That's why I couldn't be happier Simply couldn't be happier – well, not simply Cause getting your dreams, it's strange but it seems A little, well, complicated There's a kind of a sort of cost, there's a couple of things get lost There are bridges you cross you didn't know you crossed until you've crossed
- Glinda in "Thank Goodness" from Stephen Schwarz's musical Wicked
Regulus tucked a stray lock of hair behind an ear and felt the perspiration on his brow. The candle was almost completely melted down into waxy goo and there was just enough left to seal another letter, this time with the Black crest on his ring.
The young man stretched his sore back, cramped from hovering in the same position over the desk for so long. The words had to come out absolutely perfectly, there could be no margin left for error. Regulus was proud of his affinity for words, his ability to craft hidden meanings into sentences and say exactly the right thing in the right way. It was what made him so adept at spell work, and what had enabled him to craft spells for the Dark Lord in the first place.
Not that it mattered why he had been drawn into the service at that moment. There would be plenty of time to dwell on that after the deed had been done. Though he knew that he would never see the ramifications of his actions, Regulus was still hopeful that they might bring about some good. And maybe, just maybe, that good would be enough to cover his mistakes…
"Are you ready for this, Regulus?"
Liam Merric looked as if he might explode in a fiery ball of energy at any moment. Regulus laughed and finished folding his last shirt to put into his trunk. The rest of the Slytherin boys had already gone up to the common room to get ready for the feast, and only Liam and Regulus were left in the room. Regulus rose off of the floor and walked over to his fair-haired friend, grasping his shoulder and pulling him close in a mock hug.
"You bet I am. Seven years of hard work finally paying off? I can't wait to get out of here and away from the Mudblood lovers, present company excluded of course."
Liam chuckled and shrugged the comment off as nothing, like he usually did. Liam was the first Muggleborn to be placed in Slytherin in years, though he had more than earned his place as first in their class and as the best friend of the youngest son of the Black family. Regulus had befriended him after realizing just how bright the Irish boy was, hoping to improve his own marks and not expecting much more than a free tutor. But Liam was an astute observer of others, and soon Regulus was forced to choose between friendship and icy hatred. He chose the former.
Regulus checked his pocket watch and sighed in exasperation, "How long do you think this is going to take? I mean, I know we have a farewell feast at the end of every year, but really. I just want to get home and away from here."
Liam laughed and leaned his slim body against a nearby wall, popping one knee forward and leaving the other leg to support his weight, "Patience, friend. It'll go quickly once it's begun. Besides, it's not like we can go anywhere else. The train doesn't leave to go back to London until tomorrow morning, and then we're going to your parents' house. Nothing will start until we're there."
We may be going back to Grimmauld Place, but that doesn't mean I don't have anywhere else I'm supposed to be, thought Regulus with an inward wince. It was not that he did not trust Liam, but there was a bit of a conflict of interest in being the best friend of a Muggleborn wizard when you were about to pledge your loyalty to the greatest wizard who ever lived: Voldemort, the Dark Lord. Even if he was a Slytherin, Regulus knew that his friend would never be completely welcome in the ranks of the Death Eaters.
He also knew that Liam viewed the Dark Lord's cause with contempt and scepticism. Even as many of the other young witches and wizards in the house had discussed joining the Death Eaters in hushed voices over the past months, the Irishman had not relented in his view. A couple boys had tried to convince him otherwise, but Liam just could not sympathize with the "stark raving mad ranting of a pureblood extremist." It didn't make him popular, Regulus thought, but so far it hadn't posed much of a problem. So far.
Regulus' thoughts were broken by Liam's sudden tap on his shoulder, drawing his attention toward the doorframe. Nicolai Baddock, another seventh-year, bustled through the doors clumsily, almost tripping over the trunks piled in front of them.
"Hey, you lot ready? They've called us to go up to the Great Hall three times now. Get a move on!
Liam raised an eyebrow and replied, "Relax, Baddock, we're coming. What's all the rush anyway?"
The other boy shrugged. "I dunno, something about wanting to make sure everything starts on time. They sent me to find you both. Hurry up!" He gave them both a warning look and trotted toward the stairs, tripping again on the third step.
Regulus chuckled and smoothed his robes, "It just means that the Ministry is being overly eager and self-conscious. They probably expect some kind of attack – like the Dark Lord would deem such an event worthy…"
"Dark Lord? Don't tell me you've gone and joined…"
"Regulus! Liam! Get up here!" Baddock's voice drifted down the stairwell.
