely of rubber just for this purpose. Very good material for bouncing.
A viaduct that usually spanned all the way from an unused rail yard to a cluster of houses carved into a rock wall the color of autumn had rearranged overnight as well, now sitting in water just a little-ways off the coast. A train once operated on its rails, but in recent years the overpass was used more for transporting little diamond-mining carts back and forth from rock-dwellers to those at sea-level, which would in turn be transported to a tiny community living in tunnels underground. These carts were filled with food, water, supplies, and sometimes people who fancied a free ride on wheels.
It was amusing to see such a construction so out of place. Stone-gray waves lapped at its pillars, their foamy tips bejeweled with lavender. Rain and wind had done an excellent job of stripping wisteria petals from their vines, blowing them across the sandy shore to amass in tide pools.
Sirius idly wondered how the people who lived in the rock-wall homes were enjoying this change, now that their bridge was missing. He supposed they would either have to Apparate if they wanted to get down to the village, or else make do with scowling at everyone from way up high. He smirked, remembering that Fabian would be stuck up there until Cliodna’s Clock returned their viaduct to its natural position. Fabian Prewett disliked Apparition.
Still, it wasn’t like they were holed up in an unpleasant place. Those rock caverns were a marvel of architecture, with their summits beaten into stalagmites from weathering and erosion. Goblins, intending to isolate themselves from humans, had hacked courtyards out of russet sandstone, creating a miniature parish of their own that resembled an ancient empire. Winding paths lit with torches cut through cliff after cliff, and to get to each courtyard you would have to walk under those domed doorways. Every morning and evening, when the sun rose or fell to just the right height, those rocks seemed to be engulfed in flames. Fascinated with living in the sky, witches and wizards chased the goblins out of their homes quite a long time ago, forcing many of them into the less-desirable underground burrows.
“Oh, my!” Regulus fairly yelled. “Oh, I say!”
Sirius rolled his eyes, tilting his head back to study the arched ceiling crisscrossed with narrow beams. Through four glass skylights fitted into whale-bone frames, he could see puffy gray clouds blurred with rain. If he hadn’t already been so intent on being lazy today, the weather might have depressed him a bit. None of his mates ever wanted to play Quidditch when it was pouring buckets, much to his dismay (But it makes visibility so interesting! I thought you Nancy boys liked a challenge?). “All right, I’ll bite. What are you in such raptures about?”
Regulus was quick to seize. “Look here,” he replied, reaching over to hand the newspaper to his brother. Sirius reached out as well; the newspaper was about a hair’s-width from Sirius’s outstretched hand, but both men were too lazy to budge. After a lot of pathetic groaning, both insisting that the other get up instead, Sirius used Accio. All of the papers promptly fell all over the place in an unorganized heap.
“It’s no use,” Sirius sighed, gesturing to them. “Nothing I can do.”
A pair of shoes pitter-pattered into the room through a door that led to a small, circular library, followed by a teenage girl. Her hair was long and fair, the scent of her shampoo intensified after a recent exposure to the damp outdoors. Regulus thought it smelled like someone had just bit into a fruit. Barefoot, she hopped along after the rogue shoes and managed to collect the first one. The second shoe danced across floorboards in a jig until it snagged in the mouth of a bear skin rug, and must have realized its owner had it cornered because it stopped in its tracks, laces flaring threateningly.
“Come on, now,” Ariana reprimanded in a stern tone.
The shoe scuttled sideways.
“Do you want me to make you walk around in puddles, or are you going to behave?”
The shoe grudgingly hobbled forward. Ariana grinned fondly at it. “Now there’s a good shoe.” After her feet were both properly dressed, she beamed at Sirius and Regulus, who were both still gazing at the mess of newspaper pages speckling the floor with expressions of woeful forfeit.
“Oh, it’s arrived, then? I’ve been waiting all morning.” Curious, she stooped to gather up all the pages. It took about two seconds for her to herd them into the correct order, and then she began to peruse the third page. Since there wasn’t a whole lot of news to go around in Cliodna’s Clock even at the busiest of times, the Daily Departed liked to make their bold headlines absolutely huge with fancy calligraphy so as to leave very little unemployed space. It was a testament to the recent swell in population and ensuing gossip that Sirius couldn’t distinguish a single word from where he sat. Articles were jam-packed together all over the place, some of the words so miniscule that they would require a magnifying glass to read.
