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"Hi," said Regulus squeakily, as the great oak doors of the Valance house swung inwards. "Sorry to bother you so early in the morning. My name's–"

"Mate, I don't care if your name's Attila the Hun. Get in here."

He was pulled, trembling, into the cavernous Entrance Hall, where that muggle from the muggle-baiting ring – the one he had seen bite another man's ear off – towered over him, sizing him up with a kind of grim desperation.

"Do you know how to mix up a Sleeping Draught?"

"I–" Regulus tried to stop staring. The muggle's suit was stretched taut with muscles, and his face was a mess of scars. "Yeah, I think so."

They said he'd learned how to fight the Imperius Curse years before he escaped. That meant he knew what he was doing when he bit that other man's ear off, and he had probably seen Regulus in the crowd, trying to bet his pocket money on the outcome of the match. Things could get awkward.

On top of that, Lily Evans was standing next to him, and Regulus was amazed to find he couldn't meet her eyes without squirming. It was all that damned empathy her magic had foisted on him – it was crackling through his nerves and short-circuiting his brain. Suddenly, he was imagining what it would be like to be a mudblood at Hogwarts – to be told all your life that you were vermin and you didn't belong within the castle's hallowed walls, and then to have your magic stripped away and everyone proved right.

Oh god, if he could find a way to shut this off, he wouldn't care if he had to stay sober for the rest of his life – there was no sobriety like knowing just how much you had made other people suffer.

"You'll do," growled the muggle, with a grudging smile. He slapped his huge hand on Regulus's shoulder and turned to Lily Evans, who was half-dragging, half-carrying a little blonde girl into the hallway. "This boy never bet against me, Lily. He's smart."

Lily Evans gave him a cool, unfriendly stare, but didn't protest.

The muggle bent down until he was looking straight into Regulus's eyes. And, despite the scars and the grizzled voice, he had the bright blue eyes of a schoolboy. "You'll stay smart, won't you, boy? By doing everything my redhead friend here tells you to do right now?"

"Ye-es," said Regulus hesitantly.

"Good," said the muggle, straightening up and slapping him heartily on the back. "If you're not done in half an hour, I'll chop your balls off."  

Lily Evans – still frosty as an ice sculpture – led him through flagstoned corridors and into a huge kitchen at the back of the house. It must have dated from the days when the Valance kitchen had to cater for a whole army of retainers. It was a room that looked as though it had been used cheerfully right up to the present day, though – there were cured hams and bunches of dried herbs hanging from the rafters, and the long table was set with silver-tankards, as though the army of retainers had only just been dismissed.

Kreacher sidled along behind them, staying in Regulus's shadow. It was, of course, the proper thing for a House Elf to be completely ignored when he was waiting on his Master, but Regulus had expected these soft-hearted muggle-lovers to pay Kreacher a bit more attention, especially because the old House Elf was now walking with a cane. He supposed they just had a lot on their minds.

Come to think of it, so did he, but it couldn't stop him talking. It was his instinct to be affable to everyone he came into contact with. It was just that a combination of house politics and snooty relatives had seen to it that he never came into contact with anyone muggle-born. But Regulus didn't know how to be haughty – especially now. He wasn't allowed drugs anymore, and the fever left him with occasional, chilling moments of clarity which he wanted to forget about at all costs. He had never known what he was supposed to do with clarity.

On top of that, he kept plunging into his trance state, and the new appearance of the mudblood's aura made him gut-wrenchingly miserable. She still had a few golden particles, hovering around her like fireflies, but the mellifluous golden cloud – the magic that rubbed off on everyone she touched, like grains of pollen – was gone. Regulus supposed he was bathing it in now – or frying in it, more like – but he had never been able to see his own magic.  

Trying desperately to distract himself, he jerked his thumb in the direction of the kitchen's sturdy oak doors. "Is there a way to lock these?" he asked.  

Lily Evans gave him a sour smile. "Don't worry; he won't really chop your balls off."

"Have you ever seen him fight?"

She raised her eyebrows coolly. "Oh, yes. You were one of the disgusting perverts who made him fight in the muggle-baiting ring."

"Me and your boyfriend, love," Regulus replied cheerfully.

"I'm not your 'love'," she said. "And you're bleeding from the ears, by the way, did you know?" She sounded more irritated than concerned by this, but she still clamped her arms to her sides, as though she was trying to stop herself from helping. He supposed a Healer's instincts never went away.

Regulus dismissed her non-existent concern with a wave of his hand. "Happens all the time, mate."

"I'm not your mate, either. I'm a mudblood, remember? Like you said."

Regulus sighed. "Since I only have half an hour left with my balls, do you mind if we get on with this?"

"Not at all," she said loftily. "I hope you're better at Potions than your brother."

She was not in a good mood. Regulus didn't need his new-found talent for empathy to perceive that. She looked over his shoulder while he was chopping the herbs and told him to chop them smaller. She gave him a withering look when he wondered out loud if 'Atropa Belladonna' had been named after his cousin.

It was obvious that she could have done this better if she'd still had her magic. And now the boy who'd taken away her magic was being useful where she couldn't, and making stupid jokes about the names of herbs. It would be enough to try anyone's patience. And he didn't improve the situation by smashing a couple of valuable potion-bottles because his hands were too sweaty.

But her exasperation didn't entirely explain the bad mood, and Regulus wondered, with the intuition that was killing him, what Severus Snape had done this time.

"Look, it's instinct, OK?" he said, when the prickly silence between them had gone on for ten minutes. "I'm sorry I called you a 'mudblood' but, when I was growing up, that wasn't a bad word. It was just like 'chair' or 'cat' or -,"

"Or cockroach?" she suggested, with brittle brightness.

Oh God, she was learning sarcasm from Snape. He was the master of it. Regulus would never be able to get away with a thoughtless word again. And he was dying, for God's sake! He shouldn't have to think about what he said before he said it!

"It was my first word, if you must know," he said sniffily.

"Mudblood was your first word?"

"See, how come you get to say it?" he demanded, wiping the sweat off his forehead before it could drip onto his carefully chopped herbs.