"We'll finish this later," muttered Liam and started up the stairs, back turned to his friend. Regulus set his body and held his head high. It was fine, he could deal with Liam. Besides, it was not as if the Dark Lord was going to ask him to hurt his best friend, right?
Of course not.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Regulus noted that the room had mostly emptied since he had come up forty-five minutes before to gather the last of his belongings. There were a few first-year boys scrambling to get there on time, and a few older girls who were making last minute rounds about the room to ensure that they had packed everything. Regulus had never had a relationship with many of his classmates that extended beyond being cordial acquaintances. Though he had known most of them all of his life because they came from pureblood families, he always found reason not to get too close to them. He had never had a close friend until he came to Hogwarts and met Liam.
Growing up in the middle of London did not quite lend itself to meeting many children with whom he could share his magical lifestyle. His childhood had mostly consisted of private tutors in Grimmauld Place and visits to other magical households in the country. And Sirius, well, he was a different story. There were traits about Sirius that Regulus admired – his outgoing personality, his wit and charm – but he knew that his brother had pushed things too far a few too many times. Both boys had inherited the characteristic Black hair and good looks, but Regulus was much too shy to really take advantage of them. Sirius had always received more attention from outsiders as the boys were growing up, at least until they entered Hogwarts. But even then, it was still Sirius that they talked about, only the subject had changed.
A Black not in Slytherin – of course, it had happened before, but no one expected the son of Orion and Walburga Black to be sorted into Gryffindor. Most other Blacks were sorted into Ravenclaw if they weren't in Slytherin, and even though Sirius was merely added to the list of blacked out spots on the family tapestry, it still seemed different, special, to Regulus. That's what Sirius was, of course. Special. Even if he wasn't favoured. Regulus was just normal, the good son. The one who did what was expected. And what was expected was unceasing devotion and perfection.
Regulus' thoughts were broken by Liam's sudden tap on his shoulder, drawing his attention up the stairs toward the Great Hall. Professor McGonagall bustled through the doors, opening and closing them so swiftly that Regulus almost believed she had Apparated through the doors, though he thought he may have heard somewhere that that was impossible in Hogwarts Castle. McGonagall turned to face the students, brushing a few fly-aways behind her ears and taking a deep breath before straightening her body and assuming her usual stance of authoritative ease.
"Thank you all for your patience," she began, voice even and now completely collected. "We've had a few complications in our preparations. It seems that the Ministry wanted to make sure that we were all operating under optimal safety standards. If you would all straighten your queues…"
Liam raised an eyebrow and murmured, " 'Complications?' What's that supposed to mean?"
Regulus shrugged, "Told you. Overly eager. Self-conscious. And you wonder why I don't trust our government."
Liam laughed and shook his head, but said nothing. Regulus breathed a sigh of relief – he did not know what he would have done had Liam been angry with him for what he had accidentally let slip. How was he supposed to explain what he was doing to his friend? There was nothing wrong with it, of course, but all the same, how do you explain to someone that you're joining a group of people that they think is pointless?
He shuffled forward as the students in front of him moved into the Great Hall. He had, of course, already been to six feasts at the end of the year, but always with the expectation of returning. Now that he was about to leave, Regulus could not help but feel a pang of nostalgia. Granted, more often than not he had hated being at the school, but it was the place where he had really had a chance to mould himself into the man whom he was becoming. It was where he had met Liam, and where he had succeeded so admirably.
Dumbledore stood silently at the front of the room. Though Regulus generally viewed the man with some contempt, he could not deny that he had a bit of flair about him. He had no idea how old he must be, but he knew that he had been around for quite some time, if for no other reason than the information on the Chocolate Frog cards. Being the good son, Regulus of course sided with his parents on issues of blood, and Dumbledore was about as Mudbloodied as you could get – well, Regulus had no idea of his parental status, but he was sure that there was some Muggle blood in there somewhere. He smiled at the students, seeming to catch the gaze of each before he began his usual end of the year speech.
"Thank you all for joining us as we pay tribute to the efforts of yet another wonderful class of students leaving the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Such an effort is not to be taken lightly. These young men and women have endured tests of wit, will, strength, and discipline over their past seven years at this fine institution, and they have surpassed them all.