“Hey, I was looking at that,” he muttered indignantly.
“That’s nice of them,” she mused, not listening to him. “Exactly as my brother suggested. He thought it would be quite a good fit.”
“He suggested what for who, now?”
Ariana Dumbledore smiled. “Mr. Lupin. The school’s offered him a job as one of the teachers. There won’t be many pupils, of course – not since the plague’s gone out of style and most newcomers are at least thirty years old. There’s Mr. Creevey, though, and Miss Quirke. Mr. Crabbe finished most of his schooling but he’s still not a fully-qualified wizard, so he could certainly benefit from a few lessons…”
“Remus?” Sirius chimed, grinning eagerly. “Really? That’s brilliant news. Let me read it, will you?” He held out one hand for the newspaper, expectant, but Ariana merely turned away from him, continuing to read. As she spoke, various other articles fluidly shuffled their letters in and out of order, magically updating to include breaking stories as they occurred in real time.
“‘If he accepts the position, Remus Lupin will join the ranks of Merope Gaunt and Bathilda Bagshot, who are slated to fill this year’s professor duties. Lessons will be intimate and long with shorter terms in general, which is vastly superior for the learning mind than crowded classrooms on earth, which boasts a more uneven student-to-teacher ratio, less one-on-one attention, flawed examination systems, and terms much too drawn-out.’” Ariana paused, rereading the last sentence with a frown. “Well, that sounds a bit snobbish, if you ask me. They persevere down there as well as they can, given the dangerous environment.”
Regulus and Sirius exchanged glances: They both knew that Ariana had been in Cliodna’s Clock for so long that she assumed that life on earth must be terrifying due to the ever-present fear of death. Now that she was safely dead herself and used to such a life (and coupling this with the fact that she never attended school while she was on earth), stories chronicling day-to-day activities in the other world were quite bewildering to her. She thought that Muggles were especially toxic, what with their alarming criminal behavior and pollution that was slowly destroying the air they breathed.
“Goodness, this is disheartening,” she lamented, addressing a black-and-white photograph of a man with eyelids and jowls hanging in bags like melting candle wax. “Mr. Dillert Price of the Grotta was killed this morning, two weeks before his appeal.”
Sirius’s face puckered. “Two weeks? That’s wretched luck. How much time did he have in?”
Regulus let out a low whistle, pressing one cheek to the sofa cushion to survey Sirius. “Fifty-six…and so close. Can you imagine?”
Both men immediately dropped their gazes, memories flitting to the spectacle yesterday when Walburga collapsed in the street and Orion sprinted after her, hysterical. Their mother was sixty years old when she died. According to Cliodna’s Clock’s rules and regulations, this meant that she would have to spend a minimum of sixty years in the Grotta before she could be eligible for relocation to Cliodna’s Clock.
Relocation of Grotta inhabitants to the Clock was not unheard of, but still quite rare – especially for those who had a lot of years to serve. The sentence was always equal to the amount of years that the individual was alive on earth. If residents could make it to the end of their sentences still intact, then they would be qualified to appeal. The odds of living to see that day, however, were outstandingly slim. Even if they did somehow make it, and their appeals were approved, they were usually so far gone from physical and mental trauma that they had to live in Meadowes Manor, cared for by a matron.
Sometimes these people got bits of their magical abilities back, decades later, but usually their magic was lost. Many of them could never quite adjust; like the infamous Winifred Fielding, who was released to Cliodna’s Clock after forty-one years in the Grotta. Two weeks after her relocation, she’d snuck back over to the Grotta and launched a mass assault on all of the residents, a vigilante attack that resulted in twenty-six dead inmates, two dead guards, and sand so saturated with blood that it adopted the consistency of mud.
