Chapter 2 : syzygy
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Perhaps she’d found out that I was a Death Eater, and didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. I waited nervously for her to speak. But I never could have predicted her response.
“I… I have cancer,” she said quietly.
I stared at her in the hazy wandlight. Wizards didn’t usually get cancer, so I never thought much about it – it was just Muggles and Muggle-borns who seemed to be susceptible to it, and up until this year I hadn’t known any Muggle-borns, so I'd never had much reason to think about it. “But… you’ll be all right?” I didn’t know anything about the disease.
Summer shrugged stiffly. “I’m going in for surgery over the holiday, to get a brain tumour removed. After that I guess we’ll see.”
I remained there, unmoving, uncertain how to react. Summer was the constant in my life; I didn’t want to hear a maybe from her. That was like she was acknowledging the possibility of a no. “You’ll be all right,” I insisted, for my own sake as much as hers.
She smiled weakly. “If you say so,” she said. “The universe shouldn’t dare go against Regulus Black’s command.”
When I didn't say anything, she continued. "Well, I just wanted to let you know. All right, I'll head out first and let you know if it's safe for you to leave." She cracked the door open a few inches, and then drew it open wider to walk out. Before she slipped out the door, I grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. She gave me a long glance, then turned left into the corridor. I turned right, steadily walking away, but my mind still dwelt there in that broom cupboard with Summer, remembering the anxiety on her pale face.
I had only ever used Summer’s friendship selfishly, for my own needs and mental well-being. I’d used her so I could be rid of my worries, and she’d been a good friend. Now she needed me to be her friend. Should I visit her over the holiday, which was sure to be a miserable one for her? What if people found out? How much was I willing to give up for her?
After all, Christmas was a time you were supposed to spend with your loved ones, not sitting in a hospital. Usually, for me, Christmas meant going home to a house where I was the golden child, where my parents heaped welcome compliments on me while ignoring Sirius as he sulked in the corner. It meant gifts and snow and hot butterbeer and curling up in a blanket by the crackling fire. It also meant a stressful dinner with extended family where I had to keep my elbows off the table, my posture straight, my toothy grins and tears hidden. But I was willing to put up with those austere rules because everything else about the day was wonderful.
Of course, the past two years, it hadn't been as great as I remembered the Christmases of my childhood. Sirius hadn't been there, not since he'd run away and been disowned over the summer before my fifth year. So I'd been alone in receiving the compliments again at Christmas, which was no different, but I had missed making faces with Sirius across the table when we were supposed to be acting proper.
I found myself wondering what Christmas was like in the Phillips household. I'd never asked.
Summer and I met up in the hidden room on the seventh floor later that week, and I asked her to tell me about how she celebrated Christmas. She laughed, and described what sounded like a ridiculous day. Summer's family was the opposite of mine; rather than scolding her for slouching at dinner, her mum sometimes had too much wine and slumped over the table eagerly telling stories to an equally silly audience of neighbours and cousins roaring with laughter. The story made me smile too as I tried to fathom what it would be like to spend Christmas in this manner.
But it probably wouldn't be that way this holiday, with Summer in the hospital. Summer's mum might be drinking for a different reason. And without further ado, I blurted, "I'm going to visit you on Christmas. I'll come see you in St. Mungo's. You shouldn't have to have a miserable day, not on Christmas."
"I won't be at St. Mungo's," she said. "They don't know how to deal with cancer there, because most wizards don't get it. Besides, I don't think my dad entirely trusts magic as a means of treatment. I'll be at the Muggle hospital."
The idea was disconcerting: me, a pureblood and a Black, going into a Muggle hospital full of Muggles coughing their Muggle diseases... Muggles who were ill and had to spend their holiday desolately contained in a ward, like Summer. "Then I'll visit you there," I said. But then I hesitated, momentarily plagued with worry. "That is, if you want me to visit?" It could easily be that she didn't want me around. I'd never been a particularly good friend before.
"Of course, Reg, I'd love to see you, but... Christmas is about family, won't you want to spend it with yours? I don't think they'll want you to be with me." Her eyes shone with feeling – how could she possibly be so concerned for me, when she was the one who was ill, the one about to be sliced open in the hospital?
"Don't worry about me," I said. "Just tell me where, and I'll be there for you, like you've always been there for me." It was the right thing to do for such a good person as Summer, and if once in my life I could be as good as she was, then I'd be happy.