"They sit amongst you today ready to take on the full weight of being a witch or a wizard in the magical community, knowing all the while that every witch and wizard must bear the heavy burden of responsibility – responsibility to their fellow witches and wizards, to the wizarding community as a whole, to their colleagues in whichever field they choose to work, to their families, to the international wizarding community, and to non-magical communities everywhere.
"Witches and wizards must bear in mind that their actions will no longer only affect themselves. They carry an enormous level of power within them. Though magical ability does vary, every witch and wizard who has reached this point is fully competent to achieve a significant level of magic, if they choose to continue their studies independently outside of these walls.
"My charge to you today, to each and every one of you in this room, be you a first-year, a seventh-year, or seventy years, is to bear this responsibility with courage and with sense. I implore you, not as your headmaster, but as a fellow wizard, do not use your powers in ill will. These are dark times, as you all must know. I have faith that you all can become whoever you wish to become, but only if you use your skills in the right way."
"So now, my fellow witches and wizards, let's enjoy this final meal with our departing students. May you all have summers full of magic and enjoyment, but do be safe. Keep in mind the things you have learned here. And always remember that Hogwarts will forever be your home."
The candles were melted about halfway down by the time the dinner plates were cleared from the dining room table at 12 Grimmauld Place. Regulus was impressed, and relieved, by how cordial his parents had remained during the meal. He knew that love no longer existed between them, knew even that they slept in separate beds and that his father had once entertained a mistress. Kreacher had muttered about it often enough, the house-elf remaining firmly loyal to Mrs. Black.
But Mr. Black was at least making an effort to maintain a healthy level of affection in public. That had been proven throughout the evening as he occasionally brushed a hand over his wife's shoulder or spoke about her gently, though she was not responsive to his actions.
Regulus never spoke ill of his parents, and he generally did not criticize his brother, either. Liam had no reason to suspect that the family was really falling apart at its seams. Regulus was sure that that fact had been the source of Sirius' jokes about the House of Black getting blacker every day, but the state of the family to him was not a laughing matter. Nor was it a public one, even for close friends. So he was not quite sure exactly why Liam seemed to be carefully assessing every question his father asked and answering in an even more mild tone.
"Well, sir," Liam began, "it's not that I'd prefer to provide magical schooling for just anyone. It's certain that some people have more ability than others. I just don't think that one's lineage can really be an effective predictor of success. Look at me – my parents have not ever shown any magical talent, nor have my siblings and my little niece has not either.
"But here I am." Liam cleared his throat and smiled at Mr. Black who acknowledged his comment with a nod before taking a sip of wine.
Orion Black had been a handsome man in his prime, and still was to some extent, though years of marital stress and ministerial work had taken their toll. He walked with a slight limp and always refused the help of others. He preferred to do everything on his own. His once thick, shiny black hair had turned completely grey and Regulus noticed that it had thinned considerably since the Christmas holidays. But he had not lost his love for debate, and his pureblood sympathies were still as strong as ever.
Mr. Black studied Liam for a moment before responding, "Yes, granted, you have shown extraordinary magical abilities. I cannot deny that fact, and you clearly are very ambitious and seeking to prove yourself in the magical community. You wouldn't be a Slytherin if you weren't. So tell me, Mr. Merric, what is your motivation, if not trying to prove that your familial background has not set you behind the others?"
"Well, I suppose, from a certain point of view, that's exactly what I'm doing, but not because I think my blood makes me inferior. I believe that I'm working hard for the same reasons that Regulus is, as well as all of my other classmates. I believe we're all working toward similar goals. I just want to do what I love and be the best at it," Liam countered.
"I think that what a person puts into something is what they will get out of it. What my father can do, or what my brother can do, in no way predicts what I can do. We're different, we have different talents, and thank goodness, because if we were the same we would be in competition."
Mrs. Black spoke for the first time, "So, you really believe that the fact that you are not of a pureblood line in no way affects your magical abilities?"
Regulus groaned, "Mother, please…"
Liam defended himself, "Well, no. Not at all. I wouldn't have been first in our class if I had." Regulus could tell that his mother's opinion of his best friend was steadily declining.
"Well, um, shouldn't we discuss something other than politics at the table?" he managed to squeak through the tense silence. "I mean, really, there are so many other things we could talk about."
"I agree," said Mr. Black, to Regulus' surprise. "Let's discuss the plans you boys have for the future. Didn't you tell me that you two were planning to get a flat together, son?"