Lily Evans looked as though she had a bad taste in her mouth. "Not 'mummy'? Or 'daddy'? Mudblood? I mean, were there even any mudbloods in your house?"

"God, no!" Regulus exclaimed, without thinking. "We had a mudblood-skin rug in the hall, but we got that after I started talking."

She shook her head in wonder. "So, basically, your parents were too busy ranting and raving about mudbloods to show you any affection? And the only way you could get their affection was to start ranting and raving about the same things as soon as you had the power of speech?"

Regulus felt vaguely as though he ought to be defending his upbringing, but all he could think of to say was: "It was a bloody difficult word for a toddler to pronounce."

She gave him a wry smile. "I bet they thought your garbled attempts at racial abuse were really cute."

Regulus grinned. "Honestly, Evans – word for word, that could be Severus Snape. It's funny how contagious sarcasm can be, isn't it?

He had touched a nerve there – although, for the life of him, he couldn't understand why. Regulus would have been rather honoured to be compared to Severus Snape. But Evans's bitter smile vanished instantly.  Her tone softened a little, as though she was taking refuge in the world of sympathy. "Your childhood must have been awful," she said.

"Nah," he said cheerfully. "I got enough to eat, didn't I?" He tried to keep his voice cheerful, but there must have been a bite of impatience in it as he went on. "And, while we're on the subject, Evans, can we get one thing sorted out? 'Awful' is, like, the loss of a limb, or a family member, or something. A neglected childhood is just 'not very nice'. In fact, since we're here, maybe we could come up with some kind of league table of awfulness with, say, 'stubbing your toe' at the bottom and 'a slow, painful death' at the top? Because I think you get confused sometimes."

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, it's like you think that someone else stubbing their toe is somehow worse than you losing a limb. I mean, look at what you said just now. I stole your magic – granted, there were extenuating circumstances, and I'm kind of surprised to learn you're not interested in them – but that's like running off with your right arm, isn't it? And you're feeling sorry for me because my first word was mudblood."  

She shrugged defensively. "I don't feel sorry for you; I just think it's sad."

"Sad for who? 'Cause, if it's sad for me, that means you feel sorry for me."

"It's sad for everyone!" she shouted. Her words echoed around the cavernous kitchen and made her blush. Narcissa wouldn't have blushed, Regulus thought instinctively. Lily Evans couldn't command the icy demeanour for long.  The ice always cracked under the pressure of those teeming, surging feelings. But why did she even try, he wondered?  She obviously had no great respect for Narcissa, and even Regulus would have said that his cousin's icy manner was irritating.

It was like she was ashamed to blush and worry and laugh – like she was scared of her own beating heart.

But why? Were her feelings so terrible? She liked Severus, of course, and he could be pretty terrible – but not to her, surely? She turned his aura green. The most jaded man in the world, and she made him as green as a trembling young sapling – as docile as a bloody kitten!

"Does your House Elf want to sit down?" Lily asked, noticing Kreacher and his cane at last.

"Nah, he'll be fine. That's what the cane's for."

Lily Evans looked at him with – if possible – increased annoyance. But then she stepped back into her icy demeanour, and started stoking the fire to heat the potion.

He squinted at her, while she stood beside the fireplace. She had quite nice hair. But that probably wasn't going to be good enough. He would have said, before they started brewing potions together, that she was quite sweet-tempered, but he couldn't make that sound convincing now.

Anyway, a redeeming feature preceded by the word 'quite' wasn't going to be strong enough. He had to bring her back from death's door. The thing he chose to like about her was going to have to be pretty bloody substantial.

Her magic had been freaking amazing. But, having spent weeks being steadily fried by its heat, he wasn't so keen on it anymore.

She had asked him if Kreacher needed a chair. That was something. It was another example of her irritating tendency to put other people's needs on a pedestal, but, when the needs were Kreacher's, Regulus didn't mind so much.

The rest of the potion-brewing was done in silence. Lily pointed out mistakes in his technique with depressing frequency and, when he was finished, she whisked the goblet out of his hands without so much as a 'well done'. She disappeared for about five minutes – during which time, Regulus, fervently wishing he'd never been born, drew a bottle of poison out of his pocket with sweat-sticky hands. He didn't meet Kreacher's eyes.

By the time Lily came back into the kitchen, it had been safely tucked away again.

"Your balls are safe," she said coldly. "The potion worked. Elsa's fast asleep."

Regulus made a spirited effort to seem like his usual self. "I feel like we're quite intimately acquainted now we've spent half an hour talking about my balls," he said.  

She didn't smile, but Regulus hadn't expected her to. With miserable resignation, he filled another goblet from the cauldron and held it out to her. "Here," he said. "There's one for you."

"I'm not tired."

"You look tired."

"Well, thanks very much," she said, raising her eyebrows.

"I'm pretty sure Bruiser would insist," Regulus added, proffering the goblet hopefully.

That had been a step too far. She was suspicious now. Without taking her eyes off him, she took the goblet, and he watched with miserable apprehension while she sniffed its contents, and then gave him a long, cool stare.

"You know," she said, with the strained patience of a born Healer, "I don't like you much either, but I would never put Jincan in your sleeping draught." She tipped the potion down the sink and continued to stare at him, as though she was more mystified than angry. That made him feel even worse.

"It's a special strain of Jincan," said Regulus wretchedly, watching the potion disappear down the plughole. "My grandmother invented it – you know, Claudia Black? It's called the mistrust strain. It's only fatal if you inhale the fumes, rather than drinking the poison. It's for killing people who are going to be suspicious of you. And the funny thing is," he gabbled nervously, while she clutched her throat and stumbled over to the rack of potion-bottles on the sideboard, only to discover that the bottles he'd 'accidentally' smashed earlier were the ones containing the antidotes, "she invented the Anaesthesia Charm the very next day. It was like her brain needed to balance evil out with good – although most of the people who met her said she didn't do such a good job of that in her personal life."

Lily, with her breath coming in ragged gasps, and her lips rapidly turning blue, used the last of her reserves of strength to slap him. It made him feel a little better, but not much.

