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Chapter 21: Tradition
Several hours after Cedric and James were unceremoniously booted from the races, Regulus Black picked his way down a narrow dirt path lined with centuries-old redwoods, following a special shortcut to the boardinghouse that only appeared after sunset. He grinded to a halt underneath one of the windows, bending down to choose a stone with one side smooth and the other jagged. Vigorously flipping the hair out of his face, Regulus stretched his arm back behind him and flung the stone at the brick siding, narrowly missing a window.
A head appeared a moment later, followed by two hands throwing up the sash. “What the bloody hell are you doing?” demanded a cross old man. “Get outta here!”
“Aye aye, sir,” Regulus responded with a wave. “Just looking for a Weasley. Resume trimming your nose hair or whatever you were doing.”
The man grunted at him and banged his window shut, and Regulus resolved to continue hurling stones at windows until the right person finally appeared. One of the windows glowed dimly from the light of a guttering candle placed on the sill, casting a shimmering square over several trees just behind Regulus. A shadow swept by, and then the curtains wrenched apart.
“What?” It was Cedric, bobbing around to get a good angle on the darkened fellow below. Upon seeing who it was, his forehead puckered into a frown. “Reg?”
Cedric pointed to a window a few spaces down from his own. Regulus grinned at him, giving him the thumbs-up. “Thanks, mate. You’re invited as well.”
“Invited to what?”
“Come on down and see!”
Cedric made a ‘harrumph’ noise and closed his window, but Regulus noticed that his candle extinguished seconds later. Cedric must have dashed rather speedily down the stairs, because he appeared in the side garden within the width of a sentence, joining the young Mr. Black.
“Here we are,” Regulus said to himself, tossing a triangular rock up in the air and then catching it with his other hand. He aimed it at the siding next to Fred’s window but missed, plunging the rock straight through the shattering glass. Cedric immediately dove into the trees, not wanting to be caught at the scene of the crime, while Regulus stood right where he was, utterly unabashed. “Weasley! Oi!”
The rock came sailing back outside, clobbing Regulus right in the stomach and plowing him sideways in a painful keel. “Ooof,” he groaned, lying in the fetal position while clutching at his abdomen. “Blimey, Fred. Judging by your poor performance in the last round, I thought your aim had gone bad! Very misleading, you know.” He coughed and stood to his feet, shaking his head thoroughly as though he’d gotten dirt in his ears as well as all over his robes.
Fred repaired his window with a simple Reparo and opened it properly, arching an inquisitive eyebrow at the rustling trees behind Regulus. “I smell a Hufflepuff down there with you. Show yourself, Hufflepuff!”
Cedric dragged himself dutifully out of the trees, scowling at some thorns that had gotten lodged in his sleeves.
“Get down here, dunghead!” Regulus ordered. “You’re coming with us.”
“You’re not much in a position to be telling me what to do,” Fred called back, although he was smiling. “I’ve got loads of stuff up here I could chuck at you if I wanted. Ever had a chandelier dropped on your head?”
Regulus brandished his wand, eager. “Show us what you’ve got! I’ve dueled flobberworms with bigger brains than yours.”
Fred rolled his eyes. The lamplight around him shuddered as he disappeared, rippling over the walls. His shadow took just a second too long to vanish along with him, and when Fred Apparated directly underneath Regulus, sending the latter toppling over into the dirt again, his floor-to-ceiling shadow was still clinging to the papered walls of his small room above. The inky silhouette moved with both arms turning, head tilted as though in surprise as it made to Apparate, too.
“What’re we doing?” Fred asked once they’d all straightened themselves again.
“Yeah,” Cedric wanted to know. “What’re we doing?”
“We’re going out on the town for shenanigans!” Regulus cried gleefully. “Tradition for after the third round.”
Cedric studied him, dubious. “I don’t remember that tradition.”
Regulus clocked him on the arm with his fist, swinging around in a circle as he did so. “New tradition. Say – either of you lads seen Colin Creevey? He could do with some cheer, as well.”
