A Parting of Ways
A Parting of Ways
1 September, 1974
“The thing to remember, little brother,” said a familiar voice in his ear, “is that the hat likes to play games. It’ll try to trick you. Trust me. The thing to do is pretend to want the house you really don’t want. Just keep telling it over and over. And it’ll put you where you should be. Why don’t you practise while you’re on the train,” Sirius suggested as Regulus turned to glare up at him. “Just keep thinking: Hufflepuff. I want to be in Hufflepuff. Please, please put me in Hufflepuff!”
“Is that how you wound up in Gryffindor?” Regulus demanded and was pleased to see his brother’s arrogant smile falter just a little.
They studied each other guardedly, while all around them on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, chaos ensued as students, both new and returning, contended with luggage, nervous animals, and weepy parents. Sirius, Regulus noted with irritation, had grown at least five centimeters since he’d last seen him at the end of June. Sirius had spent almost the entire summer holiday in Cornwall with his friends, so he was brown as an Indian and broad from daily swims in the sea. Regulus, who had endured the past two months by holing himself up in his room and studying until his eyes hurt--when he was able to skive off attending the social gatherings his parents insisted upon--was all too aware of his pallor and unimpressive stature.
“Nah,” said Sirius. “I told the hat I wanted to be in Hufflepuff, but I guess I’m not a good liar ‘cause it said to me it knew where I really belonged, but I was brave to try and trick it. That’s why it put me in Gryff. That’s where the brave blokes go.” He puffed out his chest, a thing he’d taken to doing ever since he’d befriended James Potter. “So, you have to be extra cunning, Reg. Just keep thinking, as hard as you can, Hufflepuff, Hufflepuff--”
“What rubbish are you feeding the child?”
They both turned at the girl’s voice, and Sirius’ grin faltered further still. “All right, Cissa?”
Their cousin tossed her fair hair--which gleamed even in the platform’s dim lighting--and favoured them imperiously. “You may be a freak, Black,” she said when she was no doubt quite certain they were aware of her beauty and displeasure, “but there’s no reason for you to drag your innocent little brother down with you.”
“Oh, shut up, you ruddy bitch,” Sirius snarled, and Regulus gasped. Narcissa, however, appeared unruffled. Her smile curved upward, and the brothers understood why a moment later when, behind them, another girl said sweetly,
“Be careful of what you say to my little sister, dear cousin.”
Now Regulus felt distinctly uncomfortable. He was used to his brother’s cruelty, and he actually did like Narcissa, whom he’d seen often this past summer, and who generally made an effort to be nice to him--when she wasn’t off flirting with older, rich, pureblood boys. His eldest cousin Bellatrix frightened him, and always had. He looked quickly to his brother, who had stiffened, but otherwise betrayed no indication of fear. Regulus felt a stab of envy, but resolved not to let anyone tell him what to do, and turned back to the black-haired girl.
“I’d clear off, Black,” she said to Sirius, her words dripping with sugar, her heavy-lidded grey eyes hard and threatening. She ran a hand through her long hair and the diamond on her finger flashed blindingly.
“That a warning, Bella?” Sirius asked blandly. “Rodolphus going to come and beat the shit out of me?”
“Actually, Black,” said Rodolphus Lestrange, coming up behind his fiancée, “that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you.” His brother Rabastan was at his heels, and behind him was a sallow-skinned, black-haired boy Regulus did not know.
Sirius stood up very straight then, and Regulus saw the faint sheen of sweat on his brow. His brother was frightened, or as close to being frightened as Regulus had ever seen him. Instinctively, he moved closer to Sirius, but Narcissa put her slender hands on his shoulders and held him back.
“Where’s your boyfriend, Black?” the sallow-skinned boy inquired, his thin lips curling unpleasantly.
“Piss off, Snivellus.”
“Notice he doesn’t deny it,” said Bellatrix.
“Piss off, you fecking slag.”
“Oh Black,” Rodolphus purred. “In about a minute, you’ll wish with all your heart that you hadn’t said that. In two, you’ll wish you hadn’t even thought it.”
Sirius turned swiftly, but he was surrounded. Regulus, held in place by his cousin, had to watch helplessly as his brother turned again and again like a cornered beast. Suddenly Bellatrix’s wand was in her hand. As dark and slender as she was, it looked deadly to Regulus. Go away, he thought desperately, and to his shame felt tears burn his eyes. Just leave him alone. He just likes to talk. He’s only fourteen, Bella. At ten, fourteen seemed quite mature, but it was nothing compared to eighteen. He wanted to catch Sirius’ eye, to let his brother know that he at least didn’t want him hurt badly, but he may as well have ceased to exist for all the attention Sirius paid him. His brother was biting his lip, fingering the opening of his pocket, no doubt trying to decide if he had time to make a grab for his own wand. Don’t, thought Regulus. Oh, don’t.