"It's going to be OK, Evans," he said, trying to steady her as her knees buckled. But she pushed him away, knocking instead into the rack of potion-bottles on the sideboard. Her lips were turning from blue to black. "I'm going with you. Either we'll both survive, or we'll both die. And, if we both survive, just imagine what Snape will do to me when he finds out about this. I mean, you're not vindictive, but that's got to be some comfort to you."

She sank to the ground then, dragging a few glass bottles with her. They smashed and hissed reproachfully on the kitchen floor.

When Regulus looked up, Kreacher was already dragging the hefty kitchen doors shut. "Master Regulus must hurry," he croaked. "The muggle will have ways of forcing open his own doors. This house obeys him."

Regulus cleared the table with a sweep of his wand, and levitated Lily's limp, twitching body on to it. His guts were churning with misery. "This wasn't worth trying, Kreacher."

"She is only a mudblood, sir."

Regulus gave a little, hysterical chuckle. "What would you say if you could see it?" he wondered out loud. "Maybe you'd say it was a little, golden cloud of demons?"

"Master Regulus is tired," said Kreacher anxiously. "Master Regulus will be able to rest for as long as he likes when this is done."

"Yeah," said Regulus sourly. "In Azkaban."

"The mudblood will not press charges, sir. The mudblood is… unhappy with herself. But that may be a problem too, sir. The mudblood may not want to come back, sir."


"Master Regulus must hurry," Kreacher repeated stubbornly. "And everything will be alright."  

Regulus trailed his wand over the veins in his wrist, and then pressed it against Lily's whitening throat, performing the energy transfusion charm he'd been practicing all bloody night. It wasn't going to be good enough. He'd only had a few hours to acquire skills it took Healers a lifetime to master. They were both going to die. Although it was some comfort to know that he would be dying before Snape could get his hands on him.

Kreacher waved a gnarled hand over his cane, and it was transfigured once again into the huge candlestick from the Hospital Wing, complete with its magnificent wrought-iron stand. The candle on top of it was already alight.

"Kreacher has tied the flame to your heart-beat, Master Regulus."

"How did you do that?"

"With great difficulty, sir. Kreacher did not like Severus Snape much to begin with, and now he likes him even less, sir."

Regulus didn't press him. Time was running out.

"How do we ensure Lily Evans doesn't end up with all my magic?" he asked breathlessly.

"Master Regulus must bring her back quickly."  

"And if I can't?"

Kreacher hesitated, and then forced himself to go on. His shoulders sagged lower with every word, as though he was increasingly disappointing himself. "Life is preferable, sir. Master Regulus may turn into a – a muggle – but he will be alive. Master Regulus must live, sir."  

He couldn't go on, and Regulus couldn't make him. Kreacher was almost fainting with despair as it was. He was going against every command that had been beaten – quite literally beaten – into his head by his family over a period of fifty years. He knew the Black family would be disgraced if Regulus turned into a muggle; he knew he would be banished if his Mistress found out he'd been involved in the process. He knew he shouldn't be helping a mudblood to get her ill-deserved magic back. But he didn't want the young master to die.

Regulus knew he didn't deserve this kind of devotion. He hoped Kreacher knew it too, because no words would do it justice, and they were running out of time. He tried to smile with all the confidence of a pure-blood son of the House of Black.

"Don't worry, Kreacher. I've been at death's door before, remember? I'll be fine."

What he didn't say was that he had seen the landscape in his nightmares a hundred times since his last visit – a scrub-land of sand, black rocks and low-hanging clouds that looked as though they were boiling in an airless sky. The gravity was crippling; the sand stung your face as it was whipped about in the breeze; and the low oxygen content of the air made your blood scrape through your veins, until you felt scoured and raw, inside and out. But that wasn't the worst part.

The door was what he remembered most vividly. It stood open further up the cliff, sucking all the air, all the sand, all the scraps of dry grass and pebbles, into it. You didn't want to look inside, but it sucked your gaze too – and, once it had secured your gaze, it continued to suck, until you felt as though your soul was pouring out through your eyes.

And, despite the fact that the door was acting as an enormous vacuum, the veil hanging across the doorway was curiously still. It didn't stream inwards as you would expect. But there were occasional, inexplicable ripples – and sometimes you saw bulges in the fabric of the veil, as though there were creatures behind it, pressing their hands, their lips, their cheeks against the fabric.

It wasn't a place so much as a state of mind, the books on healing magic said. The patient's dying brain created it, to try and make sense of what was happening. It didn't help to remember that, when you were looking into the doorway, staring at those creeping forms behind the veil.

But he understood – from experience – the way a dying imagination could be whipped up into feverish activity, as it searched desperately, through thought and memory, for anything that could possibly save it. The will to live was not to be trifled with – but neither, as he was about to discover, was the will to die.

Regulus tried to lift his head up, and heard several tendons snap. Lily Evans was standing some way further up the cliff, facing the door. Her hair was streaming past her face and into the doorway. The skirts of her white night-dress were billowing, as though they were being plucked at by officious little House Elves who wanted to drag her inside. Regulus saw – with another excruciating snap, this time from the area around his heart – that the glowing fireflies which buzzed around her were being sucked into the doorway too.

She was dying. And yet she wasn't clutching the doorframe or hanging onto the rocks like Regulus had been. She was looking straight ahead, and her features were strangely beautified, as though she'd seen an old friend standing across the threshold, and she couldn't wait to embrace him.

"Evans!" he shouted, his voice barely reaching his ears before it was whipped away. "Don't go in there, OK? I know you know what this is! We're going home, understand? Home!"

She was saying something, but he couldn't catch it. She wasn't even bothering to raise her voice. In fact, he wouldn't have been surprised if she was talking exclusively to the doorway – to whatever it was that was inside, making her smile so poignantly.