Walburga had only served thirteen of her sixty years. Would she last another forty-seven? It was unlikely. Sirius might pretend he didn’t care about what happened to ‘the old bat’, and Regulus might pretend that his mother was strong enough to survive, but both knew that their mother would probably die in the Grotta before she got the chance to be reunited with Orion. Orion must have known this, too.
“Where’s Albus gotten himself to, anyway?” Sirius wanted to know. “Haven’t seen him around lately.” It still felt odd, referring to Albus as ‘Albus’ instead of just plain ‘Dumbledore’. It seemed disrespectful somehow, but now that there were several other Dumbledores floating around, specifying each with their first names really couldn’t be avoided.
“Nowhere in particular,” Ariana responded vaguely. “Paying social visits to old friends, mostly. Says he’s thinking about joining the tenpin bowling league.” She lifted her eyes to the wide bay window. “Wonder what he’s doing out there?”
Sirius cranked his neck around toward the window, assuming that she had just caught sight of Albus. Regulus, who was still upside-down and couldn’t see much aside from a lovely party of cumulonimbus gathering above, reluctantly rolled off the sofa and hit the floor with a heavy thud.
“CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” Moody roared without warning, still fast asleep. Regulus jumped up a foot in the air, conking his head on a table. Sirius gave an embarrassingly feminine shriek and Ariana stumbled backward with both arms flailing, losing one of her shoes again. It darted away like an excited puppy, disappearing into the dining hall.
“Maybe he’s lost something?” Sirius suggested once they’d composed themselves. Albus Dumbledore was nowhere to be found; they seemed to be spying on Colin Creevey, who was strolling along the beach with his shoulders hunched against the downpour, hands clasped behind his back. He squinted up and down the battered shore, evidently deep in concentration. Water dripped profusely from the ends of his hair, providing a sort of umbrella effect.
Regulus shrugged, rubbing a tender lump on his head. “What’s so important that it can’t wait until after the sky’s done being all wet?”
Ariana sighed, glancing toward the dining hall where her shoe had fled. “You’ve obviously never lost anything useful.”
He snorted. “That’s right. I take very good care of what’s mine.”
Sirius’s eyes slid to his brother’s, narrowing. “You’re truly a Slytherin, you are.”
Regulus pondered this, quickly losing interest in Colin’s mysterious quest. “Speaking of green and silver and always being painted negatively, we’ve just had two Gryffindors eliminate two other Gryffindors. So what does that tell you, hmm? Out of the ten people we had…let’s see…Ced and Lupin’s wife,” he ticked them off on his fingers, obviously gloating, “who’re Hufflepuffs.” He looked like he wanted to make some sort of clever, mocking remark about the intelligence of Hufflepuffs, but couldn’t seem to think of any. “Then there’s that Crabbe boy and Snape, two Slytherins. That leaves us with, what, six Gryffindors? My, my. Not so golden, are we?”
Sirius took a swat at him, but Regulus ducked his head just in time and Sirius whacked the windowsill instead. He swore at full volume, shaking his injured wrist, while his brother ran and hid behind the sofa, laughing delightedly.
“It just means we’re brave,” Sirius insisted, nostrils flaring. “You stupid idiot, you broke my arm.”
“I didn’t force you to attack the window. I’ve always been staunchly against violence, thank you very much. And it doesn’t make Gryffindors brave, it makes them curse-happy dunderheads. Bunch of warrior buffoons running around, trying to off each other just so that they can go have a look at their old friends. Stop living in the past, I say! Their friends will move on, so they should, too.”
“No Ravenclaws this year,” Ariana commented, jarring the discussion. “Usually never are, though. They seem to be smart enough to stay well out of it…”
Sirius was starting to steam. “Listen, entering doesn’t make us stupid. I’ve been in the Devil’s Duel before, too, you know –”
“See!” Regulus crowed, wriggling his way behind Sirius so that he could steal the armchair. “You people are so bigheaded, you never think it’s going to happen to you, you never think you could lose.” He chuckled to himself before glancing up to see that in the spot where his brother had just been standing only a moment ago, there was now a large black animal. “Oh, stop that. You can’t just turn into a dog every time you don’t like what someone’s saying.”