Fred and Cedric both pointed towards the beach. “Over there, usually,” answered Fred, who was only just realizing that he was still wearing pajamas (which explained Cedric’s abundant smirks). “He goes round looking for seashells all night, looks like. Him and that Olaf.”
“Orla,” Cedric corrected.
“You really aren’t much fun when you’re cranky,” Fred observed. “Still sore about losing, then? That was practically ages ago, you ought to be congratulating me on my success by now like a well-mannered chap like yourself.”
Cedric looked ready to jinx him, so Regulus smoothly intervened by throwing an arm over either of their shoulders, coaxing them along the lane until they met the main avenue. Frail pink and blue clouds coasted along an iridescent indigo sky – their colors quite the oddity, considering the lateness of the hour – and the three young men set off towards a crescent of white beach.
“Hang on,” Regulus murmured in a roguish voice that could not bode well, stopping short. Cedric and Fred merely stood there, bemused, while the boy with gleaming black hair leapt over a hedge and into Severus Snape’s front garden, falling flat onto his face. He popped right back up again, grinning wickedly, and slunk over to a shadowed patch of grass directly underneath Snape’s radiantly-lit terrace on the second story.
“Psst!” He called in a hoarse whisper, cupping both hands around his mouth like a trumpet. “Snivellus!”
Fred sniggered; Cedric’s eyes were huge.
“What’re you playing at?” he hissed, but Regulus ignored him.
“Snivellus!” Regulus repeated more loudly, crouching to his knees. “It’s meee, the spirit of your mother! Eileeeen! I’ve been watching you from earth where I am very old and ugly, and I wanted to express my infinite pride that is all due to your severe lack of hygieeene –”
The curtains flew wide open, and the profile of a hook-nosed man simmered into view.
“– which was undoubtedly inherited from myself, Eileen the Uncleeeeaaan. I also wanted to let you know that you’ve got hair like a dead animal that rolled around in butter and then crawled on top of your head and diiiied.”
Regulus tousled his own cherished locks, unaware of the five long fingers slowly drawing back the sliding door to Snape’s terrace. Cedric and Fred scrambled over each other in their haste to hide, both of them suddenly plagued with memories of what exactly Severus Snape looked like whenever his wrath was aroused. “Your father and I just want you to knoooow how thrilled we are that we’ve got a walking Inferius for a son. Your skiiiiiin is reminiscent of a blobfiiiish that was pulled inside-ouuut and then –”
But what Snape’s skin might look like if he were a blobfish that had rudely gotten its odds and ends flipped inside-out, they would never learn, because Snape threw open the door and sprang over to the balcony. Regulus yelped, diving away; Snape’s fingertips grazed the ends of his hair, not quick enough to yank him up by the roots of his scalp. As the three of them escaped, sprinting down the beach where they then slid and slipped around in the sand, Snape glowered contemptuously.
“Arrogant little berks,” he muttered, retreating back into his house and then slamming the door shut. He pinched the wicks of his candles between two fingers, pitching the room into darkness so as not to tempt any more tomfoolery from passersby. Little did the small-brained Black know that Eileen and Tobias Snape were both actually dead.
After much searching, Severus had been forced to conclude that neither of his parents were here in Cliodna’s Clock. While this news was not especially surprising where Tobias was concerned, as he was a Muggle, Severus found himself wondering what had become of his worthless waif of a mother. The unintentionally cruel barb in Regulus’s ridicule was not wasted on him, and he spent the better half of that night wondering about the woman who had once taught him to cast spells before her voice was snatched away for good.
Meanwhile, Regulus was crowing with his feet kicking out, lying in the sand dunes on his back like a turtle. “Did you get a load of his face?” he hooted, wriggling one hand in the air for someone to help him to his feet. Cedric stared at him, exasperated, but Fred assisted the mad little man who was prone to falling down quite often. “I’ve never seen him move that fast! He’s all the time so sullen, he just needs a laugh.” He appraised Cedric’s face, searching for the hint of a smile. “Well, he does look like an Inferius, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he? I mean, I for one ought to know – that squibbly lot killed me.”
