Chapter 1 : A Trail of Embers
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To be truly honest, I never really meant for things to end up this way.
There was a lone candle burning on my bedside table as I lay staring in the darkness of my room waiting for my parents to go upstairs for the night. The air felt hot and stale. Outside, I could hear the faint noises of London summer nights and I imagined my mother and father speaking in quiet tones as they sat in their armchairs by the fireplace downstairs.
In retrospect, I could see clearly now that being the youngest in my family was a bit different than someone might normally think. Usually the youngest is loved, spoiled and lavished with attention like the crown jewel of a collection.
I never was. I had always been the extra. The afterthought.
I never blamed Sirius for being born first. It wasn’t really his fault, was it? He never seemed to enjoy it anyway. I think he would have preferred being the Afterthought-Child to being the First-Loved-Child. Having all the love and expectations of a family thrust on you can be hard. And me? I just got whatever was left over.
And when you get the leftovers, you learn to take the scraps you can find and not to share, because it is all you’re going to get. That must be where the selfishness started. When you’re an extra for the first fourteen years of your life, its kind of a hard thing to let go of.
I peered through the slightly open door to see Aunt Lucretia sitting perched on the edge of the loveseat, as she always did when she came to visit. From my place on the stairs just outside the sitting room I could hear her speaking to my mother.
“My, Walberga, but he’s turned out to be such a handsome boy!” she exclaimed, pinching Sirius’ cheek.
He squirmed away from her grip. “Let me go!”
“Sirius,” our mother admonished affectionately, “Don’t be rude to your Aunt Lucretia.”
Instead of being offended, Aunt Lucretia laughed and released him. “Oh it’s quite alright. He certainly has the Black temperament!”
Nine-year-old Sirius humphed haughtily and moved to the far corner of the room, out of my sight.
“He has a lot of potential, Walberga,” Aunt Lucretia continued. “I hope he lives up to it.”
I listened hungrily, wishing they were saying that about me. I would have given anything to trade places with Sirius.
“I certainly have higher hopes for him than for Regulus.”
Aunt Lucretia tilted her head to the side, curious. “Oh? Is he a rebellious child?”
I felt nothing. I simply sat and listened, taking in what they were saying about me, storing it up like a camel does with water.
“No, quite the opposite. A disappointment really. He’s shy. Almost timid.”
“Ah, I see.” Aunt Lucretia sat back, looking sympathetic. “No one’s ever heard of a cowardly Black.”
My mother pursed her lips tightly and nodded. “Precisely.”
It probably didn’t help that Sirius and I looked so much alike. The same black hair and gray eyes, the same straight patrician nose. We were related, and it showed.
Only he was, well…better. It was like I was the cheap knock-off version of his expensive original. Where his hair was glossy and swept elegantly across his forehead, mine was dull and flopped messily. His eyes twinkled; mine were a flat gray. While his skin always had the healthy tan of someone just returned from a holiday, I was paler, with a faint dusting of childish freckles across my nose. Freckles – so I could look like some common, destitute five-year-old forever.
In my mind’s eye, I could see the portrait of our parents that hung over the fireplace in the parlor downstairs. It had been painted just after they had gotten married (in fact, they were related too, and it showed). Our mother had been beautiful once. She wasn’t anymore – time and extremist temperaments tend to twist people into things they might not have been otherwise – but you could see what a legacy we had to live up to. She and our father both had the family raven-black hair framing their (eerily similar) aristocratic features. Their eyebrows curved over almond-shaped eyes, and their streamlined cheekbones matched the strong line of their jaws.
Sirius had looked the part of the Black heir. And guess I had probably always looked the part of the reserve. The second choice. It was obviously meant to be that way. It had been preordained by the stars.
Only I don’t think Sirius ever saw it that way. He fought with my parents about everything, as if that would change their minds about what heaven had obviously already chosen.