I internally debated for ages on how to break the news to my parents that I wouldn't be there for Christmas, without arousing suspicion. So when the holidays began and I returned home to 12 Grimmauld Place, I finally told my parents that I'd been selected to carry out a task for the Dark Lord and would be gone for Christmas morning. As I had hoped, they were very proud of this honour that the Dark Lord had bestowed upon me. I only hoped Mum wouldn't talk about it in her social circles, because then someone would eventually work out that I was lying. How much easier it would have been if my friends would cover for me, but they certainly wouldn't, not if they knew I was spending Christmas with Muggles.
On Christmas morning, I snuck into Sirius's old room and rummaged through his things to find anything that looked more Muggle than a set of pressed robes; Sirius would be the type to have Muggle clothes just to spite Mum and Dad. And indeed, I found a black T-shirt that said 'Aerosmith' over an outline of wings, and while I didn't know what that meant, I could infer from Sirius's interests that it was either a musical group or had something to do with motorbikes. After donning a pair of corduroy trousers and then a cloak on top of it all, I disappeared out of the house to meet Summer.
The lobby of the hospital was crawling with Muggles, and it was a bit uncomfortable. I felt like I didn't belong. But when I went up to the desk, the man behind it greeted me with a friendly smile and said, "Happy Christmas!"
"I'm here to see Summer Phillips," I told the man, who directed me to Summer's room. I knocked softly on the door and walked in. A balding, red-haired man and a blonde woman with her hair up in a bun sat in chairs beside a bed, where Summer lay. Her head was bandaged heavily, and her arm was linked, by way of thin tubes, to a number of instruments and frankly scary looking medical equipment that surrounded the bed. There was also a little table with flowers and a card. I wondered if I should have brought flowers too, so with my hands behind my back, I surreptitiously grabbed my wand from inside my sleeve, and conjured a bouquet of yellow carnations and lilies.
"Hello," I said, holding out the flowers. "I brought you these."
Summer smiled. "Reg, it's you... oh, thank you!" she slurred, her eyes glazed, almost as if she'd drunk Amortentia or too much Firewhisky, and reached her hand up. The blonde woman by the side of the bed – Summer's mother, I could assume – stood up to take the flowers from me.
"Hi, dear," she said with a tired smile. "Oh, these flowers are lovely – we can put them on this table here, all right?"
"Yeah, thanks," I said as she took the flowers from me and arranged them next to the other bouquets, and then I walked over to Summer's bedside. "How are you doing?" I asked softly.
"I'm okay," she said. "They've got me on loads of drugs so I can't feel a thing. I just feel weird."
I nodded, at a loss for what else to say, and then Summer spoke up again. "Reg, these are my parents," she said. "Mum, Dad, this is Regulus, he's a friend from school."
I couldn't believe I'd been so rude as to forget to introduce myself, and hastily held out my hand to each of them in turn to shake. Months ago I would never have imagined shaking hands with a Muggle, but it was just like shaking the hand of a wizard or witch.
"It's lovely to meet you," said Mrs Phillips warmly. "Summer is lucky to have a friend like you, to come out to the hospital on Christmas!"
"It's nice to meet you too," I said. "Summer is my best friend, so of course I was going to see her on Christmas." But at that moment, I realised that I hadn't even gotten a Christmas gift for her. I turned to face Summer again, and finally mumbled, "I'm sorry I didn't bring you a present."
"It's enough of a present just that you're here," said Summer. "Of course, you can get me a unicorn when we're back at school."
Mrs Phillips looked fondly at her daughter, her brow furrowed in concern. "Summer, sweetheart, you aren't going back to school this term, remember?" she said gently, smoothing the sheet on Summer's bed. "You've got to get better first. But the doctors say you should be able to return to school next year."
Summer nodded vaguely, and I felt my insides twist into knots. The rest of the school year seemed much less inviting now.
Mr Phillips, who up until that point had been silent, spoke up. "So tell us about yourself, Regulus," he said. "You and Summer met at Hogwarts; are you from a – er, what's the term you lot have – Muggle family like us, or do you have magic in the family?"
"They're all magic," I said dully. For some reason I really didn't want to discuss my family with Summer's parents. Why was family background the first thing anyone ever talked about?
Mr Phillips nodded with appreciation. "That's incredible," he said. "Simply incredible. Do you know, up until our Summer turned eleven, we had no idea that magic existed all around us! It's very strange, isn't it? When Summer came back after her first term at that school, I was worried she'd turn our teacups into toads or something."