He did not, but nor did Bellatrix or her friends hex him. They all heard a loud, “Ahem!” and turned to see James Potter striding toward them purposefully, his sleeves rolled up, his wand in his hand. At his heels trotted a plump, sandy-haired boy Regulus had never seen before. “What’s this?” James demanded when he’d neared them. The plump boy arrived a second later, panting heavily.
“Potter,” breathed the boy Sirius had called Snivellus, his voice redolent with distaste. “And his lapdog, I see. Here to defend our boyfriend, are we? How very touching.”
“Sod off,” said James, sounding bored.
“And where’s your threadbare friend?” Rodolphus inquired. “I do hope he hasn’t taken ill. He wasn’t looking at all well the last time I saw him. Come to think of it, he’s never looked well.” His dark eyes lit up suddenly with glee. “Perhaps he’s died.”
What happened next was, to Regulus, a blur of movement and spellfire. Sirius seemed to have launched himself at Rodolphus. Regulus never saw him move, but suddenly he was on the older boy, pummelling with his fists and feet as savagely as a wild dog, as though he’d never even heard of magic. There was a flash of red light from Bella’s wand, and another one, a half-second later, from James’. Bella screamed, but it was Sirius who hit the ground, and then Rodolphus was on him, and Sirius was fighting back, but it was the other boy’s fists that were coming away bloody.
Stop it! Regulus wailed in his mind. Stop it, stop it! He only realised he’d shouted the words when Bellatrix looked at him, smiled again, and held up one long, white hand.
“We’re upsetting the child,” she said in a voice that somehow carried above the fray. Rodolphus paused, and Rabastan and the boy Snivellus (that could not be his name, could it?) looked up from their tussle with James and his friend. “And we shall miss the train,” Bellatrix added coolly. “Come.” And with a crack! she Disapparated.
Rodolphus, Rabastan, Narcissa, and Snivellus seemed to know where she had gone, because they disengaged themselves and flounced off, Narcissa’s long blond hair trailing after her like a cape.
As Regulus watched, goggle-eyed, James helped Sirius to his feet. His brother’s robes were torn, he was bleeding from his split lip and one side of his face was swiftly turning the colour of a ripe aubergine, but he was able to stand on his own, and did not seem to need to lean on anyone as he and his friends began to walk away.
It was a few moments before Regulus realised they were leaving him alone. “Wait!” he shouted and started after them.
They paused and glanced back at him. James looked bored, the plump boy oddly sympathetic. Sirius’ expression was difficult to read. Was it a trick of the light, or were there tears in his pale blue eyes? He swiped with his knuckles at his bloodied mouth, and winced. “Hurry up, Reg,” he said at length. “Get your stuff, already. The train won’t bloody wait for you.”
Then he turned and started off again, James and the other boy following.
Sirius stopped. “Oh, piss off,” he said without turning. “Just-- Just piss off.”
And left him.
He started at the sound of his name. The boy beside him had to give him a shove. Then there he was, walking through the Great Hall, past the four tables where the other students sat, toward the low four-legged stool and the Sorting Hat.
The Hat looked old and threadbare and not at all special, for all it had spoken--in verse--just a short while before. For the first time since he’d heard the story, Regulus found it difficult to believe that something so ordinary in appearance could determine the course of his life, or at any rate the next seven years of his life. Even though it had just done so for all of the first-years who had gone before him. For his brother, three years ago.
He looked at the high table, where the professors sat. There was Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster, his blue eyes twinkling merrily, his tall, spangled hat slightly askew on his white head. He was not looking at Regulus, but appeared to be deep in conversation with the plump witch seated beside him.
Regulus turned and looked at the other students, at the ones already seated at their tables and waiting, no doubt, for the Sorting to be over so they could begin the feast. He saw the Slytherin table, hung with banners of silver and green. His cousins and their friends sat together, Cissa like a young queen, Bella like something rather more unearthly. Narcissa had allowed him to sit by her for the first part of the train ride. She had bought him sweets from the cart when it had come by and when he had grown tired she’d let him rest his cheek against the velvet trim of her robes. He’d woken to find her gone. Regulus thought that some of the other Slytherins looked like unpleasant sorts, but Cissa caught his eye and smiled, and after a moment, Bellatrix nodded at him as well.
Under banners of bronze and blue was the Ravenclaw table, and it took him a few moments--he did not like to think how many--to locate the one person he knew in that house: his middle cousin, Andromeda. She wasn’t beautiful like Cissa or Bella, and he did not know her well because she had always been somewhat quiet and reserved, but he knew from his mother’s disparaging remarks that she was his uncle’s favourite, and extremely smart. Her sisters did not like her very much, he remembered, but she and Sirius got along, surprisingly. He wanted her to look at him, but she appeared to be involved in an intense debate with her friends.