Cedric frowned again, preparing to ask what ‘squibbly’ meant, but all three were temporarily arrested by the sight of a balloon skidding down the beach, not even seven feet off the ground. Attached to it was a small basket with a candle in it, the illumination blasting all around the red rubbery balloon like an infrared glare. A figure chased after it, his white grin preceding him. He was snapping pictures of the whirling balloon, hopping wildly about from one foot to the other so as to catch it from different angles; photographs slid into his outstretched palm, one by one. Fred grasped one of them, turning it right-side-up to squint at it.
“Not bad, Creevey. Not bad.”
Colin reclaimed the picture from him, looking slightly territorial as he slid the pictures into the pocket of his robes. “What are you lot doing out here?”
“Collecting you,” Regulus responded brightly, steering the boy away from his balloon. The tongue of flame within the small basket swayed back and forth until finally going out, and Colin gave a lopsided frown.
“Collecting me? For what?”
“You’ve been on your own too much,” Regulus told him airily. “You’re getting ready to enter the fourth round –” He glanced at Cedric, who was suddenly sour-faced. “Sorry to bring that up, Ced. But Colin and Fred here will be going into the fourth round soon and you both ought to let your hair down for a spell.” He winked. “Might be your last chance.”
Fred stuck out a hand for Colin to shake. “Peace treaty, just for the night?”
Colin sized him up. “Dunno about you, but I don’t need a peace treaty. I’m plenty peaceable already.” He shook Fred’s hand energetically.
“Brilliant.” Regulus rubbed his hands together, eyes glinting ominously. “Let’s get cracking.” While Fred, Cedric, and Colin stared warily at him, unsure whether or not to trust the wily Slytherin, Regulus pointed and spun around four times before settling his finger on a smokestack in the direction of Little Hollow – a quaint, archaic neighborhood designed to look like a miniature version of Godric’s Hollow. It took up less than two blocks. “There.”
“What about it?” Cedric asked.
As it turned out, Regulus’s idea of a delightful evening entailed bullying Cedric into shimmying down someone’s chimney while Regulus looked on unhelpfully from the roof, whispering (very loudly, which defeated the purpose of whispering) at him to hurry up. The argument behind Cedric being the unfortunate one to slide down the chimney was that Fred and Colin had to be at the top of their game for the next duel and couldn’t risk injury, whereas Cedric was now useless and could do whatever, while the ever-insensitive Regulus orchestrated the whole ordeal. “Just Vanish all their furniture right quick and we can have a go at the next house. I’ve got a new jinx I want to try that makes your nose squirt jelly whenever you cast a spell.”
“I am hurrying!” Cedric called back. To himself, he mumbled, “Git.”
He dropped into a thick pile of logs, wincing as ash rose all around him in a billowing black cloud; he couldn’t help but cough.
“Did you hear that?” someone spoke sharply.
“I did,” Albus Dumbledore replied in a serene tone. “I believe we have guests, Gellert.”
“If he hasn’t got a sack-full of toys over one shoulder, I’m hexing his tongue to stick to the back of his head.”
Cedric’s burning eyes widened, both hands firmly smacking against the stone chimney. Terrified, he stood utterly still – as if not moving would make him invisible. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he groaned to himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Listening to a Black is always bad news…Dumbledore’s going to kill me…ought to have brought some Floo powder along to help get myself out of this…
There was the sound of muffled laughter from the roof, and then Fred hissed, “Careful, now, we’re going to lift you out.”
Cedric’s heart thumped away in his throat. He tilted his head back to scan for any signs of Fred or Regulus above, keeping one ear pinned on the footsteps pattering into the room where Cedric had trespassed. “Will you hurry it up?”
Colin, who had been stationed at the front window to keep a look-out, gaped as his former headmaster and another wizard he did not recognize poked around the hallway into the parlor. Cedric’s shoes were visible even amidst the swirling cinders. Thinking fast, Colin pointed his wand towards Dumbledore’s friend and bellowed, “Wingardium Leviosa!”