The dog lifted its nose high into the air, ignoring him with an air of wounded snootiness. He had the exasperating habit of switching into his Animagus form, mid-conversation and without warning, whenever he wanted to get on someone’s nerves.
“My Sickles are on Snape,” Regulus said with the intention of goading his brother back into a human. “He’s killed before.”
As predicted, the dog rippled and wavered, shooting skyward into a man. His expression had darkened; he sank into the sofa, fixing the fireplace with a withering grimace. “A lot of them have killed before, Reg.” He was much quieter now, his tone deceivingly calm. “Rufus did, in his Auror days. Tonks and Lily and James all have. I can’t say anything for Fred, Colin, or Vincent – but they certainly might have killed someone during all the chaos of the Battle. Cedric’s the only one we know for sure hasn’t ever taken another life.”
Regulus screwed up his eyes in thought. “Wait, you’re missing one…”
It was uncomfortably silent for a while. Regulus decided to crack his knuckles. Ariana was still watching Colin’s progress with keen interest. Colin bent over to pluck a seashell from the sand; he inspected it and then tossed it aside, repeating the process over and over.
“I think it’s safe to say that I have no idea what Peter’s capable of.”
Regulus studied his brother carefully, very much wanting to say something but restraining himself for fear that he might receive backlash. At last he couldn’t help himself, and hedged, “Then why did you make him enter the races?”
Sirius shrugged, sullen. “Dunno. We were just…angry. Seemed like a proper punishment. Peter’s managed to hide himself quite well from me ever since he got here and Remus somehow managed to catch him after only a few days. It felt good to scare him, like we were really doing something about it. James threatened to transfigure Peter into a rock and throw him over the wall into the Grotta if he didn’t sign up.”
Regulus’s eyes bulged. “Holy hell.”
“We figured he would spend the whole time hiding, like he does here. I never expected him to do what he did yesterday, to Scrimgeour. We honestly thought it would shake him up a little, give him a healthy dose of the fear he’s been lacking since he came to a place where he can’t die again, where no one can really hurt him.”
“You thought he would sit in a corner and cower during the tournament?”
Sirius sighed. “I keep forgetting, since he wouldn’t openly fight any of us, that he’s not as spineless as he looks. He wasn’t there at the Ministry the night I died – he hides behind the scenes, protecting himself. Seeing as how he has no one to hide behind now, it made perfect sense that he would…” He drifted off, massaging his forehead with his hands. “What you’ve got to understand is that we keep forgetting that he isn’t what he seems, even when his actions contradict each other.”
“Well, that makes sense,” Regulus encouraged. “You all thought he was your friend. He was as big of a traitor as I was. Of course he’s going to confuse you.”
Sirius just shook his head. “That’s not why we were confused, though. It’s arrogance. We think we’ve got him figured out but in truth he just keeps proving how much we don’t know him at all.”
“Did you mean for him to die in the Devil’s Duel?”
“No. I know that it looks that way but we really just wanted to scare him. We wanted to play on his drive for survival. Self-preservation is all he operates on. I just – we just – we forgot that he’s good at it.”
Regulus inflated his cheeks with air, eyes swiveling around the room. He desperately wanted to say, “I told you so!” but also didn’t want to be hexed. It was a ferocious feud and he couldn’t figure out which was more important – rejoicing obnoxiously about his correctly-formed predictions like a regular Trelawney, or preventing antlers or something similar from sprouting out of his forehead.
“YOU CAN’T RUN!” Moody bellowed, interrupting Regulus’s inner push and pull. They all yelped again, sparks issuing from Sirius’s wand. The golden embers burned a hole right through one of the decorative rugs – a round black singe.
“Probably wasn’t our best idea,” Sirius concluded, still bitter about Peter.
The temptation was just too strong to resist. “Told you so,” Regulus replied in a sing-song voice.
The two brothers scrabbled furiously; Regulus tried to make a run for it but tripped over Ariana’s renegade shoe. Sirius performed a full body-bind curse on him while he was still face-down on the floor, leaving him there all day until Albus Dumbledore himself eventually stumbled across poor Regulus and set him right.