Regulus groaned, and dragged himself over the jagged black rocks, wrenching his feet forward, because they seemed to be welded to the ground. It was cold here. All the unendurable heat of the fever had evaporated, and he now felt as though the sweat was freezing over on his skin. But that was no big change. The prickling of sweat had been replaced by the nipping of ice crystals. And the shivering was one eternal constant. Hot or cold, he would always shiver: it was, in an odd way, sort of reassuring. It was a sign of life, and he would need more and more of those the closer he got to that door.

"Evans, can you even hear me?" he shouted, and got a mouth full of sand, but no reaction from the mudblood. The shapes behind the veil had mesmerized her.

He inched closer with little, dragging strides that made lights dance in front of his eyes. What was the mudblood playing at? She knew what this place was! She knew better than to stand there gawping.

Maybe it's not the mudblood who's playing, said a voice in his head. You have no idea who – or what – could be through that door.

Regulus got within grabbing-distance of her ankle, and curled his hand around it, feeling his muscles twang and snap like over-stretched elastic. The mudblood didn't even flinch. With slow, painful determination, Regulus hooked one of his legs around a rocky outcrop beneath him, so that he would be ready for a tug-of-war with Death if she decided to step through the doorway.

"Evans, don't go in there," he panted.

"They're calling to me," she whispered, putting a hand up to hover an inch above the surface of the veil.

"You can't help them, Evans."

"They want me," she protested.

"Of course they do!" he shouted. Wispy clouds of exhaustion were starting to drift across his vision now. Whole sections of the scene before him were blocked out. "You've got a beating heart, haven't you? Remember how Nearly Headless Nick used to float through rotting food with his mouth open, so he could almost taste it? They want to be alive again! Who the hell wouldn't?"

Lily Evans gave him what he considered to be a rather pitying look, and he felt his heart sink. He hadn't counted on this. Regulus Black, who hoarded thrills, who cherished the sound of his own heartbeat – who liked to make it race – had never expected to find someone who was in love with death. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. What was Severus Snape, if not a dead ringer for the Grim Reaper?

But no, maybe it was understandable. After all, this was oblivion too. Granted, death was a lot less pleasurable than Firewhisky and Scintillating Solution, but it gave you the same freedom from personal cares. It was the ultimate freedom from personal cares. She wanted to forget too. She wanted to lose herself in something bigger.

He remembered seeing that blush surface through her icy demeanour back in the kitchen. She was all life and she was in love with death. She was all red lips and heaving bosom – all sweat and tears and muscle and blood-vessels in a gloriously sexy – if perilously temporary – union. But she was ashamed of it. She wanted to be like Narcissa – a china doll, with all the messy business of life tidied away under opaque skin. And he wanted to tell her that death was nothing. It was just an absence of life, the way darkness was just an absence of light. He had seen what happened when people died. The lights just went out.  

Through that door, there would be no glowing auras – terrifying and individual and seething with energy. There would just be blackness.

An idea struck, and he tried to coax his chapped lips and chattering teeth into speech. "Evans, think of Severus!"

For the first time, some form of expression flickered across her serenely blank face. "He doesn't need me," she said.  

"Well, I don't want to get into the gruesome intricacies of a Gryffindor-Slytherin relationship, but I'm fairly sure he doesn't actually want you to die!"  

She didn't answer. But he was getting somewhere, he could tell. He unhooked his leg from around the rock and dragged himself to his feet, ignoring the screaming of his muscles.

"Listen to me, Evans," he panted. "It doesn't have to be now, OK? Trust me, the dead aren't going anywhere. That door is always going to be waiting for you – but, while you're on this side of it, you can still change your mind. Once you walk through, there's no coming back."

"I came back before," she murmured dreamily. "Remember? You pushed me through the door, but I came back."

Regulus turned these words over in his head. The exhaustion-clouds kept getting in the way of their meaning, but he persisted, because there was nothing else to be done. He didn't have the strength to drag her away from the door. He'd been bleeding every ounce of his strength into her, and she was bleeding every ounce of it into the doorway. The only one who was getting any stronger was Death.

And then it hit him. She had gone through that door before. And he had been the one who brought her back. Granted, Severus had shouted instructions and threatened to cut his heart out if he failed, but Regulus had been the one who actually re-lit the candle. And then he remembered the Tale of the Three Brothers. Death didn't like to be cheated of his victims. What if Death still regarded Lily Evans as his property? What if he'd had one clammy hand curled around her heart ever since she went through that doorway, making her hopeless and restless, making her long for peace? And, now she was back here, he wasn't going to let her go without a fight.  

"It looks so peaceful in there," she murmured serenely.

"Peace!" Regulus spat, from between clenched teeth. "Since when did a Gryffindor ever want peace?"

"I don't think I am a Gryffindor anymore."

"Well, a Slytherin would be smarter than to stand here gawping in at the dead, that's all I know."

"And you wouldn't have to deal with idiots who think you're vermin just because your parents aren't cousins," she went on, ignoring him.

Regulus picked over those words too, because he couldn't get them to make sense initially. But, as soon as they did, something very strange happened to him. He felt as though he had been pushed to the end of his tether and discovered a whole other universe waiting there.

He had been here before. At the far end of exhaustion and agony, you found a hysterical kind of strength – a delirious sense of optimism. Suddenly, because there were no more options – because he was fighting a force of nature and he was ninety-nine per cent sure he was going to die – he knew what to do.

He could use the mudblood's own empathy against her. That was all he had now. The physical strength – whatever was left of it – was just for keeping him here, and the mental strength was, as usual, hiding away from him, terrified that it would be asked to do something difficult. But he had the mudblood's intuition. He wasn't as smart as she was, but you didn't have to be smart to empathize, right? Most of it was just listening anyway. Granted, the circumstances weren't ideal for holding a therapy session, but he was not exactly made of options, and Slytherins could always bring themselves to accept the inevitable.

"Is that why you try to act like a bloody corpse?" he yelled. "Because you're afraid of being angry? With the people who call you a cockroach? Jesus, Evans, I don't even know where to start telling you how dumb that is!"

The intuition was fine, he considered, but perhaps the bedside manner could use some work. Still, maybe the rough handling would jar her out of this bloody stupor!