The man called Gellert was upended at once, swinging round and round with his arms and legs stretched out in a magnificent cartwheel that he surely would not have been able to achieve without the help of magic. He rolled back down the hallway, Dumbledore’s alarmed gaze following him.
“What’s the meaning of this!” Gellert roared, unable to stop whizzing around like a Fanged Frisbee. He came barreling back down the hall again and whacked into a picture frame over a small three-legged table, causing it to fall down and break a vase resting on the aforementioned table. “Get me down! Get me down!” He swiped at the air with his hands, incensed. “What’re you just standing around for?”
Albus raised his wand to release his friend; Colin decided that it was necessary for Albus to be levitated, too, and performed the charm on him while letting go of his concentration on Gellert, who crashed over the back of the sofa and onto the floor.
“Get me out!” Cedric yelled hysterically, beating on the bricks. “Weasley, I swear to God, if you don’t –” His words were abruptly sliced off by someone else’s hollering.
Gellert’s head appeared over the sofa’s back, livid as a bruise. “Trespassers! Thieves! I’m going to transfigure your ears so much that you’ll be able to hear your own last words over and over for months!”
Cedric tapped his foot impatiently, bouncing around in a jumble of nerves. He rather liked his ears. He’d always been told that he had handsome ears, much like the rest of his face, and didn’t fancy them being addled by magic. Unwilling to wait for Fred and Regulus to assist him, he clawed at the bricks in efforts to climb his own way out.
“Keep your hat on,” Fred called down good-naturedly. “We’re lowering a rope for you.”
Humiliated, Cedric clutched tightly to the rope that slowly inched its way down to be level with the tip of his nose. Gellert’s head sprang up the fireplace precisely the same moment that Cedric’s feet had left the ground.
“Oh, no you don’t, boy!”
Cedric screamed, abandoning all pretense of valor.
“Mr. Diggory!” Albus greeted him genially, ignoring Gellert’s hands gripping Cedric’s flailing ankles, pulling him back down while Regulus and Fred yanked on him in the opposite direction from above. Cedric felt like he might be torn in two. “How kind of you to drop in on us. You could have simply knocked, you know.”
“Hooligan!” Gellert raved. “Who sent you? What are you after? My dragon’s blood? My Elixir of Youth?”
“You could really use a dose of that yourself,” Regulus’s muted voice taunted, filtering down through the layers of soot. “I’ve got a joke for you. What did your bald head say to your liver spots?”
No one responded (and Gellert’s lips mashed together as though he’d just swallowed a lemon), so he continued, “It said ‘Where did you go?’ Geddit? It’s ‘cause all your liver spots are hidden, see. In your massive wrinkles. I’ve got another one: What did the moth do when it flew into your ear?”
Gellert held on to Cedric’s knees, both of them scrabbling against each other as Cedric shrieked (his trousers were falling down, exposing underpants decorated with little dancing broomsticks that moved by magic) at Regulus to shut it. Fred grunted with the exertion of pulling the brawny young man up, as Regulus was distracted and the bulk of the mission fell to Fred. Colin was presently running in frantic circles around the house, trying to find a way up onto the roof.
“It forgot what it was doing in there in the first place!” Regulus exclaimed. “Because you’re old and you’ve got a bad memory! It’s contagious, I ‘spose, rubbing off on the moth…”
“Not as bad as your memory’s going to be when I’m through with experimenting on your brain!” Gellert yelled, transfiguring one of the logs into a hot poker and wielding it threateningly.
“Oh, now,” Dumbledore interrupted delicately, flicking open a newspaper. “Let’s not resort to violence.”
“I’ve got another one,” Regulus began, but was promptly knocked off his feet by Fred’s elbow, which had hit him in the stomach when he finally gave a heave and pulled Cedric all the way out of the chimney. One of his shoes had fallen off, which kicked Gellert in the nose. Regulus rolled down the roof tiles and into the garden hedge, which coincidentally was full of scratchy brambles. The two other boys on the roof fell off in a similarly ungraceful fashion, but luckily managed to land in a swampy pocket of mud that broke their fall.
“Did you know that was Dumbledore’s house?” Cedric demanded through a mask of brown sludge. “You knew, didn’t you?”