Regulus answered affirmatively, "Yes, we're hoping to look at them over the next few days before Liam goes home for a couple weeks."
"We think we've found a couple nice ones," added Liam, who appeared slightly relieved to Regulus. "I just have to get my father's blessing and make sure the family doesn't need anything from me. They should be fine, we've never run into any sort of trouble."
"Where are you from again?" Mr. Black asked.
"The Burren, on the western coast."
Mr. Black looked thoughtful, "I've heard of that."
Liam grinned, "Most wizards have. It's supposedly a legendary site of ancient magic. I've heard stories about it since I was a lad. The name means 'grey rocky place' – it describes it perfectly. The whole area is basically a slab of limestone, making the landscape really unique and more arctic than anything else. The ocean crashes against the cliffs in unnaturally high volumes of water, which have created spectacular caves and underground passageways and rivers over the centuries.
"There are lots of legends surrounding it – from wells that can cure bad vision, to ghostly horsemen, to mysterious lakes that appear and disappear and turn maidens into swans," he chuckled.
This time it was Mr. Black's turn to grin, "And do you believe it?"
Liam shook his head, "I don't know how much trust I place in the local legends. I suppose that there must be some kind of magic there, though, especially since it is mentioned in our magical history textbooks. My mum's dad used to go down to the caves a lot, but I really haven't met many magic folk in County Clare."
Regulus broke in, "Clare? Isn't that your niece's name?"
Liam nodded, "Yes, my brother, Silas, named his daughter after the county. Well, he claims he just likes the name, but I'm fairly certain that that is where he heard it first. His wife, Alana, liked it well enough so that's what they decided to name her. My sisters, Aislinn and Tara, aren't married."
"What beautiful names," Mrs. Black noted softly. Regulus felt a chill run up his spine.
"Yes, they're beautiful girls, too," Liam said slowly. At that moment, Kreacher slithered into the room and said something to Mrs. Black, then left as furtively as he had come.
Mrs. Black said, "It appears that Mr. Black and I are being called to some urgent business. I trust that you both can find your rooms."
"We'll manage, Mother," said Regulus.
"Goodnight and thank you for your hospitality. My family, of course, could not make it and my parents would have been uncomfortable at the ceremony anyway," called Liam as the Blacks rose silently and seemed to march stiffly from the room.
"Well, that was different," Liam remarked, sending Regulus into a bout of barely restrained laughter. "No, really, I don't think I've ever had to sit through a more boring meal in my entire life. You're lucky I love you like a second brother."
Regulus managed to regain control over himself and said, "See why Sirius hated it? Merlin, my father was just getting started. He loves debating."
Liam cocked an eyebrow, "I don't think he was just debating. You know better than I do how he would prefer your best friend were from a well-established pureblood family."
Yes, I do, thought Regulus. But did he care? Well, yes, he did a little. But really, the friendship had been initially built on mutual need – his for academic support and Liam's for social acceptance. And he did love having a friend who actually cared about him. Liam wouldn't put up with all the slurs if he didn't care about him, right?
Of course he wouldn't. They had both moved beyond mutual benefit years ago, hadn't they?
He gave Liam a slight smile, "Well, I guess he would probably prefer that, but I've been practicing for a while now what I like to call the art of annoyance."
"The art of annoyance, eh?"
"Yeah, you see, very few things set my father and mother completely over the edge. You just have to take them partway there and then stop." Regulus emptied his goblet of wine and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his full belly.
Liam chuckled, "I see. I thought you were in the business of being a good son. They can disown you, too, you know. I'm sure your mother would have no qualms about giving the family fortune to her brother's children, and frankly I don't think Bellatrix and Narcissa need any more money. Andromeda might benefit from it, though."
Regulus, startled at the mention of his disowned cousin's name, gave Liam a warning look. "You know I love you, mate, but be careful which members, or former members, of my family you mention in this house. My father doesn't like Lucius Malfoy very much. He thinks that he's a little too zealous in his political, ah, affiliations, let's just say. And to mention Andromeda is worse than mentioning Sirius – at least he didn't go off and marry someone like Tonks."
Liam sighed. "I really don't understand why these blood battles are so important. It has to be more than just a superiority complex because that doesn't make any logical sense!"
"It's not a new battle, mate. It's been going on for centuries, you know that. The houses at Hogwarts wouldn't exist if it were a new argument."
Liam gave him a curious look, "And do you agree?"