"Is it dumb?" she muttered, again quite calmly. "I could kill them. I could. Is it so dumb not to want to?"

"Not to want to kill Avery and Mulciber?" he said deliriously. "Yeah, it is! I can mathematically prove that they're subhuman scum, and I'm one of their closest friends!"

She blinked serenely. "I hate you too, did you know that?"

Regulus spread his hands in exasperation. "Well, fair enough, Evans. I just poisoned you! I mean, there's enough real guilt in the world, without you making stuff up! It was fine to hate the people who called you – you know – the M-word."

"No, no, no!" she shouted suddenly, still staring into the doorway, but dislodging tears with her sudden motion. "It wasn't fine! I'm a Healer! I'm supposed to be finding something to like about them!"

Regulus stared at her. She must have realized how childish that sounded, but there wasn't enough energy in this place for her cheeks to muster a blush.

He felt as though they were getting more childish the longer they spent in front of this damn door – as though a year of their lives was being sucked away for every minute they stood here.

Still, it was important that he got this right. And the mudblood's gift for intuition was lighting up a pathway for him. He understood, now, why she was always making excuses for other people – why she hadn't come charging after him in order to kick him squarely in the balls when he'd stolen her magic. She was afraid to start condemning people like him, in case it all came pouring out.

He had never realized how lucky Snape was – now there was a man who was in touch with his anger! There was a man who knew exactly who to blame, and it was never him.

When she spoke again, Regulus wondered if she'd been reading his mind. Maybe he was bleeding his thoughts into her as well as his strength.

"And you know someone who could never find anything to like about them?" she whispered, staring into the doorway with a bitter smile. "You know who wasn't afraid to look down his nose at them?"

"Yes," said Regulus, his heart sinking.

"I was angry about all the same things he was," she went on, still with that wretched little smile on her face. "At all the same people. But look what it was doing to him! He was cursing first-years! He was calling people 'mudblood'. He was getting ready to join the Death Eaters. I didn't want that to happen to me. So I told myself it was his fault – that I only felt that way because he'd corrupted me – that my feelings for him would make me do horrible things – as though those horrible things didn't come naturally to someone like me!"

She blinked loose another tear, but it was sucked immediately into the hungry doorway. "I mean, how sick is that?" she groaned. "My oldest friend. He idealized me and I demonized him. I made him think it was his fault! I jumped on that 'mudblood' the moment he said it – like I'd been waiting for it – and he still feels guilty!"  

Her throat shut down there. The last few words had been choked out as it was. Regulus had barely caught them.

But he didn't need words anymore. He had his hooks in the whole story. It all unfolded in front of him, stark and shimmering with clarity. He couldn't believe what a thrill it was to understand – even though the thing he was understanding had nothing to do with him. Actually, maybe that was the best bit.

It was just like the moment when he had first discovered that muggles had souls. It was like dipping your toe into what you had previously assumed was a shallow puddle, and finding yourself pitched into a whole underwater kingdom.

Other people had a dizzying amount of fears, desires and excuses. There were endless details to pick over – things which looked incredibly alien, but still shone with a kind of shared, screwed-up humanity.

So she associated all her anger with Severus Snape – and now, whenever she felt drawn to him, whenever she found herself making excuses to see him, or putting his needs above other people's, she felt as though she was letting her anger win.

It was reassuringly fucked up. Regulus had always thought of her – if he thought of her at all – as some kind of awe-inspiring goddess, like Danae in her golden shower. She was capable, businesslike, impossible to provoke, and eternally helpful. But he had never realized that, in order to be all those things, she had to stash away her dark, infuriated feelings with Severus Snape. After all, who would notice them there? It would be like trying to find a specific drop of water in the whole bloody ocean!

But then, maybe Severus Snape associated all his good feelings with Lily Evans. His existence stopped her from completely giving herself over to the life of a plasterboard saint, and her existence (possibly – because who could really tell with Severus Snape?) stopped him from completely giving himself over to the life of a Death Eater. They needed each other. But it was too much responsibility for both of them. You couldn't make one person responsible for your salvation or your damnation. It was cruel.

Despite the nausea, the dizziness and the palpitating heart, Regulus felt at that moment as though he would have made the world's greatest relationship counselor. He hoped – if he ever got through this alive – that, when he was next snorting powdered dragon scales and smuggling Firewhisky up to his dormitory, he would spare a thought – maybe even a regret – for the life of pure sensitivity he'd left behind him. Although, for the most part, he would be unspeakably glad to be rid of it.

And, all this time, the doorway had been drinking up her tears.

Regulus tried to find his voice. "Evans…"

"What?" she snapped, forcing out the word through vocal cords that audibly resisted. "What can you say to make that right? I knowingly – knowingly – made his life harder than Potter ever did! Potter didn't think he was doing any damage – he thought Slytherins don't have the same feelings as real people – but I knew, and I still did it!"

"And what do you think it's going to do to him when he finds out you're dead?" Regulus hissed, because he didn't have the energy to shout anymore. "Call me melodramatic, Evans, but I think that's a little bit worse than refusing to talk to him for a couple of terms! See, it's gone too far now!"

She stared at him. But he wasn't even sure she'd processed the sense of his words. He wasn't sure that sense was what she needed to hear. He could understand, but he couldn't argue. And he had about thirty seconds of consciousness left. It was over.

"Everyone's connected, y'see," he mumbled, with a tongue which had turned thick and sluggish. "Can't hurt one person on their own. Nobody's on their own, if they've ever been alive." His knees buckled, but he couldn't release his hold on her – so he sort of climbed down her body to get to the ground. He wrapped his arms stubbornly around her leg, and continued to mutter through his thick tongue while the world spun around him. "I first saw that when I saw your magic, and how it rubs off on people, like pollen. But I've got hay fever, see, and I think it's terminal." He shut his eyes against the spinning, and resolutely fought the urge to be sick. "You're very annoying, and tha's all I know."

And then the lights went out.