"I tried, but I got a warning about underage magic," said Summer quietly.
Mrs Phillips put a finger to her lips suddenly. "We shouldn't be discussing this here," she said. There were no other Muggles in the room apart from Summer's parents, but she was right; it would be unwise to keep talking as we were. But then I found I didn't know what to talk about. Summer was ill and not coming back to Hogwarts, I didn't have anything in common with her parents or even know much about Muggle things... every discussion topic felt off limits. Eventually Summer, tired from all the medicines, dropped off to sleep, and her parents and I made small talk about the weather and other unimportant things, until some cousins of Summer's came in to visit and I left, after getting a hug from both of Summer's parents.
I got back home in the early afternoon, and many of my cousins and aunts and uncles were there already, milling about with glasses of mead in the stuffy sitting room. I didn't feel like socialising with anyone. But here I had appearances to keep up, so I steeled myself – held my head high as I walked into the crowd and pretended to be interested in some scandal Aunt Druella was waxing lyrical about.
Mum drew me aside just before dinner, her eyes burning holes into me. "Your cousin Bella says the Dark Lord had no secret plans going on today," she said pointedly. "If I find out you were lying about your work this morning... I warn you, dishonesty is not tolerated in this house. With you disappearing and neglecting your family, you'll turn out like Sirius."
Mum hardly ever mentioned him, except to prompt me to do something differently for their approval. But the comparison made me glad for once. Sirius was off somewhere spending the day with the girl he loved; he might have taken the dishonourable path of forsaking the family and our reputation, standing up against the Dark Lord, and running off into the sunset with Melanie, but he had followed his heart and was happy. I could see that now, and I was proud of him. For me, following my heart had led me to my best friend Summer, who made me the happiest I'd ever been. I wondered how Sirius was doing, and mused that he would probably like Summer.
"Perhaps the Dark Lord just doesn't trust Bella with everything," I suggested quietly, and Mum seemed satisfied with this response, as it implied the Dark Lord had higher esteem for me than for my cousin – something Mum was always proud to hear. I was still safe in my lies, at least for now.
Returning to Hogwarts in January was a rather dreary business. Wilkes complained about Mudbloods standing in his way in the corridor, and Jasper kept going on about his efforts to get a job. I continued to excel at Potions and struggle with Charms. It was no different to before, except that Summer wasn't around to talk to any more when the pretentiousness of my friends got to be too much for me. So one afternoon, I wrote a letter to her. There wasn't anything too intense in it, I just wanted to know how she was doing and let her know I missed her.
Successfully getting the letter into her hands was another thing entirely, though. She was in a Muggle hospital, so I could hardly send her an owl. And I had no idea how the Muggle post worked. So I addressed the scroll to Mr and Mrs Phillips, adding a small sidenote that the letter was for Summer, and then just hoped my owl would be able to figure it out.
Fortunately Mr and Mrs Phillips could handle owl post after six years of their daughter being at Hogwarts, so sure enough, a few days later I heard from Summer again, although the response was actually written by her mum, as Summer was feeling too sick to do much. At least she was able to tell her mum what to write down.
This went on for a while – sometimes I was corresponding with Summer, and sometimes with her mum, Anne. Eventually Anne even began to add in light-hearted reminders for me to work hard and keep my grades up, and other very mum-like things that made me roll my eyes, but I was touched at her concern.
So I had wonderful support outside Hogwarts, and just knowing that helped get me through. Occasionally I still joined my friends in discussions about how vile Mudbloods were, but now it was nothing but an act for me. I wondered, at times, if Jasper suspected anything: every now and then I'd find him watching me closely. But there was nothing for him to catch me at anymore; with Summer home from school, I was no longer disappearing and lurking about. And when he saw me sending letters away, I simply said they were to my brother.
When Summer eventually returned home from the hospital, I was able to send letters to her directly, which was nice. But I continued correspondence with her mum as well, because she told me the things Summer concealed.
Hi Reg, wrote Summer, I saw the most beautiful sunset yesterday and it made me think of you, and how we used to stand at the top of the Tower together until it got cold and dark. I miss that a lot. I'm doing okay, but my hair is falling out and I look like a hag, not exactly the most fetching. Hope school is going all right – I've been hearing things about You-Know-Who and I know how it must be for you. But you're strong, keep your head up – only a few more months, and remember I'm always just an owl away.
P.S. You still owe me a unicorn.