While he and my parents had had plenty of tiffs before, the shit really hit the fan during his first year at Hogwarts. Sirius’ sorting into Gryffindor had caused my mother to storm around the house like a Black thundercloud and my father to lock himself in his study for hours at a time. The little tiffs they had used to have became blazing rows and the air in the house became still, oppressive and stale.
I have no idea what his first year was like. Except for the howlers that my mother sent, there were no letters. I had never expected much from him anyway; we were too different to get along like real brothers.
It was much the same when I joined him at school. We nodded to each other in the halls but we hardly ever spoke. As a Slytherin and a Gryffindor, we didn’t associate. It just wasn’t done. But he was still my brother, still my blood. And truthfully, I was jealous. Sirius was always surrounded by a crowd of boisterous students, was always smiling, was always drifting easily and excellently through life, was always the favored first-born, no matter how much he had pissed off our parents. It felt unfair that I had to wade through life when everything came to him so easily, like a swift schooner gliding across the sea.
But when I was fourteen, Sirius died.
Not literally, of course. But he was dead to the family. My prince-like, First-Loved, now-Gryffindor older brother no longer existed. I remember the moment my mother burnt Sirius off the family tree with strange clarity. The terrifying flash of her eyes and the furious swish of her hair. Her vengeful, betrayed scream and the flash of white, scorching light that changed everything.
And for some reason, the burnt smell of the tapestry fabric has always stayed with me. Long after I had become an only child, I could swear that it clung to my clothes and had sunk unto my skin the way sunlight does on hot London days. Even now, I could smell it drifting faintly off the robes I was wearing.
I ignored it mostly, but sometimes it was hard not to notice the way it always seemed to smell like family betrayal and eternal failure, especially when I was home. Everything here smelled like tapestry smoke to me. It was stifling and sometimes late at night, I would sit on my window ledge, with my legs dangling four stories above the ground, so I could breath some clean, untainted air and wonder about the clear city lights of Muggle London. And I would wish. I couldn’t say what I was wishing for. Something different, I suppose.
I became the Black family heir after Sirius was gone, but it wasn’t the same. My parents hung all their hopes on me, but sometimes, when they thought I couldn’t see, they would eye me suspiciously, like they thought maybe I was a faulty replacement – the cheap knock-off without a warranty. It was as if because I had been the second choice, I had even more potential for family-shaming idiocy than my (now non-existent) older brother. It got even worse after my cousin, Andromeda, left home and married a mudblood. My mother blasted her off the tree too and I could almost see the treacherous wisps of smoke and cinders following me in an ember trail around the house. My parents watched me even more warily than before. I think they probably thought that I was preparing turn traitor too. That just showed how little they knew me.
I was much too selfish back then to do something like that.
At school, things were different than they had ever been. Sometimes I would see Sirius from across the Great Hall. But we weren’t brothers anymore so it hardly mattered. There were no corridor nods, no eye contact. What blood really flowed through our veins meant nothing in the face of family lies.
Sitting on the other side of the Great Hall, he combed a careless hand through his hair, eyes still shining with laughter, before turning to say something to the sandy-haired boy sitting next to him. They grinned evilly at each other. Sirius took out his wand and levitated his goblet of pumpkin juice, pouring its contents onto James Potter’s unsuspecting head. Potter sputtered like a drowning cat and the other boys howled with laughter as he tried to wipe juice from his glasses.
“Regulus?” Benjamin Greengrass was sitting next to me, trying to get my attention. I turned and made a disinterested noise of acknowledgement. “I’ve been trying to talk to you for nearly five minutes. What were you staring at?” He looked where I had been looking at the Gryffindor table.
I shrugged his question off. Lies come easily if you practice and I had been rehearsing my whole life. “Nothing really. I was just trying to figure out what everyone sees in those fucking Gryfffindors.”
Ben nodded and went back to his treacle tart while I took one last look at my brother and his mates.
I wondered why I didn’t have friends like that. Why my life wasn’t as good as his.
But for everything that Sirius had, I had Audrey.