Afterwards, she could never be sure how much of it she'd imagined, or what it was that finally drew her eyes away from the shapes behind the veil. Regulus had been clamouring in her ear, shaking her shoulders, and hauling on her arms for ten solid minutes but, the moment he sank to the floor, and gave the hem of her skirt one final, feeble tug, the spell was broken.

Dumbledore had once told her that the quietest actions could be deafening if they spoke of last resorts. And that wretched, final, hopeless tug was so evidently his last try that she felt afterwards as though he'd been tugging on the hem of her soul.

She looked down at his unconscious figure and saw a kind of glow etched around him – like a halo, but all over his body. And, the funny thing was, it wasn't just an outline. As your eyes got used to it, you realized that the light was composed of human hands – as though there were a thousand people behind him, putting their hands on his shoulders, or across his chest – ruffling his hair from behind. He looked as though he was crowd-surfing. Some of the hands were obviously female, and had bright-painted nails and gemstone-rings, but others were square and stocky and unadorned, with bitten-down nails and dry skin. They were half-needy and half-supportive. Lily couldn't tell whether they were holding him up or tearing him apart.

She must have stared down at him in fascination for another five minutes. And, although none of it made sense, it was oddly comforting. She could tell that shame and guilt and anxiety were queuing up behind her, each waiting to make their own individual case about why she should be feeling terrible right now. Severus wouldn't wake up. She had nearly killed herself and Regulus out of pure self-indulgence, and they weren't out of the woods yet. But it was heartening to see all those varied, tender, grabbing hands. It sort of reminded her that there were other people in the world. Why that should be a comfort, when some of those people were clearly mean-spirited snobs waiting to call her a 'mudblood', she wasn't sure, but the despair had been so isolating that she couldn't help being glad to see them, even if they meant trouble.

After a while, she picked up Regulus's hand and started dragging him down the mountainside.

The candle didn't go out, but the rest of the kitchen caught fire.

Kreacher had been watching the candle's sinking flame, because it was so much easier than watching Master Regulus as the colour drained inexorably from his face.

There was almost no noise in the kitchen. The muggle hadn't yet come looking for them, and the only sound Kreacher could hear above his own pounding heart was the rattling of the matchbox he had clutched in his trembling fingers.  

It was the crackling of the fire he heard first. He couldn't tell where it started, but it bloomed up the walls like a bed of marigolds. Kreacher hardly dared to take his eyes off the candle-flame, but, terrified though he was, he knew he had to protect his master's unconscious body from the fire. He turned back to the table on which the mudblood was still lying, with her hair drooping over the sides like a waterfall of blood. Master Regulus had lost consciousness and slumped over her sleeping form some minutes ago. (Kreacher had, with great difficulty, resisted the urge to go and help him, knowing that his duty lay with the candle. It grieved his heart to see his Master so closely entangled with a mudblood, but, if Kreacher did his job properly, things would not end that way).

The flames climbed the walls and converged across the ceiling, where they crackled even louder, as though they were taking heart from the company. And then the mudblood's body gave an almighty jolt, knocking Master Regulus onto the floor. She sat up, but Kreacher could only see her silhouette against the flames, and he was disturbed to see her spreading her arms, as though she was stretching after a long sleep. The fire didn't seem to worry her at all. In fact, he had a resentful suspicion that she was in control of it.   

After that, her movements were full of alacrity. She picked up the Master's wand and, with what Kreacher considered to be a lack of proper care, levitated his unconscious body onto the table. She kneeled up beside him on the table-top, and began checking his pulse, and Summoning various glass bottles from the side-board, which she either waved under the Master's nose or measured out into a silver goblet. After a few suspicious moments, Kreacher realized that she was brewing a Re-energizing Draught, which he wouldn't have expected a mudblood to know how to make. She even opened a little cut on the back of her hand and poured some of her own blood into it – another thing he wouldn't have expected, and didn't particularly like. Still, there could be no denying that she was trying to help the Master.

After a while, when Master Regulus was once again stirring, groaning and swearing under his breath, she focused on him. "It's Kreacher, isn't it?" she asked brightly. "Would you be a dear and see if Silversmith is still brewing coffee? I think we could both use some. Oh, and tell Bruiser I owe him a new kitchen."
Continuing from Down Among the Dead Things [link]

This one is for *WeAreSevenStudios because I realized I've never dedicated anything to her before, and she's awesome! :glomp:

Also, to dear *Vizen because it's her birthday (not that I want to give you extra reading on your birthday, Bea - you read it when and if you have time, OK? :hug: ;))

Hope you enjoy, and thank you for reading! :)
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polkadotpeony Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2011
Firstly I loved Lily being just as amazingly sarcastic as Severus. I'm pretty sure he would consider it very sexy.

Second, I LOVE Lily's sudden epiphany (she's been having a lot of those lately). You're connection between Lily's fear of her own desires and her interest in death is pure brilliance. It's exactly what I want to explore in my fiction as well, her fear of her own desires. I love how you connect it with death. Really amazing.

Ahhh! I don't want this fic to end!
ls269 Featured By Owner Nov 12, 2011
Wow, you're really catching up to me! I hope the story won't lose momentum while you're waiting for me to write the final chapters (I've been really slow at writing recently, perhaps because I don't want the story to end either! ;))

Oh, I can't wait to read your fanfic, it seems as though we both love the same things about these characters! :heart: Hope Lily and Sev get to be happy in yours (and make out a lot! ;))
polkadotpeony Featured By Owner Nov 12, 2011
Yes I do plan on eventual happiness in my story but it might take longer for them to get there since my story starts at a place where Snape has been a death eater for three years and Lily has been married to James for three years. So they have a LOT of stuff to work through. But I do plan on having lots of sarcastic conversations and plenty of adventure for the both of them! I just love how these two work together, and I think that despite what issues they have they make a really good team. They have the potential to do so many awesome things for the wizarding world and I want to explore that as well.
ls269 Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2011
But I do plan on having lots of sarcastic conversations.