"Do you agree? Do you believe that I am somehow, in any way, inferior to you because I am Muggleborn?"
The intensity in Liam's eyes chilled Regulus to the bone – of course he didn't believe his friend inferior! He was clearly just as skilled as Regulus in just about everything, and even more skilled at some things. Why was he pushing this?
"Of course I don't. Why would I?" Regulus' voice cracked with emotion and he kept his gaze locked with Liam's stark blue eyes.
Liam studied him for a moment then broke the stillness and looked down, "I'm sorry. It's just, when everyone seems to be looking at you with disdain – it's hard to believe that there is someone who isn't."
He looked up at Regulus and continued, "I guess I just have to make sure you aren't sometimes. Merlin, seven years in this world and I still don't feel like I really belong."
Empathy flowed through Regulus as he responded, "It's all right. I suppose it isn't easy to go from living in a tiny seaside town to living in a magical castle where some people look down on you for something you can't change."
"No, no, it isn't," agreed Liam. He checked his watch. "I think I'm going to turn in, friend. It's getting late." He stood up, stretched, and then clapped Regulus on his back.
"Thanks so much for the past seven years. I mean it. They've been some of the best of my life. Here's to many more." He tipped his wine goblet and finished it off, nodding a final goodnight before he turned to leave the room.
"Good night, Liam," Regulus said softly.
I should not be doing this, thought Regulus as he put on his light outer cloak to keep warm in the midnight air.
It's reckless, it's against everything my friendship with Liam stands for, and it's only going to make things worse. Besides, my parents aren't even open supporters of Lord Voldemort, how am I supposed to know if this will make them proud?
Oh, but why wouldn't it? What pureblood-sympathizing parents wouldn't agree with their son joining the Death Eaters? And why should he care if they did not? He was of age; it was his decision, and his alone.
That's right, Regulus, it's your decision, not your parents', and not Liam's. Yours. So why are you trembling?
His hands shook as he quietly closed his wardrobe and snuffed the candle he had been using to give himself enough light to see. He thanked whatever had possessed his mother to give Liam the guest bedroom instead of having him sleep in the extra bed in his bedroom. He would have had a lot of explaining to do had he suddenly Disapparated in the middle of the night without warning.
Standing in the dark now, he quickly Apparated from his room to the forest where Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters had set up headquarters – at least, he thought it was their headquarters. He really did not know much about the Death Eaters at all, other than that both Lucius Malfoy and Severus Snape were members, as well as almost all of his cousins, and that the group as a whole was sympathetic to the pureblood cause. And why shouldn't he join? He was pureblood, and most of his classmates were joining, too.
Liam's earlier comment came unbidden to his mind, It's just, when everyone seems to be looking at you with disdain, it's hard to believe that there is someone who isn't.
Regulus pushed the thought from his mind as he pushed through the trees and underbrush. I am not treating my best friend with disdain. I hold him in the highest regard. But that doesn't mean I have to hold every Mudblood…
He almost tripped over a branch. What was he thinking? This was exactly what Liam had been talking about.
Oh, come on, Regulus. Every powerful Slytherin wizard is in that group. Don't you want to associate with them? It's not like they're going to ask you to kill your best friend. Liam couldn't care less about the Death Eaters, blood battles don't matter to him. This is about you and what you want.
Right. What he wanted. And what he wanted was power, prestige, and recognition. Surely he could get all those things as a follower of Lord Voldemort.
And I deserve them.
With that thought, he started walking deeper into the forest. The moon was high and he knew that it was likely just past midnight. He was supposed to be approaching the clearing soon, and he knew that he had to be there sometime within the first half hour of the day.
He had expected the forest to be somewhat noisy with sound, but he strangely did not hear much at all. He had not been in many forests, seeing as he had grown up in the middle of London and he had never dared to venture into the Forbidden Forest at school. He wasn't stupid, he knew it was forbidden for a reason.
Just when he felt that he may have gotten himself lost, a hand grabbed his shoulder and he whipped around, wand ready and pointing at a dark cloaked figure with a hood pulled over his head.
"Who – who are you?" croaked Regulus, trying in vain to keep his voice even as he stared at what he hoped were the person's eyes.
The figure seemed to grin though he could not see his mouth and then spoke in a booming voice, "Doesn't matter. The real question is, who are you?"
"R – Regulus Arcturus Black."
"And what is your purpose in these woods, Mr. Black?"