Audrey was one of those few girls that are truly, heartbreakingly beautiful. In fact, she was so beautiful that no boy had ever gotten up the courage to ask her out. She seemed to be on a higher plane of existence than everyone else, like an angel or a goddess. We had Ancient Runes together and, being a typical Ravenclaw, she was top of the class. She was kind, intelligent, pureblooded, and she always smiled at me like she knew me, even before we had met.
The classroom buzzed with other student’s empty chatter. I pretended not to notice when she took the desk next to mine and continued checking over my homework. Thankfully, Professor Nolan never assigned seats and I had always had a spare desk to my right; not many other Slytherins had chosen to take this class. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her slip her book out of her bag. She had long, slender fingers and her wrists looked so delicate.
“I thought last night’s translation was rather difficult.” I was startled to hear her speaking to me. Her voice made me think of a soft, warm summer breeze brushing against my skin. “Did you have any trouble with it?”
She looked at me from under the dark fans of her eyelashes and my mouth went dry.
“Uh, well, I guess. A bit.” I sounded stupid even to my own ears, but she let out a tinkling little laugh.
“You’re Regulus Black, aren’t you?” Audrey said and I waited for her to ask if I was Sirius’ younger brother. Everyone always did that.
But she simply smiled and waited for me to reply. I nodded dumbly as Professor Nolan called the class to order. Not knowing what else to say, I shifted my attention to the front of the classroom. Suddenly, I felt all the hairs on my right arm stand on end as she leaned across the aisle and placed her hand lightly on my sleeve.
“I’m Audrey,” she whispered, and I could feel the heat of her hand burning through the thin fabric of my robes. “Audrey Davies.” She flashed me another coy smile and turned to face the board.
As much as I watched her after that, I noticed how everyone else was always looking at her too. Especially Sirius.
I remember watching him watch her. His eyes would follow her as she sat down at the Ravenclaw table. He watched the way her long, dark hair swayed as she walked, the way her white teeth flashed happily when she laughed, her blood-red lips against alabaster skin.
“She looks like Snow White, Sirius,” I remembered overhearing Potter’s mudblood girlfriend saying in the next aisle over in Honeyduke’s one Hogsmeade weekend.
Sirius sounded indignant. “No she doesn’t!” There was a pause. “Who’s Snow White?”
“Disney Princess. It’s a muggle thing.” There was a loud crinkling of wrappers. “Do you think James would like these?”
“Dizz-knee? What the hell is that? Never mind. I don’t want to know.” The soft chime of the girl’s laughter filtered through the shelf. “And Prongs hates Acid Pops. I gave him one once and it ate away all his teeth, so he’s not too keen on them now.” More crinkling and shuffling. “So who’s this ‘Snow White’ bird?”
“Well, long story short, she was too beautiful and made the queen jealous, so she had to go live with the seven dwarves – ”
Sirius sputtered. “Dwarves?”
“Yes. Dwarves. And then she falls into an apple-induced coma, which is the old witch’s fault, of course, gets kissed and wakes up again, and she and the prince live happily ever after.”
There was a baffled silence. “There’s a prince?”
“Of course there’s a prince. Snow White is a princess.” She gave a loud sigh that was probably accompanied by her throwing her arms up in defeat. “Why is he the most impossible person to shop for in the history of the world?!”
There was a loud squelching sound of a package being shoved into someone’s arms. “Just get him these, Lily.” She sighed again and tromped off to pay.
“A prince huh?” Sirius had said quietly to himself, “I can do that.”
My heart had sunk then, knowing that Sirius was more on her level than I was. Audrey was most definitely out of my league.
I knew he wanted her, and Sirius was used to getting what he wanted one way or another. The thing was, I wanted her too, more than I had ever wanted almost anything. And the life I had made myself through selfish taking had prepared me to fight for her far better than Sirius’ spoiled, silver-platter childhood had.
It was done the way all of our fights had been done ever since we had first quarreled over Sirius’ new toy broomstick when I wasn’t even three years old. Sirius was blunt, loud and intolerable (while somehow still seeming charming) until he got what he wanted, while I finessed the situation, carefully manipulating things until the scales tipped my way.