:w00t: My favourite thing to read - can't wait! :hug:
Teme-chan-Uchiha Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2011
This was such an emotional chapter! I really loved it. Not just for the fact that Lily finally got her magic back either- having Lily finally come to terms with how she felt about herself and Severus was really a weight lifted as well. It helped too when you threw in a sarcastic Lily and endless jokes about poor Regulus's manhood. Both made me laugh endlessly. To be honest, when Regulus was first introduced FOREVER ago I was not really sure if I liked him as a person or not. But this chapter really made me realize I like him a lot; he has such a different perspective on things, and he can be such a comedy relief at times. Anyways, another (of course) GREAT chapter! ;D
ls269 Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2011
Hee hee, I'd forgotten about all the references to Regulus's manhood! :giggle: Oh dear, he really doesn't have a very good time in this chapter, does he? When I started writing from the perspective of the pure-bloods (Regulus, Narcissa and Lucius), I didn't like them much either, to be honest. But I kind of wanted to understand how they could justify all that prejudice, so I wanted to write from their point of view. And, without ever really agreeing with them, I sort of grew to love them, if that makes sense. Especially Regulus. He's such a little messy-haired sweetie pie! :heart:
shyfoxling Featured By Owner May 9, 2011
"I feel like we're quite intimately acquainted now we've spent half an hour talking about my balls," he said.

All this repeated mentioning of Regulus's nethers is rather amusing.

It's only fatal if you inhale the fumes, rather than drinking the poison. It's for killing people who are going to be suspicious of you.

O.o That's dastardly clever.

Interesting theory about why Lily had to demonize Severus because she was afraid of becoming like him if she had some of the same negative feelings. It's at least a lot more generous about the "Mudblood" incident than "Lily is judgemental".
ls269 Featured By Owner May 10, 2011
:giggle: :blushes: I was trying to see how many times I could get the word 'balls' into one chapter!

You know, I never really considered Lily judgemental when she refused to talk to Severus after the 'mudblood' incident. I think we tend to forget what a horrible word that is (I mean, I've used it about fifty times in this one chapter alone! ;) But if we compare it to our very worst racial slurs, I can understand why Lily would have been disgusted with him for embracing that kind of bigotry). Personally, I would have forgiven him, but I can understand why she didn't.

Anyway, the Lily in this story is probably not very close to J.K. Rowling's strong-willed, impulsive Gryffindor (but I still love her! :heart:)
Preseli Featured By Owner May 7, 2011
How much I love this, and haven't even read the rest of the story! I really should read more fanfiction! :heart:

(BTW - thanks to another great Snapeficker, I also associate Snily with Death and the Maiden, which is how you ensnared me this time. Will send you what she sent me, it's awesome!)
ls269 Featured By Owner May 9, 2011
Yay, thank you! :heart: :hug: I'm so glad you liked it! (Regulus is a major character in this story - not always the good guy, but oh-so-lovely for his messed-up hair and his various addictions! I've grown to love writing about him so much! :love:)

Thank you for sending me the music-file too. It's really chilling! Is it a remix of Schubert's Death and The Maiden song? I hadn't heard it before, but I love it! I was thinking of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet when I wrote the chapter, which is beautiful too - v. dark and dramatic, just as our Sev would like it! ;)
Vizen Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
Oh Darling, I nearly didn't see it!!!! :faint: Wait, I'm reading it asap!!!! These days have been weird for me. I'm so very touched by the attention!!!! It's adorable :heart:
ls269 Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
You're most welcome, dear! :hug: It's only one of the normal chapters of Sympathetic Magic, but it does have a lot of Regulus in it! Hope you had a great birthday! I'm off today for a weekend in the Cotswalds, but there is no sunshine! :( Hopefully, the sun is just teasing me, and will make a grand entrance later on! ;)
Vizen Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
Lot of Regulus is always good, I'm glad!

Oh you know it's sunny here ;)
WeAreSevenStudios Featured By Owner May 5, 2011  Professional Artisan Crafter
So after devouring this chapter, I was pleasantly surprised to see your dedication. Thank you! :glomp: And it's one surrounding my favorite character, no less!

I am so happy to see Regulus alive, and the hero. Of course, even if he'd died I'm sure it would have been a good read, but... I'm relieved. :)

Oh God, she was learning sarcasm from Snape.
I do like how subtly these two characters have begun to absorb the others' personality traits.

It was like she was ashamed to blush and worry and laugh – like she was scared of her own beating heart.
I know I said this many, many chapters ago, but your Lily is so REAL. I love her and all her failings.

"No, no, no!" she shouted suddenly, still staring into the doorway, but dislodging tears with her sudden motion. "It wasn't fine! I'm a Healer! I'm supposed to be finding something to like about them!"
I feel like this is such a huge moment in this story. On the one hand, it's not exactly a revelation to the reader, but the fact that Lily is admitting this, all this, feels like it's reached the true point of crisis; life and death aside, Lily acknowledging her reasons for self-repression and her guilt about making Severus her emotional scapegoat feel like the pinnacle of the story's action (to me).

she had to stash away her dark, infuriated feelings with Severus Snape. After all, who would notice them there?
I love how much this reminds me of Severus' Occlemency. I love the commonality between them, and especially that it's something they each seem to have had from the beginning, not something they seemed to learn from each other.

I'm so delighted by Regulus' (or is it Lily's?) new found empathy. It's such clever writing. I'm also not sure (and not sure if I want to know) whether the Aura that Lily saw was Regulus' or Lily's magic within Regulus. I'll re-read later and see what I think the second time around. It's a beautiful image, and I like that it seems ambiguous to me.

I love the little details, like Lily's tears being sucked through the doorway. And then the description of the environment around death's door: the low oxygen content of the air made your blood scrape through your veins, until you felt scoured and raw, inside and out.

Overall, I feel sort of sad, because it seems like this fic is nearing its end... but it's so good
ls269 Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
Yay!! I'm so glad you liked it! :hug: :heart: I'm sad to see this fic nearing its end too - I don't know what I'm going to do with myself when it's finished! (In fact, I suspect what will happen is that I'll miss the characters so much that I'll start scribbling about them again, and posting the results up on DA - because, you know me, I'm addicted to feedback! ;))

I've never finished a story before, so I feel like it's something I ought to try, but I don't know how I'm ever going to let it go! :(

Anyway, I'm so happy you liked Regulus in this chapter. I don't know what it is, but I always fall in love with these characters more when they're suffering - is that wrong? ;) Poor Regulus - will try and write something nice for him in the next couple of chapters...