“Course I knew,” Regulus guffawed, his hair infested with tiny twigs. He looked like a bowtruckle. “C’mon, we’d better scarper before Grindelwald makes us swallow our teeth.”
The four boys bounded down the curvy lane and out of Little Hollow, watched by a rather envious Vincent Crabbe who was wandering down an alley by himself. “What next?” Fred inquired breathlessly.
“Him,” Cedric demanded, thrusting a finger into Regulus’s spine, which made the latter speed up a little to escape him. “It’s his turn to make an idiot of himself.”
“No problem.” Regulus conjured a goblet out of thin air and dunked it into the ivory lily fountain as they raced past it, bringing it to his lips. Most of the liquid sloshed all down the front of his robes. “At your service, my liege.”
“Is he insane?” Colin whispered to Fred, who snorted in response.
“That’s probably the best word for it.”
Colin wafted a photograph under Fred’s nose. “Look at what I got, though.”
Fred drank up the image of Gellert-the-flying-saucer as he floated past an amused Dumbledore, his eyes crinkling as he smiled. “Amazing. Truly a work of art.”
They hurried along after Cedric, who seemed to be leading the quartet with determined zest, his skin and clothing easily blending into the night from a combination of ash, mud, and resentment. “Here we are,” he announced haughtily, placing his hands on his dusty hips and tossing his head towards the black ocean. “This challenge is all yours, Black. Go have a look and tell us what’s in there.”
Fred’s eyes were bulging, but Regulus’s eyes were even huger. “There?” he sputtered. “You want me to go in there?”
Small waves lapped at the iron walls surrounding the Grotta, stifling but not entirely silencing the ghostly yells from within.
Cedric’s eyebrows rose. “Afraid?” he dared.
“'Course not.” Regulus puffed out his chest, fists swinging purposefully at his sides as he strode through the water and over to the smaller island. “There’s hundreds of tossers in there I used to know, but never mind that. Or Inferi, who’re probably swarming all over the place. I might remind you that I was murdered by Inferi.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” Cedric replied loftily over him. “Can’t die again. This is small potatoes for you, I’m sure.”
“Yes, it is,” Regulus answered bracingly, stopping every now and then to ensure that the three others were still behind him and hadn’t scattered into the wilderness. “Tiny potatoes. Miniscule potatoes. So itty-bitty that they couldn’t satisfy a caterpillar.”
“Caterpillars eat loads, though,” Colin pondered out loud. “Don’t they?”
Fred grinned as he watched Regulus’s stony shoulders tense from the prospect of his task, clapping his hands twice. “Bravo!” He launched into whistling a funeral march, which Cedric jubilantly joined in on.
Unsure of what else to do, Colin snapped a picture.
Showing off for his audience now, Regulus conjured a ladder and rested it against the wall, trying to climb each rung two at a time so that he might seem all the more impressive, but stumbling often because his robes kept getting caught under his shoes. “Tradition,” he reminded himself forcibly. “I’ll just poke my head in and then get right back out. Won’t take more than a second, and if I’m lucky, none of those rats will notice me.” He inhaled a deep breath, climbing high enough to just barely skim his gaze over the top of the wall. “Wonder if I could find a souvenir to prove my outstanding bravery…”
“Hello, there,” a reedy voice replied, not two inches from Regulus’s nose.
“Aaaghhh!” he shrieked, letting go of the ladder immediately and falling backward through the air.
A thin wisp of a man, insubstantial as smoke, tipped his head back and laughed maliciously. Fred, Cedric, and Colin all dropped their jaws – Colin’s magical camera flashed of its own accord, irresistibly capturing the moment, and all three of them gave great shouts before turning around, arms waving high over their heads, and made a run for it.
“Wait!” Regulus shouted, tripping all over himself from fear. “Wait for me!”
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I’ve heard people saying such kind things about this story and it makes writing this such a surreal, wonderful experience. Thank you, thank you, thank you! And I’m updating this a day earlier than usual because tomorrow’s my birthday and I might not have time to post.