And somehow, she picked me.
Audrey slipped her hand into mine as we made our way down the corridor and I was suddenly struck by just how small her palms felt when compared to my own. She sucked in a quick breath and asked quietly, “Regulus, when are you going to ask me to Hogsmeade?”
After a moment, I grasped her hand tightly and turned to look at her. Her cheeks were tinged pink with embarrassment. Audrey was never embarrassed.
“Er. Right now.” I swallowed, feeling silly for being nervous. “Want to go to Hogsmeade with me next weekend?”
She flashed a smile that sent shivers up and down my spine. “Love to.”
The Davies family was a respectable pureblood family that, as a general rule, stayed out of political matters. Even so, my parents had approved of and actually seemed to like Audrey. At school Sirius’ occasional jealous glares were strangely satisfying and things seemed to be going well for me for a change.
The snow that was falling was like the kind you usually saw on postcards. It was light and fluffy and the only thing a person could think of what they saw it was Christmas. I turned to look up at Hogwarts. The tall towers were iced with a thick covering of snow and I could see the glittering of fairy lights through some of the frosted windows. I looked back towards where Audrey stood in the snow. She was staring up into the sky, watching the snowflakes fall into her outstretched hand. They sat and melted into the dark knit fabric of her gloves.
After a moment, she flashed a devious smile at me and before I knew it she had charged at me, pushing me into the snow. Wrapping my arms around her, I pulled her down with me, and when we landed, she began shoving snow into my robes. We were both laughing madly and after a swift moment of struggle, I called out surrender. Audrey, cheeks pink with cold, sat up in triumph and properly perched herself on top of my chest.
I stared up at her, looking at the way the snowflakes were caught in her dark hair and clung to her eyelashes and I loved her impossibly.
Audrey was…well, perfect. It was hard to believe that she was mine. I knew I didn’t deserve her, just as I had never deserved anything else, but I tried to make up for that. I tried to make sure that I would never repeat Sirius’ mistakes. I worried all the time that I might lose her.
She dragged her finger down the groove that went from my chest to my navel and began to play with the line of dark hair that trailed even lower. Our bodies still had a slight sheen of sweat that glowed in the torchlight and her naked skin was still hot against mine. She nestled her head in the crook of my neck and sighed. Pressing a heated kiss into the sunken space above my collarbone, she murmured, “You always smell like smoke. Did you know that Regulus?”
“What?” I thought of burnt holes in tapestry trees, of cinders, of family betrayal and disappointment, and wondered if she could really smell that on me.
She moved her mouth up to the hollow below my ear and ran her lips lightly along the bottom edge of my chin. “You taste like it too.” She sucked on my throat and I drew a sharp breath. “You taste like fire. Like heat and embers.”
I tried not to remember the furtive looks from my parents, the happy smiles of a disowned Sirius, and pulled her lips to mine, hard. Our skin slicked together as she pressed herself on top of me and I ran my hands over every bit of her that I could reach. I wanted to memorize the feel of her. Her smell, her taste, the smoothness of her pale skin and the way her hair flowed liquidly, like ink, through my fingers. She was mine. But I needed to remember everything, just in case the day came when I wouldn’t be able to touch her.
Of course, I had hoped that that would never happen, but my selfish habits had prompted me to begin hording memories of her – just in case.
It meant nothing to me that I had been my family’s second choice as long as I was her first. If she was all mine, it didn’t matter that the smell of tapestry smoke had sunk through my skin, into my bones and my marrow.
All I needed was for that not to matter to her either.
Distantly, I heard the sound of my parents starting up the stairs towards their bedroom. I leaned over, quickly extinguishing the flame of the candle, and listened as their footsteps passed my bedroom door. They continued up another flight and faintly, I could make out the closing of their bedroom door. The smoke from the candle spiraled up into the moonlight in strange circles that seemed distant and lost.
I had worked hard to make up for my mediocrity, when compared with what Sirius had been expected to be. I was a model Slytherin Prefect with a gorgeous, pureblooded girlfriend and that summer, the summer before my seventh year, I did the thing that made me the pride of my family.