He barely spared a glance for Hufflepuff. It was a blur of yellow and black before his gaze settled upon the crimson and gold banners of Gryffindor. There was his brother; Regulus could see the bruises even from where he stood. Sirius wasn’t looking at him, either, but was bent toward James. The two were discussing something, and largely ignoring their plump, sandy-haired friend (Peter Pettigrew, Narcissa had informed him--and it wasn’t Snivellus, but Severus). They kept glancing furtively at the doors--as though they were anxious to be gone.
Regulus felt as though something very cold were dripping slowly into his heart. His legs had turned to ice. He couldn’t feel them, could barely move them. The Hall was abuzz and he was strangely certain everyone--even the ones who were not watching him--was aware he was stalling for time and muttering about him. How long had he stood there, anyway? He had no idea.
He looked up at the enchanted ceiling. A few of the brightest stars stood out against the deep indigo stain of night, but most were muted by the light of the full moon. Neither his star nor his brother’s was visible.
He looked again at the hat. He wasn’t frightened. It was just that he couldn’t make up his mind.
Had Sirius really chosen Gryffindor? He did not doubt his cousins were well-suited to their houses. But where did he belong? Was there any truth to what Sirius had said on the platform, that the hat would try to trick him? Surely not. Surely his brother had been taking the mickey out of him. It couldn’t work like that.
He was out of time. If he didn’t contend with the hat now, everyone at Hogwarts would think he was not only a coward, but an idiot. Taking a big gulp of air and feeling as though he were on trial for his life, Regulus picked up the hat, jammed it over his head, and sat down on the stool.
“Well, well,” said a small voice in his ear. “First one, then the other. Just as handsome as your brother, and just as difficult to place.”
The hat was flirting with him, Regulus thought in a panic. He gripped the edge of the stool. How had Sirius done it? What had his brother said or thought?
“That is between your brother and me,” that hat informed him.
It had read his mind.
If the hat could read his mind, surely it knew which house he wanted. Surely it knew he wanted to be in Gryffindor, had wanted nothing but Gryffindor since his brother’s Sorting and he’d been forced to listen to his parents’ despairing shrieks. He’d only studied so hard this summer so that if he weren’t brave enough for Gryffindor, at least he could be with Cousin Meda in Ravenclaw. If he were Sorted into Gryffindor, his brother would like him again, would speak to him again. They’d be united against their parents.
The hat covered his eyes, but he could see in his mind his brother’s retreating back, could hear his gruff command to “Piss off.”
Would Sirius want him in his House…or would he consider him a nuisance, a bother? (“Ever notice how similar ‘bother’ is to ‘brother’?” Sirius had said to him once, years ago.) Would he ignore him the way he had this summer, the way he and James ignored Peter?
Narcissa had not ignored him. He could still smell her perfume on his robes. Bellatrix hadn’t ignored him. Well, she’d only nodded, but that was more than Sirius had done.
But he didn’t want to be in Slytherin. He didn’t want to be exactly what his parents wanted. He didn’t want to replace Sirius for them.
“Might I have a word?” the hat inquired politely, and Regulus nearly jumped; somehow, he’d forgotten his mind was open and being read.
“Do you remember the words to my song?”
“Some of them. Sure.”
“Do you remember what my song was about?”
Regulus thought for a moment. “Something…about how the Houses were founded. How they’re all different and--and separate. They don’t get along. But they need to because--because something bad is going to happen. They need to unite.” He thought about his brother and his cousins and the way they’d fought on the platform that morning. They hated one another. There was no way they would ever be friends. It was all he could do just to keep liking all of them. “Is that it?” he wondered. “Am I supposed to try and make them get along? They won’t. Really, they won’t. Sirius hates Slytherins. But--he’s my brother. He doesn’t hate me. If I were in Slytherin…could I be the one Slytherin he doesn’t hate? Could I change his mind? If I were in Gryffindor, I don’t think I could. Bella and Cissa would hate me and I don’t think Sirius would want me to talk with them at all. But if I were in Slytherin… Sirius couldn’t ever hate me, could he? Not really? I want to change his mind.”
“That is quite an ambition,” said the hat.
“I know. I know it is. But I think that’s what I want.”
“And that is a very brave desire, to change minds that don’t want to be changed.”
“I know that, too. But it is what I want to do. And I won’t let them change mine.”
“If you’re sure--”
“I’m sure,” thought Regulus. “I’m sure.” And then, just to be safe, “Not Hufflepuff, please not Hufflepuff.”
“Hufflepuff?” said the hat. “Oh no--you’re not the stuff of Hufflepuff. You may have trouble fitting in, but I place you in--