But Summer's letter seemed almost empty in comparison with Anne's.
Thank you for your last letter. It is wonderful to have Summer back home again, although it hurts Alan and me so much to see her like this. The doctors have said they've never seen anything like her case before, and warned us that there might not be a lot they can do. I am sorry to tell you this, but I thought you should know.
"I knew you weren't actually writing to your blood traitor brother," Jasper told me one day as I hastily stuffed a roll of parchment out of sight a second too late. He'd seen over my shoulder. "Summer... isn't that the Mudblood that left school?"
"This is to my neighbour," I said.
Jasper shook his head. "No, it isn't. You're about as discreet as a hippogriff in an antique shop. I've known for months that there was something strange going on with you–"
"–And I covered for you," he continued, ignoring my interruption. "People were starting to say things last term, and I even saw you two together sometimes, but I shut down the rumours. But Sweet Salazar, are you an idiot, Regulus. I won't cover for you forever. What the hell are you doing? I just don't understand what's gotten into you."
I stared at hm for a moment, grateful that he would help me, even if it was only to keep his own reputation from being marred by his friendship with me. "Summer is my friend," I finally said. "And she's dying."
"Sorry," he said blandly, not sounding remotely sorry at all. But I did notice that afterwards, he stopped telling his favourite joke about the Mudblood and the banshee that walk into the Leaky Cauldron, at least not when I was around.
Over the Easter holidays, I wasn't able to meet up with Summer. With only one more term left at school, I had to be prepared for life afterwards, so I had actual work now with the Dark Lord; Wilkes and I would go to the meetings together. During those few meetings, I'd watch my fellow Death Eaters laugh and holler as they tortured Muggles, while I stood on the sidelines gripped by nausea. What was I doing? This whole business was starting to scare me, and I wasn't even in the thick of it yet.
Mum kept a watchful eye over me most of the time I was home, though, likely recalling my mysterious disappearance on Christmas. But I found some books of interest, which I proceeded to read with fervour during my spare time – books about immortality, about keeping Death away. Perhaps, I thought, I could find something in here that would save Summer, a potion or charm. She couldn't die; she was too good.
I found one tome about conquering Death and becoming its master, but it was just some loony old myth about a powerful wand called the Deathstick, a cloak that made the wearer invisible, and a stone that brought departed souls back to life. None of which were things I had, nor did I know where to go about looking for them, if they did indeed exist. In another book, I also discovered some disturbing and gruesome methods to make oneself immortal by murdering someone and then trapping your soul in an inanimate object... none of this was quite what I was looking for. I wrinkled my nose in disgust as I looked at the yellowed pages featuring the title Horcruxes, and then threw the book aside. My searching was fruitless; I felt that I had failed Summer.
The last term at Hogwarts flew by; I had enough to cope with studying for N.E.W.T. exams, but I was also still scouring the Hogwarts library for information on magical remedies to Muggle ailments; I never did find anything. I continued writing to Summer and to Anne when I could, and it was easier to hide myself away surrounded by parchment with exam season upon us, as so many others were likewise isolating themselves to study.
We all left in June, upon the completion of our seventh and final year. Although I had been eagerly anticipating this day for months, the day I could stop pretending in front of my friends, the entire day of our leaving ceremony I felt a bit queasy. I'd knew I'd miss what had come to be my home for seven years, and walking past the door to the Astronomy Tower would remind me of Summer, and the promises I had made to her and to myself. Now was the time that really mattered, because it could be a fresh start if I were brave enough. Wilkes was thrilled about leaving – I could see the zealous gleam in his eye as he talked of his hopes for his future as a Death Eater, how we were the real thing now, the people the Dark Lord would depend on. And that was the part that scared me more than anything.
In July I saw Summer again; we met in a park in her part of town, where I knew no one, and we had no fear of being seen. Her blonde hair, once like long waves of sunshine, was thin and lank now. But still she smiled as she saw me. We got ice cream together and then sat on a bench and talked for hours. I finally admitted the truth to her, that I was a Death Eater. She said she knew. And yet we remained on that bench together, the unbreakable bonds of our friendship keeping us afloat.
By August, she was back in hospital, and I visited her there too, until August washed away into September; the days started to get shorter, the nights colder, the leaves on the trees commencing their seasonal wither to red and brown. In the air was the beginning of autumn; the end of Summer.
Disclaimer: I am not in any way associated with Aerosmith. The rest belongs to JKR.
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