Something that made me better in their eyes than Sirius could ever have dreamed to be.
And even as I felt the seared flesh of my arm through the sleeve of my robes, I could see the pride in my parent’s eyes. I had known then that I had finally erased all of their doubts and had proved myself worthy of the title firstborn. At last, everything was perfect.
I could have asked for the moon then, and they would have given it to me. And I took everything I was offered. I suppose it was out of habit. And the more I got, the more I wanted. I remembered the days when all I had thought about was what else I wanted – how I could get more. Things were so easy back then, when my life was all about me, until everything began to fall apart.
She brushed her dark hair out of her face. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” Her voice sounded raw and tired, as if she had just finished screaming.
“What? Audrey, what are you talking about?”
“I care about you, Regulus. Really, I do. And I wish it didn’t have to be this way.” She looked at me searchingly with pale rainwater eyes. “I just don’t believe what you believe.” She turned to leave but I grabbed her hand desperately. She couldn’t mean that.
“Wait. Please – ”
“Don’t.” She shook her head and I could have sworn I saw tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I know I said I was all right with the whole Death Eater thing, but I’m – I’m not. It’s wrong, Regulus, and you know it. We’re all human, and everyone deserves a chance to live their own life. Everyone. Even you. Come and find me when you figure that out and then, maybe things might –
“I just can’t be with someone like you right now.”
She pulled her hand gently from my grasp and took one last look at me before walking away down the corridor. I waited until she had turned a corner and then I slumped back against the stone wall in despair. She was gone.
I never did go back to her. I thought about what she said but by the time I understood what she meant, she was already with someone else. They were going to be married, and someday she would have children who had his nose and her blue eyes and evening-colored hair. She was happy, and I was miserable without her. I was devastated, knowing that she had been right about everything, and if I had just known it back then, maybe things would be different. She might still have been mine.
I stared up at the Black family crest that had been painted so elaborately above my bed and wondered if Sirius had felt like this on the night he ran away; half-crazed, with thoughts moving so quickly through his brain that he hardly even had time to grab hold of one before another took its place.
But of course Sirius hadn’t been like this. He probably had just done that as thoughtlessly as he did everything else, and had never looked back.
How I wished that I could be like that now. But if I couldn’t have Audrey, I could at least try to do the right thing for once. I owed her that much. I owed everyone that much.
I sucked in a deep breath that smelled of melted wax and ashes, and pushed myself up onto my feet. Moving quietly, I grabbed my cloak and grasped my wand tightly in my hand. My palms felt clammy as I inched open the door and tiptoed out onto the landing. The door across the hall from mine was still ominously shut, but I somehow took courage from my memories of Sirius, a lone Gryffindor in the House of Black. The words of my Aunt Lucretia came back to me:
“No one’s ever heard of a cowardly Black.”
I set my jaw in a hard, determined line and moved towards the stairs. This was something I had to do.
The kitchen was pitch black, except for a few dying embers in the hearth, and I padded softly through it, relying mostly on memory to keep me from running into something rather than taking the risk lighting my wand. I absolutely could not chance waking my mother. Finally, I reached the small cupboard door in the corner and silently turned its doorknob.
“Kreacher,” I nearly whispered into the dark. Even the house elf’s cupboard smelled like smoke to me now. Suddenly, two large eyes glittered in the faint light of the dying fire.
“Yes, Master Regulus?” came a low croak.
“Kreacher, I need you to do something for me.”
“Yes, of course Master. Anything.”
“Do you remember the cave the Dark Lord took you too?” The orbs nodded. I sucked in a breath, steeling myself, and said, in a whisper like cold silver, “I want you to take me there. There’s something I have to do.”
A/N: Hey everyone! I know this is un-Betaed, but I haven't put anything up in forever so I thought that it was time. Regulus is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters because of his immense complexity. This was partly inspired by the song 'Into the Ocean' by Blue October. Hope you all enjoyed this!