Thank you again and again for your support over the course of this story, you've been awesome! :hug:
StephanieDraws Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
Wow, cool chapter! I was a bit frustrated with Sev the last chapters because for all of his fabled shoving emotions down and telling himself he's super-rational he never actually DID anything with his clarity of thought, let alone anything clever or successful - only keeping still and going meekly along with whatever got thrown at him by happenstance or Voldemort. Which isn't very impressive for all of his calm and collected state, if it never results in anything tangible. In fact it's bloody useless with his pronounced passivity and self-defeatist attitude.... *grumble*

Good, that Regulus was successful! You have created a fascinating character with the way you've written him. Not always sympathetic but very believable and interesting, from his odd gifts to his changing perceptions and the problems resulting from that. And his bond with Kreacher reads very true, just as Kreacher's attitude too.

Lily had quite the revelation here! I hope it stays with her. It could and should change her and Severus' lifes significantly if acknowledged by both. And do wonders for Sev's maturity, wretched self-esteem and mindless adoration and idolization of Lily, transforming the last into a real and realistic appreciation for her.
ls269 Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
Thank you! :hug: Hee hee, Severus is definitely a defeatist, no argument there! ;) He has the most morbid and fatalistic imagination (but then, that is a lot of fun to write, so I shouldn't complain...) Hopefully, he'll get a chance to do something useful in the next few chapters, but I'm not sure there's much he can do at the moment. It's taking every ounce of the poor dear's concentration to keep Voldemort from discovering his true loyalties.

I hope this revelation will be good for Lily too. Hopefully, she'll stop feeling guilty for loving Severus, because she'll start to accept that he may be an angry guy, but he's not the prince of darkness! ;)

Thank you so much for your comments on this chapter, I'm really happy you liked it! :hug: :)
Victory-Gin Featured By Owner May 4, 2011  Hobbyist Photographer
Words cannot describe... I'm in complete awe. I feel like the whole story has been leading up to this defining moment with Lily. Her familiarity and love for Death is absolutely chilling in its honesty. It was almost like watching someone contemplating suicide. Seeing her contrast her dark and light feelings was magnificent, as well as her revealing her own guilt for displacing all those negative emotions onto Severus. My inner psychologist is in love with this chapter. I can't wait to see what she does next.
ls269 Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
Yay, thank you, you're an angel! :hug: I'm so happy you liked this chapter! :w00t: I really wanted to get across the idea that Lily's fear of her own desires is just like being in love with death. And, somehow, Regulus - with all his love of pleasure - seemed like the ideal person to make the case for life, in all its chaotic and brief loveliness! ('Cause he's a piece of chaotic and brief loveliness! ;) :giggle:)

The way Lily displaces all her anger onto Severus seemed like something I'd known for ages but never really realized before now (it's funny how you can write a character for years and years and still realize new things about them.) I think I'll probably never know these two as well as I want to!
loyanini Featured By Owner May 4, 2011
Yay!! Lils has her magic back and Regulus is no longer frying....I'd love to draw a picture of that aha. Intense chapter, i'm hoping for some sev/lily interaction soon..hehe <333
ls269 Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
Thank you! :hug: :) Yes, I've been missing Sev and Lily's interactions too. It's been, like, 7 chapters since they had a scene together! :faint: They are definitely owed some alone-time in this story! ;)
loyanini Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
I'd like some alone time with Sev.......

*shakes head at self* oh sigh.
Melorik Featured By Owner May 4, 2011
Did I ever tell you how much I LOVE Bruiser. His dialogue with Regulus was hilarious and it was only a few sentences :D.

I bet Regulus made a pretty penny betting on the invincible one! Nice to see that Lily has powers back now, which I hope means that you'll let us see her in action a little more. Seriously... your dialogue is spot on. One day I may have to commission you to re-write the dialogue in the star wars prequel.. then we can send it to George Lucas and shame him into disowning those monstrosities and bowing his head in shame.

Keep it up ;)


ls269 Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
:giggle: I'd definitely take that job! George Lucas needs to bow his head in shame! ;)

Thanks very much for the comment! :hug: I'm glad you liked Bruiser in this chapter, even though he only appears briefly. One of my favourite things about writing him is the way he gets to come up with colourful but cheerful threats for the people around him - in fact, I may write him into more future chapters, just so that he can cheerfully threaten a whole new audience! (Bella, for instance... oh, I don't like her. She deserves a Bruiser-threatening!)

AineLavena Featured By Owner May 4, 2011   Writer
Regulus's last, hopeless tug got to me as well. Damn you and your propensity to wait until the last moment so we're all biting our nails into nonexistance :D

I absolutely love your style, it's incredibly romantic. I'm looking forward to more :)
ls269 Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
Yay, thank you so much! :hug: Poor Regulus, he did have a tough time in this chapter - will have to think of some way of compensating him for all that! Since he doesn't really have a love interest, I don't know what to reward him with. Firewhisky and powdered dragon-scales would seem counter-productive, although that's probably what he would most enjoy! ;)
AineLavena Featured By Owner May 5, 2011   Writer
How about a nice, long, cool bath? :XD:
ls269 Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
:rofl: Sounds good!
JulesDrenages Featured By Owner May 4, 2011
Great chapter!

>But it was too much responsibility for both of them. You couldn't make one person responsible for your salvation or your damnation. It was cruel.

That's why their relationship couldn't have existed in the original plot. Too many unspoken words for too much heavy (and not yet understood) responsibilities.

...and I can't stop thinking about Regulus FRYING in Lily's magic! :XD:
ls269 Featured By Owner May 5, 2011
Thank you! :hug: Hee hee, poor Regulus, frying in Lily's magic! At least he's been released now, perhaps with a nice tan as a souvenir! ;)
JulesDrenages Featured By Owner May 6, 2011
Indeed. :D
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