"To give my life and service to Lord Voldemort," replied Regulus firmly. This had to be some sort of test of loyalty. The hooded figured lowered his head as if to measure his bodily strength. He stiffened and appeared to look as formidable as possible.
"And you believe yourself qualified to serve the Dark Lord? You will commit yourself to do his bidding, to follow without question, to work with your comrades, even to the point of death?"
"All of the above, and more," affirmed Regulus.
"You understand that from this point forward, you will be part of a most noble association of knights dedicated to purifying the magical race and purging it of impostors?"
"You realize that all your actions henceforth will help or hinder that group to which you choose to pledge yourself?"
Regulus was becoming testy. It was late, it was cold, and he did not like being startled in the middle of an unknown forest by an unknown assailant. All he wanted was to get it over with and go to bed.
"Take it easy, boyo. We're almost done here," said the figure in a much softer voice that Regulus thought he knew from somewhere, but could not quite identify.
"Realizing all these things, do you choose freely to pledge yourself to that noble group of knights, more commonly known as the Death Eaters?"
Regulus nodded as he spoke his affirmation, "I do."
The figure held out a gloved hand, "Grasp my hand and hold on tightly. Do not fall over when we reach our destination."
Regulus felt a tug – a Portkey! This was not Lord Voldemort's headquarters at all. He held on tightly and braced himself for the impact, just managing to hold his own when he hit the ground.
He looked around and saw that he was enclosed in a circle for the second time that night.
Well, he's not too creative, Regulus thought to himself, but then decided to rein his thoughts when he felt the touch of Lord Voldemort's mind on his own. I didn't know he was a Legilimens…
The Dark Lord stood right in front of him, right in front of him. He could have chosen to stand in front of anyone else, but he chose him. It occurred to Regulus that he had never actually seen the Dark Lord in person. He stood a couple inches taller, just enough so that Regulus had to look slightly upward to look him in the eye. His skin was very pale and he was bald, almost snake-like in appearance. He wore jet black robes that billowed in the wind, almost blocking out the starry night sky. Regulus was filled with awe and wonder at the man – or was he more than just a man? – standing before him.
"Welcome, Regulus Black," he said in a cold voice. "I see you have decided to pledge your loyalty after all.
"Y-yes, sir," replied Regulus. The shaky voice had returned again.
A small grin spread across the Dark Lord's face and he muttered in a voice only Regulus could hear, "Fear, is it? Awe? Wonder? All those feelings are good. You're mine now, Regulus, do you understand that? Oh, there are so many things you could do that you've never even dreamed of."
Yes, finally! Someone who could understand him! Someone who could use his talents.
"Oh yes, so many things you could do, if you would only open up your abilities and try. Do you want that? Is that what you seek?"
Regulus nodded emphatically, "Oh, yes, my Lord. I want that more than anything. I want to do your bidding."
"Good! Give me your left arm."
Regulus held out his arm and tried to keep his hand from shaking, tried to look steady and worthy of what he was about to receive, though he had no idea what it was. The Dark Lord looked triumphant and more powerful than ever as he slid his hand up Regulus' sleeve. His fingers were cold and rough, like snake's scales. Regulus felt a cold sweat appearing on his forehead, even though it was a cool night. Then, before he realized what was happening, the Dark Lord had pressed his wand against his inner arm and pain seared through the nerves.
Such incredible pain! It felt as if the wand were burning liquid mercury into his blood stream. The pain travelled through his left arm and into his chest, stopping only at his heart, and then it was gone. The wand was removed as quickly as it had come. He rocked forward and grasped his knees, panting. Then he rolled up his sleeve to see that a skull with a snake through it had been tattooed into his arm. It glowed black, sinister, and seemed to ripple when he flexed his arm, reminding him of the skull and crossbones of pirate flags that he had seen in the windows of Muggle shops in London.
The Dark Lord placed a hand on Regulus' shoulder and uttered, "Welcome to the family." Regulus looked up into his eyes again, but saw no comfort there, though the man seemed to be acting as if to comfort him. He shuddered, straightened, but did not look up again.
"Please join the circle. We have one more that we need to welcome into our midst tonight," ordered the Dark Lord, gesturing to an empty place between two of the hooded figures that Regulus was sure had not been there prior to this moment. He gave him a slight bow because it seemed to him to be the proper thing to do, then turned and stood between them.
Minutes later, another hooded figure appeared in their midst, grasping the hand of a small, thin-haired man who was shaking uncontrollably. The hooded figure backed away from him and a space was made in the circle for him to stand. The man looked around with darting eyes, until the Dark Lord's voice startled him and he jumped about a foot into the air.
"Welcome, Peter Pettigrew."
Pettigrew? Regulus knew that name. He had been one of Sirius' friends at school. Sirius always mentioned him with a chuckle and seemed to put him down whenever he had the chance. Regulus had always felt sympathy for the boy, almost as if he were another brother dealing with Sirius' ill treatment. But what was Pettigrew doing here?
He did not seem to be the only person surprised at Pettigrew's appearance that night. He heard low mutterings around him as the Death Eaters questioned one another about Pettigrew's loyalties.
"Enough, my friends," roared the Dark Lord, and all attention was focused again on the middle of the circle. "Pettigrew has pledged his loyalty and he is one of us now."
He laid a hand on Pettigrew's shoulder, much like he had done to Regulus just moments before, and leaned down to speak quietly into his ear. Regulus watched as Pettigrew stopped shaking, began nodding at his promises, and even smiled at the last moment before the Dark Lord pushed back his sleeve and burned the tattoo into his arm, causing Pettigrew to scream and look up at him in horror. He, too, doubled over and breathed heavily, as if the wind had been knocked out of him. The Dark Lord whispered in his ear again and two more Death Eaters made a space in the circle for Pettigrew.
The Dark Lord straightened and turned slowly, and as he did, each Death Eater removed his, or her, Regulus noted as his cousin Bellatrix was revealed to be among the number, hood and looked straight into his blood-shot eyes. Regulus shuddered again. He wanted to look around the circle, but he felt compelled to look absolutely forward, at no one other than his lord.
"I am proud of you all," the Dark Lord said in a booming voice. "You all have pledged such sincere loyalty to me and to our purposes. We welcome this night two more into our midst, and there are still more to come. This is our time, friends. Our work will soon be accomplished and the debt of the blood traitors will be paid in full. Go home, celebrate our imminent victory. Be ready for my call."
One by one the Death Eaters began to Disapparate until only Pettigrew, Bellatrix, her husband Rodolphus, the Dark Lord, and Regulus were left. The Dark Lord gestured for them all to stand before him and they walked forward.
"Rodolphus and Bellatrix will explain to you both how to return to the forest. We will meet again soon," said the Dark Lord, then a snap, and he was gone.
"Hello, cousin," said Bellatrix with a smirk in her voice. "I see you have decided to join us after all."
Regulus nodded in affirmation, "Was there any doubt?"
She cocked her head, "Well, I had some doubts, especially after your good-for-nothing brother abandoned the family."
Rodolphus grabbed his shirt and growled, "You'll watch what you say, boy. He's a blood traitor, and I have my doubts about you, too."
He looked started as Bellatrix slapped his hand and hissed, "The Dark Lord has approved him worthy, and therefore he is worthy." She brushed a hand through Pettigrew's straw-like hair, "Besides, I think this one might come in handy some day."
An angry look passed through Rodolphus' features, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. Bellatrix slid a hand up his shoulder and patted it gently before turning to Regulus and Pettigrew.
"Well, boys, welcome again. Those tattoos, believe it or not, are there for a reason. The Dark Lord uses them to call us to his side. He sometimes calls all, and he sometimes calls only one. No matter what we are doing, when we feel it burn, we must go."
Pettigrew paled, "S-so, it's going to burn like that every single time? I could barely stand upright!"
Rodolphus laughed, "Oh, yes, it burns, boyo. Never as bad as the first time, but it burns."
Rodolphus! That was who had questioned Regulus in the forest. No wonder he recognized his voice, he had known it ever since Bellatrix married the man six years before.
Bellatrix's voice called him back to the moment, "He will tell you where to Apparate when you feel the burn. The Dark Lord does have a headquarters, but its location is secret to all but a few. You will learn quickly that there is a hierarchy here, and you do not always know your place in it. Sometimes you feel as if you are the lowliest servant, and sometimes you feel as if you are his most trusted advisor. Always remember that you are neither, and you will succeed."
Author's Note: A HUGE thank-you to my beta, Arnel, my pre-beta, Felicia, and everyone else that I have been able to coerce into reading and making suggestions about my stories. You all mean the world to me and I'm glad that you take the time to indulge my creativity.